Clarkianism's Irrelevant Axiom
by Roderick Edwards
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The entry in the online dictionary, dictionary.com defines the word axiom as:
1.a self-evident truth that requires no proof.
2.a universally accepted principle or rule.
3.Logic, Mathematics. a proposition that is assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow from it." -- source
Clarkianism in summary, is the teaching by theologian Gordon Clark (1902-1985) that the presupposition or starting point of Christian theology is the axiom:
"The Bible is the Word of God written"-- Quo Vadis, Evangelicalism?: Perspectives on the Past, Direction for the Future
This specific reference to Clark's axiom is a quote of an address he gave while president of the Evangelical Theological Society. The fuller axiom and its conclusions are, "The Bible is the Word of God written. Therefore the conclusion is the Bible is inerrant. God cannot lie."
Now, the reason this axiom is actually irrelevant is because it doesn't really start in the correct place. Let us examine.
Saying, "The Bible is the Word of God" must assume yet another axiom; that God exists. But even with that, there is yet another assumption; that God is Sovereign or over all other gods if there be other gods. Otherwise to simply say, "The Bible is the Word of God written" tells us nothing. Even if we accept this axiom, we have no idea if this God is the only god or if he/it even exists. This bible may be the composition of mere men purporting it to be by a deity, or this bible may merely be the outworking of some inferior deity among other deities. If so, then so what.
Therefore, it must be that we have as our two-fold axiom;
- God exists
- God is Sovereign (the only God)
By this we can at least define that if the Bible is indeed the Word of God written, that it is the only communication from the only existing God. Without starting with the two-fold axiom, the Clarkian axiom is irrelevant.
However, the full Clarkian quote, with its conclusions are rather illogical. Even if we allowed that the Bible is the Word of God written, it does NOT conclude that it is inerrant nor that God CANNOT lie. God may very well exist. God may very well be the only God. The Bible may very well be the Word of God written. But none of this by itself tells us if God has preserved the Bible inerrant or whether God cannot lie.
Of course, once the Bible is opened up, these claims are made about God; including that He exists, that He is Sovereign, and that He cannot (or does not) lie. The Bible really doesn't say whether it is inerrant.
The Bible also points back to the original two-fold axiom I proposed. Romans 1:20 for example says:
"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse"
Whether this text is speaking of the Jews or any human being without excuse for not having an awareness of God, the fact remains that the text proclaims that since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen. This seems at first as a contradiction, since invisibility cannot be seen, however it is explained that His presence is made aware to humanity even in nature. And not just an awareness of some god, but of a powerful God, a Godhead (i.e. a Head or Sovereign God over all claimed gods). See the Shema.
Much of the Old Testament theme has specifically to do with God declaring Himself as the one and only God. The God who created all things, even the materials from which men had fashioned fake gods, idols. Thus, we see this constant pointing back to the two-fold axiom.
Commenting on Romans 1:20, the theologian John Calvin said:
"…he [Paul] seems here to have intended to indicate a manifestation, by which they might be so closely pressed, that they could not evade; for every one of us undoubtedly finds it to be engraven on his own heart, By saying, that God has made it manifest, he means, that man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking on so beautiful a picture, be led up to the Author himself…God is in himself invisible; but as his majesty shines forth in his works and in his creatures everywhere, men ought in these to acknowledge him, for they clearly set forth their Maker: and for this reason the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews says, that this world is a mirror, or the representation of invisible things. He does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to God; but he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity...He plainly testifies here, that God has presented to the minds of all the means of knowing him, having so manifested himself by his works, that they must necessarily see what of themselves they seek not to know — that there is some God; for the world does not by chance exist, nor could it have proceeded from itself." -- source
So, as you can see, even Calvin agrees with the two-fold axiom. But to further drive home the point, let us quote B.B. Warfield as Warfield is assessing Calvin's review of Romans 1:20.
"The knowledge of God with which we are natively endowed is therefore more than a bare conviction that God is: it involves, more or less explicated, some understanding of what God is. Such a knowledge of God can never be otiose and inert; but must produce an effect in human souls, in the way of thinking, feeling, willing. In other words, our native endowment is not merely a sensus deitatis, but also a semen religionis. For what we call religion is just the reaction of the human soul to what it perceives God to be. Calvin is, therefore, just as insistent that religion is universal as that the knowledge of God is universal. 'The seeds of religion,' he insists, 'are sown in every heart'; men are propense to religion; and always and everywhere frame to themselves a religion, consonant with their conceptions of God." -- source
Again, with Calvin, Warfield understands that knowledge of God is "natively endowed" or hardwired into humans. And that hardwire is not merely a bare conviction that God exists, but has some understanding of what God is -- mainly all-powerful, sovereign. Again, pointing back to the two-fold axiom.
To conclude, Clark's axiom, as good as it may first sound to the Christan mind, who no doubt agrees that the Bible is the Word of God written, Clark's axiom, both the short and full version simply fails to acknowledge the precursor two-fold axiom which must be necessary before Clark's axiom even matters.
If I can get another human being, no matter his religion to agree that God exists and He is all-power, Sovereign, the only God, then from there I can unpack if and how such a God has related to humanity. I can talk with the Muslim about whether God has revealed Himself in the Bible or in the Qur'an, and then revert back to the original axiom about God being all-power, and in this way ask the Muslim that if he admits God is all-power then why does the Muslim claim God failed to maintain His original communication (the Bible) and supposedly had to create an alternate, conflicting account; the Qur'an.
As a Christian, of course I would agree that the two-fold axiom and the revelation of God in nature tells us nothing more of God. It is the Word of God, the Bible that contains the revelation of the character and plan of God and His purpose for creation. But before I as a human can get to the Bible, there has to have been this innate awareness, this native endowment of God and His Godhead.
Clark, for his esteem of being a master of presupposition and logic clearly fails with his axiom unless he allows for a precursor axiom.
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