Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nobody seemed to like him much but we think he's great

Gordon H. Clark: Personal Recollections

Gordon Clark was a 20th-century American Christian philosopher and theologian. This is a book published a few years after his death by The Trinity Foundation, an organisation dedicated to promoting his work. This volume is a collection of reminiscences by people who knew Clark.

This is a rather strange book. Again and again reference is made to people who disagreed with Clark, disliked him, and even doubted his Christian faith. One slowly gets an idea of why that might have been the case, but this volume lacks an explanation of the issues involved. It would also have been improved by a balanced assessment of Clark's life and thought.

Here are some representative quotes:
  • "Many people found Gordon Clark to be a hard man: cold, ruthless, blunt, unsympathetic, disdainful." (p. 19)
  • "His many books testify to his faith. Yet, sadly, even almost to the end of his life, there were those who were skeptical of his salvation." (p. 23)
  • "My Apologetics professor had Dr. Clark explain his philosophy to our class one session. After Dr. Clark completed his lecture, responded to questions, and left, the professor said his method of apologetics was heresy and no one would likely come to salvation after hearing the Gospel preached by Dr. Clark." (p. 69)
  • "None of the authors I read mentioned Clark very favorably. Some had written before Clark's time; others ignored him; a few made disparaging remarks." (p. 96)
One further claim arrested my attention. Ronald Nash says (p. 87),
From the year when J. Gresham Machen died (1937) to the first publications of Henry and Carnell after World War II, Clark stood almost alone for the set of essential beliefs that came to serve as the foundation of evangelical scholarship in the 1950s. Others who may have shared Clark's convictions neglected the vital matter of getting those views into print.
This is simply not true. It didn't take me long to find some counter-examples:
The last book mentioned is significant, since it was the first book published by Baker.  

Gordon H. Clark: Personal Recollections includes numerous frank acknowledgements of Clark's weaknesses, but it does seem to be a little starry-eyed in its assessment of him.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Keller 5, Critics 3

Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical

This is a book of essays critiquing certain aspects of Tim Keller's theology. It is written by Presbyterian ministers, acknowledging that Keller is committed to Reformed orthodoxy (p. 20) but taking issue with the way he has chosen to express certain things (p. 21). Now, I like Keller (and have for the last fifteen years) but I found this book surprisingly convincing.

Of course, there are three levels at which one must be convinced:
  1. Does Keller really say these things?
  2. Is he wrong?
  3. Does it matter?
There is no question that the book is accurately portraying Keller's ideas, and the critics seem to be on the right side on some of the points discussed. As to how important Keller's unfortunate phraseology is, I'm not sure. Nor am I sure that it was worth writing a book about it.

Anyway, here are the chapters of the volume, with a running score:

Introduction – the editors do a fine job defending the publication of the book, but I am still uneasy. Is it really worth the effort? The editors asked Keller to write responses (p. 22), but he was too busy. That's a real shame, I think, and at this stage the points are shared.

Keller ½, Critics ½

Sin – when Keller talks to "moderns" he talks about sin as disobedience, but in preaching to postmoderns he emphasises sin as being idolatry. Are we allowed to emphasise different aspects of biblical truth like that? I see no reason not to.

Keller 1½, Critics ½

Hell – following C. S. Lewis, Keller argues that people in hell are there because they chose to be. Now, this may be a simple case of emphasis (as with the previous point) but Keller seems to be downplaying the idea of God condemning people to hell in such a way as to make me think this is a fair criticism.

Keller 1½, Critics 1½

Trinity – Keller describes the persons of the Trinity has being in a  "divine dance". Kevin Bidwell ably demonstrates that this is not the same as perichoresis, and that it isn't a great illustration.

Keller 1½, Critics 2½

Mission – Keller's vision is of the Church being involved in social justice and community relief work. But this is not so much church work as kingdom work, as Keller himself acknowledges (p. 156). Points are shared here as well.

Keller 2, Critics 3

Hermeneutics – Keller has a tendency to base his ideas on his readings of parables, which is a perilous exercise. But they shouldn't be regarded as off limits for Christian doctrine, and it's not enough to say they are intended to be ambiguous (p. 178). I'm giving this one to Keller.

Keller 3, Critics 3

Evolution – Keller is relatively happy for Christians to accept evolution in some sense, as long as they hold to a literal, historical Adam. That strikes me a precisely where we need to draw the line in the sand. Keller again.

Keller 4, Critics 3

EcclesiologyD. G. Hart, perhaps the most notable of the critics, rounds out the volume with a shocker. In contrast to the generally irenic tone of the volume, Hart accuses Keller of breaking his ordination vows by co-operating with non-Presbyterians (p. 235).

Keller 5, Critics 3

In conclusion, I hope Keller takes on board some of the criticisms expressed in this volume. But there isn't anything here that would make me counsel people against reading Keller's books.