Review: Lord God of Truth by Gordon Clark and Concerning the Teacher by Aurelius Augustine (The Trinity Foundation).
By Richard Bacon
Copyright 1996 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

This new booklet from Trinity Foundation contains two excellent introductory essays on the subject of : specifically an anti-empirical epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know; how one can come to know truth; how learning is possible. As Christian educators think more and more seriously about how knowledge is obtained and transmitted to others, we soon find that empirical assumptions simply cannot sustain the task of teaching.

The late Dr. Gordon H. Clark (1902-1985) was an avowed anti-empiricist. We have Dr. Clark to thank for making epistemology a serious study for Christians in the twentieth century. Clark was an Augustinian in a church populated by Thomists and irrationalists. He did not adopt every word Augustine wrote as though it were the voice of God, but by adopting the key insights of Augustine, Clark was able to speak with clarity to a church terribly muddled of thought.

John Robbins states in his Foreword to this book, “Personal encounter, sensate and mystic experience, and uninterrupted action have replaced argument, logic, and revealed information as the norms and touchstones of truth. But to those who have attempted to keep themselves unspotted from the world, these arguments may shine as lights in deepening darkness. It is certainly our hope that they do so, and that those who read this little book will be eternally benefited from it.”

Clark introduces his essay by asserting that every Christian is either a Thomist or an Augustinian in his mode of thought. A master-artist, claims Clark, might picture Thomas Aquinas with his hand stretched toward the earth and Aurelius Augustine with his hand stretched toward heaven. From whence comes knowledge? For the Thomist knowledge comes from creation; for the Augustinian it comes from God's revelation.

As Dr. Clark points out, “...if anyone wishes to defend Christianity against its enemies, he must recognize that its most effective enemies are not auto-makers, but scientists and philosophers. Madalyn Murray O'Hair is no great threat. Aristotle, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant are. GWF Hegel, Sören Kierkegaard, and perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche have done more damage than higher critic Julius Wellhausen ever did. Therefore a serious Christian apologetic must pay attention to the strategists before mopping up the tacticians.”

Clark first takes on John Locke. Dr. Clark acknowledges that the three greatest empiricists of all time were the pagan Aristotle, the Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas and the Protestant John Locke. Clark begins with Locke because both use English as their native language. Locke maintained that all ideas come from sensation or reflection. He said “let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: How comes it to be furnished?” Of course, Locke's white paper is simply another statement of Aquinas' tabula rasa. Locke continued, “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.”

But at this point it becomes necessary for the Christian educator to stop and ask a couple of questions. Locke began with a sheet of white paper. Then there was some writing on his sheet of paper. He assumed that the writing came from outside the paper — given his empirical assumptions it certainly seems quite impossible to prove that sensations are anything other than sensations. To assume that our sensations are sensations of something is a stretch that the white paper cannot make. As Clark points out, “He assumes what he ought to have proved. One notes that without any argumentation at all he assumes that these marks on the blank paper came from objects outside the mind.”

Clark next examines Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas depended upon Aristotle's theory of potentiality and actuality. The problem with both Aristotle and Thomas is that they never really define for us what it is that these terms mean. Since they never define either potentiality or actuality, they do not define motion either, for motion is defined simply as a reduction of a body from potentiality to actuality, Since we do not know what either the starting state or the ending state of the body is, neither can we know what motion is, for it is defined in terms of the starting and ending states.

The biggest problem with Aquinas, however, is his theory of analogy. For both Thomas and Aristotle, two things that make an analogy have a term in common. Thus when one uses such terms as an electrical guitar, an electrical power generator, and an electrical engineer, all three terms have a univocal definition of “electrical” which is “of or pertaining to electrical power.” Thus an electrical guitar operates from electrical power, an electrical power generator converts some other energy source into electrical power, and an electrical engineer studies the applications of electrical power. So long as one term is used univocally throughout the analogy, it is no problem.

However, Thomas used the term “exist” in a way that is different for men than it is for God. Thomas denied that God exists in the same sense in which everything else exists. “God's essence and his existence are identical. A stone's or a man's are not. But if this be so, the conclusion contains an element, an essential element, that is not found in the premises. Therefore Thomas' (cosmological) argument is a fallacy.”

One sometimes hears the argument put forth that God gave us sense organs (what we sometimes call the “five senses”) and that therefore these sense organs must give us knowledge. Of course such an argument is a fallacy known as petitio principii. It can no more be claimed that the purpose of sense organs is to give knowledge than it can be claimed that the purpose of my beard is to give knowledge (or as Dr. Clark says, “that the purpose of toenails is to give knowledge”).

Augustine's writings invited men to examine the rational basis for their faith. He did not deny that it is necessary to believe in order to know; understanding is the reward of faith. But he also declared that Christian doctrine contains many things that we cannot believe unless we understand them. A man who thinks it is sufficient to hold fast to the faith without aspiring to an understanding of it ignores the true end of faith (Epist. 120).

Augustine adopted and Christianized many of the Neoplatonic conceptions of reality. Augustine was endowed with a disposition `not merely to believe the truth, but also to understand it.' (Contra Acad. III.xx.43)

For Augustine, `I desire to know God and the soul. Nothing besides? Nothing at all.' (Solil. I.7) Our failure to understand the truths of faith arises not so much from an intellectual defect as moral turpitude. “What reason, then,” asked Augustine, “Is there why thou canst not see that light itself with steady eye except certainly infirmity? And what produced this in thee, except iniquity?” (De Trin. XV.27.50). We cannot properly grasp truth because we are sinners.

Augustine's examination of the principles of thought are part of a vast “proof” for the existence of God. Augustine does not regard God's existence as “provable” in a modern empirical sense. Rather, God should be conceived as the ideal of knowledge implicit in all human labor for understanding. God is the God of truth for Augustine. God is the teacher of truth; he is the truth itself; and he is the object of knowledge.

Augustine claimed in his Confessions, “For with complete conviction it [reason-RB] proclaimed that what is unchangeable is to be preferred to what is changeable, and thus it had knowledge of the unchangeable itself. For unless it had in some way known it, the mind would have had no ground for preferring it to the changeable. And so in one tremendous stroke of vision it arrived at that which is.” (Conf. VII.17.23)

The purpose of Augustine's investigation of, in turn, bodies, sensation, inner sense, judgment, pure thought, and intuition is to arrive at the existence of a realm of absolute timeless reality. The human intellect seemingly perceives `above' the flux of visible things and signs and even above itself a system of unchangeable truth. (De divers. Quaest. xlv.1)

Augustine desired communion with God, but could not advance in that direction without first establishing confidence in knowledge. A study of the Platonists unquestionably directed him, but his discovery of the basis of truth (knowledge) is expressed in a form peculiarly his own. The substance of his argument is twofold: first, he argues that the very process of doubting presumes the knowledge that something exists, namely the doubter with his mental activity. Second, the criticism of knowledge implies that there is an arbiter and criterion of truth (Solil. II.i; De Trin X.10.14; De Civ. Dei XI.26). Otherwise there is nothing left for the mind but skepticism.

Augustine thus anticipated Descartes by 1200 years. There is one fact that cannot be doubted or called into question: each person must believe in his own existence. Though one doubts, he is aware of himself existing when he doubts. “Si fallor sum.” If I am deceived, I exist. This certain knowledge, for Augustine, includes all the processes that can be distinguished within it. It comprises a direct apprehension, a judgment, and a feeling: `I am most certain that I am, and I know it, and I enjoy it.'

This truth is immediately perceived. It does not come to us from the world or form our senses. Additionally Augustine was convinced that there are other truths of the same order. Augustine claimed “we do not discern these ideas through some bodily sense as we apprehend colors, sounds, and tastes; but without any delusive representation of spurious perception (phantasiarum) or of images (phantasmatum) I am most certain that I am and that I know this and enjoy it” (De Civ. Dei, ibid.) This knowledge is detached from all contact with the data of sense perception. Thus the ground of certitude for Augustine points to a radical dualism in knowledge; and perceptual experience is secondary in his dualistic hierarchy.

Though our ideas do not come to us from sensory data, they do refer to an objective and independent realm. Otherwise no intelligible discussion would be possible between men. Everyone would be limited or confined to his own ideas. The region of reality and commonality is the world of ideas. And that world of ideas is eternal, necessary, immutable, and intelligible.

The entire direction of Augustine's analysis of knowledge is toward the establishment immutable certainty. The mind willfully and knowingly makes corrections to the impressions it receives from the senses. Yet it is obvious to Augustine that if the mind makes corrections to physical sensations it receives, then it must be correcting them by an appeal to a principle or principles unaffected by the changeability of the sensory. An investigation into these principles seems to Augustine to reveal a knowable structure in the world which is changeless and therefore timeless.

Mathematical ideas are of this variety; they are the same regardless of culture, circumstance or intelligence. “It offers itself equally to all who can grasp it; nor when perceived by anyone is it changed and altered for the nutriment, as it were, of the perceiver; nor does it cease when someone is deceived in it, but he is so much the more in error the less he sees it, while it remains true and whole” (De Lib. Arb. II.viii.20). Seven and three are ten not just today but always. Our judgment which detects errors in addition such that we know seven and three can never by any quantity other than ten Augustine called “the light of the mind.”

Augustine considered any sensible object as capable of infinite division. No body, however small it may be, is a perfectly simple unity. But to know that no body is `one' is to know in some sense what one is. Yet such knowledge cannot be known from sense perception because we are not acquainted with an indivisible body.

Augustine concluded that there are many such things that cannot be known by sense perception in such a direct way; “Again, when I call back to my mind some arch, turned beautifully and symmetrically, which, let us say, I saw at Carthage; a certain reality that had been made known to the mind through the eyes, and transferred to the memory, causes the imaginary view. But I behold in my mind yet another thing, according to which that work of art pleases me; and whence also, if it displeased me, I should correct it. We judge therefore of those particular things according to that [ form of eternal truth], and discern that form by the intuition of the rational mind” (De Trin. IX.6.11).

Augustine's arguments suggest a fundamental, non-sensory structure to the world which intellect apprehends. But there is not an abrupt distinction between the structure of reality and bodily things. Number lies at the basis of reality — it forms the structure of reality — it does not form a separate reality. Mathematical ideas are generalized and appear under various forms such as order, rhythm, symmetry, harmony, etc. “Look upon the sky and the earth and the sea and all the things which shine in them or above them, or creep or fly or swim beneath them. They have forms because they have numbers; take that from them and they will cease to be” (De Lib. Arb. II.42). Things exist primarily in their eternal ideas, but they also exist for us in their material or corporeal mode (De Vera Rel. XXII.42). The sensible image is for feeble minds a necessary aid to the intellectual apprehension of the unchanging form.

For Augustine it seems that the light by which the mind is illuminated and by which it is allowed to make judgments is the eternal standard of truth, beauty and goodness which the mind contemplates. The intellect is informed by God and the mind has in this a purely passive role. The imprints of goodness, truth and beauty are placed upon our minds as seals in wax (De Trin. XIV.15.21.)

Augustine's theory of knowledge may be regarded as a vindication of Neoplatonic idealism or at least as a Christian modification of it. He taught the church of an ideal order which lies behind the fragmented changeable world of sense perception. The universe depends upon the divine ideas and the order we perceive in the universe is due to the divine ideas. [1]


[1] Hopefully it will be noted that by “divine ideas” we do not attribute deity to a realm of the ideal, but rather refer to that which is in the mind of God.