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Gordon Clarks Paradoxical View of the Trinity

Posted on 15 March 2010 | 16 Comments


Some years ago I wrote a short article defending some of Van Tils remarks on the Trinity and offering some
criticisms of Gordon Clarks view of the Trinity. In that article I noted a point of disagreement with Steve Hays.
Whereas Steve had argued that Clarks view reduces to modalism, I argued that his position is clearly a form
of social trinitarianism (which Ive contended elsewhere is not a form of monotheism and is thus unacceptable as an
interpretation of orthodox trinitarian doctrine).
Well, after re-reading some of Clarks writings on this issue, Ive changed my mind. Im happy to report that I no
longer disagree with Steve. But thats not to say Ive abandoned my earlier conclusion. Rather, I now think we were
both right (which is a much more agreeable position to take).
How can this be? It all depends on which passages in Clarks writings you focus. On the one hand, if you focus on
the passages where he expounds his definition of person, youre led to the conclusion that his view reduces to
modalism. On the other hand, if you focus on those passages where he tries to explain what unifies the persons of
the Trinity, youre led to the conclusion that hes a social trinitarian.
Generally speaking, there are two basic approaches to developing a model for the Trinity. (By model I mean a way
of interpreting the claim that there is one God who exists in three persons.) The first approach is to start with the
idea of one God (monotheism) and then try to explain how this one God could exist as three distinct persons: the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The second approach is to start with the idea of three divine persons and then
try to explain how these three can be considered one God, i.e., how trinitarianism can be considered monotheistic.
(These two approaches are sometimes labeled the Western and Eastern approaches, respectively, although I
suspect that terminology owes more to pedagogical utility than to historical accuracy.)
Interestingly, one finds both approaches in Clarks writings on the Trinity. In his book The Incarnation he attempts
to give an account of the plurality within the Godhead by arguing that what distinguishes the three persons is just the
different first-person indexical propositions that constitute them. (Recall that Clark defined a person as a composite
[or complex] of propositions and in the case of divine persons, those propositions are all truths.) Examples of
these differentiating propositions, according to Clark, would be I was incarnated and I walked from Jerusalem to
Jericho (both of which belong uniquely to the Son). But as Steve pointed out, these propositions
are contingent truths that concern the different economic roles of the divine persons, in which case the persons
would be only contingently distinct. This, of course, is the hallmark of modalism: the relations between the persons
of the Trinity are nothing more than contingent economic relations. Steves analysis was spot on.
But thats not the end of the story. In his article The Trinity Clark tries to give an account of the unity within the
Godhead by appealing to Platonic realism about essences: the oneness of the Trinity consists in the fact that the three
persons have one divine essence in common. On this view, the unity of the Godhead is a merely generic unity. But
as I observed in my earlier article, this is the hallmark of social trinitarian models, and such models are wide open to
the charge of tritheism. (More sophisticated versions of social trinitarianism attempt to deflect this objection by
arguing that the persons are unified in further respects, e.g., they are necessarily united in love and in purpose, but
Clark makes no such attempt.)
So it seems that Clarks treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is doubly deficient and doubly heterodox (at least in
its implications). His account of the plurality within the Godhead leads to modalism. His account of the unity within
the Godhead leads to social trinitarianism at best (and tritheism at worst).

But heres the crowning irony: since modalist models and social trinitarian models are logically incompatible,
Clarks overall view of the Trinity (based on all his writings taken together) appears to be logically inconsistent. In
other words, Clarks view of the Trinity is paradoxical. This is rather unfortunate for one who so vehemently
repudiated paradoxes in Christian theology! Perhaps Clark had more in common with Van Til than his followers
care to concede.
I want to make clear that Im not trying to argue that Clark was a heretic or anything of the sort. I dont think that at
all. Its important to distinguish between those whose views appear to have unorthodox implications(implications
which they themselves would repudiate) and those who knowingly promote unorthodox views that cause division in
the church. I find much of Clarks theology and philosophy to be problematic, but Ive benefited from reading his
books and I still consider him to be one of the Good Guys. And unlike some of his followers, I wont dismiss him as
an irrationalist simply because he advocates a paradoxical theology.