Clark-Van Til: The Last Chapter

Among the more acrimonious episodes of recent Presbyterian history was the dispute between Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til.  Dr. Gordon Clark was an eminent professor of philosophy, teaching at Wheaton College, Butler University, and Covenant College.  Dr. Van Til spent his career teaching apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.

Both Clark and Van Til were actively involved in the early history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and mutual respect grew between them.  Clark sometimes visited Philadelphia, and he and Van Til would walk and talk together.

A letter from Van Til to Clark dated December 5, 1938, demonstrates a warm collegial friendship.  Clark had sent a manuscript of one of his articles to Van Til for feedback.  Van Til began his response by showing tender concern for Clark’s aged father.  He then provided constructive criticism to Clark’s manuscript, and closed on a note of self-deprecation.  The final sentence of that letter reads, “I greatly appreciate the opportunity of corresponding with you on matters of this sort.”

In the early 1940’s, winds of change were blowing through Wheaton College.  Under pressure, Clark resigned from the faculty in 1943.  Determining to pursue ministry in the OPC, Clark sought to be licensed and ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

Following a four-hour theological exam, Clark was approved for licensure.  On August 9, 1944 he was ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia – an act that generated a protracted controversy. The OPC General Assembly of 1946 ruled that the Presbytery had failed to allow sufficient time between licensing and ordaining Clark.

The significant theological issues underlying the dispute were assigned to study committees, who reported over the coming years.  Meanwhile, Clark’s supporters waged an unsuccessful  campaign on his behalf.  Supporters of Van Til replied with equal strength.

Clark eventually left the OPC with bitter words for the church.  He was also sharply critical of Van Til’s teachings at key points.  For his part, Van Til remained silent during the controversy, only addressing it years later in his Introduction to Systematic Theology.  His critique of Clark is rather blunt and none-too-flattering.   In print, both of these brilliant men could be razor-sharp toward their opponents.

What few people know about the “feud” between Clark and Van Til is a point of personal reconciliation that occurred in their later years.  According to Clark’s grandson, Andrew Zeller, sometime around 1981 Clark traveled to the Chicago area to meet personally with Van Til.

When Clark returned home, he related to his grandson that they had “apologized to each other for the way they had treated each other over the years.  They agreed that they should not have made such an issue over their differences.”  Zeller adds that from that time onward, Clark referred to Van Til as “my friend, Dr. Van Til.”

Clark’s son-in-law and daughter, Wyatt and Betsy George, confirmed that this meeting actually happened and was quite emotional for both men.

Though they undoubtedly continued to have philosophical and theological differences, it seems that Van Til and Clark could be personally reconciled as fellow believers in Christ.  Now they are together in glory, where all disputes are put to rest in the presence of God Almighty.

When our first parents fell into sin, one of the profound and lasting effects of their rebellion was alienation.  They were alienated from God and from one another.  Adam said it all when he stated, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.”  Imagine how Eve felt as she heard her husband uttering those cowardly accusations.

Alienation continued within the first family as Cain slew his righteous brother Abel and was consequently driven away to live as a vagrant and wanderer on earth.  Broken relationships litter the pages of human history as man wars against man, and as he wars against God.

What can solve the problem of alienation?  How can man be reconciled to God, and to his neighbor?  Enter the cross!  As Paul tells us in Romans 5:10-11, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”

In addition to securing our forgiveness, satisfying the justice and wrath of God, and redeeming us from slavery, the cross is God’s chosen instrument for reconciliation.  God and man can be restored to fellowship because of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Because God and man are reconciled, it is also possible for man to be reconciled to his neighbor.  This is what enabled Clark and Van Til to come together after so many years apart.  This is what enables you and I to draw near to one another in forgiveness and acceptance – forgiving each other just as God in Christ forgave you!