Hoeksema on a Controversy in the OPC

Just off the press is a new book by Herman Hoeksema, The Clark-VanTil Controversy. The press, interestingly, is not that of the Reformed Free Publishing Association, or of any organization associated with the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). The publisher is The Trinity Foundation headed by John W. Robbins and "committed to the reconstruction of philosophy and theology along Biblical lines." The Foundation seeks to fulfill this mission by the publication mainly of the writings of the Presbyterian philosopher and theologian Gordon H. Clark. 

The new book consists of a series of Standard Bearer editorials that Hoeksema wrote in the years 1944-1946 concerning a controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). The controversy had serious effects upon the OPC. In a foreword to the book, Robbins remarks that because of unrelenting attacks upon Gordon Clark and his defenders, in spite of the defense of Clark by the General Assembly (Synod), "one-third of the church walked out the door, including one of its largest congregations." According to Robbins, "the OPC has never recovered from that loss, and indeed, Christianity in America suffered a serious blow" (p. viii). In his article, "The Battle over the Ordination of Gordon H. Clark," in the OPC commemorative volume, Pressing toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Michael A. Hakkenberg agrees that Clark was virtually forced out of the OPC by "'the constant and often bitter opposition to his ordination," although Hakkenberg, unlike Robbins, sees the outcome of the conflict as beneficial to the OPC as a Reformed denomination. 

The protagonists were Gordon Clark, then an ordained minister in the OPC, and Cornelius VanTil, professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Allied with VanTil were several other leading lights in the OPC, including R. B. Kuiper, Ned Stonehouse, John Murray, Edward Young, and Paul Woolley—basically the faculty at Westminster. VanTil and his allies were demanding the deposition of Clark for his doctrinal views. 

Vital Issues

These doctrinal issues are the reason why articles from the 1940s on an old controversy deserve to be published as a book, and read, in 1995. As Robbins notes, the doc- trines that were at issue in the Clark-VanTil case "remain very much with USI (p. vii). 

There were four doctrinal issues: the meaning of the incomprehensibility of God; the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility; the "sincere offer" of salvation to the reprobate; and the relationship of the intellect to the will and emotions in the soul of man. 

Especially the attack on Clark for denying the "sincere offer of the gospel to the reprobate" drew the attention of Hoeksema. He himself had been deposed by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) for denying the "well-meant offer" a scant 20 years earlier. Nevertheless, in the careful, clear, and penetrating manner that was characteristic of him, Hoeksema analyzed all of the issues in the controversy, in the light of Scripture and the Reformed confessions. 

With regard to the issue of God's incomprehensibility, Hoeksema showed that God's act of revelation makes possible, and demands, that we know truth as God does, though not exhaustively.

But if what God revealed to us has a different meaning for Him than for us, God is not only incomprehensible, but also unknowable. Then revelation itself is not true and reliable (p. 12).

With regard to the issue of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, no Reformed theologian—in this case, Clark—may be criticized, much less deposed, for attempting to harmonize the two truths. As revealed truths they are not contradictory. Their harmony is that "responsibility must be defined as falling within the compass of God's decrees and sovereignty" (p. 59). 

With regard to the issue of the "sincere offer" as held by Clark's adversaries and denied by Clark, "to say that God sincerely seeks the salvation of all that hear the Gospel . . . is Arminian, pure and simple" (p. 49). 

With regard to the issue of the relationship of the intellect to the emotions, Hoeksema demonstrated from the sources that in affirming the primacy of the intellect in man Clark stood squarely in the tradition of Calvin, Kuyper, and Bavinck This question, however, wrote Hoeksema,

might be a nice subject for discussion by some philosophical or theological club. How the Presbytery of Philadelphia could subject a theological candidate to several hours of grilling on this point is, I confess, beyond my comprehension. And stiI1 more difficult it is for me to understand how the complainants could discover in Dr. Clark's views in this respect sufficient ground for a protest against his licensure and ordination. The question involved is, to say the least, debatable (p. 18).

Worthy Purposes

Robbins has a definite purpose with this publication. He charges that Cornelius VanTil consistently misrepresented Clark and that VanTil's disciples are carrying on this misrepresentation today, thus obscuring Clark's "important contribution to both Christian philosophy and theology."

Hoeksema clearly perceived which party advocated the Biblical position on the four major issues in the controversy; it requires extraordinary blindness—or personal loyalty bordering on idolatry—for others not to see so clearly half a century later. We hope that this small book will aid their understanding, and that they will join us in promoting a consistent, Christian faith ("Postscript," p. 87)

In the providence of God, the book may also serve the purpose to enlighten some concerning the Reformed theology of Herman Hoeksema. Specifically, it may serve to clarify what Hoeksema intended by his repudiation of the "well-meant offer of the gospel." No one can read chapter 9, "The Sincere Offer of the Gospel" (which we publish elsewhere in this issue with the permission of Dr. Robbins), and come away thinking that Hoeksema was opposed to the church's preaching the gospel to all, or to the church's calling every hearer to repent and believe. 

Hardly less important is the book's presentation of Hoeksema's denial that God's revelation, Holy Scripture, is contradictory. This, of course, was intimately related to Hoeksema's vehement denial that God sincerely desires to save those whom He has from eternity reprobated. Like Clark, Hoeksema wanted nothing of the view held by VanTil and his cohorts, that the Reformed church can maintain that God both wills the damnation of some and desires the salvation of all, inasmuch as Scripture is a book of "paradox," that is, real contradiction to the mind of the believing man. Such a view of Scripture, insisted Hoeksema, is the death of all theology.

All of Scripture is given us that we might understand it . . . all of it is adapted to our human mind, so that, even though there be many things in that revelation of God which we cannot fathom, there is nothing in it that is contrary to human intelligence and logic.... If the complainants (VanTil and his allies—DJE) take the stand that Scripture reveals things that are, not above and far beyond, but contrary to, in conflict with the human mind, it is my conviction that the complainants should be indicted of heterodoxy, and of undermining all sound theology. Either the logic of revelation is our logic, or there is no revelation (p. 8; cf. also pp. 26, 27).

For this, Clark and Hoeksema were unjustly (and unkindly) branded "rationalists," as are the PRC today. It is not clear to me what the difference might be between the paradoxical nature of truth as espoused by VanTil and his disciples and the "theology of paradox" of Kierkegaard and his pupil, Karl Barth. To the same proposition in the same sense at the same time, both VanTil and Barth say "yes and no."

Intriguing Question

Hoeksema raises an interesting question in the book about the influence of the CRC upon the Orthodox Presbyterian opponents of Gordon Clark particularly in the matter of the sincere offer of salvation to the reprobate. This is a question, really, about the influence of the CRC upon the OPC itself in the matter of the offer. One result of the Clark-VanTil controversy was the virtual adoption by the OPC of the doctrine that in the preaching of the gospel God displays a saving love for all hearers and expresses a sincere desire to save them all, reprobate as well as elect. This is the teaching of the report by John Murray and Ned Stonehouse, "The Free Offer of the Gospel," presented to the Fifteenth General Assembly of the OPC in 1948. 

Hoeksema suspected such influence of the CRC upon the OPC:

The Complaint leaves the impression that it was chiefly written by Christian Reformed men that are trying to defend the Christian Reformed tradition in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and to introduce into the latter the errors of 1924. In fact, this impression is so strong that I make bold to conjecture that the Complaint was written by more than one author, and that I could point out the writer of the last part merely on the basis of internal evidence. I would consider it deplorable if the Orthodox Presbyterian Church would yield to this temptation (which the OPC did in 1948—DJE) (p. 11). 

Here, too, the Complaint reveals, more clearly than anywhere else, its distinctly Christian Reformed tendency, particularly its sympathy with the three well-known decrees of the Synod of Kalamazoo, 1924 (p. 33).

There were good reasons for the suspicion, apart from the similarity of the doctrinal positions and of the arguments supporting those positions. Cornelius VanTil and R. B. Kuiper had their roots deep in the CRC. In addition, there was a very close relationship between the CRC and the OPC in the early years of the OPC.

It is noteworthy that is was the Christian Reformed theologian R. B. Kuiper who attacked Clark on the issue of the offer at the presbytery meeting of March 19, 1945.

Professor R. B. Kuiper discussed Dr. Clark's attempt to solve the paradoxes of divine sovereignty and human responsibility and the decree of reprobation and the universal sincere offer of the Gospel.

In this attack, Kuiper gave the typical Christian Reformed defense of the "sincere offer" (understood as God's desire to save the reprobate) against the condemnation of this notion by the creedal doctrine of predestination: "there are paradoxes which are intrinsically paradoxical to man because of his very finiteness" (report of the proceedings of presbytery by The Presbyterian Guardian, cited in The Clark-VanTil Controversy, p. 77). 

This typical defense of the sheer contradiction is also typical evasion. For the issue is not, man's "finiteness." The issue, rather, is God's revelation. Is God able to reveal His counsel concerning our redemption to the believing mind in an understandable way? Is the revelation of Scripture reasonable and harmonious, or irrational and contradictory? Has God, in fact, revealed Himself? For a "paradoxical revelation," like the "theology of paradox," is no revelation at all, but confusion and nonsense. 

By putting his finger on the Christian Reformed influence upon the theologians of the OPC, Hoeksema may well have solved the problem that so mystifies the Presbyterian theologian John H. Gerstner: how could John Murray ever have taught that God sincerely desires to save men and women whom He has eternally appointed to damnation according to His good pleasure? 

Timely Book

The book is timely. Many Presbyterians are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cornelius VanTil. Perhaps some will reconsider the issues in the Clark- VanTil controversy. 

Many Calvinists are presently taking a close look at the doctrine of the "well-meant offer." In the British Isles, there is a frenzy of activity to defend the "well-meant offer," while condemning the denial of it as "hyper-Calvinism." Perhaps some of a fair mind will at least listen to Hoeksema's biblical and confessional criticism of the "well-meant offer," and respond to it. 

We in the PRC wish this lucid, little (87-page) book well. 

It is available for $7.95 from The Trinity Foundation, Post Office Box 1666, Hobbs, New Mexico 88240. 

—DJE