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Gordon Clark on God in history

November 12, 2008

The following quotes are from Gordon Clark’s A Christian View of Men and Things (written in 1952), Chapter 2, The Philosophy of History. I think the excerpts go to an important rationale for the study of history: to discern and anticipate patterns.

“Toynbee holds that the individuals who initiate the growth of a society are more than mere men: They are ‘superhuman in a literal and no mere metaphorical sense.’ These superhuman creators of societies are identified as the mystics. Their creative personalities are impelled to recreate ordinary men in their own image. Some of them fail and are martyred. Others succeed and make life intolerable for those who prefer the old customs. A civilization grows therefore when the uncreative majority is willing to follow and imitate the creative personality. Mimesis is one of the ordinary faculties of primitive man, and it is by this that the superior personality is able to drill and regiment his inferiors.” (p. 37)

“[I]f the philosophy of history shows that there are signs of decaying civilizations, and if violence and brutality are symptomatic of the end, then the thoughtful observer is in a position not merely to describe the ancient past but to make a plausible prediction as to the near future.

“There are evidences of civilization’s imminent collapse other than physical brutality, for brutality is a species of the wider genus of coercion. Many people, though strongly opposed to armed revolution, view with complacency the accomplishing of the same results by means short of violence. By this attitude they condone a coercion that is equally destructive of the best phases of Western culture.

“Socialistic coercion and the destruction of freedom in the United States are following the more advanced programs of the European nations. In the nineteenth century the memory of autocracy was vivid, and after several nations had rid themselves of tyranny, the acknowledged aim of government was to maintain order so that free individuals could arrange their personal, social, business, and religious affairs as they saw fit. Today, however, the disadvantages of absolute government have been forgotten, and so-called liberals, who are truly reactionaries, aim to establish a so-called democracy on the principles of Louis XIV. To this end taxation is imposed, not so much to pay for legitimate governmental expenses, not on the basis of services rendered and received, but with the avowed aim of impoverishing one class of people and of enriching another class. One might say that taxation is becoming legalized theft.” (pp. 42-43)

Dr. Clark proceeds with a discussion distinguishing the Christian and secular worldviews with respect to history. He sets forth three defining principles of the Christian worldview of history:

“First, God controls history. This is indicated in great detail by explicit statements relative to particular events. . . .And there are numerous statements of complete generality, such as ‘The Lord brings the counsel of the heathen to nought; he makes the devices of the people of none effect. The counsel of the Lord stands forever’ [Psalm 33:10-11], and, ‘I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things’ [Isaiah 45:7], and, ‘All the inhabitants of the Earth are reputed as nothing ; and he does according to his will in the army of Heaven and among the inhabitants of the Earth; and none can stay his hand or say unto him, What are you doing?’ [Daniel 4:35] These few out of a large number of similar passages suffice to justify the formulation that God controls history. How else could the Bible be understood when so much of it concerns the prophecies of and the preparation for the coming of the Messiah? (pp. 54-55)

“The second principle is not logically distinct from the first. . . .God has not only controlled history so far, but he will bring it to its end and culmination. The Messianic function of Christ was not exhausted in his past work, but he is to return to Earth again, ‘in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God and that obey not the Gospel’ [2 Thessalonians 1:18]. (pp. 55)

“The third principle, instead of being subsidiary, makes the previous two subsidiary to itself. God not only controls history and brings it to its culmination; God himself acts in history. . . .The Deists of the eighteenth century granted that God made the world and established its natural laws, but then God left it alone. It was argued that a machine in need of constant tinkering is no compliment to its maker’s skill. And if God is supposed to be supremely wise, he could not have made a world in which he would have to interfere. But this analogy fails to do justice to the Christian view of the world, because Christianity does not regard the world as an automatic mechanism that runs itself once somebody pushes the button. If the world were altogether a machine, the Deists would have had a point. But if God created the world for the purpose (not necessarily the only purpose) of having personal relations with his creatures, the idea of a Deistic God who does not need to ‘interfere’ makes no sense. (p. 55)

“If the secular standpoint is chosen, history has no significance; human hopes and fears are to be swallowed up in oblivion; and all men, good, evil, and indifferent, come to the same end. Anyone who chooses this view must base his life on unyielding despair. If, however, he chooses the Christian view, then he can assign significance to history; human hopes and fears in this life contribute to the quality of a life after death, when two types of men will receive their separate destinies. Anyone who chooses this view can look at the calamities of Western civilization and say, ‘We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.’ There has been no proof, but there is a choice.” (p. 57)

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One Comment
  1. November 12, 2008 7:56 pm

    The first excerpt reminded me of Woodrow Wilson’s description of the “great men” of history. Of course, he was a champion of monumental change through the force of visionaries. And he actually practiced what he preached in the last sentence:

    “Men of strenuous minds and high ideals come forward, with a sort of gentle majesty, as champions of a political or moral principle. . . .The attacks they sustain are more cruel than the collision of arms. Their souls are pierced with a thousand keen arrows of obloquy. . . . They stand alone. . . .

    They are doing nothing less than defy public opinion, and shall they convert it by blows? Yes. Presently, the forces of popular thought hestitate, waver, seem to doubt their power to subdue a half score stubborn minds. Again a little while and those forces have actually yielded. Masses come over to the side of the reform.

    Resistance is left to the minority, and such as will not be convinced are crushed.”

    From “Leaders of Men,” essay found in the Papers of Woodrow Wilson, PWW 6:663.

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