Book review by David J. Engelsma on The Incarnation
Taken from Volume 65 of the Standard Bearer
THE INCARNATION, by Gordon H. Clark; The Trinity Foundation, 1988; 91 pp. plus appendixes; $8.95 (Reviewed by the Editor)
This is a disturbing, and even distressing, book. Gordon H. Clark, renowned champion of Presbyterian orthodoxy, challenges the church’s traditional and creedal doctrine of the incarnation, that Jesus is one person and that this person is the divine person of the eternal Son of God. Clark argues that Jesus cannot be a real man like us unless He is a human person. Jesus, therefore, is both a divine person and a human person. John W. Robbins accurately expresses Clark’s teaching in the concluding paragraph (written by Robbins because Clark died before completing the book), when he states:
Jesus Christ was and is both God and man, a divine person and a human person. To deny either is to fall into error. (p. 78)
Clark is quite willing to criticize both the ecumenical and the Presbyterian creeds, which teach that Jesus has two natures in the unity of the one divine person. The manner of his criticism is cavalier. Having charged a “fatal flaw in the Chalcedonian Symbol,” Clark tells us that “its bishop-authors did not explain, and probably did not themselves know the meanings of ‘rational soul,’ ‘consubstantial,’ ‘nature,’ ‘subsistence,’ and above all ‘person’” (p. 15). He treats the Westminster divines in similar fashion. Writing about the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of God’s infinity (Clark denies that God is infinite: “the Bible definitely says he is not,” p. 60), Clark remarks that these “theologians . . . were not mathematicians and did not know what they were talking about” (p. 58). I am not so sure that the fathers at Chalcedon were such dummies regarding the person and natures of Christ, or that the divines of Westminster, mathematicians or not, were such ignoramuses concerning the infinity of the being of God. I am even less sure that the Spirit of Christ failed to lead the church into all the truth of the person and natures of Christ at Chalcedon, or into the truth of the infinity of the being of God at Dordt and Westminster.
A formidable logician, Clark nevertheless permits himself the logical fallacy of “poisoning the well” at the crucial point in his argument. As he is about to state his conclusion, that Jesus is a human person, Clark not only wards off the charge of Nestorianism (the heresy that Christ is two persons, condemned by the church at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 and rejected in the orthodox statement of the incarnation by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451), but also ascribes any such criticism of his, Clark’s, doctrine to “unfriendly critics”: “Some unfriendly critics will instantly brand the following defense of Christ’s humanity as the heresy of Nestorianism” (p. 75). I am a friendly critic. But Clark’s doctrine is the boldest, most advanced Nestorianism, suffering, fatally, from the weaknesses because of which the church rejected Nestorianism—its failure to unite the two natures of the Savior and its inability to unify the work of redemption.
As though it clinches his argument that Christ is also a human person, Clark repeatedly raises the question, “Who suffered and died in the suffering and death of Jesus?” “On the cross Jesus said, ‘I thirst.’ No trinitarian Person could have said this because the Three Persons are pure incorporeal spirits . . . Who then, or what, thirsted on the cross?” (p. 73). “Let us then take it for granted that God cannot die. Now, if Christ be one divine person, no person was crucified and died. What then died on the cross?” (p. 69) Clark supposes that Chalcedonian orthodoxy has no answer to this question. Clark is mistaken. The answer is, “The person of the eternal Son of God suffered and died in the human nature.” This is the wonder of the passion of Jesus Christ. This is also the reason why that suffering is of infinite worth and value, as the Canons of Dordt teach in II/3, 4. On the answer of Clark and Nestorius, that it was the human person of Jesus that suffered, the divine person was not involved, in which case the humanity of Jesus could never have endured the suffering of the infinite wrath of God. Also, even if the human person of Jesus did manage the suffering, that suffering does not have the worth that is necessary to satisfy the justice of God.
Clark also proposes his own, novel, and very peculiar definition of the term that is fundamental to trinitarian and incarnational doctrine, the term “person”:
we shall define person as a composite of truths. A bit more exactly. . . the definition must be a composite of propositions (p. 54).
As three persons, God then is three composites of propositions. On this definition, it is not obvious to me that a compound English sentence is not a person. Besides, since the word “composite” has as its basic meaning ‘made up of parts,’ Clark’s definition seems to carry with it a challenge to the doctrine of the simplicity of God (the teaching that God’s Being is not made up of parts).
Preachers and teachers in Reformed circles may well be reminded that the doctrine of the incarnation, like the related doctrine of the trinity, is being reexamined today, not only by the liberal left, but also by the conservative right. The point at which the traditional doctrine is being challenged is that of the full, real humanity of Jesus. This challenge calls for vigorous defense of the creedal doctrine of the church, as well as renewed study of the Scripture’s teaching concerning the wonder of the Word’s becoming flesh.