Friday, April 28, 2006

Karl Barth, Evangelicals, and Dealing with Others

Last night, in my Reformation and Modern Church History class, I spent a good chunk of time on Karl Barth. In particular, I focused in on his doctrine of revelation (from Church Dogmatics 1/2), trying to help my students get beyond the cliched understandings of Barth's view (e.g. "The Bible contains the Word of God"; "The Bible is a record of revelation") and to engage him thoughtfully.

To be sure, there are some real areas of criticism to be made--for example, recourse to "the miracle of faith" to explain how God uses fallible and erroneous Scripture to bring people to encounter God's revelation in Jesus Christ seems just as "supernatural" as believing that God in his freedom could superintend the writing of Scripture so that it is written without errors in the first place. For me, the biblical witness supports this latter view (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21, etc.), whereas one would be hard pressed to find biblical support for the former. And there are other criticisms to be made as well (and I made those criticisms for my class).

But as I reflected on all of this, I also made mention of Cornelius Van Til's criticisms of Barth, published in three separate books over almost twenty years. And while Van Til was gifted and brilliant as a thinker, I've always felt that he never really engaged Barth--he kept looking for the "transcendental starting point" in Barth's theology (which he saw to be similiar to Protestant liberalism) and then constructing the logical conclusions from that starting point. Again, this is not to say that Van Til wasn't right in some respects: I, for one, don't think that Barth gets too far away epistemologically from Protestant liberalism (or from the challenges of "modernity" or from the basic correlative strategy of Schleiermacher; but then again, what mainstream "progressive" theologian did?). Yet by not engaging Barth within his own framework of thought, it strikes me that Van Til did Barth and himself a disservice.

Not only this, but Van Til's approach has been typical for most evangelicals in engaging the other. Rather than engaging in a thoughtful and critical dialogue, we all too often default to broadside claims of "heresy." Certainly, there may be errors (e.g. with Barth, his implicit univeralism in his doctrine of election, in CD 2/2, is a major biblical and theological error); but without the patient and graceful engagement of the other, our criticisms and disagreements will only be heard as clanging noise and banging cymbals.

In other words, even critical scholarship--times when we must say, "No, that is an error and I disagree with you"--must have as its goal "love which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Timothy 1:5).


Anonymous said...


I think Van Til would have a very quick answer for you when you write: "I've always felt that he never really engaged Barth - he kept looking for the "transcendental starting point" in Barth's theology ... and then constructing the logical conclusions from that starting point." And I'm sure you know what that is if you understand (which I'm sure you do) his apologetic method. I'd like to share some words from Roger Nicole on Van Til and Barth.

Nicole writes: In this respect, I say that Dr. Cornelius Van Til has given us a splendid example. As you may know, he expressed very strong objections to the theology of Karl Barth. This was so strong that Barth claimed that Van Til simply did not understand him. It has been my privilege to be at Dr. Van Til's office and to see with my own eyes the bulky tomes of Barth's, Kirchliche Dogmatik(Incidently, these volumes were the original German text, not an English translation). As I leafed through these, I bear witness that I did not see one page that was not constellated with underlining, double-underlining, marginal annotations, exclamation points, and question marks galore. So here is someone who certainly did not say, "I know Karl Barth well; I understand his stance; I don't need to read anymore of this; I can move on with what I have." Every one of the volumes, including the latest ones that were then in existence, gave evidence of very, very careful scrutiny. So when we intend to take issue with somebody, we need to do the job that is necessary to know that person so that we are not voicing our criticism in the absence of knowledge but that we are proceeding from the vantage point of real acquaintance."

It seems to me that Van Til might actually have been one of the few men of his time who actually did understand Barth - after all, how many of us have read CD in German? It would be like reading Owen's Theologoumena in Latin rather than Wescott's translation which is quite poor. I'd be interested in something more explicit from you on how Van Til may have interacted better with Barth!

Charlie said...

I think your comment is a load of rubbish. You won't find that sort of charity being given to conservative and evangelical scholars. In fact, you'll find just the opposite. Quite frankly, I'm tired of being labeled "uncharitable" because I have strong opinions about modern theology and liberal theology. Also, I note that you didn't mention Carl F. H. Henry's critique of Barth and other neo-orthodox scholars in God, Revelation and Authority.

I haven't read Church Dogmatics, etc. But I have read enough of Barth to know that he completely redefines terms that we all understand from a classical Protestant perspective and gives them modernist connotations. To me this is dishonesty of the highest degree. Its rather like a Mormon redefining the trinity and then telling Evangelicals that they are "Christians."

Your students were completely correct to hold you accountable for having such a weak response to Barth. Barth's theology is nothing more than an intellectual exercise in theological reasoning. I think the pages of his handwritten Church Dogmatics would make excellent toilet paper.

The trouble with neo-orthodox scholars like Barth and Bultmann is that they can "sound" like they are on the conservative side of things but when you really examine what they said it's merely doubletalk and smoke and mirrors.

Furthermore, why aren't you admiring Evangelical and Reformed scholars and holding them up as paragons of theological acumen? Men like Warfield and Hodge?

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Charlie:

Thanks for checking in. I appreciate your comments, even though I don't appreciate the tone with which you've communicated them. Quite candidly, if your "strong opinions" are typical of this hostile response, made toward someone who essentially agrees with you, I can see why some would label you "uncharitable."

As a matter of record, I would like to say several things:
1. I do spend quite a bit of time on the Reformed tradition and especially focus on Calvin, Beza, Edwards, and the Princeton theology.
2. I think it is important for students to understand modern theological development so that when they run across mainline Protestants, they will understand why they are in error.
3. N.B., I do believe that Barth's theology is characterized by significant and systemic errors. In other words, I essentially agree with you.
4. However, I do not believe that either Carl Henry or Van Til--the point of what I wrote--adequately engaged nor demonstrated Barth's errors. Striking, Barth's errors (his universalism; his dialectical hermenuetic) are best demonstrated by those who are evangelicals who have studied Barth with critical sympathy (e.g. Bruce McCormack).
5. My students did not "hold me accountable for having such a weak response." You misread this--I was holding them accountable to think beyond the cliches and to become more thoughtfully critical.

I hope that clears some of this up for you.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Karl Barth's theology is horrendous. I recommend Christians go to and listen to the Rev. Dr. Van Til's lectures on "Philosophy and Apologetics: Karl Barth #1 and #2". There they will hear an excellent expose of Barth's most important doctrinal errors.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Andrew C. Slaughter

Gavin Ortlund said...

Hi Dr. Lucas,

thanks for your great post on this - it will help me as I continue to work on my essay.


RyanBarnhart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.