The Wellspring of Every Bad Barth Criticism

Here’s the genealogy:

Van Til was the first evangelical to engage Barth critically. Because he was the teacher of a number of students destined to become evangelical leaders, his interpretation of Barth wielded a disproportionate influence.

In The New Modernism, Van Til investigates the relation between the earlier and later Barth. Though Barth himself later acknowledged that his earlier work was too indebted to modern philosophy, Van Til discerns a pervasive influence of modern critical and dialectical philosophy throughout Barth’s work. Exhibit number one is Barth’s consistently dialectical and activist take on revelation. If there is only one thing true of Barth’s whole theology, says Van Til, it is “that it is the diametrical opposite of a theology that is based on a finished revelation of God in history.” The basic assumption behind all Van Til’s criticisms is that Barth uses orthodox terms in a non-orthodox way: “for all its verbal similarities to historic Protestantism, Barth’s theology is, in effect, a denial of it.” He is a dangerous enemy precisely because he comes “in the guise of a friend.”

What, then, might Barth mean when he speaks of Scripture as the Word of God? Van Til is clear as to what Barth does not mean: that what there is to be known of God has been deposited in the biblical texts once for all. Such a fixed revelation would deny God’s freedom to reveal himself or not. Revelation is for Barth always indirect: always a gift-like event, never a given. It is precisely at this point that Van Til makes a fateful inference from indirect revelation (a theological notion) to existential event (a philosophical notion). In brief: Van Til concludes that, for Barth, the Bible becomes God’s Word only in and for an existential moment (Geschichte) that refuses to be tied down either to history (Historie) or meaning. The Bible becomes revelation only when God decides to encounter its readers dialectically: if the Bible “is” the Word of God, it is only because, and when, “the ‘is’ is active.”

Van Til proceeds to measure Barth’s theology by means of a single overriding conception: activism. This is also why he labels Barth’s theology the “new modernism.” Modernity involves the turn to the human subject (e.g., the human knower); Barth makes a turn to the divine Subject (e.g., the divine revealer). The crucial question is whether Barth’s emphasis on the discontinuity of the Word of God with the words of men is an expression of modernity, or a criticism of it. Van Til leaves us in no doubt as to his own opinion: “Barth interprets the Bible in a modern activist sense just as Origen interpreted the Bible in accord with principles borrowed from Greek philosophy.”

Van Til is also convinced that Barth’s whole approach to theology presupposes human autonomy: “It is by … assuming that his God is wholly revealed and wholly hidden to him that man can make sure that he has no God who has any existence prior to himself and who can make any demands on him.” It is difficult in the extreme, however, to construe Barth’s turn away from the human knowing subject as “a projection of the would-be autonomous man” or a “New Humanism.” Almost everybody else recognizes Barth’s achievement as the rediscovery of the deity – the Wholly Otherness – of God. Van Til’s interpretation of Barth as a humanist is as tendentious a reading of the Church Dogmatics as was the Tübingen’s School’s insistence that James had to be contradicting Paul.

Given Van Til’s well-known presuppositonal apologetics, it is highly ironic that a faulty presupposition underlies, and hence undermines, his reading of Barth. Van Til reads Barth as being committed to a critical (e.g., Kantian) philosophy. Van Til seems not to have grasped the possibility that Barth may have had other, more properly theological, reasons for his dialectical approach. It has also been suggested that one reason behind Van Til’s “Barthian animus” is the apparent similarity between Barth’s theology and Reformed orthodoxy. Might it not also be because of a strong point of similarity between Barth and Van Til himself?
(Kevin Vanhoozer, “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation,” pp. 2-4)

It is my idea that the criticism of Barth’s theology and the objections to it can have importance in the responsible discussion of our time only if they are based upon a legitimate and warranted analysis of his work. If that is not altogether the case, one can summarily reject Barth, but there will be no real opposition in the argument for the simple reason that those who thereupon proceed to read Barth himself will not be able to recognize the relevancy of the criticism presented
I criticize Barth also, and in this very book, but Van Til’s analysis does not correspond to the deepest intents of Barth’s theology. Hence it does not surprise me that Barth says in amazement that he cannot recognize himself at all in The New Modernism.
(G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956], pp. 384-385, 388)
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3 thoughts on “The Wellspring of Every Bad Barth Criticism

    • Long answer? I respect Barth- he has (not had!) a furious love of the Lord and strove to protect the unique glory of Jesus Christ and the redemption on offer in him alone. He fought modern skepticism with its own tools and defended the credal shape of the church’s inherited faith. In measured doses, he can contribute much to the project of faith seeking understanding. But as awesome as all the aforementioned things are, I don’t pretend for a second his dogmatic conclusions are inescapable or infallible: as brilliant as he was, he simply was wrong on a number of things. In particular, his exegesis is sometimes so far afield from the history of interpretation it’s hard to discern how we’re looking at the same texts! Unlike many dogmaticians, though, he believed in and actually pursued rigorous exegesis as a rule for his constructive theology. Unfortunately, though, his innovations sometimes had little to no moorings in the texts of Scripture. I appreciate him as a spotter, course correcting us from the naive fideism on offer in so much of American evangelicalism; read critically and course corrected in turn by Scripture, Barth has insight from another vantage point to help us navigate the labyrinth of modernity with biblical and creedal faithfulness.

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