Christianity and Barthianism
Cornelius Van Til
Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1962
464 pp, clothbound
ISBN: 978 0 87552 481 8
This is Dr. Van Til’s second book on Karl Barth and Neo-orthodox teaching. His first, The New Modernism, appeared in 1947. That publication did not receive the attention that it merited. This was mainly due to the fact that it was such a drastic criticism, and at the same time difficult to read and to follow. The reason for the difficulty was that it was in the main a philosophical critique of a writer who is himself notoriously difficult.
This new volume is in a sense a sequel to the former. It is, however, strikingly different in many respects. It is much more comprehensive and thorough, and the theological element is very much more prominent. In addition it is very much more readable. It is indeed a magisterial volume which, it seems to me, should be compulsory reading for all who are interested in the present church and theological position.
The book is divided into four main sections, after a preliminary brief introduction indicating in general terms the relationship of Barth’s teaching to historic theology and what it sets out to do.
The first section deals with Barth’s main doctrines and considers in turn his view of Jesus Christ, of Grace in Christ, his relationship to Romanism, the Reformers, Orthodoxy, and his teaching concerning eternity and time.
The second section outlines the reaction of Reformed thinkers to this teaching, both theologians and philosophers; and here we are given their general criticism and their special criticism of certain particular doctrines.
Section three deals with the relation of Barth to Dialecticism – Medieval, Modern, and Recent.
Section four deals with New Consciousness-Theology and is a detailed consideration of Barth’s relationship to two well-known modern Roman Catholic theologians, and ‘The New Protestantism’.
The last chapter is a summary of the whole position.
It is well-nigh impossible to do justice to this book within the confines of a general review. I can therefore but state some of my impressions. It is, as I have indicated above, a masterly work. Van Til not only gives his own drastic criticism of Barth’s teaching but substantiates it and supports it and presses it home with endless quotations from other writers. The total cumulative effect is quite conclusive. Apart from anything else it entirely disposes of the criticism that Van Til is an oddity or unique in his criticism.
He is scrupulously fair in his whole approach. He says for instance: ‘Again with Berkouwer we gladly note the great influence that Scripture has had on Barth’s formulation of his theology’. He goes on,
Our first concern is not with the effects of Barth’s writings. Some of these effects have been good. Barth has called attention to some defects in historic Protestant thinking, which has not always been truly Christological and biblical. The Romanist principle of natural theology has, to a considerable extent, influenced Protestant theology throughout its history. This is true of Reformed as well as of Lutheran theology. Recent Reformed theologians are seeking to be more truly Christological and more truly biblical than some of their forefathers were. This may be due, at least in part, to the stimulation of Barth. Liberal or modernist theologians too have turned to a renewed study of Scripture. Through Barth the Bible has had more influence on at least some of them than it formerly had. Moreover, a number of church people, other than theologians, have learned to have a new respect for the Bible as in some sense the Word of God. For all this, who can help but be grateful to Barth and to God?’ (pp. 208 f.).
Furthermore, the book deals with Barth right up to the date of publication. It recognizes fully that certain modifications and changes have taken place in Barth’s position and deals with this effectively.
What are the conclusions to which we are led?
1. Barth’s whole position is much more important than his particular statements. It is just at this point that the real danger with his writings comes in. Never was it more important to consider the parts in the light of the whole. So many have been misled at this point because certain particular statements taken in and of themselves seem to suggest that Barth is writing from the orthodox Reformed standpoint.
2. The modifications in his teaching have made no fundamental difference to Barth’s position. His essential teaching and approach are still what they always have been. This is demonstrated time and time again in a very thorough manner, and Barth is shown to be still a speculative philosopher rather than a theologian. He imposes his system on the Scriptures and bends them to suit his purpose. On the surface he appears to be biblical, and has even been charged by some as being a biblicist, but actually the meaning of Scripture is so modified in the interest of the general position as to be no longer the Word of God but rather the word of Barth. The Protestant fathers were fond of referring to the ‘perspicuity of the Scriptures’. This can certainly not be said of Barth’s exposition of them.
3. Barth’s position arises from his refusal to accept the notion of direct revelation, and his strange view of history. This involves him in saying, among other things, that there is no transition from wrath to grace. The whole question of Geschichte and Historic is dealt with very thoroughly by Dr. Van Til himself and in the many quotations he gives from other writers; and it is clearly revealed how this in particular bedevils the whole of Barth’s exposition.
4. Barth is a more drastic critic of Protestant orthodoxy and of Luther and Calvin than either modern Protestantism or, even, Roman Catholicism. This applies to their view of the Scriptures and Revelation, and indeed of the actual way of salvation. Nothing is more astonishing in the light of Barth’s repeated statements than that many should still regard him as leading back to the Protestant Reformation, and as a successor of the Reformers.
5. Van Til demonstrates beyond any question that Barth belongs to post-Kantian Protestantism. Though he set out to protest against this and to get rid of ‘the smile on Feuerbach’s face’ he has not succeeded in extricating himself from this position. This is inevitable because of his rejection of the biblical and reformed notion of revelation and his essentially philosophical approach.
6. Nothing is more interesting in this volume than the way in which Barth’s affinity with the teaching of the Roman Church is demonstrated. Even the much emphasized contrast between the analogia entis and analogia fidei is not what it appears to be. It is established that in his essential thinking, as von Balthasar and Hans Kung agree, Barth differs from them very little indeed. His real quarrel with Romanism is only about the church and the sacraments.
It is difficult to over-estimate the value of this book at the present time. It shows clearly why the Barthian teaching has been so ineffective in the life of the church. It has been an intellectualist movement which has led men to preach about the Word rather than preach the Word. It has been going now for forty-five years but it has not led, and cannot lead, to any renewal in the life of the church.
This volume also shows clearly how Barth opens the way for ‘Ecumenism’. This is so because of his drastic criticism of orthodoxy and his essential affinity with modern Protestantism. It is only those who thought, and still think, that Barth is a return to the position of the Protestant Reformers who are offended by him. It is not surprising that he has been one of the main influences on the thinking of Dr. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
Nothing, perhaps, is more important than the way in which this volume by Van Til shows that Barth may well become the bridge between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, so that even beyond the World Council of Churches there looms the possibility of one ‘great world church’. The interest shown in him by Roman Catholic theologians is ominous. Whatever particular criticisms he makes of them they recognize in him one whose basic and essential starting-point is in its essence their own.
It is the business of all who do not regard the Protestant Reformation as ‘one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the Church’ to read and to study this profound and prophetic volume, and prepare themselves thereby for the coming fight for the Faith and our glorious Protestant heritage.
Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Westminster Theological Journal, November 1964, Vol. XXVII, Number 1, pp. 52-56