Barth and Evangelicals

The theologian I’ve been engaging in 2011 is Karl Barth, and I’ve been chipping away at the Study Edition of Church Dogmatics off and on over the year. I’ve also finished his book on Anselm, which in places I found to be obscure to the point of raising questions of honesty. I’ve not been as bogged down by a book since I had to slough through Hegel’s Science of Logic for a college class. Without claiming to speak to Barth’s motives or intentions, I can’t help but detect the presence of a certain elusive cleverness, a sort of theological hipness which does not face every question squarely. I’m considering my Barth 2011 project done now, with the following exception.

Over the past few days I’ve been reading Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, edited by Bruce McCormack and Clifford Anderson at Princeton (Eerdmans, 2011), which consists almost entirely of essays that were first papers delivered at the 2007 Barth conference in Princeton. I found this a fascinating book because many of the essays deal with Van Til’s criticism of Barth, something I’ve studied a bit in the past. In fact, the first two articles, by George Harinck and D.G. Hart, I’d ordered and listened to back in 2008 in connection with research I was doing on that topic. I was surprised at how much more I was able to pick up by reading them than listening to them, even though I’d listened to both of them many times. Both essays deal with the historical context of Van Til’s critique of Barth and give further credence to the (now quite common) attempt to understand Van Til’s attack in relation to his ecclesial context at Westminster Theological Seminary and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But each go further than this. Hart shows how after the 1929 split others in the WTS-OPC circle joined in with Van Til’s critique (e.g., New Testament professor Ned B. Stonehouse, librarian Leslie W. Sloat, Old Testament professor Edward J. Young) – and each intertwined their criticisms from Barth with criticisms of developments at Princeton (e.g., new 1937 president John A. Mackay, visiting professors Otto Piper and Emil Brunner, Christian education professor Elmer George Homrighausen). Hart draws attention to the fact that no one wrote against Barth prior to 1929 – in fact, Machen was surprisingly sympathetic to Barth during the 1920’s. But in the post-1929 tensions within Presbyterianism, Barth became a battle front, and where one stood in relation to him became an identity issue. As Hart puts it: “the Van Til-and-company critique of Barth … was bound up with the Presbyterian controversy of the 1920’s and 1930’s that saw Princeton lose its reputation as the American beacon of Reformed orthodoxy” (58-59).

Harinck also emphasizes the role of the Presbyterian struggle, but he also shows how certain important factors had already set in before 1929, highlighting in particular the influence of Van Til’s Dutch background. Van Til, of course, had been born in the Netherlands and lived there for the first 10 years of his life before emigrating to the Mid-western United States. Van Til had visited his native country in the summer of 1927, where Barth was much “in the air” from two recent visits to the Netherlands of his own. From Klaas Schilder, a pastor to his aunt and uncle in Oegstgeest, Van Til became aware of Barth’s theology and importance, and he absorbed some of his Schilder’s initial concerns. Van Til continued to be influenced by Schilder over the years, as well as other Dutch theologians such as Herman Dooyeweerd and D.H.Th. Vollenhoven – and it all came to him through the developing Neo-Calvinist vs. Barthian dynamics at Free University of Amsterdam. The significance of this is, as Harinck puts it: “(Van Til’s) first acquaintance and his first impressions of Karl Barth were not received in the United States but in the Netherlands, and therein lies the main reason for his early recognition of Barth’s importance” (17). In other words, before Barth ever came into developments at Princeton, he was already a battle figure in Dutch neo-Calvinist circles, and thus – as is apparent in his pre-1929 letter correspondence with Schilder – Van Til’s guard was already up against Barth before anything happened at Princeton. Harinck then highlights how this Dutch background and the American Presbyterian struggle fit together for Van Til. His conclusion: “Van Til’s opposition to the theology of Karl Barth at the same time became a rationale for the existence of Westminster Seminary. Barth was much more to Van Til than just a theological opponent. He became a paradigm for all that the Westminster tradition was opposed to within American Presbyterianism” (31).

I haven’t finished the book. Jason A. Springs’ “But Did it Really Happen? Frei, Henry, and Barth on Historical Reference and Critical Realism” is up next, and looks good. But the essays I’ve read so far are top notch quality. Michael Horton’s essay on Barth Christology as erudite as any evangelical critique of Barth I have read. Interestingly, Horton delves a bit into the McCormack/Molnar-Hunsinger-van Driel debate, and gives some gentle criticisms of McCormack’s (too radical) disjunction of actualism and essentialism. I agree with this. I think McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology is a paradigm of what a good analysis of theological development can be, and an example of how satisfying it is for a thesis that rings with truth and common sense to really make a dent in the scholarship. I think McCormack is right on to insist on fundamental continuity in Barth’s thought from 1915, over and against the von Balthasar 3-stage paradigm, and I also think McCormack has many legitimate insights into the nature of Barth’s post-1915 development (the Christological redirection after the discovery of the an-hypostatic/en-hypostatic distinction in classic Reformed Christology in 1924, the influence of Pierre Maury’s 1936 lecture on his doctrine of election, etc.). However, I think of several of McCormack’s more recent writings push Barth’s development into actualism a bit too rigidly, with the result that the overall portrait is skewed and Barth is made to be more of a revisionist than I think he intended to be.

What is fascinating – and this emerges in the book’s afterword, which is McCormack’s treatment of Van Til on Barth – is that at the end of the day McCormack’s portrait of Barth (or at least the post-1936 Barth) has a great deal of resemblance to Van Til’s portrait of Barth. There are key differences, and McCormack is of course critical of Van Til – but surprisingly mildly so. Both McCormack and Van Til portray Barth as an essential revisionist, seeking to overturn a classical and allegedly outdated doctrine of God. If McCormack’s emphasis on actualism and Van Til’s charge of activism are actually quite different claims, the former referring to a particular ontology, and the latter defined on page 3 of The New Modernism as a kind of revelation in which God is wholly given over to humans, one is nevertheless not surprised when the terms are confused and conflated. Little wonder that McCormack and Anderson state in the book’s Introduction that “Van Til did not get everything wrong. Many of his observations have something to them”  (4). Still less wonder if contemporary WTS-affiliated defenders of Van Til’s critique of Barth portray McCormack’s scholarship as the vindication of Van Til. At the end of the day, I think Hunsinger and van Driel are right to interpret even the post-1936 Barth as operating within more classic doctrine of God. I don’t think Barth was functioning as consciously within an actualist vs. essentialist framework as McCormack (with Cassidy) would suggest, or that he was consistent in his statements even after 1936.

Since I’m on the subject, let me mention two other collections of articles on topics related to evangelical appropriation of Barth. Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences (edited by Sung Wook Chung, Baker Academic 2006) has some helpful essays, but seems to me to be a bit more hit or miss in quality. I thoroughly enjoyed Vanhoozer’s article, and I’m sure Blocher’s is good. Several others, however, did not in my opinion match the quality of these two. Also, weirdly, the book lacks an index, which is annoying. Far better is the more recent Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques (edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange, T&T Clark, 2008). Man, this is a book to wrestle with. Any of these articles could be struggled with for days. I thought Blocher’s “Karl Barth’s Christocentric Method” was alone worth buying the book for. Macleod was also great, and Thompson. Then perhaps Horton and Ovey. All in all this is perhaps the best single book for diving into evangelical engagements with Barth – better quality overall than Chung’s book, and more general than Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism.

I look forward to continuing to engage with Barth as appropriate in my Anselm studies – but for now my focus will be elsewhere. For the rest of 2011, I simply want to prepare for the GRE, keep working at my article on Christ’s intercession, listen to The Hobbit on my Iphone, and read a few more fun books. The one I’m looking forward to the most is Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings.


  1. Interesting, Gavin. I feel like I have only a vague sense of what Barth wrote, so this was helpful. I’ve been reading a lot of books by Edith Schaeffer, and she often talks of how Francis Schaeffer disliked Barth, which makes sense given that time period. In more recent times, many of the evangelical PhD students I’ve known have done their dissertations on Barth, including Rob Price I think.


  2. How can you read this complex stuff and write about it so well and be in full time ministry? Holy cow. Well done, Gavin!


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