Van Til's Critique of Barth's Christology (Part 2)

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In the first post in this series, we gave consideration to Van Til's assessment of Barth's Christology. In this post we wish to examine Barth's own teaching on Christology. The key to understanding Barth's Christology is to understand where he places the act of the incarnation. To use Van Til's expression, Barth seems to place that act in Geschichte. So what is the nature of this Geschichte? At least in Barth's earlier thought, as Bruce McCormack has shown, this is the real history of God which stands over against the so-called "unreal" history of humanity.34

McCormack aptly describes this as the "tangent point" at which God's history meets our history, without becoming one with it. It is important at this point to set this idea against the backdrop of Barth's rejection of the higher critical approach of the liberal school. For Barth, God and his revelation cannot be handled or manipulated by man in his own fallen time. Therefore, revelation - and thus the incarnation - must be something that is quite independent of "our time." Trevor Hart explains:

Revelation...is an event...The habitual use of the noun form [i.e., "revelation"] tends inevitably to direct our thinking instead toward the abstract, and to suggest some commodity (textual, historical or whatever) which represents the abiding deposit of a prior act of 'revealing'...something which has, as it were, become an earthly commodity and been handed over into human custody and control, domesticated and packaged for responsible human use.35

Second, in CD III/1 Barth engages in a stimulating discussion of the relation between God's act of creation and the history of the covenant of grace. What he is concerned to do here is defend against the notion of a generic "god," an impersonal uncaused cause as you find in Thomas' five ways. At this point, Barth offers a very insightful alternative to Thomas with which Van Til would surely agree. In refusing to pit God as creator against God as redeemer, Barth sets forth a better way:

But at this point everything depends upon the fact that the One from whom the world comes and on whom it depends should not be "God" in the sense of this or that conception, but He who in the process of history reconciles the world to Himself in order to give to it, as its Redeemer, its new and eternal form. (CD III/1, 45).

To this sentiment a truly Protestant theologian can only express his assent. However, Barth goes one step further. He goes so far as to affirm the history of the covenant of grace as being prior to the act of creation. The history of the covenant of grace has a distinct precedence and pre-existence over creation. Our doctrine of creation,

equating the Creator with the Deliverer, tells us that the world too, the whole nexus of being and movement in which I exist, has no prior existence that there is absolutely nothing which can take precedence of the history of the divine covenant of grace (Idem).

From here Barth develops his argument to include the Trinity. Creation is an act of the triune God, and in particular the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Barth states:

Hence the proposition that God the Father is the Creator and God the Creator the Father can be defended only when we mean by "Father" the "Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit." (CD III/1, 49).

But who is the "Son" that is with the Father-Creator? For Barth, notice, it is not the self-contained ontological Son apart from human flesh, rather:

It is not without His Son but as the Father of Jesus Christ that God bears the name of Father in Scripture and the creed. Again, it is not without the Son but in Jesus Christ that according to Scripture and the creed He makes Himself known as the sovereign Lord of all things and the Creator (Idem).

So, since there is an incarnation in eternity, that must mean God has time - and if time, then history.36 "Eternity...is not in any way timeless...In this way it is the essence of God Himself...God is Himself eternity. Thus God Himself is temporal...God in His eternity is the beginning of time" (CD III/1, 67-8). It becomes increasingly clear that for Barth there is a time, or history, other than "our time." (read: Historie). And that other time is the time of Jesus Christ - the time of grace. Jesus Christ is this time of grace. And what is more, this time of grace is independent of our time:

In this way the time of grace, the time of Jesus Christ, is the center and perfect counterpart of the time of creation. Like it, and in contrast to 'our' empty time, it is fulfilled time (CD III/1, 75).37

Therefore the revelation of God in Jesus Christ does not occur in our time, in our history. Yet, and because of this, God's time of grace occurs in "full contemporaneity" (CD III/1, 74) and "simultaneously" (CD III/1, 75) with our time. Even so, our time never becomes itself revelation.

Finally, this whole conception must be set against the backdrop of Barth's earlier work in CD I/2 where he speaks about "God's time for us." This time is a third time (CD I/2, 47).38 The Christ event is its own time (CD I/2, 49). It is the time of Jesus Christ (CD I/2, 51). However, standing over against this third time is "our time." This world time is

without Christ, without revelation, a hard surface of secularity...It covers the years 1-30 like all others. It is world history in which, along with history of culture...there is also a history of religion and the Church. But there is certainly nothing that we can seriously call a history of "God's mighty acts" (CD I/2, 63).

But the "third time" is a time that God makes for us (CD I/2, 49). This is the time of revelation and incarnation.39  Barth sets forth three times: God's time, our time, and Gottes Zeit fur uns ("God's time for us"). It is this last time which is real time. And this time takes place in the incarnation - "the event of Jesus Christ" (CD I/2, 49). This time alone "is to be regarded as eternal time" (CD I/2, 50). This eternity is "pre-historical time" (ahistorischen Vorzeit). Yet - though it is pre-historical - it is not timeless time. Rather, it is a temporal reality (Idem; KD, 55). And it is here that "our time" is taken up and renewed:

...the time we mean when we say Jesus Christ is not to be confused with any other time. Just as man's existence became something new and different altogether, because God's Son assumed it and took it over into unity with his God-existence...so time, by becoming the time of Jesus Christ, although it belonged to our time, the lost time, became a different, a new time (CD I/2, 51).

This third time is God's act, or event, of revelation in Jesus Christ. It is important for us to note here, in support of the idea that this third time is not something which happens in calendar time, to cite Barth's original idea of the relation between this time of revelation and calendar-time history. He puts it this way:

To put it concretely, the statement "God reveals Himself" must signify that the fulfilled time is the time of the years 1-30. But it must not signify that the time of the years 1-30 is the fulfilled time. It must signify that revelation becomes history, but not that history becomes revelation. (Ibid., 58).

Now, no other statement is more important for understanding Barth's Christology than this one. Revelation - i.e., Jesus Christ - becomes history. Jesus Christ - in this act or event of God's time for us - becomes history by taking to himself our fallen time. However, our time, history, or calendar days can never be revelational.40 Revelation takes place transcendently, entirely removed from our fallen time. Our time has no capacity for revelation, history can in no way be the medium of revelation.

In this way, Barth's Christology represents a new and original reinterpretation of the tradition. And this is why his theological innovations were such a reversal of his day's dominate neo-Protestant theology. Nineteenth century theology was thoroughly informed by a doctrine of God's immanence. Liberalism's God was "trapped" or "stuck" in the earthly muck of human consciousness. Barth sought to release God from that trap and make him utterly and completely transcendent. Rather than viewing the incarnation as a process which occurs within the consciousness of man, or within the strictures of man's fallen history, Barth described the incarnation in terms of an objective event which occurred outside of "our time." The incarnation is a transcendent event.

In one fell swoop Barth has rejected both liberalism and Reformed orthodoxy, presenting us with a would-be via media. Even so, a commonality remains between liberalism and Barth: the incarnation did not happen in calendar-time history. Revelation may be historical, but history is not revelational.41 In other words, what Barth believes is an attempt at a via media is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is merely another modern option, with nothing but a formal nod to orthodoxy.

 

Conclusion

If what we have said above about Barth's thought is correct, then we must stand with Van Til in his fundamental contention: Barthianism is not simply a different expression of Christianity, but a different religion altogether. Or, to put the matter in the form of a question: is there any way to conceive of Barthianism and (Reformed) Christianity as friends? The answer must be Nein!

For this reason, we find the recent dismissals of Van Til's critique by current evangelical theologians somewhat troubling. What is perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Barth's theology is being readily received today as being friendly toward Reformed orthodoxy. Whatever the reasons for this, it is time to once again exercise discernment, as Van Til did. In addition, we would do well to read Barth, carefully and closely as Van Til did, seeking to understand truly the deep structures of his thought and their implications for Christian doctrine and life. And when we have done that, we must stand in witness and testimony to the self-attesting Christ of Scripture.


*You can find the full set of footnotes for this post here.
Posted September 28, 2016 @ 11:37 AM by James J. Cassidy
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