Results tagged “Van Til” from Reformation21 Blog

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.

Van Til's Critique of Barth's Christology (Part 1)

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In the recent resurgence of interest in the theology of Karl Barth--particularly among evangelicals1--theologians of no mean significance have opined on Cornelius Van Til's writings about the dialectical theologian. Van Til, according to some, offered an "absurd"2 and "inept analysis"3 of Barth's theology which "wielded a disproportionate influence"4 among evangelicals through his "tendentious"5 reading of the Church Dogmatics.6 Others have argued that Van Til's motive for critiquing Barth and Barthianism was "institutional." D.G. Hart, for example, argues that Van Til was motivated by a desire to justify Westminster Seminary's existence over against Princeton Seminary.7 But did Van Til really misfire so badly in his critique?

Van Til's Critique

In order to show the accuracy of Van Til's analysis of Barth, we will take his critique of Barth's Christology as a test case.

First, according to Van Til, Barth's Christology results in a functional Eutychianism. In the one act of God in Christ the creature is collapsed into the Creator; man is as highly exalted above time as is God. In other words, in the incarnation

"... God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man. Modern theology holds that both God and man are temporal. Barth holds that both God and man are eternal...Whether God and man are regarded as correlatives in the thick, heavy atmosphere of time or in the rarified realms of eternity makes no difference. In both cases man is as necessary to God as God is to man."8

This will be Van Til's basic understanding and critique of Barth throughout his life. In fact, in 1955, he made the following observation about Barth's theology--echoing some of his concerns from 1931:

"So also Karl Barth's God is what he is exclusively in relation to man "in Christ." Barth's main principle is "the revelation of God in Christ" to the exclusion of the God who exists from all eternity within himself, independently of his relation to the world."9

Furthermore, because God and all things are equally transcendent, Barth "strip[s] him of all the attributes that orthodox theology has assigned to him, and thus enable[s] him to turn into the opposite of himself."10 According to Van Til, then, Barth's theology leads to the inevitable conclusion that "He is then wholly identical with man and his world."11

Second, Van Til shows that Barth's thought is in fundamental continuity with a basic Kantian ontology. Van Til writes:

"To be sure, Barth has repeatedly asserted his desire to construct his theology in total independence of all the philosophical schools. Yet he has also admitted that in his earlier writings he had been influenced by modern epistemology...The Ritschlian theology in which Barth was nurtured was controlled by a modern form of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant...the Theology of Crisis, in the case of both Barth and Brunner, is essentially a modern theology. By an essentially modern theology we mean a theology which, like modern critical and dialectical philosophy, seeks to be activistic and anti-metaphysical at all costs."12

Interestingly, Bruce L. McCormack reaches a similar conclusion concerning the relationship between Kant and Barth:

"The fact that Barth devoted so many pages of his writings...to criticizing neo-Protestant theology tended to conceal the extent to which his antimetaphysical stance was itself a distinctly modern option in theology. My own contribution to the European discussion of Barth's relation to modernity was to demonstrate the extent to which Kant and the later Marburg neo-Kantianism influenced not only his earliest "liberal" theology...but also decisively stamped his dialectical theology."13

This interpretation is shared by Kant scholar, John Hare who--while recognizing significant discontinuities between Barth and Kant--argues that Barth's reliance on Kant was "constant."14 While so much more can and should be said here, we will leave it with simply noting how interesting it is that even the best of scholars recognize Barth's basic Kantian ontology. Yet, Van Til continues to be castigated--even though he made this observation over 85 years ago!

Third, consider Van Til's most concise critique of Barth's Christology which came in a 1960 article, entitled "Karl Barth on Chalcedon." Here is gives a close summary of Barth's doctrine of the incarnation from CD IV/1 and IV/2.15 He summaries Barth's "actualized" doctrine of Christ when he writes, "The incarnation is an event. As such it is at the same time the humiliation of God and the exaltation of man. The peril in which man stands is God's peril in Christ."16 In other words, the incarnation has ontological implications for who--and what - God is.

Now, this new formulation of "the Christ-event" means several things for Barth. Initially, it means that we must no longer think of the states of humiliation and exaltation as events in time in which one event takes place before the other. That would make revelation a predicate of history, which would--in turn--limit God's absolute freedom.17 Next, this Christ-event means that the two natures can never be separate from one another. It is one event that takes place in both natures. In this way, Christ's humiliation is the humiliation of God and his exaltation is the exaltation of man...By thus removing the traditional ideas with respect to the states and natures of Christ, Barth is opening up a path for the sovereign and free, as well as universal, grace of God to man.18

And last, the Christ-event also means the elimination of the distinction between Christ's person and work. Rather, "Christ's person is his work and his work is his person."19 Van Til takes this to mean that the incarnation in Jesus Christ is God's act of atonement for all mankind--sovereignly and universally. Jesus is the act of "the changeless Son of God and the changing man Jesus."20 It is in this context that Van Til introduces Barth's concept of the "contemporaneity" of Christ's person--which is his work - in Geschichte. He explains that "Geschichte happens every time" and thus "Christ's humiliation is at the same time exaltation."21

Fourth, the Christ-event means the utter rejection of the distinction between the Logos asarkos and the Logos en sarkos. In other words, "God does not will to be God without us."22 Van Til further explains:

"Here then is the reason why the idea of a Logos asarkos back of the incarnate Christ must be rejected. The message of the Gospels is the incarnate Christ. It is this Christ that precedes the creative work of God. The covenant of grace as preceding creation is established and effected through him."23

Therefore, Van Til explains, for Barth "God is his revelation to man."24 Any distinction between God-in-himself and God-for-us "no longer has any constitutive meaning but possesses only heuristic import."25 God's being and his revelation in Christ are identified. This clarifies what Van Til said earlier when he said "man is as necessary to God as God is to man." Furthermore:

"God extends his existence into coexistence with man. He identifies his being with that of man and transforms human being into participation with divine being...A complete interchange of predicate takes place between God and man in Christ."26

In other words, God's act in the incarnation constitutes his being. Again, Bruce L. McCormack supports Van Til's reading:

"What Barth is suggesting is that election is the event in God's life in which he assigns to himself the being he will have for all eternity...He takes this human experience into his own life and extinguishes its power over us."27

Therefore, God has no being which stands prior to or independent of his acts: "Thus there is no God in himself prior to the incarnation and there is no man in himself apart from his participation in the incarnation."28

Fifth, the Christ-event means the rejection of the idea of "God as such." Van Til explicates:

"Barth says that in Jesus Christ God is both wholly like and wholly unlike man...Herein lies the foundation of the reconciliation of the world with God. He can become truly man and as such the only true man, only if he is free to relinquish his being as it is in itself and to become wholly one with man. It is therefore God's nature to become wholly other than himself."29

For Van Til, Barth does not have a doctrine of a self-contained God who is altogether a se.30 Rather, his nature is determined by his act in Jesus Christ, "God's being and God's work are said to be one and the same."31

And sixth, the Christ-event means the denial of the decretum absolutum. If Jesus Christ is both electing God and elected man, then there can be no decree which exists independent of the person of Jesus Christ.32 To say otherwise - to say that God chooses some and rejects others - is to make God arbitrary in his decision. Rather, Barth proposes a decretum concretum in which God's covenant choice for all men in Christ precedes everything else.33 In other words, God's opera ad extra determine his opera ad intra. What God will do in Christ (save all) constitutes his eternal decree (to elect all).


1 Of special interest for our purposes is the recent blog post by Michael Allen at the Gospel Coaition (retrieved September 8, 2016). Allen's piece exemplifies the characteristic appreciation of Karl Barth's theology today which stands in stark contrast to the critical disposition of Reformed theologians of the mid-20th century.

*A document with the full set of footnotes for this post can be found here