Van Til's Critique of Barth's Christology (Part 1)
September 14, 2016
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."8This 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."9Furthermore, 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."12Interestingly, 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."13This 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."23Therefore, 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."26In 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."27Therefore, 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."29For 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.