Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism

These are mostly fine essays illustrating to what degree Barth has been received by the American Evangelical community.

George Harinck gives a fascinating essay on how Dutch and American Neo-Calvinism reacted to Barth. In doing so, he gives new light on Van Til’s own career.

Barth and Van Til

DG Hart has a fun essay on Evangelicalism’s reading of Van Til’s reading of Barth. Van Til’s attack on Barth, at least the later one, was a confessional Presbyterian attack. As such, it was also an attack on Princeton’s modernism. This put neo-Evangelicalism in a tough position. For them, if Van Til offered a good critique of Barth and a defense of inerrancy, fine. If Van Til seemed to be arguing for Presbyterian Confessionalism, then he can take his quarrel elsewhere. (Here Hart explains why the OPC refused to join the NAE, to their everlasting credit). My own concerns with this essay is that I don’t think neo-Evangelicalism was truly enamored with Barth. Certainly not when Carl Henry led the movement. Later neo-evangelicals might have been, but by that time the PCUSA (or what would later become of it post-1967) had already apostasized. Simply tagging them as “Barthians” isn’t entirely accurate.

Barth and Kant

Bruce McCormack responds to Van Til’s reading of Barth. McCormack said Van Til misread Barth’s use of Kant. For Kant, the a priori forms organize our knowledge; they do not determine it (and so it is not true, per Van Til, that a Kantian couldn’t tell the difference from a snowball and an orange). In fact, Kant held to an empiricism as to the phenomenal world.

As McCormack notes, “Kant did not believe that knowledge is simply constructed by the human mind through the use of the categories of understanding. The categories provide the forms of knowing which help us to order sensible experience” (McCormack 369). In this case it’s not too different from Aristotle’s Table of Logic. For Barth, however, Kant ceased to be important after 1924, when Barth discovered the an/enhypostatic distinction.

The one strength in Van Til’s reading, however, is that Barth did admit that Hans urs von Balthasar’s position was similar to his own. If this is true, then it is fatal to Barth’s position. Complicating the matter is that Barth seems to say von Balthasar is correct. I think, however, that Bruce McCormack’s own reading of the two authors (Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology) shows that von Balthasar was wrong, despite Barth’s own views of his own readings.

Theological Issues

Pride of place, not surprisingly, goes to Michael Horton’s essay. Horton correctly reads Barth and focuses on the real issues, and not tired paths like “Did Barth hate the Bible” that we often see in debates with the Torrancian school. Further, Horton highlights the real problem with Barth: his tendency to collapse time into eternity (Horton 125). Barth is an Origenist, in other words. Though to be fair, it’s hard to see how the entire Platonic tradition isn’t prey to this critique. Horton builds on this critique: The Reformed rejected the medieval nature/grace dualism. Barth, himself an Origenist, falls back to it: grace is necessary before the Fall. Grace for Barth is mercy shown to those at fault. If this happens before the Fall, then creation is somehow at fault as well (Horton 133). Creation and the Fall are two aspects of the same event. This is Origenism, pure and unadulterated.

Horton also notes that Barth never actually said “Election constitutes the Trinity.” This is a correct reading, though, tipping my hat to Derrida, I think it is implied in Barth’s theology, pace George Hunsinger. However, I don’t think Horton truly pinpointed Barth’s opposition to the Pactum Salutis. If there is only one mind in the Trinity, as the classical tradition holds, how does it make sense for the Persons of the Trinity to make deals with each other, since they all have the same mind?

Horton rebuts McCormack’s reading of Barth’s objection to “substance” and “essence.” McCormack thinks substantialism implies a “something” behind the entity. When applied to God, this raises the question: so which God is the real God for us? Horton says, by contrast, that a substance is simply thing that can be predicated of (128n72). I think both are correct.

Horton ends with a good observation on Barth’s so-called Christomonism: “When Christology swallows the horizon, Christ is no longer central; he is the whole picture. He is not the mediator…but the Creator simpliciter” (144).

Barth and the Church

The Evangelical group that has been most interested in Barth’s view of the Church is the anabaptistic groups. They fault Barth for either not totally denouncing the “Civil Sphere as a Real Government” (Hauerwas) or not embodying the right practices (various emergent groups). In contrast to this cacophony, Barth appears rather stable. Mind you, I think his ecclesiology ultimately fails at the end of his career when he gives an anemic view of the sacraments.

Barth and Future Issues

There are a few essays summarizing the problems with Barth’s universalistic tendencies. They are fine essays but ultimately don’t advance any new conclusions. I did enjoy the essay on Radical Orthodoxy.


Some essays fell flat but most are quite instructive.