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.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, Philosophy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism

  1. Evan says:

    It seems that if one maintains that the persons of the Trinity are unable to make pacts, deals, etc. with one another, because they have one mind, consequently, one denies that the persons can interact at all. I think, per the archetype-ectype distinction, we ought to understand that we predicate this action of the different persons of the Trinity analogically.


  2. Cal says:

    Some thoughts/questions:

    -I appreciated how you (or through whichever author) make the connect of Barth to anabaptistic groups. Strange enough, this followed Barth’s further move out of the Reformed proper when he began to question the practice of infant baptism. Do you have thoughts on whether the fact he never finished Church Dogmatics V leaves his thought on a precipice? That’s the future divide on Barth’s legacy: the role and person of the Holy Spirit.

    -Why do you privilege McCormack’s reading as the “real Barth” contrary to von Balthasar, Hunsinger, or Barth himself? Do you think Barth really understood the ‘analogia entis’ that he literally demonized? I find it a hard leap that Barth’s developments through the CD are somehow overrided by his initial existential, near voluntaristic, dialectic in Romans.

    -Why is admitting von Balthasar’s and Barth’s similarity “fatal”? The ‘analogia entis’?

    -Origen’s cosmology admits (seemingly, I’m probably missing something) that the Garden already presupposes an initial Fall, a Fall where the pure spirits had been lowered to the material. So despite that this may be twisting the Biblical account to fit gnostic sensibilities, it’s still taking the canon seriously. A seriously fatal problem with Barth is that he is trapped by his liberalism: there was no real Fall, thus, like Schliermacher, Man is made in sin (as you rightly point out).

    However, Origen escapes this critique because he spends more time among the immaterial creation. Spirits may’ve warred before the Creation of the Earth, they warred in Heaven. Is Heaven ‘eternal’ if change is possible, in the Platonic sense?

    -I’ve appreciated Barth’s legacy, as confused as it is. It will be interesting to see what will become of it. I’m wary of people jumping to already declare him a ‘doctor’. Even though Aquinas was a titan in his early post-mortum career, he didn’t become a true ‘doctor’ until Rome solidified around a very particular Aristotelian metaphysics to combat the philosophes. How could Karl Barth have that legacy except among unstable baptist polities, that will come and go (despite work from people like Colin Gunton)?

    As it stands, Barth seems only to muddy the waters and cause more disunity than not. Left-Barthians will be another generation of Schliermacherians who try and stand on the Bible while tearing orthodoxy and orthopraxy to pieces. Though, Torrance’s application of Barth may bear some fruit (and is already in people like Newbigen). That may be an unwarranted optimism.



    • JB Aitken says:

      Excellent questions. I will give you longer answers later. The short answer for von Balthasar is right to see Barth begin to use analogia fides more but dialektik is a better category to understand Barth.


    • JB Aitken says:

      My longer response:

      1. I’ve read the final part of CD. He does move towards an anabaptist view of the sacraments, but there is no discussion of the State. Barth was always ambivalent about the state.

      2. McCormack’s lectures on election and Christology came at a philosophically and existentially huge point in my life. I think Barth was right on the current understanding of analogia entis. I do think there are other models, though they weren’t in play at the time.

      3. As to the Barth/von Balthalsar comment, I can’t place the context at the moment (I wrote this 9 months ago).


  3. Pingback: Review: Nouvelle Theologie (Boersma) | Tractatus Logico-Geopoliticus

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