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Revelation and History: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Karl Barth

January 25, 2012

This past November the crew at ReformedForum.org dedicated a pair of podcasts to discussing Karl Barth’s theology, its critique by Cornelius Van Til, and the new book that has emerged from the 2007 Barth Conference at Princeton Seminary — Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 2011). (A third podcast on this topic was published a year earlier.) Thanks to Bobby Grow for pointing these out.)  Host Camden Bucey and guest James Cassidy (an OPC pastor and PhD student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia) do a fine job of treating a delicate set of issues with tact and grace, and ask the right questions about how the decades-old conversation between Barthians and Van Tilians might move forward.

As convinced students of Van Til, however, they perpetuate a number of false understandings about Barth’s theological project.  I’d like to address the central issue they draw out in these two shows: Barth’s understanding of the relationship between divine revelation and history.  Cassidy is right in saying that everything hinges on this point: if Van Til is right about Barth, then Barth has divorced divine activity from creaturely history in a way that is disastrous for the whole of the Christian confession (and I’ll voluntarily turn in my Barth Badge and start reading Van Til and Vos).  But if the critique is wrong, and if Barth is right about the way in which God has disclosed Himself to creatures, then every theological locus as it has traditionally been done must be re-thought from the ground up.  To do so, of course, was Barth’s “christocentric” project.

A great deal rests on this debate, particularly with respect to Barth’s reception and legacy in American Evangelicalism. Van Til was one of Barth’s earliest interpreters in English, and his damning judgments continue to hold sway in some circles. In what follows I will begin with a very short discussion of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture with respect to Kant’s critique of knowledge, and then pick up Van Til’s critique that Barth effectively removes the Christ event from the sphere of human history.  (For the sake of this post I’m relying on Cassidy’s summary of Van Til.) I’ll have some things to say there about Barth’s actualistic ontology, where I believe Barth must be properly understood if any accurate account of his theology is to be rendered.  Finally, I will conclude with a modest suggestion on how disagreements over the accuracy of Van Til’s critique should be adjudicated.

Epistemology and Scripture

Cassidy is right that Barth took deeply seriously Immanuel Kant’s critique of knowledge.  As Barth read the liberal Protestant tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, theirs was largely an effort to account for the possibility of true knowledge of God — i.e. to find a way around or through Kant’s critique or, alternatively, to falsify it. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and Christian theology could not simply continue on its merry way without responding.  Kant had, I think, undercut the very epistemology to which the Van Til school is appealing: a pre-modern fideism of the Bible as a received, objective account of God.  (Here the underlying epistemology believes that it has escaped Kant’s critique by way of its doctrine of inspiration, that God Himself created a written document of revelation and passed it across the gap to us, so that we can know true things about Him. I’ll have to leave a full critique of the modern fundamentalist epistemology aside in the interests of the topic at hand.)

Barth saw Friedrich Schleiermacher as suggesting what he thought was the only viable way through Kant’s critique: feeling, the discovery of one’s God-consciousness as the presence of God with men and women.  “Knowledge” was, to put it crudely, relocated from the head to the heart.  Though schooled in this tradition Barth would ultimately come to reject it, as has been well documented.  But he still faced the problem of Kant: How can theologians say anything true about God?

Like Van Til’s school Barth, too, turned to Scripture. But because he was already thinking christocentrically, his doctrine of inspiration does not match that which is held by modern American fundamentalists.  Again, Barth’s doctrine of Scripture has been well documented, and Cassidy gets it broadly right: the Bible is a human witness to God’s revelation, which is singularly located in the event of Jesus Christ. But he is wrong to suggest that Barth thereby “denies that the Bible is revelation itself” — if by this he means that the Bible is not the authoritative Word of God that discloses God’s history, will, and plan for salvation.

What Cassidy’s brief account is missing is the agency of the Holy Spirit, by means of which Scripture becomes the Word of God (and Barth means that!) ever anew for us.  This is not mere pious rhetoric, hanging on to the Bible for sentiment or tactical expediency.  (Barth is explicating his doctrine of the Word according to Heinrich Bullinger’s three forms of the Word of God in the the Second Helvetic Confession — certainly some solid Reformed credentials.) Scripture really is the authoritative Word of God, and in this sense it is “revelation.” But it is revelation in a different way. Scripture is divine disclosure in that it tells us things about God, by means of the Holy Spirit’s accommodating use of the testimony of the prophets and apostles; but only the incarnation of the Son of God reveals God Himself.

But (and this is key) Scripture is revelatory in such a way that it never becomes a possession of the creature, as in a textual artifact to be objectively studied (for example, with the tools of historical criticism — which is why Barth finds the question of the “historical Jesus” theologically uninteresting).  Instead, though the words of the Bible are fixed, our relationship with it is one of “standing under” (profoundly so, pace Cassidy).  We do not have “direct” access to God’s revelation in this fashion, not because this is not to be found in Scripture, but because the pages of the biblical text do not “contain” it in the strictest sense of that word. The true Word of God is living and active, coming to us in Scripture and proclamation both to afflict us and to comfort us.

The text is therefore a tool in the service of the on-going work of the Holy Spirit, who uses it to disclose to us God’s authoritative self-revelation in Jesus Christ.  But we rely on the Spirit for that nourishment, and never objectively possess it of ourselves.  In both Scripture and the proclamation of the church that Spirit is encountering us — and the revelation of God is in the encounter, the present event of giving, and not the medium itself. Therein lies all the difference between Barth’s doctrine of Scripture and that of conservative American Evangelicalism.

The result is that Barth has a view of Scripture that matches the fundamentalists in the authority and reliability it ascribes to the Bible (though one may wish to give a different reckoning of the nature and source of this “authority”).  He simply gets there by another route.

Revelation In History

The central critique of Barth’s theology leveled by Van Til that Cassidy still believes sticks relates to the historical nature of revelation.  If Barth identifies God’s self-disclosure strictly with the Christ event (rather than in the plurality of creation, Jesus Christ, and Holy Scripture), just what does he mean by that?  What is the “event” and where does it take place that we might have access to it?

It seems a given that God’s self-disclosure must take place in history (what Cassidy calls “real, calendar time” — not just “history” as some abstract concept, as it has been construed and reappropriated by some German idealists).  It must touch our reality at some point, in other words.  If, as creatures, we are to receive and to recognize God in God’s acts, they must take place in the sphere of our created existence — i.e. in history.  Otherwise we can only be told about them — in which case it is this disclosure of the acts of God, and not the acts themselves, that are revelatory.  Because fundamentalists (I use that term generally and not pejoratively) hold to the Bible as “direct revelation,” and because they affirm natural theology (God’s self-disclosure in the created order, such as the imago Dei), Cassidy suggests, they are able to affirm the requisite historicality of revelation.  The life of Jesus, the authorship of the Bible and the church’s inheritance of it, and the imprint of God upon creation all take place in history.

According to Van Til, however, Barth cut this cord.  Revelation does not take place in history, but above and outside of it.  The event of Jesus Christ, as the event of God’s self-disclosure, is a “transcendent event,” as Cassidy puts it.  The man Jesus Christ precedes even Adam — not only as the eternal Son of God, but as a man.  Thus the eternal Jesus has already been given and received in God’s time for us — outside of and before human history, and therefore apart from us.  The work of Christ in atoning for sin and reconciling creatures to God, and the application of that work to individuals, is collapsed into a single, transcendent event.  This event, says Cassidy, “is not history.  It’s not our time, not our calendar time.  It’s not God’s eternal time.  But it is some kind of transcendent in-between — [a] tertium quid.  It is a tertium quid.” (Cassidy is working with what Barth says about God’s time and our time in CD I/2, §14.1.)

As Cassidy writes further in the comments thread following the podcast, for Barth “the creator and the creature not only do not meet at any point, but they cannot meet at any point. … We are still rendered separate from Jesus Christ. The best we can hope for is a witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. But Jesus Christ is himself inaccessible to us.”  Barth does not account for any “direct revelation” from God to creatures — natural theology is flatly denied, Scripture is relegated to the status of mere witness, and Jesus himself remains historically inaccessible, available to us only in a transcendent moment beyond history. And so Barth finally can’t trust the Bible sitting before him as a revelatory text.  The theologian must fall back on his own rational intuition to say anything about God, but because he has no direct source of revelation he cannot know if what he says is right.  God remains transcendent and we are unable to know Him.

This is a catastrophically false reading of Barth’s mature theology.  It would be akin to calling Martin Luther a Papist or Charles Hodge a raving Schleiermacherian liberal.  The notion of an ahistorical Christ event is deeply opposed to Barth’s most basic theological commitments.

Like the tradition before him, Barth insists that the life and work of Jesus Christ took place in the sphere of human history — an act of God not only with us, but as one of us.  This is “the Christ event” — the history in which God the Son entered into time, was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried, and raised from the dead.  This took place in history and had to take place in history.  In describing “eternity,” Barth says, we should be careful not to de-historicize it; eternity is not timelessness, nor infinite time, but instead comprehends time (without being exhausted by it):

If we try to cling to the idea of a divine eternity that is purely timeless, we must be careful that we are not compelled to deny both God’s revelation and reconciliation in Jesus Christ, and also the triune being of God revealed and active in them.1

Barth is aware, then, of the sort of pitfall into which Van Til is convinced he falls. Revelation and reconciliation take place in time, even if the divine decision of election to which they correspond is eternal. The incarnation is an historical happening, as the orthodox tradition has always confessed:

If we say Jesus Christ, we also assert a human and therefore temporal presence. Every moment of the event of Jesus Christ is also a temporal moment, i.e., a present with a past behind it and a future in front of it, like the temporal moments in the sequence of which we exist ourselves. ‘The Word became flesh’ also means ‘the Word became time.’ … [Revelation is] a temporal reality. So it is not a sort of ideal, yet in itself timeless content of all or some times. It does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself.”2

The issue for Barth is not whether this event is historical, but whether it is accessible to us, and if so, how. According to Barth, revelation “does not become a predicate of history in that God reveals Himself through the medium of history. God remains ontologically distinct (or ‘other’) than the various media He takes up in revealing Himself.”3 One result of this is that the event of Jesus Christ is not subject to the control of historical-critical inquiry.  (The distinction Barth makes between Historie and Geschichte, as well as his use of Saga and his relationship with Rudolf Bultmann, commonly lead his unsympathetic critics in the wrong direction — particularly when reading him uncarefully and in translation.)  This is the problem of Gotthold Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” — that historical events are so remote from us today that we cannot trust that we really know about them with certainty. Where history is taken to be the sphere of God’s self-disclosure (as in Christianity), the problem diagnosed by Lessing becomes all the more acute.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this problem prompted fundamentalists to dig in and defend the accuracy of the Bible on historical grounds.  The ditch is overcome, Evangelicals suggest, by virtue of 1) the historical proximity of the witnesses to the events; 2) divine inspiration of the accounts rendered, since God is not subject to the same divide between historical events and our contemporaneity; and 3) presumably, the preservation of these accounts by means of the Holy Spirit’s interaction with redactors, copyists, and finally the church and her ecumenical councils that established the canon.  With respect to Holy Scripture as God’s “direct revelation” the fundamentalist account is not so simple and straight-forward, then, but requires these dominoes to be set up in precisely the right way and to remain standing. Otherwise, the reliability of the Bible as a point of direct divine encounter is suspect (granting, for the moment, that the very presence of redactors, copyists, and a canonizing church do not count as mediating factors between the speaking God and His hearing people).  This is because fundamentalists accept Lessing’s critique as a real problem (unlike that of Kant), though the event of revelation is not just historical but historically past (revelation takes place as the books of the Bible are written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and not — or not so much — in the more subjective moment of the church’s hearing of Scripture).

There is an interesting aside in Bucey and Cassidy’s discussion with respect to the revelation that does take place in Jesus Christ. Cassidy suggests that, for the Van Til school, this revelation has an eschatological character. I could be misreading between the lines and would appreciate a fuller explication of this point, but my guess is that this is an attempt to retain Christ as a locus of divine revelation while still accounting for the problem of historical remoteness suggested by Lessing. How can this man, who lived 2,000 years ago, be an objective source of the knowledge of God for you and me today? Of course, we believe that what the authors of Scripture recorded about him are true. But this encounter between us and this “direct” revelation in Jesus is mediated by the text (that is, by a different form of revelation). How can we have a direct, unmediated encounter with Jesus Christ? In the eschaton, when we see him face to face, when we know him even as we are known by him (1 Cor. 13:12). If this is indeed the explanation Cassidy or Van Til would give for the fact that Jesus is a direct revelation now absent from our immediate access, I would ask: Is this what Calvin and the Reformers believed? Is our personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ strictly an eschatological reality? Or is it also mediated through the church and the work of the Holy Spirit, here and now? Does the Spirit not unite us to Christ? Does He not raise us up in the sacrament to where Christ is? This existential communio Christi is the only true “transcendent” quality of the Christ event, and it is the real locus of our encounter with the Lord.

With those two digressions registered, let’s move forward with the debate over whether or not Barth believes that God reveals Himself in history. The quotations above clearly show that he does. Cassidy also recognizes that Barth scholars are arguing that Barth does, in fact, believe just this — that God reveals Himself in history, and not in some transcendent sphere.  Specifically, he’s interacting with Bruce McCormack’s afterword on Van Til in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. McCormack argues that the distinction Van Til draws between history and a transcendent “primal history” is not present in Barth but is a distinction largely of Van Til’s own creation.4 Yet, in the face of this sharp claim, Cassidy only manages to reiterate the Van Til line:

But we have to remember that according to Karl Barth revelation did not take place between the years 1 and 30 A.D. Revelation takes place … in the transcendent event of Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is not ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ understand. Jesus Christ, according to Karl Barth, existed before Adam. Jesus Christ is the revealing God and the receiving man [in the ‘tertium quid‘ that is neither God’s time nor our time, but God’s time for us].

For Karl Barth, revelation does not take place in real, calendar time. That’s his whole point. Karl Barth is concerned to take God out of our grasp, as it were.

Cassidy has thus read and dismissed the analysis of one of the world’s leading Barth scholars5 because he is already convinced that he is wrong. While McCormack’s essay sets out to prove Van Til’s interpretation false, the response is that McCormack must be wrong because Van Til’s reading is right. Not because McCormack has misunderstood Van Til, or because Van Til has a critical insight that Barthians have not engaged. Revelation is ahistorical for Barth, therefore when a Barth scholar claims that the opposite is true, it is he who must be missing something.

Christocentrism and Jesus’ Relation to Time

Finally, Cassidy derides Barth’s radical christocentrism on the grounds that, because Barth regards the existence of the man Jesus Christ as eternal (and thus true man, existing before Adam), the theological loci of creation, humanity, etc. are reduced to zero.  There is no doctrine of man as a creature of God, only man as Jesus Christ — and no doctrine of creation, only of Jesus Christ as creator and creature.  This Cassidy identifies as Barth’s “christo-monism.”  Thus Barth’s greatest strength is also his great weakness: when everything is interpreted in the light of Jesus, other doctrines are left with no autonomy.

There is an important critique here with respect to the systematic ordering and balance of doctrines.  But the way in which Cassidy makes it, I believe, rests upon a failure to understand the nature of what McCormack has identified as Barth’s actualistic ontology.  Barth regards the eternal ‘moment’ of God’s decision and the historical moment of its realization as existing in a dialectical relationship; so the promise of God to enter into covenant and save men and women from their sin is eternally true (it will take place), and as it is enacted it is temporally true (it has taken place).  Are we therefore saved by God in eternity, or in time?  This is somewhat like asking a good Calvinist when she was “saved” — the day she accepted Jesus, or 2,000 years ago on the cross (or when God predestined her in Christ before the foundation of the world, Eph. 1:4-5)?  Barth’s ontology suggests that both statements are true, but more accurately they are true only together — in their relationship of promise and fulfillment.

Actualism is also a post for another day. The point is that a proper understanding of Barth’s ontology clarifies a great deal of that to which Cassidy (via Van Til) is objecting.  God does not relate to time in the same way that creatures relate to time. As the Son of God, Jesus Christ relates to time from the eternal point of view — that of the Creator; and as Son of Man, we might say that his relation to time is “temporally determined.” The sense in which Jesus Christ is “before Adam” is not as the Logos incarnatus or ensarkos but as the Logos incarnandus — that is, in the mode of anticipation of the incarnation that takes place in time.  This is real for the being of the eternal Son — but it is not so without the corresponding moment of its actualization. With respect to revelation, then, because God is its subject it must come into history from without.6

We see, then, that Barth’s Christology and the theological ontology that undergirds it are not “transcendent” and do not exclude history, or include it only incidentally.  Rather history — our real, calendar time — is fundamentally necessary to Barth’s thought because it is the sphere in which the very being of God is actualized according to God’s free intention.  History, with the rest of creation, is the outer basis of the covenant, the sphere of God’s work of redemption, and without it God would not be the God He is.

Not only, then, are we to reject the thesis that on Barth’s reckoning the Christ event is not historical — but, in fact, it is more radically historical than perhaps anything that had come before (including federal Calvinism).

Interpretive Disagreement and the Legacy of Karl Barth

It is clear that a great deal of the impasse between these two sides stretches across matters of theological epistemology, the nature of history, and the doctrine of inspiration and the ontology of Holy Scripture.  Further work needs to be done in this area with respect to both Barth and Van Til, and the one’s criticisms of the other.  Will Van Tilians be able to acknowledge that Barth’s views in this area — even if they differ radically from their own — do not exclude him from the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy?  What is it that Barth has anchoring his theological epistemology, if he does not have an inerrant text handed down by God? Can revelation remain indirect, veiled, and still be God’s authentic self-disclosure? And does Barth actually use Scripture in a different way in engaging the task of dogmatics?

There is a way forward for conversation between the students of Van Til and Barth, as Cassidy and Bucey suggest. They rightly observe at the close of the discussion that the central issue here is simply whether or not Van Til’s critique of Barth is right or wrong.  Clearly my argument is that he is wrong. But beyond other texts I could muster from the Church Dogmatics to make my case (in a much, much longer post), the fact remains that no serious Barth scholar I have ever encountered, English- or German-speaking, has reaffirmed Van Til’s reading as accurate — outside of the fundamentalist tradition that is predisposed to oppose Barth (primarily because of his doctrine of inspiration).  Barth’s theology is vulnerable at a number of points, and there are significant disagreements among Barthians themselves; but the Van Til critique is not one of them. That this critique has now reached a third generation of students unchecked is a serious pedagogical oversight.

How does one judge whether one theologian’s critique of another is right or wrong?  Most obviously, read the figure whose work is under scrutiny carefully and as much without prejudice as we can manage — on his own terms, as Cassidy says — and see if the claims stack up.  Then secondarily, I suggest, see what the experts on that figure think.  If the overwhelming consensus in the secondary literature is that the critic is misreading his subject, that ought to count for a lot in a world of peer-reviewed scholarship.  (Cassidy suggests at the end of the second discussion that there is a lot in Barth scholarship today that does vindicate Van Til’s reading.7  This bibliography needs to be put forth and subjected to scrutiny.) The very best examples of theological understanding take place where each side can say, “They understand what we believe. They don’t agree with it, but at least they have shown that they understand it rightly.” I hope that as much can be said about my evaluation here. Those who continue to maintain Van Til’s critique of Barth without engaging the critical scholarship within Barth studies embody the opposite ethic.  When the world’s leading scholars agree that Van Til simply didn’t understand Barth, that should be taken seriously and engaged on the textual level.

I’m calling on students of Cornelius Van Til, then — and particularly on the faculty and students at Westminster Theological Seminary — to read Barth and sympathetic Barth scholarship alongside Van Til, and to include this in classroom assignments and bibliographies; to work toward an understanding of Barth’s theological project more nuanced than Van Til himself accomplished, which includes reading across the entirety of Barth’s corpus (in particular, redressing a neglect of CD III and IV) and attending to his theological development as well as to the current secondary literature; and to subject these findings to scholarly peer review and allow them to be altered.

Karl Barth does, in fact, have a rock-solid anchor to his epistemology. Unlike Van Til, it isn’t the event of God’s inspiration of texts — it is God’s revealing and reconciling appearance in history in Jesus Christ.  This is the truth to which those inspired scriptures themselves attest. And it is a gospel no Christian should be ashamed to confess.

Notes:

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 618.
2. Barth, CD I/2, p. 50 (emphasis mine).
3. Bruce L. McCormack, “Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Karl Barth,” Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), p. 373.
4. See ibid, p. 377.
5. In his review of McCormack’s Orthodox and Modern Cassidy himself states that “McCormack has time and again proven himself a deft interpreter and pedagogue of a system of theology that evades the comprehension of even the most astute and sympathetic disciples of the dialectician.” Westminster Theological Journal 71 no 1 (2009), p. 236. McCormack, says Cassidy, is one Barthian who allows Barth to be Barth in all his radicalness.
6. McCormack, p. 374.
7. A hint of this thesis is also in Cassidy’s review of Orthodox and Modern, where he suggests that McCormack agrees with a thesis put forth by Van Til in The New Modernism (1946) that Barth’s theology is in continuity with Schleiermacherian liberalism and did not, in fact, make a break with it. See Cassidy, pp. 236-7. That Cassidy has McCormack in mind with these comments is also evident in an October 1, 2010 podcast, where he shows simply that McCormack and Van Til agree that Barth was influenced by the “modern epistemology” of Kant. This Cassidy takes as a vindication of Van Til’s critique as a whole, as if the modernist quality of Barth’s thought was alone sufficient to justify fundamentalism’s reconciling him to the dust bin of theological history.

While it is true that Barth is engaged with the challenge presented by Kant’s critique (as is the whole of contemporary theology, save those who simply ignore it), and that McCormack demonstrates elements of Barth’s thought that locate him in a “Schleiermacherian tradition” broadly construed, it is false to caricature this simply as the sort of “liberalism” opposed by Van Til. See further: Bruce L. McCormack, “What Has Basel to Do with Berlin? Continuities in the Theologies of Barth and Schleiermacher,” Orthodox and Modern (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), pp. 63-88; and “Revelation and History in Transfoundationalist Perspective: Karl Barth’s Theological Epistemology in Conversation with a Schleiermacherian Tradition,” ibid, pp. 21-40. The content of McCormack’s essay on the Van Til thesis (see n. 1) is sufficient evidence that he cannot be counted as one Barth scholar who countenances Van Til’s reading.

Nevertheless, though I disagree with many of its interpretive conclusions, I should also point to Cassidy’s 2009 essay as a first step forward in an engagement with the Van Til thesis viz. what Barth and contemporary Barth scholars actually say. See Cassidy, “Election and Trinity,” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009): pp. 53-81. This provides plenty of conversational fodder for future engagement. Cassidy’s central thesis in the more recently published podcasts, however — that Barth removes the Christ event from history — is not (overtly) presented or defended in this essay.

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56 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 1:37 am

    Darren,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I am in complete agreement with you on VanTil’s insufficient reading of Barth. Hopefully this is a helpful correction that the more Westminster-inclined-Reformed will take to heart.

    I do, however, have a question for you and others in the actualist ontology clan. You mentioned that Cassidy’s point “rests upon a failure to understand the nature of what McCormack has identified as Barth’s actualistic ontology.”
    I’m not interested in arguing at this point whether Cassidy has or has not understood McCormack’s actualism.

    My concern is that I seem to hear this kind of critique quite a bit (David Congdon, who I greatly appreciate, wrote something similar here: http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2011/12/actualistic-ontology-word-of.html). The argument usually proceeds by someone disagreeing with actualism by critiquing it on the basis of classical metaphysics and such a critique in turn being labeled as a “failure to understand actualism.”

    Now, I imagine that there are some legitimate misunderstandings of actualistic ontology out there (perhaps thinking it can be critiqued on the basis of classical metaphysics is indeed one of these misunderstandings). But I wonder if jumping to misunderstanding is too quick. How would you–a proponent of actualist ontology–urge me–a proponent of classical metaphysics–to interact with actualism? I realize that it would be foolish on my part for me to read something you write on Barth’s Christology and simply say that you fail to understand concepts like essence and contingency. I’m sure you understand those concepts, but they are not relevant parts of your actualism.

    I’d like to think that I *understand* actualistic ontology (though you may tell me otherwise). However, I’m not sure what the best way to proceed is. How can I go about critiquing actualism? It is clear that merely critiquing it on the basis of classical metaphysics is not a live option (VanDriel did something similar to McCormack, and though he did it well based on classical metaphysics, the critique won’t hold for those who hold to actualistic ontology).

    So must I assume the truth of actualism and look for an internal incoherence in the system? Or, must I evaluate its claims against theological conclusions derived from Scripture (however that would be done)? Can I still use concepts such as entailment to critique actualism? I don’t want to ignore actualism and say “You have your ontology, and I have mine”; such a decision will not lead to helpful dialogue. So perhaps you could help me understand what the terms of the argument must be from your perspective. I greatly appreciate any technical attempts from actualistic ontologists to clarify the system and spell out the minutiae (which I why I appreciated David’s piece). I’ve spent a lot of time ensuring that I understand what I’m critiquing; yet I want to go about critiquing it in a way that would be satisfactory.

    So ultimately, my question is “How do we decide between classical metaphysics and actualistic ontology?” I’m guessing you might saying something like McCormack’s proposal has shown a great inconsistency in classical metaphysics (like he tried to do this past Fall at the TEDS Kantzer Lectures). However, the problem is that from the standpoint of classical metaphysics, the concerns he raises are just not that significant. Most in favor of classical metaphysics don’t worry about “speculation” or about the potential for God’s revelation to not be entirely identical with Godself.

    Anyway, I’ll stop here. I really want to have genuine dialogue, and I appreciate what supporters of actualist ontology are doing in theology, so I look forward to your response.

  2. Myk Habets permalink
    January 26, 2012 4:06 am

    Nice post Darren. I too think you have the American fundamentalist critique of Barth correctly spelled out and have laid down the challnge for Van Tillians to take up – good work! (We face the same issue in NZ) I also think James’ post above is spot on and I would concur with his question – as a non-actualist-ontologist (but also critical of classical metaphysics and in favour of a relational ontology – whatever that is), how do we go about interacting? I think McCormack would say on the basis of the Biblical texts, and yes, that is right. But it is only initially right. I do get annoyed at certain ‘Barthians’ who sem to take the supposed high ground in debates (this is NOT aimed at you Darren!) when they say they are merely folowing Scripture and anything else we (I) might do is speculation! Rubbish. I do not think St Paul had a self-conscious actualistic ontology – so for us all there is something that helps us read Scripture (what is theological interpretation of Scripture if not this!). So can I add my support to James’ fine question? Thanks Darren.

  3. January 26, 2012 9:25 pm

    It seems I need to write a much longer post on actualistic ontology (AO), since the confusion about it appears widespread and extreme. I’ll do what I can at the moment (and under a lot of stress regarding other responsibilities).

    First, let’s clear up some misunderstandings:

    1. AO is not a system. It is not in itself a new philosophy or ontology alongside other philosophies and ontologies. The word “ontology” here is thus misleading.

    2. AO is not the starting-point but the conclusion. Neither Barth nor Jüngel nor McCormack begins with AO. It is simply a way of describing the kind of theology implied in Barth’s explication of the gospel.

    These misunderstandings aside, let’s try to establish what AO actually is:

    1. AO is first and foremost an issue of theological epistemology. How do we come to a true knowledge of God? Barth here makes some axiomatic decisions that necessarily conflict with “classical metaphysics,” so there will not be mutual understanding about AO until there is first a mutual understanding about these axiomatic decisions. What decisions are these? Fundamentally, there is just one decision that takes multiple forms. I will describe this decision in the following way: “Jesus Christ is the sole and exclusive self-revelation of God.” Barth grounds this axiom in passages like the prologue to John’s Gospel, where the Son is understood as the only one who knows the Father and who has made the Father known. This axiom has a number of crucial implications for Barth, which we can list as follows:

    (a) As *self*-revelation, God’s communication to the world is a personal event. It is not the communication of ideas about God, but rather the communication of God’s own being and reality. Revelation is self-communication.

    (b) The object of theology is an event in history, i.e., the reality of God—and thus the reality of the gospel of our reconciliation—takes place as an event in the contingent historical occurrence of Jesus. (This is obviously a massive implication.)

    (c) Knowledge of God is determined or normed by the event of God in Jesus Christ.

    (d) Knowledge of God is also an event. Epistemology is the subjective correlate of the objective event of reconciliation. True knowledge of God happens as the Spirit of Christ awakens us to faith, which is a true knowledge of who God is and who we are in Christ.

    Thus far, these implications set forth the basic conditions for Barth’s christocentric method in theology. Other than an implied aspect of (b), I have not yet made the explicit turn to AO. In order to make that move, we need one additional axiom: “God’s essence and existence are identical.” The essence=existence axiom is a classical aspect of medieval metaphysics. The crucial difference is methodological. Where the classical metaphysicians presupposed a definition of the divine essence (immutable, impassible, simple, etc.), Barth proposes to let’s God’s existence define God’s essence. Instead of trying to figure out how to connect what God has done in history with this assumed definition of what is divine (hence the convoluted mess of the Chalcedonian Definition), Barth proceeds by letting God’s self-revelation (i.e., God’s existence) determine what we can and cannot say about God’s being or essence. In short, God is what God does. Implications:

    (a) God does revelation. Ergo: God is revelation.

    (b) Revelation is (the event of) Jesus Christ. Ergo: God is (the event of) Jesus Christ.

    (c) Ergo: actualistic ontology.

    I’m sure this raises more questions than answers, but I hope this helps get at some of the issues at play here.

  4. January 26, 2012 9:41 pm

    Thanks, James and Myk, for the comments.

    Just following David’s comments briefly, let me try and give a brief response with respect to the discipline, and then suggest we table the topic of actualist ontology and pick it up in another post so it doesn’t distract too much from any further conversation that might emerge on the main points of this post. If I can’t come up with a post on actualism in the near future, we could at least toss up a comment thread as a place to talk further. (David has given us plenty to talk about, so I might go ahead and set that up today.)

    The suggestion being made, of course, is not that actualism is an interpretive method to be applied willy-nilly to shed new light on any theologian. Rather, figures such as Barth are actualist in their own work. If it can be sustained that this is indeed the case, then it follows that interpreters of Barth won’t be able to get him quite right without attending to Barth’s own approach. If Barth’s theology has an actualist character, then it’s simply not correct to read him as an essentialist, or to critique him using the tools of classical metaphysics; to do so only leads to the sort of errors that Van Til makes (here, for example, with respect to the eternal quality of Jesus’ humanity). You don’t need to assume the truth of actualism itself, of course — but if Barth is doing actualist theology you’ll need to account for that. Evaluate Barth’s claims on Barth’s terms and not your own.

    With regard to the charge of speculation, it seems to me that this criticism stems from Barth’s doctrine of revelation. If he’s right that 1) theological speech is not possible without divine self-disclosure, and 2) that this disclosure takes place only in the event of Jesus Christ, then it follows that other starting points will not be valid. From whence do the doctrines of the divine attributes come, for example? Again, if Barth is right, any theological reflection that is not christocentric — even if it has a plausible exegetical support — is unrevealed and therefore speculative. I have yet to find a good argument for why that claim does not stick.

  5. January 26, 2012 10:12 pm

    David and Darren,

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I’ll hold off on any further questions until a new thread is opened.

    James

  6. January 27, 2012 4:21 am

    I appreciate these comments; but I would really like to hear from some Westminster chaps. I doubt that though! Great post, Darren!

  7. January 27, 2012 9:24 am

    Bobby, hopefully some Van Til supporters will eventually discover the post and desire to interact with it. (I’ve made Jim Cassidy aware of it, at any rate.) That’s where the conversation would lie. As I said, among students of Barth there seems to be a pretty unanimous agreement here.

  8. ken oakes permalink
    January 27, 2012 6:55 pm

    I think this post is well written and thoughtful, and I hope that the newer post on actualistic ontology (which certainly sounds more thrlling) doesn’t distract potential engagement with some of the issues raised here. This was one of the central questions of the early, ‘liberal’ Barth (in 1912 he called it ‘the’ problem of modern theology, and criticized Catholicism, in the throes of the anti-modernist crisis, for failing to handle it); it forms a contextual background for some of Barth’s moves in R I and II and even in the later volumes of the CD; it received renewed attention with Pannenberg and the ‘revelation as history’ debate in the 1960s; and it perhaps highlights as few other issues can the difference between Barth’s germanophone theological context and a North Am. or British theological context, where the question of history is seldom raised or at leat is seldom raised with much sophistication.

    I would venture that one of the unstated concerns driving no small part of the van Til/Barth debate is the status of historical apologetics and thus the referent of the Scriptural text. Barth’s lifelong aversion to historical and philosophical apologetics aside, it seems that by ‘calendar history’ or ‘historicality,’ or whatever, one of the big worries is that the Scriptural text must still be able infallibly to refer to and describe a historical kernel lying behind the text. Barth certainly wouldn’t deny such a kernel, but he also just isn’t interested in apologetically establishing it through generally available historical methods; he tends just to content himself with the final form of Scripture for his exegesis. Here too, I think, van Til’s theology is open to the standard criticisms regarding textual reference (the simplest and most well worn criticism being that if the history behind the text is most important then why not just ask the historians to improve the history for us?), and so it would be a potentially fruitful avenue to stroll down.

    • January 27, 2012 10:38 pm

      Spot-on, Ken. I concur completely. “Historical apologetics” is precisely what is at issue here with Van Til & co.

  9. January 30, 2012 8:43 am

    @Darren,

    Thanks again for this post; it’s always nice to have a handy critique of Van Til’s reading of Barth at ready notice when I am talking with my WTS friends 😉 . Is Cassidy doing his doctorate on Barth? I didn’t catch that, maybe you know more—I’m assuming he is, given his appearance on RF’s podcast as an apparent ‘authority’ as a Barth scholar (or some such).

  10. January 30, 2012 9:35 am

    Bobby: Yes, Jim Cassidy is doing his dissertation on Barth’s view of time and eternity. I appreciate the generally irenic tone he has taken on the podcast, even if I disagree with his interpretive judgments.

    On a related note, I should add that this weekend I came across a scholar who does support Van Til’s reading of Barth: Richard A. Muller, in the essay “Directions in the Study of Barth’s Christology” (Westminster Theological Journal 48 [1986]), 119-34; see p. 133). Muller echoes Van Til’s worry that the distinction between Geschichte and Historie makes it impossible for God to directly intervene in human history. My comment in the conclusion to the post above still stands, however, since — as respected an historical scholar as Muller is — he is not a Barth specialist. But I thought it worth pointing out.

    For Barth Jesus not only has a “history,” but his history is our history. When Barth invokes Geschichte his primary worry is over the accessibility of those events.

  11. January 30, 2012 2:29 pm

    Hi all! I have genuinely enjoyed reading the interaction on this blog. I had a fine e-mail exchange with Darren about his original post. I myself would desire helpful and irenic dialogue concerning Barth and Van Til’s read of him. I am unsure, however, that the comments section of a blog is the best place to do that! I’m open to suggestions for a better forum. I stand ready to learn from sympathetic Barth scholars. I render no good service to the church huddling in my own corner with a small band of like minded thinkers.

    As an aside, I have an article coming out on Van Til’s read of Barth’s Christology in a book entitled “The Reign of Christ.” As is so often the case with these things, the book has been delayed and won’t be out until the end of the year. But I think that piece would be a good starting place for further conversation.

    Just one more aside, if you all will kindly indulge me. The Van Tillian read of Barth is indeed the minority report. To this I have two responses. First, the minority report ought not to be dismissed out of hand just because it is a minority report. After all, Barth’s theological project was the minority report (some would say it still is!) in mainstream European Protestantism (and latter, here in America). Second, in addition to Muller, there are a number of other critics of Barth who also need to be taken seriously, showing that Van Til is not alone. For one, I do think that Carl Henry needs to still be taken serious here, along with Gordon Clark. I have issues a mile long with so-called neo-evangelicalism, so there are some significant differences between VT and Henry/Clark. But the overlap is significant. I also think that Berkouwer needs to be taken serious here as well. Berkouwer’s critique is far more irenic in tone than VT, but I think that the substance overlaps with VT’s critique at important points. Muller has already been mentioned, and where Muller agrees with the 17th c. Reformed theologians over against Barth, I think he’s got Barth dead to rights. I think that large parts of Barth’s theology falls if you take away his divergence from Reformed scholasticism (eg, covenant of works, doctrine of election, God’s attributes, etc.). Another irenic but important critic of Barth is Michael Horton. Again, he’s not exactly a thorough-going VTian in his critique, but offers some significant points. And the list can go on. So, its a minority report to be sure, but the I think its a significant minority.

    I hope to interact some more with you all in the future!

  12. David Congdon permalink
    January 30, 2012 4:30 pm

    Barth’s theology definitely does make it impossible for God to act directly in history — on that score, Muller is quite right! But anything else would involve a God who is less than absolutely transcendent. What Muller and Van Til want is a god who acts as one more causal influence within the realm of nature and history. But that is the god of myth and metaphysics, not of the gospel.

  13. January 30, 2012 4:51 pm

    @ David

    This was a helpful comment, thanks! It seems there are two questions to the Van Til question (i.e., the question of the validity of – or lack thereof – VT’s critique). One, does Van Til understand Barth correctly (to whatever degree). Two, is Van Til’s alternate proposal a theologically viable one.

    Am I correct to say that you are responding in the affirmative to the first (because VT, with Muller, believes that Barth’s god cannot act directly in history), and in the negative to the second?

  14. January 31, 2012 12:30 am

    @Darren,

    I know Muller well! I’ve read much from him as you probably realize; he’s not quite so irenic with his pejorative usage of the ‘older scholarship’ language in his book After Calvin when he is describing how folk like Barth and TFT have read Calvin through their centraldogma; something like this:

    The older scholarship, exemplified by the writings of Ernst Bizer, Walter Kickel, Brian Armstrong, Thomas Torrance, and others has typically modified the term “orthodoxy” with the pejorative terms “rigid” and “dead,” and modified references to “scholasticism” with the equally pejorative terms “dry” or “arid.” Such assessment bespeaks bias, but it also reflects a rather curious sequence of metaphors. The implied alternative to such a phenomenon as “scholastic orthodoxy” would, perhaps, be a flexible and lively methodological muddle of slightly damp heterodoxy. . . . Richard A. Muller, “After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition,” 25.

    Wonderful! Huh. I am not surprised, Darren, with the tone exemplified above by Muller that he supports Van Til’s reading—I’d be surprised if he didn’t! But of course this all comes back to prolegomenon and ones attendant doctrine of God; the divide and reads (or misreadings) start from this point and flower or shrivel; whatever the case may be.

    @Jim Cassidy,

    I’m glad you came over and commented! Out of curiosity, could you shed light on what has motivated you, personally, to engage Barth within the context from which you move and breath (@WTS). Is there something about Barth that you like; or is there something you dislike, and are seeking to elucidate why? You seem to be in the same tribe as this fellow, Ryan Glomsrud, current editor of the journal Modern Reformed; and recent graduate of Oxford with his D. phil dissertation entitled: “Karl Barth between Orthodoxy & Pietism: A Post-Enlightenment Recovery of Classical Protestantism.” A fellow who engaged Barth, but it seemed like for polemical reasons (somewhat like Muller’s engagement of Barth), and not theologically constructive ones. Anyway, I am just curious where you see your own Barth research situated; further how you see your research benefiting the larger body of scholarship toward which you are seeking to offer another layer of original Barth research for others to build upon.

    • January 31, 2012 1:15 am

      @Bobby

      I have to say, thank you for that Muller quote. Stated as only he can! I get the impression that the problem Barthians have with people like Muller and Van Til is their tone. I understand, no one likes to be called a heretic! This may explain why men like Horton and Berkouwer have been better received among Barthians. But I wonder if you think, once you get past the name calling, if you find anything valid in the substance of their interpretations of Barth quite independent of the critique (and the tone) they level him?

      As for a personal motivation . . . There is much I like in Barth. And there is much with which I disagree. But like him or disagree with him, one thing current theology cannot do is ignore him. I’ve been told my whole training that Barth was wrong at various points. Then I began to attend Barth conference at PTS and engaged others, some within my own circles (read: confessional Presbyterianism). Many were quite positive about Barth’s contributions. So, I had to figure out for myself who was right and who was wrong. As you can tell, I have come to some settlement on that question, and – as with us all – would like to advance those thoughts in current scholarship. Let’s just say I have a “vision” for the future of theology along the lines of a Richard Muller and (perhaps) a John Bolt. In other words, the future of theology – and a vital church ministry to a lost and dying world – is found in the past (in men like Bavinck, Owen, Turretin, and Calvin).

  15. January 31, 2012 12:48 pm

    @Jim Cassidy,

    No, I’m afraid I cannot affirm the Van Til/Muller reading of Barth in any regard. Sure, at times they’ll say things that are half-true, such as that Barth was influenced by Kant and that Barth rejects God’s direct action within history. But half-truths are still falsehoods. The full truth is something they never saw, viz. that Barth appropriated Kant and Hegel under the sovereignty of Jesus Christ and that God is indirectly or paradoxically active in history in a way that is more faithful to the gospel. And since their own views are built in reaction to these half-truths, their constructive alternatives are equally problematic.

  16. January 31, 2012 9:12 pm

    @ David

    Thank you for your answer, I think it bring into sharp relief the heart of the difference between Barth and Van Til.

    For Van Til, without God’s direct activity in history there can be no Gospel. Man is left in his sin and in his epistemological darkness. To say another way, Barth has a different Gospel than Van Til does, and for the latter it is in no way “more faithful.”

    Perhaps the way forward for Barthians and Van Tillians is to sit down and agree on what exactly the Gospel is?

    • January 31, 2012 11:39 pm

      @Jim,

      I agree, that would be helpful. But let me be very clear: Barth *does* think that God acts in history, and acts decisively to redeem humanity in Christ. But this cannot be *direct* action, because it is God who is acting in Christ, and God does not become directly or generally available. God’s action in history cannot be perceived apart from the eyes of faith. Barth takes with absolute seriousness Jesus’ statement to Peter that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” If it were flesh and blood, then it would be direct action; but since it is God alone who makes the messianic truth of Jesus known, it is only ever indirect or paradoxical. To put it in classic Barthian language, God is hidden in God’s self-revelation.

      The problem I see with Van Til & co. is that they want flesh and blood to make Christ known, because they want a historical apologetics. But that trades on a view of God that is theologically untenable and biblically unsupportable, in Barth’s view and my own.

  17. February 1, 2012 1:13 am

    @David,

    Thanks again for this, I think you’re doing well in getting us nearer to the nub of the issue.

    If I may ask a question, the answer to which would take me a long way toward greater understanding. I understand that, for Barth, God’s acts in history are indirect, paradoxical, and hidden. But how exactly is God acting in history, in what respect? Let’s say, for instance, between the years 1-30 AD.

    • February 1, 2012 1:20 am

      @Jim,

      God acts through Word and Spirit. God encounters humanity as a divine word of judgment and grace. This word is incarnate in Christ, testified to in Holy Scripture, and heard again and again in the proclamation of the church, but it is only ever encountered (in any of these forms) when and where the Spirit opens our eyes and ears and awakens us to its occurrence. It is not a word that we hear apart from God making us receptive to it.

  18. February 1, 2012 1:14 am

    @Jim,

    My problem is more than tone; it is as David is highlighting, a distinction between our disparate doctrines of God and prolegomena; like your all commitment to the analogy of being (i.e. direct access through flesh and blood), and Barth’s (and TFT’s for that matter) commitment to the analogy of faith (so an indirect, dialectical access).

    Thank you for sharing your vision and motivation for Barth studies. I am of the mind that we can and should and must Listen To The Past (as Steven Holmes has written on), but I am also of the heart that the best way forward is to engage, at most in theologies of retrieval that are truly constructive and organic; and thus not engaging in a repristination of a particular period of what we might consider a golden age of bygone theological flowering. So I think that the Father is working even up and until now … and into and from the eschaton and into the present.

    peace, Jim.

  19. February 1, 2012 1:26 am

    David, thanks for the comments of clarification. I admit that your first post threw me a bit, but it quickly became clear that you and Jim don’t mean quite the same thing when you speak of “God (directly) acting in history.”

    Please correct me if you think I am wrong, but the way that I have positioned this in the main post above is epistemological in nature — i.e. the problem of Lessing’s ditch, the remoteness of historical events. God really does act in history, I’ve suggested, but this is not something we can access but through faith. The point you are driving at, however, seems to be that even for Jesus’ contemporaries they did not have a “direct,” unmediated access to divine revelation in his person. Even with the historiographical problem diagnosed by Lessing removed from the equation, Jesus’ contemporaries witnessed a God who was veiled precisely in His unveiling. “They have eyes but do not see, and ears but do not hear.”

    We might say that the acts of God in the event of Jesus Christ are “historical” in that they took place in “our real, calendar time” (as Jim has put it), between 1 and 30 A.D. in Palestine. But they are not “historical” in that they are historically verifiable (as in apologetics), nor in that they become “accidental truths of history” at all. As Barth says, revelation becomes history but history cannot become revelation.

    • February 1, 2012 1:54 am

      @Darren,

      I think you’ve basically understood my point correctly. However, I disagree regarding your statement that God’s historical acts don’t become “accidental truths of history.” Maybe I’ve misunderstood you, but I think Barth is pretty clear that God’s act in history *is* a contingent historical occurrence. He repeatedly affirms Lessing’s statement only to overturn it. For Barth, eternal divine truth is (paradoxically) identical with an accidental truth of history. He states this explicitly, for example, in CD IV/2, 696. Of course, this doesn’t change in the slightest Barth’s insistence that Christ is the ordained ground and telos of human history, since contingency and necessity coincide in the Christ-event.

      Having said all this, I should say that I want to push Barth in a more radical direction than he himself went. I do think his theological position (rightly) undermines all supernaturalism, all talk of miracles, even if he did not himself make these ramifications explicit. But that’s the direction in which dialectical theology logically leads, which is precisely why I’m dedicated to it. As you know, I’m an apologist for Rudolf Bultmann, and I think he and Barth belong together. But since that will no doubt derail our conversation, let’s save that conversation for another time.

  20. February 1, 2012 1:27 am

    @Jim,

    I’ll be interested to hear David’s response; but Darren already addressed your question to David when he wrote:

    We see, then, that Barth’s Christology and the theological ontology that undergirds it are not “transcendent” and do not exclude history, or include it only incidentally. Rather history — our real, calendar time — is fundamentally necessary to Barth’s thought because it is the sphere in which the very being of God is actualized according to God’s free intention. History, with the rest of creation, is the outer basis of the covenant, the sphere of God’s work of redemption, and without it God would not be the God He is.

    Not only, then, are we to reject the thesis that on Barth’s reckoning the Christ event is not historical — but, in fact, it is more radically historical than perhaps anything that had come before (including federal Calvinism).

    What is it that you find unsatisfactory about this?

  21. February 1, 2012 2:02 am

    Wow, its rapid fire response time, now! Bear with me, friends, as I attempt to consolidate a response to all these fine points of discussion!

    First, I do think there remains some talking past each other. I am happy to say that I categorically reject an analogia entis ontology. With the exception of some fringe 17th c. scholastics, so does the mainstream of classical Reformed theology.

    Second, Van Til (and I with him) would reject any notion of direct revelation in terms of an unmediated manifestation of God. There is no way to know God which is not mediated in such a way that humans can perceive him. Even the visio dei is mediated through the glorified humanity of Christ in classical Reformed theology.

    Third, I affirm fully that apart from faith it is impossible to know the revelation of God in a redemptive way. This faith is given by grace alone as a monergistic work of the Spirit in regeneration.

    Fourth, and here is my follow up question. Lets put it in the form of an (absurd) hypothetical. What if no one believed or received the Spirit in the years 1-30 AD? Would you say that God was still acting in history, revealing himself? In other words, can Barth speak about the revelation of God in history without the reception of the revelation by faith?

    Fifth, if the acts of God in Jesus Christ took place in a real place and real time, then why are they not verifiable? As Paul says in Acts, these events did not occur in a corner. It seems Darren is articulating a two-fold history. Do these two histories (geschichte and historie?) have different “rules” to them? Or, do they have two different natures or characteristics? When Jesus said, outside of Jerusalem in 30 AD, “it is finished,” was that a revelation of God in history (still assuming that no one who heard it believed)?

    Thank you all for bearing with me!

    • February 1, 2012 2:41 am

      @Jim,

      Thanks, that was a helpful comment. Barth couldn’t accept the hypothetical question, not only because he rejects speculation, but in this case because he understands the subjective and objective dimensions of revelation to be posited simultaneously. He goes so far as to say (CD IV/2, 120) that the historical event of Christ “creates the possibility of a special perception to meet it” and “establishes itself in the knowing human subject.” So to answer your question: no, Barth cannot accept the notion of a divine revelation in history abstracted from its human reception.

      Your fifth raises the problem of “direct” action in history again. The acts of God are not verifiable *as acts of God.* They are (in theory) verifiable as historical occurrences like any other, but such verification says nothing about their identity as divine acts. As generally visible occurrences in history, they are unremarkable; they are wholly natural occurrences. Their divine character is “visible” to faith alone. Geschichte and Historie are not two histories but rather the one sphere of world history seen in two different ways: from the perspective of faith (Geschichte) and from the perspective of the neutral, scientific observer (Historie).

      When Jesus said “it is finished” — assuming he actually said those words, which is rather doubtful — it was only a revelation to those who heard those words within the context of a messianic faith in the God of Israel. But given the nature of the Gospels, I’d rather say they are the words of Jesus as remembered by the disciples who are reflecting back on his passion in light of their Easter faith. In that sense, they bear witness to God’s self-revelation, though they are not directly identical with that revelation.

  22. February 1, 2012 1:08 pm

    @Jim,

    I heard you say that you all reject the analogia entis in your podcast as well, as I recall. That somewhat surprises me. What kind of metaphysics do the post-Reformed or classically Reformed use toward their thinking and unpacking of God? I was under the impression that you all used some mode of a substance metaphysics, even a neo-Thomist form to speak of God’s substance and subsistence in the persons etc. Has my impression been wrong on assuming this about the classically Reformed?

    By the way, TF Torrance has some interesting things to say on this, and he is much more classically disposed, on a modified analogy of faith pace Barth. Are you familiar with TFT, and not to broaden this discussion out too much what do you (and your family 😉 ) think about TFT juxtaposed with our brother Barth?

  23. February 1, 2012 2:22 pm

    @ David

    Thanks for your continual patience and good explanations.

    Up front, I have some reservations about your explanation as genuinely Barthian. It sounds more neo-Kantian in the existentialist tradition (a la, Bultmann). I do believe there is a difference, a significant difference, between Bultmann and Barth on the issue of revelation and history.

    My problem with this position is actually much more significant than my problem with Barth as I understand him. On the view articulated above, God’s revelation is contingent upon the human response. This renders revelation anthropocentric to the core.

    I think that Barth is much better than this. He provides for the human reception of revelation not in our own time, but in the time of Jesus Christ (a third time-dimension he calls technically “Gottes Zeit fur uns”). For Barth, Christ IS the revelation of God precisely because he is in himself both the divine revealer and the human receiver. This too is problematic, I believe, but not as problematic as the more consistently existentialist position outlined above.

    I think, in response, useful here is the position advanced by such men as Herman Bavinck (thinking of his Stone Lectures at PTS entitled “The Philosophy of Revelation”) and Geerhardus Vos (especially his inauguration lecture as professor of Biblical Theology at PTS found in his Shorter Writings volume in which he maps out a Reformed doctrine of Revelation relative to a robust Christian Biblical Theology). In these men there is no dualism between God’s redemptive deeds and revelatory word. The two always coincide. In other words, God’s revelation always and everywhere accompanies his redemptive (not to mention creative!) deeds. Only in this way is the unbeliever rendered without excuse (a la, Romans 1). It is this truly and consistently Reformed understanding of revelation which cuts off the anthropocentric view resident in both neo-Protestant and neo-Orthodox (for a lack of better term) theology.

    As an aside, the dismissal of the words of the Savior on the cross is to me quite disturbing. You affirm Jesus said to Peter “flesh and blood have not revealed this to you . . .” but deny “It is finished.” I am not sure how you can separate the words and acts of Jesus from their divinely inspired record and interpretation. It is these kinds of dualisms which Reformed theologians find utterly unhelpful and destructive of the Gospel.

    @ Bobby

    Thanks for your good question. Would have to give the TFT question some more thought. Though I think that his ontology (theo-ontology) falls into similar problems as Barth’s. But, again, let me mull that one over some.

    As for classical Reformed theology and the analogia entis, I would recommend beginning your reading with Van Til. No one – save Barth – was a more vehement opponent of Thomistic metaphysics. In its place, he proposed a consistently Reformed ontology. Van Til’s radical creator-creature distinction is advanced and explained quite nicely in two recent volumes by K. Scott Oliphint. The first “Reasons for Faith” the second is his more recent “God with Us.” Here he explains Reformed ontology relative to the creator-creature distinction and what it means to speak about God’s essence without falling prey to the analogia entis. Believe it or not, its quite possible!

    Men, this has been truly stimulating! Maybe I can check back in next week. Right now, however, I have a list of academic, pastoral, and family obligations staring me in the face before this weekend (as I am sure you all do as well). I like you guys a lot, but have to say I love my wife and my church more! 🙂

    We really have to do this some night at a pub over a couple of pints. Even better (for me anyway) would be a place where we break out a pipe as well.

    Cheers for now!

    PS – Any of you are of course most welcomed to contact me by e-mail or phone (though wait until early next week, please). Both are available at my church’s website.

  24. February 1, 2012 6:44 pm

    I really appreciate you taking the time to interact with respectful candour here, Jim. And David as well. This has been very helpful to think through.

    One small thing, which maybe doesn’t need saying but I’ll say it anyway, when it comes to whether Jesus said “it is finished” or not, I suspect it is more a question of biblical criticism than a necessity of the Barthian view. The larger and more interesting point, obviously, is that these words of Jesus’ on their own (without the illumination of the Holy Spirit and the eyes of faith) do not somehow contain or directly enact revelation. Perhaps the Barthian view of revelation (and Scripture) will be more conducive to those forms of biblical criticism that are willing to give these words to the apostolic author or redactor, but there would be debates to be had there, and one could still attribute the words to a redactor and call them inspired, I would think.

    Anyway, mainly what I wanted to say was thanks a lot for engaging us here. Peace.

    • February 1, 2012 7:55 pm

      @Jim,

      I think you’ve hit on precisely what infuriated Barth about Reformed orthodoxy, and especially the Dutch Reformed in his own time, namely the inability to differentiate between a proper and improper “anthropocentrism.” When you lump together liberal neo-Protestantism and existential/dialectical theology, we have a serious problem. In his 1962 lectures on evangelical theology, Barth makes it very clear that the only proper theology is a “theoanthropology” because it takes the divine-human unity in Christ as the sole and determinative subject matter for all Christian theology. But he then distinguishes this as sharply as possible from all “anthropotheology,” which characterizes the liberalism of 19th century German theology. The inability to differentiate these two signals to me that Reformed orthodoxy has a different object, a different controlling center and starting-point for faithful speaking of God, one not located in the historical event of Jesus Christ but rather in an abstract deity. As Barth says in CD II/2, 79: “According to [Protestant orthodoxy’s] conception God is everything in the way of aseity, simplicity, immutability, infinity, etc., but He is not the living God, that is to say, He is not the God who lives in concrete decision.”

      The scripture discussion is tangential to this main point. Jon is correct that it comes down to biblical criticism. I don’t really know or care if the earthly Jesus said those words to Peter either. My only point here is that if our doctrine of revelation and scripture cannot fully embrace all historical-critical research, then there is something wrong with our doctrine.

  25. February 1, 2012 10:48 pm

    @Jim,

    I’ll have to give Oliphant a read. I’m well aware of Barth’s disdain for Thomism and analogia entis; that’s one of the reasons I like him so much. I’ll remain skeptical about the analogy of being, and its rejection by the Reformed orthodox until persuaded otherwise; maybe by Oliphant.

    I am much more Torrancean myself, and that’s why I wondered what you thought of him—if you’ve thought of him. True Barthians don’t see TFT going far enough with his so called onto-relational metaphysic—indeed because he still has a metaphysic, and thus I’m afraid TFT remains in limbo (which I appreciate!) between the classic substance metaphysic and radical actualism of Barth (or McCormack); of course the Barthian doesn’t really see TFT in limbo, she sees him with a somewhat still born actualism, and thus back with you, Jim (a Thomist).

  26. John permalink
    March 5, 2012 2:54 am

    Of course the real question is – has anyone ever met Jesus up close and personal in a living-breathing-feeling human form so that Jesus could personally instruct and guide them as to how live a Spirit-Breathing Spiritual Way of Life.

    If not, then what is one really committed to?

  27. David permalink
    May 14, 2012 11:42 pm

    I am glad to see this aspect of Barth’s theology discussed. It seems that in this Barthian renaissance one is afraid to even ask questions which seem to echo anything said by Van Til, Henry, Ryrie, Montgomery, Clark, Brown et al. Religious Liberals Reply, a book written by some of Barth’s liberal contemporaries, complains that Barth’s theology is incoherent and inconsistent. Some inclusive, religious pluralists such as Ninian Smart are agreeing with the “Van Tilian” interpretation, claiming Barth as one of their own. To argue for a perspicuity in Barth that unquestionably refutes early Evangelical critiques seems like unjustified dogmatism about an author whose dialectical methodology left his meaning on some issues (such as the universalism he would neither affirm nor deny) up for debate, and who could seemingly contradict himself in one, long sentence. Barth told Carl Henry that the life of Jesus (including the cross) was not observable by natural eyes, yet he told Lewis Smedes that the tomb was empty following Jesus’ resurrection. When Barth’s theology on God, history, Scripture, and revelation are considered, it does not seem to me an outlandish thought to believe that Barth’s theology ultimately relates only to an ethereal, existentialist realm. If this is so, Scripture, in his theology, conveys truth value, meaning, and significance to the reader much the same way Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea did to me when I read it. It is important to discuss the objective, historical reality of the cross and resurrection. If it is nothing more than meaningful fiction we are of all men most to be pitied. I am a little troubled that neither Barth nor his fans can answer this question in a plain fashion that involves no sophistry or doublespeak. In the end it matters much more how one interprets Barth than what Barth meant. If one wishes to interpret Barth as an Evangelical theologian that is fine. I just think the demeaning of thoughtful dissent in an era of Barthian Correctness is more dogmatic than Barth’s enigmatic career justifies.

  28. July 28, 2012 4:39 am

    I am not a theology student or a theologian. I stumbled across this article and the responses when I searched: “Did Van Til misunderstand Barth?”

    Part of my problem is that I have not read on this, period, but know the debate only from summary articles.

    Below is something I was writing on Barth and Van Til. You can tell me where you think I am wrong — or right. I live in Orlando and I do know John Frame. I am not a student of his, but know him through a prayer group that meets at a good friend’s house. Frame seems like the person that you would want to bring into the discussion.

    I am also a member of St Andrews in Sanford, FL where RC Sproul pastors. You’d want his input too, although he’s not Van Tillian and does not participate in on-line discussions.

    Here’s a very short (although not really layman friendly) article by Sproul on Barth. You might also comment to me whether you think Sproul is accurate in his characterization.

    http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/neo-orthodoxy/

    I also quote here a student of Van Til’s named Eric H. Sigward. It’s a fascinating read.

    Karl Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy

    Karl Barth was a Reformed theologian who in the mid-20th century tried to reverse the disastrous consequences that 19th century liberal theology had wrecked in the church. Liberal theology denied the miraculous in the Bible as propositional historical truth. While Barth did not deny the supernatural events of the Bible, he did deny that its propositions are to be accepted as historical objective truth. To Barth, what was important was not the inerrant truth of scripture, but the way that the Holy Spirit uses scripture to bring the believer into an encounter with the living God. Barth did not see scripture as the Word of God, but rather as a text that conveys the Word of God to us through our experience with the Holy Spirit.

    The idea that the Bible is not the Word of God, but merely “contains the word of God” is undistilled nonsense. Cornelius Van Til and other presuppostionalists have pointed out that this dichotomy between spiritual encounter and historical reality is meaningless. In fact, both are needed in order for the Gospel to make any sense. Jesus Christ had to actually live and die in order to atone for our sins. Simply reading a text and assenting to the truth of redemption, however powerful that “encounter” may be, cannot result in salvation. While it is true that saving grace has to come from the living God himself, the Word of God itself doesn’t merely convey that truth, but it is truth.

    Although Van Til is usually considered cumbersome and inaccessible even by accomplished students of theology, one of his former students recounted his critique of Karl Barth once given in a lecture.

    “Total depravity. That means the whole glass is poisoned. It’s not as poisoned as it could be, but it’s all poisoned. The faculties of soul are all turned against God by nature. All are poisoned by sin. Wherever there is evidence of God, which is everywhere, man will deny it. You see, God must reach down and save dead men in their trespasses and sins. You do not heal a dead man. You resurrect him. Man is not sick, not drowning, but dead. Dead is dead. You can’t throw him a rope. A dead man can’t grab anything. Your mother is dead without Christ. Your culture is dead without Christ. This is the problem with Karl Barth, there’s no space-and-time redemption by Christ. There’s no change of the unbeliever to believer. There’s no challenge to the natural man. That’s why Barth is poison. Water and sulfuric acid look the same, right? If you drink sulfuric acid, it will kill you. Barth has placed sulfuric acid in our water bottles and told us it is water. Barth has created the systematically most satanic philosophy ever devised by the mind of man. Salvation is like cleaning a bad tooth. It’s no good if your dentist tells you your tooth is okay when it’s rotten. The dentist has to go down, drill out the decay and replace it with gold. This is what salvation is.” http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/NH04/10b.html

    Barth’s understanding of grace was not through Jesus Christ, the Word of God expressed in the form of a real person, but grace through the subjectivity of our own experience in reading a text. On the contrary, grace is found only in the Person of Christ. Grace is not in our thinking about God or in our encounter with Him. Grace cannot come through any human activity, “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). In fact, grace is in Christ just as Christ is grace.

  29. July 28, 2012 4:32 pm

    Hi, Jay — thanks for your comment. Let me interact with what you’ve written rather than the Sproul or Sigward pieces. It’s generally accepted outside of Van Til circles today that the characterization of Barth’s theology as “Neo-Orthodox” isn’t terribly helpful. First, it presumes a higher degree of continuity between Barth and his peers in the 1920s (and, uncritically, even after Barth broke with and openly criticized them) than is legitimate. Second, the “Neo-Orthodox” thesis suggests that the key tenets that Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, et al shared in common in the 1920s — as a critical response to liberal Protestantism — is descriptive of the whole of any of their mature theology. Neither premise is valid.

    The short answer to what you’ve asked is that Van Til simply is not a good reader of Barth. He made key decisions about what Barth was up to early on, and then programmatically read the remainder of Barth’s work through this narrow lens. He did not let Barth speak for himself, but insists that he knows what it is that Barth meant. It is Van Til’s caricature that is, in fact, “poison.” If Barth believed what Van Til said he believed, I would join him in dropping Barthianism in a heartbeat. To understand what Barth actually believed, you should read Barth himself — or, as a temporary measure, a reliable interpreter. There are some introductory reading suggestions here. John Webster (Karl Barth) and Eberhard Busch (The Great Passion) have excellent introductory texts that are both recent.

    I hope that the main post above is helpful in addressing some of your question, especially the matter of history in Barth’s theology. Van Til criticized Barth for what he thought was a removal of Jesus Christ (and therefore salvation, grace, etc.) out of the sphere of real history. As I hope this post as demonstrated, this is an entirely misguided reading of what Barth was up to. Attend also to some of the discussion of the German words “Historie” and “Geschichte” in the comments above. Barth does not deny that the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus are “historical” in the sense that they happened in our world. He means they are not accessible to us today as objects of study — objects to be possessed and mastered by human reason. As if all we need is a really accurate history book to receive faith in Jesus Christ! Rather, we rely on the Holy Spirit and the “spectacles of faith” (Calvin) to know the reality and significance of what happened in history.

    The witness of Scripture is an indispensible part of this knowing. It is the Word of God, full-stop. Barth’s doctrine of Scripture does not deny this; rather he comes to it by a different route. Our ability to “know” and to master the knowledge of Jesus’ history reveals why this must be the case: we do not know Christ and his work because God enabled men to create a pure and perfect record of it, but because God makes use of this witness through the gift of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s revelation to us and our very knowing itself is dynamic, not static. It is based on Jesus Christ (the Word of God) and faith. The result, in my view, is a Scripture that is just as truthful and authoritative, just as worthy of being called the Word of God, but which continually relies upon the power of God to be so. If it were otherwise, if the Word had become “fixed” in the words, it would become something that men and women could master. We would no longer need the eyes of faith or the power of the Spirit, because revelation would have been an event “there and then” rather than “here and now.”

    This is why it is not enough to say that the Bible “contains the Word of God.” Barth insists that it becomes the Word of God and is the Word of God, ever anew. But his “ontology of Scripture” (to use a popular academic term) — the what of what Scripture is — is radically different from that of what Sproul calls the propositionalist.

  30. July 30, 2012 3:50 pm

    Darren and Jay,

    Some good discussion going on here. So I beg your indulgence as I reflect some on what has just been said in these recent comments.

    As we can see here, not all critics of Barth are alike. I would differ somewhat from both Sigward and Sproul. Darren, I don’t know how familiar you are with confessionally Reformed debate in the US, but Sproul and Van Til would certain differ quite a bit on some important issues. In fact, there is a great deal of variety with regard to evangelical responses to Barth, from Van Til, to Clark, to Berkouwer, to Sproul, to Frame, to Henry.

    Jay, I agree with Darren that the moniker “Neo-Orthodoxy” is unhelpful in categorizing Barth. I think so for a number of reasons, though I trust for different reasons than Darren. For one, I think it presupposes too much of a continuity with Protestant Orthodoxy. Barth is not a new form of Protestant Orthodoxy. He rejected Protestant Orthodoxy at almost every turn. I am not persuaded by von Balthasar’s theory that Barth went back to the older analogia entis. Though, I would say, he certainly did have an analogia entis – just of a different sort. I think Keith Johnson has well-established and documented this in his book. Nevertheless, I remain unpersuaded that Barth was in any way a return to orthodox theology. The continuities in his thought with Schleiermacher, for all their differences, are essential. And this is a view point I believe McCormack has well established in his work comparing Barth and Schleiermacher (see also, Gockel’s work on Barth and Schleiermacher on the doctrine of election).

    I would also take an exception to Sigward’s accusation of subjectivism on Barth. I do not think that that is correct. While there is certainly and existentialist element in his thought, especially relative to his analogia fidei, the emphasis in Barth is on the objective nature of revelation and reconciliation. This is why some in our quarters (read: American confessional Reformed Protestants) have been drawn to Barth, from representatives of the Federal Vision to 2K advocates. What they all have in common is the emphasis on the objective to the expense of the subjective life of the individual believer. To put it simply, they all (Barth, FV, and 2KT) have in common a distain for Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans.

    It is true that Barth believes that the Bible is the Word of God. But that is different from saying that the Bible is revelation. For Barth, the Bible is the former but not the latter. Why? Once again, the objective and Christological nature of theology comes to the foreground. Only the act of God in Jesus Christ is revelation. Jesus Christ is himself the revealing God and the human receiver of revelation in one act of divine grace. The Bible then is a fallible witness to this revelation. It witnesses and testifies to this act of God in Jesus Christ. Darren is absolutely correct that Barth does not deny that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed in our calender time. But that he did exist is quite irrelevant. Why? Because the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a transcendent reality which is true regardless of what happened (or didn’t!) in what Barth calls “our time.” For while revelation is historical, history is never revelational. So, revelation is never grounded in history. Therefore, revelation is only historical in the sense that God takes up our history in the event of revelation in Jesus Christ. And the only way we have access to that revelation is in moments of clarity which comes only in mystery. It is precisely when we see that we cannot see that we get a glimpse of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. For our words, our thoughts, our knowing is nothing and has no correspondence with anything outside of ourselves unless and until God makes himself in grace to correspond to our words, thoughts, or knowing. In this way, knowing is something that is always given (from the divine side), and never possessed (by the human side). The absolute dualism between God and creature (or, between the noumenal and phenomenal realms, to use Kantian language) remains a constant in the thought of Karl Barth.

    So, lastly, was Van Til’s critique of Barth poisonous? I fail to see how one can give any credibility to the insights of interpreters like McCormack, Johnson, and others and still dismiss Van Til. The differences between Van Til’s read and that of McCormack and others are marginal compared to their agreements. I sense, however, that those who criticize Van Til are guilty of the same thing they accuse Van Til of: not reading the primary sources (at least not carefully). Van Til did read Barth, and he did so closely and in the original German. A close read of both Van Til and McCormack will show some striking similarities. And while McCormack has come out in writing distancing himself from Van Til, he has yet to show that he actually understand’s the nature of Van Til’s critique. In fact, in his Afterword to the American Evangelicalism and Barth book, he only proves that he does not understand Van Til at some key points. I would even go so far as to say that he misses Barth on the narrow issue of history and revelation, in a similar way in which Darren does here. Its one thing to not deny something, its another to affirm it. For Barth, God’s act of revelation is not grounded in calender-time – it can’t, for him. Our calender-time has no capacity for revelation, according to Barth. The years 0-33 AD are not revelational. And the Bible is not the infallible interpreter of the events of 0-33 AD, for Barth. So, faith and the work of the Spirit, dis-connnected from the Bible and redemptive-revelational history, is nominalism. In fact, we might says it is – at best – Anabaptism. It certainly is not Calvinian. In this way, Barth had more in common with the Radical Reformation than with the Reformers. He never really ended up ceasing to be a pietist at his core.

    OK, ’nuff for now! Pardon my rambling, friends!

  31. July 31, 2012 4:28 am

    Jim, that’s an interesting comment. You’re not wrong to say that Barth is not a return to orthodox theology. On that point, I agree, so long as we do *not* then say that he is a return to liberal theology! If that’s your claim, then I must say you are mistaken. Of course, for me, the rejection of Protestant orthodox theology is precisely why I think Barth is worthy of praise.

    But I must say that your comment betrays some pretty serious misunderstandings about Barth. Your attempt to say that it is McCormack that has Barth wrong is quite a bold claim — but an erroneous one, I’m afraid.

    Let’s go through the points. My apologies up front. This is going to be a long explanation.

    1. A relatively minor mistake: “For our words, our thoughts, our knowing is nothing and has no correspondence with anything outside of ourselves unless and until God makes himself in grace to correspond to our words, thoughts, or knowing. In this way, knowing is something that is always given (from the divine side), and never possessed (by the human side).” The second sentence is correct. But the former needs to be inverted. It is *not* that God must come into correspondence with our words, but rather that God makes our speech correspondence to Godself. The correspondence must happen on the human side. The analogy of faith is a commandeering of human speech to bear witness to God. Getting this point is crucial, though I suspect it was an unintentional slip on your part.

    2. “Darren is absolutely correct that Barth does not deny that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed in our calender time. But that he did exist is quite irrelevant. Why? Because the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a transcendent reality which is true regardless of what happened (or didn’t!) in what Barth calls “our time.” For while revelation is historical, history is never revelational. So, revelation is never grounded in history.”

    Here is where we get to the meat of your criticism of Barth. Unfortunately, it has no basis in Barth’s actual theology. Let’s identify the grain of truth in your claim: “revelation is historical, [but] history is never revelational.” Indeed, for Barth, revelation takes place in history, but we can never get from history — understood as a general, phenomenological account of what occurs around us (a point to which we will return) — to revelation. If revelation is need a revealing, then it depends upon a divine agency that we do not have access to while living in sinful disobedience. The revealing is not just for anybody; it is for the one whose eyes and ears are opened to encounter the living God in our midst. That happens in faith, and apart from faith, we are turned in upon ourselves and only see what Paul calls the flesh. As Paul makes clear repeatedly in his epistles, only those who are made alive in the Spirit can understand spiritual things. Barth is simply developing this basic Pauline axiom when he speaks of God’s hiddenness in revelation. God’s revelation is not something static and given in history, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon or a scientist examining a lab specimen. God is not an object among other objects, and thus God’s action in history is not one historical occurrence among other historical occurrences. If it is a truly divine act, then it is something we can only encounter and know in truth if we have been conformed to God’s image in Christ.

    Having recognized this much, we can see where your comment goes astray: “So, revelation is never grounded in history.” There’s conceptual confusion at work here that needs clarification. Let’s back up. The issue here has to do with two words: “history” and “grounded.”

    2.1. Regarding the first, I detect a lack of understanding on your part about the nuances of Historie and Geschichte. Michael Horton’s piece in the volume on Barth and Evangelicalism to which you refer is riddled with confusion about these terms, as became clear in the actual lecture itself, after which both McCormack and Hunsinger proceeded to give him a lecture about it. Van Tilians and other Reformed orthodox critics of Barth have never quite been able to understand what these words mean. So often one hears that Barth understands the Christ-event to be something that takes place above or outside history, which only then gets revealed in a kind of quasi-gnostic way to certain disciples. And thus you are able to say that the fact that Jesus existed in history “is quite irrelevant,” because “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is a transcendent reality which is true regardless of what happened (or didn’t!) in what Barth calls ‘our time.'” Here we have the classic misunderstanding of Barth: transcendence is viewed as something abstract and “out there,” something that is timeless and ahistorical, or at least not determined by what occurs in our flesh and blood reality in the world. We can describe this view with one simple word: nonsense.

    What’s going on here? The problem is that you are imposing a conception of transcendence upon Barth that he simply does not hold, and it’s a notion of transcendence that, ironically, is actually at home in the Reformed orthodox conception of God as simple, immutable, impassible, etc. That is to say, it is a metaphysical conception of transcendence which construes God’s otherness by way of contrast with the historical. Now, within the ambit of this metaphysical way of understanding transcendence, it is indeed impossible to speak of God acting historically; that is only possible where and when the metaphysically transcendent deity adds (or substracts) something to (or from) the divine nature to make it possible for this God to really act in the world. For the classical tradition, this occurs through the assumption of flesh in the incarnation. When a person who can only think within the parameters of this metaphysical tradition sees Barth describe God’s agency in the Christ-event as transcendent and hidden, they can only see heresy, or sheer stupidity. Barth’s statements about God’s action being in history but not historical is, to such ears, like saying God is acting without action, or some other meaningless statement. But the problem here is that Barth is operating within a completely different frame of reference. He knows of no such metaphysical deity, and thus he knows of no transcendence that is not always and everywhere paradoxically identical with a kind of historical immanence. The transcendence of God’s agency occurs *as* historical occurrence. In a real sense, we can say that God’s transcendent action is “in, with, and under” the historical, since Jesus is for Barth the true sacrament. The problem, in short, is that I do not think the Reformed orthodox mind is able to make much sense out of Barth’s paradoxical and dialectical mode of thinking. It sounds either heretical or meaningless, like some kind of word game.

    To clarify the point: Barth understands transcendence to be operative in the immanent, historical, flesh-and-blood reality of Jesus. In the man Jesus, the eternal, transcendent reality and action of God really takes place. But it takes place *as* the action of God, and not as the action of any creature. And since God is truly known only by God’s children — “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” — the eternal nature of this historical reality is *accessible* by faith alone. And it is the non-accessibility of the eternal and transcendent outside of faith that Barth emphasizes by using “Geschichte” as opposed to “Historie.” When he says that the Christ-event is in history but not historical, he means nothing else than that this event is concrete and fleshly yet not seen truly for what it is apart from the Spirit’s illumination of our hearts and minds to understand the reality of what has occurred in this man. In other words, the distinction between Geschichte and Historie (and other related binary pairs in Barth) is an *epistemological* distinction, not an ontological one. Barth is emphatically not saying that God acts in one plane of ontological reality, while history occurs in a different plane of ontological reality, such that we have a transcendent world where God acts and an immanent world where God does not act but where we come to learn of God’s acting in the other world. No. The truth is that Barth understands God to be active *in this historical world* and nowhere else, but because God is the Lord of creation and not a creature, we can only see, encounter, know, and speak about this divine action if we are conformed to the likeness of Christ and come to be human beings who correspond to him. Only when that happens can we gain meaningful access to the truth of what occurred in Christ.

    2.2. What then is the problem with your use of the word “grounded”? Simply this: it is entirely backwards. Where you claim that revelation is not grounded in history, Barth says the very opposite: revelation is indeed grounded in history, insofar as revelation *is* a historical event. Revelation is fully an occurrence in history. But that’s clearly not all you want to say. As you put it in the conclusion: “For Barth, God’s act of revelation is not grounded in calender-time – it can’t, for him. Our calender-time has no capacity for revelation, according to Barth.” Here we see that it is not the historical nature of revelation that is really at issue here, but rather the very nature of creation itself. What you want is a general revelation of God in creation, one that can buttress a program of apologetics. Without this apologetical possibility, the very rationality of the faith is jeopardized. And thus, when you say that revelation is grounded in history, what you are actually saying is that history is logically, even ontologically, prior to revelation. First there is history, and then revelation. Put differently, first there is creation, and then there is reconciliation.

    Of course, as you certainly know, Barth fundamentally denies this order of creation and reconciliation. Barth is a supralapsarian, of a highly revised christological sort. For Barth, there is first and foremost the eternal election and covenant of grace who is Jesus Christ himself, and in him is history, creation, nature, etc. In the proper logical order, first there is reconciliation, then there is creation. I say logical order because, as I tried to make clear above, the reconciliation occurs in and through the created historical order. And yet the created historical order has its ground in a protological decision of God, in which God acts in anticipation of the historical. This is easy to mess up, so we have to tread carefully. Remember: we are not talking about some separate realm, or some abstract essence; we are talking about God’s concrete historical action in the singular person of Jesus of Nazareth. When Barth talks about this having its origin and ground in a protological divine decision, he is not saying that the reality of Christ is something disconnected from Jesus, that it has somehow already happened in some separate realm of eternity which then gets manifested or revealed in time. Such were the misreadings of Berkouwer and others. Barth’s doctrine of election means instead that *this man Jesus* is eternally significant, not only for who God is, but also for who I am today. It is a doctrine that interprets the meaning of this particular historical event. It is not at all a doctrine that seeks to find something behind or above or prior to Jesus as the true meaning and ground of history. Instead, the doctrine of election clarifies why this historical reality is the very reality of God.

    In sum, you say that, for Barth, “revelation is never grounded in history.” Barth says something else. He says both (a) that revelation is grounded in history, in the sense that revelation is a historical occurrence, and (b) that history is grounded in revelation, in that what this historical occurrence reveals is precisely the very meaning and reality of history as such. This is the paradox that is central to Barth: revelation and history are paradoxically identical and mutually determinative, but only because of the prior and foundational claim that God has identified God’s eternal self with this man Jesus. Barth rejects the classical ordering of creation and redemption. He also rejects the classical metaphysical understanding of transcendence and divine agency. But it simply does not follow from any of this that Barth thereby disconnects revelation from history, that history is irrelevant to faith. All of that is simply nonsense. It has no connection to Barth’s theology and does not deserve to be taken seriously.

    I had intended to talk about the problems with your discussion of McCormack and Van Til at the end, but hopefully what I have already said answers the problem. To accept McCormack is to fundamentally reject the presuppositions that Van Til brings to his reading of Barth. Van Til understood nothing of Barth’s dialectical theology where the relations of eternity and history, transcendence and immanence, covenant and creation are concerned. Perhaps most offensive are your comments at the end about Anabaptism and pietism, which you use as theological four-letter-words. It’s precisely the pietist and existentialist dimension of Barth that I believe is perhaps the most remarkable and commendable aspect of his thinking, something I wish more Barthians appreciated. What you Westminster view with disdain is exactly what some of the rest of us think is most praiseworthy. Does that mean you really do understand Barth? No, not even close.

  32. Bobby Grow permalink
    August 4, 2012 8:39 pm

    All, I can add is an amen to what David just wrote. So the classic reformed order of creation/covenant is inverted to covenant/ creation in Barth (and for my part I would add TF Torrance). And it is failure to apprciate this order, shaped by a Christ conditioned supralapsarianism that I think fuels the “Westminster” misreading of Barth and his kind of analogy of faith/relation (and thus the dialectic of a mutually implicating–albeit asymmetrical–‘calendar history’ with the history of God’s life.

    Jim, what I don’t understand is how,if you reject Bart’s construct, how it is that you can actually, and prolegomenologically, sustain a doctrine of God that actually is able to maintain his freedom and sovereignty over creation,and at the same time honor the contingent independence of creation at the same time. How do you do that, consistently?

  33. Lazarus Arise permalink
    June 27, 2014 9:35 pm

    @David. You said, “Barth *does* think that God acts in history, and acts decisively to redeem humanity in Christ. But this cannot be *direct* action, because it is God who is acting in Christ, and God does not become directly or generally available. God’s action in history cannot be perceived apart from the eyes of faith. Barth takes with absolute seriousness Jesus’ statement to Peter that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” If it were flesh and blood, then it would be direct action; but since it is God alone who makes the messianic truth of Jesus known, it is only ever indirect or paradoxical.”

    If this is true, then Van Til’s reading does make sense, at least to me. For example, (1) if God is merely acting in Christ, then either Christ is not God, or Christ’s divinity and humanity are being divided. And (2) if we do not have God in Christ directly, then God is not directly available in Christ at any point, and again Christ is made to be less than God. Furthermore, (3) if Barth takes seriously the verse which you mentioned, in the way that you mentioned, then who was crucified, if not God the Son? At each of these points it seems like there is a sort of blurry haze placed between God and man, and that Christ does not actually lift it, but simply embodies this haze, this veil, and so God is not rendered closer in Christ, and in Christ we do not know God but indirectly and paradoxically, which sounds like it results in an absent God in a not exactly good news gospel.

    The idea of God acting directly in Christ is vital to Christianity, that in Christ we actually grasp God, even if the flesh and blood do not “reveal” it, they still embody it such that to strike Christ is to strike God, and to crucify Christ is to crucify God, and to know Christ is to know God, directly, and not just a man who indirectly reveals God.

  34. August 21, 2014 10:14 am

    Pardon my dumb question. Do not the Van Tilians do in regard to the Bible precisely what they wrongly (in your/my opinion) accuse Barth of doing with Jesus? Meaning, through their use of the doctrine of inspiration DIVORCE divine activity from creaturely history. Perhaps this is a tangent, but it is just jumping off the page at me. This is precisely what has been done to the Bible.

    • August 21, 2014 10:38 am

      Hi Jon, actually the answer to your good question is no. According to Van Til (and Geerhardus Vos before him) redemptive deed and revelatory word can never be divorced. The Scripturated word is the divine revelatory interpretation of God’s own deeds in redemptive history. This is, by the way, a problem with N.T. Wright’s critical-realistic hermeneutic. He divorces God’s divine activity in history from the interpretation of that activity in Scripture. Its actually quite a Barthian move Wright makes, who also has allowed dualism into his epistemology.

  35. August 21, 2014 10:55 am

    Your description of N.T. Wright’s interpretation does not match my reading of him, so I would need actual examples to have any meaningful interaction with your statement.

    Let me rephrase my point r.e. Van Til. My experience has been that many who are indebted to “a pre-modern fideism of the Bible as a received, objective account of God” as mentioned in the article do in fact do this very thing with the Bible.

    What I mean is that the Bible is appealed to on non-historical grounds, i.e. “the original manuscripts” which no one has access to. I’m not familiar enough with Van Til to know if he makes this move, but I would not be surprised in the least.

    Many conceptions of “inspiration” or more specifically “inerrancy” posit a theoretical (I would say ahistorical) Bible which matches their theory of what the Bible is (perfect objective truth), yet out front is not historically accessible to us. We are asked then to affirm a concept of Scripture which makes for a very nice theology, but which in fact does not intersect with any historical record available to us.

    Not sure if this is enough to clarify my original question.

    • August 21, 2014 11:01 am

      I document my concern in an article on Wright’s c-r in the second volume of the confessional presbyterian journal.

      I am unsure how an appeal to original manuscripts is ahistorical. They existed in real time and history and we have witnesses to them in the copies. That is the work of textual criticism, a very historical task.

  36. August 21, 2014 11:07 am

    That journal article is apparently not available online. That’s ok, Van Til and Barth were more on my mind here than Wright.

    I don’t dispute the existence of original manuscripts, or posit that any discussion of them is ahistorical. Clearly textual criticism is a historical task. Not all conservative evangelicals have put a lot of stock in textual criticism. I do find it a precisely ahistorical move to assert theoretically inerrant manuscripts.

  37. August 21, 2014 2:38 pm

    Jon, I am not a conservative evangelical, and neither was Van Til. He was a confessional Presbyterian in the tradition of Old Princeton. OP was where he studied the science of textual criticism. TC is believed in by confessional Reformed protestants precisely because of our doctrine of inerrancy. I have a feeling you are working with a very different doctrine of inerrancy than that propounded by the likes of B.B. Warfield.

    • August 21, 2014 3:35 pm

      My statement regarding “conservative evangelicals” was not a statement about you. It was about, well, conservative evangelicals. My statements do include the sort of modernism-indebted inerrancy advocated by B.B. Warfield and others since him. The argument is essentially, “Here is the kind of book God would have to write.” I would argue that the Bible we actually have historically available to us is the Bible God has actually written, to use crude terms. Since we’re talking about inerrancy, the recent Zondervan Counterpoints contribution on this subject put the Warfield-indebted view on full display in all its strength (and weakness).

    • August 21, 2014 4:27 pm

      Hi Jon, glad to hear that, though in context it certainly seemed like you were referencing Van Til. Again, glad you do not see him or me as “evangelical.” As for Warfield being indebted to modernism, I just have no idea, really, absolutely no clue where you get that idea from (other than Rogers and McKim, that is. Certainly not from primary sources). The OP theologians were anti-modernists to the core. They, in fact, may be better described as being pre-modernist in their theological formulations. Inerrancy is not something that arises with modernity, but is resident in the history of Christian theological reflection from the beginning.

    • August 21, 2014 4:44 pm

      It’s interesting to me that you disavow being “evangelical.” I’ll step aside so when the lightning strikes I’m not in the path! 🙂

      That would be my essential point: they were anti-modernists. Just like their fundamentalist cousins they waged worthy warfare against liberalism, but were in debt to the deep structure of modernism. Warfield is a classic example of this. For me his theology screams debt to the modernist construct. It is hardly a surprise that he did not see it, and that you do not see it.

      I fundamentally disagree with you r.e. inerrancy prior to modernity. As formulated by Warfield it simply did not exist prior to modernism, it was not necessary prior to modernism because it was a move specifically responding to modernism. Your claim that it was part of Christian theology “from the beginning” is patently false, and in the previously mentioned Zondervan Counterpoints volume Al Mohler is raked over the coals by all the contributors for making the same claim. If you read this book, you will get a more effective rebuttal of your position from multiple angles than I am able to offer here.

      I think this will be my last contribution to our conversation, and I will stay tuned to see if anyone else takes up dialogue r.e. my original question related to the Van Tillian accusation toward Barth.

    • August 21, 2014 5:05 pm

      Hi Jon, I truly appreciate the dialogue, thank you for it. My parting words are not a point, but a series of questions to ask. What is the difference between American fundamentalism on the one hand, and confessional Protestantism on the other? Is there a difference? If so, how does it play out in the question of the doctrine of inerrancy? Does the theology of the Westminster Confession allow for errancy? Does Calvin? Does Augustine? Those are serious scholarly questions which demand serious scholarly answers. OK, nuff for now, thanks Jon!

    • August 21, 2014 5:18 pm

      They are a point. Of course they are a point! Good questions, but I think there are better ones to be asked.

      There is a difference between the two movements, but they were in that historical moment “kissing cousins” with the common enemy of modernist liberalism. To deny that is in my opinion to miss a historical point while proving an internal Prebyterian identity point.

      You can not set up a paradigm such as “inerrancy,” then define it’s opposite as “errancy,” then move backward into history to prove the point. That is anachronistic at best, and outright falsehood at worst. It is inaccurate and unfair to describe Augustine and Calvin after him as being inerrantists. Did they share common cause? Sure, but calling them inerrantists is a bit like a contemporary sports car maker referring to herself and a 16th century horse breeder both as “horsepower experts.” Very sloppy thinking from my perspective.

  38. August 21, 2014 5:24 pm

    How is it sloppy thinking? I might only ask, what did Aug and Cal think about the question of error in the Bible? If you think the veracity of the Bible wasn’t under question before modernism, then you need to go back and do your historical homework before making solid conclusions.

  39. September 5, 2014 1:39 pm

    Jon, thank you (and Jim) for commenting. I would not say that the doctrine of Scripture that is found among more conservative Reformed thinkers (including Van Til’s followers) divorces divine activity from creaturely history. The common problem is just the opposite — an over-identification of creaturely activity with divine activity, such that the humanity of the text is eclipsed by the way in which inspiration is understood. Against such a move, Barth was concerned (on the one hand) that we not forsake history as the real venue of God’s activity for us; but (on the other hand) that we also not mistake history itself as revelatory. “Fides historica is not sufficient,” Isaak Dorner said; “fides divina cannot need to be supplemented by it.” (SCD II, p. 197)

    History is real and true and necessary — but the revelation of God that takes place there remains a divine giving and never a givenness, i.e. something that has become fixed, measurable, and vulnerable to the tools of historical criticism. This includes textual criticism: biblical scholars, pastors, and lay persons are not able to achieve “more” or “better” revelation from God by discovering the hypothetical document Q, or by new archaeological details from a dig at Corinth (though these things certainly can cast new light on the biblical witnesses). That would be to mistake revelation itself for the (inextricable!) history in which it has occurred and is occurring.

    Perhaps, one might speculate, that an unbalanced view of the relation of divine and creaturely activity (weighted heavily toward divine intercession) contributed to this tradition’s hyper-sensitivity to Barth. Early on in Barth’s career Van Til perceived what he believed to be a distancing between the divine and human in Barth’s theology, and this judgment came to be a hyper-accentuated control for reading all of Barth’s mature thought.

    Calling Barth out for legitimate disagreements is fine, of course, but I think this mistake and its continued propagation has only served to obscure the real Barth from both his critics and potential admirers.

  40. September 5, 2014 5:13 pm

    Hi Darren,

    By the way, this has to be one of the longest lasting comment threads I have ever seen on a blog, 2 1/2 years! Wow!

    Thanks for your comments. If I could, I would like to agree and disagree with you. I am sure you do not find that a surprise (nor will I when you disagree back – isn’t this fun!?).

    So, you were right to correct Jon about the problem (if there is, in fact a problem – more on this anon) being the very opposite of what he thinks it is.

    Now, as to the problem. To say that Reformed theology (that is, the mainstream Reformed theology of the 19th and 20th century, at least here in the US) eclipses the human authors of the Bible is not quite right. There IS, however, a strand of American fundamentalism that does – in fact – do this. But it is not in the Old Princeton tradition, at least. For instance, in Warfield’s doctrine of inspiration he gives full and important emphasis on the human agency in inspiration. Furthermore, Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology, and the tradition that flowed from his work at Old P, also is very careful in working in the area of BT, garnering the best of the insights of higher criticism without its commitment to rationalism.

    As far as giveness is concerned, yes we do believe that God gave himself over to history. In fact, he was killed by historical men. What happened to Christ happened to the eternal son of God. Yes, God gave himself over to history and became one with it.

    I have a feeling I may be out-Barthing Barth here.

    As for Van Til’s read of Barth, it was not perfect to be sure. But I believe he was basically right. And I believe he was right because he saw the same problem in Barth from Romerbrief to CD IV. I think that Van Til is right about at least one thing, and that is that Barth’s fundamental ontology remained constant throughout his career, even while he made adjustments and refinements along the way. He never really loses his fundamental commitment to a dualistic ontology, and I document that in my dissertation.

    OK, Darren, I look forward to your disagreements! 🙂 Blessings, friend!

  41. September 10, 2014 12:35 pm

    Thanks, Jim — I don’t know that you are “out-Barthing Barth,” though you may be out-Hegeling him!

    With insufficient time at hand to study out the nuances of the doctrine of inspiration as it moves from the old Princetonian tradition through to twentieth-century fundamentalism, I’ll take your correction on that score. While some Reformed thinkers in this period would, I think, give a good accounting of human activity in the writing of Scripture, I would still say that there is a majority consensus in the period that fixes revelation in the text in a way that they believe their doctrine of inspiration invariably requires. One of Barth’s contributions (and a good one, in my view) is to unsettle the view that such a doctrine of inspiration requires that revelation has become an historical artifact. This is certainly a plausible conclusion from divine inspiration — but it need not be the only one available to Christian theologians. (And note that we’re not even talking about “liberalism” or “modernism” here.)

    I think we’ve gone about as far as we can on Van Til’s critique, at least until we have your dissertation in front of us to read. I’ll look forward to it!

  42. April 11, 2015 9:23 am

    @Jay: Nice to simplify the issue to “biblical” theology once again! Like many I have too been to the “top and bottom” of Reformed theology, whatever that means historically? And I have myself come to appreciate old John Frame more, with sort of his student Vern Poythress, and prefer the term, Neo-Calvinism! Btw, every “theolog” should read Vern’s book: Logic, etc. (733 pages with index), Crossway, 2013).

    Btw too, being myself 65, 66 in the Fall, I have somewhat abandoned Reformed Eschatology, for the more old classic like Historical Premillennial position, with even something of the PD, or Progressive Dispensationalism! I say this for, as we so-called “theolog’s” fiddle, Rome and of course now the West burns! I just don’t see how with both modernity & postmodernity humanity will survive the 21st century? And seeing both Gulf War 1 (as an RMC), and what has followed these many years later (Post the Iraq War, etc.) (I lived and taught in Israel in the latter 90’s), we are simply seeing things in the Middle East, and really the world, the Church has never seen! (In this real hour of Gentile Apostasy! 2 Tim. 3: 5, etc.) Indeed the “Mideast Beast” just might be from Islam? But surely Russia will lead the northern powers in the Day of the Lord, into Armageddon! (Ezekiel 38-39), however that all turns out? For Zech. 14: 1-4, etc. appears very plain and literal in essence, with Rev. 1: 7!

    *Just a note, but I count one of my most literal blessings or personal achievements, to have read all of Barth’s CD thru once in my life! I wonder how many theolog’s can truly say this today? But I jest somewhat of course, for reading it, but then again understanding it, is of course again another point? 😉

    Best to all here! And a personal hey to Bobby Grow! I see you are well – thanks be to God!

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