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