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Still Awaiting a Barthian Response to Van Til

In my first post on Barth, in 2008, I was excited and interested in him, with no real reservations. By the time I posted on him again, (see here) I had had time to listen to Cornelius Van Til’s critique of Barth. The contrast perplexed me. I trusted my teachers, especially the dean of theology at Briercrest, Dave Guretzki (see blog, or facebook). Because they all recommended Barth, I trusted Barth to some extent as well. However, Van Til’s critiques sounded very tight, and really made a lot of sense. So…whom should I trust?

My usual approach in dealing with a monumental intellect (for example, Schleiermacher or Kant) is to read the competing sides of scholarship about the author. So, first I listened to all the Christian, anti-Kant stuff, then read some pro-Kant stuff, and then dipped into some of the materials myself and after that felt I had a bit of a grasp on his thoughts (See post here). Naturally, I wished to do the same with Barth. I had already heard the “anti-Barth” side of things from Van Til and John Frame. In an e-mail, I requested for Guretzki to refer me to “the other side” of the debate. He did not, but told me he would be presenting a class on Barth. Fair enough.

Then, in class, I learned the following about Van Til and Barth:

1) Van Til is a major interpreter of Barth. His influence has shaped the English-speaking response to Barth, especially in the previous generation.

2) This was validated in the fact that more than one other class-mate (there were only about ten of us) had also read extensively of Van Til’s critiques of Barth

3) Guretzki spoke of once visiting Van Til’s library, and noting how worn out his copy of Church Dogmatics was. Guretzki affirmed that Van Til had engaged in a very thorough and reasoned critique of Van Til.

However, even though Van Til seemed to be such a major voice (for good or ill) on Barth, Guretzki explained that the class was on Barth, not on his detractors. And so after a courteous mention, we zoomed on past the fiery Dutchman and continued with more of Barth.

For class, Guretzki assigned Tim Perry’s article, “Is Barth the Bad-Guy after all?” (Didaskalia 13.2, Spring 2002, 25-50). Between Perry and Guretzki, the following cavils (one cannot really call the critiques) of Van Til’s treatment of Barth were presented:

1) Van Til was embroiled in the Fundamentalist/Modernist (or “liberal/conservative”) debates of the early 20th century. (I wrote a detailed paper on this topic, see The Man Who Wrote “Liberalism and Christianity”) Due to his involvement in that conflict, he (erroneously) painted Barth with the same brush as he painted the Liberals.

This cavil was given, but not really explained. It doesn’t seem to hold much water. After all, later in the class it was noted that while some interpret Barth as being postmodern, others interpret him as being hypermodern. Or, they see him turning back to 19th century Liberalism, to re-pristinize it for a new generation. There is a touching story in the introduction of Dogmatics in Outline where Barth relates lifting a bust of Schleiermacher out of the rubble of his bombed-out school after the war, to place it in a place of distinction. For all his anti-liberalism in The Epistle to the Romans, how far did the apple really fall from the tree? I am not so convinced that the case has been made, that Barth is not a Modernist/Liberal, if anyone is even seriously attempting to make this case.

2) Secondly (and primarily) Guretzki complained that Van Til’s primary objection to Barth is an epistemological objection, rather than a theological one.

This objection seems to hold water until it is examined closely. Tell me, what is the difference between theology and epistemology? If one begins with just a few wrong assumptions (drawn from secular philosophy), isn’t that going to ruin all of the beliefs built upon it? Specifically, if one begins (as Van Til accuses Barth of) with Kant’s division between the “physical” and the “spiritual” – a division which was amplified by Kierkegaard – then one is beginning with a very flawed view of God. So then everything which Barth says about God being “unknowable” has little to do with the God of the Jews and everything to do with the philosophy of 19th century continental Europe. I am not saying that Van Til is right or wrong on this point. Such a question is – to borrow a famous expression – “above my pay-grade”: However, this is not an inconsequential question. It should have been dealt with seriously, if Barth can supply a serious answer.

3) Van Til takes Barth out of context. I was told that there were several works noting the inconsistencies in Van Til’s treatment of Barth – although Guretzki was kind enough to say that Van Til was reading and critiquing Barth immediately as his works were coming out (he published Church Dogmatics over the span of several decades) and so he did not yet have the full picture.

This critique is annoying and useless. So what if Van Til did not quite dot the “i”‘s and cross the “t”‘s quite right? The issue is not about one or two revealing quotes, but about the grand sweep of Barth’s theology. Van Til has read thoroughly of Barth. He was a very educated and smart man. He responded with some very poignant arguments which have made a deep and broad impact.

Now, then, I ask all you Barthians: “Where is the Barthian response to Van Til, which rises above mere cavils and stereotypes?”

Because no such work seems to exist, what else can I conclude but that Van Til has some very solid points, which the dedicated Barthian simply cannot cope with?

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