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Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism

[Editor’s note: This book review is from the May issue of Credo Magazine, “Chosen by Grace.”]

McCormack, Bruce L., and Clifford B. Anderson, eds. Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Reviewed by Tyler Wittman–

Since Cornelius Van Til first sounded the alarm on Karl Barth’s project, American evangelicals have been suspicious about Barth. While evangelical reception of Barth varied in the ensuing years, many evangelicals today narrowly focus on Barth’s doctrine of Scripture or his incipient universalism if they do not reject his theology in toto. There are significant exceptions to this portrait but too many conservative evangelicals in America are content with surface-level engagement and critique of Barth that miss some of the more fundamental issues at stake.

The learning curve for Barth is steep and the discussions surrounding his theology are among the least accessible in modern theology, so perhaps it is understandable that many evangelicals sidestep Barth. But as complex as Barth’s theology may be, evangelicals can afford to ignore him and his interpreters only at the expense of our own vitality. It is roughly to this situation that the essays in this volume, originating from a 2007 conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, are directed. At once it represents a positive contribution to our understanding of Van Til’s critique and an example of evangelical (in a broad sense) interaction with Barth’s theology.

Part I is most helpful in understanding the background and context of Van Til’s reaction to Barth. George Harinck reveals Van Til’s indebtedness to the Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder’s reception of Barth and argues Van Til extracted Schilder’s engagement from its post-war European context, effectively losing sight of how Schilder shared many concerns with Barth. Harinck suggests this played into Van Til’s misguided critique of Barth’s “transcendentalism,” among other things. D. G. Hart also gives us a very fascinating essay on Van Til’s context as a conservative Presbyterian in the midst of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which saw the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Hart persuasively argues that Van Til’s heated criticism of Barth arose from his correlation of the Presbyterian disputes with the influence of Barth’s theology and concludes with some poignant remarks on evangelicalism and orthodoxy. Part II focuses on various loci of theology, evaluating how Barth’s theology intersects with evangelical interests or concerns and Part III concludes with several hit or miss essays on contemporary trajectories of evangelical engagement with Barth.

Perhaps the volume’s chief contribution is how the reader is repeatedly drawn to Christology as the seat of the real issues in Barth’s theology, such that Bruce McCormack concludes the volume by locating Christology as the primary difference between Van Til and Barth (372). The two essays by Michael Horton and Adam Neder address the issue directly, evaluating Barth’s “historicized” Christology from different perspectives. Reading Neder’s essay first will serve the student well, as will reading all of Part 3 of McCormack’s Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. The issues surrounding Barth’s Christology are bound up within a larger debate concerning the relationship between Barth’s doctrine of election and the Trinity, so the essays do reward some familiarity with the secondary literature. The infamous McCormack line of interpretation, taken up by several of these essayists but not without significant critics elsewhere, reads Barth as positing that Jesus Christ was the eternal object of election, thereby a) erasing any distinction between the historical God-man Jesus and the eternal Word and b) making the ad extra work of election the ground of God’s ad intra processions. Barth’s modified supralapsarianism results: there was never a logos asarkos (the unincarnate Word) who was not already the logos incarnandus (the Word to-be-incarnate). No doubt these are deep waters. Suffice to say that Neder’s essay is a clear explanation of Barth’s historicized Christology and Horton’s is as fine a representative summary critique, in the vein of Berkouwer/Brunner/von Balthasar, as exists. Neder notably points out how Barth’s equation of the Son’s being with the Son’s history grounds Barth’s claims of the Son’s eternal obedience to the Father (155-56), a point where evangelicals have traditionally enlisted Barth – perhaps unaware of his ontological baggage – to support similar views. But Neder’s essay also highlights some significant difficulties for Barth’s Christology, though not on the scale of Horton’s claim that for Barth Christ’s history tends to swallow creaturely history and action (138-39). The importance of these issues for the correct interpretation of Barth cannot be overstated and evangelicals will need to engage this aspect of Barth’s theology in any future constructive Christological proposals.

The two essays on Barth’s apparent universalism will also be of immediate interest to evangelicals. Here too Barth’s Christology is front and center. McCormack carefully explains how Barth’s rebuilt doctrine of election entailed that Christ is not only the elect man but also the reprobate man and that in his life Jesus Christ actualizes election and reprobation. Many have therefore interpreted Barth to affirm universalism since on this account reprobation is something exhausted in the life of Jesus. However, because Barth understood the nature of theology to be only a “witness to the truth, not the thing itself” (248), Barth ultimately deferred to the freedom of God in the eschaton and demurred from a full affirmation of universalism. This is a very helpful point since it vindicates both Barth’s critics who see his theology as leading inevitably to universalism and Barth himself when he stops short of affirming universalism. McCormack also offers what he considers to be a “plausible” reading of Romans 11 and other passages to demonstrate how Christians should live in between the tension of definite atonement and universal salvation, though only the choir will be convinced by his exegesis.

Suzanne McDonald’s essay also deserves mention because she puts Barth into conversation with John Owen, the greatest English-speaking theologian of all time. This juxtaposition reveals tensions between Barth’s Christological doctrine of election and the Pneumatological dimension of union with Christ. The real issue for McDonald is not so much Barth’s apparent universalism as it is with the coherence and proportionality of Barth’s Pneumatology. The third article of the Creed surely deserves much more attention from evangelicals, especially those indebted to Reformed Orthodoxy, as they engage Barth and constructive dogmatics more generally.

Most of the essays in this impressive volume are brilliant explorations into the heart of Barth’s theology and its intersection with contemporary American evangelicalism, making it helpful both to latecomers and those more initiated into the depths of Barth’s rabbit hole. While quibbles inevitably crop up here and there, there can be no doubt that the conversation has taken a healthy step forward.

Tyler Wittman (Th.M., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a Ph.D. candidate in Divinity at King’s College, University of Aberdeen.

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Chosen by Grace

The biblical doctrine of election is offensive. It collides with our demand for human autonomy. It removes our will from the throne. And it exposes our nakedness, revealing us to be the sinners that we truly are, undeserving of divine grace and mercy. But when our eyes are opened to its glory, we begin to see that the doctrine of election leads us to worship, praise, and give thanks to our Sovereign Lord. We recognize that we, as sinners, deserve nothing less than eternal condemnation. And yet, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world! In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, not on the basis of anything we have done, but purely according to the purpose of his will (Eph 1:3-5). It is this doctrine of election that Paul says is to lead us to praise the glorious grace of God (Eph 1:6). Therefore, the title of this May’s issue of Credo Magazine is “Chosen by Grace.” Contributors include: Timothy George, Paul Helm, Matthew Barrett, Bruce Ware, Fred Zaspel, Greg Gilbert, Thomas Nettles, R. Scott Clark, David Murray, Thomas Schreiner, Graham Cole, Greg Forster, and many others.

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