It is difficult to over-estimate the value of this book at the present time. It shows clearly why the Barthian teaching has been so ineffective in the life of the church. It has been an intellectualist movement which has led men to preach about the Word rather than preach the Word. It has been going now for forty-five years but it has not led, and cannot lead, to any renewal in the life of the church.
Christianity and Barthianism, Cornelius Van Til. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1962. 464 pp.
Note: Originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal, November 1964, Vol. XXVII, Number 1, pp. 52-56.
This is Dr. Van Til’s second book on Karl Barth and Neo-orthodox teaching. His first, The New Modernism, appeared in 1947. That publication did not receive the attention that it merited. This was mainly due to the fact that it was such a drastic criticism, and at the same time difficult to read and to follow. The reason for the difficulty was that it was in the main a philosophical critique of a writer who is himself notoriously difficult.
This new volume is in a sense a sequel to the former. It is, however, strikingly different in many respects. It is much more comprehensive and thorough, and the theological element is very much more prominent. In addition it is very much more readable. It is indeed a magisterial volume which, it seems to me, should be compulsory reading for all who are interested in the present church and theological position.
The book is divided into four main sections, after a preliminary brief introduction indicating in general terms the relationship of Barth’s teaching to historic theology and what it sets out to do.
The first section deals with Barth’s main doctrines and considers in turn his view of Jesus Christ, of Grace in Christ, his relationship to Romanism, the Reformers, Orthodoxy, and his teaching concerning eternity and time.
The second section outlines the reaction of Reformed thinkers to this teaching, both theologians and philosophers; and here we are given their general criticism and their special criticism of certain particular doctrines.
Section three deals with the relation of Barth to Dialecticism – Medieval, Modern, and Recent.
Section four deals with New Consciousness-Theology and is a detailed consideration of Barth’s relationship to two well-known modern Roman Catholic theologians, and ‘The New Protestantism’.
The last chapter is a summary of the whole position.
It is well-nigh impossible to do justice to this book within the confines of a general review. I can therefore but state some of my impressions. It is, as I have indicated above, a masterly work. Van Til not only gives his own drastic criticism of Barth’s teaching but substantiates it and supports it and presses it home with endless quotations from other writers. The total cumulative effect is quite conclusive. Apart from anything else it entirely disposes of the criticism that Van Til is an oddity or unique in his criticism.
He is scrupulously fair in his whole approach. He says for instance: ‘Again with Berkouwer we gladly note the great influence that Scripture has had on Barth’s formulation of his theology’. He goes on,
Our first concern is not with the effects of Barth’s writings. Some of these effects have been good. Barth has called attention to some defects in historic Protestant thinking, which has not always been truly Christological and biblical. The Romanist principle of natural theology has, to a considerable extent, influenced Protestant theology throughout its history. This is true of Reformed as well as of Lutheran theology. Recent Reformed theologians are seeking to be more truly Christological and more truly biblical than some of their forefathers were. This may be due, at least in part, to the stimulation of Barth. Liberal or modernist theologians too have turned to a renewed study of Scripture. Through Barth the Bible has had more influence on at least some of them than it formerly had. Moreover, a number of church people, other than theologians, have learned to have a new respect for the Bible as in some sense the Word of God. For all this, who can help but be grateful to Barth and to God?’ (pp. 208 f.).