Van Til’s Critique of Barth’s Christology (Part 1)

In order to show the accuracy of Van Til's analysis of Barth, we will take his critique of Barth's Christology as a test case.

First, according to Van Til, Barth’s Christology results in a functional Eutychianism. In the one act of God in Christ the creature is collapsed into the Creator; man is as highly exalted above time as is God. In other words, in the incarnation “… God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man. Modern theology holds that both God and man are temporal. Barth holds that both God and man are eternal…Whether God and man are regarded as correlatives in the thick, heavy atmosphere of time or in the rarified realms of eternity makes no difference. In both cases man is as necessary to God as God is to man.”

 

In the recent resurgence of interest in the theology of Karl Barth–particularly among evangelicals1–theologians of no mean significance have opined on Cornelius Van Til’s writings about the dialectical theologian. Van Til, according to some, offered an “absurd”2 and “inept analysis”3 of Barth’s theology which “wielded a disproportionate influence”4 among evangelicals through his “tendentious”5 reading of the Church Dogmatics.6 Others have argued that Van Til’s motive for critiquing Barth and Barthianism was “institutional.” D.G. Hart, for example, argues that Van Til was motivated by a desire to justify Westminster Seminary’s existence over against Princeton Seminary.7 But did Van Til really misfire so badly in his critique?Van Til’s CritiqueIn order to show the accuracy of Van Til’s analysis of Barth, we will take his critique of Barth’s Christology as a test case.First, according to Van Til, Barth’s Christology results in a functional Eutychianism. In the one act of God in Christ the creature is collapsed into the Creator; man is as highly exalted above time as is God. In other words, in the incarnation

“… God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man. Modern theology holds that both God and man are temporal. Barth holds that both God and man are eternal…Whether God and man are regarded as correlatives in the thick, heavy atmosphere of time or in the rarified realms of eternity makes no difference. In both cases man is as necessary to God as God is to man.”8

This will be Van Til’s basic understanding and critique of Barth throughout his life. In fact, in 1955, he made the following observation about Barth’s theology–echoing some of his concerns from 1931:

“So also Karl Barth’s God is what he is exclusively in relation to man “in Christ.” Barth’s main principle is “the revelation of God in Christ” to the exclusion of the God who exists from all eternity within himself, independently of his relation to the world.”9

Furthermore, because God and all things are equally transcendent, Barth “strip[s] him of all the attributes that orthodox theology has assigned to him, and thus enable[s] him to turn into the opposite of himself.”10 According to Van Til, then, Barth’s theology leads to the inevitable conclusion that “He is then wholly identical with man and his world.”11Second, Van Til shows that Barth’s thought is in fundamental continuity with a basic Kantian ontology. Van Til writes:

“To be sure, Barth has repeatedly asserted his desire to construct his theology in total independence of all the philosophical schools. Yet he has also admitted that in his earlier writings he had been influenced by modern epistemology…The Ritschlian theology in which Barth was nurtured was controlled by a modern form of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant…the Theology of Crisis, in the case of both Barth and Brunner, is essentially a modern theology. By an essentially modern theology we mean a theology which, like modern critical and dialectical philosophy, seeks to be activistic and anti-metaphysical at all costs.”12

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