Van Til’s Critique of Barth’s Christology (Part 2)

Barthianism is not simply a different expression of Christianity, but a different religion altogether

Or, to put the matter in the form of a question: is there any way to conceive of Barthianism and (Reformed) Christianity as friends? The answer must be Nein! For this reason, we find the recent dismissals of Van Til’s critique by current evangelical theologians somewhat troubling. What is perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Barth’s theology is being readily received today as being friendly toward Reformed orthodoxy. Whatever the reasons for this, it is time to once again exercise discernment, as Van Til did. 


In the first post in this series, we gave consideration to Van Til’s assessment of Barth’s Christology. In this post we wish to examine Barth’s own teaching on Christology. The key to understanding Barth’s Christology is to understand where he places the act of the incarnation. To use Van Til’s expression, Barth seems to place that act in Geschichte. So what is the nature of this Geschichte? At least in Barth’s earlier thought, as Bruce McCormack has shown, this is the real history of God which stands over against the so-called “unreal” history of humanity.34

McCormack aptly describes this as the “tangent point” at which God’s history meets our history, without becoming one with it. It is important at this point to set this idea against the backdrop of Barth’s rejection of the higher critical approach of the liberal school. For Barth, God and his revelation cannot be handled or manipulated by man in his own fallen time. Therefore, revelation – and thus the incarnation – must be something that is quite independent of “our time.” Trevor Hart explains:

Revelation…is an event…The habitual use of the noun form [i.e., “revelation”] tends inevitably to direct our thinking instead toward the abstract, and to suggest some commodity (textual, historical or whatever) which represents the abiding deposit of a prior act of ‘revealing’…something which has, as it were, become an earthly commodity and been handed over into human custody and control, domesticated and packaged for responsible human use.35

Second, in CD III/1 Barth engages in a stimulating discussion of the relation between God’s act of creation and the history of the covenant of grace. What he is concerned to do here is defend against the notion of a generic “god,” an impersonal uncaused cause as you find in Thomas’ five ways. At this point, Barth offers a very insightful alternative to Thomas with which Van Til would surely agree. In refusing to pit God as creator against God as redeemer, Barth sets forth a better way:

But at this point everything depends upon the fact that the One from whom the world comes and on whom it depends should not be “God” in the sense of this or that conception, but He who in the process of history reconciles the world to Himself in order to give to it, as its Redeemer, its new and eternal form. (CD III/1, 45).

To this sentiment a truly Protestant theologian can only express his assent. However, Barth goes one step further. He goes so far as to affirm the history of the covenant of grace as being prior to the act of creation. The history of the covenant of grace has a distinct precedence and pre-existence over creation. Our doctrine of creation,

equating the Creator with the Deliverer, tells us that the world too, the whole nexus of being and movement in which I exist, has no prior existence that there is absolutely nothing which can take precedence of the history of the divine covenant of grace (Idem).

From here Barth develops his argument to include the Trinity. Creation is an act of the triune God, and in particular the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Barth states:

Hence the proposition that God the Father is the Creator and God the Creator the Father can be defended only when we mean by “Father” the “Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (CD III/1, 49).

But who is the “Son” that is with the Father-Creator? For Barth, notice, it is not the self-contained ontological Son apart from human flesh, rather:

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