There is still a great deal of confusion out there concerning the difference between orthodox Reformed theology and the theology of Karl Barth. Are they not the same? Is Barth not just advancing the ground work established by the Reformed branch of the Reformation? For Van Til the answer is a clear and resounding “no.” In fact, far from advancing the cause of the Reformed faith Karl Barth militates against it at every turn.
The history of Barth critics among evangelicals and Reformed has shown that there is still very little clarity on why Reformed Theology and Barthian Theology are contrary to one another. It is an oft repeated opinion that Barth is not orthodox. But when asked “why not?” very few have a good answer. I hope to give a good answer here, with the help of Van Til.
Allow me to quote two passages from The New Synthesis. I will simply cite them here, and then unpack them on the other side:
However, Barth did all this not because he had any intention of restoring orthodoxy to the theology of the “blessed possessors” (beati possidentes). On the contrary, his “nein” to Brunner came about because, together with Romanists and Protestant consciousness theologians, Brunner had not completely cleansed his thinking of the left-overs of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, and not merely that of the period’s Protestantism, but orthodoxy so far as it holds to the direct revelation of God in nature and in history, has been from beginning to end, Barth’s bete noir. He even observed remnants of a theology of possession in his own earliest major work, Romans, as also in the second one, Dogmatik 1(1927). Thus, when he opposed Brunner he was also, in effect, opposing his earlier works, in attempting to be self-critical in his criticism of others.
Finally, Barth found himself in his book on Anselm and then, in 1932, commenced writing his Kirchliche Dogmatik on the principle of the Christ-Event alone. You have, he argued therein, a lie instead of the truth if you say as much as a single word about a God in himself. We know nothing about God unless this God be wholly revealed in and therefore wholly identical with Christ. And you also have a lie, instead of the truth, if you say as much as a single word about a man in himself. Historic as well as liberal Protestantism were thus guilty of speaking such lies. There is, to be sure, an absolute identification of God and man in Christ, but it is indirect. Jesus is God and the Bible is the Word of God but the “is” is, in both cases one of act not substance.
The first expression which helps us to understand Barth is “a theology of possession.” He rejects this kind of theology. For Barth, all classical modes of theology—including that found within liberalism—have the idea that the creature can possess or contain the Creator. In Thomas God was contained in the creation, whether in “being” or in the Mass. In Schleiermacher God was found in man’s feeling of absolute dependence. These are “theologies of possession”—theologies in which God reveals himself in, with, by and through the created order.
Second, note the last sentence in the second quote, “one of act not substance.” In short, Barth’s theology is “actualistic.” God relates to the world only indirectly. He relates to the world only in and by a divine act. This act takes place not in, by, with or through the created order. Otherwise we would then have a “theology of possession.” Rather, God acts in, with, by and through God himself. God’s free act of grace is a transcendent event. It does not touch our world, but ever remains wholly other relative to it.
So much more can and needs to be said about Barth’s theology. But this is it at its heart. Barth has an actualistic understanding of ontology. In theology we can only speak of God’s transcendent acts, but never his real entering into the created order.
Contrary to this Reformed theology says that God—without losing any of his attributes, or without divinizing any part of the created order—condescends to his creation so that he is truly present in, with, by and through his ordained means. In this way, orthodox Reformed theology can truly say, without blushing, that the Bible is the Word of God. It is the Word of God come in a servant form. For Barth, revelation only takes place in a transcendent act of revelation in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Bible cannot be said to be the revelation, even though it can be said to be the Word of God. But, as Van Til points out, it is the Word of God only in an actualistic sense. God reveals himself, but only indirectly (i.e., to and by himself, never to or by his creature).
While Reformed ontology differs greatly from that of Thomas and Schleiermacher, it also differs greatly from Barth. Like the former, Reformed theology begins with a “substance” ontology—albeit it of a very different sort. And that is precisely where Reformed theology and Barth part ways, and it is at the very foundation of theology. Reformed theology cannot be maintained on the basis of an actualistic ontology. Therefore, Barth’s “Reformedness” can only be nominal.
In summary, what is the difference between Barth’s theology and Reformed Theology? It is the difference between actualistic ontology and Reformed substance ontology. From Barth’s ontology comes the idea that God’s revelation is only and always indirect, and never given directly to us in nature or the Bible. Everything else gets unpacked from there.