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The Essential Van Til — Karl Barth: A Consistent Scholastic?

It is often assumed that Karl Barth’s thought is the antithesis of medieval scholasticism. It is true that Barth is exceedingly critical of Aquinas. But does Barth offer us a better theological program than that offered in Scholasticism? Van Til answers that question with a resounding no.

For instance, in Common Grace and the Gospel Van Til says:

In the first place it means that we cannot join Karl Barth in reducing God as He is in Himself to a relation that He sustains to His people in the world. Barth virtually seeks to meet the objector’s charge that Christianity involves a basic contradiction by rejecting the idea of God as He is in Himself and of God’s counsel as controlling all things in the world. He says that Calvin’s doctrine of God’s counsel must be completely rejected. Only when it is rejected, is the grace of God permitted to flow freely upon mankind. And that means that God’s love envelops all men. To be sure, for Barth there is reprobation but it is reprobation in Christ. The final word of God for all men, says Barth, is Yes. It matters not that men have not heard of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. For Jesus of Nazareth is not, as such, the Christ. All men are as men, of necessity in Christ. All grace is universal or common grace.

From the historic Christian point of view this is simply to say that the concept of grace is so widened as no longer to be grace at all.

How truly Herman Bavinck anticipated, as it were, this most heretical of heresies of our day when he pointed out that in the last analysis one must make his choice between Pelagius and Augustine. The grace of God as Barth presents it is no longer distinguishable from the natural powers of man. All men to be men, says Barth, must have been saved and glorified from all eternity in Christ.

This is how Barth would meet the objection against the idea of the sovereign grace of God. There is no longer any sovereign God and therefore there is no longer any grace. (pp. 154-155)

What Van Til says here takes some unpacking. I will do so in several points.

First, Van Til notes Barth’s rejection of Calvin’s view of God’s eternal decree (cf. CD II.2, 67-76). Calvin affirms an absolutum decretum. This is the view that God, from eternity past, has elected some onto eternal life and some unto eternal damnation (i.e., double predestination). Barth believed that this was abstract theology, beginning as it does with an abstract decree of God-in-himself. Barth proposes instead a thoroughly Christological revamping of God’s decree. The idea is that Jesus Christ himself forms the two sides of election. In his humanity he is the elected man, and in his divinity he is the electing God (CD II.2, 76). And it is this relation-in-act which constitutes God’s being as it is. As he will later say, God’s “being is decision;” i.e., his decision to elect humanity in Christ’s humanity (CD II.2, 175).

Second, this means that God’s grace is to and for all of humanity in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The humanity of Jesus Christ, in the eternal decision of election, is the vicarious humanity of all humans. In other words, because his humanity is the object of God’s electing grace and since his humanity represents all of humanity, that means all of humanity receives the electing grace of God. All humans are elect. God’s grace is – as Van Til says above – permitted to flow to all mankind. That means that God’s grace is universal. Or, we might say, common. It is given to all men, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves Christians. Grace is common to all – believer as well as unbeliever.

Third, Van Til says that Barth’s position is that God’s being as well as man’s being is constituted by relation to one another. There is no abstract God, or God-in-himself. God’s being is a being-in-relation (to man). Likewise, man’s being is a being-in-relation (to God). This relation is found in Jesus Christ who is himself the relation between man (his humanity) and God (his divinity). Man’s being then is a being of grace. Humanity is elected man and therefore is “full of grace.” This applies not just to his status as elect, but to his very being. Van Til is troubled by this, in part, because if everything is grace then nothing is grace. If every man is a recipient of grace then grace has lost its meaning. Grace can be understood as grace only over against condemnation. And while Barth affirms Christ is both the elect man and reprobate man, yet no man is actually reprobate. All are elect. That turns what Calvin regarded as special grace into common grace. Common grace and the Gospel are confused in Barth.

Fourth, as he said earlier, this makes Barth’s position almost indistinguishable from the analogia entis of Scholasticism. Van Til notes

For it is of the essence of the analogy of faith … that the ideas of God and man be thought of as correlative to one another. God is then nothing but what He is in relation to man through Christ, and man is nothing but what he is in relation to God through Christ. If the idea of correlativity between God and man was already involved in the analogy of being, it came to its full and final expression in the idea of the analogy of faith. (Common Grace, 130)

In other words, just as man and God are related to one another by the common idea of being (something the two share), so likewise with Barth’s view of analogy. God and man are related, they are as Van Til says elsewhere, “correlative” to one another in the eternal decision of God in election in Christ. For Thomas it was being that served as a common ontological notion which God and man have in common. For Barth it is God’s act of electing grace which holds them in common. But in either scenario God becomes dependent on something other than himself in his existence. God’s being as the electing God depends on his relation to man, just as man depends on his relation to God in Christ for his being. In God’s Time for Us I argue that this relation occurs in the “time” of God’s grace in Christ. This “time” serves as a substitute for a metaphysical notion of being. But whether we are talking about time or being, either way there is an ontological tertium quid which serves as an abstract ontological commonality relating God and man.

Barth, no less than Thomas, fails to properly maintain the creator-creature distinction. And with that, he – no less than Thomas – fails to properly maintain the antithesis between believer and unbeliever (since grace is common to all). This gives the unbeliever a certain kind of autonomy and libertarian freedom to believe as he wants about God. Barth, in some ways, out-scholasticizes and out-rationalizes even Thomas himself! If nature is grace for Barth then all theology is natural theology, even while it is at the same time gracious theology. If Barth were consistent with his theology, then there really could be no Nein! to natural theology, but only a full and unequivocal yes and amen.


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