The Essential Van Til — Transcendental Method

Now we begin to make a definite turn toward Barth in Van Til’s writing. Thus far this blog series has been a smattering of topics arising from my rereading of Van Til. But the purpose of my research is to get to the heart of Van Til’s critique of Karl Barth. Did Van Til have a legitimate beef with the Swiss theologian, or was it all much ado about nothing?

Before we get into some detail about Van Til’s critique of Barth it may be helpful to spend a blog post here talking about his method. How does Van Til approach Barth as he seeks to understand, analyze and criticize his thought?

Van Til’s critique is unique among all critics of Barth’s theology. Most critics take issue with this doctrine or that doctrine. Evangelicals debated whether or not Barth affirms a historical resurrection. Others draw the line at his denial of inerrancy. Berkouwer was critical of the fact that Barth’s soteriology functionally denies a real transition of sinners from wrath to grace.

Whatever you may think of these criticism, and Van Til was in agreement with them, they were only surface attacks. For Van Til his deepest concerns about Barth were not over this doctrine or that doctrine, but over his system as a whole. To attack Barth at the level of specific doctrinal formulations is to go after the symptoms, not the disease itself. Van Til wanted to go after the disease and get to its source.

This is not only how Van Til approached Barth, but all forms of unbelief. He asked the question: what are the fundamental preconditions standing behind a system of thought which lead to its conclusions? Such a method seeks to also show that, given those pre-conditions, the system under review leads to irreconcilable contradictions which eventually destroy the system as a whole. The identity of those preconditions and drawing them out “by good and necessary consequence” to their logical conclusion is what we mean when by “transcendental critique.” Because of its Kantian baggage the term has its limitations. But those limitations can be easily lifted if we gut the lingo of its Kantian background and instill it with biblical and Reformed content.

We will look at examples of how Van Til applies his transcendental critique to Barth in future posts. But for now I would like to briefly address a common critique of Van Til’s reading and analysis of Barth’s theology. It is often said that Van Til draws conclusions about Barth’s theology which Barth himself expressly denies. A quick example, an example we will be unable to unpack here, is the idea of God’s antecedent being. In short, antecedence means God’s self-contained being which stands back of his actions in creation and time. Van Til said that Barth’s system denies an antecedent God who stands back of creation and his acts in it. Barth, however, speaks very clearly about God’s antecedence. So, is Van Til being uncharitable toward Barth, imposing a belief on him that he did not hold to? Another example would be the charge of universalism. Barth expressly denies that he affirms universalism. Van Til, nevertheless, charges him with it. Is this an unfair critique?

Van Til’s transcendental method helps to explain why he persists in pressing his charges even though he knows full well Barth’s denials. For Van Til, despite Barth’s affirmations to the contrary, he cannot possibly hold to that affirmation given his ontological presuppositions. Barth believes in the qualitative difference between God and the creature, very much in a modern kind of way. That means that the only way one can speak about God’s interface with creation is through act. Therefore, God is known to be who he is only in and by his act of grace in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ himself, for Barth, gives God the “form” he has. There is, therefore, no God back of Jesus Christ who is not himself identified with Jesus Christ. It is a clear and easy process of reasoning to conclude that there is no antecedent being of God in any commonly understood sense of the word.

Van Til’s method points up something very important for us to understand about reading theologians. We must not read them in a strict, literalistic way. We know how dangerous that approach to reading the Bible can be. The Westminster divines were wise when they spoke about things expressly stated in the Scripture and that which can be deduced “by good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6). That’s a great principle of interpretation, not just for the Bible but also for reading theologians. Van Til refused to read Barth simplistically. He dug down deep into his system, to the roots of his thought. And he was able to consistently trace out the threads of Barth’s thinking to their logical conclusions. Barth doesn’t get to just deny those conclusions and walk away. He is obligated to either admit there is an inconsistency in his system, or go back and revise his pre-theoretical commitments. Barth did neither, and that is why Van Til’s critique must still be pressed today.

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