The Essential Van Til – Aquinas and Barth: Their Common Core

“Yet the Aristotelianism of Rome, with its idea of potentiality, offers, we are bound to think, a point of contact with the underlying philosophy of Dialecticism. Rome occupies an intermediary position.”[1]

What has Basel to do with Rome? In the above quotation Van Til is making a startling point. On the one hand earlier on in the paragraph he acknowledges that Rome has way too much orthodoxy in it for there to be an easy alignment with “the theology of Crisis.” Nevertheless, Rome’s theology and the theology of Basel are not devoid of all commonalities.

So, when he speaks of “the Aristotelianism of Rome” he has in mind, of course, the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Van Til, rightly or wrongly, always associates Roman Catholicism with Thomism. But what is most important here for our purposes is to identify what he means by Rome’s “idea of potentiality.”

We need to be brief here (a fuller scholarly treatment of this subject is beyond our purview). But the idea of “potentiality” entails what some call a chain, or scale, of being. Potency is understood opposite of actuality. And every thing has potency, which means it has potential toward actualization. Only God is pure actuality, having no potency in himself. Everything else is on its way toward actualization. This idea is often connected with the idea of the analogia entis – or analogy of being. Things on the scale of being—God who is the greatest being, man as an actualizing agent—relate to one another analogically. While there is much dissimilarity between God and man—God is fully actualized, we are not—there is also a commonality as well: God and man are both beings. So, it is an analogy based on the fact of what God and man have in common: being. And while God and man differ quantitatively in their being they are not qualitatively different.

So, what has this to do with Barth (here Van Til uses the broader term “Dialecticism,” but he has primarily Barth in mind)? After all, does Van Til not know that Barth absolutely rejected the analogia entis (goes so far as associating it with the anti-Christ)? Does Van Til not know that Barth speaks about the “qualitative difference between eternity and time?” Where in the world could Van Til find common cause between Aquinas and Barth?

While it is true that Barth begins with the “qualitative difference between time and eternity” he does not stay there. Especially as his theology develops from the time of his Romans commentary, he recognizes that he cannot stop with the qualitative difference if God and man are ever to be reconciled. Somehow God and man, time and eternity, the Creator and creature must be brought together. At the same time his actualistic doctrine of God does not allow him to have a God who is eternal or timeless in the absolute sense. So he speaks about “God’s time.” For Barth God’s time is his time of grace in the eternal decree who is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is himself both the electing God and the elect man. With that, then, Jesus Christ is both the eternal God and the temporal man. And he is such in his eternal nature. There is for Barth no logos asarkos, that is a Christ who is ever understood as being without flesh and therefore without time. Jesus Christ is himself “God’s time for us.” That means that God and man, eternity and time, are co-terminus realities. The relationship between God and man is relative and not absolute. For God is forever and from all eternity this God who has time for us in Jesus Christ.

To be sure, this is not the same thing exactly as Thomas’ analogy of being. It is more like an analogy of God’s time. And while the construction differs, what remains as a common ground between Thomas and Barth are their commitment to placing God and man in a relative relationship rather than an absolute one.

Both Thomas and Barth then stand over against the Reformed understanding of how God and man relate. For the Reformed God and man relate covenantally. They both have a relationship in absolute distinction from the beginning. The way in which they relate, then, is not through some kind of ontological bond. Rather, the bond is covenantal. It is a relation established by God and guaranteed and sealed by divine fiat—not through bringing God and man in under a common ontological reality (being for Thomas, time for Barth).

But there is one last commonality between Thomas and Barth, and it is based on the commitment to their respective views of analogy. And that is they both stand in antithesis to the Reformed Faith. Reformed theology will not allow this common sharing or an ontological bond between God and man. For the problem between God and man is not ontology. The problem is a matter of hamartiology. And the solution is soteriological and covenantal. And therein lies the difference between the Reformed Faith on the one hand and Thomas and Barth on the other.

[1] Van Til, C. (1947). The new modernism: an appraisal of the theology of Barth and Brunner. The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Philadelphia. P. 8.

A Trellis for Trinitarian Theology

Mary was not so green when she mistook Jesus for a gardener (John 20:15). God is a gardener: he sows; he waters; he grows (Gen. 1:11; 2:6; Ps. 104:14; 1 Cor. 3:6). To him belongs horticulture and humanity.

Yet, in another sense, God is a garden in himself. He is our environment, the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Word of the Father, who stood before Mary at the empty tomb, is the life-giving person in whom, to whom, and through whom are all things (1 Cor. 8:6), and that Word is ever spoken in the potent breath of the Holy Spirit. It is in the Trinity—more specifically, God’s verbally manifested and linguistically mediated reality—that we dwell and thrive.

All of this, no doubt, is quotidian for today’s theologian. Especially in Protestant circles in the last twenty years or so, the Trinity has taken a place of prominence. Everywhere one looks, new books and journal articles are finding their way onto the shelves—person and relation; ontology ad intra and ad extra; immanent and economic; vestigia trinitatis; the list goes on. The surge of interest in Trinitarian paradigms and doctrinal minutiae, for some, is little more than a fleeting fancy, the latest love affair for Protestants, and old news to Catholics and Greek Orthodox. Perhaps the latter parties are wondering where Protestants have been for the last few hundred years. The questions we must ask ourselves, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, are the following. First, why has the Trinity come roaring back into our dogmatic discussions and, second, how can we ensure that this indispensable truth of Christendom remains the main hall in which we gather for global theological discourse rather than serving as a vestibule to other dogmatic concerns?

Perhaps the answer to both questions lies in a metaphor. Trinitarian theology, like ivy, has always wound its way up a trellis. By “trellis,” I mean a historical and theological dilemma of the day that serves as latticework upon which the deep and eternal things of God can stretch out and climb in human history. Knowing what one such trellis is in our own day provides an important clue as to why Trinitarian studies have been so popular of late for Protestants, and how we can ensure that this turns into a tradition rather than a trend.

Before introducing what I believe is a trellis for Trinitarian theology in the twenty-first century, it would help to review some of the church’s history in light of this metaphor. And to find a trellis or two from a bygone era, all one needs to do is pick up a decent volume on Christian history and start turning the pages. Jonathan Hill’s The History of Christian Thought (2003) is a fine place to start.

In the early church, the trellis for Trinitarian theology was the burning question of what it meant to proclaim Jesus as Lord in the context of a rigid monotheism, and, of course, what it meant to say that the Spirit was God as well. Justin Martyr, attempting to wrest the early church from Platonic errors while still drawing on terms familiar to Platonists, brought attention to Christ as the Logos of God, the Father’s thought communicated to men. Irenaeus followed suit with a striking, albeit problematic analogy, of the Son and Spirit as the “hands” of the Father, bringing the third person of the Godhead more into purview. But it was Tertullian who broke new ground by coining the term Trinity and developing the “substance” and “persons” language we still find in today’s creeds and confessions. Athanasius continued this tradition by stomping out the weeds of Arianism, drawing on Origen’s exposition of the eternal generation of the Son.

Then, from the heart of Turkey, came the Cappadocians, led by Gregory of Nyssa, his brother, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil the Great. The Cappadocians laid the groundwork for the persons of the Trinity to be differentiated by their mutual relations—a concept carried through the middle ages and well into the twenty-first century.

But we could not in good conscience proceed any further without mentioning Augustine, who rightly rebuffed the residual semi-Arianism of his predecessors, opposing any claim that the Father was the source of divinity. He thus brought out the consubstantiality and distinctness of the persons simultaneously, especially when he emphasized the famous (or, for some, infamous) filioque clause: the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In doing so, as Hill puts it, he “purged the doctrine of every trace of subordinationism” (87). This was a fitting contribution to the continuing development of what came to be called perichoresis, the teaching that the persons of the Godhead mutually interpenetrate, indwell, or are “in,” to use Augustine’s language, each of the others (De Trinitate 6.10). This is one of the Trintiarian teachings that is so prominent today, and we owe this, in many ways, to the Cappadocians and to Augustine, among others (Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus, who came later).

Cyril of Alexandria followed Augustine by addressing the issue that had led to the building of the trellis centuries earlier: Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity: the Son come into flesh. In all of this, then, Christology was in large part the trellis that gave Trinitarian dogma room to stretch and climb. But that trellis would be exchanged for another in Byzantium and the medieval era.

A fixation on Christology eventually lead to mystical speculation on how one comes close to a three-personed God (a second trellis for Trinitarian theology). How can man have communion with the transcendent, triune Lord? That was a question that burned in the hearts of Psuedo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Symeon, to varying degrees. The resulting mysticism and negative theology came to an end with Gregory Palamas, whose discourse on the “energies” of God sought to explain how, exactly, we could experience the Trinity: we do so only by God’s acts upon us—the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit. This was to have echoes in the twentieth century with Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.

In the medieval and scholastic era, we still find remnants of mysticism, especially with Erigena, which is to be expected—history is a stream, not a string of puddles. But the trellis of experiential communion with God, by and large, traded for the trellis of rational exposition. It can be difficult to see how the latter might be a trellis for Trinitarian theology, which is inherently mysterious. But while it is easy to categorize Anselm’s arguments for the existence of God as “Unitarian” (pointing to Aquinas’ de Deo uno), there were clear Trinitarian threads in his thought, such as his work on the necessity of God’s becoming man in the person of Christ. Peter Abelard’s work, Theologia, is perhaps a better example. Abelard follows the path of rational exposition, but seems to have gone too far in trying to erase all mystery from the Trinity. Thomas Aquinas, though he sought to preserve mystery in Trinitarian dogma, fell into a similar trap with his unbound reliance on Aristotelian philosophy. In attempting to articulate the relation of the persons to the essence, he let mystery become more nominal than normative for Trinitarian theology. Much of Aquinas’ work, along with that of Anselm and Abelard, built Trinitarian theology on the trellis of rational exposition. And though this was countered by later medieval mystics (Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart), it seems to have nevertheless held sway until the early Reformers set their hands to building a third trellis: the trellis of soteriology.

For many of the mainstay Reformers, discussions of Trinitarian dogma were set on the trellis of salvation and sin. Luther, for example, focused much of his theology on personal, faith-wrought union with Christ, who was given by the Father, and whose work of redemption and sanctification, applied internally by the Spirit, always led grace to triumph over law. Calvin, as well, though markedly different from Luther in his thought and mannerism, focused much of his attention on depravity and salvation in Christ. And this was set within its Trinitarian context. Calvin even went so far as to say that if we do not grasp that we serve and are saved by one God in three persons, then “only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.2). Salvation, as many in our day have reminded us, is Trinitarian.

The trellis of salvation and sin that was so prominent in the Reformation would wane with the waxing of a new trellis in the modern era: a return to rational exposition, but of a different sort, fueled, in large part, by the Enlightenment. This trellis, admittedly, would keep the ivy of Trinitarian theology all but out of sight. With attacks on the logical coherence of Trinitarian dogma by figures such as Voltaire, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, and with the unparalleled rise of deism, Christian philosophers and theologians felt compelled to rearticulate Christian dogma in a manner that at least acknowledged the so-called “Age of Reason.” Sadly, oftentimes they sold their heritage of belief for day’s wage in the empirical market. As Lessing and Reimarus excised the miraculous from Scripture, one could see it was only a matter of time before something as complex and mysterious as Trinitarian dogma would become suspect. It was Immanuel Kant who questioned the practicality of belief in the Trinity, and his phenomenal/noumenal distinction may not have helped matters here. By relegating God to the realm of noumena, he could effectively turn Christianity into a kind of pragmatic moralism. Such a context was not conducive to the growth or maturation of Trinitarian thought, which is perhaps why we see so little Trinitarian work emerging from that era. The work of the Puritans—masterpieces from the pen of Francis Cheynell, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, and the like—would carry the church until the Protestant Trinitarian revival in the twentieth century.

And by that time, the Protestant church was in need of a return to its Trinitarian roots, crippled as it was by rampant moralism, still evident in the thought of Schleiermacher and Ritschl. It needed a new trellis on which Trinitarian truth could bud and blossom, and Karl Barth’s “theology of revelation” seemed to fit the bill (Hill, 269). Thus, the doctrine of revelation became the new trellis: enveloping general revelation, Scripture, and proclamation, according to Barth (Church Dogmatics, 1.4.4). The wholly other God of Barth’s theology was proclaimed to be wholly “for us” in his triune self-revelation, namely in the “event” of Christ, which transcended time. But Barth’s understanding of revelation in the context of the Trinity, while refreshing, was riddled with fissures that would only widen with time. Part of this was due to the debris of existentialism: the shift in thinking of truth as experiential and subjective rather than external and objective. Certainly, Barth opposed all of this, but his focus on an encounter with the “event” of Christ left the door open for those who sympathized with the existentialist movement.

Following the footpath of twentieth century theology at the time, Rudolph Bultmann attempted to “demythologize” the revelation of the New Testament, extracting moralistic kernels from mythological husks. From there, it is not too difficult to see how and why Reinhold Niebuhr would ignite the twentieth century with a call to ethics and morality, nor how Paul Tillich would call on Christians to engage their culture with an apologetic existentialism. In fact, we can even see how Karl Rahner would end up arguing for the concept of “anonymous Christians.” Those who have experientially witnessed the truth of God need not cling to the Christian Bible, or even the name of Christ, for, in Justin Martyr’s terminology, all people have within them the “seed of the Logos” anyway. Such a conclusion cannot be divorced from Rahner’s view of the Trinity. In claiming that the economic Trinity (what God does) is identical with the immanent Trinity (who God is), Rahner was working out one of the implications of an existentialist view of revelation. If the truth of the triune God’s revelation can only be subjectively experienced, then what sense would it make to ponder God as he exists “in himself,” apart from his creation? That logic is directly linked to Barth’s prior claim that God is only ever “for us” in Christ. In other words, there is no Trinity “behind” or “prior to” Christ’s work for us.

This set the stage for Jürgen Moltmann to emphasize the centrality of the cross, claiming that God is a “suffering God.” While this had the benefit of drawing people’s attention to the unfathomable empathy God has for us in our own suffering, it posed a plethora of problems for orthodox Christianity by binding God to his creation and practically effacing the Trinity of independence.

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s contention that all of history is, in fact, revelation in which we choose to believe enabled him, like Barth and Bultmann, to embrace critical scholarship and symbolic interpretations of revelation because what really mattered was the subjective commitment of the individual to the truth of a particular event. The influence of existentialism here is still evident.

In sum, the trellis of revelation, leading from Barth to Pannenberg, did indeed give the dogma of the Trinity room to climb, but it also did no small amount of damage to the orthodox understanding of God’s ontology, not to mention the existential blight it spread to other doctrines.

All of this brings us to the Trinitarian trellis of our day: language. This is not too far afield from the trellis of revelation, since all revelation, in many ways, can be considered profoundly linguistic. As Jonathan Edwards pointed out centuries ago, not only is the truth of Scripture linguistically delivered to humanity, but also the entire cosmos, which was uttered into being and is upheld by the God who speaks. Scripture is God’s word, but the rest of creation is a “word” from God in another sense.

A scad of material has been emerging in the last decade or so on God as a communicative being, and on human language as a derivative and analogical behavior. This, it seems to me, is quite fitting, since the Trinity is the hearth of communion and has eternally communicated with himself in the “speech” of love and glory (Frame 2013, 480–81). Of course, we still have our issues to work out—issues that have long been part and parcel of every theologian’s curiosity: in what sense is the Son the “Word” of the Father? Should we adopt a consciousness model of the Trinity—in which the Father speaks the Son in the power of the Spirit—or an interpersonal model—in which the persons of the Godhead are understood as mutually engaging communicative agents? Or are both models valid? In answer to the former question, there is room for Trinitarian dogma to grow as we work out how the Son is both the thought of the Father, which stretches all the way back to Justin Martyr, and how he is the communication of the Father, which can be traced back to Augustine. And more work needs to be done to explore precisely in what sense the Spirit is involved in this communication. As for the latter question, we seem hard pressed to resolve the age old quandary between the east and west. The stale rumor that the Latin west defaults to a consciousness model while the Greek east upholds an interpersonal model has been dispelled. And thank God it has, for the church is now in an age of unprecedented global awareness and intercontinental communication. That is why linguistics (semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, hermeneutics) is such a fitting trellis for Trinitarian theology: global communication is no longer burgeoning; it has blossomed. In such a setting, the nature and function of language is replete with implications not only for our understanding and development of Trinitarian dogma, but for our practical engagement with one another in the gloriously diverse, communicative body of Christ.

We have, no doubt, just rushed through a cornucopia of theological discourse spanning two thousand years, and scarcely done it justice. But the point in considering what the trellis was for Trinitarian dogma in each era is to notice that we are at an opportune place for global discussion in the church, and we would be remiss if we wrote off the current surge of interest in linguistics and the Trinity as a passing trend. In my opinion, we are in the midst of one of the most appropriate Trinitarian discussions in the history of the church: a discussion of the nature and work of a communicative God for, in, and through his communicative creatures.

At the outset, I proposed two questions on which Protestants, in particular, need to meditate, both of which are related to the twenty-first century’s trellis for Trinitarian dogma. Why has the Trinity come roaring back into our theological discussions? In brief, I would say that this can be attributed, in part, to the rise of interest in linguistics, for language and the Trinity are inextricably intertwined: the triune God is a communicative being, and humans are image-bearing communicators. It would be strange indeed to witness a rising interest in linguistics without seeing any corresponding interest in the God of language. The late twentieth and early twenty-first century interest in linguistics has thus built a worthy trellis on which Trinitarian dogma can grow, but we need to continue exploring the relationship between divine and human communication, and use the results of such study to enhance and support the communion of the global church.

The second question, however, is perhaps more critical: how can Protestants ensure that Trinitarian dogma retains a prominent place in theological discourse? The answer here seems tied to what we have already said: language must, as it has, stay in the limelight of our theological discussions. We must vigilantly guard the trellis of language from those who would, with Derrida, derogate language as a labyrinth of différence. We must dwell on the divine roots of human discourse, ever remembering the ancient truth that language is not simply something we do but is a vital part of who we are. We are creatures of communion. And the communion we long for is structured on the Trinity itself, both the consciousness and interpersonal models. We are speakers with thoughts and breath, persons who thrive in a web of relationships.

In light of what has been said, there seems to be no better place for our discussions of the Trinity than in the context of language, for our speech reflects the Speaker, our words the Word, and our breath the Spirit of the speaking God. At this moment in history, we have become deeply aware of ourselves as communing persons bound to the self-communing, tripersonal God. What better time for the global church to unite against a world hell-bent on disrupting and destroying the communion of the body of Christ? Language, I say, is at the roots of the Trinity, the roots of humanity, the roots of the church. Let us tend to this trellis together.

The Essential Van Til – In the Beginning (Part 6)

At long last we have come to the end of the beginning (see parts 1, 2, 3, 45). We have reviewed Van Til’s opening salvo against Barth’s theology as it appeared in the form of a book review. This last part of Van Til’s critique is a kind of parting shot, and prognostication concerning the future of Barthianism. He takes his lead from another American reader of Barth:

Professor McGiffert of Chicago predicted last summer that Barthianism would not last because it was really a recrudescence of Calvinism. If we might venture a prediction it would be that Barthianism may last a long time because it is really Modernism, but that neither Barthianism nor Modernism will last in the end because they are not Calvinism, that is, consistent Christianity.

Van Til here predicts the “success” of Barthianism. However, Barthianism will last long not because it is good but precisely because it is not Calvinism. Barthianism is not a real break from Modernism. And while Van Til does not explicitly say why he believes that Modernism has “legs” to last a long time, we can venture a guess here.

First, Modernism is a synonym for theological liberalism (we understand that Modernism has a much broader meaning outside of the field of theology). And Van Til understood the draw of liberalism. He understood why it gained such wide allegiance. It did so because it imbibed the zeitgeist of the 19th and early 20th century.

A brief on liberalism is in order here. Liberalism was not at its heart a denial of orthodox doctrine—though it did do that. But liberalism, at its heart, was unbelief driven by fear. The fear was that Christianity would lose its place in the world, its hegemony over Western culture. How could Christianity withstand the tide of the waxing influence of modern philosophy, science and the cultured intelligentsia? It either had to make adjustments or die and lose its grip on the world which it enjoyed for over a millennium. Christian doctrine had to be adjusted to adhere to the standards and demands of modernity. In other words, it had to make itself acceptable to the times.

Second, according to Van Til Barth did not break with this tradition. Rather, he channeled the spirit of Schleiermacher. He disagreed with his liberal forefathers in many respects. But he did not disagree with them that Christian doctrine had to be non-offensive to the age. He only disagreed with them on how to make Christian doctrine accede to the terms of modernity (particularly as modernity was changing in his day). He could not, for example, go back to liberalism’s commitment to the rejection of scholastic metaphysics. Kant has taught us too well. We cannot go back to the deus absconditus or the logos asarkos because that would mean resorting back to the metaphysics which funded those doctrines. No, in keeping with the times, we must focus not on static being but on dynamic notions like time and act. These sentiments are already in the air in neo-Kantianism, Hegel and Heidegger. Granted, while Barth did confess to doing some “Hegeling,” he is no Hegelian nor is he an existentialist (at least not his Church Dogmatics). But he strikes chords which resonate with his generation of youthful intellectuals who would never have supported the Kaiser.

And it is for these reasons that Van Til predicted the “success” and long lasting influence of Barthianism. It too is making adjustments to Christianity to make it “fit in” and non-offensive to a modern (and then post-modern) people. It purports to solve the problems in the older liberal theology which could support a tyrannical war effort while at the same time refusing to return to the older orthodoxy. Barth gave a fresh voice to a new generation. Once again, and in a different way, he made Christianity palatable to the cultured despisers. But biblical Christianity, for Van Til, is not acceptable to the “natural man.” The natural man and the modern person seek a faith that won’t be mocked and that is “reasonable” (to our natural mind). True Christianity, as it comes to its most mature expression in the Reformed faith, is offensive to the natural and (post?) modern mind. But, it will at long last prevail because it is true and consistent Christianity.

But until then the Reformed faith will be the Christianity of the despised and marginalized. Concurrently, all the new theologies that play to the whims of the times will preserve the shell of Christianity. But like Schleiermacher’s innovations the new will be shown to be inconsistent folly and at long last go the way of all flesh. And remaining will be God’s people who faithfully cling to his promises, not being overcome by the spirit of the ages which, like Ishmael toward Isaac, mock them. By grace they will not be overcome, for they will not fear Ishmael. Rather, they will fix their eyes on the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. And they will bear witness to him in love to their neighbors believing that this old story of Jesus and his love is sufficient to save today no less than in generations past.

The Essential Van Til – In the Beginning (Part 3)

When I first heard about Barth’s concept of the “wholly other” God, it sounded perfectly orthodox. Barth’s emphasis on the qualitative difference between God and man struck me as nothing but good Reformed theology. In addition, I had heard that Barth protested against the Liberal idea of identifying God’s being with man’s subjective experience. Surely Barth is a friend of Reformed theology! And that would be the case if that was all Barth said about the relation between God and man.

However, it was not.

Barth understood that he couldn’t stop there. He had the Christian sense to know that one cannot stop with the absolute qualitative difference between God and man. Had he stopped there there would be no hope in his theology. There would only be separation between God and man. He knew somehow that he had to bring God and man together, even if but dialectically. Liberalism did that through identifying God with man in man’s experience. Barth, however, would take the opposite position. He would reconcile God and man in God’s experience.

We continue to unpack Van Til’s initial salvo against Barth, which is a 1931 Christianity Today book review. Van Til also was grateful for Barth’s “wholly other” God. However, he was not so sanguine about how Barth brings God and man together:

Barth has made God to be highly exalted above time. For this we would be sincerely grateful. Only thus is God seen to be qualitatively distinct from man. Only thus can we stand strong against Modernism. But Barth has also made man to be highly exalted above time. For this we are sincerely sorry. By doing this Barth has completely neutralized the exaltation of God. By doing this 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. The results are identical.[1]

For Barth the fundamental problem and presupposition of all theology is ontological: God and man are qualitatively different and therefore separate. Reconciliation is therefore also ontological. God and man are reconciled only in the God-man. And the God-man is an eternal act of grace by which God and man are made one. There never was a time when the God-man was not. The God-man, Jesus Christ, is the resolution of the ontological problem by virtue of the gracious decree of God who wills our salvation in absolute freedom.

This means that man, the man Jesus, is just as much a necessary aspect of the being of God as is his divine nature. Both the human and the divine share in the same transcendent time-event of God’s grace for us. So, as in liberalism God and man were identified in man’s feeling of absolute dependence, in Barth God and man are identified in the transcendent event of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

This eternal act of grace is what Barth calls “God’s time for us.” In this way, time (“eternal time”) and act replace “being” in the older Thomistic theology. In Thomas “being” was a kind of independent entity in which both the Creator and creature participate. God has being and man has being. But God’s being is infinite while man’s is finite. But in Barth “act” and “time” become the transcendent reality in which both God and man relate in the God-man, Jesus Christ. This means that God and man share in a common quality or entity, as in liberalism. The difference is that in liberalism the mutual participation is immanent whereas in Barth it is transcendent. But, according to Van Til, the same theological problems persist.

[1] Van Til, C., & Sigward, E. H. (1997). Reviews by Cornelius Van Til (Electronic ed.). Labels Army Company: New York.

The Essential Van Til – In the Beginning (Part 2)

In the last post we began to consider Van Til’s first published criticism of Barth. It was set in the context of a book review.[1] There we underscored Van Til’s criticism that Barth’s “theology is based upon an antitheistic theory of reality.” We noted that it was “antitheistic” because it was a “correlative theory of reality.” We said, in short, this means that God and man exist on the same, eternal, “plane” with one other in Jesus Christ. God’s identity, in some sense, depends on the creature.

Van Til goes on in the review to unpack the implications of Barth’s “theory of reality:”

[Barth] even denies the real significance of the temporal world. The whole of history is to be condemned as worthless. The eternal is said to be everything and the temporal is said to be nothing. Does not this seem as though Barth holds to a genuine transcendence of God? Does it not seem as though transcendence means everything for Barth? It does seem so—but it is not truly so. Barth holds that “the only real history takes place in eternity.” If then man and the temporal universe in general are to have any significance at all they must be an aspect of God and as such be really as eternal as God. Anything to be real, says Barth, must transcend time. Man is real only in so far as he transcends time. We are true personalities only in so far as we are experiences of God. We are not to say with Descartes, I think therefore I am, or even with Hocking, I think God therefore I am, but we are to say, I am thought by God therefore I am. Abraham’s faith takes place in eternity. Resurrection means eternity. The entire epistle of Paul to the Romans is said to bring this one message that we must be eternalized. To be saved means to be conscious of one’s eternity.

Before unpacking this criticism, a few words of observation about it are in order:

  1. Zerbe’s book and Van Til’s article are very early. Zerbe interacts with the German works of Barth, but his research only goes up to 1929 (co-authored volume Zur Lehre vom Heiligen Geist).
  2. We know Van Til read Barth’s Church Dogmatics in German before it was translated into English. But it is impossible to tell from this review if Van Til is criticizing Barth in accordance with his own reading of Barth’s corpus up to 1931 or if his criticism is entirely or in part mediated by Zerbe’s reading. Given that the themes we see in Van Til here persist throughout his critical writings on Barth points us in the direction that Van Til was already conversant with the same early German writings Zerbe was working from.
  3. This is not Van Til at his most nuanced. At first blush we may think that he is charging Barth with denying the reality of the temporal world. That is an understandable reaction, but on a more careful read Van Til is not leveling such a charge. We’ll discuss this more below, but when reading Van Til here we have to understand that he is speaking in generalities and is not as precise in his wording as he could have been (English being his second language and all).

OK, those qualifications having been stated, let’s unpack Van Til’s claims. That first sentence needs careful exegesis. What Van Til is critical of here is Barth’s denial of the “real” meaning of reality. He is not saying that Barth is denying reality, as if the world and the things around us do not actually exist. Here the word “significance” is important to get Van Til’s meaning. “Significance” for Van Til means “meaning” or “interpretation.” What he is saying, in short, is that Barth denies the real (read: divine) interpretation of reality.

Yet more needs to be said. Whatever we want to say concerning Barth’s later theology, his earlier theology is most certainly characterized by the “crisis” that exists between eternity and time, or between God and man. Given this great divide our reality, history and present experience are cut off from God and his revelation. God and his revelation are of eternity, we are of time (and the twain shall not meet!). But, for Van Til, God only by his revelation can give to us the true (i.e., real) meaning (i.e., significance) of reality. And since God/eternity and man/time are qualitatively different without overlap or contact, there is no way for man to know the true interpretation of his experience.

As Van Til goes on to note, the only way man/time can have any real God-given significance (i.e., meaning/interpretation) is for God to lift man/time up into his eternity, destroy its old fallen meaning and make it new (this process is called Aufhebung in German). And that God does in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is an eternal event of grace in which man/time is lifted up, destroyed and united to God.

That does mean, as Van Til rightly notes (even if in a somewhat un-nuanced way), that time (and everything which is of the warp and woof of this present age) is but fallen, sinful and nothing. The only place where reality is something is in the real man, Jesus Christ who alone is the transcendent act of God’s grace for us. Everything else is fallen nothingness.

Now, this is the position which I believe Barth holds for the rest of his life, whatever we may think of the qualifications he brings to it via a modern version of the analogia. Barth’s later theology would become much more orderly and systematic. But his early work forms a foundation which he will not reform in any significant way.

So much more can and should be said about that. But for now, I hope I have brought a small measure of clarity to Van Til’s critique. My experience is that for those who actually have read Van Til on Barth have exercised very little patience in accurately and charitably understanding his main point. Granted, to get there one must wade through what is often time clunky English prose. The interpretation of Barth given by Van Til above, while coming with an admittedly negative tone, is far from being idiosyncratic or even particularly controversial (even among some of Barth’s most ardent supporters today).[2] I wonder if now isn’t a good time for both friends and critics of Barth to set aside personal emotions and take up Van Til afresh and give him another chance to help us reappraise the theology of Karl Barth.

[1] Review of The Karl Barth Theology: The New Transcendentalism, by Alvin S. Zerbe. Christianity Today 1/10 (Feb 1931): 13–14. The book reviewed is Alvin S. Zerbe, The Karl Barth Theology: The New Transcendentalism (Cleveland: Central Publishing House, 1930).

[2] I recognize fully the need to unpack this claim and substantiate it more comprehensively. I aim to do just that in future posts.



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