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The Essential Van Til – In the Beginning (Part 1)

It is often assumed that The New Modernism (1946) is Van Til’s first published writing in which he evaluates Barth’s thought. Actually Van Til first published about Barth in a Christianity Today book review in 1931.[1] That was just two years after the opening of Westminster Seminary, and five years before the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is also the year before Barth published the first part of his Kirchliche Dogmatik. As such it is a very early insight into how Van Til was evaluating Barth’s theology, albeit through the eyes of the author of the book he was reviewing.

Van Til does not delay in delivering punches. After one sentence commending the book he is reviewing he says, “Karl Barth’s theology is based upon an antitheistic theory of reality.” That is a position he will hold for the rest of his career as a critic of Barth’s theology.

Now, to be sure, that does not sound very charitable. In fact, it sounds kind of harsh, even brash. But what drives Van Til to this conclusion? Is he just an ill-tempered man? Does he revel in criticism? Or, does he have a legitimate point in view?

Let’s begin with taking a deep breath, and looking carefully at what Van Til is saying. First, notice that Van Til is not attacking the man here. He does not say Barth, himself, is antitheistic. Nor, interestingly enough, does he say that Barth’s theology, itself, is antitheistic (though he will come to that conclusion elsewhere). What he is saying is that Barth’s theology rests upon a foundational “theory of reality” that is itself antitheistic. But what is that “theory of reality?”

Van Til’s next two sentences are: “Barth has made God and man to be correlatives of one another. Barth has no genuine transcendence theory.” What does it mean to say that God and man are “correlatives” of one another? It means what James Dolezal, for example, calls “theistic mutualism.”[2] In other words, for Barth God has no being or identity apart from the man Jesus Christ. This, in effect, eternalizes man. It makes humanity – in the man Jesus – of equal and ultimate origin with God (i.e., eternal). But if God and man are both eternal, there is an ontological interdependence between. This is what Van Til means by “correlatives.”

It is this “correlative theory of reality” which stands at the basis of Barth’s theology, and which Van Til finds to be antitheistic. And it is antitheistic precisely here: a correlative relationship between God and man relativizes God, rendering God somehow dependent upon the creature. Such a god cannot, in any meaningful way, be said to be absolute sovereign Lord over the creature. Despite everything that Barth says about God’s lordship elsewhere, this view makes God and humanity (in the humanity of Christ) co-equal. Such a god cannot be omnipotent and self-sufficient, but must take his place in and among the creation. That makes such a god no different than the gods of mythology. And such a god is antithetical to true Christian theism.

Now, more can be said about this article, and we’ll say more in the weeks to come. But it is important for us to at least get this down pat before moving on and trying to understand the rest of Van Til’s critique.

[1] 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] See his volume, All That is God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).


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