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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