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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.


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