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.

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