The Essential Van Til – The Absolutely Other

It is often said that Barth believed in a god who was “wholly other.” It’s an oft repeated phrase, but rarely understood. Van Til would say “absolutely other.” By that Van Til understood a modern conception of God. It was a modern assumption that if God exists he must exist quite separate and distinct from us. Van Til observes:

Sad to say, however, the “absolutely other” God of Barth is absolutely other only in the way that a sky-rocket is “absolutely other” to the mind of the child. Barth’s god has first been cast up into the heights by the projective activity of the would-be autonomous man. In all his thinking Barth is, in spite of his efforts to escape it, still controlled by some form of modern critical philosophy. And this means that the mind of man is always thought of as contributing something ultimate to all the information it has and receives. Accordingly the “absolutely other” god of Barth remains absolute just so long as he is absolutely unknown. In that case he is identical with the realm of mystery which the autonomous man admits of as existing beyond the reach of its thought. It then has no more content and significance than the vaguest conception of something indeterminate. There is no more meaning in the idea of God as Barth holds it than there was in the idea of the apeiron, the indefinite, of Anaximander the Greek philosopher. (Christian Apologetics, 170).

At first blush this may just look like Van Til’s own creator-creature distinction. But it is not. Why not? Simply put, while Barth begins with the qualitative difference between man and God, Van Til begins with the self-contained ontological Trinity. Barth begins with an unknown deity, Van Til begins with and presupposes the Triune God of Scripture. In other words, for Van Til there is never any place or any time that God is unknown. The Triune God of Scripture always and everywhere makes himself known in the things that have been made (Psalm 19; Romans 1).

In summary, Barth begins with a god that is the product of the would-be autonomous modern man. To be sure Barth will speak about God making himself known in revelation. We will discuss that next week as we look at the paragraph following the one cited above. But suffice it to say for now, having begun with modern/critical assumptions about the unknowability of God is there any hope that Barth can produce anything other than a modern/critical understanding of the knowability of God in revelation? Barth will try to give a Christian answer on the basis of dialectical reasoning. But, as Van Til will go on to show, Barth fails to escape the web of modern criticism, which is a web of his own making.

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