Cassidy & Van Til vs. Karl Barth (Or What Happens When Evangelicals Rehabilitate Defeated Critiques, Ancient Heresies, and Natural Theology)

Yesterday, James Cassidy posted an article on the Reformation21 blog in which he seeks to rehabilitate and defend Cornelius Van Til’s (in)famous critique of Karl Barth. That Cassidy would write such an article given his association with Westminster Seminary is unsurprising, to say the least, and in reading it one gets the sense that he is simply parroting objections that, in my view, have been definitively defeated by many scholars. Granted, he only posted the first part of the article. Yet I was able to track down a more extensive version of what I assume will be subsequent part(s) of his article given that the two follow the same path. Indeed, the Reformation21 post appears to be simply a condensed version of Cassidy’s longer essay.

As someone who is highly appreciative though not uncritical of Barth, I would like to respond to Cassidy’s article in a couple of ways. First, I’ll begin by offering some of my overall impressions after reading both the shorter and the longer versions of it, and then I’ll respond to a few of the main points that Cassidy raises, pace Van Til, against Barth.

Overall impressions

I’ll begin by using a couple of analogies.

First, Cassidy’s article reminds me of the story I heard (whether it’s true or not is irrelevant) about Japanese soldiers who, long after the surrender of Japan that marked the end of World War II, continued to hold defensive positions in some of the more remote s200_james-cassidyislands in the Pacific. The reason? They were entirely unaware that their side had lost and were convinced that their cause still had a fighting chance.

Second, Cassidy’s article reminds me of a person who, after initially trying to communicate with someone else who does not speak his or her language, simply repeats the same words over again, just louder and more slowly. As an expat living in a foreign country myself, I’ve seen this occur many times, and it is quite humorous. I’m always amused by the fact that people think they will make themselves understood if they just keep saying the same things over and over, only with greater force and enunciation.

The correspondence that I intend with these analogies should not be that difficult to ascertain. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to respond to Cassidy, because his rehearsal of Van Til’s critique just seems tired and worn. It does strike me as similar to the story of the Japanese soldiers, for Cassidy writes as though Van Til’s critique, despite having been thoroughly dismantled by many scholars, still has substance.

Thus, it also seems to me that Cassidy is also a bit like the foreigner repeating the same words in a louder voice. Indeed, his entire article strikes me as a complete non sequitur. How so? The expectation he creates in his introduction is not fulfilled in the argument that follows. In his introduction, he references a number of the aforementioned critics of Van Til, and then proceeds to indicate, by way of a question, that he intends to show that Van Til really did not “misfire so badly in his critique”. This introduction creates the expectation (at least it did in my mind) that Cassidy plans on critically engaging with the critics of Van Til in order to vindicate the latter over against the former. This, however, is decidedly not what Cassidy does. Rather, Cassidy simply distills certain salient points of Van Til’s critique and sets them forth as though that were proof enough. In other words, to make the argument that his introduction requires, Cassidy should have engaged directly and extensively with the critics of Van Til, for in this instance they are the ones (not Barth) who are calling Van Til into question. Thus, for someone like me who finds contemporary critiques of Van Til compelling, simply reiterating Van Til’s own critique – perhaps with a bit more volume and emphasis – gains no traction whatsoever.

It is true that in the longer version of this article, Cassidy attempts to directly engage with Barth in which the latter is supposedly given the opportunity to speak for himself. Yet one cannot help but get the impression that it is not actually Barth himself but Van Til’s Barth who speaks. In other words, the reading of Barth that Cassidy offers based on a few cherry-picked sections (Cassidy only looks at CD III/1, pp.45-75; III/2, pp.133-157; I/2, pp. 47-63, 163-168, hardly enough to adequately grasp the scope of Barth’s theology) appears to presuppose Van Til’s interpretation as an a priori hermeneutical lens. No doubt Cassidy would claim that he is indeed just listening to Barth on his own terms. In the longer essay, he concludes by saying as much when he pleads, “let Barth be Barth”. However, I can’t help but think that Cassidy did not arrive at his understanding of Barth prior to engaging with Van Til. Van Til’s presence is felt too strongly, and therefore I am unconvinced that Cassidy has given Barth is true voice. Not only that, but as mentioned in the parenthesis above, Cassidy fails to heed, at least in this essay, T.F. Torrance’s warning that “Barth is not a theologian one can criticise until one has really listened to him and grasped his work as a whole”.[1] While I can appreciate the attractiveness of setting up a straw man as one’s opponent (for it is so much easier to win that way), it doesn’t really make for a convincing argument.

These impressions are not meant to be a scholarly rebuttal; they are, after all, just impressions. Yet they should carry some weight in the sense that Cassidy, I would suppose, intends his article to be persuasive. However, as someone who is highly appreciative though not uncritical of Barth, I find that it is Cassidy’s own argument that misfires. If Cassidy would hope to persuade someone like me (who is not a knee-jerk defender of Barth), then he utterly fails. The only outcome that I can envision is that Cassidy will receive a series of virtual high-fives and pats on the back (or real ones in the halls of WTS) from those who already agree with him. I don’t imagine that he would convince anyone else, except perhaps for those who are naive or who don’t know any better because they haven’t extensively read Barth for themselves.

Specific points of contention

Now I’d like to offer a few less impressionistic and more substantial critiques of Cassidy’s article. I don’t plan on writing a point-by-point response, far less an exhaustive critique, but rather I intend to approach Cassidy’s argument on more of a macro level.

First, regarding Kant. I find it highly ironic that Cassidy calls upon Bruce McCormack to corroborate his assertion that “Barth’s thought is in fundamental continuity with basic Kantian ontology”. The reason this is so ironic (and Cassidy should know better) is that it not only fails to mention that McCormack charges Van Til with misunderstanding Kant (thus making his critique something of a non-starter), but it also ignores the broader assessment that McCormack makes regarding Barth’s relationship to Kant, especially where McCormack challenges Van Til’s reading head-on. For example, McCormack writes:

Van Til was also right to insist that Barth was indebted to Kant for helping him to articulate the structural features of his doctrine of revelation in the early years of his dialectical phase. His conception of the Realdialektik of veiling and unveiling was first teased out with considerable help from Kant’s phenomenal-noumenal distinction. But, as I have argued previously, Barth did not need Kant any longer once he discovered the ancient anhypostatic-enhypostatic Christology in the spring of 1924 and began to absorb the lessons of the traditionally Reformed understanding of the indirect relation of the two natures in Christ to each other (as mediated through the “person of the union”). The old Reformed theologians rejected the “divinization” of the human nature of Christ through its union with the divine Logos that was taught by the Lutherans – and in doing so established the material ontological conditions Barth needed to explain why it is that the Subject of revelation (viz. God the Logos) remains hidden to view precisely in revealing Himself. So after 1924, the claim that revelation is indirect was no longer a Kantian claim; it was a distinctively Reformed claim.[2]

What McCormack does here, rightly in my view, is to position Barth within the Reformed tradition vis-à-vis Lutheranism in working out his dialectic of revelation (veiling/unveiling) as a necessary corollary of an orthodox Christology that refuses to conflate the two natures of Christ into a monophysite unity. Regardless of Kant’s early influence, Barth’s theology cannot be reduced, particularly in its mature form, to Kantianism. Rather, as McCormack avers, Barth’s mature theology exhibits more ‘fundamental continuity’ with the classic Reformed position in this regard than Van Til and Cassidy want to allow.

This leads directly to the second point that I would like to raise. All but one of the six critiques that Cassidy registers following Van Til (the other is the one having to do with Kant) relate directly to Barth’s Christology. Each attempt, in one way or another, to separate that which Barth would hold together. First, Cassidy/Van Til want to distinguish cornelius-van-til-e1327351072989between the divinity and humanity that Barth ostensibly intermingles in a Eutychian manner through his exclusive concentration on God as revealed in Christ (a somewhat strange accusation given Barth’s commitment to anhypostasis/enhypostasis). Third (because the second critique is the aforementioned one concerning Kant), they want to re-establish the distinctions between Christ’s two natures, between his humiliation and exaltation, and between his person and work that Barth supposedly blurs, because failure to do so would mean, first, that the incarnation impinges ontologically on God, and second, that the door is opened to a universalizing of grace (this, along with Barth’s supposed denigration of history, become the subject of greater critique in Cassidy’s longer essay). Fourth, they want to distinguish between the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos, for otherwise God would have no being apart from what he is in his acts of revelation and reconciliation and would therefore become dependent on creation. Fifth, they want to distinguish between God in Christ and “God as such”, because only in this way, they contend, can they ensure that God remains “self-contained”. Finally, they want to salvage the notion of the decretum absolutum so as to preserve the distinction between God’s works ad extra versus his works ad intra.

As becomes clear, Cassidy and Van Til are, in good scholastic fashion, primarily concerned with distinctions. Distinctions between God’s being and act, between who he reveals himself to be and who he is himself, between who the Word is in his incarnation in time and who he is in his eternal being before time. While I would agree that some measure of distinction is necessary so as not to fall into some sort of monophysitism or utter incoherence, I would argue that Cassidy and Van Til push these distinctions well past their breaking point. Rather than tiptoe around the problem to which this leads, I’ll just declare it outright: Arianism.

Now, I do not mean that Cassidy and Van Til are explicitly Arian in that they deny the full divinity of Christ. What I mean is that the attacks that they mount against Barth rest on a foundation that Peter Leithart refers to as a ‘backdoor denial’ of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology. T.F. Torrance explains why:

The conceptual clarification of the relation between what God is economically toward us and what he is ontically in himself is the task with which the Fathers at the Council of Nicaea were mainly concerned…The cardinal issue here was found by the Nicene theologians to be the unbroken relation in being and agency between Jesus Christ and God the Father, to which they gave decisive expression by a carefully defined non-biblical term, όμοούσιος, to speak of his oneness with the Father: ὁμοούσιος τῷ Πατρί. This is the kind of theological term for which Irenaeus had been groping in order to describe the nature of the substantial bridge across the gap between the Creator and the creature, anchored both in God and in man, which is needed to secure for us objective and authentic knowledge of the invisible God and of our salvation in Christ.

The homoousion (to refer to it in this abstract form) was thus identified as the all-important hinge in the centre of the Nicene Creed upon which the whole Confession of Faith, and indeed the whole Christian conception of God and of the salvation of mankind, turns. In the homoousion the Council of Nicaea, and later of Constantinople, unambiguously affirmed the Deity of Christ, thereby identifying him with the unique objective content of God’s saving self-revelation and self-communication to mankind, and affirming the oneness in Being and Act between Christ and the Father upon which the reality and validity of the Gospel of God’s revealing and saving acts in Christ depend—for apart from it the inner core of the Gospel of divine forgiveness and salvation from sin and the essential message of redemption through the Cross of Christ would die away and disappear.

The supreme truth of the Deity of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, true God from true God, one in being and of the same being with the Father, was undoubtedly the great concern that occupied the mind of the bishops and theologians at the Council of Nicaea when the credal formulation it produced, in spite of heated discussion, clearly arose out of a profound evangelical and doxological orientation. It was composed by the Fathers, so to speak, on their knees. Face to face with Jesus Christ their Lord and Saviour they knew that they had to do immediately with God, who had communicated himself to them in Jesus Christ so unreservedly that they knew him to be the very incarnation of God; they not only worshipped God through and with Christ but in Christ, worshipping God face to face in Christ as himself the Face of God the Father turned toward them. Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is the God whom they worshipped and loved in the ontological and soteriological mode of his personal self-communicating in the flesh, so that in their union and communion with Christ they knew themselves to be in union and communion with the eternal God. They knew that if there were no bond in Being and Act between Jesus Christ and God, the bottom would drop out of the Gospel and the Church would simply disappear or degenerate into no more than a social and moral form of human existence.[3]

What Torrance articulates here relative to the pro-Nicene battle against Arianism in the fourth century is the theo-logic inherent in the orthodox claim that Christ is homoousion – of one being/essence – with God the Father. Although not confusing them, the homoousion inextricably binds together the Father and the Son, the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, God’s being and act, and the incarnate Word with the pre-existent Word. To distinguish between these realities in a way that leaves a being of God hidden behind his act of revelation and reconciliation or a God “as such” hidden behind the God revealed in Christ violates the essential significance of that which the Nicene homoousion was intended to safeguard against the Arians. Indeed, as the scholarship of John Behr, Khaled Anatolios, and Michel Barnes has shown, the kind of distinctions enforced by Cassidy and Van Til are disconcertingly similar to those upon which the various ‘Arian’ theologies were based. Compared with this, a consistently biblical and orthodox christology is that which Barth so ardently endeavored to recover.

According to Cassidy, Van Til’s most basic complaint against Barth was that “God is what he is exclusively in relation to man ‘in Christ.’ Barth’s main principle is ‘the revelation of God in Christ’ to the exclusion of the God who exists from all eternity within himself, independently of his relation to the world”. The question that this raises in my mind, karl_barth_profilehowever, is this: what epistemic access does Van Til have to God such that he can claim to know that who God is in his revelation to humanity is discontinuous with who he is eternally and independently in himself? From what vantage point, if not purely philosophical or speculative, can Van Til observe God as he is hidden in himself so that he can confidently posit a disjunction between that God and the God revealed in Christ? To assert, as Barth and Torrance do (following the pro-Nicene fathers) that who God is in his acts of revelation and reconciliation toward the world is identical with who he is eternally and antecedently in himself does not, as Cassidy and Van Til think, make God dependent on creation. It simply recovers the biblical emphasis that God in his Triune eternal being of self-sufficient, overflowing love is free enough, gracious enough, and powerful enough to reveal to his creatures, without distortion or remainder and within the structures of their creaturely reality, who he is in himself.

In my view, McCormack rightly identifies the crux of the dispute between Barth and Van Til when he states:

These differences are rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology – though this is just the tip of the iceberg. Van Til had a pre-modernist sense of confidence that the rationality that is proper to God’s eternal counsel and plan was somehow embedded in the natural order as well as in the flow of history. Barth regarded such confidence as belonging to a world which no longer existed; hence, his massive assault on natural theology and the need to ground knowledge of God differently than in the past.[4]

For someone like me who takes seriously Christ’s claim to be the exclusive “way, truth, and life” through whom alone we have access to the Father (John 14:6), it is impossible to begin with a general conception of God (or even humanity for that matter) and then force Christ to fit within that conception as upon a Procrustean bed. Rather, we discover who God is, and who we are as his human image-bearers, only insofar as we come to know both realities as revealed in Christ. Any philosophical or speculative approach that claims to know God in a manner detached from the way in which God has actually chosen to reveal himself cannot be anything but arrogance and rebellion, on par with Adam and Eve’s belief that they could act in accordance with the knowledge that they presumed to have gained from another creature rather than that which God had expressly given.

For this reason, the critiques of Cassidy and Van Til do not even get off the ground. We cannot start with a general notion of who or what “God” and “man” are, and then dictate on that basis who or what Christ must be. To do so, as McCormack discerns, is possible only by way of natural theology which depends, in turn, on some notion of the analogia entis. As we may remember, Barth vehemently opposed as the analogia entis as ‘antichrist’ due to its tendency to displace Christ as the exclusive “way, truth, and life” and its obliteration of the absolute Godness of God vis-à-vis his creation (for it posits some measure of ontological similarity between the two). Therefore, it is highly ironic that Van Til’s overarching criticism of Barth – that “God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man” – rests upon the very foundation that it critiques, for without his own version of the analogia entis, Van Til would have no prior conception of a “self-contained God” or “God as such” (in distinction from who God has revealed himself to be in Christ and by the Spirit) from which to launch his attack. In this regard, I agree with McCormack’s remark (given during his Kantzer lectures) that when we begin our knowledge of God with something other than God (i.e. natural theology), then we end up with a concept of God other than who he is. For this reason, I’ll side with Barth over Van Til any day.

______________________________________________________________

Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1962. Karl Barth: An Introduction to his Early Theology 1910-1931, SCM Press, p.9.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.371-372.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. pp.93-94.

[4] McCormack, B.L., 2011.’Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.

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This entry was posted in American evangelicalism, Anthropology, Bruce McCormack, Christology, Classical theism, Cornelius Van Til, Dialectical theology, Doctrine of God, Evangelical theology, Heresy/Heterodoxy, Homoousion, James Cassidy, Karl Barth, Natural theology, Orthodoxy, Patristic theology, Peter Leithart, Protestant theology, Reformed theology, Revelation, T.F. Torrance, Theological methodology, Trinity. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Cassidy & Van Til vs. Karl Barth (Or What Happens When Evangelicals Rehabilitate Defeated Critiques, Ancient Heresies, and Natural Theology)

  1. Caleb Smith says:

    I enjoyed seeing this response. Every time I read of Van Til’s critiques of Barth, I think to myself, “What Barth is this, because it’s not the one I’ve read, even in the relatively little I’ve read him?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this, Jonathan. I find Van Til’s critique so difficult to engage in any depth because his reading of Barth is flawed in such fundamental ways. It is as if the disputants in these conversations are reading entirely different sources — thus common ground is nearly impossible to secure in order to then make any headway in evaluating Barth’s ideas. Yet Van Til’s followers refuse to be corrected with respect to their presuppositions.

    The result? Barth’s followers will either end up stating the same correctives again and again, or (as Barth himself did) stop responding. That, it seems, is where we are at now: each new generation of VTians learn to repeat the same tired reading and the new Barthians learn the refrain, while the older scholars have opted to stop engaging. Rinse and repeat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Darren, thanks for your comment. It is certainly a sad state of affairs in which true dialogue seems impossible. One can only hope that things may change in the future.

      As a side note, I’ve greatly appreciated your own work. I haven’t read your book on Barth and the incarnation yet, but I intend to!

      Like

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Jim writes for the choir, not for anyone else really. His PhD is on Barth’s concept of time and eternity, and he earned it, of course, at Westminster Theological Seminary. His reading of Barth through Van Til is unremarkably insular, and he’s not open to genuine dialogue about Barth. If you ever listen to him on the Reformed Forum podcast, Christ The Center, as I have, you quickly realize that Cassidy believes Barth is a heretic (no surprise). Cassisy is seen, among the “faithful” as their go to guy on Barth; someone who has done the dirty (apologetic) work against Barth, and now serves as the voice who is able to refute him.

    Good post, Jonathan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Bobby. Yes, reading the essay from which Cassidy’s post comes, it is clear that he regards Barth as a heretic. He concludes that Barth essentially teaches a ‘false Christ’. If that’s the perception, then in light of Galatians 1 there really is no other possibility than to regard him as such.

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  4. Pingback: Christ the Center (If Only That Were True) | Reformissio

  5. Kenneth Ross says:

    I once asked TFT about Dr. Van Til as I grew up in the Philadelphia area. He pointed me to an old book review he’d had done of The New Modernism while he still in the parish. It was published in The Evangelical Quarterly 19 (1947): 144–49. Still worth reading!

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  6. Kenneth Ross says:

    Not sure when the copyright for a British journal expires. This was 69 years ago! The review may be available online through ATLA or some other interlibrary consortium. Do you have an institutional connection to a theology school or a university that can get you access to online back numbers of journals?

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