How Not to Read Karl Barth: T.F. Torrance on Cornelius Van Til

There is no doubt that reading and understanding the theology of Karl Barth can be, for many people, a daunting or seemingly overwhelming challenge. Just the sheer size of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (not to mention his numerous other writings) is enough to turn vantinewmoaway all but the most intrepid individuals. Thus, many books and blogs have been written as a guide to help those interested in Barth learn how to best navigate the Barthian terrain. George Hunsinger’s book How to Read Karl Barth is a particularly noteworthy example. But how about a guide that helps us know how not to read Karl Barth? Sometimes knowing how not to do something is just as useful as knowing its obverse.

This is, in essence, what T.F. Torrance provides us in his difficult-to-find review, published back in 1947, of Cornelius Van Til’s now (in)famous assault against Barth in his book entitled The New Modernism. For many opponents of Barth, Van Til represents the gold standard in interpreting and critiquing Barth’s theology. Here, by contrast, is an excerpt from the assessment that Torrance (who was not himself uncritical of Barth) makes of Van Til’s work, and it serves as a stark warning as to how one should not read Karl Barth:

Under this title [The New Modernism] Dr. Van Til, Professor of Apologetics in Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, launches a trenchant attack upon the theology of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. The embattled character of the book is hardly borne out by its sub-title “An appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner”, for there is in fact no attempt made to form a fair judgment of the views which are so bitterly criticised from end to end of this volume…

When we come to the professor’s treatment of Barth we find him adopting the same procedure [as he used in treating the philosophical roots of the New Modernism]. Thus, for example, he takes Barth’s doctrine of Hinweis and uses it in such a way as as to make Barth say exactly the opposite of what he does say. By Hinweis Barth means that our theological concepts as such do not possess in themselves the reality for which they stand, but that they are pointers to a reality that far transcends them. For example, the word father when applied to God does not tell us all about the Fatherhood of God, but it is a pointer…to a fullness far beyond the power of any human concept to enclose within itself. In this Barth is insisting that while we must use human words to express our thought of God…we must yet remember the Biblical teaching which we have, for example, in Isaiah lv. 8-9: that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. That means that while we must use human words and thoughts in the expression of our faith, God is not Himself correlative to these human concepts. He chooses to reveal Himself to us through them, but His being is not limited by them. But Dr. Van Til insists on treating Barth’s Biblical doctrine of Hinweis in terms of the limiting notion that is employed by Kant, as a concept that is within the limits of mere reason. This means that Barth’s use of fatherhood, and so on, is so mishandled by Dr. Van Til that it is made out to be entirely correlative to the human consciousness with no real antecedent Fatherhood behind it!…

By means of this extraordinary contortion in his “appraisal” of Barth’s theology Professor Van Til proceeds to deny that Barth teaches any genuine doctrine of God as Creator or any doctrine of an ontological Trinity. In fact he never tires in asserting that Barth’s chief interest is directed against the notion of an antecedent Being. How this honestly can be maintained in view of the hundreds of times Barth says in his Church Dogmatics of God in Christ that “what He is in Christ He is antecedently and eternally in Himself” while the same is said again and again of God in Revelation and in His works, it is difficult to understand. But the truth is that Dr. Van Til can only get over these statements of Barth by transposing them into something entirely different.

Here are some examples. On pp. 225f. Dr. Van Til, interpreting Barth, says: “The freedom of God in Jesus Christ consists in God’s ability to change His being into the being of man”; and on p. 237 he says: “God makes Himself identical with the man Jesus Christ.” Here are statements purporting to express Barth’s views, but in such a way that they make Barth say exactly the contrary of what he does say. Barth’s point is that God becomes Man in Christ without ceasing to be what He is eternally in Himself. He never says that God changes His being into the being of a man, or that He makesbarth_writing Himself identiical with the Man Jesus Christ. The crucial sentences in Barth in both these instances are left out in Dr. Van Til’s citations! A few lines before the last passage cited from our author we have his typical expression “Barth argues in effect” (which is always the pivotal point in the Van Til discussion), and then he goes on after twisting Barth round into a ridiculous position to make out that Barth thinks of God as spatial! He makes a similar distortion of a passage on p. 221 where Barth is said to insist “unequivocally and repeatedly on the complete identification of God’s essence and His works”? What Barth does actually say in the passage concerned is that God is identical in His essence with that form of Revelation in which He gives Himself to man – it being a principle with Barth that in Revelation God is what He gives. In other words, God is in His essence identical with the Holy Spirit Who works in the human heart. But that is something very different from an identification of God’s essence with His works ad extra as well as ad intra. When it comes to works ad extra Barth does insist unequivocally and repeatedly that “What He is in His works, He is in Himself”, but that expresses no identification of essence with works simpliciter

What have we to say in conclusion? This is certainly a book to be read, and read closely, if one can stomach it – if only to have thrown into vivid relief how not to handle other men’s views. [Torrance, T.F., 1947. ‘Review of The New Modernism‘ in The Evangelical Quarterly 19, p.148.]

If I could summarise Torrance’s objection to Van Til’s reading of Barth, it would simply be this: don’t make Barth say the opposite of what he actually says and then critique him on that basis. From my perspective, many of the criticisms made of Barth transgress this simple, so-obvious-that-it-shouldn’t-even-need-to-be-said rule. Sure, if we fashion for ourselves a Barth made in the image of history’s worst heretics, then we will certainly categorize him among their ranks. However, if we actually let Barth be Barth and listen to what he actually wants to say, then we may be surprised at how rigorously faithful to God’s self-revelation in Christ through the Scriptures he really is.

So, how should we not read Karl Barth? Let him say what he wants to say rather than the opposite of what he actually says.


2 thoughts on “How Not to Read Karl Barth: T.F. Torrance on Cornelius Van Til

  1. Kenneth Macari 29 November 2016 / 21:34


    Thank you for this post and your others as well. I have some personal history concerning Van Til. I enrolled at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the fall of 1973. In the January term of 1974, I was part of the very first course offered on Van Til outside of Westminster Seminary. All of the participants were passionate and very opinionated on Van Til vs. classical Reformed apologetics represented by BB Warfield, Francis Schaeffer and John Gerstner. Many of my classmates were alumni of the Ligonier Valley Study Center (then in western PA) run by RC Sproul. My classmates Tim & Kathy Keller were at Gordon-Conwell then and may have even been in that course (I do not have that recollection). Tim Keller’s approach is akin to Sproul and CS Lewis

    Any way, I read just about everything written by Van Til (including the New Modernism). I realized how disjointed and abusive was Van Til’s critique of Barth. I was then and am now a big fan of Emil Brunner. Over the years I have read a lot of Barth and am very grateful for his critique of natural theology ( which needs to be held in tension with that of Brunner’s) I have also chatted with George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack on other aspects of Barth’s views years ago at the very first Karl Barth conference at Princeton Seminary back in the late 1990’s.

    I have also met Dr. Van Til back in the early 1980’s when I was visiting Westminster ( I then lived near there in northeast Philly) We had a long conversation on his methodology. I came to realize that his antagonism to Barth may lie in the fact that their starting points are very similar. I would maintain that they acted toward each other ( as well as with Brunner) as not so friendly sibling rivalries. Van Til’s methodology is now THE orthodoxy of Westminster Seminary Philadelphia and “flavors” everything there!

    Many have noted that Neo-Kantian perspectives seem to pop up in both of them; (although TF Torrance argues for Barth in the Critical Realist school) (Do read Torrance’s Calvin’s Doctrine of Man for more interesting perspectives)

    Anyway, I am reading Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism by Bruce McCormack. In retirement, I am FINALLY freed up to participate with many of my Philly Presbytery friends in the Philly Area Karl Barth Reading Group.

    I appreciate your posts on Italian Catholicism as well




    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 30 November 2016 / 13:22

      Hi Kenneth, I always find your comments helpful and insightful! What you share from your years of ministry and many life experiences are enriching. Blessings to you as well!


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