The Limitless Many of the Elect: Karl Barth on Grasping the Multi-Dimensional Nature of Election

The following section taken from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2 sets forth a layered, multi-dimensional understanding of the contentious doctrine of election. Many, if not most, of the critiques levelled against Barth’s view tend to flatten it out into two-dimensional straw man, whereas Barth’s actual articulation of election is highly nuanced and prismatic. As we can see below, it is not true that Barth simply believed that all human beings are elect, full stop. Rather, he spoke of the “limitless many” of the elect in Jesus Christ. To grasp what this means, as well as Barth’s insistence that we define election not merely in terms of the New Testament but also of the Old Testament, we turn to a lengthy yet critical section from CD II/2. Although it really could benefit from some concluding comments, I will, given the length of what follows, just let Barth speak for himself. It bears careful, thoughtful reading:

In the Old Testament, of course, as well as in the New, election certainly does not mean merely the distinction or differentiation of the elect, but his concurrent determination to a life-content which corresponds to this distinction and differentiation. Yet if we confine ourselves to the Old Testament, we cannot characterise this life-content precisely. The question of the Whither? of the election of the individual cannot be answered more clearly than by the affirmation—which is, of course, valuable, but needs further elucidation—that every such man is elected in his own way and place in order that God Himself, the God of Israel, the Founder and Ruler of the special history of this people, and therefore the will of God for this people in any particular modification of the course of its history, should be the direction and aim of his life. But the Old Testament itself does not disclose the intention of Israel’s God in Israel’s history. On the contrary, by its witness it envelops it in renewed darkness, by reason of the seeming contradiction in which it barthcontinually speaks of the love of God and the wrath of God, of future salvation and future judgment, of the life and the death of this people of God—with the emphasis, all in all, more on the latter than on the former.

It is because of this that it is difficult, if not impossible, to derive from the Old Testament itself the answer to the question of the meaning of the election of the individual to be a friend and servant and child of God, sanctified by and for Him in distinction from those who are not so. According to the witness of the Old Testament, the wrath of God apparently opposes His love as an independent and apparently even the definitive direction of the divine will for the people of Israel. Every promise stands from the outset in the shadow of the much more impressive menace, every consolation in the shadow of the much more powerful judgment. And as the purpose of God can be affirmed only as we acknowledge its twofold direction, so the Old Testament elect and the meaning and function of their existence are inconceivable without the opposing fact of the non-elect, indeed the rejected….

This means, however, that we cannot see in the Old Testament any unambiguous picture of the life-content of the man elected by God. That there actually is this man in the Old Testament sphere, we can gather from its witness only when we come to know it—as is right—in the light of its revealed fulfilment in Jesus Christ, and in the reality of His Church. Necessarily then—but only then! The will of God for His people Israel, from the beginning and at every stage of its history, is revealed in the fact that according to the New Testament Jesus Christ is born, suffers, dies, rises from the dead and takes His place at the right hand of God, assuming His earthly form in His Church for the time that remains. As the witness of the Old Testament is proved true in this fulfilment, it is comprehensible, emerging from the obscurity which lay upon it and in which we should still have to see it if we could separate it from Jesus Christ.

But in view of the frontier set to this sphere, we can no longer say that according to the Old Testament the will of God is really a will which in its love and wrath, grace and judgment, life-giving and destruction, is self-contradictory and self-cancelling, and therefore not unambiguously recognisable or definable. On the contrary, in view of the frontier set to this sphere, we see and understand that what we have in the Old Testament is a wrathful love which burns even in its wrath; the necessary judgment of the grace of God; a death which does not take place on its own account, but for the sake of the life-giving; a will of God for Israel which is the will of almighty lovingkindness. On the one hand we are not surprised, nor on the other hand are we confused, by the fact that light and shadow are so unevenly distributed in this sphere, that the faint light seems to be no more than the fringe of an immense realm of shadow. This is inevitable. For in this whole area Jesus Christ has to be indicated as the One in whom the whole concentrated darkness of the world is to be overcome by the light of its Creator and Lord. And, again, He can be only intimated and not yet named.

What we have called the aim and direction of the life of the elect man, and the clear reply to the question of the purpose of his election, is disclosed only in the revelation of the will of the God of Israel as we have it in the New Testament, only in the bordering of the Old Testament sphere by this revelation. The blurred double-picture of the love and wrath, the grace and judgment of God is brought into focus when it is seen from this frontier. And because of this the corresponding and equally blurred doublepicture of the elect and the rejected is also brought into focus. The fence is removed which, according to the Old Testament, seemed to separate the one from the other—Israel from the heathen, accepted from rejected Israel, Abel from Cain, Isaac from Ishmael. Jacob from Esau, David from Saul, Jerusalem from Samaria. Their connexion, which is so puzzling in the Old Testament, is now explained as the damnation of all mankind is now revealed in all its unbounded severity, but in subordination to the almighty loving-kindness of God towards this same mankind.

This is how it stands with the one Elect, Jesus Christ, who, according to the New Testament witness, sets a frontier to the Old Testament sphere, and lifts the veil which lay over its witness as such.

1. Jesus Christ is not accompanied by any Cain, Ishmael, Esau or Saul. He does not need any such opponents. God’s will for His elect, the purpose of a man’s election, the direction and aim of his life as an elect, are all real and recognisable in Him without such opponents, and therefore unambiguously.

2. Jesus Christ does not need them because it is His own concern as the Elect to bear the necessary divine rejection, the suffering of eternal damnation which is God’s answer to human sin. No one outside or alongside Him is elected. All who are elected are elected in Him. And similarly—since no one outside or alongside Him is elected as the bearer of divine rejection—no one outside or alongside Him is rejected. Where else can we seek and find the rejection which others have merited except in the rejection which has come on Him and which He has borne for them? This rejection cannot, then, fall on others or be their concern. There is, therefore, no place outside or alongside Him for Cain, Ishmael, Esau or Saul.

3. Jesus Christ is in His person the reality and revelation of the reconciliation of the world rejected by God because of its sin. But this means that in His person He is the utter superiority of the electing will of God over His rejecting will, the absolute subordination of the rejecting to the electing will. It is to be noted that it is a matter of superiority and subordination. The fact that the will of God is also the will which rejects the world because of its sin cannot possibly be ignored or denied by Jesus Christ. On the contrary, it is only in Him that it is taken seriously, that it is genuinely real and revealed as God in His humanity makes Himself the object and sacrifice of this rejection. But this is not the end in Jesus Christ. On the contrary, in the same man who bears His rejection God has glorified Himself and this man with Him. God has willed to awaken from the dead the very One who on the cross atones for the sins of the whole world. The will of God triumphs in Jesus Christ because He is the way from the heights to the depths, and back again to the heights; the fulfilment but also the limitation of the divine No by the divine Yes. God presents this man in omnipotent loving-kindness as His Elect, and Himself as the God who elects this man. Jesus Christ is this irreversible way; and therefore He is also the truth and the life.

4. Jesus Christ in His person—and this brings us to the particular purpose of our discussion—is the reality and revelation of the life-content of the elect man. For everything that He is—in His humiliation as in His exaltation, in the execution of divine rejection as in its limitation and subordination—He is not for Himself, or for His own sake, but as the reality and the revelation of the will of God on behalf of an unlimited number of other men. He is elected as the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards these many. He is elected to bear their rejection, but also to overcome and therefore to complete in Himself their own eternal election in time. He is elected, therefore, to be for them the promise and proclamation of their own election. Jesus Christ is, therefore, what He is—the Elect—for these many.

For what many? If we cannot simply say for all, but can speak only of an unlimited many, this is not because of any weakness or limitation of the real and revealed divine will in Jesus Christ. This will of God, as is continually and rightly said in harmony with 1 Tim. 2:4, is directed to the salvation of all men in intention, and sufficient for the salvation of all men in power, It agrees with 1 Cor. 5:13 that Jesus Christ is called the light of the world in Jn. 8:12, 9:5, 11:9, 12:46; “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” in Jn. 1:29; the Son in whose offering God “loved the world” in Jn. 3:16, and who was sent “that the world through him might be saved” in Jn. 3:17; “the Saviour of the world” in Jn. 4:42; “the bread of God which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” in Jn. 6:33 (cf. v. 51); “the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world” in 1 Jn. 2:2; and the light “which lighteth every man” in Jn. 1:9.

When we remember this, we cannot follow the classical doctrine and make the open number of those who are elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number to which all other men are opposed as if they were rejected. Such an assumption is shattered by the unity of the real and revealed will of God in Jesus Christ. It is shattered by the impossibility of reckoning with another divine rejection than the rejection whose subject was Jesus Christ, who bore it and triumphantly bore it away. It is shattered by the fact that Jesus Christ is the irreversible way from the depths to the heights, from death to life; and that as this way He is also the truth, the declaration of the heart of God, beside which there is no other and beside which we have no right to ask for any other. It is shattered by the fact that Jesus Christ will not reject any who come to Him, according to Jn. 6:37.

And yet it is not legitimate to make the limitless many of the elect in Jesus Christ the totality of all men. For in Jesus Christ we have to do with the living and personal and therefore the free will of God in relation to the world and every man. In Him we must not and may not take account of any freedom of God which is not that of His real and revealed love in Jesus Christ. But, again, we must not and may not take account of any love of God other than that which is a concern of the freedom realised and revealed in Jesus Christ, which, according to John’s Gospel, finds expression in the fact that only those who are given to the Son by the Father, and drawn to the Son by the Father, come to Jesus Christ and are received by Him. This means, however, that the intention and power of God in relation to the whole world and all men are always His intention and power—an intention and power which we cannot control and the limits of which we cannot arbitrarily restrict or enlarge. It is always the concern of God to decide what is the world and the human totality for which the man Jesus Christ is elected, and which is itself elected in and with Him.

It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which continually decides this. For the fact that Jesus Christ is the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards the whole world and every man is an enduring event which is continually fulfilled in new encounters and transactions, in which God the Father lives and works through the Son, in which the Son of God Himself, and the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, lives and works at this or that place or time, in which He rouses and finds faith in this or that man, in which He is recognised and apprehended by this and that man in the promise and in their election—by one here and one there, and therefore by many men! We cannot consider their number as closed, for we can never find any reason for such a limitation in Jesus Christ. As the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God, He is not dead, but lives and reigns to all eternity. This event in and for the world, and therefore its movement and direction at any given moment, its dimension and the number of those whom the event affects at any moment, are all matters of His sovereign control.

For the very same reason, however, we cannot equate their number with the totality of all men. With the most important of those Johannine texts (3:16), we must be content to say that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This event always concerns those who believe in Him. It is always they who are the actual object of the sovereign control of God, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, over the world. The reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God in Jesus Christ is always so directed to them that they may recognise, apprehend and receive the promise of their own election in Him. Those who believe in Him, however, are not all men, nor mankind as such in its totality. They are always distinct from this totality. They live in the world as elected [out of the world] (Jn. 15:10). They are the many … for whom He gives His life as [ransom] (Mt. 20:28), And as the many they are always, in fact, few, … according to Mt. 22:14—few in relation to the total number of the rest, few also in relation to those who could believe, to whom He is also sent, for whom His call is also objectively valid, and whom He still does not reach, who do not yet believe.

Nowhere does the New Testament say that the world is saved, nor can we say that it is without doing violence to the New Testament. We can say only that the election of Jesus Christ has taken place on behalf of the world, i.e., in order that there may be this event in and to the world through Him. And this, of course, we do have to say with the strongest possible emphasis and with no qualifications. If we ask about the meaning and direction of the life of the elect, in the light of this centre of all the reality and revelation of election, in the light of the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, promised according to the Old Testament in Israel’s history, and actually born, crucified and risen according to the New Testament, we have to reply that the elect lives as such in so far as he is there on behalf of others, i.e., in so far as it is grounded in him and happens through him that the omnipotent loving-kindness of God is at all events directed and opened up to the world, i.e., to others among those who do not yet recognise it and are not yet grateful for it.

If the person of Jesus Christ had been consistently and decisively kept in mind when this aspect of predestination was under consideration, it would necessarily have been perceived that the content of the life of the individual elect cannot possibly be exhausted by the regulation of his personal salvation and blessedness, and everything belonging to it, understood as a private matter. On the contrary, he is saved and blessed on the basis of his election, and is therefore already elected, in order that he may share actively, and not merely passively, in the work and way of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God. This loving-kindness, which saves and blesses man, is so great and good that it wills to use him. He can serve it. He himself can help to direct and reveal it to others and therefore to these others. That is what the elect man Jesus Christ did and does. How can any elect man—for they are all elect in Him—do otherwise?

This is the difference between the biblical view of elect men and the view which has unfortunately been basic to the Church’s doctrine of predestination from its first beginnings. The New Testament does, of course, also know and describe the life of this man as that of one who is saved and sanctified, expecting and ultimately receiving eternal life. But whereas the Church’s doctrine of predestination ends and halts with this definition as in a cul-de-sac, and whereas its last word is to the effect that the elect finally “go to heaven” as distinct from the rejected, the biblical view—in a deeper understanding of what is meant by the clothing of men with God’s eternal glory—opens at this point another door. For as those who expect and finally receive eternal life, as the heirs in faith of eternal glory, the elect are accepted for this employment and placed in this service. They are made witnesses.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 419-423.

The Exegetical Barth

For many people, especially for those who have never actually read him for themselves, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth can seem to be something of a pariah due to many places in his dogmatics where he appears to depart from traditional Protestant, Reformed, evangelical, or even orthodox theology. Putting aside the question of the merit of these sentiments, it is ironic that Barth would be criticized in this way, particularly by those who claim Scripture as their highest authority, given Barth’s explicitly and frequently affirmed commitment to say nothing of God except that which he himself has revealed in his Word. There may be legitimate criticisms to be made of Barth (and I believe there are), but we cannot simply write him off as an eccentric thinker or a logic-chopper who formulated his theology apart from or contrary to the biblical witness. Indeed, it was precisely his relentless commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God in Holy Scripture that led him to diverge from tradition where, from his perspective, tradition diverged from the Word.

Consider, for instance, Barth’s famous revision of the Reformed doctrine of election which he summarized as follows:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.[1]

At first glance, this way of stating the doctrine of election might seem, at least to some, a far cry from the biblical text. It is important to keep in mind, however, how Barth himself characterized the process by which he arrived at this view in his introductory comments to Church Dogmatics II/2:

To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety. The work has this peculiarity, that in it I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition to a far greater extent than in the first part on the doctrine of God. I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of carlBarth2009departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot but be anxious to see whether I shall be alone in this work, or whether there will be others who will find enlightenment in the basis and scope suggested. It is because of the rather critical nature of the case that I have had to introduce into this half-volume such long expositions of some Old and New Testament passages. For the rest, I have grounds for thinking that to some my meaning will be clearer in these passages than in the main body of the text.[2]

These are revealing words indeed. It is fascinating to note that Barth “would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination”. It certainly would have been much easier, and safer, to do so. Yet Barth, in good Protestant fashion, was determined to “let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters”. In the end, it was Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura!) that drove him “irresistibly to reconstruction”. For this reason, Barth anticipated that the arguments for his reconstruction would be clearer and more convincing in the extensive sections of biblical exegesis (inserted into the text as excurses) than in his explanation of the doctrine itself. After examining Barth’s view, we may still disagree with him, but we cannot fault him for betraying the fundamental principle, so central to the Protestant and evangelical tradition, of the supreme authority of Holy Scripture.

This is how Adam Neder puts it in his contribution to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism:

…while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology – free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

Although Neder’s specific focus here is on Christology (something that in Barth is in no way disconnected from his doctrine of election), his fundamental point still applies. As much respect as Barth had for church tradition, he “regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture”. As Neder rightly points out, this commitment lies at the very heart of what constitutes a truly evangelical theology, one that unswervingly aims to submit all thought and speech about God to what God says of himself in Scripture. Sharing this common ground, I believe that we as evangelicals should consider Barth primarily as an ally rather than as an enemy, even though we may at times strongly disagree with him. If nothing else, reading Barth seriously forces us to examine whether it is actually Scripture to which we are submitted or some other concept of God derived from another source. For this, we can thank God for the gift that Karl Barth was and continues to be to the church.


[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark), p.94.

[2] Ibid., p.x.

[3] Neder, A. 2011. ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.149-150.

The Christological Limits of Our Knowledge of God: Karl Barth on the Primacy of Christ in Theology

Many people are critical of Karl Barth’s insistence on not simply a Christocentric approach to biblical interpretation and theology (something that, as Richard Muller has shown, is pervasive in the Reformed tradition) but a Christo-constricted approach. That is, instead of simply thinking of Christ as the goal (the Christocentric approach), a Christo-constricted approach looks to Christ alone (solus Christus!) as the singularly determinative factor that limits and guides the entire process of interpretation and theology from start to finish, much like the banks of a river limit and guide the water to its proper destination. In this way, a Christ0-constricted approach gives a distinctly Christological shape not merely to Christology but to every aspect of faith and practice.

Now the reason why many people are critical of Barth on this point is precisely because it seems too, for lack of a better term, constricted. That is to say, it appears to impose an arbitrary principle that can distort the interpretation of biblical texts or other doctrinal loci by forcing them to conform to an artificial framework. For his part, however,barth Barth argues the exact opposite; for Barth, it is the non Christo-constricted (even Christocentric) approach that opens the door to any number of interpretive and theological problems. Barth writes:

Our crucial first statement, “that the eternal Word of God chose, sanctified and assumed human nature and existence into oneness with Himself, in order thus, as very God and very man, to become the Word of reconciliation spoken by God to man,” signifies the mystery of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. That is to say, in this statement we describe absolutely the sole point in which New Testament witness originates, and therefore, also, the sole point from which a doctrine of revelation congruous with this witness can originate. We do not look for some higher vantage point from which our statement can derive its meaning, but we start from this point itself. This, of course, we cannot do by our own authority and discretion. We can only make it clear from the Evangelists and apostles what it will mean to start from this point, and then try to make clear what our own starting-point is. But we cannot get “behind” this point. Therefore we cannot derive or prove the statement, in which this point is to be described, from a higher discernment. We can only describe it as a starting-point. Whatever we think or say about it can only be with the aim of describing it again and again as a mystery, i.e., as a starting-point.

If revelation is to be taken seriously as the revelation of God, and not just as an emphatic expression for a discovery which man has made in himself or in his cosmos by his own powers, then in any doctrine of revelation we must deal expressly with the point that constitutes the mystery of revelation, the starting-point of all thought and language about it. At all costs we must make it clear that an ultimate mystery is involved here. It can be contemplated, acknowledged, worshipped and confessed as such, but it cannot be solved, or transformed into a non-mystery. Upon no consideration must it be treated in such a way that the mystery is resolved away. In Christology the limits as well as the goal must be fixed as they are seen to be fixed already in the Evangelists and apostles themselves; i.e., the goal of thought and language must be determined entirely by the unique object in question. But this same object in its uniqueness must also signify for us the boundary beyond which we are not to think or speak. Christology has to consider and to state who Jesus Christ is, who in revelation exercises God’s power over man. But it must avoid doing so in such a way as to presuppose that man may now exercise a power over God. It must state definitely what cannot be stated definitely enough. But even so it must observe its own limits, i.e. the limits of man who has seriously to do with God’s revelation.[1]

Essentially Barth is saying here that far from being an arbitrary or artificial imposition on Scripture, it is Scripture itself which directs us to Christ as the boundary line beyond which we must not cross at any point in our interpretation or theologizing. When we pay close attention to the witness of the New Testament authors, we discover how relentlessly they pointed away from themselves and to Christ as the Word of God enfleshed, as the ultimate and definitive revelation of God to which the law and the prophets were only pointers, as the substance in whose light everything else becomes shadow:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:1-3)

Never in Scripture do we find the authoritative witnesses trying to, as Barth says, “get behind” that which God has spoken in Christ who, as the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature, does not merely reveal things about God but reveals God himself in his very own incarnate person. Even to attempt to get behind Christ for another revelation, for another word from God, for something higher and greater, for some principle or system or method, is to insist on going the way that God’s revelation has prohibited to us and trespass on ground that even angels fear to tread. In other words, a Christo-constricted approach to interpretation and theology is not arbitrary or artificial imposition, but the only path left to those who wish to repentantly submit all their thought and speech about God to the actual way he has taken in revealing himself to us in Christ. In Christ, God has clearly established the limits that hedge us in on every side, the boundaries that dictate the way we must take in seeking knowledge of him. Were we to assert our independence by pursuing a knowledge of God outside of these Christological confines, we would be doing nothing less than trying to assert ourselves against God himself. Thus, a Christo-constricted approach is, in the final analysis, simply a matter of obedience.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.124-125

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.

Karl Barth, Romans 1, and the Validity of Natural Theology

In a recent post, I responded to Richard Muller’s criticism that Karl Barth’s rejection of natural theology as a valid way of obtaining knowledge of God constituted an erroneous and damaging revision of the concept of revelation. I argued, not simply from Barth but, more importantly, on the basis of Scripture, that revelation is reconciliation and that no division should be made between a knowledge of God that leads to salvation and a knowledge of God that does not.

Those who disagree usually make immediate reference to Romans 1:18-32 which, in their minds, deals a fatal blow to Barth’s position. Often, they think that this text is such an obvious defeater that it requires no explanation. Barth, however, was not so naive as to have formed his view in ignorance of this particular passage. In fact, he engages with it at some length in Church Dogmatics I/2, and I find his interpretation extremely illuminating. He writes:

The witness which the apostle declares to the heathen in and with the preaching of Christ, which he therefore awakens in them and makes valid against them, is here emphasised to be their knowledge of God the Creator. The invisible and unapproachable being of God, His everlasting power and divinity, are apprehended and seen in His works from the creation of the world (Rom. 1:20). It is from a knowledge of God, a knowledge of Him on the basis of revelation, that men always karl_barth5start when revelation comes to them in Christ (Rom. 1:19). That is why they can be accused of a “holding of the truth,” a corruptio optimi (Rom. 1:18). We must bear in mind that the very words which are so often regarded as an opening or a summons to every possible kind of natural theology are in reality a constituent part of the apostolic kerygma, whatever contemporary philosophemes may be woven into them.

To bring out the real meaning of the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ (Rom. 1:17, 3:21), Paul reminds us in Rom. 1:18–3:20 that the same revelation is a revelation of the wrath of God, i.e., that as we are told of the grace which has come to us, we have to perceive and believe our own abandonment to judgment. Grace and judgment are for both Gentile and Jew, both Jew and Gentile, Rom. 1:16, 2:9, and for both Jew and Gentile in the very best that they can do, their worship of God. It is a Christian statement presupposing revelation when in relation to the Jews Paul says that a knowledge of sin comes by the Law (Rom. 3:20). Similarly, it is presupposing the event which took place between God and man in Christ that he says that the knowledge which the Gentiles have of God from the works of creation is the instrument to make them inexcusable and therefore to bring them like the Jews under the judgment and therefore under the grace of God. Here, too, there is no difference. Because Christ was born and died and rose again, there is no such thing as an abstract, self-enclosed and static heathendom. And because Paul has to preach this Christ, he can claim the heathen on the ground that they, too, belong to God and know about God, that God is actually revealed to them, that He has made Himself known to them in the works of creation as God—His eternal power and divinity, which are none other than that of Jesus Christ. Therefore he can tell them that because of their knowledge they are inexcusable before God, if they have “imprisoned” the truth with their ungodliness and unrighteousness.

We cannot isolate what Paul says about the heathen in Rom. 1:19–20 from the context of the apostle’s preaching, from the incarnation of the Word. We cannot understand it as an abstract statement about the heathen as such, or about a revelation which the heathen possess as such. Paul does not know either Jews or Gentiles in themselves and as such, but only as they are placed by the cross of Christ under the promise, but also under the commandment of God. The witness of the hope of Israel, the prophetic revelation, is fulfilled in Christ. By smiting its Messiah on the cross Israel founders on that revelation. It has now become a revelation to both Jews and Gentiles. It now concerns the Gentiles. Therefore the Gentiles have to bow just as emphatically as the Jews to the claim and demand of revelation. Like the Jews, they are addressed on this basis: that from the creation of the world (ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου, Rom. 1:20, i.e., in and with their own existence and that of the whole world)—not of themselves, but by virtue of the divine revelation—men know God, and therefore know that they are indebted to Him. The status of the Gentiles, like that of the Jews, is objectively quite different after the death and the resurrection of Christ. By Christ the Gentiles as well as the Jews are placed under the heavens which declare the glory of God, and the firmament which telleth His handiwork (Ps. 19:2). They are therefore to be claimed as [those who know God] (Rom. 1:21); but only to the extent that, like the Jews, they have not remained such (οὐκ ἐδοκίμασαν τὸν θεὸν ἔχειν ἐν ἐπιγνώσει Rom. 1:28).

It is, therefore, not the case that Paul was in a position to appeal to the Gentiles’ possession of a knowledge of the invisible nature of God as manifested from creation. He could not link up pedagogically with this knowledge. In his proclamation of Jesus Christ he could not let it appear even momentarily that he was speaking of things which were already familiar by virtue of that “primal revelation.” At bottom the Gentiles did not achieve even in the slightest the knowledge of Ps. 19. That is, they did not give God praise and thanks as God (Rom. 1:21). As the sequel shows, this does not mean only a quantitative falling away of their service towards Him nor an imperfection of their relationship to Him. It means rather that the [worship and thanksgiving] which they owe God are not there at all. They have been ousted by another mind and thought and activity which at its root (in negation of the fact that God is revealed to man from the creation) does not have God as its object. “Their thoughts became vain and their foolish heart was darkened” (Rom. 1:21). “They professed (themselves and others) to be wise, and in this they became fools” (Rom. 1:22). And the result was sheer catastrophe: “They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man, yea of flying and fourfooted beasts and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). In this idolatry “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, they worshipped and served the creature instead of the Creator, who is blessed to eternity. Amen” (Rom. 1:25). And in due course the exchange had terrible consequences in the indescribable moral confusion of the human race.

Paul says nothing at all about the heathen maintaining a remnant of the “natural” knowledge of God in spite of this defection. On the contrary, he says unreservedly that the wrath of God has been revealed against this defection: “they which do such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32). Just as revelation had always contradicted heathen religion in the sphere of Israel and on the soil of Palestine, so now, when Jesus Christ has died for all, it contradicts it “publicly,” in its own heathen area, in an apostolic letter which remarkably enough is addressed to the Christians in Rome. There is no such thing now as an undisputed heathendom, a heathendom which is relatively possible, which can be excused. Now that revelation has come and its light has fallen on heathendom, heathen religion is shown to be the very opposite of revelation: a false religion of unbelief.[1]

Although Barth offers his interpretation of Romans 1 in his typically dense style, his overall understanding seems clear. First, he does not deny that creation declares the glory of God (as per Ps. 19), yet he believes, with Paul, that humanity is too blind and deaf in sin to see and hear it. Whatever natural conception of God the Gentiles might have, they transmute into idolatry. Thus, this passage can neither be used to validate the knowledge of God available through natural theology (for this is completely contrary to Paul’s argument!) nor to justify its use by believers (for this is completely beside the point of Paul’s argument which addresses unregenerate humanity).

Second, Barth pays careful attention to the context of Paul’s overall argument. Romans 1:18ff is connected to what precedes with the word “for” (gar in Greek). That is to say, Romans 1:18ff is inextricably linked to what Paul has said previously regarding the gospel that reveals the saving righteousness of God in Christ. The analysis that Paul provides in the latter half of Romans 1 is thus not some timeless truth regarding the human condition; it is rather the divine judgment and verdict pronouned on the non-Jewish world on the basis of the universal lordship of Christ who “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead”. Paul’s understanding of the plight of all non-Jewish peoples is therefore irreducibly eschatological, that is, it too has only been fully revealed in the revelation of the gospel of Christ: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…For the wrath of God is revealed against all…” (Rom. 1:17-18). In other words, for Paul, the “natural” knowledge of God in creation that results in humanity’s inexcusability is itself the result of the revelation of Jesus Christ. If we listen attentively to what Paul is actually saying, we will discover that natural theology is not something that stands prior to or independently from the knowledge of God in Christ revealed in the gospel: natural theology is only revealed as it is and for what it is – a corrupt and damning knowledge – in the revelation of the gospel.

Thus it seems that rather than being a defeater of Barth’s rejection of natural theology, Romans 1 would seem rather to fully support it!


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.306-307.

Karl Barth’s “Radical Revision of Revelation”

In the preface to the first volume of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth famously quipped:

I can see no third alternative between that exploitation of the analogia entis which is legitimate only on the basis of Roman Catholicism…and a Protestant theology which draws from its own source, which stands on its own feet, and which is finally liberated from this secular misery. Hence I have had no option but to say No at this point. I barthcrispregard the analogia entis as the invention of Antichrist, and I believe that because of it it is impossible ever to become a Roman Catholic.[1]

As a refresher, the analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being’, to which Barth so vehemently objected is the idea, epitomized by Thomas Aquinas, that although highly dissimilar, there exists an analogical relationship between God and creation such that human beings can come to know the former in a limited but true way by contemplating and reasoning inferentially from the latter. For example, human beings know that they change in ways that are either for the better or for the worse. God, on the other hand, if he is to be a perfect being (implied by the fact that he is God), he must not be subject to change like creatures, i.e. he must be immutable. Why? Because if he could either become better or worse, then he would not be perfect! This is what is commonly called ‘natural theology’ because it is a knowledge of God that derives from the natural order through the use of human reason. And it is precisely this that Barth rejected as inimical to the Christian faith insofar as it fails to account for the devastating effects of sin on human reason and refuses to submit exclusively to God’s self-revelation in Christ. That is why Barth accused the analogia entis as “the invention of Antichrist”: it sets itself in the place of Christ as an alternative way of gaining knowledge of and access to God.

Barth, of course, has been roundly criticized for this, not least by Protestant historian Richard Muller who rises in defense of the analogia entis and its implications for theology. He writes:

Barth polemicizes against any and all attempts to reach God via the analogia entis: he declares categorically, “We possess no analogy on the basis of which the nature and being of God as the Lord can be accessible” [CD II/1, pp.75-76]…Barth believes, in short, that he has saved the God of revelation from association with the god of reason—that, by pressing the issue of divine transcendence in a denial of the analogia entis, he has preserved the God of Christian revelation from a form of logical or philosophical entrapment in the phenomenal order…

[Yet] the analogia entis does not rest on a rational approach to the natural order that is utterly divorced from “revelation.”…Revelation, the making manifest of something that we could not otherwise know, takes place in and through nature as well as in Scripture—indeed, as far as the scholastic theologians were concerned, the great dividing line between the modes of knowing God lies not between so-called “natural” and so-called “supernatural” revelation, but between revelation and the other modes of knowing God, vision (as given to the blessed in patria) and union (as given to Jesus of Nazareth in hypostatic union with the Word). Barth’s radical separation of the analogia entis from revelation, thus, indicates that Barth himself has radically revised the concept of revelation.[2]

As is clear from this last statement, Muller castigates Barth for radically revising the concept of revelation in virtue of his rejection of the analogia entis. Indeed, it would appear that Muller’s charge has merit in that, when compared with many theologians of the past, Barth’s position seems extreme in its limiting of revelation to that which comes through Jesus Christ as opposed to the ‘general revelation’ available through creation.

I agree to a certain extent with Muller’s assessment, but I would demur that Barth’s “radical separation of the analogia entis from revelation” is truly as radical as Muller would have us believe, at least from a biblical perspective. It is certainly radical if, like Muller, we define revelation as “the making manifest of something that we could otherwise know”. But this is precisely where the problem resides. It is important to notice that in Muller’s definition, the purpose of revelation is epistemological, that is, it aims to inform our minds of things about God that we did not know before. Now if our idea of revelation is this and only this, then it is understandable why Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis and natural theology would seem exaggerated and overblown.

Barth, however, was operating with a different definition altogether, a definition that radically alters the picture. It is not that Barth denied that revelation has an epistemological component, rather he denied that revelation can be reduced to its epistemological component. For Barth, revelation is fundamentally soteriological, that is, it aims not merely to supply information about God but to effect reconciliation with God. In this sense, Muller is correct in his assertion that Barth’s understanding of revelation radically diverges from his own (and that of Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholicism, Protestant scholasticism, etc.). But, I believe, Muller is incorrect to insinuate that Barth’s view is contrary the biblical witness or orthodox Christianity. Why? It is for a very simple reason: in Scripture, knowledge is relational. True knowledge of someone or something is not abstract or theoretical; it necessarily involves a right relationship between the knower and that which is known.

Consider, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Notice that for Paul, God’s act of reconciliation in Christ necessarily entails the revelation of that act to the world, the making known of which actually effects that reconciliation between God and sinful humanity. Similarly in Romans 1:16-17, it is because the gospel reveals the righteousness of God that Paul can claim that it is also the power of God to save. Paul could, of course, offer personal testimony to this fact, for when God “revealed his Son” to Paul on the road to Damascus, it was not merely to give him new information; rather, it was to save him from his rebellion and employ him in the service of the gospel.

Moreover, Jesus himself declared in his high priestly prayer in John 17:1b-3:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

It does not seem that this could be clearer. To know God, according to Jesus, and to know him truly, is to have eternal life. This is not a mere knowledge about God, a knowledge inferred through the use of human reason, for this knowledge is identical with eternal life and thus involves a restored relationship with God in Christ! It is this understanding of knowledge, and thus revelation, that leads Paul to exclaim in Romans 10:1-2: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel according to the flesh] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”. Again, we can clearly see that for Paul, as for Jesus, knowledge of God is that which brings salvation. Whatever other ‘knowledge’ of God there may be outside of the reconciliation effected in Christ cannot, therefore, be rightly called knowledge of God.

This is why, for Barth, revelation is reconciliation. Revelation is not simply the means by which God supplies us with information about himself; it is the means by which he reconciles us to himself. If so, then how could we ever consider knowledge derived through the analogia entis – based as it is on corrupt human reason – to be true knowledge of God? How could we ever consider natural theology, which even pagans have, to be limited yet reliable since it leaves those who possess it in emnity with God? If revelation is irreducibly soteriological and relational, how could we ever think that we are able to extract if from nature through our own capabilities? Such a notion can only pave the road of self-justification, the perverse creaturely attempt to live autonomously from the Creator. Such a notion can only stem from the insidious belief that we are capable, through our own efforts, of gaining access to God without having to submit to Christ as the only Way, Truth, and Life and as the sole mediator between God and man. And as Barth insisted, such a notion has no place in a truly Protestant theology that, over against the Roman Catholic view, underscores again and again the great Reformation truths of sola Scripturasolus Christus, and sola gratia.

This is why, contra Muller et al, I stand with Barth in his ‘radical revision of revelation’ against the analogia entis and natural theology. In my view, the biblical teaching that revelation is reconciliation requires it inasmuch as it requires us “to take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.xiii.

[2] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.26-27.

Nein! to the Metaphysical God: Torrance on Van Til on Barth

In the last couple of posts (here and here), I have been considering the metaphysical and broader philosophical underpinnings of much Protestant and Reformed theology. As illustrative of this, I have engaged somewhat with the most vehement critic and opponent of Karl Barth, Cornelius Van Til. In my last post, I suggested that upon close examination, it is ironically Barth, rather than Van Til, who appears far more Protestant and Reformed, contrary to what would no doubt be the latter’s strenuous objections. To extend this argument a bit further, I would like to quote a section from T.F. abb_086-3Torrance’s incisive review of The New Modernism, Van Til’s first work against Barth (and, in this case, Emil Brunner as well). Torrance observes the following:

The two major criticisms that Dr. Van Til directs against the theology of Barth and Brunner are that it is activistic and anti-metaphysical. But surely these are criticisms that may be directed more truly and with greater force against the theology of John Calvin, and with greater force still against the Bible itself! Nowhere does the Bible make as its presupposition a metaphysic of being, but always in answer to the question “Who is God?” give [sic] the activistic answer: “I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt . . .” etc. And the same is true of the New Testament. The God of the Christian faith is the God who has come to us in Christ, and who has redeemed us in the death of His Son. The Reality of God, as Barth says, is always the reality of the God who acts in love and holiness. And there can be no doubt that John Calvin reacted against the scholastic tradition of a metaphysical doctrine of God and returned to this God of the Bible. There is nothing that John Calvin fumes against more than a metaphysical doctrine of God. It seems perfectly clear that the Calvinism with which Dr. Van Til operates is not the Calvinism of John Calvin himself, but a spurious Calvinism amalgamated with the same Aristotelian logic that cursed the theology of the Middle Ages, and of the seventeenth century – only Dr. Van Til’s Calvinism is not so logical. But this immediately throws new light upon men like Barth and Brunner, for we see in their revolt against what Dr. Van Til calls “orthodoxy” a serious effort to cut adrift from the dead god of the metaphysicians, and to get back to the living God of the Bible. However much we may criticise them, that is surely their great merit.[1]

Whatever may be the necessary tweaks to be made to this critique ‘after-Muller’, so to speak, I think that Torrance is absolutely correct in his contention that Calvin, and Luther before him, initiated a trajectory for the Reformation by attempting to escape from the metaphysical quagmire of medieval theology and plant themselves firmly onto the solid ground of God’s self-revelation in his Word. Whether Calvin and Luther were always consistent in this effort is beside the point. The path laid out by Calvin was clear:

But God also designates himself by another special mark to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.[2]

As Calvin famously said, the human heart is an idol factory, and unless we derive our knowledge of God solely from his Word, we will always conceive a god of our own making and in our own image. It seems to me that in attacking Barth’s anti-metaphysicalism in the name of ‘orthodoxy’, Van Til was profoundly mistaken, not only about the primal Protestant impulse to an exclusively Word-governed doctrine of God, but also about the God of Scripture who, as Torrance rightly notes, does not self-identify with metaphysical or philosophical concepts and terminology but only on the basis of who he has revealed himself to be in his mighty, saving acts, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Until that is firmly settled in our minds, I’m afraid that people like Van Til will continue, in the name of ‘orthodoxy’, to criticize and oppose not only truly Protestant theologians like Barth, but also those who chasten and discipline their minds to know God in strict accordance with the manner in which he has revealed and communicated himself in his Word.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1947. ‘Review of The New Modernism‘ in The Evangelical Quarterly 19, p.148.

[2] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. I.xiii.2.

All That Glimmers Isn’t Gold: Faith and Reason in Reformed Orthodoxy vs. Karl Barth

Inspired by R. Scott Clark’s recent post over at the Heidelblog in which he offered a quote from Cornelius Van Til on the importance of Aristotle for Reformed theology, I wrote a post of my own in which I corroborated his point with reference to Protestant historian Richard Muller but, unlike Clark and Van Til, I argued that the Protestant and Reformed appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy was not an improvement on but a defection from the trajectory initiated by the original Reformers, especially Martin 200px-cornelius_van_tilLuther and John Calvin. In this post, I would like to follow up by going a little deeper, this time examining the underlying assumption that made recourse to and appropriation of Aristotelian thought not only legitimate but also desirable in the eyes of the Protestant scholastics. As we will see, this will also shed light on the famous debate between Cornelius Van Til and the theologian whom he considered to be an arch-heretic: Karl Barth.

To begin, I would like to return to Richard Muller who emphasizes and then helpfully explains the rationale behind the Protestant marriage of theology and philosophy:

[W]e must also stress the genuine and positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and the Christian Aristotelianism of earlier centuries. This relationship, as manifest in the Protestant scholastic use of medieval paradigms for the discussion of the genus and object of theology and, to a lesser or at least less explicit extent, for the establishment of a theological epistemology in which faith and reason both had a place, and in fact provided a barrier to the use of seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy in Protestant orthodox system. Protestant scholasticism was no more conducive to a truly rationalistic philosophy than were the Augustinian, Thomist and Scotist theologies of the later Middle Ages. In the words of one historian of philosophy,

Scholasticism itself had been the result of a yearning for rational insight, of a desire to understand and to find reasons for what it believed.… the goal of its search was fixed by faith: philosophy served as its handmaiden.… They did not study the world as we study it, they did not pursue truth in the independent manner of the Greeks, but that was because they were so firmly convinced of the absolute truth of their premises, the doctrines of the faith. These were their facts, with these they whetted their intellects, these they sought to weld into a system.

Although these sentences were written as a description of medieval scholasticism, they apply with little modification to the systematizing efforts of the Protestant scholastics, particularly in terms of the relation of faith and reason, world view and independent investigation.[1]

According to Muller, the “positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and…Christian Aristotelianism” stemmed from the correspondingly positive relationship between “faith and reason”. In the context of medieval and post-Reformation theology, this conjunction of faith and reason did not correlate merely with the quest for logical coherency in the theological system; rather it involved the assumption that, to a certain extent, human reason could, even in its fallen state, acquire true, albeit limited, knowledge of God. This assumption had earlier received axiomatic expression from Thomas Aquinas who held that ‘grace perfects nature’ and that God can be known on the basis of inferential reasoning from analogies in the created order (e.g. Thomas’ five proofs of the existence of God). This notion, also designated by the phrase analogia entis (analogy of being), underwrote the cautious but optimistic confidence of the scholastics in natural reason’s inherent capacity to begin a journey to knowing God that could be completed and perfected by grace and faith.

Contrast this with Muller’s account of the rejection, evidenced in both Luther and Calvin, of the analogia entis and their corresponding insistence on the singular authority of biblical revelation:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ. Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them.[2]

Interesting, no? Once again we see how Muller, despite his overall thesis of continuity between the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox after them, admits to a certain amount of discontinuity that, in my view, amounts to a much more significant divergence than Muller wants to allow. To put it starkly, the difference between the analogia entis of Thomas Aquinas and the approach of Luther and Calvin (what can be called the analogia fidei, or ‘analogy of faith’) constituted one of the key issues that marked the Reformers’ contention against medieval Catholicism. The tantalizing question that this raises, of course, is this: what does this imply about the Protestant orthodox conjunction of faith and reason and the analogia entis as its underlying presupposition?

To suggest an answer, I would like to quote (at length) a section from Keith Johnson’s magnificent study Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis in which Johnson traces, as the title indicates, the course of Barth’s lifelong interaction with Roman Catholic theology on this very point. Concluding his analysis of Barth’s famous debate with Erich Przywara over what the latter considered to be “‘the fundamental thought form’ of all Roman Catholic theology”, Johnson writes:

Barth’s motivation for his rejection of the analogia entis…goes to the heart of the difference between Protestant and Catholic theology. It is a boldly Protestant affirmation of God’s grace…

Przywara’s analogia entis is built upon the notion that there is something ‘given’ in God’s act in creation – namely, the shape and structure of human existence itself – erichprzywaraand that human reflection upon this ‘given’ can lead to knowledge of God. On the ground of this claim, he holds that the knowledge of God available as a result of God’s act in creation stands in continuity with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and consequently, he believes that the knowledge of God available through philosophical reflection stands in continuity with the knowledge of God given in and through revelation found in the Catholic Church. Lying behind these affirmations is Przywara’s conviction that what humans know by reason on the basis of their nature can be perfected and fulfilled by what they know by faith on the basis of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This belief, in turn, is grounded in the notion that humans are, by nature, fit for God’s justifying grace in Jesus Christ because they stand in an intrinsic relationship to God by virtue of their creation by God, and this relationship remains intact even after the Fall and apart from the reconciling work of Christ.

Barth rejects the analogia entis because he rejects this line of thought and the theology behind it. The dividing line is Barth’s account of the doctrine of justification. Barth believes that the Fall has left humans incapable of acquiring knowledge about God, or having a right relationship with God, apart from a second act in addition to creation: the miracle of our justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…This rules out the notion that what humans know by reason stands in continuity with what they know by faith, and it also means that what they know by nature cannot stand in continuity with what they know by grace. Indeed, Barth thinks that if this were the case, then human action would stand in continuity with divine action in a way that contradicts the Protestant sola gratia, because what the human accomplishes by nature would contribute to what God accomplishes by grace…

The rejection of these doctrines is neither the result of a ‘demented’ point of view nor an irrational opposition to Roman Catholicism, Przywara, or the analogia entis itself…Rather, the reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier. They feared that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification allowed for a continuity between God’s saving act and human moral action, and that such continuity undermined a proper account of God’s grace. Barth correctly discerns that the same kind of continuity exists in Przywara’s analogia entis, because Przywara’s doctrine is predicated upon the notion that God’s revelation can be read directly off of creaturely realities. Barth had rejected this same error 15 years earlier when he turned away from the theology of his former teachers. Doing so now was nothing out of the ordinary for him, nor was it the result of a misunderstanding or a mistake: it was the fulfilment of the convictions that had governed his theology since 1914 and would continue to govern his theology for the rest of his life.[3]

The implications of this should be clear by now. If indeed the Protestant appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy was funded, as Muller states, by a conjunction of faith and reason similar to that espoused by Aquinas on the basis of the analogia entis, and if Barth, following Luther and Calvin, rejected this approach precisely due to the primal Protestant commitment to the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone, then it would seem that the Aristotelian-influenced theological systems of the later Protestant and Reformed orthodox constituted a reversal of the trajectory undertaken by the Reformers back toward the analogia entis and thus, ironically, back toward Rome itself. This largely substantiates the suggestion made by Ron Frost (cited in my previous post) that post-Reformation developments within Protestant theology turned the birth of the Reformation into a “miscarriage”[4].

By way of conclusion, I would simply like to draw out a further implication regarding Van Til’s fierce opposition to Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack rightly pinpoints the crux of the debate when he says:

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 young-barth-1confidence 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.[5]

The theological approach that McCormack attributes to Van Til is essentially the same as that of Aquinas, Pryzwara, and Roman Catholic theology in general. It presumes the capacity of human reason to, when used rightly, acquire true knowledge of God by extrapolating from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”, resulting in a knowledge that is not contradicted but confirmed and perfected by grace and faith. This is evidenced in Van Til’s claim (in the aforementioned quote posted by Clark) that Aristotle’s intellect was, in addition to Scripture, God’s gift to the church. This is the approach that subsequently led Van Til to his understanding of Christology, on the basis of which he harshly condemned Barth’s as heretical. By contrast, Barth (and, I might add, T.F. Torrance and Evangelical Calvinists) rejected the knowledge of God to be gained through application of the analogia entis and vigorously advocated a return to the primal Protestant impulse toward seeing the revelation of the Word of God as the only reliable basis for true knowledge of God. As Johnson argues, this was motivated by Barth’s unflinching commitment to the deep implications of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone which entailed a judgment upon any and all human attempts to contribute to God’s sovereign acts of revelation and reconciliation. Is this not perhaps why the Roman Catholic luminary Hans Urs von Balthasar claimed that in Barth “Protestantism has for the first time found its most completely consistent representative. He embodies a Protestantism that can be reached only by going back its roots, its deepest source: to Calvin and Luther”?[6]

It would seem necessary to conclude, therefore, that in terms of the Van Til vs. Barth debate, not only was Barth not the heretic that Van Til believed, but he was actually far more Protestant and Reformed than Van Til himself. At least on this point, Van Til appears far closer to Rome, indicating that all that glimmers in what can be found in natural reason surely is not the gold of faith.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.142. In-text citation from Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 1941), pp. 221–222, emphasis added.

[2] Ibid., p.223.

[3] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, pp.2, 119-121.

[4] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, p.225.

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

[6] von Balthasar, H.U., 1992. The Theology of Karl Barth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp.22-23.

Richard Muller and the Demise of “Calvin vs. the Calvinists”

In the world of Reformation and post-Reformation Protestant studies, the name of Richard Muller looms large. Among the many scholars working in the field, Muller distinguishes himself for his seemingly endless and virtually encyclopedic knowledge in his area of expertise. Not only is Muller a brilliant scholar, but he has also spearheaded the
decisive defeat of what he and many others consider to be caricatures and distortions of calvin-in-genevaReformation and post-Reformation Protestant theology, one of which is the (in)famous “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” thesis – the idea that the Reformed theologians following in Calvin’s wake, beginning with Theodore Beza, compromised the great Reformer’s teaching and constructed a system at odds with Calvin himself. The demise of this notion under Muller’s attack is assumed to be so complete that the mere mention of his name is regarded as sufficient to subdue any remaining stragglers still ignorant of his undisputed victory.

It is for this reason that I find extremely interesting what Muller writes at the beginning of his magisterial work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics about this very issue:

As for the terms “Calvinist” and “Calvinism,” I tend to avoid them as less than useful to the historical task. If, by “Calvinist,” one means a follower of Calvin who had nothing to say that was different from what Calvin said, then one would be hard put to find any Calvinists in the later sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. If by Calvinist, one means a later exponent of a theology standing within the confessional boundaries described by such documents as the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, then one will have the problem of accounting for the many ways in which such thinkers—notably, Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, Bartholomaus Keckermann, William Perkins, Franciscus Junius, and Gulielmus Bucanus, just to name a few—differ from Calvin both doctrinally and methodologically. One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists. Given the diversity of the movement and the fact that Calvin was not the primary author of any of the confessional norms just noted, the better part of historical valor (namely, discretion) requires rejection of the term “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” in favor of the more historically accurate term, “Reformed.”[1]

There are two things about this paragraph that I – as a highly appreciative but not uncritical follower of Calvin and the Reformed tradition at large – would like to briefly highlight.

1) Simply stated, there are differences, both doctrinal and methdological, between Calvin and the Reformed orthodox theologians that came after him. While Muller has indeed provided a helpful and necessary corrective to many of the more superficial historical reconstructions and radical disjunctions sometimes posed between the late medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods, it would be a mistake to over-read his argument and conclude that no differences whatsoever obtained between Calvin and the later Reformed. Although the phrase “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” does create some problems, even Muller himself makes the remarkable observation (detractors take notice!) that when Calvin is compared with the post-Reformation orthodox, “One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists.”

Clearly, this is the thesis that Muller ultimately rejects. But it is important to realize that he does so not because there no truth in the statement itself, for even he recognizes that there are indeed significant differences. Rather, he rejects the idea on methodological and terminological grounds, namely, that Calvin alone does not define the tradition that followed him and that said tradition should neither be considered exclusively as “Calvinism” nor should it be divorced from the wider theological and philosophical currents and prominent thinkers of the day. Nevertheless, Muller’s statement gives credence to our contention as Evangelical Calvinists that although the Reformed tradition cannot be reduced to Calvin, neither can it be reduced to the “Calvinist” or Westminsterian form that it assumed later on. There is, in other words, space for fruitful and constructive retrievals of Calvin’s theology (i.e. Evangelical Calvinism) that take different pathways than those cemented by the Reformed scholastics.

2) The fact that Muller’s objection to the “Calvin vs. the Calvinist” thesis is primarily grounded in methodological concerns raises an interesting point regarding Muller’s own counter-thesis regarding the “broad doctrinal continuity” between the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox.[2] To arrive at this conclusion, Muller argues that

Much of the literature assumes a discontinuity between the thought of the Reformers and their orthodox successors without recognizing that a change in form and method does not necessarily indicate an alteration of substance. Scholastic Protestant theology has been described as rationalistic, intellectually arid and theologically rigid—without due attention to its own statements concerning the use of reason and the import of dogmatic system for faith. Such descriptions ignore the process of development—itself quite original and creative—that brought about the orthodox or scholastic Protestantism of the seventeenth century…

In order for the Reformed scholastics to receive an adequate interpretation, therefore, we must not only allow for development and change within the tradition, but we also need to trace that development and change in terms of a movement of thought not simply from Calvin to the orthodox but from the theology of an entire generation of Reformers, including not only Calvin but also Bullinger, Musculus, Vermigli, and their contemporaries.[3]

Clearly, Muller is arguing that methodology is largely determinative of results. Sure, he says, if we simply compare “Calvin to the orthodox”, then we will end up with the false conclusion that the Reformed scholastics distorted Calvin’s theology. However, if we adopt the right methodology – by tracing the entire “movement of thought” from the medieval period through that of Reformed scholasticism, then we will arrive at the right conclusion – one of substantial continuity that is not overthrown by any elements of discontinuity.

Fair enough. However, it seems very odd to me that Muller also wants to maintain that

The term “scholasticism,” when applied to these efforts indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well…And despite the persistence of a few writers who insist that “scholasticism” brings with it a set of particular theological and philosophical concerns,10 there is, certainly, a consensus in contemporary scholarship that “scholasticism,” properly understood, indicates a method, capable of presenting and arguing a variety of theological and philosophical conclusions, and not a particular theology or philosophy.[4]

Why is this odd? Let me put it in somewhat stark terms. On the one hand, Muller argues that one’s method largely determines the results of one’s study. On the other hand, Muller argues that one’s method hardly determines the results of one’s study at all. Is the inconsistency not obvious? Since he wants to maintain continuity between the theology of the Reformers and that of the scholastics, Muller must argue that the undeniable change in method from the Reformers to the scholastics involved little to no alteration in the results of Reformed theological inquiry. Yet to defeat modern interpreters who attempt to drive a wedge between the Reformers and their scholastic successors, Muller must argue the exact opposite, namely, that adopting a particular method does indeed determine in large measure the results of one’s inquiry. So my question to Muller is this: which is it? You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

I do not want to deny that Muller has done a great service in helping us to better understand the history of Reformed theology. However, I think that Muller’s zeal to reinforce the continuity between the theological substance of Reformed orthodox and the Reformers (with the added bonus of excluding theologians such as Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance from the Reformed tradition as neo-orthodox) lands him in his own quandry, for in order to support his thesis, he must deny to others (Barth, Torrance, et al) what he allows to the Reformed orthodox. On the other hand, if he is willing to grant to the Reformed orthodox the freedom to change method and alter somewhat doctrinal content in contrast with their forebears, it would seem only right that he grant the same freedom to those Reformed theologians, such as Barth and Torrance (and Evangelical Calvinists!) who simply want to bring their tradition into greater conformity with the Word of God.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.30

[2] Ibid., p.46.

[3] Ibid. pp.43-44, 46.

[4] Ibid., p.35.

Christ the Center (If Only That Were True)

Anyone with a basic knowledge of T.F. Torrance will find the themes in the following excerpt from the preface to his book Theology in Reconstruction to be familiar territory. In my opinion however, Torrance waxes particularly eloquent here as he distills the importance of a scientific, and thus principially christocentric, approach to theological inquiry. After hearing from Torrance, I will explain my reason for quoting this section:

I have struggled to develop modes of inquiry and exposition that are appropriate to the nature and logic of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. [The essays in this volume] have been written under the conviction that we must allow the divine realities to declare themselves to us, and so allow the basic forms of theological truth t-f-torrance-1946to come to view and impose themselves on our understanding. Theology is the positive science in which we think only in accordance with the nature of the given.

Perhaps the most difficult part of theology is the struggle we have with ourselves, with the habits of mind which we have formed uncritically or have acquired in some other field of knowledge and then seek with an arbitrary self-will to impose upon the subject-matter. We have to remind ourselves unceasingly that in our knowing of God, God always comes first, that in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us…[W]e must beware of subjecting knowledge of God to an alien frame-work by adapting it to the patterns of thought which we rightly develop in our investigation of the world of nature and its contingent existence. Rather must we let our understanding be raised up to what is above so that, human though it is and must remain, it may yet suffer adaption under the impact of God’s self-revelation and acquire new habits of though appropriate to God himself.

Theology of this kind is possible only because God has already condescended to come to us, and has indeed laid hold of our humanity, dwelt in it and adapted it to himself. In Jesus Christ he has translated his divine Word into human form and lifted up our human mind to understand himself. Hence in theological inquiry we are driven back upon Jesus Christ as the proper ground for communion and speech with God. Because he is both the Word of God become Man and Man responding to that Word in utter faithfulness and truth, he is the Way that leads to the Father. It is in him and from him that we derive the basic forms of theological thinking that are appropriate both to divine revelation and human understanding.

We live in an era of sharp theological conflict and yet of genuine advance. ‘Theological solipsism’ (to borrow an apt expression from my brother, J.B. Torrance) is rampant, breeding disagreement – hence the need is all the greater for a rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating. On the other hand, when we actually engage in a critical and scientific approach to the basic forms of theological thinking and are ready for positive reconstruction in accordance with them, unity and logical simplicity re-emerge, theological disagreements begin to fall away, and a steady advance in coherent understanding takes place in continuity with the whole history of Christian thought.[1]

As I mentioned above, Torrance is particularly eloquent in explaining the essence of his theological method here, and so I don’t think it requires any comment or clarification. What I would like to do – the reason for which I decided to post this today – is press this quote into the service of reinforcing my response to James Cassidy’s article on Van Til’s critique of Barth, specifically with what pertains to Bruce McCormack’s astute observation that the dispute between Barth and Van Til (and those who, like Cassidy, follow suit) is “rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology”.[2] What McCormack means to say is that Van Til began with an a priori notion of God that he believed he could derive from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”.[3] This, of course, is the approach of natural karl-barththeology that, like Thomas Aquinas, begins with the sense data collected through observation of the material world and historical processes and then reasons from that data by negation to arrive at a concept of God. For this reason, natural theology yields essentially what amounts to a mere amplification of created reality and human nature (i.e. we are finite, God must be infinite; we are dependent, God must be self-sufficient, etc.).

As Torrance points out, however, this kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed in that it presumes to be capable of acquiring true knowledge of God prior to and apart from humble submission to the actual way in which God has revealed himself in himself, that is, in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. It tends to distort true knowledge of who God is in himself by formulating a concept of God determined largely by that which is not God. The disaster that can ensue, and as McCormack contends does ensue in the case of Van Til, is that this natural-theological view of God (which stems from nothing less than human arrogance and rebellion in the presence of the God who speaks) often becomes the Procrustean bed upon which God’s actual self-revelation in Christ is clamped down such that, in effect, human beings usurp the exclusive right and authority of God to determine the form and content of revelation. We end up with a God made in our image rather than a God who conforms us to his image in Christ. The tragedy, of course, is that when such a anthropologized God is held to be the true God, then given the determinative nature of a doctrine of God to theology as a whole, theologians who seek to expound their theology in strict obedient accordance with God’s self-revelation in Christ, such as Barth and Torrance, are accused of being heretics.

This is why it seems that there seems to be, at least right now, little hope for real dialogue with people like James Cassidy who follow Van Til. Darren Sumner (who blogs at Out of Bounds and is a Barth scholar in his own right) added this comment to my response to Cassidy:

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.

I agree with Darren’s assessment. Until Van-Tilians like Cassidy are willing to humbly subject their underlying natural-theological conception of God in repentant submission to Jesus Christ as the only “way, truth, and life” who determines the form and content of all true Christian faith and practice, it seems that they will continue to pass by the glory and beauty of the Christ, and the God revealed in him, that Barth glimpsed and sought to expound like the proverbial ship in the night. To the ironies I pointed out in my response to Cassidy I can add another: if Cassidy indeed follows Van Til in forcing Christology to fit the theological framework established (at least in part) by natural theology, and if, as Torrance says, “in a genuine theology we do not think out of a centre in ourselves but out of a centre in God and his activity in grace toward us” in Christ, then it would seem that contrary to the name of the podcast in which he participates (for an example, click here), Christ is not actually the center. If only he was…

So for the time being, it seems that, in Torrance’s words, these “sharp theological conflicts” will continue, unless Cassidy and company are willing to engage in a “rigorous and disciplined inquiry that will not let us think in the way we want to think but only in the way we have to think if we are to do justice to the ‘object’ we are investigating” – the ‘object’ in this case being, of course, the One who ever and always remains ‘subject’ in all our knowledge of him. Whatever legitimate critiques there are to be made of Barth, this is decidedly not one of them – that he relentlessly endeavoured to repentantly submit all human thought and speech about God to the absolute majesty and incontestable authority of the actual way in which God has chosen to definitively reveal himself once and for all in the person of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Whether Barth was fully successful in this regard can be debated; nevertheless I am convinced that he provides us with an outstanding example of what obedient theology should look like.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, pp.9-10.

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

[3] Ibid.