In a critical essay of Karl Barth’s Christology, Michael Horton writes the following:
It seems to me that the main reason that Barth resists talk of “before” and “after” in [redemptive history] is that this would open up a space for the God-world relationship that is logically prior to grace. As we have seen, it is a basic presupposition of Barth’s revised supralapsarianism that law cannot come before gospel. This follows from the correlative assimilations of creation to redemption, and nature to grace. Even at the expense of calling into question a state of original integrity, law cannot precede gospel. Rather, the law is in the gospel, God’s holiness is in his grace, his wrath is in his love…
There can be no law prior to or apart from gospel because there is nothing prior to or apart from gospel. There is no “law of nature” alongside God’s “word of grace.”…”This priority of the law to the gospel which comes to such clear expression in Question 9 of the Heidelberg Catechism,” says Berkouwer, “is wholly wanting in Barth’s view of the law. . . . There is therefore also no room in Barth’s conception for the view that man was placed under the law of the good Creator before the fall into sin and unrighteousness” (The Triumph of Grace, p.257).
The essence of Horton’s critique here, following Berkouwer, is one that goes back to Cornelius Van Til. Succinctly stated, it is that “in [Barth’s] dogmatics there is no real historical transition from wrath to grace.” Given the evident persistence of this particular accusation, I would like to dedicate this post to providing a response. I can in no way provide an exhaustive rebuttal in a blog post, so I simply intend to make a single point that, in my opinion, constitutes a substantial rejoinder, not because it makes Barth immune to critique but because it undermines the foundation upon which Horton’s (and Van Til’s) critique is based.
To begin, it is important to understand the underlying theological commitments of that fund this critique. As one author demonstrates in an earlier essay in the same volume, the objections of Van Til were formulated within the confessional stance of the Dutch Reformed tradition. In other words, such critiques are only possible if one presupposes the type of federal-covenantal theology characteristic of those theologians. This point should not be overlooked by many non-Reformed evangelicals who cite Van Til as their David against Barth’s Goliath, for they cannot coherently reiterate the bulk of Van Til’s critique without adopting his federal approach.
This, however, is a fairly minor point in that it does nothing to mitigate the force of what Van Til and Horton argue concerning Barth’s alleged conflation of law/wrath and gospel/grace. So to offer a more substantial response, I would like to quote a passage from Peter Leithart’s excellent work on Athanasius in which he compares the theology of the great patristic defender of orthodoxy with the federal framework upon which Horton’s criticism of Barth hangs. Leithart writes:
Michael Horton projects a particular version of the law-gospel distinction back into Eden, and this produces a Reformed version of the nature/grace dichotomy [found in Roman Catholic theology]. According to Horton, Adam was not a recipient of grace at his creation. God’s creation of Adam was an expression of “divine goodness,” but Horton refuses to call it “divine grace.” Horton criticizes other Reformed theologians for suggesting that “grace is fundamental to any divine-human relationship,” arguing that grace cannot “retain its force as divine clemency toward those who deserve condemnation” if the Adamic covenant is described as gracious. Adam was created under law, not under grace. Law is “natural” and human beings are “simply ‘wired’ for it.” Grace, however, is not natural and comes onto the stage only after Adam’s sin. It is not surprising that Horton claims that “Adam is created in a state of integrity with the ability to render God complete obedience,” by which he could earn what Horton describes as his “right” to receive the tree of life. Defending the proposition that the Adamic arrangements are rightly described as “covenantal,” Horton says,
Every covenant in Scripture is constituted by a series of formulae, most notably, oaths taken by both parties with stipulations and sanctions (blessings and curses). These elements appear to be present, albeit implicitly, in the creation narrative. Adam is created in a state of integrity with the ability to render God complete obedience, thus qualifying as a suitable human partner. Further, God commands such complete obedience, and he promises, upon that condition, the right (not the gift) to eat from the Tree of Life. While creation itself is a gift, the entrance into God’s Sabbath rest was held out as the promise for loyal obedience in the period of testing.
Lest anyone think that Adam’s obedience was itself a gift of God, Horton insists that Adam’s ability to obey comes from himself alone: “Created for obedience, he was entirely capable of maintaining himself in a state of integrity”; “Adam … was in a state of rectitude, perfectly capable of acceding to the divine mandate.” Adam was not created with free access to life but had all he needed to earn this access, working from his own natural capacities, apparently without any reliance on God’s continuing assistance. His obedience was not the obedience of faith but the obedience of nature. For Horton, we might say that humanity begins Pelagian and falls into Augustinianism.
Among the ironies here is the fact that Horton is a strongly anti—Roman Catholic Protestant who formulates his views of the Adamic order in order to protect the gratuity of grace, against, so he thinks, a Catholic subversion of grace. Yet in the very act of maintaining an anti-Catholic view of the covenant, Horton offers a view of Adamic nature that separates nature and grace in a way that the Catholic Church has only recently questioned. In fact, Horton goes much further than many Catholics, for whom creation is a gift of grace and for whom a state of natura pura is hypothetical rather than actual. Horton’s Adam existed in an actual state of pure nature, running on his own fuel and earning his access to the tree of life. Horton considers any deviation from this formulation a betrayal of the Reformation.
The problem that Leithart identifies here is not insignificant, and it is one that runs rampant in Reformed federalism and even among other evangelicals who adopt a classic Calvinist soteriology. Briefly stated, Horton and other federal theologians prioritize the law over the gospel in God’s dealings with the world. That is to say, the primary way in which God relates to creation, and in particular to humanity, is law-based rather than grace-based. This can be seen from Horton’s belief that the creation of human beings established a “period of testing” in which favor with God and the acquisition of eternal life were contingent upon humanity’s ability to perfectly fulfill the legal conditions of this ‘covenant of works’.
In this federal scheme, the subsequent introduction of the ‘covenant of grace’ (fulfilled by Christ and proclaimed in the gospel) to remedy the situation created by Adam’s transgression (resulting in condemnation and wrath) does nothing to change this fundamentally law-based relationship, for the covenant of grace comes in merely to supplement humanity’s consequent inability to fulfill the original legal requirements that remain forever binding. Grace, in this view, becomes subservient to law in that it is introduced only after the fall and hypothetically would not have been had humanity not fallen into sin. After the fall, human beings can return to God’s favor and gain the original promise of eternal life only if they (or, as the gospel proclaims, One who does so on their behalf), perfectly fulfill all of the covenant’s stipulations. Thus, whether pre-fall or post-fall and even into eternity, humanity’s relationship with God always, ultimately, and fundamentally depends on law-keeping. As Richard Muller summarizes:
The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical.
In light of this, I would suggest that the critique of Horton (following that of Van Til), can be turned on its head. We could say that in the federal scheme represented by Horton there is no real historical transition from law to grace inasmuch as the foundation of all of God’s dealings with humanity consistently remains the covenant of works that the law expresses. Again, an appeal to the covenant of grace here will not help, because in the federal scheme, the covenant of grace is purely contingent in that it intends to meet a need that hypothetically could have never even existed. It is, for all intents and purposes, a mere stopgap until the most basic relationship between God and humanity based on law can be rectified. Even with the institution of the covenant of grace, humanity can receive the hope of salvation only on condition of faith in Christ’s vicarious fulfillment of the eternally binding covenant of works. Therefore, beginning with the pre-temporal pactum salutis and extending into all eternity, humanity can only be loved by God if his legal demands have been satisfied.
For this reason, I think that it is warranted to redirect Horton’s critique back to him. Whereas he objects to Barth for his absorption of law and wrath into gospel and grace, I (and Barth would probably agree) object to his absorption of gospel and grace into law and wrath. If Horton insists on being a consistent federal theologian, then the two-edged nature of this problem seems unavoidable. I would suggest, therefore, that it is disingenuous for Horton (or any other federal theologian for that matter) to launch this particular attack against Barth inasmuch as it is precisely what he himself does. In terms of this particular dispute, I would have to side with Barth, because I believe that Scripture, and especially God’s self-revelation in Christ culminating in the cross and resurrection, clearly accords primacy to grace and gospel rather than law. Although addressing a period after the fall, Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:17-19a:
This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.
I think that what Paul articulates here regarding the relationship of God’s covenant with Abraham to the subsequent covenant enacted at Sinai is indicative of the overall nature of God’s dealings with humanity. This is not an unwarranted move even in federal theology that views the Abrahamic promise as reflective of the covenant of grace and the Mosaic law as recapitulating the covenant of works. Thus, as in redemptive history after the fall, so also in creational history prior to the fall: it is the promise of grace that precedes law and which cannot be annulled or modified by a law added later because of transgressions. In this sense, Horton has it completely backwards: grace does not follow law on condition of obedience; rather law follows grace as a temporary economy until the fulfillment of grace’s promise.
Although I would not follow Barth on every point, I would argue that he rightly discerned from Scripture that the foundational reality that defines God’s relationship to humanity throughout all time is not one of law and judgment but of grace and love. Barth understood that the God-world relation is ultimately given shape not by an impersonal contract of legal stipulations but by the overflow of infinite love that inheres in God’s own eternal intratrinitarian life. This is not to dispense with the law or God’s judgment upon sin; rather it is to maintain, along with Paul, that the law can never be said to displace grace but only serves grace until the fulfilment and consummation of the promise of grace in Christ.
Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring the critique of federal theology in this post.
 Horton, M.S., 2011. ‘Covenant, Election, and Incarnation: Evaluating Karl Barth’s Actualist Christology’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.142-143.
 Ibid., p.144.
 Harinck, G. 2011. ‘”How Can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa?”: The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
 Leithart, P.J., 2011. Athanasius H. Boersma & M. Levering, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.100-101. Horton’s statements cited by Leithart come from his book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
 Muller, R.A., 2003. After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, pp.188-189.