Horton vs. Barth on Law vs. Grace

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 410vuZc5y-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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).[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring the critique of federal theology in this post.

[1] 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.

[2] Ibid., p.144.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, pp.188-189.

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

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

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

Overall impressions

I’ll begin by using a couple of analogies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specific points of contention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

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

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

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

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