I come not to praise Barth, but to bury him. The bad theology that men do lives on in Reformed message boards, while the good is interred in libraries. In the early 20th century one would occasionally come across monographs asking, “Is Talk of God possible after Kant?” with the implied answer, “Not really.” We see the same intellectual cul-de-sac in modern Reformed discussions about Barth. In this proposal I seek to evaluate where Barth was really wrong, where the conservative Reformed world really misread him, and where he was really correct in a few key areas that Reformed are woefully under-prepared on. Not to pre-anger my Reformed readers, they should rest assured knowing I reject what Barth says (or rather, denies) concerning propositional revelation. I am more interested in his reconstruction of substance-ontology based on God’s acting.
Ask someone, usually a disciple of Cornelius Van Til, what Barth taught, and you will get an erratic answer along the lines that he denied the propositional revelation of the Word of God. What you won’t get, however, is why he denied it, where he denied it, and what else he also said. In other words, you see the same template here that you see everywhere else in the Reformed world. Is it any wonder so many are leaving for Rome and Mother Russia?
Contra a Neo-Orthodox Existentialist Revelation-Encounter?
Is it true Barth taught the above? I’ve read 1,000+ pages more of Barth than 99.99% of Reformed people, and I can honestly plead ignorance to the above question. In I/1 of Church Dogmatics Barth gives about three different answers to the question, “Who/what is the Word of God?” Admittedly, Barth’s inability to give a clear, concise answer to this question is problematic for Barth, but here’s the refreshing thing: that gets to be his problem, not mine. I get to say, “Hmm, I disagree with you there….moving on.” The problem with Van Til’s disciples is that they focused on this one problem of Barth and wrote more pages against it than Barth wrote for it. It made for laborious reading. Even worse, it made the uninformed lay person think that this is all that Barth said.
Was Barth an existentialist? Depends on what you mean by the term. Putting him in Camus’ camp probably isn’t accurate. Further, Barth specifically distanced himself from other neo-Orthodox theologians like Brunner and Tillich, so even pegging him as “neo-Orthodox,” while somewhat accurate according to seminary textbooks, isn’t all that helpful.
But Didn’t Barth’s Influence Destroy Mainline Churches in America?
I used to think this–and it is a specific argument that Van Til advanced–but I don’t think it is all that tenable (did Calvin’s influence destroy evangelism? My point exactly). There are several lines of response. Most mainline churches are more influenced by Martin Buber and Paul Tillich than by Barth. The easiest and simplest answer is that mainline Christianity accepted the status quo and didn’t challenge it, and it’s hard to argue that Barth caused the status quo Zeitgeist in 1960s America.
But Didn’t Barth Deny the Supernatural, in particular the Virgin Birth?
No. Read Church Dogmatics I/2, pp. 190-207. He engages in overkill in arguing for it.
His Creative Disciples
Most of Barth’s serious followers critiqued and challenged his views on major issues. I have in mind Colin Gunton, Bruce McCormack, and Robert W. Jenson. While clear Barthian influences can be found, they did not limit their theologies to simply parroting Barth (as is seen in their take-it-or-leave-it approach to the Filioque).
How many conservative Reformed folk benefit from Barth?
One line of argumentation that got the status-quo Reformed world with its pants down was the Patristic Christology argument against Calvinism. Now, there are some devastating responses to this argument, responses which if pursued in full completely undermine Anchoretic Christianity, but such a response requires a patient working through of historical theology and philosophy–something Reformed seminaries do not specialize in. For all of Barth’s problems, he knew historical theology–particularly Reformed Scholasticism–better than most and could work through the debates effortlessly. And for the most part, he was fairly knowledgeable of the philosophical background.
Most Reformed folk, on the other hand, aren’t. Take a volume published by P&R. With the exception of Robert Letham and Keith Mathison, does it really stand up to Pannenberg? Oliphant is close, though. (off topic: Letham came very close to endorsing Barth’s trinitarianism. How did the Reformed world not call him on that?).
The Reformed world loves Jonathan Edwards. I love Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards did not love “substance-based ontologies drawn from classical metaphysics.”(see footnote). The problem, if such it be, is that Reformed theology in particular, and ante- and post-Nicene theology in general, presupposes a substance ontology. How is this not a deviataion of sorts (and for the record, I stand with Edwards on this one)?
Therefore, the Reformed have nothing to fear from Anchoretic attacks. A working knowledge of Barth, Edwards, and ontology can turn the tide and force the Anchorites to own up to the limitations in substance ontology.
Footnote: True, he held to the basic Western Trinitarian model, evidenced by his quotations of Peter von Mastrict, but his work “The End for which God Created the World” is clearly not based on a substance metaphysic.