Barth denied the Resurrection but didn’t know it?

August 13, 2010

I love this section from Lewis Smedes’ autobiography, on his encounter with Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth:

I was mesmerized for one semester by the boldness of Van Til’s thinking, but by the second semester I began to suspect that he was stretching a defensible theory of knowledge to the borders of absurdity. If true, it would mean that unless any two people had correct beliefs about God and about the world they could not have a genuine conversation about anything. How can two people talk respectfully together about interesting parts of reality — the economy, for instance, or the possibility of life on Mars — if one of them assumes that everything the other person says about anything is doomed to be dead wrong?

Van Til was convinced that if anyone’s assumptions about God are wrong, she cannot be trusted even when she says that she believes the gospel truth about Jesus. He wrote a book called The New Modernism in which he contended that the star theologian of the century, Karl Barth, was a modernist because, in Van Til’s view, he denied that Jesus was God in human form and denied as well that he had risen from the dead. The hitch was that Barth had affirmed these things over and over and, in fact, was largely to be credited with bringing the gospel back into the churches of Europe. But Van Til said that even if Barth shouted from the tower of St. Peter’s that Jesus was the Son of God, he could not believe what he was saying. His philosophical presuppositions would not let him.

Several years later, after I had finished my graduate studies in Amsterdam, I had occasion to put the question to Barth himself: “Sir, if you will permit me an absurd anachronism, let us suppose that a journalist carried a camera into Jesus’ tomb about eight o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and took pictures of every inch of the tomb, what would have showed up on his film?” Barth sighed. This again? He had been asked questions like this by every skeptical evangelical who got within shouting distance of him. But he was patient: “He would have gotten nothing but pictures of an empty tomb. Jesus was not there. He had walked out of the tomb early that morning.”

I told Van Til about this conversation. His answer was, for me, a final exhibition of intellectual futility. “Smedes,” he said, “you have studied philosophy, you should know that Barth cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Cannot! Not merely does not, but cannot believe what he said he believed. Conversation finished.

[pp. 68-69]

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26 Responses to “Barth denied the Resurrection but didn’t know it?”

  1. JL said

    I’m always interested to here anecdotes about the strange relationship (if it can even be called that) between Van Til and Barth.

    What’s funny is that I’ve heard of the question posed to Barth about the photo of the tomb as evidence that Barth didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection! Now that I know the story in its entirety it makes a lot more sense.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I’m really curious to read The New Modernism. It sounds like a hoot! By the way, Joshua, I checked-out your blog and have added it to my Google Reader. God bless.

      • JL said

        I’ve grown increasingly distrustful of Van Til since I actually began reading Barth. Engagement with Barth by ‘Van Tillians’ is just downright depressing. And it’s not just Westminster Philly that’s regurgitating Van Til’s criticism of Barth; Van Til still remains an authoritative figure when it comes to interpreting Barth in most conservative Reformed circles. It’s a pity because I think fellows like Berkouwer did a much more balanced job engaging with Barth.

      • Kevin Davis said

        I get a sense of what you are talking about (“depressing”) when I listen to Reformed Forum, one of my favorite podcasts but heavily Van Tilian.

        I also have enjoyed Berkouwer’s take on Barth. His book, The Triumph of Grace, perhaps would have had greater influence on Reformed readings of Barth, except that Berkouwer himself was constantly accused of Barthianism!

  2. Absolutely bleeding fantastic story- thanks for sharing it.

  3. Mike Cheek said

    Dr. Smedes had quite the presence in the classroom. His lectures on ethics were nothing if not passionate and engaging. Outside the classroom he was a warm and approachable person. If you spoke with him he fully engaged with you. He was also a truthful man. I take his account as *fully* reliable and accurate without hesitation.

    Van Til’s response is, well, mind boggling. I remind myself from time to time that man’s ability for self delusion knows no bounds. But this applies not only to “bad guys” like corrupt politicians, but alas to theologians as well. Thanks for the post. But still, absolutely astonishing.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks, Mike. I’m really glad to hear your first-person take on Smedes character.

      As for Van Til, yes, it is quite astonishing. What is likewise astonishing is that Westminster Philly is still regurgitating Van Til’s understanding of Barth. That is sad.

  4. Sze Zeng said

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for highlighting this. Van Til’s influence is not confined solely at Westminster Theological Seminary. His followers have exported his idea to the South Asia too.

    I have met a few who identify themselves as ‘vantilian’. One being the famous Indonesia evangelist Stephen Tong, whose influence spread across the Chinese communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Many of them think that Barth was a heretic.

    Smedes’ first hand experience with both Van Til and Barth is a gem for us who are interested in the difference between them.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks, Sze. That’s interesting to hear about South Asia. Hopefully our generation will do a lot to change the opinions of the evangelical church in regard to Barth. At the level of academic scholarship, the shift has already occurred, thanks to the labors of Princeton Seminary, John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer (on Barth’s doctrine of scripture) and the immense number of monographs written by young scholars and published by Ashgate, Paternoster, etc. As a result, I think that the confessional Reformed institutions will eventually take a more sound evaluation of Barth, unless they continue insular practices like hiring their own Phd graduates for academic positions (like WTS Philly’s current systematics department).

  5. Sze Zeng said

    I just checked out WTS Philly website and found out that their current two lecturers, Lane G. Tipton and
    David B. Garner, are their own graduates, just as you have said it.

    • Yep.

      If I were looking for a confessional Reformed seminary with strong systematics, I’d probably go with Westminster California, primarily because of Michael Horton but also John Fesko. I’m also intrigued by the work of Michael Allen (the little that I’ve read) who teaches at Knox Seminary in Florida. One of his forthcoming books is, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (London: T & T Clark, forthcoming 2012). I like what I’ve read in his introduction to Reformed theology from T & T Clark.

      • JL said

        I believe Lane Tipton is a WSCal grad, at least for his M.Div.

      • Kevin Davis said

        According to the WTS website: WSC for his MDiv.; WTS for his PhD.

      • Joshua Woo said

        Thank you for introducing Michael Allen’s work. After browsing it online, I’m thinking of ordering a copy of his Introduction to Reformed Theology.

        I don’t know anything about Westminster California, and so am grateful that it is perceived as an alternative to WTS.

        I have not read Horton, but can see that he is highly respected among the Reformed. On Fesko, I get the impression that he is not serious in engaging with those he critiques, namely N.T. Wright. I have not read much of Fesko’s works or listened to him. My initial impression is solely based on his work on justification.

        Just to share the impression that I have:
        http://szezeng.blogspot.com/2010/01/n-t-wrights-paul-and-j-v-feskos-n-t.html

      • Joshua,

        I actually agree with Reformed critics, like Fesko, against Wright. I have not read Fesko’s section on Wright, so I cannot comment in that regard. When it comes to Paul, I’m rather hardline “old perspective,” which is not to say that I don’t find Wright helpful in his contextual analysis of Paul.

  6. Bobby Grow said

    Kevin,

    You also have Scott Clark at WTS Cal; you wouldn’t want that, would you?

    I think he’s just banned me from his blog 😉 . . . he doesn’t seem to like folks questioning him (prime example of the insular).

  7. From Albert Mohler’s dissertation:

    “The theological encounter between Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth stands as one of the most interesting and tragic events in the shaping of American evangelicalism. Van Til’s influence was massive among his fellow evangelicals . . . it represented evangelicalism at both its best and its worst. At its best it represents the critical evangelical concern for the purity and integrity of the gospel, and of the authoritative revelation of the God who stands behind that gospel. . . . In addition, it is important to note that Van Til demonstrated an incredible engagement with Barth’s written corpus. Though the citations were imprecise and the interpretation often suspect, Van Til must be credited with an impressive reading of Barth’s writings, from the first articles in German journals, to the development of the Church Dogmatics. . . . Nevertheless, Van Til must be faulted for his idiosyncratic and biased reading of the material. His engagement with Barth’s written corpus . . . gives evidence of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” which led to strange and unflattering readings of the material. As Carl Henry was to comment concerning Christianity and Barthianism: “The appraisal tends still to read Barth in terms of the consistent outcome of his presupppositions even where Barth vulnerably prefers inconsistency.” That is to say, Van Til must be faulted for his tendency to read Barth always in terms of his philosophical beginnings, and to insist that Barth’s development be an unbroken line from Berlin to Basel. The lack of an understanding of the tremendous changes in the theology of Karl Barth from the Epistle to the Romans to the Church Dogmatics renders any interpretation suspect if not failed. . . . The most basic problem in Van Til’s interpretation of Barth is the polemical intention which drove Van Til’s engagement with all modern theologies–particularly that of Karl Barth. In an obscure footnote Van Til acknowledged this intention:

    ‘Some of my friends and critics have observed that Karl Barth is my bete noire. This is true in the following sense: it occurs to me that the most effective way to set the Reformed Christian position over against that of modern theology is to set it over against the one who appears to be nearest the Reformed Faith. Barth is usually acknowledge to be the most ‘conservative’ of the neo-orthodox theologians, hence his thought demands special attention.'”

    At the end of the section, Mohler reflects on the personal interaction between the two men, including a snippet of a letter from Van Til to Barth:

    “‘I have never, never judged of your personal faith in this Christ. When Paul says that Christ Jesus came to save sinners and adds “of whom I am chief” I seek to be his follower. If, and so far as I have, in spite of this, misunderstood and misrepresented your views I beg your forgiveness for Christ’s sake.’

    “With a touch of genteel humor between the two old men, Van Til signed his letter “C. Van Til, Ein Menschenfresser.”

    -Mohler, “Evangelical Theology and Karl Barth: Representative Models of Response,” Ph.D. diss, pp.101-106.

  8. Emerson Fast said

    In Eberhard Busch’s biography of Barth, he references Barth as having humorously gleaned from Van Til’s book that he (Barth) is possibly the worst heretic of all time. I forget which page this is on (away from my books) but you can flip to the index and locate the limited sections of the biography that make mention of Til.

    Whether or not Barth was being overly jocund, this truly seems to be the spirit of what American evangelicals think of Karl. A shame, that. Reminds me of the anathema of Nestorius, the man of whom patristic studies figure may not have even been a Nestorian.

    • Tyler Wittman said

      I think that there are more Evangelicals who appreciate Barth to a degree than this conversation may have given credit for.

  9. Emerson Fast said

    That, unfortunately, depends on the class of evangelical you are referring to. If it is those men who stand by and under the Chicago statement, then probably not. One cannot help but detect that the document was speaking indirectly about or to Karl, and that in a manner that can hardly be attributed to appreciation of him.

    It is also unfortunate that this document determines the way a large swath of evangelicals will likely think of Barth (without, of course, ever making an attempt to seriously study the man’s ouvre).

    At any rate, in the body of Christ we are to exercise impartiality and love to all. Who cares if Van Til mis-represented Barth? Lets be sure we are not guilty of the same to Van Til!! There could be more to his philosophical presuppositions than he is given credit for, and I am interested to find out.

  10. Kevin Davis said

    Thanks, Emerson, for the Busch reference. I was planning to read his biography of Barth this coming winter. I think your Nestorius comparison is intriguing, but hopefully it won’t take 1,500 years (!) to rehabilitate Barth in evangelical circles.

    Tyler,

    Yes, there are some evangelicals who read and appreciate Barth, but this number, especially in America, is a definite minority, a small minority. Vanhoozer is in this minority, just as Bernard Ramm was in this minority in the previous generation. Now, Barth scholarship has rapidly advanced in the last 20 years, which will eventually have some influence on the evangelical academy, but currently we still have the same caricatures and suspicions of the Van Tilians proliferating, albeit in a more careful and qualified prose.

  11. Sam said

    I think poor scholarship, misrepresentation, etc. which unfortunately characterized Van Til’s work on Barth, are always undesirable and unfortunate, particularly when they have the degree of influence Van Til’s work has had.

    That being said, I think the idea that Barth provides real solutions to the problems of modernity, or that he is somehow genuinely orthodox precisely where he is modern, rather than being orthodox in spite of being modern, is simply wrong, and the history of his reception and effects, among other things, are evidence of this, particularly when compared to the history of the reception and effect of the great theologians with whom he is often compared (problematically, in my view – not because he wasn’t brilliant, mind), such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.

    I have personally suffered under the suspicion of the Van Tillian types, and I am wholly unsympathetic to that suspicion qua scholar and student. But the non-academic question, not of Van TIl’s scholarship, but of his “gut insticts,” is something that merits consideration – not by scholars necessarily, but certainly by churchmen and pastor-theologians.

    My own estimation of Barth continues to decrease in so far as I used to look to him for solutions; now I’m happier reading someone like Troeltsch if I’m looking for people who really saw the problems and wrestled with them, even though Barth is inspiring and eminently worth considering for all serious students of theology.

    But I don’t think he was what most people, including the Evangelical types who tend to fawn over the latest scholarship, thought he was. And his fruit, ecclesially and theologically, will be the ultimate witness to that, however long it takes theological scholars to comes to terms with it.

    These are fighting words to some, no doubt, and I ask them to rest easy, for I won’t further elaborate; the modern Princetonians, McCormickites, and other Barthians need not be peturbed. My point here was to comment not so much in favor of Van Til, but to caution against a too-total rejection of his motives and concerns, even if such a rejection is warranted when confined to the domain of scholarship.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Despite my own fawning, I agree with you, Sam. I certainly do not want to make Barth into some sort of infallible touchstone, yet he rightly belongs to the canon of theologians (Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin) who are definitive for Christian dogmatic discourse.

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