This week, we celebrate the birthdays of two of the twentieth century’s most significant theological minds: Karl Barth and Cornelius Van Til. Although they were theological adversaries, they were both men of faith who exercised enormous influence over the contours of theology in Europe, North America, and beyond.
Born on May 10, 1886, Barth was trained as a pastor but schooled in German Protestant Liberalism. However his time as a pastor during the First World War caused him to reject his theological upbringing for a theology based upon God’s dialectical revelation. Barth first made a name for himself with his commentary The Epistle to the Romans, but it wasn’t until his unfinished 10,000-plus-page Church Dogmatics that Barth articulated the full breadth of his dogmatic vision.
For Barth, theology is a task of the church. Dogmatics seeks to say something purposeful and meaningful about God. It’s a matter of Anselm’s famous medieval dictum: “faith seeking to understand.” Church Dogmatics itself is a four-volume work divided into twelve partial-volumes. The four volumes are divided by topic: volume 1 is a theological prologue on the doctrine of the Word of God, volume 2 is on the doctrine of God, volume 3 addresses questions of creation and creature, and volume 4 is on the doctrine of reconciliation. While each volume is informed by what precedes it, it is not necessary to read them consecutively.
Van Til was born in the Netherlands on May 3, 1895. He earned his PhD from Princeton University, and subsequently he began teaching at Princeton Seminary. Shortly thereafter Van Til formed part of the group that founded Westminster Theological Seminary in protest against Princeton’s movement in a modernist direction. He taught at Westminster for 43 years and also served a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where his writings have remained influential. Van Til is perhaps best known for his presuppositionalism, in which he argues that the dispute between Christianity and its opponents cannot be mediated by agreed-upon facts. Instead, every worldview is grounded on an unprovable basic presupposition. For non-Christian systems, this means their views must be critiqued according to internal contradictions that emerge from their inadequate starting point. For Christianity, this means beginning with the self-attesting self-revelation of the triune God. To this day, Van Til’s writings on apologetics are widely read and he remains highly influential in significant branches of American evangelicalism and the Reformed tradition, especially his books The New Modernism, Common Grace, The Defense of Faith, and A Christian Theory of Knowledge.
Barth and Van Til in Conflict
Those familiar with Van Til’s writings know that he was deeply opposed to theology of Karl Barth. For Van Til, Barth was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a heretic whose writings were ultimately destructive of the Gospel. In Barth’s eyes, Van Til didn’t rate much higher. On a handful of occasions, Barth took to personal correspondence to complain about Van Til’s attacks on his work. Further, it is believed that Barth was targeting Van Til in his preface to IV/2 of his Church Dogmatics when he wrote of “butchers and cannibals” who were unwilling to give his work a fair reading.
Van Til’s foremost critique of Barth was that Barth’s theology was anti-theistic. Barth’s theology was an overreaction against the radical immanence of God found in the liberal theologians of the day. Barth borrowed orthodox language and presented some external similarities with a Reformed point of view, but in the end was simply Modernism. God was exalted beyond the temporal world and in the process he condemned the temporal world. History was worthless. Likewise, humanity was placed with God above the temporal order in such a way that revelation—God making God’s own self known—was unnecessary. Although familiar with Van Til’s criticism, Barth himself never took up pen to defend himself against Van Til.
Interpreters of Barth have claimed that Van Til’s criticism is based on a misunderstanding of Barth’s work. They complain that Van Til tried to explain the whole theology of Barth on the basis of his earlier positions, and that in terms of philosophical systems, this was at the root of his entire system. He failed to take into account the shifts in Barth’s own thinking as he moved from his Epistle to the Romans to his mature thinking in the later volumes of Church Dogmatics. The conflicts between Van Til and Barth have been picked up and carried on by their disciples to this day.
It remains an open question whether the evangelicalism of Van Til and Barth have room for friendship or will remain foes, especially within the various branches of the Reformed tradition within the United States. Despite this, we can still be diligent in our efforts to understand the thinking of each man on his own terms by going back to the sources. Finally, we should be encouraged by Barth’s gesture to Van Til in 1962. Previously, Barth had been rude toward Van Til. However, he took a step towards reconciliation when he was visiting Princeton to give a series of lectures. Van Til used the opportunity to write to Barth: “When you came to Princeton I called up the Seminary and asked whether I could see you but was discouraged from doing so. When I looked for an opportunity to shake hands with you after your Princeton lectures [the Warfield lectures] you were hurried away. When at last I did come near to you in the hallway and somebody called your attention to my presence and you graciously shook hands with me, saying: ‘You said some bad things about me but I forgive you, I forgive you,’ I was too overwhelmed to reply.”