18 July 2007

of barth & evangelicals 1

As I mentioned awhile ago, I spent 25-27 June at Princeton Theological Seminary, attending their Karl Barth conference. This year's topic was "Karl Barth & American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes?" and was probably the best conference I'd been to in quite some time, finding each paper very engaging and helpful.

I'd like to try to provide a brief summary of each of the papers I heard, with a few comments interspersed. In this post I'll say something about the first day's morning papers.

On Monday morning, 25 June, the topic focused upon the legacy of Cornelius Van Til's critique of Barth for Barth's reception by American evangelicals. The presenters were Darryl Hart of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (and formerly a professor of church history at both Westminster Theological Seminary and Westminster Seminary in California) and George Harinck of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Hart's paper was entitled “Beyond the Battles for the Bible: What Evangelicals Missed about Van Til’s Critique of Barth.” On the whole, Hart noted how the reception of Barth in broader neo-evangelicalism differed from his reception in the conservative, confessional Presbyterianism represented by Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).

Neo-evangelicals (represented by institutions such as Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today) were not uncritical of Barth (particularly on Scripture) and early reaction was more cautious, nevertheless, by the 1960s neo-evangelicals were openly and sympathetically engaged with Barth's work. The Christianity Today obituary of Barth noted four positive aspects of his work: his attention to the Protestant Reformers, his theological rejoinder to totalitarianism, his strength and perseverance in writing Church Dogmatics as an objective presentation of God in his self-manifestation, and his religious devotion with its doxological orientation.

Confessional Presbyterian response, on the other hand, was much cooler, if not openly hostile. J. Gresham Machen (in 1928) and Caspar Wister Hodge (in 1930) both wrote somewhat favorably of Barth, but after the founding of WTS and the departure of the OPC from the mainline, opinions shifted significantly, with steady a barrage of anti-Barth articles and books. Criticism appeared not only from Cornelius Van Til, but also from NB Stonehouse, Larry Slote, Paul Wooley, EJ Young, and others, both in the Westminster Theological Journal and in the OPC Presbyterian Guardian.

Much of the criticism, according to Hart, remained directed at Princeton Seminary (e.g., the appointment of John Mackay as President) and the mainline Presbyterian church (e.g., the Confession of 1967). Moreover, much of the criticism sought to position Barth as a continuation of the "modernist" trajectory of Princeton and the mainline, even speaking of the "Barthian captivity" of the seminary.

Yet, Hart suggested, this barrage of anti-Barth criticisms made little or no dent on broader neo-evangelicalism and, if anything, seemed to come from a distant fundamentalist past. And this is understandable: concern for historic Presbyterianism and its institutions were of little concern to neo-evangelicals.

According to Hart, most evangelicals who have evaluated Van Til’s critique have missed the infra-Presbyterian character of it. Neo-evangelicals, after all, wanted a pan-Protestant movement with a kinder, gentler version of conservative Protestantism, but without fundamentalist crankiness - yet also without an ecclesiology or polemics. Neo-evangelicals, after all, said Hart, value good intentions over doctrinal standards, what he coined “orthopathy” over orthodoxy.

Hart suggested, moreover, that it is not entirely fair to see Van Til and confessional Presbyterians as uninterested in broader cooperation among Christians. They were, in fact, engaged in a worldwide Reformed ecumenism, in contrast with the essentially American character of neo-evangelicalism.

I found Hart's presentation quite provocative, though, assuming his descriptions are correct, I would want to press some points further. The confessional Presbyterian critique of Barth, especially as represented by Van Til, is to my mind seriously flawed and misreads Barth on an architectonic level, whatever validity there might be to some specific, targeted criticisms.

Hart's presentation, it seems to me, helps explain then - at least in part - why such a serious misreading of Barth could occur and seem plausible to so many: confessional Presbyterians tended to read Barth through a lens that maintained their identity over against that of Princeton and the mainline, justifying their departure and shoring up their defining boundaries by construing Barth as a mere continuation of theological modernism. Such a contextualization of Van Til seems possible and plausible.

Hart's paper was followed by George Harinck's presentation, entitled “Inspired by Dutch Neo-Calvinists: Van Til's critique of Karl Barth's theology.” Harinck attempted to place Van Til in the context of early 20th century neo-Calvinism as a way of shedding light on his critique of Barth.

Van Til's first treatment of Barth was a 1931 book review of a secondary work called Karl Barth’s Theology: The New Transcendentalism. The review didn’t deal with Barth's view of Scripture, but focused rather on his theories of reality and knowledge, taking a more philosophical than theological approach. Here in his first published interaction, Van Til already sees Barth as an extreme reaction to immanentism, making the eternal everything and temporal nothing, denying the complete self-consciousness of God as absolute personality, and neutralizing God’s exaltation by making both God and man eternal rather than temporal.

Harinck's interest was to contextualize Van Til and his initial exposure to Barth and how it might have shaped his critique. After receiving his PhD in 1927 from Princeton University, Van Til took a trip to the Netherlands where he first encountered Barth's thought in the wake of two visits by Barth to the Netherlands.

Van Til visited his grandparents' pastor, Klaas Schilder, who seemed somewhat cautiously favorable toward Barth, seeing Barth as moving theological in his direction. Barth sympathizers in the Dutch church, however, tended to be hostile toward the neo-Calvinist approach to culture and politics, leading to some tension. In Schilder's interaction with Barth's thought he emphasized God’s accommodation to our humanity, following Kuyper and Calvin and over against Barth’s over-emphasis of transcendence. Harinck suggested, however, that in his resistance to Barth, Schilder became very much like Barth (e.g., a decisive rejection of natural law/theology).

Schilder's response, then, provides some of the context for Van Til's own initial published reaction to Barth. Moreover, Van Til's method of critique, according to Harinck, was part and parcel of neo-Calvinist tradition – not interested so much in the intellectual problem posed by Barth or Barth's own internal reasoning, but rather in expositing his own view. As a result, Van Til tended to judge Barth by consequences that he drew from Barth's text, even those these were consequences that Barth explicit denied or argued against.

Harinck continued by placing Van Til's critique of Barth in the context of WTS's break with Princeton. Building on Machen, Van Til positioned Barth as next stage of battle between Christianity and liberalism and as next phase of WTS’s opposition to Princeton.

Harinck noted that, since late 19th century, there had been an alliance between Princeton Seminary and the Free University of Amsterdam, especially under the influence of Vos. Kuyper, Bavinck, and Heppe had all presented Stone Lectures, giving Princeton an openness towards Dutch neo-Calvinism. When Barth began to made inroads into Princeton, however, the seminary broke with the neo-Calvinists and, as a result, the Free University of Amsterdam allied itself with WTS, in large part because of connections with Van Til and Stonehouse.

And yet, the irony was that Barth's own though and developing neo-Calvinism were converging in several ways. In fact, when Princeton Seminary didn’t want to lose the support of the Christian Reformed Church, President Mackay was able to present Barth as neo-Calvinist.

Furthermore, neo-Calvinism was itself changing, particularly with Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd and their development of a new Calvinistic philosophy that stood against neutrality and maintained a Christian option in every domain in life, rejecting natural theology and re-thinking. Harinck suggested that Barth's sympathies with these developments may be indicated by his 1931 invitation to Vollenhoven to come speak at Bonn against natural theology, any knowledge of God prior to revelation. Vollenhoven, however, could not go.

So, given all of this, how can we account for the seriousness of Van Til's (at times verging on obsessive) opposition to Barth, especially when a neo-Calvinist figure such as Berkouwer grew more sympathetic? Harinck suggested that there was a parallel as well as difference between Van Til (and neo-Calvinism) and Barth.

Within neo-Calvinism Bavinck’s critique of Enlightenment paralleled Barth’s departure from liberalism, emphasizing the need to make the Bible and church relevant to modern world. Thus views that see that see neo-Calvinism as “traditional” and Barthianism as “modern” are not quite right. Neo-Calvinism was a late 19th century development and found itself in a period renewal and change during the 1920s.

Culturally, however, 20th century neo-Calvinism was in a vulnerable position, particularly in the Netherlands. As such, a Barthian alternative, even if deeply resonant with some of neo-Calvinism's own concerns, could appear as a threat. Moreover, Barthians tended to misunderstand the neo-Calvinist tradition.

In the case of Van Til, we can place him the larger neo-Calvinist context of offer possibility for Christian thought in the waning of the Enlightment. Yet Van Til's and Barth's offered solutions excluded each other's views, across a chasm of mutual misunderstanding, despite affinities. Perhaps then, Harinck urged, we need to come to understand both sides within their historical contexts.

Harinck's presentation, then, seemed to substantiate from the points that Hart had already made, while filling in the historical context further. As such, both presentations help historicize Van Til's critique of Barth, placing it more fully within the theology and polemics of the first half of the 20th century.