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Gordon Clark and Other Reformed Critics of Karl Barth*

*This article is reproduced from here.


Proponents of the Reformed Faith—Calvinism—have long contended that it is a uniquely logical faith. To the critics who have said that it is in some sense “too logical,” the Presbyterian philosopher Gordon H. Clark (1902–1985) once responded that such is “a fear without a corresponding danger.”[1] Clark, perhaps more so than any other Reformed theologian, emphasized the importance of logic in theology. Thus, it should be no surprise that when he critiqued the writings of Karl Barth his arguments were as much on logical grounds as on Biblical grounds.

Various Reformed theologians have argued that Barth’s theology is incompatible with the orthodox Reformed faith. But while Clark, too, critiqued Barth’s views as non-Reformed, he also emphasized the logical failures in Barth’s theological method. The main source of this criticism is Clark’s 1963 book Karl Barth’s Theological Method. Each of Clark’s two major contentions in the book are logical criticisms. First, he contended that Barth’s theology is irrational or, at best, variously rational and irrational; and second, Clark posited that Barth’s theory of language and knowledge results in skepticism. In comparing Clark’s critique of Barth with those made by other Reformed theologians, especially Cornelius Van Til, I intend to demonstrate (1) that Clark’s critique can be differentiated from the others in the importance he places on proper logic; (2) that despite Van Til’s opposition to Barth’s theology, Clark had good reasons to contend that Van Til, in fact, fell into some of the same errors; and (3) that the Westminster Confession of Faith, which Clark subscribed to as an ordained Presbyterian minister, has proven to be a considerable bulwark against Barthianism.

First, it is worthwhile to recount some of the pertinent history of Karl Barth himself, of the various Reformed critiques of him, and of Clark’s interactions with Barth’s thought prior to the writing of his own critique.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth (1886–1968), one of the best-known theologians of the 20th century, was the son of a professor-pastor. Like his father, he followed a route to a ministerial vocation. He was trained in the theology of Protestant Liberalism in several German universities and included among his professors two prominent Liberal theologians, Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann. But while working as a pastor in the years after he graduated, Barth came to reject Liberalism in part because of the shock of hearing of his former professors’ allegiance to the German government’s war plans at the start of World War I. Ultimately, Barth came to believe that Liberalism (a.k.a. Modernism) substituted man for God—that it deified man by supposing that man has the ability to find God rather than be dependent on God’s revelation for knowledge of Him. The publication of Barth’s Römerbrief (Letter to the Romans) in 1919 (but especially his second edition in 1922) brought widespread attention to his views. Barth also garnered recognition for his role in authoring the Barmen Declaration against Nazi ideology in 1934 and most of all for his Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics), published in fourteen volumes from 1932 to 1967.

As Barth’s works were first published in Europe and in the German language, American theologians were not immediately aware of his views. As his influence grew, however, Reformed theologians began to take note, with some expressing concerns. The earliest critiques of Karl Barth from American Reformed theologians came in the late 1920s and early 1930s from, among others, J. Gresham Machen, Caspar Wistar Hodge, Alvin Sylvester Zerbe, and Cornelius Van Til.

J. Gresham Machen

Perhaps the earliest American theologian to critique Karl Barth’s views was then Princeton professor and leader of the Fundamentalist movement within American Presbyterianism, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937). On April 23, 1928, Machen spoke to a group of pastors on “Karl Barth and the ‘Theology of Crisis.’”[2]The paper he read, however, remained unpublished until 1991.[3]Though Machen was critical of Barth, he believed, in D. G. Hart’s words, “It was too early to render a definitive judgment because Barth was so difficult to understand.” Machen wrote of his own “uneasy feeling” with regard to the Barthian epistemology and objected to “the attitudes of Barth and his associates toward the historical information that the Bible contains.”[4]Machen concluded, “The truth is that the radicalism of Barth and Brunner errs by not being radical enough.”[5]That is, Machen held that Barth and Emil Brunner (1889–1966, an early proponent of Barth’s theology who later went his own separate way) had not distanced themselves enough from the Modernist schools in which they were taught. Machen continued, “What we need is a more consistent Barthian than Barth; we need a man who will approach the NT documents with presuppositions that are true instead of false, with presuppositions that enable him to accept at its face value the testimony of salvation that the NT contains.”[6]Furthermore, he wrote, “In their effort to make the Christian message independent of historical criticism, one has the disturbing feeling that Barth and his associates are depriving the church of one of its most precious possessions—the concrete picture of Jesus of Nazareth as he walked and talked upon this earth.”[7]

Though Machen’s 1928 speech on Barth remained unpublished for many years, he did critique Barth in a published article in 1929. In this article, “Forty Years of New Testament Research,” Machen referred to Barth’s commentary on Romans as a “strange exposition” in which “many readers hold up their hands in horror.” And, he concluded, “It would indeed be a great mistake to regard the Barthian teaching as a real return to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[8]

C. W. Hodge

Machen’s Princeton Seminary colleague Professor Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr. (1870–1937) was the next American Reformed theologian to critique Barth. Hodge, a grandson of the prominent nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, had conversed with Machen about Barth in 1928 and published his own criticism of Barth in an article on “The Reformed Faith” in the Evangelical Quarterly in 1929.[9]There, aligned with Machen’s contention, Hodge noted a “fundamental difference” between Barth and the Reformed Faith—namely, that Barth denies any innate knowledge in man and so makes “the idea of Redemption swallow up that of Creation, that all knowledge of God is through the Word of God.”[10]

Like Machen, Hodge had conducted some of his theological studies in Germany. English translations of Barth’s books did not appear until 1933, but as both Machen and Hodge, along with A. S. Zerbe, were able to read German, they would have had earlier access to Barth’s writings than most American theologians.

A. S. Zerbe

Though not well known today, Alvin Sylvester Zerbe (1847–1935) was once the president of the Ohio Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States and a professor at Central Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. While Machen and Hodge’s articles predate Zerbe’s writing, Zerbe was the first American Reformed theologian to publish a book-length critique of Barth with his 1930 work, The Karl Barth Theology or the New Transcendentalism. Dennis Voskuil notes in his essay “Neo-orthodoxy” that Zerbe “concluded that Barth’s theology was ‘but a cosmic philosophy in which the fundamental doctrines of God, man, sin, redemption, the Bible, time and eternity are in a new setting and have a meaning entirely different from the old creeds and confessions.’”[11]So while Machen and Hodge had contended that Barth’s teaching itself was a deviation from the Reformed Faith, Zerbe warned that Barth had redefined the very terms used in historic Christian theology.

Cornelius Van Til

While Machen, Hodge, and Zerbe were the earliest American Reformed critics of Karl Barth, not far after them came Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987), who would prove to be far more influential in his critique of Barth. Though Van Til is best known for his distinctive apologetics, he probably wrote more pages on the theology of Karl Barth than on any other topic. His writings on Barth span the years 1931–1964 and include two books, two pamphlets, and fifteen published articles.[12]

Though Van Til’s criticism of Barth was voluminous, his major contentions might be narrowed down to three regular themes or key points: (1) Barthianism is a form of Modernism; (2) Barth lacks a transcendence theory whereby God is to be distinguished as transcendent above his creation, including man; and (3) Barth’s view of Scripture is unorthodox.

Van Til’s first major contention, that Barthianism (a.k.a. “the Theology of Crisis”) is a form of Modernism, is made in a number of places. For example, in 1931, in his earliest writing against Barth, Van Til commented,

Professor McGiffert of Chicago predicted last summer that Barthianism would not last because it was really a recrudescence of Calvinism. If we might venture a prediction it would be that Barthianism may last a long time because it is really Modernism, but that neither Barthianism nor Modernism will last in the end because they are not Calvinism, that is, consistent Christianity.[13]

Van Til continued the same contention in his book on Barth in 1946, saying,

Taking a survey of the main argument we conclude that the dialectical theology of Barth and Brunner is built on one principle [the “freedom of God”] and that this principle is to all intents and purposes the same as that which controls Modernism. The Theology of Crisis may therefore be properly designated as “the New Modernism.” The new Modernism and the old are alike destructive of historic Christian theism and with it of the significant meaning of human experience.[14]

Even the titles of each of Van Til’s two books on Barth are designed to further this claim. It is direct in the title of first book, The New Modernism, and less obvious, but just as surely noted, in the title of his second book, Christianity and Barthianism, a play on J. Gresham Machen’s famous book Christianity and Liberalism (Liberalism being another name for Modernism).[15]

Van Til’s second major contention—that in Barth’s theology God is not rightly seen to transcend man—is also found in a number of places in his writings. For example, in his review of Zerbe’s book on Barth in 1931, Van Til held that because Barth both “exalts God above time” and “exalts man above time,” God is not seen to be qualitatively distinct from man. Thus, for Van Til, Barth “neutralized the exaltation of God.” And, by doing so, “this God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man.” Van Til explained, “Modern theology holds that both God and man are temporal. Barth holds that both God and man are eternal. The results are identical.”[16]Later, in The New Modernism, he wrote,

In his Dogmatik Barth argues at length against the “consciousness theologians.” These “consciousness theologians,” following Schleiermacher and Ritschl, have ignored or denied the transcendent God. Barth wants to call them back to the “wholly other” God. But Barth’s “wholly other” God appears to be virtually identical with the wholly immanent God of the “consciousness theologians.” His own critical principles do not permit him to presuppose a triune God who exists prior to and independently of man.[17]

Like the first two major contentions here identified, Van Til’s third major contention—that Barth’s view of Scripture is not orthodox—is found in various places. For instance, in The New Modernism Van Til wrote,

As far as Romans [Barth’s commentary on Romans] is concerned, Barth plainly rejects the whole of Scripture in the sense in which orthodoxy believes in Scripture. Historic Christianity maintains that by His counsel God has planned the whole course of created historic reality and that He directly reveals Himself in it. The orthodox doctrine of Scripture is based upon the idea that there is an existential system. For Barth to accept the orthodox view of Scripture would, accordingly, imply his giving up one of the main principles, if not the main principle, of his thought. (70)

And in an article titled “Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?” Van Til wrote,

Enough has now been said to indicate the fact that Barth’s christological principle requires him to reject the orthodox doctrine of Scripture in its entirety. It is not a question of his rejecting the doctrine of plenary inspiration while holding on to the idea of the general trustworthiness of God’s revelation in Scripture. It is not a question of his making minor or even major concessions to negative biblical criticism. It is not a question of his being unable to believe in some of the recorded miracles of Scripture. On Barth’s view the orthodox doctrine of Scripture is inherently destructive of the gospel of the saving grace of God to man.[18]

Barth would probably agree with part of this critique, since Barth did not claim to hold the traditional Reformed view of Scripture.

Van Til’s critiques of Barth address no minor points but relate to critical doctrines of the nature of God (and metaphysics) and the nature of Scripture (and epistemology). Since Barth rejects the Reformed approach to these doctrines, Van Til argued, Barthianism is essentially Modernism, giving priority to experience over the Scripture and leaving one asking, “Did God really say?”

Van Til identified the root of Barth’s troubles in his acceptance of the basic principles of various “modern critical” philosophers, such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Heidegger. For example, Van Til wrote,

When we hear Barth advocate his christological principle as over against the idea of a God who reveals himself directly and finally in Scripture we know what we have to deal with, a secularization of historic Christianity in terms of modern existential philosophy.[19]

It is because of following such leading principles—rather than Biblical principles—Van Til contended, that Barth created views at such great divergence from Reformed theologians.

Van Til has frequently been criticized as not having understood Barth. But much of his criticism matches those already made by Machen, Hodge, and Zerbe, who each influenced him. Yet it wasn’t only these American theologians who influenced Van Til’s criticism of Barth. Perhaps Van Til’s greatest anti-Barth influence came through his connection with Klaas Schilder (1890–1952), whom he met in the Netherlands.

Klaas Schilder

A fascinating account of Cornelius Van Til’s 1927 travels to the Netherlands, where he first learned of Barth’s work and Schilder’s criticisms of Barth, is found in an essay by George Harinck, subtitled “The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth.” Harinck wrote,

After thirteen years of study and college life, Van Til was free of duties and made a vacation trip to his native country, to meet family and to learn about the present state of the vast Reformed community in the Netherlands. Van Til had not known anything about Karl Barth up until this point. But that would change soon. When he arrived in the Netherlands in the summer of 1927, Karl Barth had recently made two trips to the Netherlands, one in May and June of 1926 and another in March and April of 1927.… When Van Til arrived three months later, Barth was in the air in Holland.… Van Til visited his uncle and aunt in the village of Oegstgeest and also called on their pastor, Klaas Schilder. Schilder was not at home, but later that year they corresponded. Schilder was a young minister in the Reformed Churches, and he was intrigued with Karl Barth. Barth had been known by the neo-Calvinists since his appointment as a professor of Reformed Theology at Göttigen University in 1921.… Schilder had read Barth’s Römerbrief and several other publications, but he hesitated to call Barth a Reformed theologian.… Van Til was impressed by the vivid debates on Barth in the Netherlands and tried to visit him in the summer of 1927 in his hometown of Münster—situated close to the Dutch border—but he did not succeed. Barth was also the reason why Van Til wanted to meet Schilder. Schilder was the first neo-Calvinist to pay serious attention to Barth’s theology, and his interpretation would dominate the neo-Calvinist appreciation of Barth for almost twenty years. He had published his first essay on Karl Barth half a year before Van Til arrived, titled “The Paradox in Religion,” and published his next one, “In the Crisis,” in September 1927. In these two essays Schilder analyzed the theology of Karl Barth and concluded that it would not stop secularization, but on the contrary would support it.…Van Til adopted Schilder’s point of view regarding Barth.[20]

G. C. Berkouwer

While Schilder was strongly critical of Barth, the criticisms of another Dutchman, Gerrit Cornelius Berkouwer (1903–1996) were more measured and mild in his 1954 book The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth.[21]Though Berkouwer’s book is largely descriptive of Barth’s theology and not often evaluative, his lack of strong criticism coupled with his appendix rebutting Van Til’s work on Barth evidences his relative appreciation of Barth’s theology. Berkouwer’s position on Barth along with his later theological drift might make one hesitate to call him a Reformed theologian. Though he was a member of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and taught at the historically Reformed Free University, he disagreed with some fundamental Reformed doctrines like the inerrancy of Scripture. Gordon Clark noted this himself, saying, “The difference between Warfield and Berkouwer is that the former believes the Bible to be true and the latter does not.”[22]And in a letter to R. J. Rushdoony in 1960, Clark agreed with Rushdoony, who had previously mentioned Berkouwer’s “departure from the faith.”[23]

The History of Gordon Clark’s Knowledge of Karl Barth

Like these other theologians, Clark was aware of Barth by the 1930s. Part of his knowledge of Barth came from Van Til’s critiques.[24]This is seen in the earliest notes about Barth in Clark’s papers, particularly in two letters between J. Oliver Buswell (1895–1977), then President of Wheaton College, and Clark in 1938. Buswell first wrote to Clark on December 9, 1938:

Have you kept track of the Barth-Brunner battlefront? I am ashamed to say I have not. I wonder if you can give me a brief comment on the material in the attached copy of the article in the Presbyterian. I am surprised to find Barth even this near to the orthodox position. My last information about Barth of any consequence was in Van Til’s lecture which he delivered in New York several years ago. He was splendid on the subject, but I have not kept up with it since then.[25]

And Clark responded to Buswell on December 12, 1938:

My father sent me the copy of the Presbyterian containing the interview with Barth. I read it very carefully. Van Til has an article on Barth in the last issue of the Guardian, largely devoted to Barth’s conception of time by which Barth removes the incarnation, etc. from calendar time. What Van Til did not mention, but what struck me about the interview is Robinson’s inexplicable omission of the question: Do you believe the Bible to be infallible throughout? The phrase “Word of God” is as you well know ambiguous, but to ask if the sixty-six books contain any error is not ambiguous—yet.[26]

Soon thereafter Clark sent Buswell a copy of that interview and wrote, “I should greatly appreciate all the criticism you can find time to give on this paper.”[27]

That Clark’s father, David S. Clark, first sent Gordon a copy of the article shows his own awareness of Barth’s work. The elder Clark, in fact, wrote against Barth in a December 2, 1937 article titled “Barthian Fog” in the Presbyterian, making David (not Gordon) one of Barth’s earliest American Reformed critics. David noted, “The Achilles heel of Barthian Theology is his doctrine of Scripture, especially of Inspiration.”[28]Thus, David was in agreement with Cornelius Van Til, who had critiqued Barth’s view of Scripture along the same lines earlier that same year in the January 9, 1937 issue of the Presbyterian Guardian.

Following these letters in the late 1930s, a silence regarding Karl Barth fell on Gordon Clark’s pen for over twenty years. Then in the early 1960s, Clark wrote numerous articles on Barth while preparing his main work on Barth, Karl Barth’s Theological Method, which was published in 1963. In all, Clark had thirteen articles published on Barth’s theology, all between 1960 and 1964.[29]

Clark’s work on Barth began anew in 1959 when he decided to write on Barth and indicated as such in a grant application to the Volker Fund.[30]Receiving the grant, Clark took a sabbatical from his regular teaching at Butler University during the 1960–1961 school year to write what became Karl Barth’s Theological Method.[31]He chose this project without any knowledge that Barth would come to America three years later to give speeches, one of which Clark would attend. It probably wasn’t until Carl Henry wrote to Clark in December of 1961 that Clark knew of Barth’s coming to the United States the following year.[32]

Clark was well positioned to write on Karl Barth. He had known of Barth’s work and influence for many years, and with the sabbatical, he was able to dedicate a greater proportion of his time to the work than with any other previous book he wrote.[33]Though Clark was capable of reading German (he learned German in high school, and studied for a semester in 1927 in Heidelberg, Germany), the translation of most of Barth’s Dogmatics into English in the early 1960s would have made Clark’s task easier. Any contention therefore that Clark didn’t understand Barth perhaps speaks more to the confusion of the object of study than of the mind of the student. That is, if Clark misunderstood Barth, it certainly wasn’t for lack of time, effort, or ability; it is more likely, as Clark later contended, that the subject matter itself is confused or even irrational. Furthermore, having had his own conflict with Van Til, Clark would not too easily be swayed by Van Til’s criticism of Barth.

By the time Clark wrote on Barth, Carl Henry was telling Clark that it might be better to focus his attention on Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) who “has already taken the initiative on the Continent.”[34]Clark responded to Henry saying, “You are most discouraging (!) in your letter and in the lead editorial of Nov. 21, just when I am going full blast on Barth, to report that Barth is dead and Bultmann reigns.”[35]Clark continued his work on Barth nevertheless.

Though Clark was never able to have direct conversation with Barth, he had a couple of indirect interactions. The first was by means of a public dialogue printed in Christianity Today. Clark, Professor Fred H. Klooster (1922–2003) of Calvin Seminary, and Van Til each submitted questions directed to Barth, which were printed in the July 3, 1961 issue. Dr. Clark’s two questions were as follows

Was it reasonable for Paul to endure suffering in his ministry (or is it reasonable for us) if all are in Christ and will perhaps be saved anyhow, and if, as you once said, [Ludwig] Feuerbach and secular science are already in the Church

In your Anselm (English Translation, p. 70) we are told that we can never see clearly whether any statement of any theologian is on one side or the other of the border between divine simplicity and incredible deception. Does not this make theology—your own included—a waste of time?









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