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Gordon Clark and Other Reformed Critics of Karl Barth


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]





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