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Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism
Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism

Eerdmans, 2011
400 pp., $38.00

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Mark Galli


Evangelicals on the Basel Trail

Reckoning with Karl Barth.

Evangelicals have an ongoing love affair with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but we've never been sure of what to do with his theological mentor, Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer relished Barth's return to "the tradition of Paul, Luther, Kierkegaard … , the tradition of genuine Christian thinking," and the recovery of "the world of biblical thinking." Barth, said Bonhoeffer, set aside mere "religious thinking" for thinking grounded in "the Word of God … , the revelation straight from above, from outside of man, according to the justification of the sinner by grace."

What more could evangelicals ask for in a theologian? Apparently a lot. Starting in the 1930s, Cornelius Van Til, professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in Pennsylvania, set his sights on the German theologian, most famously in The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (1946), Christianity and Barthianism (1962), and Karl Barth & Evangelicalism (1964).

Van Til made the surprising claim—given Barth's actual writings—that Barth's theology "is the diametric opposite of a theology that is based on a finished revelation of God in history." The reason Barth's theology sounds like traditional orthodoxy, argued Van Til, is that it contains many "verbal similarities to historic Protestantism." But Van Til believed Barth's theology was "in effect, a denial of it."

Ever since, the relationship between Barth and evangelicals has been a rocky one. We are fascinated by his arresting talk of grace: "Grace is the incomprehensible fact that God is well pleased with a man, and that a man can rejoice in God. Only when grace is recognized to be incomprehensible is it grace …. Grace is the gift of Christ, who exposes the gulf which separates God and man, and, by exposing it, bridges it." We enjoy a revivalist glee when he talks about mere religion: "No human demeanor is more open to criticism, more doubtful, or more dangerous, than religious demeanor. No undertaking subjects men to ...

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