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Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism
Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism
Clifford B. Anderson; Bruce L. McCormack
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011
395 pp., 41.99

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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 so severe a judgment as the undertaking of religion." But coming as he does out of the cauldron of European liberal theology, we have our suspicions.

We've seen this played out on a popular level in the founding of Christianity Today. The magazine was conceived by its creator, Billy Graham, as an antidote to liberalism. When Graham wrote Carl Henry, the first editor, critiquing the first issue of the magazine in 1956, he noted how Barth and the movement he represented, Neo-Orthodoxy, needed to be confronted, however subtly:

I believe we are going to make a serious mistake if at first we drive a wedge between evangelicals and Barthians. What we want to do is to win the Barthian and the Neo-Orthodox to a more evangelical position, but if we use the terms Barthian and Neo-Orthodox in criticism, I feel it is going to be a red flag that will drive them away. There are a thousand subtle ways that we can attack Barthianism and Neo-Orthodoxy without actually calling it by name.

But even in CT's early years, change was already in the air. One of CT's early contributors was Geoffrey Bromiley, a conservative Reformed theologian who ended up at Fuller Theological Seminary and gave himself to the monumental task of translating Barth's Church Dogmatics for the English-speaking world. This was the era when a number of rising evangelical theologians—e.g., Paul Jewett, Bernard Ramm, and Donald Bloesch—sat at Barth's feet, often literally in his classroom in Basel, Switzerland, and became indebted to his theology.

With the turn of the millennium, evangelical appreciation of Barth has only accelerated. That includes no less than the world's leading Barthian scholar Bruce McCormack of Princeton Seminary, as well as evangelical luminaries such as Alistair McGrath, Timothy George, and Kevin Vanhoozer. Even the conservative Reformed theologian Michael Horton acknowledges that Barth's work represents a "Copernican revolution in the history of modern theology" in opposing the man-centered theology of neo-Protestantism and replacing it with "a thoroughgoing theocentricism that threw the light once again on divine initiative."

In the last couple of decades, evangelical scholars have gathered repeatedly to discern what exactly is to be retrieved from Barth—so much so, it seems a new genre has emerged wherein evangelicals wrestle with the theological giant. And such is the purpose of Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, edited by McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson.[1]

Among the Barthian themes that intrigue evangelical theologians, one of the most salient is the tension between his doctrine and his actual use of Scripture. Barth rightly reminds us that the Bible is not the Word of God in the same sense that Jesus is the Word of God. The relationship between Scripture and Jesus is dynamic and nuanced, which allows the Bible to be freed from the constraints of fundamentalist rationalism. For Barth, the Bible is less the Word of God than a witness to the Word; he went so far as to say that, as a human book, the Bible was subject to error, not just in history and science, but even in theology!

On the other hand, Barth used the Bible as if it were the "infallible rule of faith and practice." Rarely if ever in the nearly 9,000 pages of his Church Dogmatics does he excuse himself from a text, saying it is in error on some theological point. He used the Bible as evangelicals want to use the Bible: as the final source of authority for the preaching and teaching of the church.

When evangelicals talk about Barth, then, they have tended to start by talking about his doctrine of Scripture. But the essays gathered in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism suggest that evangelicals are ready to move on to other Barthian themes, including Barth's relationship to Kantian philosophy, his Christology, and his ecclesiology, as well as his relationship to current theological trends such as Radical Orthodoxy. The chapters that most interested me concerned Barth's doctrine of election (all are elect in Christ) and his so-called universalism (all will be saved).

The first doctrine seems naturally to lead to the second—or does it? Barth himself argued the first and denied the second. But some Barthians are not so sure, believing that his doctrine of election inevitably leads to universalism. Essays by Michael Horton, Bruce McCormack, and Suzanne MacDonald engage these immense themes in fruitful ways. Horton concludes that "Barth presupposes that the electing will of the single Subject, revealed in a single event of one covenant, executed in the one history that is eternal, encompasses every person." His essay argues—persuasively, I think—that Barth is likely wrong on one or more of these presuppositions, and thus key aspects of his soteriology falter. McCormack concludes that in the New Testament there is a tension between passages that suggest limited atonement and those that teach universal salvation. If God has willed that this tension remain in Scripture, we can conclude that we are called, for reasons pastoral and theological, to live with this tension until the eschaton (while hoping, as does God apparently, for the salvation of all). MacDonald brings the dynamism of the Holy Spirit to bear on Barth's somewhat static Christocentric doctrine of election, and concludes: "There are aspects of Barth's pneumatology that are pulling in such a different direction to his Christology that his doctrine of election is at risk of imploding."

I admit to a longstanding fascination with Barth's doctrine of election. It not only exalts God's grace, but seems to solve a number of theological problems that congeal around God's soteriological justice (double predestination, divine wrath, eternal death, etc.). But these three essays in particular give one pause. I like the way German theologian Emil Brunner put it (quoted by Horton). Regarding Barth's teaching that Jesus is "the eternally Elect Man," or "the pre-existing God-Man, who, as such, is the eternal ground of all election," Brunner said, "No special proof is required to show that the Bible contains no such doctrine."

This naturally is the evangelical touchstone by which Barth, and all theology, is to be tested. By this criterion, all theologies will inevitably be found wanting in one way or another, and the problem with such collections is that, by their nature, they tend toward discovering that which is wanting. But the very existence of such a genre suggests that the subtext is in fact celebration. As Horton writes at the end of his essay, "Too one-sidedly focused on critique, my remarks have not adequately reflected my immense appreciation for the insights I have gleaned from Barth."

Barth is already an inspiration for many evangelical scholars, but I believe he will increasingly be seen as a hero to evangelicalism as a whole—even more so than Bonhoeffer. Just when European theology had become bogged down in feeling and ethics, when it had become nothing but talk about man, Barth almost singlehandedly forced the theological world once again to take the Bible seriously, along with the great tradition of theology that had been discarded as irrelevant—from Athanasius to Augustine to Aquinas, to Anselm, to Calvin and Luther, to the scholastic Reformed theologians.

Graham's instincts were right in one sense. We not only must not but simply cannot drive a wedge between Barth and evangelicals. For all their differences, they simply have too much in common.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today magazine and author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker), as well as a forthcoming biography of Karl Barth for evangelicals.

1. Two other recent books in this vein are Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences, edited by Sung Wook Chung (Baker Academic, 2006); and Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange (T&T Clark, 2008).

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