Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 4.

Part 4. Were Cornelius Van Til’s views actually a lot like Karl Barth’s views?

This is part 4 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.
Click here for Part 3. 

A number of Reformed theologians have made the claim that there is some fatal similarity between the theology of Cornelius Van Til and the theology of Karl Barth. Naturally, there are agreements between these two theologians, just as there are agreements between nearly any two theologians, and many of the agreements are surely benign. But is there some similarity between the theology of Van Til and the theology Barth that is as fatal to the former as it is to the latter? That is, given that the various Reformed critiques of Barth have found fatal flaws in Barthianism, does Van Til’s theology suffer in some same way where it coincides with Barthianism?

To explore this I believe we need to look primarily at two related questions:

1.) To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of paradox similar to that of Barth’s?

(which this post will address)


2.) To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s “Wholly Other”?

(which Part 5 of this series will address)

Those who have claimed there to be fatal similarity between Van Til and Barth include Gordon H. Clark (who nearly all readers of my blog have considerable familiarity with); Robert L. Reymond (1932 – 2013), a Reformed theologian who taught at Covenant Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary and authored a textbook on systematic theology; and David J. Engelsma (Professor Emeritus at the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary).

First, Gordon Clark noted a Van Til – Barth connection as early as 1951 where in a letter to one of his publishers he wrote:

…he [Van Til] is an excellent example of how neo-orthodoxy [A name that has been applied to theologies of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner] has permeated contemporary thinking. Dr. Van Til ‘adores paradox,’ he holds that man’s mind is incapable of knowing any truth, that the Bible from cover to cover is not the truth, and that theological formulations, creeds, and so on are only ‘pointers’ to something unknowable. The dependence on Brunner, even the wording, makes Dr. Van Til an admirable example.”1

Robert Reymond (who, as I’ve argued here, was not fully on board with Clark’s “Scripturalism”) also saw a connection between Van Til and Barth. Reymond wrote:

Exceedingly strange it is that as ardent a foe of Barthian irrationalism as is Van Til comes nevertheless to the same conclusion concerning the nature of truth for man as does Barth. The only difference in this connection between Van Til and Barth is that Van Til insists that truth is objectively present in biblical propositions while for Barth truth is essentially existential. But for both religious truths can appear, at least at times, paradoxical.”2

And David Engelsma (a “friendly critic”3 of Gordon Clark) writes in The Standard Bearer:

It is not clear to me what the difference might be between the paradoxical nature of truth as espoused by Van Til and his disciples and the “theology of paradox” of Kierkegaard and his pupil, Karl Barth. To the same proposition in the same sense at the same time, both Van Til and Barth say “yes and no.4

1. To what extent is Van Til’s view of paradox similar to that of Barth’s?

To compare Van Til’s view of paradox with Barth’s view of paradox, we must first come to an accurate understanding of the respective views of each of these theologians.

What is Karl Barth’s doctrine of Paradox?

Gordon Clark contends that Karl Barth’s doctrine of paradox is that of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Clark wrote,

Despairing of intellectual solutions in a world of insane chaos, the theologians of the twentieth century remembered the iconoclastic Dane. The first of these was Karl Barth, who seized upon the notion of paradox and emphasized the opposition between time and eternity, but whose later writings toned down these themes.”5


Among theologians Karl Barth accepted Kierkegaard’s view of Paradox, and though in his later writings he restricted its extent, he never repudiated it. In the early pages of his Church Dogmatics he says that the law of contradiction is acceptable in theology only upon conditions that are scarcely tolerable to a scientific theologian.”6

and also said in an audio lecture,

“The point is important, not only for a correct understanding of Kierkegaard, but also for a correct understanding of Karl Barth, and the type of religion he has popularized since World War One. … One thing is clear however, in his various writings, Barth made use of Kierkegaard’s paradox. His eternity vs. time. Infinite qualitative difference.”7

So what is Kierkegaard’s view? In his audio lecture on “Irrationalism,” Clark noted:

Kierkegaard does not mean that the incarnation, and whatever other Christian doctrines he may have in mind, are surprising or psychologically incredible to heathen peasants and German philosophers. It is not as if the common sense of the sinful human race never expected atonement and resurrection. This is not what Kierkegaard means by paradox and absurdity. He means precisely that the doctrines are self-contradictory, therefore meaningless, therefore absurd.”8


For Kierkegaard a paradox is not something that at first seems puzzling or even impossible to common sense, but which can clearly be explained. … But Kierkegaard alters linguistic usage and speaks of paradox as inexplicable. … The absolute paradox therefore is the absolute contradiction. Kierkegaard far from shrinking back at the thought of denying the laws of logic and becoming irrational, glories in it.”9


The Christian believes that God became man, and he believes with equal fervor that God could not possibly have become man. Rather obviously, Kierkegaard is not the spokesman for Christianity. Who in the whole history of the church every believed these two contradictories? Where in the bible are they asserted? One may, from an atheistic standpoint, condemn Christians for being stupid enough to believe in God. Or from a mildly religious standpoint, one may call him superstitious for believing the impossible. But who with a straight face can characterize the Christian movement as a belief in contradictories? Christians believe God became incarnate. They emphatically do not believe that he could not become incarnate. What Kierkegaard means by faith is totally at variance with the Christian meaning of faith.10

From this I understand that Kierkegaard’s (and Barth’s) view is that there are doctrines in the Scriptures which contradict other doctrines in the Scriptures. Faith then, for them, is believing both of the doctrines despite the contradiction.

What is Van Til’s doctrine of Paradox?

Though there are some hints as to Van Til’s view of paradox in his article “Seeking For Similarities in Theology” in 1937 and in The Complaint which he signed in 1944, his view is first clearly defined in 1947 when he writes:

“Our position is naturally charged with being self-contradictory. It might seem at first glance as though we were willing, with the dialectical theologians [e.g. Barth and Brunner], to accept the really contradictory. Yet such is not the case. In fact we hold that our position is the only position that saves one from the necessity of ultimately accepting the really contradictory. We argue that unless we may hold to the presupposition of the self-contained ontological trinity, human rationality itself is a mirage. But to hold to this position requires us to say that while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former. If it is the self-contained ontological trinity that we need for the rationality of our interpretation of life, it is this same ontological trinity that requires us to hold to the apparently contradictory.”11

And in 1955, Van Til explains similarly:

A word must here be said about the question of antinomies. It will readily be inferred what as Christians we mean by antimonies. They are involved in the fact that human knowledge can never be completely comprehensive knowledge. Every knowledge transaction has in it somewhere a reference point to God. Now since God is not fully comprehensible to us we are bound to come into what seems to be contradiction in all our knowledge. Our knowledge is analogical and therefore must be paradoxical. We say that if there is to be any true knowledge at all there must be in God an absolute system of knowledge. We therefore insist that everything must be related to that absolute system of God. Yet we ourselves cannot fully understand that system.”12


“It appears that there must seem to be contradiction in human knowledge. To this we must now add that the contradiction that seems to be there can in the nature of the case be no more than a seeming contradiction. If we said that there is real contradiction in our knowledge we would once more be denying the basic concept of Christian theism; the concept of the self-complete universal in God. We should then not merely be saying that there is no complete coherence in our thinking but we should also be saying that there is no complete coherence in God’s thinking. And this would be the same as saying that there is no coherence or truth in thinking at all. If we say that the idea of paradox or antimony is that of real contradiction, we have destroyed all human and divine knowledge; if we say that the idea of paradox or antimony is that of seeming contradiction we have saved God’s knowledge and therewith also our own.”13

From these quotes I understand Van Til’s view on paradox to be that there are contradictions apparent to man’s mind between various Scriptural doctrines that are inherently irresolvable for man, but solved in God’s mind.

Different doctrines, same result.

In a recorded lecture in 1981, a student asked Gordon Clark the very question now at hand:

How does Van Til’s concept of paradox differ from Kierkegaard here?”

To this, Clark answered:

I hope to talk about Van Til before the semester is over, let me say this, my impression is, I could mention some differences between the two, but my impression is that in spite of the fact that Van Til denies he is an neo-orthodox apologete, I think he has been very deeply influenced by neo-orthodoxy, and unwittingly supports their position.”14

Thus we see that Clark recognized their being both differences and similarity between Van Til’s theology and Barth’s theology.

In the same lecture, Clark noted a similarity and hinted at a difference:

Kierkegaard alters linguistic usage and speaks of paradox as inexplicable. The definition of paradox that appeals to me the most is that paradox is a “charley-horse between the ears.” But that’s not what Kierkegaard meant. For Kierkegaard a paradox is a complete contradiction. We’ll talk about what Van Til or what Frame thinks a paradox is. But at any rate they both think that it is impossible to harmonize. At least by us. Maybe it can be harmonized by God, we’ll see.15

Based on the respective paradox doctrines of Van Til and Barth as understood above, I must agree with Clark on these points:

(1) A similarity in the paradox doctrines of Van Til and Barth is that they both hold that the supposed paradoxical passages of Scripture are impossible for man to harmonize.

(2) A difference in the paradox doctrines of Van Til and Barth is that for Van Til—but not for Barth—these paradoxes can be harmonized by God.

The Barthian and Van Tillian doctrines of paradox thus differ, but one result is the same: the exegete, regardless of his efforts, will be, in some places at least, unable to sort out or solve that which he finds to be conflicting doctrines in Scripture. Little good does it do to say that these conflicting doctrines are solvable by God, when to man they remain a mystery, as unresolvable according to Van Til as according to Barth.

The problems here, as much for Van Til’s view as for Barth’s, include A) the inability to distinguish between apparent contradictions caused by exegetical mistakes and apparent contradictions supposedly inherent in the Scriptures; B) the destruction of any claim of Christianity’s superiority to other systems based on it’s demonstrated consistency, and C) the destruction of the central Biblical hermeneutical principle of comparing scriptural passages with other scriptural passages based on the assumption of non-contradiction. Van Til’s doctrine of paradox, like Barth’s, is destructive to the entire enterprise of exegesis and Christian doctrine.

The next question “To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s ‘Wholly Other’?” will be continued in the next part of this series.

1 Gordon H. Clark to Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, October 15, 1951. In Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark, The Trinity Foundation, 2017, p. 124.

2 Robert Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979. p. 105.

3 David Engelsma, Review of The Incarnation by Gordon H. Clark, The Standard Bearer, Issue 17, 1989.

4 David Engelsma, “Hoeksema on a Controversy in the OPC.” The Standard Bearer, Vol. 72, 1996.

5 Gordon H. Clark, “Revealed Religion.” in Fundamentals of the Faith, ed. Carl F. H. Henry, Zondervan, 1969, p. 18.

6 Gordon H. Clark, “Irrationalism” in Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics. Carl F.H. Henry, ed. Washington D.C.: Canon Press, 1973.

7 Gordon H. Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture, 1981.

8 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.

9 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.

10 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.

11 Cornelius Van Til, “The Christian Philosophy of History” (originally published in 1947) in Common Grace & The Gospel, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972. p. 9.

12 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 1955, 3rd Edition 1967, p. 44.

13 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 1955, 3rd Edition 1967, p. 45.

14 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture.

15 Clark, Irrationalism, Audio Lecture. Min 30-31.

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Suggested Reading List on Gordon H. Clark

Probably the most frequent question posed on our “Gordon H. Clark Discussions Forum” on Facebook is “What book(s) of/on Gordon Clark should I read first?” This post provides my entirely subjective non-canonical suggestions.

(By the way, anyone with interest in Gordon H. Clark should request to join our awesome discussion forum. These men (and women) have been instrumental in the development of my thought. It is a great sounding board with many who are truly seeking the truth, not just seeking to win debates.)

This is a suggested reading list for understanding Clark’s work. It is not a list from best to worst.

So, where to start …

1. Religion, Reason, and Revelation (1961) by Gordon H. Clark

Despite having read widely on theology, it was only after reading this book that John Robbins (according to his wife Linda who I interviewed in 2014) became convinced of Reformed Theology. Clark’s treatment in this book of the question “What is Religion?” starts to show the reader the importance of definitions and provides a window into Clark’s way of thinking.

2. Three Types of Religious Philosophy (1973) by Gordon H. Clark

This book gives a good broad overview of the issue of epistemology, the study of knowledge. Showing that the two main secular (and sometimes religious) approaches to knowledge—empiricism and rationalism—are failures, Clark opens the way for the reader to consider Divine revelation.

3. A Christian View of Men and Things (1952) by Gordon H. Clark

This is Clark’s magnum opus. His dedication to the truth of Christianity in all realms comes to show. He shows Christianity to be a system that addresses such areas as epistemology, history, ethics, and politics. Clark’s distinctive philosophy of “presuppositionalism,” though first evident in his A Christian Philosophy of Education (1946), is first fully formed in this book.

4. Thales to Dewey (1957) by Gordon H. Clark

Clark’s second history of philosophy (after his 1941 A History of Philosophy), this was probably his most well-selling book, used as a textbook in various colleges. He overviews the history of philosophy with an eye towards epistemological concerns. This book evidences the fact that Clark was an expert on ancient Greek philosophy, the subject he taught at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s and 30s.

5. God’s Hammer (1982) by Gordon H. Clark

This set of essays gives the reader some indication of the “Battle for the Bible” (see Harold Lindsell’s important book) that raged in the mid-20th century. For many years Clark fought for the truth of the Scriptures.

6. The Presbyterian Philosopher (2017) by Douglas J. Douma

After reading the books above, this biography of Gordon H. Clark will give context for the theological battles in which he participated.

7. An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (1993) by Gordon H. Clark 

This book (originally a series of lectures at Wheaton College in 1965) first came out in the now rare The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark (1968). This is where the serious student of Clark’s epistemology should start. To dig deeper into his epistemology, one should read the rest of The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, reprinted in Clark and His Critics (2009) and Lord God of Truth (1994).

8. The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (1964) by Gordon H. Clark

Getting back to Clark’s critiques of empiricism, this books shows the utter futility of science to produce knowledge.

9. Faith and Saving Faith (1983) by Gordon H. Clark

Clark’s work here is monumental. Answering the questions that others, like J. Gresham Machen (in What is Faith?) seem to skirt around, Clark brings the reader back to the truth of salvation through belief.

10. What Do Presbyterians Believe? (1965) by Gordon H. Clark

As noted in The Presbyterian Philosopher, Clark sought to keep his philosophy in line with the historic teachings of the Presbyterian church. This book, an exposition of The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), is of great value to the student of Christian theology.


Other more topical books are of value to understand Clark’s full system. These include The Johannine Logos, The Biblical Doctrine of Man, Biblical Predestination, Karl Barth’s Theological Method, Historiography Secular and Religious, The Trinity, and The Incarnation.

Clark’s biblical commentaries (Ephesians, First Corinthians, Peter Speaks Today, etc.) have some good insights, but are generally not ground-breaking works.

And if you really want to read more, I can send you a 44-page bibliography of everything Clark wrote (books, articles, lectures, etc.) that will keep you busy for years.

Edit: Here is the bibliography: Bibliography of the Works of Gordon H. Clark

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Buswell’s Unusual Definition of “Presupposition”

In A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Zondervan, 1962) J. Oliver Buswell Jr. presents an unusual definition of “presupposition.” He writes, “we take our presupposition as a conclusion arrived at on the basis of what we consider good and sufficient reasons.” (p. 15) This definition is unusual because it is essentially opposite of what everyone else means by “presupposition”! Presuppositions are usually thought of not as “a conclusion arrived at” but as “a beginning assumed.”

Buswell realized that his definition was unusual and so set to defending it:

“To the student who is not familiar with inductive processes of reasoning, the above paragraph may seem obviously absurd. If a presupposition is “a conclusion arrived at on the basis of . . .” then the presupposition is no presupposition, but the “basis” is really the presupposition. In answer I would argue that this objection confuses the chronological beginning, which may be anywhere, with the pedagogical beginning, which is selected for the purposes of exposition. The reader is reminded of the remarks in the preface, to the effect that the system of truth which we endeavor to proclaim is so thoroughly integrated that wherever one begins in systematic theology he must take for granted the other fundamentals of the system until they in turn can be investigated.”

I take it that Buswell’s “pedagogical beginning,” as it is “selected for the purposes of exposition,” must be the two presuppositions he had previously mentioned: “we presuppose the sovereign Triune God of the Bible” and “we presuppose the Bible as the infallible Word of God.” But, the “chronological beginning” according to Buswell can be anywhere. That is, because Christianity is a system of truth, one could start a systematic theology anywhere; by an exposition of Eschatology, the nature of man, or the nature of Christ.

But isn’t Buswell confused here? For these other possible “chronological beginnings” (eschatology, the nature of man, the nature of Christ, etc.) are INSIDE the system of Christianity; they are doctrines of the Scripture. Let us grant that holding to the belief of one of these doctrines of Scripture gives us good and sufficient reason to believe the other doctrines of Scripture. Yet, Buswell’s “good and sufficient reasons” often are from OUTSIDE the system of the Scriptures. For example, Buswell holds that the arguments for the existence of God (which are not fully given in the Scriptures) are inductive cumulative probabilistic arguments. That is, while none of the arguments are deductively valid proofs of God’s existence, each of the arguments, according to Buswell, add to the probability of there being a God. These arguments for the existence of God, for Buswell, are reasons for belief; perhaps even “good and sufficient reasons.”

One might quizzically ask, as Gordon Clark often did, “what is the probability of God’s existence based on those arguments?” That is, “what is the numerator and what is the denominator?” These arguments provide no definite probability. And in turn, they provide no “good and sufficient reason” for belief in God.

We cannot reason our way to the Triune God or the infallibility of the Scriptures from OUTSIDE of the system of Scriptures. We must hold, with the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which is ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church, but wholly upon God (who’s is the truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”

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Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 3.


Part 3. How does Clark’s critique of Barth differ from Van Til’s?

This is part 3 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 2.
Click here for Part 4.

A. Cornelius Van Til’s Critiques of Barth Summarized

Cornelius Van Til 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 encompass two books, two pamphlets, and fifteen published articles. Naturally, in this much writing, his criticism of Barth’s theology ranges over a wide number of doctrines. There are, however, some regular themes to Van Til’s critique. We might consider the three most frequent of these to be the following:

#1.) Barthianism is a form of Modernism.

In a number of places Van Til makes the claim that Barthianism (The Theology of Crisis) is equivalent to Modernism:

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.”1

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.”2

In recent times it has become quite clear that Christianity and Modernism are two mutually exclusive religions. … Without in the least presuming to judge the hearts of its exponents, we shall offer evidence to prove that the Theology of Crisis is but a new form of Modernism.”3

This claim is even pointed to in the title of Van Til’s first book on Barth, The New Modernism, and less obviously, but just as surely, in the title of his second book on Barth, Christianity and Barthianism, a play on J. Gresham Machen’s famous book Christianity and Liberalism.4(Liberalism being another name for Modernism)

#2.) Barth lacks a “transcendence theory” whereby God (the creator) is to be distinguished as transcendent above man (the creature).

According to Van Til, God in Barth’s theology is not seen to transcend man; that is, God is not seen to be on another level from man. Because Barth both “exalts God above time” and “exalts man above” time, God is not seen to be qualitatively distinct from man. Thus Barth has “neutralized the exaltation of God.” And, by doing so, “this God is no longer qualitatively distinct from man.” Van Til explains, “Modern theology holds that both God and man are temporal. Barth holds that both God and man are eternal. The results are identical.”5

Van Til warns that Barth’s view of transcendence is not the Reformed view:

In our eagerness to welcome any reaction from the exclusively immanentistic theology that surrounds us we have too hastily identified the Barthian conception of transcendence with the Reformed conception of transcendence.”6

And in The New Modernism, he writes,

Barth’s ‘christological’ treatment of the various doctrines he discusses dissolves all the differentiations of orthodox Christianity. It dissolves the orthodox Creator-creature distinction on the ground that it speaks of a hidden God and a hidden man.”


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.”7

# 3.) Barth’s view of Scripture is not orthodox.

It seems that this criticism is one that Barth would probably agree with to an extent, since Barth doesn’t claim to hold the orthodox view of Scripture.

Van Til writes,

“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.”8


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.”9

Van Til sees that Barth’s view of the Scriptures is at odds with the Reformed view of the cessation of Scripture. Rather than objective beliefs from a revelation in Scripture, Barth is left with what Van Til believes amounts to simply “speculation.” He writes,

“Do either the dynamic categories of Rome or the activist categories of Barth permit one to submit one’s thought captive to the obedience of Christ as he has once for all spoken by the Spirit and through his apostles in the Scriptures? And is it really the voice of God one hears unless one hears it as speaking now directly and clearly in Scripture? The Bible or Speculation, which shall it be?”10

The extent of Van Til’s Critiques

The Van Tillian 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 argues, Barthianism is essentially Modernism, giving priority to experience over the Scripture and leaving one asking “Did God really say?”

If a fourth theme of Van Til’s critiques of Barth was to be added here it might be that Barth’s guiding principles are rooted in various non-Christians philosophies, such as those of Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and Heidegger.

For example, Van Til writes:

“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.” (Van Til, The Theology of James Daane, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959, p. 30)

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

B. Gordon Clark’s Critiques of Barth Summarized

Gordon Clark wrote far less on Karl Barth than did Van Til and started at a much later date. Though he wrote a number of articles on Barth in the early 1960s, the main source for Clark’s thoughts on Barth is his book Karl Barth’s Theological Method (1963). Though Clark was capable of reading German (He learned German in high school, and spent a semester in 1927 in Hiedelberg, Germany), the translation of most of Barth’s Dogmatics into English in the early 1960s would have made Clark’s task easier.

In summary, though there are a number of points of criticism, Clark has two main emphases in his critique of Barth.

#1.) Barth is irrational or at best variously rational and irrational.

That Barth is irrational is the overriding critique in Karl Barth’s Theological Method. Clark notes that Barth opposes systemization but that such a position devastates Barth’s own thought:

“Barth asserts that the concept of theology cannot be systematically connected, a systematic conspectus is an impossibility, and the name of Jesus Christ as used by Paul does not represent a unified thought. Barth’s point is not merely that the Bible is inconsistent. He indeed holds that it is; he accepts only its main teaching and rejects the doctrine of infallible inspiration. But here he is talking about theology, his own theology, and it is his own theology that he now says is illogical, unsystematic, and self-contradictory.” (p. 63-64)

Despite all the irrationalism in Barth, Clark notes “It is not only Barth’s irrationalistic paragraphs that need emphasis.” (p. 65) And, “Although Barth here and there decries systematizing theology, his actual practice is often systematic. He is well aware, for example, that the doctrine of baptism is related to the Nicene Creed as parts of a comprehensive revelation.” (p. 66) Clark continues, “It is abundantly clear, therefore, that Barth in many passages accepts and uses the law of contradiction. He makes unmistakable claims to intelligibility and rationality. But there were also the other passages in which he belittled systematic thought and accepted mutually incompatible ideas.” (p. 67) Always keen to emphasis logic, Clark writes, “Freedom from internal self-contradiction is the sine qua non of all intelligibility.” (p. 68)

Also in Karl Barth’s Theological Method, Clark notes, “The school to which Barth belongs, or at least the movement which Barth initiated, has a heritage of irrationalism.” (p. 261)

2.) Barth’s theory of language and knowledge results in skepticism.

In a sub-section of Chapter 5 “Language and Theology” titled “Skepticism,” Clark addresses Barth’s contention that “God is not similar to anything and therefore cannot be known through our ordinary and only categories. (p. 168) Clark writes, “a blank denial of similarity between God and men is unbiblical.” (p. 168) And “this denial of similarity, like the idea of the Totally Other, makes knowledge of God impossible.” (p. 169)

Barth’s theory of knowledge is in fact shown to concern something other than knowledge. Clark writes “Possibly the skepticism of this position is somewhat hidden from its advocates by their substitution for knowledge of something that is not knowledge.” (p. 169) Barth is seen to limit knowledge to man’s “offering of thanks” to God.

To this point Clark writes, “How can knowledge, i.e. belief in or acceptance of a true propositions, depend on giving thanks or feeling awe? This is not true in mathematics. Nor can it be true in theology.” (p. 170) And, “Barth does not want to tie own the word knowledge, when used in a religious context, to anything resembling the ordinary meaning of the word.” Clark concludes, “Therefore the line of criticism has been that skepticism lurks behind Barth’s many assertions of the possibility of knowledge because he is not really talking about knowledge.” (p. 171)

Basically, since God is totally other and can’t be an object of knowledge without, in Barth’s view, impacting God’s freedom, we can’t know anything of God; skepticism.

C. Clark and Van Til’s Critiques Compared and Contrasted

One clear difference between Clark and Van Til’s writings on Barth is that Clark more frequently notes positive elements in Barth’s thought. Clark is positive both on Barth’s critique of modernism and Barth’s writings on Anselm11. Van Til, with less frequency, does praise Barth’s critique of modernism, but only to set up saying that Barth doesn’t go far enough; contending that Barth remains a modernist himself.

Clark and Van Til’s critiques are generally not opposed to one another. In fact, there is considerable overlap. Van Til also critiqued Barth as irrational.12 And Clark would no doubt agree that Barth’s view of Scripture is un-orthodox.

As for Van Til’s critique that Barthianism is a form of Modernism, I suspect that Clark would agree that there is significant overlap, but might not want to make the exact connection, for I believe he would note there being significant differences between Barthianism and Modernism. Clark might agree with Herman Hoeksema who wrote contrary to Van Til’s assertion that Barthianism is Modernism, “If I try to conceive of Barth as a modernist pure and simple, too many elements of his theology will not fit into that concept.”13

1 Cornelius Van Til, Review of The Karl Barth Theology or The New Transcendentalism by Alvin S. Zerbe. Christianity Today 1, no. 10, (February 1931): 14.

2 Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism, 1946., The Argument in Brief, Conclusion.

3 Cornelius Van Til, “Christianity and Crisis Theology”, The Presbyterian Guardian, 1948.

4 “As the title [The New Modernism] suggested, Van Til’s strategy was to link in the readers mind the ‘new modernism’ with the old, that is, the liberal that J. Gresham Machen had exposed in his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism.” John Muether, Cornelius Van Til, p. 124.

5 Cornelius Van Til, “Review of The Karl Barth Theology or The New Transcendentalism by Alvin S. Zerbe”. Christianity Today 1, no. 10, (February 1931), 13.

6 Cornelius Van Til, “Seeking for Similarities in Theology,” The Banner, Vol. 72, 1937, pages 75 and 99.

7 Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism, 1946.

8 Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism, 1946.

9 Cornelis Van Til, “Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?” Westminster Journal. 16:2, May 1954.

10 Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism. 1962.

11 “Barth’s analysis of Anselm’s argument, by which he defends his view, is extremely detailed and penetrating. It is a major contribution to Medieval studies.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Review of Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, by Karl Barth.” The Presbyterian Journal. May 3, 1961.

12 “Barth is no rationalist of the Cartesian and Leibnizian sort. He is an “irrationalist” of the post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, Kierkegaardian sort.” – Cornelius Van Til, “Karl Barth: Die kirchliche Dogmatik.” 1946.

13 Herman Hoeksema, “Review of The New Modernism by Cornelius Van Til.” The Standard Bearer, Vol. 22, 1946.

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Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 2.

Part 2: Was Cornelius Van Til the first Reformed theologian to critically oppose Karl Barth?

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1.

Click here for Part 3.
Click here for Part 4.

Variations on the claim that Cornelius Van Til was the first Reformed theologian, or among the first, to voice critical opposition to Karl Barth are repeated in a number of publications. Phillip R. Thorne in Evangelicalism and Karl Barth writes, “Without a doubt the history of Barth’s reception by American Evangelicals must begin with Dr. Cornelius Van Til … Not only was he one of the earliest, most prolific and well read of Fundamentalist Evangelical interpreters, Van Til was the most influential.”1 John Douglas Morrison and Kevin J. Vanhoover, respectively (and with suspicious similarity) write, “Cornelius Van Til … was one of the first evangelical thinkers to critically engage Karl Barth’s theology”2 and “Van Til was the first evangelical to engage Barth critically.”3 Van Til’s biographer John Muether adds, “Having the advantage of knowing Barth in the original German, Van Til’s analysis became one of the earliest of English language assessments.”4 And finally, though we have not here exhausted all variations of the claim, George Harinck notes, “Van Til was an early bird with his 1931 article [His first article on Barth].”5

The claim is accurate to a certain extent. Though not the very first, Van Til was certainly among the earliest of American Reformed theologians to critique Barth. He was the first in The Presbyterian Guardian to critique Barth at any length with his “Karl Barth on Scripture” (Jan. 9, 1937, p. 137). (Though the first critical reference of Barth in that magazine was made by Calvin Knox Cummings, it was just a passing reference.6) And, as other early critiques failed to garner much recognition, Van Til’s persistent critiques of Barth in various publications helped spur a widespread acceptance of his viewpoint. Gregory G. Bolich notes, “Under Van Til … the work of Barth was declared off limits to a generation of evangelicals. Van Til’s general conclusions, as well as many of his specific criticisms, became the primary response of the American conservative community to Karl Barth.”7

The claim however is misleading in some ways. For one, it is false to say Van Til was the very first Reformed theologian (or even American Reformed theologian) to critique Barth in print. Vanhoover, as quoted above, makes this error in declaring Van Til to be “the first evangelical to engage Barth critically.” The same error is only narrowly avoided by Jim Cassidy in a Reformed Forum podcast when he says, “It [Van Til’s critique] is the first, if I understand correctly, its at least among the first of the American Evangelical critiques of Karl Barth.”8 There were in fact a number of Reformed theologians to pen critiques of Karl Barth prior to Van Til doing so.

American Reformed theologians to critique Barth in print prior to Van Til include J. Gresham Machen, Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr., and Alvin Sylvester Zerbe.

J. G. Machen on Barth

On April 23, 1928 (three years before Van Til’s first article on Barth) Machen spoke to a group of pastors on “Karl Barth and the ‘Theology of Crisis.’”9 The paper he read, however, remained unpublished until 1991.10 Though Machen believed, in D. G. Hart’s words, “it was too early to render a definitive judgment because Barth was so difficult to understand” and so decided not to have his paper published, he did critique Barth in the paper. He 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.”(p. 202) Machen concluded, “The truth is that the radicalism of Barth and Brunner errs by not being radical enough.”(p. 203) That is, Machen held that Barth and Brunner 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.” (p. 204) And furthermore, “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.” (p. 205)

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 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.”11

While these writings of Machen predate Van Til’s first published comments on Barth (1931), as D. G. Hart notes, regarding the new theology of Barth and Brunner, Machen “referred all inquires to Van Til” starting in 1929 when Van Til joined Machen’s faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. Thus, even though Machen published criticism of Barth before Van Til did so, Van Til may have been more aware of Barth’s theology at the time.

C. W. Hodge on Barth

Another American Reformed theologian to publish criticism of Karl Barth predating those of Cornelius Van Til was Caspar Wistar Hodge Jr. (1870-1937). Hodge, a professor at Princeton Seminary and grandson of the prominent 19th century Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, had conversed with Machen, his Princeton colleague, about Barth in 1928 and published criticism of Barth in an article on “The Reformed Faith” in the Evangelical Quarterly in 1929.12 There Hodge noted a “fundamental difference” between Barth and the Reformed Faith; that Barth denies any innate knowledge in man—any knowledge apart from that revealed in the Word of God, and so makes “the idea of Redemption swallow up that of Creation.” (p. 6)

Like Machen, Hodge had conducted some of his theological studies in Germany. As English-translations of Barth’s books did not begin to be published until 1933, both Machen and Hodge, with their ability to read German, would have had earlier access to Barth’s writings than most American theologians. A similar proficiency in German of our next notable Barth critic, A. S. Zerbe, may also explain the earliness of his critique.

A. S. Zerbe on Barth

Alvin Sylvester Zerbe (1847-1935), one time the President of the Ohio Synod of the Reformed Church in the U. S. and a professor at Central Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, wrote the first book-length critique of Barth by an American Reformed theologian. Van Til’s first article on Barth, in fact, is a review of Zerbe’s book, The Karl Barth Theology or The New Transcendentalism (1930). Naturally, Van Til’s article postdates Zerbe’s own writing. Dennis Voskuil notes in his essay “Neoorthodoxy” in Reformed Theology in America, “The First book-length interpretation of Barth’s thought was produced by an orthodox Calvinist, Alvin Sylvester Zerbe” who “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.’”13 It is possible that Zerbe—a member of the church commonly known as “German Reformed”—himself spoke German and therefore read Barth earlier than English-speaking Americans.

Barthian Critics In the Netherlands:

The Barthian critiques of American Reformed theologians, Van Til included, were yet some years behind the Reformed theologians in the Netherlands. George Harinck in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism writes a fascinating of account of Van Til’s travels to the Netherlands in 1927 where Van Til first comes to learn of Barth’s work and the Dutch criticisms of Barth.

Harinck writes,

“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.14

None of these Barthian critiques pre-dating those of Van Til should take away from Van Til’s place as the most influential early Barth critic in evangelical circles.

As for Gordon Clark (since this is a series on both Clark and Van Til on Barth) when did he first write on Karl Barth? He was much later Van Til. Clark’s first article on Barth, a review of Barth’s The Humanity of God was published in April 25, 1960 edition of Christianity Today. Like most theologians though, Clark was aware of Barth by the 1930s, very likely influenced by some of Van Til’s critiques. This influence of Van Til can be seen in the earliest notes about Barth in Clark’s papers; two letters between J. Oliver Buswell, then President of Wheaton College, and Clark in 1938.

Buswell first wrote to Clark on Dec. 9, 1938: 

Have you kept track of the Barth-Brunner battle-front? 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. (Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark, p. 80)

Clark responded to Buswell, Dec. 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. (Clark and His Correspondents, p. 81)

In addition to the impact of Van Til’s critiques, Clark likely had his views of Barth shaped by the critique of Barth by his own father, David S. Clark. The elder Clark wrote against Barth in a 1937 article, “Barthian Fog” in The Presbyterian making David (though not Gordon) one of Barth’s earliest American Reformed critics.

1 Phillip R. Thorne, Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: His Reception and Influence in North American Evangelical Theology [Pittsburgh, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1995], 33.

2 John Douglas Morrison, Has God Said? Pickwick Publication, 2006, p. 168.

3 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “A Person of the Book? Bark on Biblical Authority and Interpretation” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, ed. Sung Wook Chung, 2006. p. 28.

4 John Muether, Cornelius Van Til, P&R, 2008., p. 121.

5 George Harinck, “How Can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa?, The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, ed. Bruce L. McCormack, 2011, p. 17.

6 Cummings describes Brunner as “a well-known Barthian who destroys the whole historic basis of Christianity.” Cummings, Calvin Knox, “The Student World and The League of Evangelical Students.” (Jan 20, 1936. p. 126)

7 Gregory G. Bolich, Karl Barth & Evangelicalism Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980, 66-67.

9 J. Gresham Machen, “Karl Barth and ‘The Theology of Crisis’” WTJ 51 (1991) 197-207.

10 D. G. Hart “Machen on Barth: Introduction to a Recently Uncovered Paper.” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) 189-196.

11 J. Gresham Machen, “Forty Years of New Testament Research,” Union Seminary Review 40 (1929) 9-11. Reproduced in J. Gresham Machen, “Karl Barth and ‘The Theology of Crisis’” WTJ 51 (1991) 197-207.

12 C. W. Hodge, “The Reformed Faith” Evangelical Quarterly 1929.1.1 (1929): 3-24.

13 Dennis Voskuil, “Neoorthodoxy,” Wells, David, ed. Reformed Theology in America, A History of Its Modern Development, p. 252.

14 George Harinck, “How Can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa?, The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, ed. Bruce L. McCormack, 2011, p. 19-23.

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Now Available: Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark

Clark and His Correspondents Front Cover.jpg

With Tom Juodaitis editing, and the help of Jaime Rodriguez Jr., Sam Colon, and Errol Ng typing up letters, I narrowed down a “best of” collection of Gordon H. Clark’s letters which is now available for purchase from The Trinity Foundation here:

I think readers of GHC’s books are going to love reading his letters. There are important theological points made in them and fascinating historical and personal details. I expect many of these letters to be referenced in theological discussions, blog posts, and hopefully in other books in due time.


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Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 1.

This is the first of a series of articles I’m writing on the reactions of Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til to the theology of Karl Barth. This “Part 1” will simply provide reference to the source material under discussion and online links where available.

Part 2 answers the question, “Was Cornelius Van Til the first Reformed voice to oppose Karl Barth?”

Part 3 addresses the question, “How does Clark’s critique of Barth differ from Van Til’s?”

Part 4 addresses “Were Cornelius Van Til’s views actually a lot like Karl Barth’s views?” (Paradox)

Part 5 addresses “Were Cornelius Van Til’s views actually a lot like Karl Barth’s views?” (Doctrines of God)

First, the source material:

A. Cornelius Van Til’s Books on Karl Barth

1946. The New Modernism.
1962. Christianity and Barthianism.
1962. Barth’s Christology. [Pamphlet]
1964. Karl Barth and Evangelicalism. [Pamphlet]

Note also that Van Til has a chapter on “Barth on Election” in his The Theology of James Daane, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959. pp. 95-126.

B. Cornelius Van Til’s Articles on Karl Barth.

1931. Review of The Karl Barth Theology or The New Transcendentalism by Alvin S. Zerbe. Christianity Today 1, no. 10, (February): 13-14.

1937. Karl Barth on Scripture, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol 3., pp. 137f.

1937. Karl Barth on Creation, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol 3., pp. 204f.

1937. Karl Barth and Historic Christianity, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol 4., pp. 108f.

1937. Seeking for Similarities in Theology, The Banner, Vol. 72, pages 75 and 99.

1938. More Barthianism in Princeton. The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 5., No. 2. Feb, p. 26-27.

1938. Changes in Barth’s Theology, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 5, pp. 221f.

1942. Kant or Christ, The Calvin Forum, Issue 7, p. 133.

1946. Karl Barth: Die kirchliche Dogmatik.

1948. Karl Barth en de Kinderdoop.

1948. Christianity and Crisis Theology, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 17, p. 69f.

1949. More New Modernism at Old Princeton, The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 18, pp. 166f.

1954. Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox? Westminster Journal. 16:2, May.

1959. What About Karl Barth, Eternity.

1960. Karl Barth on Chalcedon, Westminster Theological Journal 22: 147-166

C. Cornelius Van Til’s Lecture on Karl Barth

Van Til on Barth (1968)
Part 1:
Part 2:

D. Gordon Clark’s Book on Karl Barth

1963. Karl Barth’s Theological Method.

E. Gordon Clark’s Articles on Karl Barth

1960. Review of The Humanity of God, by Karl Barth. Christianity Today 25 Apr.

1961. Review of Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, by Karl Barth. The Presbyterian Journal. May 3.

1961. Review of Deliverance to the Captives, by Karl Barth. Christianity Today 5 Jun.

1961. Questions on Barth’s Theology (Contributor). Christianity Today 3 Jul., Vol. V, No. 20.

1962. Barth’s Critique of Modernism. Christianity Today 5 Jan., Vol. VI, No. 7.

1962. More Questions on Barth’s Views (Contributor). Christianity Today 5 Jan.

1962. Special Report: Encountering Barth in Chicago, Christianity Today, May 11, 1962, 35-36.

1962. Review of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture, by Klaas Runia. Christianity Today 6 Jul.

1963. Barth’s Turnabout from the Biblical Norm (excerpt from Karl Barth’s Theological Method). Christianity Today Jan. 4., Vol. VII, No. 7.

1963. Review of Karl Barth on God, by Sebastian A. Matczak. Christianity Today 1 Mar.

1963. Review of Evangelical Theology by Karl Barth, The Presbyterian Journal 8 May: 21.

1964. Review of Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casilas, The Presbyterian Journal 30 Sep.: 18.

1964. A Heritage of Irrationalism (excerpt from Karl Barth’s Theological Method). Christianity Today 9 Oct., Vol. VII, No. 7.

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