Part 2: Was Cornelius Van Til the first Reformed theologian to critically oppose Karl Barth?
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.
“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. http://files1.wts.edu/uploads/images/files/WTJ/Machen%20-%20Theology%20of%20Crisis.pdf
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. http://www.pcahistory.org/HCLibrary/articles/CWHodge-ReformedFaith.pdf
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.