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.


About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
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4 Responses to Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 3.

  1. Nathan says:

    Would they also disagree on the question of transcendence? For example, would the idea that “God is not similar to anything” amount to some form of transcendence?

  2. revdrcr says:

    Doug these articles have been very helpful. And I agree with Clark more than Van til in terms of not completely equating Barth with Modernism. A few years ago, I was at a gathering of clergy, almost all of who were mainline, mostly PCUSA clergy. In the course of a friendly chat, I mentioned that in my circles, Barth is viewed as a “liberal.” The mainliners almost spit their coffee out…..”Liberal? Barth? Are you kidding??!” To all of these people, Barth was abhorred as a rank conservative. It was at that point I began to realize I might want to revisit my blind agreement with Van til.

  3. Pingback: Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 4. | A Place for Thoughts

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