Barth, Horton, McCormack, Van Til, Neder: And My ‘Evangelical’ Approach


As a still budding theologian, it is important to remain self-critical and self-reflective upon the dogmatism with which I hold my informing voices and subsequent trajectories that these voices might provide. One thing that delimits this capacity for me is lack of time to develop properly; nevertheless, insofar as I have the time to do so, I continue to develop into the theologian (Christian) that God would have me be. In the endeavor to do develop I continue to read (and seek collegial interaction) as much as I possibly can. As I do this I am exposed to voices that help keep me critical in the way necessary in order to actually develop instead of becoming static and driven by ecclesiastical tradition (which of course is not all bad—i.e. the ‘Tradition’).

A book I am currently reading that is helping me in this burgeoning process is the edited one by Bruce McCormack and Clifford Anderson, Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism. I just finished Michael Horton’s chapter on Barth compared with Federal Theology or Post-Reformed Orthodoxy (of whom Horton is one of its shining stars and champions). Horton provides, surprisingly to me, a rather irenic and balanced (because he keeps a tone that is still broadly appreciative of Barth) critique of Barth’s theology. Here is how Horton concludes his critique of Barth:

[L]ike classical Reformed theology, Barth’s system is logically coherent. However, unlike the former, the latter’s consistency seems more to me like something deduced from a central dogma than like a series of sub-plots that display an over-arching plot centering on Christ.Barth presupposes that the electing will of the single Subject, revealed in the single event of one covenant, executed in the one history that is eternal, encompasses every person. But what if God’s revelation in Christ, known in scripture, contradicts even one of these theses? [Michael S. Horton, Covenant, Election, and Incarnation: Evaluating Barth’s Actualist Christology, in Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism, edited by McCormack and Anderson, 146-47.]

Horton’s overall critique of Barth is that Barth tends (if not falls head-long) towards Christo-monism; meaning that the integrity of ‘calendar-history’ is taken captive by ‘metaphysical-history’ (thus resulting in the post-metaphysicalism of Barth—my own observation). And this not providing for any kind of actual sequenciation in history, or this making history such a predicate of God’s life in Christ that there no longer remains any real meaning for created-history (no independent contingency so to speak).

As I read Horton, I take it as a contemporary re-presentation of his forbear at Westminster Theological Seminary, the ominous Cornelius Van Til. Bruce McCormack responds to Van Til’s reading of Barth in his Afterword to this volume entitled: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth. Being the sinner that I am, I already jumped ahead and read McCormack’s Afterword first (knowing the lineaments of Van Til’s critique of Barth as I do), and then I also have already read McCormack’s chapter So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism. Insofar as Horton imbibes his esteemed predecessor’s argument against Barth—and Horton does, but Horton, ironically (given the title of this book), takes the Evangelical tact of being softer in tone than does his Fundamentalist teacher, Van Til, who imbibes the fighting and declining spirit that Fundyism is known for)—McCormack somewhat shatters Van Til’s critique, and thus ‘indirectly’ he does the same to Horton’s (at the same time, he somewhat reinforces certain points that Horton makes against Barth’s ‘actualistic-monism’).

Something though that is important to keep in mind, is that while Barth was attendant to the orthodox categories of the Tradition; at the same time, he could be characterized as the evangelical par excellence. And it is this par excellence mode that has brought him into dead-lock with people like Horton and Van Til. The genius of the Protestant and Evangelical mood is that it asserts a predilection towards and dependence upon scripture alone. While it is ecclesially sensitive to the Tradition, it does not feel beholden to the Tradition in a way that trumps Scripture’s pronouncements and attendant theo-logic (even if that takes the form of dialecticism). This is the mode and posture that Barth intentionally takes as a Reformed theologian (in its ‘Spirit’ see his Theology of the Reformed Confessions). He ultimately does not take his cues from the Tradition (as viable as it still is for him), but Scripture. And so if someone is going to critique him, then they must do so from Scripture; and reread the Tradition through that lens (in a dialectic way, of course!).   So Barth moves in the Protestant Reformed, Christian Humanist spirit of ad fontes, ‘back to the sources’.

In the immediately following chapter to Horton’s, Adam Neder writes of Barth’s mode:

[…] while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself to be primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked that his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying a Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology — free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion. [Adam Neder, History n Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union, eds. McCormack and Anderson, 150.]

This should make N.T. Wright proud. This also makes Barth, dangerous! For Barth it is not enough to parrot the Tradition; instead he is willing to venture into and from the dynamically charged life of God in Christ in a way that engages with and from the Tradition, but does so more on the terms of Scripture’s own deposit and witness (in conversation with the categories provided by the Tradition). Barth isn’t afraid to employ “new” philosophical consideration and category (a la Hegel, Kant, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, et al); but these aren’t ad hoc employments, instead they are “used” in order to serve the presentation and articulation  of the Good News.

I could go on, but let me summarize why I just wrote what I just did, and why I started this whole thing out with the thought that I am continuing to develop myself.

As a young evangelical Calvinist theologian my primary concern is to simply grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. As an Evangelical theologian my mode is to appropriate whatever emphases and categories that I can from the past and the present that best serve this kind of theological development. I don’t want to absolutize any period, or any person (including Barth or Torrance). And this is why I tend towards Barth and Torrance in mode; because they exemplify this kind of stylization in their own approach. They are evangelically driven by adherence to Scripture, they aren’t content with repristinating/repeating the history; they want to engage with it as the ongoing cacophony of the growing into the unity of faith that this all is (that is this interim period between the first and second advents of Christ). So I don’t absolutize Barth (he wouldn’t want us to), or Torrance, or Calvin, or Wright, or anyone else. My mode is Evangelical, and the best of that is what Barth exemplifies (even with his own overstatements and blind spots in place—which he has); it is to be subordinate to Scripture, and primarily its reality in Jesus Christ (so this makes me Reformed in its best sense as well).

Take this post for what it is, whatever that is.

This entry was posted in American Evangelicalism, Bruce McCormack, Evangelical Calvinism, Karl Barth, Reflection. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Barth, Horton, McCormack, Van Til, Neder: And My ‘Evangelical’ Approach

  1. Darren says:

    Thanks, Bobby — I really enjoyed this post. There is a lot of good dialogue in the new volume from McCormack and Anderson. I think you’ve blogged here on the only chapters I have had a chance to look at so far! Horton has a humble and irenic tone to his critique, which I appreciate (though I would dispute some of his conclusions). Neder’s essay on Barth’s Christology is a fine counterpoint to some of Horton’s conclusions, and I do think those two essays should be read together.


  2. Kevin Davis says:

    Horton’s irenic approach to Barth doesn’t surprise me at all. His ‘Covenant and Eschatology’ is full of appreciative-yet-critical dialogues with thinkers across the theological spectrum. He earned my admiration with that book. I’ve also read some of his smaller works for popular consumption, and I’ve enjoyed them as well. I’m not really into the whole “two kingdom” thing, but I know what he’s reacting against. As for his take on Barth, I think he does a good job of identifying the genuine concerns (about flattening history) without the ridiculous excesses of Van Til’s reading of Barth (as a Kantian demythologizer!). So, while he agrees with many of Van Til’s worries, I think Horton is considerably more responsible. As I’ve said before, the only people who think Van Til reads Barth correctly are at Westminster-Philly…and it’s no wonder that their systematic theology department is just a re-hash of Van Til, with little constructive theology of their own.


  3. Matt Frost says:

    “[L]ike classical Reformed theology, Barth’s system is logically coherent. However, unlike the former, the latter’s consistency seems more to me like something deduced from a central dogma than like a series of sub-plots that display an over-arching plot centering on Christ. Barth presupposes that the electing will of the single Subject, revealed in the single event of one covenant, executed in the one history that is eternal, encompasses every person. But what if God’s revelation in Christ, known in scripture, contradicts even one of these theses?”

    He’s blowing smoke here. Has he proven contradictions? What’s Horton’s real critique here? He claims that Barth has a system that proceeds from a single point rather than repeatedly and glancingly dancing around a single point—which in neither case suggests a problem with Christocentrism. And he claims that Barth presupposes this central point, rather than deriving it from scripture. I am driven to ask whether the man has read the Dogmatics! These are facile claims, and I cannot imagine them standing scrutiny. This is a place where the weaker, eirenic form is not better than the stronger, polemical one—just less substantial. If the claim is that Barth’s theology is in some way unfounded, built on philosophy rather than scripture, that claim must be substantiated, or dropped.

    Further, anyone who can suggest that Barth’s utter reliance on the determining nature of God’s reality for ours proceeds logically toward the irrelevance of history and the agency of creatures in it has missed far too many points along the way.

    Here is my problem with the issues with subordinating world history to God: all of the complaints I have to hand proceed on the idea that the world has an integrity of its own apart from God. That the world is not, fundamentally and entirely, God’s creature, because if it were—well, then we would have determinism, and the end of the relevance of history, rather than free will and contingency. But we then want the free will and contingency to go all the way up! Inevitably, we either force God to come to us, begging for reality, or we come to God likewise. But what Barth declares that God gives us—whether we want it or not, and always before we are able to acknowledge it—is a subordinate independence as agents in relationship, the freedom of creatures whose agency matters in the world. And this is because God is not a metaphysical reality, but an actual one all the way along the line.

    World history is irrelevant to God’s planed and executed salvation of creation—which does not mean it is irrelevant simpliciter, any more than declaring that human action is irrelevant for salvation makes ethics a pointless task. God acts in history, but God has not ordained history. History is a complex product of plural agency. We are responsible for the overwhelming majority of it!


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Darren,

    Thanks, it is good when Darren Sumner likes one of your posts 😉 … seriously! I am reading the Neder chapter now, and I see what you mean. You must have been present for the conference from which this book found its origin, right?


    I’ve read some of Horton’s other stuff as well, and listened to him on his White Horse Inn, quite a bit; and I’m still surprised! His buddies at Westminster California are no friends of Barth (not even sympathetically). I don’t really trust Horton’s irenic appearance, I think he is playing a game with it. But I have to, at some level, just take what he writes as is. I think he definitely works from the Van Tilian mood, just not the tone.


    I like your “problem.” And I wonder how much of the CD Horton has read for himself. I haven’t read that much of it, and yet what I do know of Barth (from all the secondary reading I have done on him, and all the After Barth thought I have worked with) makes Horton’s points sound pretty bereft and hallow relative to the substance of what Barth is actually attempting to do.


  5. Pingback: Barth, Horton, McCormack, Van Til, Neder: And My ‘Evangelical’ Approach [redux] | The Evangelical Calvinist

Comments are closed.