The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.



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  2. Rein Zeilstra · ·

    Dear Bobby
    I value this expose of yours. The fact that God wants to be understood on (His) terms and not on any human encapsulation doesn’t come easy for any mere mortals even those who profess faith in (Him). It is alright to see (His) glory declared in the cosmos and creation in multiform manners but not that we can come to even approach any defined notion of God that way. Call and the response of coming still passes through the cross of Christ’s self sacrifice to the victory of his resurrection life and glory. For me the pitfalls of natural theological pathways was made clear through the testimony of Dr. “Mans” Miskotte in regard to the basis of belief of his father emeritus Prof K.H. Miskotte in his assessment on New Zealand thought and its green ecological ardency.
    The crucial insightful brilliance of Barth was that he had the courage to row against the stream and to his consternation found he actually set off all the church panic bells in Europe and made the crucial distinction of dealing in theology with God’s reality as posited in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christmas, rather than how humanity would deal with it and distortingly reinterpret it and emasculate it accordingly.

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