Ultimately what John MacArthur thinks about Karl Barth is of no consequence, relative to reality. The problem though is that MacArthur, et al. in the evangelical and Reformed world has a huge impact as he speaks into the lives of his parishioners and all those who hear him on radio and on the web. Just in the last couple of days I had a scrum (a brief one) with one of John MacArthur’s protégées, Mike Riccardi.Riccardi is a young guy who has a couple of degrees from The Master’s Seminary, and is on pastoral staff at Grace Community Church. I’ve known Riccardi through blogging for years, and was also “friends” with him on Facebook. The scrum he and I had got me interested in seeing if I could find out if MacArthur had ever said anything about Barth from the pulpit; and he has. I found a Q&A he did on April 18th, 2010 at his church. During that Q&A someone asked him about Karl Barth. His response was of course in line with the gist of what Ricarrdi shared on his wall at Facebook, and gets reflected in all those who sit under the teaching of MacArthur, Riccardi, et al; this was made clear in the comment thread under Ricarrdi’s post. Here is how MacArthur responded to the question about Barth:
Now the view of Karl Barth, and Karl Barth is a German and they keep resurrecting Him. If he would just stay dead, we wouldn’t have to deal with this stuff. But liberal theologians love to raise these dead Germans and make them issues. Karl Barth basically denied Scripture truth. He denied the historicity of Scripture, not just Genesis 1 to 11 but the whole thing. He said, “Redemptive history happened but it didn’t happen in history…the German…it happened in Heiliachikdalickta [sic], it happened in elevated super-duper history. He had a kind of category, a mystical category in which redemptive history occurred. So if you say to Karl, “Do you believe in Genesis?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” Yes. “Did it happen in history?” No. “Do you believe in the miracles of Jesus? Did they happen in history?” Well they happened in holy history. And it’s a…it’s a…it’s a split world in which he lives. But he…he did the same thing to Genesis that he does with everything. And this is…it has a name, it’s called neo-orthodoxy. And the reason they called Karl Barth a neo-orthodox was the whole world of German theology was liberal. They were all liberal, back in the nineteenth century, they were all liberal and Karl Barth said, “This is not good, you’ve thrown all the miracles out, you’ve thrown everything supernatural out of the Bible. You’ve emptied the Bible of all of this. That’s not good, we’ve got to put it back. Well let’s put it all back.”
Only he couldn’t get it all the way in to history, he just put it back in holy history. So he was called a neo-orthodox cause it was a new kind of orthodoxy that allowed for all of this but not in history, but in the Heiokiachikdalickta, whatever that is…holy history.
So, Karl Barth’s approach to Genesis was the same as his approach to the resurrection. It’s always the same with him. It is not orthodoxy. It is not orthodoxy. It is called neo-orthodoxy, it is liberalism in another dress. And, of course, he would…he would call Genesis 1 to 11 nothing more than sort of spiritual saga, spiritual narrative, spiritual poetry.
Was Karl Barth a German? Come on MacArthur, he was Swiss. Right from the get go we can see that MacArthur’s knowledge of who Barth actually was is suspect. This inaccuracy about Barth’s nationality carries through into MacArthur’s response relative to the entailments of Barth’s theology.
I wrote a post not too long ago that addresses directly MacArthur’s misconstrual of Barth’s approach to history, and in particular how Barth related historical (“calendar” or linear) history to God’s providential inbreaking into that in the events of salvation history (i.e. those recorded in the biblical text). Here’s what I wrote; it silences MacArthur’s critique to the point that MacArthur ought to repent of what he wrongly said of Barth:
I just finished an essay (chapter) by George Hunsinger on Karl Barth’s kind of ‘post-critical’ approach to biblical interpretation. The essay itself is awesome, if in fact you are interested in Barth’s approach to such things. In one of the footnotes Hunsinger describes Barth’s usage of what Barth called Saga as a designation that Barth used in his second naïveté approach to biblical criticism/interpretation (we will have to get into what that means later i.e. second naïveté). What is interesting about Barth is that he did not shy away from the findings of the higher critics of Scripture of his day, but he instead said to them (in my paraphrase): “okay, so now what?” Barth was of the belief that Revelation, attested to in the witness of Holy Scripture, was not something that historical reconstruction or critics ultimately had access to; in other words the critics could only go so far, they could only go so far when attempting to capture revelational phenomenon through naturalistic critera/categories. It is within this reality that Barth used his genre of saga to engage with the theological/revelational reality attested to all throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. Here is what Hunsinger writes:
“Saga” or legend was a term Barth used over against “myth” and “history.” “Myths” were stories that embodied timeless truths, while “history” in the historicist sense excluded God on principle from its accounts. “Sagas” or legends, by contrast, were stories about actual, unrepeatable events in which God could depicted (whether directly or indirectly) as the central acting subject. On the human side, sagas involved elements of theologically informed intuitions (Vorstellungen) as well as imaginative or poetic depictions (Darstellungen) of events that were in some sense beyond ordinary depiction. Although grounded in actual occurrences, sagas were not primarily reports, but witnesses to divine revelation. Barth used the term “saga,” for lack of a better term, in order to bring out the special literary genre of biblical stories about the world’s creation, the Virgin Birth, Christ’s resurrection, and other such ineffable occurrences. It represented a kind of critical realism that was unacceptable to historicists for its audacity and to literalists for its reticence.
Access to the revelation (events) in biblical history, for Barth then, would be grounded in faith (analogia fidei); not because these events are not real or actual but because they are acts that supranaturally go beyond what counts as natural in and through our perceived and observable experiences, in other words, they are acts of God. These acts of God or ‘miracles’ also have a key function in Barth’s theology of revelation. As we just left off with (in the Hunsinger quote), Barth placed ‘miracles’, i.e. the ‘world’s creation,’ the ‘Virgin Birth,’ ‘Christ’s resurrection,’ etc., into his genre of saga. Barth’s understanding of miracles is this,
the special new direct act of God in time and in history. In the form in which it acquires temporal historical actuality, biblically attested revelation is always a miracle, and therefore the witness to it, whether direct or indirect in its course, is a narrative of miracles that happened. Miracle is thus an attribute of revelation.
We can see how saga and miracle functioned within Barth’s conception of revelation. Saga was the genre of revelation (in the Bible’s narrative unfolding), and miracle was a predicate of the revelation itself attested to by the witness deposited within Holy Scripture.
What we have in Karl Barth is an evangelical (in the German sense of that word) who worked through the findings of Modern biblical criticism. He found a constructive way to acknowledge it (criticism), and then in his next step, in stride to move beyond it in such a way that Gerhard von Rad could say of Barth on the occasion of his death (Barth’s) in 1968: “What a miracle that one should appear among us who did nothing else than to take God at his Word.”
I can only aspire to be an evangelical like Barth. Unlike the evangelicalism that I have grown up in in North America, Barth was able to approach the text fully acknowledging the value of higher criticism, while at the same time moving beyond it to the theological reality of the text through his second naïveté (approach); i.e. basically what we were engaging within our discussion of ‘saga’ and ‘miracle.’ North American evangelical biblical scholarship, again unlike Barth, instead of being able to move beyond higher criticism has become mired down, ironically in the weeds of higher criticism in their apologetic mode of attempting to thwart higher criticism through their attempt to out ‘critic’ the higher critics on the higher critic’s terms. In the process, evangelicals never really have the capacity (within the discipline of biblical studies) to engage with the text theologically and thus on its own terms. So I would rather be like Barth, in principle, as I approach the Bible.
MacArthur completely misrepresents Barth’s understanding of history, and he does so as a parrot of Cornelius Van Til; i.e. the critique that MacArthur makes of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, theory of Revelation, and theory of History (Historie/Geschichte) is a bad rendition of Van Til’s misreading of Barth.
For further treatment of this issue, and misreading of Barth see Darren Sumner’s article Revelation and History: Cornelius Van Til’s Critique of Karl Barth where he dismantles Van Til’s reading of Barth (on this particular issue[s]), and thus undercuts MacArthur’s caricature of Barth.
John MacArthur and Mike Ricarrdi have demonstrated that they aren’t competent to comment on Barth; so they shouldn’t! If they want to then they need to put in the time to do that in a Christian and honorable manner. Even if they disagree with him they need to do their best to accurately represent his theology, especially to the people they have sway with in their church and beyond.
 George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 125 fn. 27 kindle.
 Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.
 Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.