A Response to John MacArthur’s and Mike Riccardi’s Outlandish Misreading of Karl Barth’s Theology

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 barthmacarthurparishioners 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.[1]

Response

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[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5]

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

[1] John MacArthur, Transcript (April 18th, 2010). YouTube video where he offers this response (start at 58 minutes).

[2] Original Post

[3] 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.

[4] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 63-4 cited by George Hunsinger in, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 16 kindle.

[5] Gerhard von Rad quoted by Smend in, Karl Barth als Ausleger, 216 cited by George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed, 125 fn. 20 kindle.

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12 Responses to A Response to John MacArthur’s and Mike Riccardi’s Outlandish Misreading of Karl Barth’s Theology

  1. Pingback: A Response to John MacArthur’s and Mike Ricarrdi’s Outlandish Misreading of Karl Barth’s Theology — The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. I have to say I’ve never seen “Heilsgeschichte” misspelled like that! But I have seen Barth misrepresented like that.
    Back at the beginning of my calling, the Spirit offered me a different road and I yielded to a turn from the Ivy League to the little Los Angeles Baptist College where I studied history and biblical languages and interpretation – doing most of my research at UCLA and Fuller. I proved that you could do the life of the mind in a very restrictive but spiritual space. Most of us went to Grace Community to hear one of the best expositors in the US. My dad and I persuaded the little trustee board made up mostly GARBC to consider John for succeeding the retiring president – and the rest is history.
    I mention L.S. Chafer (the dispensationalist) and C. Van Til but they are from a much earlier generation. We probably have enough knowledge of J.G. Machen to know that he would not have agreed with the way and certainly with the competency of Van Til’s reading of Barth. Machen’s fight was with the left-wing descendents of Schleiermacher and Hegel. The Barth of the Kirchliche Dogmatik (Machen was completely fluent in German having studied at Marburg) was completely unknown to Machen. Barth’s Schleiermacherkritik would have pleased Machen. But that is nothing to us historically. We have no idea, given the dynamics of the 20’s and 30’s that divided American Protestantism for ever, what the likes of B.B. Warfield would have done with the mature Barth (It should be remembered that Warfield already held, like his immediate forebears, to theistic evolution and to Calvinian trinitarianism – one reason why the arch-conservative Dutch Reformed and other arch-conservatives in America have marginalized him).
    There was a volume published in the 70’s in German actually, that took the Van Til theses to an even greater extreme: ‘ ‘ by Klaus Bockmuehl (who in his mid- to later career was at Regent College in BC). Basically, the completely wrong-headed (dishonest?) argument imposed by Bockmuehl, was that Barth was a crypto-atheist. I recall an untranslated book review by Eberhard Juengel in Evangelische Zeitschrift. I think I have never read such a devastating critique of an otherwise discplined publication whose mood and tone of grief far outweighed its mood and tone of intellectual disgust.
    Let’s go back to the way that ultra-conservatives used to do anti-Protestant apologetics. Barth never appears positively on their radar because they were convinced that the ‘Great Apostasy’ of modernism had turned all Protestantism into a theological desert. Anything that might appear to be a semblence of orthodoxy (read the epithet ‘neo-orthodoxy’) was only a deceptive mirage. John is a smart and studious guy, obviously, and he demonstrates deftness using the apologetical line: “Geschichte” but not “Historie” – you know where this is going. The former is intepretation and ultimately ‘myth’ (a most denigrated term – and therefore impossible – even for Barth!). “Historie” is factual and supposedly no ‘mainline’ Protestant could accept factuality in the Bible any longer. Therefore, what Barth was trying to do was not only impossible but a complete non-sequitur. No attention was paid to Barth Mythoskritik; and of course no attention was paid to his thoroughgoing principle of reform – no longer based merely upon scripture as ecclesial recollection of revelation but what Bonhoeffer would ineptly accuse him of ‘Offenbarungspositivismus’ – ‘revelational positivism’ or a theological fixation with factuality and objectivity.
    It is worth quickly recounting a very interesting, late reminiscence of T.F. Torrance on a conversation with the aged Barth. TF explains that he had had a nagging concern about the precise language of Barth on the Easter event – the purveyors of impossiblity were not the only ones who were concerned. Barth himself had been very concerned about an apologetical reductionism of the truth of the resurrection of Christ to “the empty tomb” – e.g., the ‘supernaturalist’ obsession with the ‘evidence’ that Jesus has ‘risen from the dead’ through the absence of the corpse which could not be explained by the disciples’ stealing away of the body. (We know from the arresting encounter by Barth with the young C.F. Henry, whose question after the lecture at the U. of Chicago on the photographability of the resurrection was also taken with equal parts of grief and intellectual disgust – Barth had faced such questions from otherwise theological compatriots many times before.) The doctrine of resurrection, and all its profound connections in the NT appeared entirely neglected (something Tom Oden found particularly objectionable in evangelical fundamentalism). So TF puts his question to Barth in terms of “bodily resurrection” and is instantaneously relieved to hear Barth’s retort: “selbstverstaendlich, leibliche Auferstehung!” – “self-evidently, bodily resurrection!” Which is of course an intensified statement of precion beyond the traditional and already precise affirmation: “he is truly risen!”
    (This also reminds one of the important exchange between Robert Jenson and Paul Molnar on the occasion of reviewing the former’s magnum opus: Systematic Theology (2vols) in the ST section of the AAR – I think in 2000 or so. Jenson had followed traditional orthodoxy as a post-liberal all the way through to that point in Christology where the meaning of the resurrection enters in. Abruptly in his work, Jenson shifts to the formulaic Bultmannian apologetic and defines resurrection in terms of the spirit-filled community. Molnar’s critique was devastating and shortly thereafter, Jenson writes an essay for Journal of Theology & Philosophy indicating he could have been wrong and asks for competent counsel on how to get on to a consistent expression of traditional orthodoxy. It was an impressive moment.)
    So we can understand if not excuse John Mac for getting stuck on a particular German term and a whole lot else in modern but a traditional theology that we find, against all expectations, in Barth.

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  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Good comment, thanks Kurt. I’d heard of the TFT question to Barth, and some of this other stuff; particularly the Bonhoeffer charge. The Molnar/Jenson exchange is really good, and it speaks to Jenson’s character immensely!

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  4. Richard Jamison says:

    I missed where the fundamental questions were addressed: Were Adam and Eve real people like you and me? If there had been a camera recording events outside the tomb in which Jesus was laid, would it have recorded a person coming out of the tomb?

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  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Yes and Yes. But there weren’t cameras there were only witnesses like you and me.

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  6. Bobby Grow says:

    Richard,

    And here is some very important analysis from Robert Dale Dawson in regard to Barth, historicity, and resurrection:

    A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God. Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

    Originally shared as part of this post: click here

    Skepticism on Barth here is unwarranted; or it is informed by intentionally neglecting real engagement with and study of what Barth actually believed. As far as I’m concerned this is an unwarranted antagonism given impetus by a Fundamentalist type fear, based upon “scholarship” that totally misconstrues Barth for their own ends and not in the name of actually discerning whether what Barth communicated was Gospel faithful or not. Do I agree with everything in Barth? No. But he’s a monumental theologian who cannot be labeled a heretic or heterodox. It’s time to get past the caricatures and wikipedia scholarship.

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  7. Richard Jamison says:

    I hope you understand my confusion. “The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events…” That’s a complex way of addressing what I thought was a simple question and that, in turn, makes me wonder if we are really communicating using the same terms. For example, is there a difference between “the event of the resurrection” and a resurrection in time and space that can be observed by a human such as you or me? Again, I hope you can understand my confusion.

    By the way, I asked a sincere, simple, and honest question. When you used terms like “Fundamentalist type fear,” “caricatures,” and “wikipedia scholarship,” that came across to me as “unwarranted antagonism.” I hope that impression was unfounded.

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  8. Bobby Grow says:

    Richard,

    Your question sounds pretty loaded and antagonistic to me. If you think what I shared from Dawson is complex and not straightforward then we have nothing to talk about. Does Barth think the resurrection is primal? Yes. Does that mean it’s not historical? No! It means it’s not historicist; there’s a difference. So what do you want it to be historical or historicist? For Barth it is the former, you seem to want it to be the latter. It’s actually a very simple reality. The analogy might be creatio ex nihilo. The resurrection for Barth is that basic.

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  9. Rick says:

    Bobby,

    I sorry that I phrased my questions in ways that came across as antagonistic. I sought clarification, not conflict.

    Unfortunately, I need more clarification. What do you see as the difference between historical and historicist?

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  10. Bobby Grow says:

    Rick,

    Historicist is what we find in enlightenment higher criticism. I.e. empiricism, positivism, naturalism, ‘see it to believe it.’ That’s what Barth was kicking against. Barth was not suggesting that the resurrection of Jesus was not a factual concrete historical reality; just the opposite. In fact, as Dawson’s quote should illustrate, for Barth the historicality of the resurrection of Jesus is more real, more grounding, more primal than any historicist account could ever provide for. Barth is offering a theological, dogmatic account of the resurrection which has both ontological and epistemological consequences. It is silly for folks out there (not you) to caricature Barth’s position on time/eternity simply because they haven’t spent the time to understand what he’s actually after.

    In short, for Barth, there is no analogy in history for the resurrection or the incarnation; these are sui generis or unique realities that determine what reality is, and thus are not predicated to be what they are by OUR conceiving of them. They are givens that confront us in our own frail statuses as creatures who are contingent upon the reality given to us by our Creator in Christ.

    Does this make sense?

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  11. Rick says:

    Bobby,

    Yes, this helps. Of course, secondary sources, whether Dawson or Van Till, are of limited value and the volume of Barth’s corps so daunting that I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma but at least you’ve made me challenge some assumptions.

    Thank you.

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  12. Bobby Grow says:

    I’m not sure tho how Dawson’s analysis is limited on this front, particularly when it aligns with other’s work on Barth in the same area. Some secondary sources are greater than others. Barth is daunting at some levels but his theology is certainly not a mystery; it’s accessible for the hard charger.

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