Jim Cassidy’s ‘Essential Van Til’: An Alert Post

Jim Cassidy, PhD Westminster Theological Seminary (2014), over at Reformed Forum just kicked off a series of posts that will be engaging with Karl Barth’s theology as understood through Cornelius Van Til. Van Til for Westminster folks, such as Cassidy, carries a weight for them such as Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance carries for us Evangelical Calvinists. Cassidy and I have some history in regard to having some lively exchanges about Barth, Van Til, et al.; particularly on Facebook (in the past). Anyway, I thought I would alert you all to Cassidy’s planned spate of posts (and it looks like he plans on at least an essay or book coming out of it) with all of this in mind. What you will really find interesting, as you read his article, is that part of his motivation has been prompted by yours truly, and us Evangelical Calvinists; he mentions us in his post.

Anyway, head on over to Jim’s post and check it out. I’ll be following it, and as a blogger you can bet that I will be posting responses to some of Jim’s posts. The particular post you will read from Jim doesn’t present anything very controversial or objectionable at all; I have no doubt that Van Til works from the concept that God is Triune. Of course how Van Til comes to that conclusion, extra Scripture, might be worthy of a post, at least. But nonetheless I don’t find anything too objectionable about this first post from Cassidy. Click the following link to read Jim’s post:

The Essential Van Til — Introduction and the Trinity


Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox? Further Response to Scott Clark and Richard Muller

Following up with my last post on Scott Clark in regard to his recent sharing of Richard Muller’s mini-essay What I Haven’t Learned from Karl Barth; I shared a comment there, a short one in favor of Karl Barth contra Muller’s characterization. I just went back and Clark has deleted my comment along with my friend’s, Jonathan Kleis’s comment. In that thread though, if there is any doubt about what Clark (and by culture and connection, Richard Muller) thinks about Karl Barth, note what Clark said, in comment, in response to the question from one of his interlocutors about whether or not Barth was “saved.” I’ll share the whole little thread:


This is the common attitude towards, Barth; at least from people like Clark, Muller, and most of those you will find at both Westminster Theological Seminary and Westminster Seminary (Escondido) California—where Clark teaches. They read Barth through Van Til, and as I just recently quoted Van Til in another recent post of mine, this is what Van Til thought of Barth:

It is, we believe, to do Barth injustice, and to do the church irreparable harm, when orthodox theologians fail to make plain that dialectical theology is basically subversive of the gospel of saving grace…No heresy that appeared at [Nicaea, Chalcedon, Dort or Westminster] was so deeply and ultimately destructive of the gospel as is the theology of Barth.[1]

I have just encountered someone, online, who seems to think that Muller is a charitable reader of Barth. Muller is in the same “camp” as Van Til and Clark, it is hard to imagine that he could be construed as a charitable reader of Barth (his other writings make it very clear that he is not).

[1] C. Van Til, Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox? (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1954).

Cornelius Van Til Was Severely Wrong in His Critique of Karl Barth: Gavin Ortlund Say’s So

I just read this really good essay that repudiates Cornelius Van Til’s apparent rebuttal of Karl Barth’s theology. Gavin Ortlund puts Van Til’s critique in perspective, and demonstrates how it should not be taken seriously—cornelius-van-til-01only as a caricature—of Barth’s actual theology. I don’t actually think that Ortlund is a ‘Barthian’, per se, but his essay goes along way in dis-spelling the demonic mist that has surrounded Barth for all too long among his Westminster Theological Seminary-typed critics. Here is how Gavin Ortlund concludes his essay:

I will finish this study by noting two conclusions which do not follow from it, and one which does. First, it does not follow from what I have written here that Van Til’s general contribution to theology should be in any way denigrated. There can be no question of his importance, especially in the realm of apologetics. If it is true, as John Frame has suggested, that Van Til tended to adopt an all or nothing approach toward other thinkers, that is no reason why the same approach should be adopted towards him. Secondly, it does not follow that there is no room for further criticism of Karl Barth’s theology. Barth’s theology may be flawed for reasons different than those given by Van Til, or there may be problems with specific areas of his thought or method.

        What I would suggest from this essay is that interpreters of Barth, especially those in the Van Tilian chain of influence, make greater effort to form their interpretations of Barth through thoughtful and discerning interaction with Barth’s writings. In evangelical circles, and especially in reformed circles in America and Britain, Barth is often regarded with suspicion, dismissed without a reading, summarized with neat but unhelpful slogans, and/or written off as a liberal. All would profit from more careful reading of Barth’s writings, more caution, fairness, and balance in analysis, and a fresh openness to the complexities and nuances of his work.

        This conclusion follows most of all for those who share concerns about Barth, because genuine and vigorous opposition to Barth’s theology is not well served by Van Til’s critique. It may be that part or all of Barth’s theology needs to be rejected, but it should be fairly engaged before it is rejected. Even if one finds, upon one’s own separate reading and reflection, Karl Barth to be the worst heretic in the history of the church – let him nevertheless be denounced for what he is and not something he is not. [read the whole essay: “Wholly Other or Wholly Given Over: What Van Til Missed in his Criticism of Barth,” Presbyterion 35.1 (2009): 35-52]

I commend this to you, you Van Tilian anti-Barthians, in particular :-).

High Places: Natural Theology and the ‘Analogy’ in Karl Barth by Van Til

Here is a dovetailing post with my last one on natural theology and the analogy of being in the Theology of Karl Barth as told by Cornelius Van Til:

Man in himself and as such is utterly undeserving. He is under the wrath of God. He is blind. His time is “problematic and unauthentic.” He is sinful and fallen. As such he is boastful of his own power. He will not admit that he  is lost and must live by the mercy of God. As a religious being he speaks but will not listen to the revelation of God. Moreover, his speaking and thinking is grasping and as such is contradictory of the revelation of God. He is a fabricator of idols, and is such because he thinks that he can  possess the truth, failing to see that “no religion is true.” He seeks for an analogy of God’s knowledge in his own knowledge, not realizing that not he but only God is an authentic person. When he thinks of God, he thinks of abstractions. He thinks of freedom rather than of God as free. [Cornelius Van Til, Christianity And Barthianism,

An anti-natural theology does not get any clearer than this. Barth’s substitute is the analogy of faith; meaning that all of our knowledge of God is dependent upon God’s Self-revelation in Christ, and the link to this (epistemologically) for us is faith (which only comes from an ontological change through our participation in the humanity of Christ (so Revelation is Reconciliation).


Cornelius Van Til on Karl Barth: Grace and Nature, Worship Creation or Creator

I think Cornelius Van Til offers a good sketch of Barth’s understanding of grace as personified personally in Jesus Christ (instead of grace as a principle or quality). You will notice in Van Til’s sketch how he accentuates Barth’s disdain for the natural theology and analogy of being of both Roman Catholic theology and later post-Reformed orthodoxy (or Westminster Calvinism, simpliciter). I totally appreciate this emphasis, from Barth, as you know; and I think Van Til presents Barth accurately in this way; note Van Til,

[B]arth’s answer to both charges is that speaking Christologically of grace is not to speak speculatively in any direction. One may freely use the language of any school of philosophy. But one must, as a theologian, be free from the control of all philosophy.

Thinking Christologically of grace enables us, says Barth, to speak along the lines of Reformational theology. Thinking Christologically of grace enables us to escape the Romanist approach to grace and the free will of man. Romanism thinks along the lines of the analogy of being (italics mine), and in doing so, is largely controlled by philosophical speculation. It is this philosophical speculation that accounts for its use of natural theology. In Romanist theology Christ comes into the picture too late; he comes in afterwards, and a Christ coming in afterwards is, in effect, Christ not coming in at all.

Against this the Reformers, thinking Christologically, gave God the true priority over man, and grace the true priority over man’s participation in it.

But the Reformers did not consistently work out the relation of grace to sin along Christological lines. They were unable to fathom the full implication of their own idea of the sovereignty of grace. They did not realize that the full freedom and glory of God’s grace to man in Christ is expressed in the very idea of his being the one who suffers the wrath of God for man.

Again, the Reformers, and notably Calvin, had no full appreciation for the biblical universalism involved in the true idea of grace. We must therefore go beyond the Reformers in stressing both the full sovereignty and the full universality of the nature of grace. Instead of thus going beyond the Reformers, later orthodox theologians all too often fell back on natural theology and on the idea of direct revelation in history. Thus they tended once more to make the consciousness of man think of itself as autonomous. And thus they became, all too often, the forerunners of the consciousness theology of Schleiermacher and his followers.

This in turn prepared the way for a theology which was, in effect, as Feuerbauch maintained, nothing more than an undercover anthropology.

If then we are to work out the true Reformation principle of theology, and therewith escape the synergistic views of Romanism, we must think of grace Christologically. And if we are to escape the narrowness of an evil orthodoxy and the subjectivism of the consciousness theologians, we must think of grace Christologically. And finally if we are really to enjoy the full certainty of the gift of the grace of God in Christ for all men, and in doing so laugh in Feuerbach’s face, then we must think of grace Christologically. [Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism, 31-32]

Why Does This Matter Again?

There are a lot of threads in Van Til’s sketch of Barth; let me focus on one thread, the primary thread running throughout this account. That is that Grace is Personal in Christ, and any other account—as evinced in those noted (the Romanists, post-Reformed orthodox, Schleiermacher, et. al.)—collapses grace into creation such that creation dominates our thinking about God. If we follow this method—natural theology—we take God captive by our creations and constructs, and God is no longer capable to speak Lordly words over and against us (so he ceases to be Lord in this scenario). The Apostle Paul warns of such madness when he writes:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Romans 1:18-23

This is why this discussion matters; the gravity of this weights on whether we can say that we are worshipping God as revealed in Jesus Christ, or are we worshipping God created in our image? This oversimplifies things quite a bit, but this is the nub of it for me.

What’s Bobby Reading? Cornelius Van Til, Andrew Louth, J. Louis Martyn, and Thomas Torrance (the man)

  • Barth’s Christology by Cornelius Van Til (actually, this one is read, it’s only a quick 29 pages)

Here’s the last paragraph of the essay (booklet):

[T]hus the Christ who symbolizes this idea of man’s virtual omniscience and a God who knows not himself is the projection of would be autonomous human experience: It is the belief in this sort of Christ that leads men to think that they have done justice to God and Christ while in fact they are still under their condemnation and wrath. The Christ of Barth’s theology is a false Christ, a meaningless mirage, and devoid of ability to give sinners any help. But it is the only Christ that men can find if they will not submit their thinking to the obedience of Christ as he speaks in the Scriptures. (p. 29)

  • Christianity And Barthianism by Cornelius Van Til

Here’s Van Til in the preface:

[T]he present writer is of the opinion that, for all its verbal similarity to historic Protestantism, Barth’s theology is, in effect, a denial of it. There is,  he believes, in Barth’s view no “transition from wrath to grace” in history. This was the writer’s opinion in 1946 when he published The New Modernism. A careful consideration of Barth’s more recent writings has only established him more firmly in this conviction. (p. vii)

There you have it. I plan on posting some of the stuff from Van Til on Barth. There are plenty of things that are perfect bloggy material provided by his essay (booklet) Barth’s Christology. Van Til continues to be the great defeater of Barthianism for some within the post Reformed orthodox camp today (mostly by those who attend and teach at Westminster Theological Seminary). Even what I know of Barth, which has some depth at this point (relatively speaking), Van Til’s points fall flat (in his little booklet tract against Barth’s Christology). My “e-friend” Darren Sumner recently took Van Til to task hereI wish more folk would pay attention to critiques of Van Til, but instead those who follow Van Til seem to continue to follow the notion that Barth is a demon and not a saint—which ultimately is scary!