Wednesday 20 July 2005

The worst book ever written on Karl Barth

While it’s hard to choose the best books ever written on Karl Barth, fortunately it’s very easy to name the worst book ever written on Barth. It is—of course—

Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (London: James Clarke, 1946)

This book presents a comically grotesque misreading of Barth—it would be hard to imagine a more drastic and more wilful misunderstanding of Barth’s theology. Unfortunately, this same book influenced the popular American writer Francis A. Schaeffer, and through Schaeffer it influenced a whole generation of evangelical students and ministers in the United States. And so even today you will occasionally meet someone who, without ever having laid so much as a finger on one of Barth’s books, is nonetheless bitterly and adamantly hostile to Barth’s theology.


Unknown said...

How was Schaeffer's view of Barth formed by Van Til? In my reading,Van Til had enough problems with Schaeffer and their own disagreements on theology.

D Schneider said...

Why is van Til so wrong about Barth?

Unknown said...

I think we are out of luck, I don't think Ben wants to respond to any questions on this post.

Ben Myers said...

Oh, sorry! I don't usually manage to respond to old threads (due to lack of time, not lack of interest!). Van Til's interpretation of Barth has been widely condemned, even by other evangelicals who were also critical of Barth. The Dutch Reformed scholar G. C. Berkouwer has an appendix to his book (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth) where he explains why Van Til's interpretation is so bad (in a nutshell: Van Til interprets Barth's theology as a philosophical system).

Other conservative American evangelicals were appalled by Van Til's reading of Barth: Carl Henry remarks somewhere that when he read Van Til's The New Modernism he felt "physically ill"; and Gordon Clark's book (Karl Barth's Theological Method) also opposes Van Til's interpretation. I've just selected these two examples from conservative American scholars — but you'd be hard pressed to find a single Barth scholar who is sympathetic with Van Til's work on Barth.

As for Van Til's wider influence on Schaeffer and on the attitude of conservative evangelicals towards Barth, there are some very helpful books here, e.g.:

* Philip Thorne, Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: His Reception and Influence in North American Evangelical Theology (1995)

* John P. Lewis, Karl Barth in North America: The Influence of Karl Barth in the Making of a New North American Evangelicalism (2009)

But you can also just read Schaeffer's own comments about Barth (he never discusses Barth at length, but remarks about Barth are scattered through his books). If you've read Van Til, you'll quickly recognise Schaeffer's criticisms. And Schaeffer almost never refers to any specific work of Barth's, which perhaps confirms the impression that he hadn't actually read much Barth. (I might be wrong on this detail about how much Schaeffer had read, but in any case the influence of Van Til is clear.)

Hope that helps — and sorry, J. R., that I didn't reply sooner!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the book ideas Ben, I am sure they are worth the 8 month wait :-)

I see from some quotes I looked up, that yes, Schaeffer certainly did have problems with Barth. He wrote, "From Karl Barth on, it is an upper-story phenomenon. Faith is a totally upstairs leap. The difficulty with modern theology is that it is really no different from taking drugs. You may try drugs, you may try modern liberal theology. It makes no difference — both are trips, separated from reason."

Schaeffer also says, "We can see it in the theological area because many evangelicals today feel that it is safe now to praise Karl Barth, seemingly not understanding that Karl Barth was the one who really opened the door to the new theology and all that flowed from it. Many evangelicals are drifting in this direction by treating the early chapters of Genesis the way the new theology treats the whole Bible namely, separating the Bible’s statements about space-time history from “religious truth.” If we are really going to preach meaningfully into the twentieth century, we must have the courage to understand this must not be done."

I guess what does not make sense is how Van Til was the influence on Schaeffer's opinion. Van Til and Schaeffer had their own problems and Van Til did not approve of Schaeffers apologetic methodology at all.

Van Til wrote of Schaeffer, "I have not found any place where Schaeffer offers the Christian position about God, about man and the world as the presupposition of the possibility of predication in any field. I do not know of any place in Schaeffer’s writings where he has presented twentieth century man with a fully biblical diagnosis of his condition. And, concomitant with that, I do not find that Schaeffer anywhere tells modern man that on his principle of human autonomy, of abstract contingency and of abstract rationality all intelligible predication would cease."

(aparently Van Til did not like much of anyone LOL).

I assume these books give info on how Schaeffer was influenced by Van Til when Van Til does not seem to approve much of what Schaeffer wrote... but until I read them I am just hard pressed to see how that can be... Thanks again though for the direction and insight.

Ben Myers said...

That's very interesting — I didn't know Van Til was critical of Schaeffer (although it's understandable: Van Til was always most critical of those apologists closest to his own approach!).

The passage from Schaeffer that you quote above is a perfect summary of his criticism of Barth (Barth moves God to the "upper story", since he cuts faith loose from reason). This resembles Van Til's critique so closely that it's hard to see Schaeffer's remarks in any other context. (He especially follows Van Til in seeing Barth more as a philosopher than a theologian.)

Interestingly, Schaeffer wanted to meet with Barth: but Barth himself believed Schaeffer was simply parroting the criticisms of Van Til. Barth thus wrote a scathing letter to Schaeffer, refusing to meet him — you can read it here.

Ben Myers said...

Oh, by the way: I just read the previous page of that same book (p. 38), where it talks about one of Schaeffer's earliest public lectures, a critique of the Barthians entitled "The New Modernism". The title is taken directly from the title of Van Til's book — and the criticisms of Barth also closely follow Van Til's approach. So there's one item of biographical evidence for the direct influence of Van Til.

Unknown said...

Schaeffer wanted to meet with Barth, but Barth refused because of the perceived connection to Van Til.

That is ironic, because it seems Van Til was also bothered that Schaeffer did not make time to respond to him. Van Til writes, "From time to time I have verbally expressed the difference between Dr. Schaeffer’s position and my own. At one time I wrote Dr. Schaeffer a long memorandum about my difficulty with his approach. He could find no time to reply. "

Interesting point about the "biographical evidence". Oddly, Schaeffer does not mention Van Til at all in any of his collected writings. The quote from Van Til above is probably his most strong statement I can find, others I would characterize as "reluctantly critical".

I guess I was more familiar with Van Til's criticism and had not realized Schaeffer was strongly connected to him in his writings and approach.

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