The Unbelief of Barthianism

That is the title of a little booklet a friend sent to me to peruse. Its contents are an address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Bible League by the Rev. W.J. Grier, B.A., and published by the Evangelical Book Shop whose address is 15, College Square East, Belfast. It purposes to be “A Criticism of the Views of Doctors Barth and Brunner.”

For one who knows little or nothing about the theology of Barth or Brunner and he would like with little effort to find out what they teach, here is a pamphlet of twelve pages that you can digest in 15 or 20 minutes and have a fair idea. 

In the opening paragraphs Rev. Grier writes: “The names of Dr. Karl Barth and Dr. Emil Brunner are widely known. They are extremely able men, and are forces to be reckoned with in the theological world today. They have written many books, and lectured in various lands; their followers among, clergy and theological students may be numbered by tens of thousands. Their teaching is variously known as ‘Dialectical theology’, the ‘theology of crisis’ or ‘neo-orthodoxy.’ 

“What is the nature of their views? ‘Are they in line with the historic Christian faith, or do they constitute a serious challenge to it? Are Doctors Barth and Brunner the true successors of the Reformers, as they sometimes claim, or are they the foes of almost all that the Reformers held dear? Or does their true position lie somewhere between these two extremes?” 

In what follows, Rev. Grier, under three separate headings, tenders valuable criticism of the theology of these men. Under “Their Views on Inspiration” the writer, using several quotations from the writings of both Barth and Brunner, shows that they deny the fundamental truth of the infallible and complete inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. Naturally, if this truth is denied all the rest of their theological argument will be pure philosophy. Evidently this is also Rev. Grier’s conclusion since he begins his criticism with the treatment of this subject. 

Writes Rev: Grier: “Let us first examine their attitude to the Holy Scriptures. That they reject the doctrine of their plenary inspiration and accept the conclusions of the modernist higher critics is plain beyond doubt. There may be details of their teaching that are puzzling to the average Christian, but here at least the issue is clear.” 

Then follow several quotations to prove this. “In hisTheology of Crisis Dr. Brunner makes the following statement: ‘Lest we open the door to misunderstanding, let me say that I myself am an adherent of a rather radical school of Biblical criticism which, for example, does not accept the gospel of John as an historical source and which finds legends in many parts of the Synoptic Gospels’ (p. 41) . . . . . . In the second volume of his Dogmatics, issued in England in 1952, he avows, on the first page of the preface, that he accepts what he calls ‘the results of Biblical criticism’. In the same volume he ridicules those who hold that ‘the whole Bible is God’s infallible oracle’ (p. 213). In his latest book Eternal Hope, published in Zurich in 1953 and in Britain in 1954, he has a section on ‘Mythological Elements in the New Testament Message’ (pp. 114-120) and does not hesitate to say that Jesus was mistaken (pp. 127-129).

“There are others who contend that while Brunner’s teaching is too much like that of the old liberals or modernists, that of Barth is far truer to the evangelical faith. The truth is that in this matter Barth stands where Brunner stands. He too, ridicules the historic Christian doctrine of plenary inspiration, declaring that it substitutes a self-sufficient paper pope for a living pope (Otto Weber’s Introductory Report on Barth’s Church Dogmatics, p. 61). He scoffs at the idea of ‘the Bible affording a divine infallible history.’ He says, ‘The Bible is God’s Word so far as God lets it be His Word, so far as God speaks through it’. (The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 123) . . . . 

“But Doctors Barth and Brunner go further. According to them it is not only that there is no direct or complete revelation of God; they deny that any such revelation is possible. They hold that revelation must always be God in action, God speaking to man. They declare that a direct and finished revelation would fetter God; that it would limit his freedom.” Rev. Grier concludes this part of his pamphlet with this sentence: “It is clear that in this matter of the Scriptures, ‘their rock is not our rock.'” 

Under the sub-title: “Their Views on other Christian Doctrines”, Rev. Grier challenges the teachings of these men on such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Bodily Resurrection, the Second Coming, the Trinity, etc. 

And under the sub-title: “The Foundational Error of the ‘Dialectical Theology’ ” Rev. Grier admits that “what has been said thus far reaches only to the fringe of the subject. It leaves untouched a diagnosis of the root error of the ‘dialectical theology’ of Barth and Brunner. Quotations from their writings are often found in the pages of undoubted evangelicals. Is it right for them to be found there? To answer this question another must be asked. When these dialectical theologians speak of Sin and Atonement, for example, do they mean what historic Christian doctrine means? The answer is that they do not. They use the terms as ‘limiting concepts’, not as ‘constitutive concepts’, that is to say, not as constituting the truth, but as pointing to the truth. Their philosophy seems to be that thought cannot grasp reality, and that therefore its validity is only relative.”

Further, Rev. Grier points out how Barth and Brunner deny the historical fact of atonement as well as the fact that that atonement is a once for all transaction. In beclouded language these men speak of the atonement as a fact that can be known only by faith, not as an historical fact; and as to atonement as a once for all transaction, a finished work, Barth rather speaks of the atonement as belonging to “super history.” Grier points out that essentially this is double-talk, philosophy, which is bent on confusing the issues as well as the minds of men who are interested in these subjects. Rev. Grier writes: respecting the subject of the atonement as seen through the eyes of Barth and Brunner as a Divine Act of the Atonement. “In other words, it is and it isn’t; it is yes and no. The dialectical theology places the student on a whirling wheel, and he scarcely knows whether he is coming or going.” 

On the subject of election Barth teaches: “All men are loved and elect and called and made God’s possession in Christ from all eternity (Dogmatics Outline, p. 91). Divine election, according to him, is not ‘quantitative’, that is, that certain individuals are being saved and that certain individuals are being lost; it is ‘qualitative’, and found within the individual. Each man is both a Jacob and an Esau. All are lost; yet all are saved.” 

And so the little booklet of Rev. Grier goes on to show up the philosophy of world-renowned theologians. Though we had read several books produced by these men just to see for ourselves what they taught, after reading the little booklet we now consider all that reading a waste of time. We could, have read it all in twenty minutes in this little booklet and come to the same conclusions. How much nonsense and deviltry can roam around in big brains! And, how many little brains with little in them can be attracted to such big brains with so much nonsense and deviltry in them, we find hard to figure out. But that’s the way it is in the world, also the world of Theology. 

Know Yorrself

Such is the title of a radio sermon delivered recently on the Back to God radio program of the Christian Reformed Church by the Rev. Harold Dekker and sent to me by an aggrieved listener. 

The Reverend began his radio speech by calling attention to the reference in II Kings 8:7-15, to Hazael, a chief officer and advisor of Benhadad, King of Syria. The gist of the story was that Hazael did not know what potential acts of depravity lay hidden in his breast. As friend and advisor of the King he did not know that he was capable of murdering him as he later actually did according to the word of Elisha. 

The Reverend Dekker goes on to say that the doctrine of man’s total depravity, taught throughout Scripture, concerns a reality actually existing in every man’s nature. And this is not the assertion of Scripture and “of some pessimistic writer” or preacher, but this is also openly admitted by such a non-Christian scholar and scientific philosopher as Sigmund Freud. Mr. Dekker uses several illustrations taken from life and recorded in newspaper and radio news casts to show up this universal depravity. “How bad can ordinary people become?” such is the question he repeatedly asks: And the answer is: “We have a common nature and it’s a badly depraved one. The best of us are but a step away from the worst.” So far, so good. We approved of the message thus far simply because it spoke the language of, Scripture and our experience. 

But when you come to page 7 of this recorded message, you find a different tone, with which we certainly cannot agree and one, we believe, which simply destroys what he presented in the preceding. As Grier said in respect to Barthianism: “In other words, it is and it isn’t; it is yes and no,” so we would say of Dekker’s presentation of depravity; It is and it isn’t; it is yes and no. He believes in total depravity, and he doesn’t. Man is totally depraved and he isn’t. Said Rev. Dekker: “This brings us to a very important question. Why is it that some people are worse and some are better? Why is one lawless and the other law-abiding? One a criminal and the other a solid citizen? One a traitor and the other a patriot? One immoral and the other decent? This question is answered in different way.” He, then proceeds to mention these different explanations such as heredity, environment, emotional complexes, and social groupings. And he says though these are important, and worthy of study, they do not give a satisfactory answer. 

“The answer”, he says, “to this momentous question was once given by Richard Baxter . . . . He was watching a condemned man go to the gallows. Reflecting for a moment on this dire event, with great feeling he said, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Richard Baxter!’ That’s it. The grace of God . . . .” 

“Now what do we mean by grace?” And after explaining that it is unmerited favor, he continues by saying; we must distinguish between two kinds of grace, common and special. The first is to all men in general, the latter to those who are saved by a true faith in Jesus Christ. 

The rest of the speech is an excited appraisal of common grace according to which we are to thank God that He so restrains sin that all men are not as bad as they might become. True, he says, common grace does not save, you or remove your guilt. And between Peter and Judas, who both had remorse, there is quite a difference. But, oh that common grace, that is simply wonderful! 

No proof from Scripture is given to sustain this philosophy of common grace. It is only philosophy. Does not Rev. Dekker know that God is in His heavens and He rules by His providence even in the hearts of men and devils, and they do His will? That God takes care of His world and so governs all things, even the wicked, that they serve to realize His church, the election of grace, and ultimately His own glory? That when the wicked is restrained sin is not checked, but that it develops in other directions, and that ultimately the wicked with all his “common grace” goes to hell? What grace is that? The lion, though he purrs like a kitten in his cage and is fed everyday his meat, is still the ferocious beast that will tear you to pieces given an opportunity. Is that grace that he is locked in his cage? Or is man different than the beast which perishes?