The New Modernism, by Dr. C. Van Til. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 525 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa. March 1946. Price $3.75.
This is not a book for the general reeling public. But to those that are interested in the study of the Theology of Chrisis, we recommend the reading of this work by Dr. Van Til. It can hardly be meant as an introduction to the Barthian Theology, for the book rather presupposes a measure of acquaintance with Barthian conceptions and terminology; and, besides, this criticism of Barth should itself be read critically, i.e. the reader should be able to compare Dr. Van TiFs evaluation of Dr. Barth with the latter’s own writings. But the student of the Theology of Crisis can hardly afford to ignore this thorough criticism. In any library containing the works of Barth and Brunner, and of the many works that have been written about their theology, the work of Dr. Van Til should have a place.
There is, perhaps, no theologian of modern times that enjoys, or suffers from, if you like, a more widely different and contradictory appraisal and criticism than Karl Barth. Modernists have hailed him as a new and most brilliant expositor of their views; and modernists have condemned him as one who, in modern terms, camouflages an orthodox and long obsolete theology. Orthodox theologians appraised him as a defender of the true faith, as one who puts the old truths in a new light. Reformed theologians hailed him as a Calvinist. And other Reformed theologians condemn his theology as a camouflaged modernism. To these latter critics belongs Dr. Van Til. His book is a sweeping condemnation of Barthian theology.
The book is, evidently, the fruit of thorough study. It is a scholarly work. It is evident that the author quite thoroughly examined the works of Barth. Moreover, in the way of a historical-critical study of Barthian theology, he made a serious attempt to synthesize its various elements into one conception. That conception is expressed in “The New Modernism.”
In fourteen chapters, the author describes the background of what he calls “the new modernism” in Kant’s criticism, and the earlier and later dialecticism; presents the views of Barth and Brunner up to the time of their separation in 1927, as well as their later development; and sets forth the significance of their theology with a view to its application to the Christian church, the Christian life, and the Christian hope.
The conclusion which the author reaches in his study of the Theology of Crisis may be presented in his own words:
“The Theology of Crisis, with which we have been concerned, has shown itself in all fundamental respects to be the same as the Modernism of Schleiermacher and his school Barth and Brunner have what is, basically, the same sort of view of reality and knowledge as marks the works of Schleiermacher or Ritschl. Fundamental to everything they say about individual doctrines is the fact that they have, throughout and with vigor, cast away as a filthy garment that on which everything in the field of historic Christianity rests, the notion of the self-contained or absolute God. Against modern Protestantism, Barth contends that man needs an absolutely other God. But the absolute otherness, or transcendence, of the God of Barth consists in nothing more than a certain irrational aspect of Reality. Barth would make rationality even more formal and abstract than Modernism has made it, and he would make the concept of pure Chance even more basic than Modernism has made it. Following this, he would make all the concepts of theology still more deeply correlative to the mind of man than Modernism has conceived of them”. . . . pp. 371-372.
He points out how Barth’s critical theory “makes him reject the orthodox doctrine of temporal creation, creation ex nihilo. Adopting this doctrine in words, as he adopts all the doctrines of historic Christianity in words, he denies it in fact”; how “Barth’s phenomenalist doctrine of God makes him reject also the historic Christian doctrine of providence”; how “involved in the rejection of historic Christian doctrine of providence is the rejection of the Christian doctrine of natural law”; and how “it follows, of course, that the Christian conception of miracle is also cast aside. Miracles for Barth and Brunner are what they are for the modern scientist or philosopher, certain strange phenomena erupting here and there because man has not completely learned to harness the forces of Chance. Peter’s walking on the water is nothing unique, it is not something that has to do with the comprehensive and absolute plan of redemption, fixed upon from times eternal. Peter’s walking on the water is merely a symbol of the fact that all men everywhere are in distress in a universe in which ultimate Chance has a large part to play. The resurrection of Christ is unique, but unique because it is inclusive of all reality. . . . Hence, too, the miracles of the consummation period of history are but symbols of the fact man is resolved to go on, through the worst that Chance can do, to higher and still higher heights. The whole idea of the supernatural is reduced to mean merely that ultimate of irrationality which we as men are ever approaching, but never reaching with our rationalizing efforts. To think thus is, for Barth, to think eschatologically.” pp. 373, 374.
And so, finally, Dr. Van Til calls upon evangelical Christianity, but especially upon the believers of the Reformed Faith to “recognize in the Theology of Crisis a mortal enemy.” The Reformed faith, with its emphasis upon the truth of predestination implying “the cotermineity of being and consciousness of God as He exists in Himself, apart from all activity of the consciousness of the human mind,” stands directly and sharply opposed to the principles of the “New Modernism”. To quote the author once more: “But those who maintain the doctrine of election and maintain it not only for itself but, most of all, as the apex of the Christian motif per se literally have all to lose if the Theology of Crisis is not repulsed in its glacial descent upon the church of Christ in our day.” p. 377.
Dr. Van Til here meets a possible objection. Does not Barth himself teach the doctrine of election, and even emphasize the truth of predestination in its extreme form, that of supralapsarianism? To this he replies: “Barth is not a particularist in the historic sense of the term. He believes in election and he believes in reprobation. But for him this belief is not only consistent with, but requires for its very meaning, the idea of the universal salvation of all men. Election and reprobation are part of the process of God and man as together they come into existence. Or, rather, the idea of election is for Barth identical with the notion that men do not in the full sense of the word exist as men till they have reached the pinnacle of what they can think as rational and moral The election doctrine for both of the crisis theologians indicates merely that the human person, in the nature of the case, must set absolute ideals for himself and that he must seek to identify himself in all his striving with those ideals.” p. 377.
And the author warns especially against the danger that orthodox Christians should be deceived by the camouflaged modernism of the Theology of Crisis:
“It is in the interest of plain intellectual honesty, then, that the theology of Crisis should be seen for what it is. Both the liberal and the believer in historic Christianity should know who is friend and who is foe. The Theology of Crisis is a friend of modernism and a foe of historic Christianity. . . . The danger is rather that orthodox Christians, in spite of much experience with camouflage, will once more permit the wolf to enter their home and that to their own destruction.” pp. 377, 378.
It was, originally my purpose, in this review, to offer a careful criticism of Dr. Van Til’s book. This, however, would require a detailed comparison of the author’s evaluation of Barth with the references to the latter’s works that are found abundantly at the bottom of the pages. This would have been easier if literal quotations, rather than mere references, from Barth had been offered. As it is, especially since I have a later edition of “Die Kirchliche Dogmatiek.” which renders the many references to this work of Barth in Dr. Van Til’s book practically useless, it would require more time than I have at present to carry out my original purpose, Hence, I decided, at this time, merely to acknowledge receipt of the book, pay my respects to the author for his labors, and recommend the work to all that are interested in the study of Barthian theology.
However, even now I cannot refrain from offering a few critical remarks.
First of all, in my opinion, an appendix containing rather elaborate quotations from the works of Barth (and Brunner) would raise the value of the book considerably.
Secondly, it is quite clear that no Reformed theologian who sees Barth as Dr. Van Til sees him could possibly come to another conclusion than the author of “The New Modernism.”
Thirdly, let it be said, for fear lest someone provides me with a night’s lodging in the same bed. with Barth, that no Reformed theologian, in my judgment, can be a Barthian. Think, e.g., of his conception of the Word of God, the Scriptures, his definition of dogmatics, his eschatological views.
Fourthly, however, I do not believe that “The New Modernism” offers a fair and objective presentation of the theology of Karl Barth. As I read the book, I could not escape the impression that the mold of “new modernism” was rather preconceived, and that the author’s synthesis of Barth was formed accordingly. If I try to conceive of Barth as a modernist pure and. simple, too many elements of his theology will not fit; into that concept. Besides, despite Dr, Van Til’s contention to the contrary, I still believe that one must distinguish between the earlier and the latter Barth.
To substantiate this criticism, let me call attention to just one important point, Barth’s view on predestination, In regard, to this point of doctrine, I believe: 1. That Dr. Barth changed his view since he wrote the Epistle to the Romans Commentary; and 2. That Dr. Van Til does him an injustice when he writes: “The election doctrine for both of the crisis theologians indicates merely that the human person, in. the nature of the case, must set absolute ideals for himself and. that he must seek to identify himself in all his striving with those ideals.”
It is well known that Barth in “Der Romerbrief” presents election and. reprobation as having reference to the relation of the same persons to God, and not to a divine distinction between different persons. “(DUTCH REMOVED)” Der Romerbrief, Miinchen 1929, p. 882.
But it is equally well known to students of Barth that he presents a different view in his “Die Kirchliche Dogmatiek.” There he speaks of the twofold effect of the efficacious Word of God, and finds the source of this illuminating and blinding effect of the Word, in God’s sovereign predestination. “(DUTCH REMOVED)” Dogmatiek I, Munchen 1932, p. 165.
I could, without a careful checkup mention other points in which, in my opinion, the author misrepresents Barth. He writes, for instance, on page 159, representing Barth’s view on man’s receiving the Word of God: “And as God, to reveal Himself to man in the Son, had to become exhaustively man, so now man,’ if he is to know God, must become exhaustively divine. As God, the great Subject had, to reveal. Himself, to be so truly God as to be more than God, namely man, so man, the mere object, to receive the revelation of God, has to be more than man, namely God. God can be known by God only.”
As was said, Dr. Van Til has an earlier edition of the “Dogmatiek” than I, which makes it very difficult for me to check up on his references. But I do not believe that he could quote Barth to substantiate the above statement concerning his views.
With all respect for the author’s work, and for his warning against the Theology of Crisis as he sees it, I still maintain that the book fails to do justice to Barth.
It would be interesting to get Barth’s own reaction to the book.