Michael Horton on Barth

The Christianbook blog has an interview posted with Michael Horton, hospital author of the newly released systematic theology, cialis sale The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the way. In part two of the interview, discount Horton talks about Barth and how those in the Reformed tradition react to, and engage with Barth’s theology.

Matthew: Do you think the cool reception of Barth by many in the Reformed camp is warranted?

Horton: Barth is his own best interpreter on this. In his Göttingen Dogmatics, he relates how blown away he was by actually reading Calvin and the post-Reformation Reformed theologians.

In many ways, he was inspired in his own program by this period. He had been taught by his liberal professors to dismiss all of this as child’s play, but he found it to be a room filled with treasures. On the other hand, he himself says later that he left hardly any Reformed doctrine standing in its confessional form.

From the doctrine of Scripture to eschatology, Barth used the same terms and categories, but radically revised nearly all of them. I think we’re entering a phase now of more light than heat. There are some terrific critiques of Barth by Reformed evangelicals today that are far more nuanced, informed, and engaging than many of yesteryear.

The reaction against Barth was understandable, especially as many evangelicals were embracing his views as a way of avoiding both fundamentalism and liberalism. However, I get the sense that these days there are more folks who are not fundamentalists, liberals, or Barthians. And that perhaps allows some space for more sympathetically critical analysis.

Matthew: Do you believe he is often misunderstood by more “traditional” Reformed Theologians?

Horton: It depends on which theologian and on what topic. One challenge on our side as conservatives is to assume that we know what someone believes without having to investigate the details. If one believes X, then logically that means he or she must believe Y, and so forth. However, that doesn’t always work and it isn’t really charitable, as we know when we’re accused of believing that human beings aren’t responsible because we believe that God is sovereign.

For example, Barth was not driven by liberalism; in fact, I believe that many of his mistakes were made out of an over-reaction against liberalism. Swinging from romantic-liberal emphasis on God’s immanence, Barth so stressed God’s transcendence that revelation could not be identified directly with any creaturely medium, including Scripture. This even affected his Christology.

If we’re going to critique conclusions, we need to know how they are derived and not just assume that inadequate views of Scripture, for example, are always liberal. Distortions can come from all sorts of different quarters and the “liberal-conservative” way of categorizing things often misses important nuances.

  • Do you think that Horton is fair in his take on Barth?

    • I agree with his comment about how Reformed theologians have misunderstood Barth.

      In my limited reading, I have found that most reformed Christians who critique Barth haven’t read much Barth, but have read Van Til’s critique of Barth.

      The easiest way to shut down the discussion on Barth is when they say that “Barth is Neo-Orthodox”, as if it is this big, bad, scary thing.

      I will admit that when I took Contemporary Theology back in college, my understanding of Barth came through the lens of Van Til (even though I didn’t go to a reformed school).

      Now reading Barth for myself, I am impressed with two things: How much Scripture he references in his Church Dogmatics (all those little print sections), and how much he refers back to the Patristic Fathers. If only Christians today knew as much as he did about Historical Christianity.

      • Indeed, I am trying to discard of the term “neo-orthodox” when referring to Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Brunner. Perhaps German contextual theologians would be more appropriate.

  • Excellent. I actually agree with Horton on this issue. Thanks for the post.

  • I wonder if part of it is due to evangelicals needing to make other Christians into an evangelical-friendly image?

    There was a conversation over at challies.com awhile back about a new biography on Bonhoeffer and basically the author has made him palatable to an evangelical audience, ignoring his German context (smoothing out his rough edges as it were).

    So maybe Barth is just too wordy and overwhelming to be squeezed into an evangelical robe, so because the robe doesn’t fit, neither does he or his theology?

    That and I think Barth did what he did and wrote what he wrote so that he wouldn’t/couldn’t be pigeon-holed. I get the feeling that Barth was a bit of a brat.

  • Bill

    My main problem with Barth is that he doesn’t have a high regard of faith. Barth is all about grace, but he forgets that grace operates through faith. Believing is the main virtue, and salvation is attained by believing the gospel. Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness, Barth never got it. In his commentary on Romans he twists scripture and replaces the word faith with the faithfulness of God. So salvation depends on God’s faithfulness and not on whether a man has faith or not. That was Barth’s soteriology, certainly unbiblical. I agree with Barth that God’s faithfulness is paramount in salvation, but so is man’s faith, for the holy spirit is given when a man believes and trusts Jesus Christ. Barth will disagree with this last statement, thus denying the faith more so than the catholic church did during Luther’s reformation.