Review: Barth and American Evangelicalism

Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Edited by Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, viii + 387 pp., $38.00 paper.


This book is a collection of papers presented at the 2007 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. The goal of the book is to explore how evangelicals have been critical of Karl Barth’s theology, how their critiques may have been misplaced due to the influence of Cornelius van Til’s critique of Barth, and how evangelicals are re-evaluating their understanding of Barth in the new millennium. As well, this book aims to point out areas in which evangelicals can learn from Barth, or at the very least be sympathetic to his theology. The book is divided into three parts: historical context, philosophical and theological analysis, and contemporary trajectories. The historical context includes two essays that look at how evangelicals have historically reacted to Barth. The first essay, by George Harinck, looks specifically at the influence of Cornelius Van Til, and attempts to answer the question of how Van Til became an opponent of Karl Barth. Harinck argues that Van Til was largely influenced by Dutch pastor-scholar Klaas Schilder’s critique of Barth. The problem, as Harinck sees it, is that Van Til appropriated Schilder’s critique of Barth without understanding the context in which Schilder was writing (namely, a post-Christian European culture), and transposed Schilder’s ideas into an American context without adequately adjusting for the relevant contextual differences. Harinck concludes that Barth became the paradigm for all that Van Til opposed, specifically the theology and trajectory of Princeton Theological Seminary and American Presbyterianism in general. D.G. Hart focuses in on the issue of inerrancy within evangelical circles, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, and how the ongoing battle between the Barthian Princeton and Van Tillian Westminster influenced not only the Presbyterian traditions in the United States, but all of evangelicalism. Hart argues that Barth became an entry point for neo-evangelicals (represented by Fuller Seminary) to explore the issue of inerrancy, providing a middle ground between more fundamental inerrantists and mainline liberal Protestants.

The second section, on philosophical and theological analysis, contains essays on philosophy, Christology, Ecclesiology, and universalism.  In each of these sub-categories there are two essays. And while the essays in this second section do not all answer the question of the relationship between Barth and evangelicalism, they look at specific theological and philosophical issues in Barth that can, and have, been raised by evangelicals as being problematic. Both of the philosophical essays focus on the influence of Kantian or neo-Kantian philosophical theology. John Hare’s essay is perhaps the weakest essay in the book, but only in so far as, at the end of his essay, the reader is left with unanswered questions. Specifically, why did Hare only look at one of Barth’s writings (Protestant Theology in the 19th Century), and does his presentation of the differences and similarities between Barth and Kant hold if other works are examined, such as Barth’s commentary on Romans, or the Church Dogmatics? Thankfully, because each sub-section has two essays, the second essay on philosophy, by Clifford Anderson, addresses Barth’s use of Kant in Romans and the Dogmatics.  In this case, though, Anderson is not focused on Kant’s philosophical theology, but instead specifically on transcendentalism, that is, the relationship between personal experience and knowledge.

In the section on Christology, Michael Horton compares and critiques Barth’s Christology against the covenant theology of the Reformed tradition. Horton concludes that Barth appears to approach Christology from a central dogma, making the text and stories fit the central dogma, rather than allowing the text to be held narratively, wherein they lead up to, point to, and climax in the person and work of Christ. Horton, while critical of Barth, emphasizes his appreciation for Barth’s contribution to theology. Adam Neder’s essay on Barth’s Christology focuses on the hypostatic union, specifically on the communio naturarum between the divine and human natures in Jesus.

The section on Ecclesiology contains perhaps the strongest and most useful essays of this book. Both essays, one by Kimlyn Bender, the other by Keith Johnson, look specifically at the lack of a developed ecclesiology in evangelicalism, and suggest ways in which evangelicalism can benefit from Barth’s ecclesiological reflections to shape a more robust ecclesiology. Bender looks at how Barth would probably critique evangelical ecclesiology by using Barth’s reaction to the Oxford Group Movement in the 1930’s as a model. Keith Johnson suggests that Barth’s ecclesiology may offer an ecclesiological model that would allow evangelicals to remain evangelicals, and not have to necessary convert to Roman Catholicism in order to discover a robust ecclesiology.

The section on universalism looks at the profound disagreements evangelicals have had with Barth’s doctrine of election and whether or not the conclusions that Barth was indeed a universalist are accurate. Bruce McCormack rightly notes that for many evangelicals, universalism is a “deal-breaker”. McCormack’s goal is to address the issue of universalism from Scripture, focusing on Paul’s eschatology and Barth’s understanding of Paul’s eschatology as he expounded on his doctrine of election. McCormack argues that Barth’s doctrine of election, namely that Jesus is both the electing God and the elected man, is firmly grounded in the story and witness of Scripture, that evangelicals need to be careful that their theology of election does not supplant, but instead continually submits to, the witness of Scripture, and that rather than dismissing Barth on the basis of his doctrine of election and the possibility that he was a universalist, they can learn from his reading of Scripture. Suzanne McDonald looks at Barth’s doctrine of election from a pneumatological perspective, and also offers an “outside” perspective, given that she is writing not from an American evangelical context but from a British one. McDonald suggests that what needs to examined is not the issue of universalism per se, or even the Christological nature of Barth’s doctrine of election, but instead, the Trinitarian and “pneumatological dynamic of election.”

The most intriguing section of this book is the section on contemporary trajectories. Here, the essays put Barth in conversation with Postliberal theology, Radical Orthodoxy and the emerging church. Jason Springs looks at the dialogue between C.F.H. Henry and Hans Frei with regards to the issue of historical reference, asking if and how Frei diverges from Barth on this issue. Springs argues that in actuality, Frei’s understanding of historical reference is consistent with Barth’s critical realism, and he concludes that through an analysis of Frei’s interaction with Henry, Frei is seen to be in agreement with Barth regarding the authority of the scriptural witness. John Franke aims to not look back at historical evangelical understandings and interactions with Barth, but instead consider “future possibilities for fruitful engagement.” As a test case, Franke looks at the Emergent Village, an organization that was at the epicenter of the emerging church movement, and suggests that Barth’s “nondogmatic dogmatics” is a useful resource for Christians who are part of the emerging church. Further academic interaction with Franke’s essay is needed, given that some scholars have argued that the death knell has already been rung for the emerging church, or at the very least the emerging church is no longer in ascendency within evangelical circles. Both of the essays by Kevin Hector and Todd Cioffi place Barth in dialogue with Radical Orthodoxy. Hector looks primarily at John Milbank, and focuses on Barth’s “covenant ontology”, while Cioffi focuses on Stanley Hauerwas and his appropriation of Barth’s theology specifically as Hauerwas develops his understanding of the relationship between the church and the world. Cioffi argues that, while Hauerwas uses Barth extensively, evangelicals reading Hauerwas may not be aware of different ways to interpret and understand Barth, or of how Hauerwas may not accurately present Barth’s theology in his attempt to advance his theology of church and culture.

This is not the first book on the intersection between Barth’s theology and the evangelical tradition (see Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, edited by Sung Wook Chung) but Barth and American Evangelicalism is the academically stronger work. As well, the overall quality of the essays contained in this work is more even than in the previous book.  That said, the weakness of this current book is that, while it devotes an entire section to contemporary church issues, that is, the emerging church and radical orthodoxy, for the most part the contributions come from the Reformed tradition of evangelicalism. There are no essays that, for example, put Barth and the Wesleyan-Holiness-Charismatic tradition together in dialogue. Given the resurgence in the interest in Barth’s theology in this new millennium, this book contributes to the ongoing rediscovery of Karl Barth’s theology, and the influence his theology has had on contemporary Protestant (and evangelical) theology. This resurgence can be seen even in the Evangelical Theological Society itself, with seven Barth related papers presented at the 2012 annual conference in Milwaukee, and the announcement that starting in 2013 there will be a specific session at the conference devoted specifically to exploring the theology of Karl Barth.


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