An Excellent Primer on Barth

This book (available at a great price here)  is an excellent introduction to the thought of Karl Barth from an evangelical perspective. It is courteous, but not afraid to disagree with the man. It acknowledges where we can learn from Barth, but also nails Barth where he’s wrong. I am no expert on Barth, and these essays are not the easiest thing in the world to read. However, for someone who has even a modest theological understanding, these essays will be a good foot in the door. At the very least, it will show the reader where to look further. The contributors are all stellar: David Gibson, Daniel Strange, Henri Blocher, Sebastian Rehnman, Ryan Glomsrud, A.T.B. McGowan, Mark Thompson, Michael Ovey, Garry Williams, Paul Helm, Oliver Crisp, Donald Macleod, and Michael Horton, with the foreword by Carl Trueman. The topics they cover are as follows: Barth’s Christocentric method, logic and theology, historical theology in Barth, covenant theology, election, Scripture, Trinity, atonement, visibility of God, reprobation (with a side look at Edwards), Barth as church theologian, and a general assessment of Barth’s legacy for evangelicalism.

It is difficult to pick a favorite chapter, as all of them have many insights. However, I would have to say that my favorite chapter was Garry Williams on the atonement. It had such an explanatory power as to why Barth thought what he did. For instance, he explains why Barth rejected the idea of the covenant of redemption:

His concern for the centrality of the incarnate Christ is illustrated by his rejection of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. Barth thinks that this doctrine entails speaking directly of the Logos asarkos, whereas the decree of election should be identified with the incarnate Christ (p. 236).

Williams also has an excellent insight with regard to archetypal/ectypal theological distinctions:

The alternative to a formal separation of elements that are properly united would be a single strand of argument that would at every stage be so integrated as to be unfathomable to the reader. Such ultimate integration, such incomprehensible simplicitas (simplicity), is reserved for the God whom theology describes, and is not available to theology itself. It is proper to theologia archetypa (theology as it is in the mind of God himself) and unattainable by theologia ectypa (theology as it among finite creatures). Further, even if two loci are formally separate for heuristic purposes, one can still be formulated in the light of the other (p. 253).

He says this in the context of describing the limits of full integration, and that earlier descriptions (such as the confessional Reformed tradition) ought thus to be given a more sympathetic reading.

I have to include one other quotation, one of the very best in the book, and one which completely undermines Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. It is in the chapter on Barth as ecclesial theologian:

Barth often warned of the danger of creating a God behind and above his revelation, a God other than Jesus. This was the great service, he would insist, rendered by the homoousion. The One who comes to us in Christ is vere Deus, the whole truth about God. By the same token, however, there can be no other Christ behind and above the Scripture, no word behind the written word, casting the church into doubt, enveloping her in a cloud of uncertainty and raising the possibility that the Christ of Scripture is not the real Christ, or the final Christ. It may indeed be true that we see through a glass, only darkly, But what we see dimly is nevertheless the Eternal Light (p. 342).

Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to the penetrating critiques and appreciation given on almost every page of this book. I can only highly recommend it. I have only one criticism of the book, and that is that Van Til is not treated very well. It might very well be true that Van Til caricatured Barth’s teaching. However, I happen to know that Van Til read through the complete Church Dogmatics in the original German, and he was one of the very few living in America who had done so. It would have been nice to see more than mere assertion that Van Til got it so wrong (Horton and Trueman are much more nuanced than this, of course). But that is a relatively small shortcoming in the overall scope of the book, which I would recommend.



  1. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    July 20, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Lightly held opinion:

    I trust and respect Van Til more than Barth. Although I readily grant that Barth is much more well known than Van Til.

  2. Reformed Sinner said,

    July 20, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    There was a year when I read Barth’s Church Dogmatics (English mostly, German secondary as my German is not that affluent) and Van Til’s critique of him. I find Van Til’s conclusions to be right on, but I think the issue with the tough sell of Van Til’s criticisms to others is that Van Til doesn’t always explain his reasoning or thought process. I finally understood this when I am debating an Evangelical on Barth and Van Til. At first the Evangelical think Van Til is totally off the mark on what he says, however, I found the issue isn’t really Van Til’s answer, but what the Evangelical misunderstood as Van Til’s answer in what Van Til’s trying to say. After carefully explaning what Van Til meant and though process (my personal guess), at the very least he is able to see why Van Til is so critical of Barth, and admits that he needs to seriously think twice about Van Til’s insights.

    Anyway, maybe this is just a minor point, but at least that’s my experience.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    July 20, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    TUAD, I *definitely* respect Van Til more than Barth.

    Reformed Sinner, do you think the issue is that Barth has such a hold on academia today, that it is impossible to be respected if one thinks that Van Til understood Barth?

  4. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    July 20, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Alright Lane,

    You forced me out of the closet. I kinda think that if you weigh up all the pluses and minuses of Barth, AND if you also weighted the pluses and minuses of Barth according to a conservative Reform perspective,….

    Barth is a net negative. IMHO.

    I just don’t think his approach to battling liberal, higher-criticism scholars with his “neo-orthodoxy” program was all that great. To be crass, I think it sucked and kinda like a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing theology that provided respectable cover for the doctrinal errors that later bloomed into heresy in the mainline LibProt denominations.

    And yet Barth was a 5-Point Calvinist. Go figure.

  5. GLW Johnson said,

    July 21, 2009 at 6:52 am

    I found it rather revealing that Carl Henry and Van Til were often casted as the guys in the black hats in this ‘saga’-and yet at the conclusion of most of the chapters when the contributors expressed their ‘concerns’ about Barth they ended up echoing Henry and Van Til !!

  6. Reformed Sinner said,

    July 21, 2009 at 8:43 am

    #3 Greenbaggins,

    True that. I think Barth is so famous and such a heavy hitter that people can’t help but jump through hoops to find “good things” that he has to say, and readily excuse the parts that sounded fishy or improper. Afterall, Barth has the respect of academia. On the other hand, Van Til has such a reputation of being a “Reformed warring basher” that people are just as readily to find fault in his conclusions as some kind of extreme Reformed nut case. And least of all, Van Til is despised by the academia.

  7. thomasgoodwin said,

    July 21, 2009 at 10:13 am

    “And yet Barth was a 5-Point Calvinist. Go figure.”

    I have never heard this before, not ever.

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    July 21, 2009 at 10:21 am

    “I have never heard this before, not ever.”

    If you google Barth and Calvinism, you’ll find links and posts affirming that Barth was a Calvinist.

    As far as what type of Calvinist, well, that’s another story.

  9. GLW Johnson said,

    July 21, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Barth was not a classical 5-point Calvinist. He explicitedly rejected the doctrine of election has taught by Calvin and Dort and he denied that the atonement was penal.

  10. thomasgoodwin said,

    July 21, 2009 at 10:34 am

    I know quite a few Barthians and they would be horrified at the suggestion that Barth was a five-point Calvinist. He hated limited atonement/particular redemption. It’s antithetical to his entire system. Barth’s departures from Reformed orthodoxy touch on almost every doctrine (e.g. election, trinity, Christology).

  11. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    July 21, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Hmmmmm…. I don’t know what to say.

    This post lists Barth as being a “High Calvinist”.

  12. thomasgoodwin said,

    July 21, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I don’t mean to be rude, or mean, but that post you linked to is just silly. Blogs are pernicious, for that reason! :)

  13. thomasgoodwin said,

    July 21, 2009 at 11:26 am

    BTW, I don’t mean you are silly, but the post itself is!

  14. greenbaggins said,

    July 21, 2009 at 11:47 am

    TUAD, the book is fairly clear that Barth did not believe in the “L” of TULIP. I am convinced by the arguments.

  15. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    July 21, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Okay by me.

    Sorry if I misled anyone that Barth was a 5-Point Calvinist. I myself was misled, and so I propagated the error.

    What a relief to know that Barth wasn’t a 5-Point Calvinist.

  16. Reformed Sinner said,

    July 21, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks for clearing that out guys, I was starting to wonder was my memory on Barth was failing when I was thinking the same thing. But thanks guys

  17. GLW Johnson said,

    July 21, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Barth was a very odd ‘supralapsarian’ -which is why some people think of him as a ‘high Calvinists’-but he was not in any meaningful sense of the word a historical ,confessional Calvinist.

  18. WildBoarARP said,

    July 22, 2009 at 12:04 am


    Actually, there is some level of debate as to whether or not Barth was a Universalist (which would definitely place him outside the scope of Calvinistic thought). A student at RTS Charlotte has written a short article on this question in response to a theological controversy we have had surrounding a Neo-Barthian professor at Erskine Seminary.
    (Its the article by Daniel Wells

  19. Richard said,

    July 24, 2009 at 3:27 am

    #6 ReformedSinner – I don’t think it is entirely accurate to say people jump through hoops to find “good things” that Barth had to say, in that he did say great deal that was good. Have you read his Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed According to Calvin’s Catechism. Some highlights:

    1. Theodicy

    From our point of view as creatures, there are “good” things and “evil” things. But the certainty of the fatherly governance of God teaches us how to be thankful for whatever he sends our way. For all things are under his governance. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it even more positively (27): “All things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.” Therefore there can be no need for a theodicy, no need to justify God in all he does, since everything that happens is in his hands and since good and evil cannot be judged “in themselves,” but in relation to his fatherly goodness.

    2. New Creation

    The Holy Spirit brings about the new creation. Being God, his contact with us means a complete change. Where the Holy Spirit is, there we cannot remain as we are. The Holy Spirit attacks us, even kills us that we may live again. And this must be a continuous death because the “old” man within us is a fool who ever again allows himself to come up to the surface and who ever again needs to be put back under the surface of the water of baptism in order to be drowned.

    3. The misery of Man

    …if man did not accomplish his task of being God’s mirror, he would be inferior to brute beasts. For brute beasts do (and the same can be said for the whole creation) accomplish God’s intention in creating them. To be sure, they are not, like man, God’s very image. But they have their destination, and they move towards it. If man misses his destination, he is inferior to the rest of creation. Not only beasts, but also stones, stars, insects, and all we see around us, leave us behind in this task of responding to the divine destination. Around us, praising is perpetual. The whole creation joins together in order to respond to God who created it. But man, in the midst of this chorus, of all this orchestra of creation, man stands still and soes not do what he should do. This is man’s misery: not to fulfil the meaning of his creation.

  20. Truth Unites... and Divides said,

    July 24, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Seeking opinions here.

    A 3-choice Multiple-Choice Question regarding Barth’s overall effect on the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of Christendom from a roughly Reform or a roughly Conservative Evangelical Perspective:

    (A) Net Positive.

    (B) Neutral.

    (C) Net Negative.

    As I mentioned above, my two-cent opinion is (C).

  21. Paige Britton said,

    October 16, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Hey, all, remember this one? Thanks, Lane, for the recommendation. I just finished this book, and I agree with you that it is worth the time. (I also agree with your assessment of the reading level, since I am a test case.)

    Here’s a friendly heads-up to anybody else who happens to take & read this one: If you find yourself getting bogged down somewhere in the middle of chapter two, don’t give up – the going gets easier after that. The second chapter is probably the most technical, as it’s devoted to the weighty subjects of Barth and logic both. The author of this chapter, Sebastian Rehnman, is a gracious Swede who makes every effort to make his topic accessible to the reader. I’m sure it isn’t his fault that I was completely snowed by sentences like this one:

    “For God’s knowing actualization of himself actualizes all that is divine as well as the actualization that the knowing actualization of himself is identical to himself.”

    If you can already understand this (and its implications for God’s Triunity), then you are probably already a professor of theology, or you should be. The rest of us can just be affirmed in our humbler callings.

    No one contribution (of 12) stood out for me as the best – I found them all equally informative and accessible (less a few of Rehnman’s lines!), which is pretty unusual in an anthology like this. I’m grateful to finally be able to answer a question that has long puzzled me – Should I pay attention to Karl Barth’s thinking? (The answer these writers give being “Yes” and “No” – how very Barthian.)

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