"Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes?" A Conference Report


A slightly expanded version of this report was originally published in the Karl Barth Society of North America Newsletter 35 (Fall 2007): 1-4.


By W. Travis McMaken, Princeton Theological Seminary

More than 120 scholars, students, ministers and laypeople gathered at Princeton Theological Seminary on June 24-27, 2007 for the second annual Karl Barth conference. Co-sponsored by the Center for Barth Studies and the Karl Barth Society of North America, the theme of this year's conference was "Karl Barth and American Evangelicals: Friends or Foes?" Bruce McCormack (Princeton Theological Seminary) offered some introductory remarks at the opening banquet on Sunday evening, setting the tone for what was to come. Noting that a conference on this theme was long overdue, McCormack identified the conference's twin goals: first, to initiate a larger conversation between students of Barth and Cornelius van Til; and, second, to explore elements in Barth's theology that have awakened interest among evangelicals.

The first plenary session on Monday morning featured papers by D.G. Hart (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) and George Harinck (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). Hart's essay was entitled "Beyond the Battle for the Bible: What American Protestants Missed about Van Til's Critique of Barth." He suggested that Van Til might not have opposed Barth so virulently were it not for the intense political struggles within American Presbyterianism in the early 20th century. Indeed, conservative Presbyterian protest against Barth was linked to the way in which Barth's theology was eagerly received by the 'neo-orthodox' theologians, including key figures at Princeton Theological Seminary. American evangelicals — 'Neo-evangelicals' in Hart's parlance — tended to view Barth more altruistically. Christianity Today, for example, considered Barth to be a resource as it sought to moderate the 'battle for the Bible'. Hart suggested that perhaps the Neo-evangelical emphasis on ortho-praxy or 'right intentions', as opposed to Van Til's emphasis on orthodoxy, enabled them to better appreciate Barth's work.

George Harinck's paper, "Inspired by Dutch Neo-Calvinists: Van Til's Critique of Barth's Theology," sought to address a central question: How did Cornelius van Til become a foe of Karl Barth? Harinck explained that Van Til knew nothing of Karl Barth prior to a trip to the Netherlands taken after the completion of his PhD at Princeton University. Barth had visited the Netherlands twice shortly before Van Til arrived and the leading Neo-Calvinist interpreter of Barth in the Netherlands, Klaas Schilder, had already concluded that Barth's theology did not fit with Neo-Calvinism. Schilder's critiques shaped Van Til's own engagement with Barth. After Neo-Calvinism began to lose ground to Barth in the Netherlands, Van Til feared that the same would happen in America.

The second plenary session on Monday afternoon featured Michael Horton (Westminster Seminary, California) and George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary). Horton began by asking, "Does the Covenant Have a History? The Logos Asarkos in Karl Barth's Christology." After noting that Barth understood himself to be working out Reformed scholasticism's Christology within actualist ontology, Horton argued that Barth's work demonstrates the limits of that ontology. In contrast to covenant theology, which emphasizes the dynamic and temporal outworking of the divine decrees, Barth emphasizes the eternality of the single divine decree. Horton worries about how Barth conceives of the relation between time and eternity. Does time become eternity or does eternity become time? Moreover, Horton wonders whether Barth's emphasis on the unitary nature of the divine decree finally makes his work more static than scholastic covenant theology.

George Hunsinger's paper, "Election and the Trinity: Twelve Theses," represents his entry into the recent interpretive debate begun by Bruce McCormack's proposals about Barth's doctrine of election in his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. On the question of whether God's being constitutes God's act or God's act constitutes God's being, Hunsinger argued that God's being and act are inseparable for Barth, and that they should each be understood as ontologically basic. Hunsinger also dealt with the relation of the logos incarnandus to the logos incarnatus, and that of the logos asarkos to the logos ensarkos. He further explicated a number of passages from throughout the Church Dogmatics that have been contested in the course of this debate.

David Guretzki (Briercrest Seminary), current president of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA), closed Monday's events with an after-dinner talk. Guretzki discussed Canadian evangelical opinions of Barth by considering how certain of CETA's presidents have viewed Barth. John Stackhouse Jr. is perhaps representative in considering Barth to be an outsider to evangelical theology. On the other hand, John Vissers viewed Barth as a prophet to the Canadian church, and Douglas Harinck believed that Barth serves as a bridge between biblical studies and systematic theology. Guretzki himself views thinks of Barth as a model of one who is willing to work out exhaustively the inner systematic coherence of the theological tradition in which he was working.

John Hare (Yale Divinity School) and Clifford Anderson (Curator of Special Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary) presented during the third plenary session on Tuesday morning. Hare's paper considered "Karl Barth, American Evangelicals, and the Predisposition to the Good." It provided a riveting and intellectually rigorous presentation of the Kantian influence upon Barth's theology. Hare argued that there is nothing in Kant's basic epistemology that is unfaithful to the Gospel. Therefore, the criticisms that Cornelius van Til and Carl F. H. Henry leveled against Barth because of his appropriation of Kantian epistemology are misdirected. Hare instead suggested that Barth is a sophisticated reader of Kant, and that Barth's interpretation anticipates a recent scholarly reconsideration of Kant's philosophy of religion. For those who might be interested in this reassessment, Hare recommended Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion (Indiana University Press, 2006).

Clifford Anderson's paper, "A Theology of Experience? The Transcendental Argument in Karl Barth's Early Theology," began with an account of how the Marburg Neo-Kantians, specifically Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, understood the transcendental argument as Kant's core idea. They argued that the experience upon which Kant based the transcendental argument was scientific knowledge and not the individual's psychological reflection. This scientific basis is what allowed the transcendental argument to function in a critical, as opposed to in a merely subjectivist, fashion. Anderson went on to discuss Barth's understanding of religious experience as he considered doctoral work in 1910, in the first and second editions of Romans, and finally in Church Dogmatics I/1. With reference to the latter, Anderson concluded that Barth established the possibility of religious experience by returning to the Neo-Kantian adaptation of the transcendental argument rooted in the actuality of proclamation.

Conference participants had the opportunity to attend one of four concurrent breakout sessions on Tuesday afternoon. Kevin Hector (University of Chicago Divinity School) pursued the topic of "Ontological Violence and the Covenant of Grace: An Engagement between Karl Barth and Radical Orthodoxy." John Franke (Biblical Seminary) offered a paper entitled "Karl Barth, the Postmodern Turn, and Evangelical Theology." Todd Cioffi (Whitworth University) undertook the task of "Rethinking Hauerwas on Barth: Christology, Church, and State." Finally, Jason Springs (American University) asked the question "Can an Evangelical be Postliberal too? Barth, Frei and Henry on the Biblical Witness and the Question of History." Each presentation was warmly received.

Tuesday's schedule concluded with an after-dinner talk by Paul Louis Metzger (Multnomah Biblical Seminary) entitled "Cultural Encounters with Another Kind." Metzger sketched some ways in which Barth's theology models proper Christian cultural engagement. Barth bore witness to God's love in Christ, giving rise to a robust theology of engagement rooted in God's work in Christ, which Metzger believes can safeguard evangelical and emergent church cultural engagement by providing a solid theological foundation. The talk concluded with a discussion of the life and work of John M. Perkins, an activist for community development who Metzger views as a model of biblical conviction wed to Christ-centered passion for social engagement.

The fourth plenary session on Wednesday morning featured papers from Kimlyn Bender (University of Sioux Falls) and Keith Johnson (Princeton Theological Seminary). In his paper entitled "The Church in Karl Barth and Evangelicalism: Conversations across the Aisle," Bender articulated ways in which Barth might criticize, contribute to, and sympathize with American evangelicals. First, Barth might be critical of American evangelicals in the same way that he was of the Oxford movement, which Barth believed substituted a movement for the church and took its bearings from an anthropological consideration. Second, Barth's contribution to American evangelicals is to be found in the way in which he provides a rich ecclesiology that attempts to overcome tendencies to bifurcate ecclesiology and soteriology. Third, Barth would sympathize with the emphasis that American evangelicals place on Christ, their commitment to radical ecclesiological particularity, and their concern for service and evangelism.

Keith Johnson concluded the session with an exploration of "The Being and Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Ecclesiology." Taking Francis Beckwith's recent return to Rome as his starting point, Johnson pointed to the desire among younger evangelicals for an ecclesiology where human activity 'counts for something'. He disagrees with the likes of Nicholas Healy, Joseph Mangina, Stanley Hauerwas and Reinhard Hütter, all of whom argue that Barth's ecclesiology is weak in precisely this area. Johnson began with Barth's treatment of the concursus Dei in Church Dogmatics III/3 where Barth depicts God's activity as preceding, accompanying, and following the activity of the human creature. Then, following Paul Nimmo's argument in his book Being in Action, Johnson showed that Barth treats baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4 as an instance of the concursus Dei. Human activity 'counts for something' for Barth when it is understood as witness, and Johnson argued that this view of activity in the church supplies a robustly Protestant version of the kind of ecclesiology younger evangelicals want and need.

Bruce McCormack and Suzanne McDonald (Calvin College) spoke during the sixth and final plenary session. McCormak's essay, "That He May Have Mercy Upon All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism," began by noting that Barth's purported universalism is the fundamental reason why many evangelicals consider him a foe. In hopes of relieving this concern, McCormack argues that a tension exists in the New Testament between passages that speak of the universal scope of God's saving intent and those that discuss the final judgment. Considerable time was devoted to the explication of Romans 5.18-19, Romans 9-11, and 1 Corinthians 15.21-22. On the basis of his exegesis, McCormack argued that the tension found in the New Testament is not to be treated as a logical contradiction; rather, it should be understood as the intrinsic tension between the eschaton and history. Indeed, McCormack thinks that God intended for us to live with this tension so that we would not make the mistake of too surely affirming either limited atonement or universal salvation. While individual theologians should be granted the freedom to explore either of these two positions, churches should avoid pronouncing in favor of either.

Suzanne McDonald's paper was entitled, "Evangelical Questioning of Election in Barth: A Pneumatological Perspective from the Reformed Heritage." John Owen served as McDonald's exemplar with reference to the Trinitarian shape of the doctrine of election in the Reformed tradition. She focused on the role that the Holy Spirit plays in Barth's doctrine of election. For Barth, the Holy Spirit plays a functional but not ontological role in election. This is a departure from the Reformed tradition that resulted from Barth's overly Christological, as opposed to more fully Trinitarian, understanding of election. In conclusion, McDonald called for a pneumatological modification to Barth's Christological understanding of election, as well as for continued attention to the Reformed tradition and its understanding of the trinitarian framework of election.

The second annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary closed on Wednesday afternoon with a plenary panel discussion, which gave conference participants an opportunity to revisit any of the themes addressed by the conference. This panel discussion was the capstone of a conference that was marked by an abundance of discussion and conversation, both over meals and during the formal discussion groups held on Monday and Tuesday afternoons. These discussion groups provided vital opportunities for older and younger scholars to meet and interact, as well as for ministers and laypersons to explore ways in which Barth's theology might meet the needs of their congregations.

Mention must also be made of the worship services held each day in Princeton Theological Seminary's Miller Chapel. Darrel Guder (Princeton Theological Seminary) led in worship on Monday, offering a mediation of Philippians 1.3-6 and 27. Michael Horton presided on Tuesday, taking Luke 24.13-49 as his text. Finally, Katherine Grieb (Virginia Theological Seminary) led Wednesday's worship service, preaching from Matthew 15.15-28.