Van Til on Barth—and Doctrinal Sins

Those who are familiar with the writings of Cornelius Van Til are well aware of his strong criticism of Barth’s theology. He takes Barth to task in Christianity and Barthianism and The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner and avers that Barth’s theology is “in all fundamental respects . . . the same as the Modernism of Schleiermacher and his school.” In the theology of Barth we find “basically, the same sort of view of reality and of knowledge as marks the work of Schleiermacher or Ritschl” (The New Modernism, 2d ed.).1

One might infer from his severe criticism of Barth that Van Til considered him outside the sphere of God’s saving work. That’s what Richard Mouw thought—until Van Til himself set him straight.

In a recent blog post, Mouw recounted a personal exchange that he had with Van Til:

I had an extensive conversation with Van Til only once. During the summer after graduating from college, I visited him in his home. I had communicated by mail with him on several occasions, and he had always been gracious in his helpful responses. It was a thrill for me to be able now to sit and talk with him in his living room.

Not long before my visit with Van Til, I had read G. C. Berkouwer’s The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, an assessment of Barth from an orthodox Reformed perspective that was decidedly more positive than the interpretation that Van Til had offered in his The New Modernism. I had found Berkouwer quite convincing, and with youthful abandon I quizzed Van Til about his strong rejection of Barthian theology.

At one point I prefaced a line of questioning with these words: “As someone who believes that Barth is not a Christian . . . .” Van Til quickly and decisively cut me off. “No, no!,” he exclaimed. “I have never said that Barth is not a Christian! What I have said is that an unsaved person could not come to understand the gospel properly from Barth’s theology. But that he himself is not a true Christian—this is something I have never said, and I never would say.”

Mouw goes on to explain how Van Til’s response has had a significant influence on his own view of making judgments about the standing of others before God.

I remember in my early college days reasoning that a certain well-known evangelical preacher had to be on his way to hell. I did so on the basis of my understanding of Galatians 1 and this individual’s denial of the biblical teaching that salvation is exclusively through faith in Christ—something I considered to be essential to the gospel.

I was—and still am—adamant in my conviction that the gospel is at the heart of the Christian faith and must not be tampered with. But I’ve since modified my views a bit. I’m more cautious to speak with confidence about the eternal fate of a professing Christian. There’s certainly a danger to be avoided here (and I don’t necessarily agree with Richard Mouw on the matter), but I think I have biblical grounds for my present hesitancy.

Several things give me pause:

  1. My understanding of depravity and sanctification leads me to affirm that the remnants of sin are still present in all of our willing, thinking, believing, doing, etc. Thus we all have error in our theology.
  2. Sins committed in ignorance are different from sins committed in full knowledge of the truth.
  3. Christ died for all of the sins of those who trust in Him. That includes desires, motives, thoughts, words, actions, and even our beliefs.
  4. God can (and does) grant the grace of repentance for wrong beliefs as easily as He can for wrong behavior. Present beliefs may not be future ones.

My thoughts on these issues were influenced in part by John Frame’s discussion in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (DKG), which I read a few years back as part of a Readings in Theology course. Great book, by the way.

In a discussion on “Limitations on Our Knowledge of God,” Frame says,

Errors in our knowledge arise from immaturity and weakness. Even if Adam had not fallen, the acquisition of knowledge would not have taken place all at once. It would have been a historical process, part of the “subduing of the earth” (Gen. 1:28; cf. 2:19f.). Even Jesus “grew” in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52) and “learned” obedience (Heb. 5:8) in His life as a perfect man. Certainly, then, even apart from sin, human knowledge may be incomplete; we may be ignorant in comparison to what we may know later. Thus I see no reason why even an unfallen race may not have proceeded by the method of trial and error in the continuing quest for knowledge. Error as such need not cause pain or wrongdoing; to make an honest mistake is not in itself sinful. Thus unfallen Adam might have been wrong about some things. And it is much more likely that we will make mistakes, because our weakness and immaturity are compounded with the sin of our hearts. Unfallen Adam could not have made a mistake about his present duty before God, but he might have made other kinds of mistakes, even about theological formulations.4 (20–21, emphasis added)

He goes on to expound on this in the footnote:

Is it sinful to hold the wrong view about limited atonement, for example? Holding a wrong view about this (or any doctrine) would be sinful only if (1) the person has the Bible in his own language, presented at a level suited to his mental capacity, (2) he has had the time and resources to come to a correct conclusion, and (3) he has nevertheless willfully rejected the truth (at some level of his thinking). We should be gentle with those who differ from us; they may not be rebellious or sinful in their disagreement, only immature (in other respects they may surpass us). And, of course, we must always recognize the possibility that we may be wrong, that a brother or sister who disagrees may have something to teach us. (21)

I’m not sure if I agree with Frame entirely here—particularly on his first protasis. Certainly some doctrinal errors are sinful apart from access to special revelation. Doesn’t Romans 1 establish the sufficiency of general revelation to condemn the willful rejection of the truth about the creator God? I have more thinking to do—particularly relating to the subject of ignorance—but I do think Frame raises some interesting questions and provides some very thought-provoking and helpful answers.

Still striving for the right balance between conviction and humble graciousness.

Footnotes

  1. Van Til mentions Barth 8,588 times (Barth [8,264x], Barthian [119x], Barthianism [140x], and Dutch variations like Barthiaansch and Barthianisme [65x]) and cites him 1,824 times based on the collection of his works available for Libronix.

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6 Responses to Van Til on Barth—and Doctrinal Sins

  1. Ryan August 2, 2008 at 6:14 am #

    I was reading “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God” earlier this summer and was struck by Frame’s humility and caution to the way theologians handle themselves with regard to personal character and judgment of other theologian’s works.

    “First, the practice of taking and opponent’s view in the worst possible sense, without first seeking to find a way of interpreting him so that his view is more plausible or even correct. Generally, this practice arises out of sheer hostility, blinding the theologian to more loving (and at the same time more intellectually cogent) possibilities… True, sometimes the “worst possible sense” is the correct way to interpret a theologian. But we should adopt such interpretations only as a last resort, only when all other possibilities fail… We are not to criticize others without careful attempts to ascertain the truth.”

    The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 324-325

  2. Bill Moore August 2, 2008 at 9:06 am #

    Thanks for posting these quotes, Phil. While we must not compromise that which God has revealed in his Word, we must approach our differences with others with courageous humility.

  3. Phil Gons August 2, 2008 at 10:27 am #

    Thanks for the comment, Ryan. Good words. How often we fall short of that.

    You’re welcome, Bill. Well put.

  4. Nick Norelli August 5, 2008 at 8:30 am #

    Hi Phil,

    For some reason or another the entire post on Progressive Dispensationalism isn’t showing up on your site. I can read it all in my RSS feed, but when I tried to comment only the first couple of paragraphs showed up and there’s no comment box so I apologize for leaving this here, but I figure you can move it or delete it later.

    Tim Warner of the Post-Trib Research Center is a progressive dispensationalist who believes in a post-trib rapture. I’ve corresponded with him in emails in the past and he told me that you can be a PD and hold to a pre-trib rapture, but you’d be inconsistent for doing so. Hope this helps.

  5. Derek Ashton August 27, 2008 at 8:53 am #

    Phil,

    This is great stuff! It is rare to find “humble graciousness” among the fighting, arguing and mocking found on many theologically oriented blogs. We all believe ourselves to be rather correct in our thinking, but if we fail to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in the way we present it, we’re quite WRONG in God’s eyes. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. In the sharing of knowledge, love has to be folded in much more deliberately lest we become self-righteous pride-puffs (a.k.a. “Pharisees”).

    I appreciate your honesty and sensitivity in this post. Christian blogs need more of that.

    Good post.

  6. Maim April 5, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    Thanks for this post. I’m trying to work out how this affects my attitude toward people like Rob Bell.

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