Even if slowed a bit by the years, Karl Barth is still vigorous in the theological arena. His 75th birthday on May 10 is a special occasion to consider this creative and stimulating Protestant dogmatician.

Although the tide of Continental theology has left both Barth and Brunner behind for Bultmann, the latter’s theology (not without some quite broad lines of similarity to Tillich’s) has not yet consolidated an American following.

British and American theology usually lags a decade or two behind the European movements. In America, at least, Barth may well continue to be as much if not more a formative influence than Bultmann. Already well into the latter years, Bultmann is now retired. Graduate students from America seem to turn toward Basel (where Barth and Cullmann hold forth) almost as eagerly as toward Edinburgh.

At any rate, evangelical scholars in America continue to interact with Barthian theology, and refuse to consider it as already bypassed. Next year Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company will issue a major evaluation of Barth’s views by Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary. Van Til’s earlier work, The New Modernism, had a rather chilly reception, partly because it lacked sympathy for the positive thrust in Barth’s theology (more fully grasped in The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, by G. C. Berkouwer of Free University of Amsterdam, who is nonetheless a skillful critic of Barth). The year ahead will mark the appearance also of a comprehensive appraisal of Barth’s theology by Gordon H. Clark of Butler University, who is perhaps the best qualified evangelical scholar to probe Barth’s theory of religious knowledge. Whatever differences exist between Clark, Berkouwer, and Van Til, it must be said that none of these men considers Barth’s dogmatics an authentic exposition of Reformed theology; all agree that Barth’s departure from the norm of Scripture is an invitation to theological subjectivity. Despite the stress on neo-orthodoxy’s revival of the theology of the Reformers, it nevertheless becomes increasingly clear that Barth departs, among other things, from Calvin’s doctrines of general revelation, special revelation, the nature and inspiration of Scripture, the nature of God, divine election, the fall of man, the nature of sin, and the atonement. In these and other respects Barth stands not only against Calvin, but against the witness of Scripture—intentionally or not. The fact that he disallows any transition in history from God’s wrath to God’s grace explains in part why even some exponents of pagan Oriental religions are welcoming Barth’s theology.

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That Barth and Cullmann, his colleague, have given increasing attention to the menace of Bultmann’s views is well known. In opening the series, “Dare We Follow Bultmann?” (Mar. 27 issue), CHRISTIANITY TODAY sketched Barth’s central arguments against Bultmann, arguments which Geoffrey W. Bromiley, one of the translators of Church Dogmatics, culled from Barth’s writings. But the question now before us is whether Barth himself, by the compromises inhering in his own mediating views, unwittingly precipitated the swirling onrush of contemporary theology to the left of his position. Is Barthianism perhaps a convenient steppingstone to Bultmannism, to what Cullmann has called as “the great heresy” of our times?

In a recent “Barth anniversary” symposium at Westminster Theological Seminary, the European theologian’s present significance was measured by four evangelical participants—Professor Fred H. Klooster of Calvin Theological Seminary, Professor Kenneth Kantzer of Wheaton College Graduate School, Professor Cornelius Van Til of Westminster, and Editor Carl F. H. Henry of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. As key theological issues unresolved by Barth, Professor Kantzer cited the relation of revelation to the authority of Scripture, and Dr. Klooster the relation of revelation and redemption to history and science.

Looking to the ministry as a vocation, Barth sat in university days under liberal professors. The realities of history and experience shattered his indulgence in their speculative optimism, however. Leaning on the writings of Kierkegaard, Barth became a crusader for dialectical theology whose God, although inaccessible to reason, yet is uniquely funneled into human history in the Incarnation. Kantzer insists that Barth’s reaction against liberalism was not deep enough to ask “how can I know God?” in truly biblical dimensions. His sub-scriptural view of religious authority, as Kantzer sees it, leaves Barth with an aura of mysticism devoid of solid defenses against Bultmann, despite the fact that Barth classifies mysticism with atheism as the great enemy of faith.

Of special importance is the significance Barth attaches to the fact and doctrine of Christ’s resurrection. For him this is a central doctrine. Whereas Bultmann categorizes the resurrection of Christ as mythology, Barth depicts it as the polestar of revelation. Students attending the Basel colloquies more than once have heard the blunt verdict: “Whoever denies the resurrection of Christ is not a Christian. Bultmann denies the resurrection of Christ!” Barth will not downgrade interest in the Empty Tomb, as does Brunner; indeed, he writes as often of “the empty tomb” and of “the witness of the 40 days” as of “the resurrection of Christ” itself.

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Nonetheless, many critics—evangelical and non-evangelical scholars included—think Barth’s handling of the historicity of the Resurrection evasive. They contend that his writings do not really defend the Resurrection as an objective historical fact independent of subjective faith. Barth’s distinction between Historie and Geschichte (the Resurrection is said to be not Histone but Geschichte) at first may appear to be simply a distinction between event and interpretation (between the merely factual reality of assertedly objective historical science and its subjective appropriation and total historical import). But it involves another subtler distinction, these critics say, between kinds or types of events whereby the “eventness of the resurrection event” somehow remains outside the judgment of historical science. One of Barth’s own disciples, Professor Walter Kreck of Bonn University, has challenged Barth to explain further his present distinction between Geschichte and Historie (Theologische Literaturzeitung, Jahrgang 85, No. 2, Feb. 1960, p. 90). This contrast runs from Barth’s earliest through his latest writings, from the Roemerbrief through the Dogmatics. So far he has declined to elaborate the terms.

According to Barth, historical judgment as such cannot touch Christian revelation. The Crucifixion is subject to historical investigation and scrutiny in a way that the Resurrection is not. Even Barth’s recent writings do not affirm that “Christ is risen” in the dimension of verifiable history. The first century accessibility of the relevant historical data, on which Luther and Calvin, Bavinck and Kuyper, Hodge and Strong and other Protestant dogmaticians have traditionally insisted, is therefore forfeited. This refusal to insist on the objectivity of the resurrection event is no doubt related to Barth’s overall denial of a direct, objective divine disclosure given either in general or in scriptural revelation. In other words, revelation for Barth is not a predicate of historical events.

More is at stake than a theological brushfire blazing around Barth and Bultmann. The crucial issue in the European theological drift is whether or not both scholars—however profound their differences—begin from dogmatic premises that dilute and then dissolve the Christian revelation. The relationship of revelation and redemption to history necessarily affects the Christian religion as a whole.

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Those who like sturdy theological reading will find this issue sharply stated in Richard R. Niebuhr’s Resurrection and Historical Reason (Scribner’s, 1957). Here the Harvard professor traces the tension between the popular concept of historical causality and the theological centrality of Christ’s resurrection. Because contemporary Protestant theology tends to accept the predominant view of historical continuity, it thereby surrenders any basis for theological reflection independent of the reigning philosophies of science and history. Thus even when the “Resurrection” is championed on theological grounds, its significance rests on other than historical considerations. The broad view of the older liberal theology therefore remains, despite Barth’s restoration of the Resurrection to biblical history. Barth indeed deplores the Ritschlian exposition of Kant’s separation of the Christ-idea from the Jesus of history, and the consequent substitution of an ontologistic concept for historical reality. He has likewise rejected the existential delineations of history, of time and of eternity which he earlier shared with Bultmann (and which Bultmann still champions). Nonetheless his distinction of revelation-history from history-in-general presupposes that revelation and faith supply a knowledge essentially different from that of ordinary historical documentation.

Richard R. Niebuhr states the issue pointedly. He sees that Barth’s conception of revelation and history forces him “to extrude the resurrection event from the sequence that anchors it in the New Testament, and to say of the ‘Easter history’ that it tells us of the eternal presence of God in time, and therefore it has no eschatological significance” (ibid., p. 48). Among the high merits of Niebuhr’s volume are its resolute conviction that “Protestantism cannot do without either the resurrection tradition or a consistent theory of history” (ibid., pp. 70 f.) and its readiness to dispute the dogmatic modern insistence on absolute historical continuity. Niebuhr emphasizes that the New Testament does not deal in self-conscious fashion with the ideas of revelation and history. We ourselves are required to delineate a theology of revelation and of history, because the developments in philosophy since the Enlightenment have made the problems of knowledge and of the nature of history so acute.

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In our view, the dilemma of contemporary theology is simply this: one must either surrender the integrity of the biblical view of historical revelation and of redemptive history or surrender the currently prevailing philosophy of historical causality. Niebuhr confessedly thinks he is not forced to surrender either the biblical view or the reigning philosophy of history; indeed, he does not believe there is a single biblical view of historical revelation and of saving history. Hence the theological problem becomes for him that of working out adequate ideas, for our time, of revelation and of history that will do justice both to the New Testament and the modern historical self-consciousness of Western man. What starts out for Niebuhr to be independent theological method, therefore, does not really spring from scriptural authority, but from a dialogue between theology, philosophy and the natural and social sciences which must be renewed and adjusted in each generation.

The dogmatic attempt to compensate for the objective realities of biblical history by stressing instead the historical crisis-experience of believers or the historic self-consciousness of modern man seems to us to downgrade the live question of the philosophy of history latent in the Bible.

For Barth historical knowledge of the Resurrection is a matter of the consciousness of the Christian community; the believer participates more in this consciousness than in knowledge of a miraculous event in the stream of general history. Barth indeed attributes this knowledge to the prophetic self-revelation of Christ through the Holy Spirit and Christian Scripture and preaching (Dogmatics, IV, 3). Such delineation, however, does not really tackle the underlying problem of our knowledge of historical events. No amount of stress on the experienced reality of Jesus Christ or on the resurrection faith of the Christian community can suppress the demand for historical data; to evade this latter demand only lessens the distance between Barth and Bultmann on the expressway of existentialism. The decisive question faced by a religion of historical revelation and historical redemption must always be: is the resurrection of Christ truly an historical event? Christ by the Holy Spirit reveals himself and creates faith by means of reliable records and not in spite of most unsatisfactory ones.

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The series “Dare We Follow Bultmann?” opened with a summary of Barth’s questions addressed to Bultmann. In earnest solicitation of an illuminating reply, CHRISTIANITY TODAY soon will publish questions addressed to Professor Barth by American evangelical scholars. Scheduled in an early issue, these questions underscore the evangelical movement’s profound concern over the drift of Continental theology.


Noting conflicting Russian reports, some “doubting Yankees” remained unsure that Yuri Gagarin had orbited the earth (“Mystery of Soviet Spaceman—Truth or Hoax?,” U. S. News & World Report, May 1 issue). But nobody doubted U. S. failure to give effective support to the counter-thrust for Cuban freedom only 90 miles offshore. A faint radio signal spoke volumes: “This is Cuba calling the Free World. We need help in Cuba.” U.S. prestige sagged not simply in outer space but in its own back yard.

The cost of sentimentality in international affairs had mounted. To promote peace, the U.S. had doled out almost $100 billion to other nations since World War II, had even fraternized with dictators prating about “co-existence” while actually seeking world dominion. As perspectives blurred, many a leader has hesitated to speak openly of the Communist ideology as an enemy, while others knew too little of Christianity to prize it as the supreme fountainhead of justice and freedom. More and more the question arose: had political democracy lost the spiritual convictions essential to its own survival?

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