David Gibson and Daniel Strange, (eds.). Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 403 pages. $39.95 (paperback)*

Reviewed by Melanie Webb (February 08, 2012)

If the early days of evangelical interest in Barth’s thought can be characterized as “infatuation” (13), as Carl Trueman insinuates in his foreword to Engaging with Barth, evangelicalism’s relationship with Karl Barth has taken another step towards maturity with this volume. The editors, David Gibson, a minister and doctoral candidate in Aberdeen, and Daniel Strange, a lecturer in culture, religion, and public theology at Oak Hill Theological College in London, have assembled a team of contributors that well represents Anglo-American Reformed evangelicalism, particularly branches of Scottish Presbyterian pedigree. Contributors seek from Barth’s theology both challenging and constructive reflection on their own views, while maintaining the central themes and tenets of traditional Reformed orthodoxy, as represented in such documents as the Canons of Dort and the Westminster standards. Consequently, this volume does not represent the evangelical community as broadly as the title might suggest. While it has some confessional breadth and reaches geographically from the British Isles to the Antipodes to North America, large segments of the broader evangelical picture are absent – e.g., the Wesleyan or Pentecostal traditions.Of the several criticisms of Barth’s theology that recur throughout this volume’s introduction and twelve chapters of this volume, the following four seem most central to the book’s project.

First, Barth’s Christocentrism revitalizes theological discourse but does so by unnecessarily (and unintentionally) reducing the theological enterprise to a Christic principle. Christ is the “determinative reference and model for the construction of Barth’s whole discourse” (22). Yet, for Henri Blocher, Barth’s thought convolutes creation and redemption due to his erroneous reading of Scripture. Blocher summarizes Barth: “Jesus’s manhood existedin the beginning, with the consequence that all human beings, by virtue of (the first) creation, must be said to be ‘in Christ’” (47). In contrast, Blocher contends that “human beings, though they were created by the Logos, are not ‘in Christ’ before they come to distinct faith in him” (48). Blocher’s chapter overlaps nicely with David Gibson’s discussion of Romans 9-11 in Barth’s doctrine of election. While Barth sets forth the name of Jesus Christ as the hermeneutic through which all Scripture is to be read, Gibson argues that “the text begins to warp under the Christological weight it is made to bear. The result is an exegetical treatment that is by turns brilliant and complex, but also ultimately unsuccessful” (138). Blocher and Gibson both criticize Barth for departing from what they take to be Scripture’s meaning (cf. 48). Though Gibson does not draw on Eberhard Busch’s well-known work on Barth’s reading of Romans 9-11, he offers an ingenuitive criticism of election’s place in Barth’s theology.

Perhaps most difficult for traditional Reformed thought is Barth’s concentration of election and reprobation in the one Jesus Christ. A. T. B. McGowan challenges the priority of Christ over Adam in Barth’s treatment of the covenant concept (126; 133). Oliver Crisp also protests the reductive singularity of Jesus Christ, saying that it seems as though “the only person who suffers reprobation and who might, as a consequence of this, be a candidate for punishment in hell, is Christ” (305). A reading of §30 in Church Dogmatics II/1, where Barth explicates hell in terms of the crucifixion, would have considerably strengthened Crisp’s discussion. Crisp engages Barth’s doctrine of election through a comparison with Jonathan Edwards, whom he thinks exemplifies the traditional Reformed focus on God’s sovereign glory and justice in his administration of punishment. Yet for Barth, God’s love of the reprobate in Christ is God’s love of his own enemies; for God to sustain the reprobate as reprobate is for God to contradict Christ’s command to love one’s enemies (CD II/2, 319). In Crisp’s analysis, Barth’s doctrine of election is neither consistent nor coherent according to traditional Reformed principles, particularly that opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa (317). Though Barth himself resisted the employment of principles in the development of theology, Garry Williams’ chapter on Barth’s doctrine of atonement concludes that the problem in Barth’s theology is that his characterization of Jesus Christ does not derive from the full breadth of Scripture (cf. 269). For Williams, as for Gibson, Barth places disproportionate and misleading emphasis on the name Jesus Christ such that it assumes the role of an abstracted principle; even though Barth sought to avoid this, he failed (269; 139).

Second, Barth’s understanding of reflexive intratrinitarian love and the hiddenness of God convolutes his presentation of the incarnation as salvific. In treating Barth’s trinitarian theology, Michael J. Ovey concludes that Barth’s Christology is not conducive of human access to divine love and salvation. Rather, the focus on Jesus Christ as a single divine subject detracts from the believer’s experience of the Father’s love (230). Similarly, in his chapter on the visibility of God, Paul Helm considers the consequences of believing, as Barth does, that “God freely reveals himself and that this revelation of himself is solely and exhaustively in Jesus Christ” (273). He negotiates his reading of Barth on God’s freedom through frequent reference to Bruce McCormack and Paul Molnar’s published debates, and concludes that Barth’s doctrine of God’s freedom enmires him in an unintentional affirmation of the inscrutable hiddenness of God and unreliability of revelation (297-8). Moreover, he avers that Barth is neither consistent with Scripture (298) nor as internally consistent as Calvin (294-6), finally preferring Calvin to Barth. This brings us to a third consistent critique of the volume.

Third, Barth’s thought relies on a doctrine of revelation that grounds the validity of faith in God but does not comply with the law of non-contradiction or traditional reliance on Scripture as consistently reliable revelation. Sebastian Rehnman treats Barth’s explicit comments on contradiction at the head of CD I/1. His discussion attempts to provide an analytic philosophical warrant for Barth’s larger project, but in the end concludes that this is unfeasible (76; 83). He upholds the Athanasian Creed as the standard of which Barth falls short (cf. 70-71). Rehnman is concerned with the validity of truth claims and justified belief, rightly acknowledging that “Barth would counter by stating that the triunity and incarnation of God are known only by revelation” (68). It is worth noting that, for Barth, revelation is all the warrant such claims need. This does not mean that the law of non-contradiction does not matter; only that, although what is revealed may not comply with the law of non-contradiction to our satisfaction, we are not to disregard any aspect of God’s revelation. Rehnmann demonstrates the incompatability of traditional Reformed reliance on right reasoning and Barth’s understanding of the role of God’s revelation in our knowledge of God, but does not address the decisive question of how fallen humanity can rely on reason’s deployment of logical principles for the purpose of knowing God.

In a more engaged reading, Mark Thompson insists that Barth “must be allowed to define himself” (172). In his chapter on Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, Thompson represents Barth in a intelligible manner to an evangelical audience that is committed to Scripture as a consistently reliable source for knowledge of God. Thompson criticizes Barth for collapsing revelation, inspiration, and illumination together as simply revelation. He appreciates the Barthian focus on the humanity of Scripture, but insists on the transformation of human words in God’s choice to employ them for his purposes (cf. 194). Since Thompson assumes a human language prior to redemptive revelation, he implicitly senses the co-identification or conflation of creation and redemption in Barth’s thought. Yet, he does not address Barth’s christologically modified supralapsarianism wherein there are no human words prior to God’s making use of them as he first speaks his “Yes” in the election of Jesus Christ (cf. CD II/2, 127-45, esp. 140-2; CD III/3, 35-9). For Barth, debates regarding mechanical and organic inspiration of Scripture miss the larger redemptive picture to which Scripture is a witness. Nonetheless, Barth’s view of Scripture does not embrace the redemptive historical emphasis, and Thompson does not find it desirable to displace a focus on the arc of redemptive history with a focus on the one man Jesus Christ. Rather, he insists that the words of human authors in the preserved texts might consistently be read as God’s words (cf. 195). Thompson traces Barth’s rejection of a traditional Reformed doctrine of Scripture to a misunderstanding of its central figures inherited from Heinrich Heppe (189) and, in part, Herman Bavinck (105).

Fourth, Barth rejects Reformed orthodoxy due to a misunderstanding of Protestant orthodoxy that he rightfully criticizes but sadly propagates. As a result, Barth’s engagement with the tradition is unreliable, making his recommendations potentially superfluous to the tradition that he failed to understand. Thompson (189), Ryan Glomsrud (87), and Donald McLeod (341) all note Barth’s miscomprehension of Protestant orthodoxy in the centuries following the Reformation. Underneath the assessment that Barth fails to represent fairly Reformed orthodoxy is the suggestion that, had Barth read these figures for himself, he might have found them a fruitful resource for his own theology and not departed as far from the tradition as he did. For instance, McGowan chides Barth for assessing Reformed covenant theology too narrowly in conversation with Johnannes Cocceius while overlooking the likes of John Murray (131-2). Nonetheless, the contributors variously indicate that reading Barth on Reformed orthodoxy requires untangling his historical analysis in order to judge his criticisms in light of his understanding, or lack thereof, of traditional Reformed thought.

For those looking to cross the divide between Barth and evangelicals that is often invoked from both sides of the chasm, Michael Horton’s concluding chapter on Barth’s legacy for evangelical theology is promising. He encourages readers to engage with Barth in a broader ecumenical project while openly affirming his own evangelical identity. Horton explicitly states his intent to join Barth in working with the tradition, and to use him as an ally in “the struggle to define the church and its mission” (374). Those reading Barth should ask not “whether Barth is worthy of being included [in what passes as evangelical today] but whether he would want to be included in such a movement” (374). As a result, Horton pushes against the boundaries of evangelical attitudes towards Barth. Evangelicals may relate to him as an ally without requiring his identification as “one of us.”

Many Barthians will find the majority of essays in this volume dissatisfying because of the commitments that undergird each contributor’s engagement and color their reading of Barth. In many respects, the volume assumes that to be Barthian is incompatible with a robust evangelical identity. Though Barthians may benefit from the present volume, it is not written for them. This volume is for those who are compelled by aspects of Barth’s thought and its impact, and who want to incorporate his insights into their existing theological commitments without compromising the integrity of those commitments and their place in traditional Reformed communities. The editors explicitly locate themselves in the ironically critical trajectory of G. C. Berkouwer and John Webster, both of whom have provided close analyses and appreciative appraisals of Barth’s contributions without either exalting him or denouncing him on account of their other commitments. Engaging with Barth perceives its titular theologian as neither satisfactorily evangelical nor satisfactorily Reformed. It engages with him as a theologian who is, at turns, fashionable, fecund, and frustrating for Anglo-American confessionally Reformed evangelical Christians.

For evangelicals who have read Barth and want critical theological engagement with him, this volume opens up provocative avenues for further discussion. For Barthians, it is worth noting this recent initiation of dialog from evangelicals. The contributors engage much of Barth’s corpus, but sustained consideration of Barth’s doctrine of creation (CD III) is curiously absent in a work that regularly returns to the insufficiency of Barth’s presentation of history and humanity. Indexes of names, subjects, and biblical references are provided along with a select bibliography of Barth’s works. Though not every contributor treats Barth with equal nuance, we can hope that intra-Reformed discussions continue to advance in the trajectory of the contribution made by David Gibson, Daniel Strange, and their array of contributors in Engaging with Barth.

*Ed. note: This work is also available to North American audiences, published by T & T Clark in 2009.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.