John P. Lewis, Karl Barth in North America: The Influence of Karl Barth in the Making of a New North American Evangelicalism (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2009), xvii + pp. 226. $27.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Scott Rice (July 18, 2012)

John Lewis takes up a rather distinct approach to the influence of Karl Barth’s theology on several evangelical theologians in Karl Barth in North America. Engaging scholars like Donald Bloesch and Bernard Ramm, he moves beyond a standard theological assessment by elevating the role of biography. More specifically, Lewis underlines how the early theological settings, family lives, and educational background of these scholars led to an encounter with Barth’s thought that impacted their own theological development and in turn resulted in “the emergence of a new evangelicalism” (xvii).

Lewis’s first two chapters set the course for the remainder of the book through an overview of Barth’s life and work, as well as some responses to Barth’s theology in North America. He touches upon Barth’s key early influences—Herrmann, Ritschl, and their support of Germany in World War I—but focuses on Barth’s dogmatic concerns, particularly the doctrines of revelation, scripture, and election, as well as Barth’s turn to the Reformers. These were the emphases that came to bear on the new evangelicalism.

In terms of North American responses to Barth, Lewis begins with the reception and ultimate rejection of Barth’s theology by the fundamentalist leaders Cornelius Van Til and Fred Klooster. Uncomfortable with some of the more extreme elements of fundamentalism and desiring greater engagement with the culture, a second group of evangelicals emerged after World War II led by the likes of Billy Graham and Carl Henry. This second group appreciated much of Barth’s work but retained certain hesitations, most notably concerning Barth’s doctrine of scripture. For the remainder of his work Lewis turns to a third group, the new evangelicalism. This group’s desire, claims Lewis, for unapologetically Christian “dialogue with modernism” and a scriptural theology that asks what God might proclaim in his Word before trying to prove that the words are God’s made it ripe for an encounter with Karl Barth’s theology (62, 67).

Chapter three deals with the first of the new evangelicals, Bernard Ramm. Ramm, a physics PhD, made a name for himself in fundamentalist scholarship through a series of publications on the relationship of science and scriptural interpretation. However, in his After Fundamentlism, Ramm reflected on the transitional moment when he realized that the scientific methods he adopted for theology led to a faith “captive to rationalism” (72). Seeking a new direction, Ramm encountered Barth’s Church Dogmatics at Baylor University in the late 1950’s. During this period, Ramm came to appreciate Barth’s engagement with scripture as “witnessing, kerygmatic documents” that “summon faith in Jesus Christ” rather than as “scientific historiography” (81). Barth made it possible for Ramm to acknowledge scripture’s humanity and yet still stand under its divine authority as that which points to God’s revelation.

Geoffrey Bromiley, the prominent translator and professor of historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, occupies chapter four. Bromiley’s engagement with Barth was a gradual process, taking place after his ordination into the Anglican Communion during the late 1930’s. Lewis emphasizes two of Bromiley’s contributions. First, Bromiley translated immense amounts of Barth’s work and was deeply involved in making Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik accessible in English. And second, Bromiley heralded Barth as one who avoided two pitfalls of his period: rigid double predestination that ultimately distorts “the character of God” as deistic rather than involved in history, and the mythological tendencies that failed to let God’s revelation speak for itself (103).

Lewis assesses in chapter five the one-time critic turned proponent of Barth’s theology, James Daane. Daane’s career was marked by a strong distaste for Barth’s dialectics prior to his time as professor of pastoral theology at Fuller Seminary from 1966-79. There is a mystery to God that lies behind the finite mind, and Daane thought that Barth sought after it too-hastily with his dialectical method. But Lewis discusses Daane’s transition to precisely the opposite view, although the details of this transition remained unknown even to Daane’s departmental colleague, Ray Anderson. Daane became a public advocate of Barth’s doctrine of election by the latter part of his career, arguing for its christological basis in the New Testament, its functionality for preaching, and its historical presence in Calvin’s statement that “Christ is the ‘mirror’ of our election” (118).

Chapter six focuses on David Mueller, former professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mueller came under Barth’s influence early in life as his father, William Mueller, wrote a dissertation on Barth in the 1930’s. Lewis begins by referring to David Mueller’s publication, Karl Barth, where Mueller unfolds Barth’s position on Jesus Christ as God’s revelation, “the object of election,” and the true pattern of what it means to be human (128, 131). Mueller again expressed his indebtedness to Barth’s incarnational theology at a conference on the inerrancy of scripture in 1987. Sensing a real struggle in his tradition to come to grips with scripture’s humanity, Mueller claimed that the dominant motif of God’s saving action in scripture takes form in “finite, mortal, erring and sinful human beings” (136). He makes this point not to nullify scripture’s authority, but to emphasize the critical role which humanity—including the humanity of scripture—plays in the economy of God.

Next in line for Lewis is the evangelical scholar Donald Bloesch. Chapter seven presents Bloesch as one whose background in an ecumenically open tradition, coupled with a negative seminary experience under a neo-naturalist faculty’s radically progressive theology, led to a willing reception of Barth’s thought. Barth influenced Bloesch most with reference to his understanding of God, salvation, and scripture. It is worth mentioning the first two. In Barth’s doctrine of God, Bloesch expresses appreciation for the Swiss theologian’s keen attention to “the utter transcendence of the living God” as well as the emphasis on God as the “being who enters into relationships” and whose “power is in the service of his love” (156-9). Drawing primarily from Bloesch’s Jesus is Victor and Jesus Christ, Lewis turns to Bloesch’s response to Barth’s soteriology, particularly the function of the Spirit and its subjective role, the wrath which conceals God’s love, and most notably, the priority of God’s objective redemption in Jesus Christ that dares to hope for all even while—in Bloesch’s opinion—not necessitating universalism.

Chapter eight examines Ray Anderson, another former Fuller Seminary professor. First influenced by T. F. Torrance at Edinburgh, he would develop a specifically “incarnational theology” (171) in the wake of Barth’s thought and in dialogue with colleagues Geoffrey Bromiley and Bernard Ramm. Anderson’s theological anthropology works to define “humanity in terms of God’s self-revelation in the humanity of Jesus Christ, particularly his crucifixion and resurrection. In his crucifixion one can see the grave situation that humanity is in and yet in the resurrection one perceives God’s original intention for humanity” (174, quoting Anderson). In The Shape of Practical Theology, Anderson furthers this project by adopting Barth’s notion of Jesus as the “man-for-others” who determines what it means to be human in relationship (“co-humanity”) and, especially, in life lived for the sake of others (179).

Wesleyan theologian, Donald Dayton, is the last of Barth’s evangelical advocates and the subject of chapter nine. Responding to what he saw as gross misrepresentations of Barth, Dayton published a series of essays and a book entitled Karl Barth and Evangelicalism and dealing with Barth’s reception in North America. The heart of the chapter lies in Dayton’s pietistic evaluation of Barth. Lewis notes that while Barth is better known for his more critical attitude towards the pietist tradition, Dayton captures two potential affinities that make Barth a more accessible resource for his fellow Wesleyans. First, Dayton argues that Barth expressed by the fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics not only a “more sympathetic treatment of Zinzendorf than had previously been in evidence,” but also a significant number of references to “Bengel’s Gnomon, the great pietist commentary” (201). Second, Dayton hypothesizes that pietism’s devotional approach to scripture might have played a greater role than previously known in Barth’s dynamic account of scriptural inspiration. Dayton’s hunch might be a stretch, but it nonetheless says something about the similarities in praxis and doctrine that connect Barth and the Wesleyan tradition.

Lewis concludes by considering some similarities and differences among the new evangelicals, distinguishing in sub-sections their “Influences,” “Motifs,” “Agenda(s),” and “Common Agenda” (215-6). He claims that what united their efforts was a shared longing for a theology in dialogue with modernism “yet beyond the accommodation of modernist theologies” (217).

Karl Barth in North America constitutes a profitable resource for introductory research on Barth’s reception in evangelical scholarship. Lewis’s concentration on the distinct context of each theologian provides a fuller understanding of motivations and the specific points of emphasis in each’s work. While on occasion Lewis can make a straw man of the scriptural inerrantist, his detailed engagement with Barth’s view of scripture as the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ overshadows this fault and makes possible an honest evaluation of Barth’s doctrine for evangelicals who have largely remained hesitant and misinformed on this point. One minor drawback to Lewis’s work is the limited attention given to the reception of Barth and the question of universalism. He does address this issue with Bloesch (who points to Barth’s “impossible possibility,” 168) and in a footnote with Dayton (who notes Barth’s primary concern with the believing community, 199). But the relationship of universal and objective redemption to the scriptural images of divisive judgment must be more thoroughly articulated than Lewis has done if evangelicalism is to fruitfully and honestly appropriate Barth as a resource for the theological task (on the question of universalism, cf. Bromiley’s Introduction to Karl Barth and, more recently, Bruce McCormack’s essay in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism).

All in all, Lewis’s Karl Barth in North America is a clear and insightful work that successfully highlights an important strand of evangelical scholarship that has and continues to appropriate Barth’s theology as a vital resource for the task of elaborating and proclaiming the gospel for today.

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.