The PostBarthian

Karl Barth’s Letter in response to Cornelius Van Til’s questions

Cornelius Van Til

Cornelius Van Til attempted several times to meet Karl Barth during Barth's American tour to have similar questions to those in the Appendix 3 answered by Barth in person, but the two never directly conversed.

In the following letter in the book Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968, Karl Barth says that Cornelius Van Til considered him to be "possibly the worst heretic of all time". It is well known that that Van Til despised Barth and wrote two books against his theologian, on one of which is "Christianity and Barthianism" that is placing Barth in juxtaposition to Christianity. Even if Van Til denies that he called Barth an arch-heretic, his appraisal of Barth is clear. How does our great Church Father Karl Barth respond to Van Til and the criticism of fundamentalism? In the following letter by Karl Barth to Geoffrey W. Bromiley, we have an example how Barth responded to such fundamentalist rock throwing.

Letter 3: To Dr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Pasadena, California

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.(1)

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like [G.C.] Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms.(2) I can then answer him in detail.(3) But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time.(4) So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men.(5) The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today


(1) Professior Geoffrey W. Bromiley of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, was coeditor and chief translator of the English version of the Church Dogmatics. At the request of the editor of Christianity Today, and as a personal favor to him, Bromiley asked Barth whether he would answer some critical questions put by the American theologians Clark, Klooster, and van Til (see appendix 3).

(2) G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956).

(3) C.D. IV, 2, p. xii, IV, 3 pp. 173-180.

(4) Cf. C. van Til,  The New Modernism (Philadelphia, 1946), and later, in defense of his view against Berkouwer, Christianity and Barthianism (Philadelphia, 1962).

(5) "There are obviously fundamentalists with whom dialogue is possible, only butchers and cannibals are beyond the pale, and even they only provisionally, for there is always hope that they will attain to better mind and attitude." [Barth's instincts here were not unsound, for it appeared later that the three theologians would have ben given the last word in counter-replies to his replies. G.W.B.]

Barth, Karl. Karl Barth Letters 1961-1968. Ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Jürgen Fangmeier, and Hinrich Stoevesandt. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981. 7-8. Print.

I've included the questions that were sent to Karl Barth that are printed in the appendix 3 of "Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968"

Appendix 3

Questions to Karl Barth

From Dr. Clark:

1. Was it reasonable for Paul to endure suffering in his ministry (or is it reasonable for us) if all are in Christ and will perhaps be saved anyhow, and if, as you once said, [Ludwig] Feuerbach and secular science are already in the Church?

2. In your Anselm (E[nglish] T[ranslation], p. 70) we are told that we can never see clearly whether any statement of any theologian is on one side or the other of the border between divine simplicity and incredible deception. Does not this make theology - your own included - a waste of time?

From Dr. Klooster:

3. On Geschichte and Historie: (a) Has this distinction a biblical basis? (b) How does one distinguish Geschichte which may be the object of Historie from that which may not? (c) Are there two kinds of Geschichte, and if so how do they differ? (d) Could the cross and the resurrection be Geschichte even if proved most improbable to Historie? (e) Are the cross and the resurrection datable in the sense intended by the creeds and confessions? or only (f) as those who perceive them are datable?

4. On humiliation and exaltation: (a) If these are not successive, can the cross and the resurrection be datable? (b) If they are not successive, is the resurrection a "new" event only in a non-chronological sense? (c) Is the resurrection a true past event, or is it only a timeless event manifested and preached in time?

From Dr. van Til:

5. If resurrection is an object of expectation as well as recollection (K.D. I, 2, p. 128), (a) does this refer to Christ's resurrection? If so, (b) in what sense is it a databale, objective, past event?

6. If the cross and resurrection as Geschichte are the basis of salvation for all, (a) is this consistent with the orthodox view of their nature as past events? Or (b) is there a connexion between the orthodox view and orthodox lack of appreciation for a "biblical" universalism, so that the historicity of the cross and resurrection must be amended in the interests of this universalism?

Barth, Karl. Karl Barth Letters 1961-1968. Ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Jürgen Fangmeier, and Hinrich Stoevesandt. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981. 342-3. Print.

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Posted by Wyatt

Comments (5) Trackbacks (1)
  1. There seem to be a couple typos in Van Til’s questions. I very much doubt the word is supposed to be “database.” Surely it’s “dat(e)able,” as in Klooster’s question. And “in the interested” should be “in the interest” or “… interests.”

    In the last line, “yrs” should be “trs.” (short for translated).

    It’s worth noting, too, that the picture of Cornelius Van Til up at the top shows him preaching the gospel on Wall Street.

    • John, I’ve corrected the typos and filled out the reference to Bromiley’s book. I had to type in this quotation by hand from the book, so it suffers from the same troubles all scribes have suffered. Thank you for taking the time to read the post so thoroughly. One critical response, I don’t consider doing street apologetics the same thing as preaching the gospel. I don’t know what he is saying in the photo, all I can see is three men walking down stairs. If he’s doing street apologetics, then I say that no one is saved by reason, we are saved by faith alone, so if that is what he is doing, then it is not preaching the gospel. But who knows what was said, not I!

      Take care!

  2. May I respectfully suggest that apologetics, properly done, has the goal (or, perhaps, “a” goal of multiple) the conversion of the apologist’s interlocutor (and/or members of the audience) by showing that our faith is, indeed, reasonable. So, I’m less convinced that there’s a hard line between the realms of apologetics and evangelism than I am that the proper model is a Venn diagram with a fairly large common area between the two.

    SDG …

    • I prefer Anselms Faith Seeking Understand, and even if this letter isn’t pure Rationalism, it pursing an Reasoning unto Faith which is impossible. I’m not for or against fideism. Fideism is the miracle of conversation. Lord I believe help my unbelief.

  3. I thank you so much for this account of Barth’s interaction with fundamentalist writers. I have not read van Til and have little interest in doing so. I have had conversations with such persons, and silence is the best response. For the fundamentalist to get to the point of viewing the Other as a fellow-traveler in the search for truth is to already abandon something essential to the fundamentalist attitude.

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