Testing. One. Two…

Reading Barth in the morning over coffee is what I had in mind when I started this. The winter sun rising with catastrophic pinks and shining into my kitchen. My mind humming away on the latest pop-ditty the kids are going mad for.

In reality, I have ended up reading Barth at the back of boring introductory philosophy lectures and in a coffeeshop waiting for an interview with Presbytery about my application to be a candidate for ordination. Neither setting was quite as charming and relaxing as the one envisioned.

I did manage to retain some of it though. In Chapter 1 he deals with “The Need for Dogmatic Prolegomena”. Prolegomena is a word I have been repeating syllabically in an effort to learn how to say it. Barth splits with many of his predecessors in this Dogmatics game and casts doubt on the whole need for an introduction.

Explaining your assumptions and outlining your methodologies is all well and good but if you are only doing it to impress the intellectual movers and shakers (read: science) then you are selling the project short before you even begin. Against for example, Brunner, Barth doesn’t think that a project of dogma like the one he is engaging on should be prefaced with a kind of bridge or translatory introduction for the sceptics out there. The Church ought to be confident enough in it’s content- the Revelation of God, regardless of whether that has fallen out of fashion.

And so he says:

There is no dispute about the fact that dogmatics too, together with the Christian Church generally, has to speak all along the line as faith opposing unbelief, and that to that extent all alone the line her language must be apologetic, polemical. But there has never been any effective apologetic and polemic of faith against unbelief that the unintended one (impossible to intend! purely experiential!) which took place when God Himself sided with the witness of faith.

I know now why so many American evangelical Christians initially despised Barth. They were presuppositionalist in their apologetics.

My question is whether or not we can say that Barth’s point holds true on a serious work of systematic theology that deals explicitly and centrally with the Divine Revelation and simultaneously endorse Cornelius Van Til and the presupposition boys in their one-to-one relational evangelism with people who are sceptical about the whole basis of Christianity? Can one do that and still be consistent? Tim Keller is the chief descendant of the Presuppositionalists today and his book Reason For God is one I have already read so many times I feel I can quote large chunks of it. But I am totally and utterly convinced by Barth that “Difference of faith is faith in which we hear unbelief express itself in words” and therefore we cannot begin every discussion of the revealed truth with a special appeal to the mythical “non-believer”.

How do I reconcile the two? Eh? Maybe Barth will answer me. (Maybe he has already and I missed it). Tune in next week to find out.

Your Correspondent, Off to see Liam Neeson pretend to be Bond


  1. jimlad says:

    These extracts are hard to read never mind think about while in possession of a cold, but I’m beginning to see why you like Barth so much.

  2. Bob says:

    I’ve always thought that the antipathy of people like Van Til toward Barth is one of the great ironies of recent theological history. They were both of them explicitly “presuppositional” in their approach and, as such, shared a lot of common ground.

    My understanding is that, to oversimplify a little, Van Til and company were skeptical of the fact that Barth took the Christ-event, rather than the scriptures, to be the foundational element of his dogmatics. I suppose they thought that the former is mediated exclusively and only through the latter — so to know anything about Christ one must accept the truth of scripture.

    I’m confused by your statement that Van Til &co engaged in “one-to-one relational evangelism with people who are sceptical about the whole basis of Christianity”. Surely the whole point of their system was that they did the exact opposite. Their primary assumption is that “the whole basis of Christianity” and the truth of the scriptures in particular has to be taken as axiomatic & that there is no neutral shared point between the believer and the nonbeliever from which an argument for the rationality of Christianity might be staged. Rather, the assumption is that the worldview of the nonbeliever must be inherently self-contradictory and far from trying to convince a person that the “basis of Christianity” is sound they would attempt to demonstrate that the basis of the unbeliever’s worldview is unsound. Schaeffer called it “taking off the roof” and advised it be done gently and with care for fear of bringing the other person’s world crashing down around them before they’re ready to accept an alternative. It usually devolves to somebody in the pub all frothy-mouthed desperately resorting to “so you’re saying there’s no basis for saying Hitler was wrong, is that it!?”

    The irony is that the idea that there is no neutral staging ground for a rational demonstration of the truth of belief is one Barth clearly argues for in his polemic against natural theology. Indeed, your quote above seems like the sort of thing a reformed presuppositional apologist would embrace. Moreover, the idea that ultimately the only real polemic is that of God siding with the polemicist and revealing himself is the sort of thing a reformed thinker should cheer in agreement with.

  3. Bruce says:

    These extracts are hard to read never mind think about while in possession of a cold, but I’m beginning to see why you like Barth so much.

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