Van Til Reviews Three Essays by Barth (1960)

COMMUNITY, STATE AND CHURCH — Three essays by Karl Barth — with an introduction by Will Herberg. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, New York. 193 pp. 95 cents.

The Three Essays of Earl Barth comprising this book all deal with social questions.

In a long foreword Will Herberg, among other things, relates Barth’s views on social and political problems to his basic theological convictions. It was only gradually that Barth attained to a completely self-conscious Christological approach in his theology.

Similarly it is not till he wrote his “dear Christian brethren in Great Britain” in 1941 that he “urges his Christological foundation for political action.” A “large-scale police measure” against Hitler has become “absolutely necessary” “for Christ’s sake.” On the basis of the resurrection of Christ we know “that the world in which we live is already consecrated.”

Herberg gives these quotations from Barth because he is convinced that in his war-time writings “Barth is to be seen at his best as a Christian interpreter of the great historical crises of our time.”

But what has happened to Barth in recent times, asks Herberg. Discussing Barth’s attitude toward Communist tyranny Herberg says: “In a word, the man who once aroused the Church to action now urges it to turn away from political involvement and remain indifferent to political actualities.”

Barth gives an explanation of his seeming change of approach. His change, argues Barth, is only a seeming change. The Church should never act according to “principles.” It must judge spiritually and by individual cases. Says Barth of the Church: “If yesterday it travelled along one path, it is not bound to keep to the same truth today.”

Herberg suggests that Barth “ought to ask himself whether he is being true to his own best insights developed in those Hitler years.”

But why will not Herberg take his change of attitude at face value? Barth tells us that his Christological approach to both church and state is not based on principles. It is in terms of his Christological approach that Barth opposes every form of direct revelation and of any form of programmatic action. His Christ, as wholly revealed, must always be wholly hidden. It was because the “wholly hidden character of Christ and his work was threatened by the Fuhrer that Barth opposed him. And it is because the wholly hidden character of Christ would again be jeopardized if the church now took sides in the political situation that Barth advises her at the present to “stand quietly aloof.”

The basic point is that Barth’s Christological “principle” requires him to reject every form of given revelation. Barth is always against every form of ascertainable revelation of God through Christ in history. For the rest he is free, on his “principle,” to have no principle of right or wrong in politics, in sociology or in theology.

Cornelius Van Til, Ph.D.
Philadelphia, Penna.