A New Neo-Orthodoxy?
Karl Barth sits on the top shelf with C.S. Lewis and Charles Hodge and a compendium of poetry. I smile at him, and he (even though he lost his dust cover many years ago now) smiles back at me. All that to say, I’ve read and benefited from some of the writings of Barth. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have had some very inspiring, even devotional-like moments in the presence of the German theologian. As many have pointed out, his greatest weakness is that for all of the insight and blessing he offers the church with one hand, he (perhaps unwittingly) attempts to take it away with the other. As I understand it, Barth’s doctrine of revelation, in the attempt to protect the sovereignty of God, insists that true revelation cannot be tamed. And therefore Scripture, a witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God, cannot be said to be itself revelation. Revelation occurs when, where, and how the sovereign God deigns. Encounters with God are like lightening strikes, and one can only do so much (doing the spiritual equivalents of the lightening rod) and live by faith that these moments of crisis will occur. Thus all that Barth offers in the course of his Dogmatics he only offers tentatively it seems. One is left wondering whether what Barth insists upon can rightly be spoken of as true given his premises concerning revelation. And even if revelation has been redefined to mean something far more specialized, e.g. a more direct experience/event with the Triune God, we are still left with a less than certain knowledge of truth and reality. As Van Til suggests, this aspect of Barthianism is based upon a skeptical view of knowledge which is ultimately related to an incipient monism. But for those of us who do not share Barth’s assumptions regarding the nature of revelation as well as deeper philosophical presuppositions concerning the nature of being, there are many gems to mine from the caverns of Karl Barth. So I continue to smile up at Dr. Barth on the top shelf.
But my point is actually on a little different subject. In the current Federal Vision discussion; part of the freak out of certain quarters of reformed Presbyterianism has been a result of the insistence that God’s Word and Ordinances can be trusted. Now most of these brothers would be repulsed by any hint of some sort of neo-orthodoxy (Barthianism) in the ranks of reformed Presbyterians. But I would suggest that this is actually occurring. There are some (let’s call them Vantilians) who insist that God is both completely transcendent and other and at the same time immanent and near to the created order. This insistence on these two extremes protects the ultimate autonomy and freedom of God, and simultaneously protects his freedom to speak and act in whatever way he pleases. These Vantilians are currently stressing the fact that God has established his covenant in history, and that this covenant is entered through the covenant sign of baptism and that all the benefits of Christ are truly offered in this covenant seal and re-offered and re-affirmed in the covenant meal of the Eucharist. However, there are others (let’s call them neo-Barthians) who are insisting that this infringes upon God’s sovereignty and does not take into account the great chasm between creator and creation, between the infinite and the finite, along with vague yet frequent claims of sacerdotalism and quasi-arminianism. These neo-Barthians insist that while the sacraments and covenant are historical, the *real* recipients of grace in the sacraments and the *real* covenant members are so only through the mysterious, random, lightening strikes of the Holy Spirit. While this discussion is centered on the covenant and sacraments, it’s really the same conversation all over again. Can the Triune God be trusted here and now? Must we only hope vaguely that our covenant Lord has spoken and acted through the means he has ordained, or may we speak with confidence in faith knowing that our God has indeed come near to us? I would suggest that the radical heresy hunters out for the blood of these various FVers are going down the path of Barthianism preferring a Theology of Crisis (as Van Til termed it) with its inherent skepticism of knowledge rather than the certainty of faith, which clings to the gifts of our sovereign God.