Karl Barth is for many evangelicals a theological liberal to be avoided at all costs. In Kimlyn Bender’s new book, Confessing Christ for Church and World, has a fascinating chapter on “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Church in Conversation with American Evangelicalism.” In the summer of 1961 Geoffrey Bromiley wrote to Barth and asked if he would answer some questions posed by three prominent American evangelical theologians. The questions were sent along with Bromiley’s letter. One of those theologians was Cornelius Van Til. Barth declined to answer saying he was too busy but even if he had time he would not enter into a discussion with them. Here’s what he wrote.
“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. 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 judgement they have already passed on me. . . . 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.” (p. 66)
Bender goes on to comment that many evangelicals are quite different today. “Within the past few decades especially, evangelicals have come to appreciate Barth as a fruitful dialogue partner, even if there remains an implicit and sometimes explicitly expressed wariness regarding his theology. Yet the challenge pertaining to the question of the relation of evangelicals and Barth is no longer one of a problematic history but one of identity. To be specific: What is evangelicalism? To place Barth in a dialogue with American evangelicalism requires that we know what evangelicalism itself is.” (p. 67)
Confessing Christ for Church and World is from IVP Academic. It is a paperback with 391 pages and sells for $40.00.
Kimlyn J. Bender (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is associate professor of theology at Truett Seminary, Baylor University. He is the author of Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology and is coeditor with Bruce McCormack of Theology of Conversation: The Significance of Dialogue in Historical and Contemporary Theology.
Bender’s work has been published in numerous journals and collections, including Scottish Journal of Theology, Soundings, Sophia, Perspectives in Religious Studies and Journal of Religion and Society. He serves as a contributing editor for Cultural Encounters, has served as the theology editor of Perspectives in Religious Studies and is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Karl Barth Society of North America and the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion. Bender is the recipient of numerous awards, including the David Allan Hubbard Award from Fuller Theological Seminary, the Outstanding Faculty Award from the University of Sioux Falls, and the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics.