Westminster Speaks

Conversation on Barth: Bryden, Murray and Trueman
Posted August 21, 2010 By Carl R. Trueman

The Westminster Archivist, Grace Mullen, recently uncovered an interesting artifact. In 1934, a book review was published in The Globe of Toronto entitled Karl Barth and Christian Unity. The review sparked a short series of letters to the editor between Walter Bryden, former professor at Knox College in Toronto, Canada, and John Murray, co-founder and professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. The interaction has been reprinted in its entirety below with a present-day response by Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman.

A Religion of Despair

Karl Barth and Christian Unity by Adolf Keller, DD, LLD (Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada)

Dr. Keller has a wonderful knowledge of contemporary Christianity throughout the world. He here gives us his conception of Karl Barth's movement, and its effect on the different denominations of Christendom. He portrays the reactions of Barthian theology—“a theology more negative than positive. Barthians are the true gravediggers of idealism.”

“The German Christians share this teaching on repentance, but rebuke his theology of the transcendent God as giving no solution to practical life problems, as defeatism. They accuse him of isolating the Church within the cultural life of the time—and of neglecting the great struggle against atheistic Bolshevism.” Lutheranism rejects the Barthian distrust of the message of Love, for its followers believe in the combined majesty love of God. To old Calvinism, Barthiansim seems a critical danger. Canon Raven of England calls it “a creed of despair.” On page 184, Dr. Machen is quoted. He insinuates that “the old supernaturalism, 'the fundamentals' of the infallibility of the Bible—the Virgin Birth, faith in miracles, redemption by the blood of Christ—are not a cure for all evils.” On page 206, Dr. Keller suggests that the dogmatics of Barth's theoloy joined to the warmth of the personal evangelism of the Oxford Groups “may be more accessible to the American mind as a new word for the times—then either of these new messages by itself.” On page 24, the author opines that a feature of Barthianism is profound pessimism. Surely this is not in accord with the Gospel which is “good news”—“tidings of great joy.” Professors and theologians will, we suppose, acquire from Dr. Keller's viewpoint a fairly accurate idea of Barthianism and its apparent effect upon different religious bodies.

-E. K. A.; Unknown Date

Karl Barth's Theology

To the Editor of The Globe: The review, appearing in your paper under the caption “A Religion of Despair,” of Dr. Adolf Keller's book Karl Barth and Christian Unity is , in my opinion, likely to give to the readers a very imperfect impression of Karl Barth and his theology.

Surely the reviewer does not believe, as the last sentence of his review would seem to imply, that a thinker like Karl Barth, recognized widely as the most challenging theologian in many years, needs to be introduced to professors or theologians at this late date. Any theologian who is at all alive to the significance of his responsibility has been aware for some time that Barth is the religious thinker of this day he has to conjure with.

Barth No “Defeatist”

If Karl Barth's theology is to be characterized as a “religion of despair, of defeatism,” then we must so characterize the faith of St. Paul, of St. Augustine, of Martin Luther and of John Calvin, all of whom were likewise completely disillusioned of any hope there might be in man himself, his merits or achievements, his culture or civilization, to effect a saving knowledge of God in himself or in others. Barth has indeed destroyed all superficial optimisms, but he has given to religious men a substantial ground for believing in the Christian faith as the only real and true optimism for a day of crisis such as this, or, for that matter, for any day. He has revealed the Gospel, not as a series of messages, as in Modernism, nor as a number of truths to be accepted as in orthodoxy; but as the Truth. That is, as the “great glad news” for every age and generation.

To insinuate, as the quotation from Dr. Machen does, that Barth has undermined our belief in “the old supernaturalism, the fundamentals, of the infallibility of the Bible—the Virgin Birth, faith in miracles, redemption by the blood of Christ—are not a cure for all evils,” is simply to belie the whole position of Karl Barth. It is true that Barth does not identify the Word of God with the letter of Scripture. It is true, moreover, that Barth's and Machen's respective conceptions of the Christian faith are poles apart; but no one who possesses a living faith, that is, a faith informed by the Holy Spirit, will have difficulty in deciding which of these men's views approximate most nearly to that faith which animated the writers of the New Testament. 

A Misrepresentation

To Suggest, furthermore, that the Barthian theology and the personal evangelism of the Oxford Groups might be successfully amalgamated, is an indication of how complete is the misunderstanding of the Barthian position. Karl Barth, I am afraid, would look upon the recent Oxford movement as pure religious Schwarmerei. He would consider a religious faith without theology as an anachronism. To possess Christian faith is, for Barth, to possess what he calls a “theological existence.” Barth is never more right than when he contends that most of the ills from which Christianity is suffering today result from the fact that the religious people of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries blindly believed that they could maintain their faith without theological foundations. That was the religious dilettantism which is completely losing its pertinence for thoughtful minds of today.

It is to be hoped that Dr. Keller's book is not just another of those many recent books which have done more to conceal than to reveal what Barth really stands for. Indeed, we shall never know the significance of Karl Barth if we assume the position of a “Bystander,” or a mere critic; but if we can, in a personal way, humble ourselves before the terrific challenge which his writings undoubtedly bring, we shall, I believe, acknowledge that such a challenge is not very far from that which created historic Christianity itself. 

--Walter W. Bryden, Knox College, Toronto; January 31th, 1934

Barthian Theology

To the Editor of The Globe: Two articles appeared recently in your paper with reference to the Barthian theology. The latter of these is a letter from the pen of Professor Bryden of Knox College, in the issue of Jan. 31. This letter appears to me to reflect an amazing situation. It is the situation that Professor Bryden's frankness reveals. He rightly acknowledges that Karl Barth “does not identify the Word of God with the letter of Scripture,” and that “Barth's and Machen's respective conceptions of the Christian faith are poles apart.” On both accounts I believe his interpretation of Barth is thoroughly correct.

The perplexing feature is that he proceeds to say that “no one who possesses a living faith—that is, a faith informed by the Holy Spirit—will have difficulty in deciding which of these men's views approximates most nearly to that faith which animated the writers of the New Testament.” In professor Bryden's judgment, it is emphatically that of Barth.

Barth No Calvinist

Barth's rejection of what has been known as the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scripture is one of the positions—if not the basic position—that evidence the chasm that separates Barth from the great stream of reformed theology, and shows how absurd is the claim put forward by some that the Barthian theology is a resurgence of Calvinism.

The rank and file of Presbyterians and Bible-believing Christians in Canada may not be able to follow a discussion of many of the technicalities of the Barthian theology, but one thing they can and must understand is the difference between a faith that accepts the infallibility of Scripture as the Word of God and a faith that is compatible with radical Biblical criticism. The English reader can rely on the clear testimony of no less than Emil Brunner when he claims that the latter is the type of faith the theology of crisis represents (Cf. Brunner, “Theology of Crisis,” pp. 19, 20). Now, it is for this faith Professor Bryden is evidently prepared to do battle.

The Westminster Confession Test

Professor Bryden also frankly acknowledges that “Barth's and Machen's respective conceptions of the Christian faith are poles apart.” It is beyond challenge that Dr. Machen is one of the leading exponents of that conception of the Christian faith expressed in our Westminster Confession of Faith. It is to the system of doctrine contained in the Westminster Confession that he heartily subscribes both as minister and professor; and it is to the exposition, and defense, of that system of doctrine that he gives his life. He does this because he believes it is the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture, which in turn he believes to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and infallible. It is for this Dr. Machen is both loved and hated the world over. Many will disagree with his conception of the Christian faith, but not even his greatest enemy can deny that this is Dr. Machen's conception of the Christian faith.

If Professor Bryden will acknowledge, then, what is the indisputable fact, that Dr. Machen's faith is simply that expressed in the Westminster Confession, he arrives by simple logic at the position that Barth's conception of the Christian faith is poles apart from the conception embodied in the Westminster Confession. It is to Barth he grants the honor of approximating “most nearly to that of the faith which animated the writers of the New Testament.” And yet as minister and professor of the Presbyterian Church in Canada it is to the Westminster Confession that he has solemnly subscribed. Is this faith or consistency?

--John Murray, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, USA; February 6th, 1934

Prof. Bryden on Barth

To the Editor of The Globe: No very good purpose is ever served by theological controversy, but, in view of the fact that there has appeared a letter in The Globe on Barthian theology, in answer to a previous letter of my own on that subject, I feel obliged to give it consideration.

The writer is evidently perplexed concerning the significance of a contrast I had made between the theology of Karl Barth and that of Dr. Machen; and is, moreover, concerned about my doctrinal relations to the Westminster Confession of Faith. He seems to take the position that to be at variance in any way in regard to what essentially constitutes Calvinism or Reformed Theology, from the particular interpretation put upon these by Dr. Machen, is to seriously jeopardize one's relations with the historic Reformed Church.

Truths and the Truth

I believe I have read practically all of Dr. Machen's books, and have profited not a little, in certain important respects, from his writings; but I submit, nevertheless, that Dr. Mahen's theology finds its legitimate source in the rationalizing impulse of post-Reformation times, i.e., the scholasticism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Barth is moving in the faith impulse—that distinctly religious movement under compulsion of the Holy Spirit—of the Reformation. Dr. Machen has always given me the impression that he believes Christian truth to be capable of demonstration. One is led to infer that, by sheer argument, or more especially, perhaps, by the historical substantiation of Biblical facts (which, we all agree, are essential to Christianity), the Christian faith may this be rationally authenticated, and that, moreover, the Deity of our Lord can, in this external way, be established. I contend that any such basis for faith is the very antithesis of that characteristic both of the early Reformation and of the New Testament.

Karl Barth honors the truths for which Dr. Machen contends, but places the supreme emphasis, so far as belief is concerned, in an essentially different place. Barth's central position might be epitomized in the Pauline dictum: “No man may say Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” That is to say, Barth is emphatic that the Lordship of Christ can neither be rationally conceived, nor externally demonstrated; but must be “spiritually discerned.” Faith is not merely the acceptance of a body of truths as such, even if they be Christian truths; but is rather the perception of such truths as the Truth, when borne home to the individual by the Holy Spirit alone. It is always to be remembered that in the early Church, Scripture did not create faith, but faith created Scripture; that the Holy Spirit, moreover, was that original creative and discriminating source, out of which emerged later our christian doctrines.

Two Ways to Belief

There seem, therefore, to be two very different conceptions of what constitutes faith (i.e., the experience of believing) represented here. And if this distinction be valid, it signifies a difference, momentous for all theology; indeed for all belief in Jesus Christ.

If I may be permitted just another word, and that, concerning the Westminster Confession. One cannot even touch the significance of that confession in a letter, but two facts concerning it seem to stand out clearly, namely: That the framers of that Confession recognized it, and indeed all other confessions and creeds, as strictly subordinate—that is, subordinate to Scripture:

That Scripture in and by itself was not the “Word of God” for an individual; but was such only to the man of faith who possessed the testimony of the Holy Spirit to that fact in his heart

The Nature of Faith

Barth is right when he maintains, in effect, that the early Reformed Church purposefully and significantly put less stress on confessions and creeds that any other Church of that time. No creed or confession for that Church was authoritative, apart from the inward testimony of what that Church distinguishes as the “Word of God.” Barth is equally right when, at the same time, he maintains that no Church has ever possessed a more penetrating insight into what constitutes the nature of true doctrine, and the imperative necessity for the same for Christian faith.

As I see it, Dr. Machen and Karl Barth believe in practically the same set of truths, as those essential to Christianity; but I am persuaded that these men are poles apart in their respective inner conceptions of that which constitutes faith itself. It is so much gain to have one's view confirmed in this regard by a member of Westminster Theological Seminary. Let me, therefore, again affirm that I am entirely with Barth in his conception of the nature of faith. 

--W. W. Bryden, Knox College, Toronto; Unknown Date


A Present-Day Response

These documents – a brief review by one `E.K.A.’ of a book on the theology of Karl Barth, and a subsequent exchange of published letters between Professor Walter Bryden, of Knox College, Toronto, and Professor John Murray, of Westminster, are of interest both historically and ecclesiastically.

Historically, they witness to the complicated nature of the reception of Barth’s theology, particular in the English-speaking world where there has always been a tendency to read him in as orthodox way as possible, an approach which has consequently generated heated debates about his orthodoxy or otherwise. Here, from the pen of Bryden, we have the classic Barthian defence of Barth’s theology – that it represents a return to, and development of, the Reformers’ own theology, by way of contrast (as he notes in his surrejoinder to Murray) to the ossification of Protestantism that took place under the rationalizing impulses of the seventeenth and eighteenth century scholastics and which lives on in the thought of Machen. Murray’s response is to point to the difference between Barth and the New Testament’s own teaching about its nature as a decisive mark against him being regarded as the latest champion of orthodox Christianity; and then to raise the question of how Bryden can be so positive about Barth, given his own subscription to the Westminster Confession.

The documents are straightforward and speak for themselves, but here are some brief reflections on them:

First, they provide a fine example of the kind of debate that was going on (and still continues) within more orthodox North American circles regarding the orthodoxy and historical significance of Barth’s work. 1934 is, of course, in retrospect very early for anyone to be rendering a definitive verdict: the vast work that became the Church Dogmatics had hardly begun at this point. Nevertheless, what we see here is an adumbration of basic controversial themes that continue in relation to conservative reception of Barth.

Second, Bryden clearly operates within the old paradigm of doctrinal development from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, as hammered out by Hegelian-influenced historians of dogma such as Hans-Emil Weber, Heinrich Heppe, and, of a later vintage, Ernst Bizer and T.F. Torrance (though Barth himself was somewhat more nuanced) whereby the existential vibrancy of the Reformation is seen as being resolved into more logical doctrinal schemes by the post-Reformation Orthodox. No serious historian of the period still maintains such a naïve and idealist thesis today. The world of the early modern era, like the world of today, is simply more complex and variegated than such neat and tidy categories will allow.

Third, Murray’s raising of the subscription question is most relevant. Of course, by pointing out that the Confession declares itself subordinate to Scripture, Bryden misses the point entirely: Murray is not arguing that the Confession stands over and above the Confession; rather, he is raising the issue of whether Bryden, who voluntarily subscribes to the Confession, can do so with integrity if he believes it to be so defective (as he must do, if he sides with Barth on Scripture, among other things). The confusion of voluntary subscription with setting the Confession over Scripture continues today, especially among those with a vested interest in holding an office that requires subscription but who want to avoid the more uncomfortable demands of such subscription.

Finally, it is worth asking whether Barth did prove to be the messianic figure that so many thought he would be. Certainly, academic interest in him has not abated, nor should it: he was, after all, one of the most significant twentieth century theologians, perhaps second only to Bultmann. Anyone who wants to understand modern theology must come to grips with his work and his many legacies.

But what of the church?  Well, while mere mention of his name can still send certain postgraduates into ecstasies, and there will always be those pointy-headed students who find particular pleasure in rebarbative language, obfuscatory vocabulary and manifold clichés such as `God’s being is in his becoming,’ the church scene is much grimmer. Indeed, I have never found a church where Barth’s theology is preached and where there is much in the way of spiritual vitality; the denominations that chose to follow his path are imploding under the weight of their own nonsense, and, read him as I have tried, I have found very little of use in my own preaching or pastoral work – unlike, that is, the works of Luther and Calvin to which, according to Bryden and others he is so closely related, or the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Owen and Turretin whose theologies he, to one degree or another, repudiated. And across Europe, the best that can be said is that his theology did nothing to halt the catastrophic collapse of Christianity since World War II. If Barth’s being is in his becoming, then it would appear that, outside of the postgraduate seminar room, he isn’t very much after all.

--Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology; August 7th, 2010