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The theology and influence of Karl Barth: an interview with Terry Cross

Third, let me suggest that this “deep suspicion” came from two major theological sources that influenced the thinking of Evangelicals and even Pentecostals at the time: Carl F. H. Henry and Cornelius Van Til. Both Henry and Van Til were the premiere theologians for the Evangelical movement in the 1950s; both were quite well read and had some knowledge of Barth, even in German. However, as was the case with many Evangelical scholars at the time, they were not open to having anything drive a wedge between their propositional theological statements and the authority of the Bible. Henry was trained early on as a journalist and so had a writing style that was both heady but understandable. His work against Barth [and here I would even include his magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority (6 vols)] was substantial. Indeed, for my own M.Div. thesis at an evangelical seminary (Ashland, OH), I took on Henry’s charge that Barth was a purveyor of personal revelation but not propositional revelation—Jesus Christ revealed to humans, not the inerrancy of Scripture and the authority derived from the written word in propositional statements. I believed Henry wholeheartedly—until I started reading Barth. I saw in Henry’s critique only broad strokes of generalizations where Barth was actually doing something much more nuanced than Henry could grasp; I saw in Henry’s characterization too little of the actual emphasis Barth placed on the written Word of God and the authority it possessed on its own. Was Barth correct on everything related to the Word of God? Probably not. But he certainly wasn’t the straw man that Henry had created. And so started my quest to understand Barth better—well enough to critique him and yet well enough to admire him. When it comes to Van Til’s critique of Barth, it is similar in tone and character to Henry’s but different in specifics. Van Til wants to engage the fundamental philosophical errors that he thinks he sees in Barth’s writings. His conclusion is that Barthianism is not even Christian! So I think it was the easy characterization of Barth as liberal and the cutting apart of his theology with an axe instead of with surgical scalpels that left us in a position of running from Barth—and a bunch of others as well (like Tillich, Bultmann, even Bonhoeffer before he was canonized an evangelical saint by Erix Metaxas).


PR: What is neo-orthodoxy, what did Barth have to do with this school of thought, and why should it matter?

We learn about God most clearly through Jesus Christ.

Terry Cross: Neo-orthodoxy was a label used from about the late 1930s onward to describe the school of thought associated with Barth’s theology but not exclusively connected with him. It hearkens back to the period of Protestant Scholastic Orthodoxy (the 1600s and 1700s) where there was “perceived” to be an attempt by theologians to return to more rigid categories and theological formulae than was found in the major reformers of the 1500s. The period of Protestant Orthodoxy has been fairly well characterized by most people who study it as a rather dead (and deadly) Christian theology. So, by labeling Barth and others in the 20th century with this phrase, the rather more “liberal” Protestant scholars of the late 1800s and early 1900s (the “Old Protestant Liberal School” that reaches back to Schleiermacher and Ritschl) wanted to suggest that these folks were simply rehashing old theology and in particular old views about the authority of Scripture. Barth’s emphasis on Scripture opened him up to being shot at by both the liberals and conservatives alike—by the former because he was too bound to Scripture and revelation and by the latter because he did not exalt Scripture high enough for their concerns.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2015

About the Author: Terry L. Cross, M.A. (Ashland Theological Seminary), M.Div. (Ashland Theological Seminary), Th.M. (Princeton Theological Seminary), Ph.D. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is dean of the School of Religion and Professor of Systematic Theology at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. Before coming to Lee University, he was a pastor for twelve years and a high school teacher of Latin and history. He is a former president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (2008) and a Barth Translation Fellow at the Center for Barth Studies, Princeton Theological Seminary, working with a group on translating Barth’s Conversations (1957-1968). He is the author of Answering the Call in the Spirit: Pentecostal Reflection on a Theology of Vocation, Work, and Life (Lee University Press, 2007) and a complete revision of his dissertation was published in 2001, Dialectic in Karl Barth's Doctrine of God (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers). With Emerson Powery, he edited a collection of essays in honor Donald N. Bowdle, The Spirit and the Mind: Essays in Informed Pentecostalism (University Press of America, 2000). Faculty page

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