Karl Barth to Geoffrey Bromiley in 1961: “None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all”.

A letter from Karl Barth to Dr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Pasadena, California June 1961 [1]

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put. [2] To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed. Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions. I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like G.C.  Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. [3] I can then answer him in detail. [4] But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial. 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 the worst heretic of all time. [5] 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. Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” 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.

With friendly greetings,

Yours, Karl Barth.

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today.

[1] Karl Barth Letters 1961-1968, Ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Jürgen Fangmeier, and Hinrich Stoevesandt. Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981. 7-8

[2] Christianity Today had asked Geoffrey Bromiley (a principal Editor and Translator of the Dogmatics) whether Barth would answer some questions from Barth’s principal detractors in the USA such as Cornelius van Til.

[3] G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.

[4] CD IV/2: xii, IV/3: 173-180.

[5]  For example – C. Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1962. Van Til wrote to Barth after his visit to the USA in 1962 “When you came to Princeton I called up the Seminary and asked whether I could see you but was discouraged from doing so. When I looked for an opportunity to shake hands with you after your Princeton lectures you were hurried away. When at last I did come near to you in the hallway and somebody called your attention to my presence and you graciously shook hands with me, saying: ‘You said some bad things about me but I forgive you, I forgive you,’ I was too overwhelmed to reply.” (G. Harinck, ‘How can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa? The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth’, Eds Bruce L. McCormack & Clifford B. Anderson,  Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2011, 41.)

Van Til’s critique was far from superficial but comprehensive in its scope and in its day had a marked influence, engendering a cautious attitude toward Barthian theology. However, while censuring Barth for his many “errors,” he respected his scholarship: “The Church Dogmatics is a truly monumental work. In reading it one’s admiration for Barth knows no bounds . . . in the Church Dogmatics we have the ripe fruition of arduous reflection and research” (Van Til, Cornelius. Christianity and Barthianism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962, 2.)

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