Review of "The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth" by G. C. Berkouwer

The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth by G. C. Berkouwer, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956, 414 pp.

The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth is a very difficult book to read. In fact, having four times attempted to read it and yet without success, this review can only be a partial one. The percentage of this book which I found intelligible was low and it is certainly not a book that can be recommended but for scholarly studies into Barthian theology. For my own work—whether I’m scholarly or not others can judge—this book is of importance in showing Berkouwer’s views on Barth, something I’m interested in exploring in a long article I’m working on titled “Gordon H. Clark Among Reformed Critics of Karl Barth.”

Though Berkouwer might be considered an advocate of Barthianism by some, this book evidences not an uncritical assessment of Barth. Though Gordon Clark never reviewed this book in full, he did make one comment on it that backs this understanding. He wrote, “[Berkouwer’s] volume, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, is a triumph of scholarship.” (Religion, Reason, and Revelation, p. 234) Perhaps Berkouwer’s balanced scholarly approach—rather than Cornelius Van Til’s all-out attack of Barth—served as a model of sorts for Clark’s later work Karl Barth’s Theological Method.

Early in the book Berkouwer notes an interesting distinction in Barth’s thought between “a neutral use of philosophical conceptions” and “a use of them which involves acceptance of the ideas which they represent.” The argument is that one can use the terminology of various philosophers without necessarily accepting their positions. In critiquing Barth on this point however, Berkouwer notes, “It seems to me that in making this distinction Barth underestimates the material influence of neutral philosophical elements in theological activity.” (p. 20) To the extent that this applies to Barth’s own theology it helps support the view of Cornelius Van Til (and others) that Barth departs from the Scripture in his being too heavily influenced by the various philosophies from which he borrows much of his terminology. Yet, in what seems to be obviously false, Barth claims to have “cut himself loose once and for all from the philosophical foundation of Christian doctrine.” (p. 42)

The main contention in The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth is that “the theme of the triumph of grace … dominates the whole of Barth’s dogmatic thinking.” (p. 52) It is here that I believe one must be careful. If one lets a particular conception dominate their thinking it needs to be precisely Biblical or it can lead one astray. Therefore, it seems to me, any slight error in Barth’s concept of the triumph of grace will broadcast itself loudly in later errors. Is, for example, his emphasis on the triumph of grace so overdone that he ends up a universalist? (Later it will be seen that Berkouwer thinks Barth’s view result in universalism.) I contend that rather than allowing any one theme to dominate our theology we are to compare Scripture with Scripture in all its themes. Then any overemphasis (or underemphasis) on a particular theme might be corrected through an accurate use of some other theme or themes. To critique Barth’s approach, as I must do, is not to say that the role of grace or of Christ is not important to Christianity or to its interpretation. But to make “the triumph of grace” essentially the sole interpretive lens through which to read the Bible does not seem in any way superior to using some other Biblical theme, say God’s sovereignty or the work of the Holy Spirit or man’s sin. Again, rather than choosing one Biblical paradigm through which to interpret the rest, I believe we must employ them all in each their own proper relation. The best place to start with interpreting Scripture is to accept all of it. That is, to accept all of it as true, which is not a presupposition Barth would like to accept. Barth’s approach, so heavily leaning on his doctrine of Christ as to be called by some a “Christomonian” is, in my opinion, entirely imbalanced.
In each their own chapters Berkouwer shows the relation of the “triumph of grace” to creation, election, reconciliation, and eschatology. Here it seems to me Barth reads back into these various doctrines his idea of the triumph of grace and this results in a number of unorthodox conclusions. To give just one example—one that is less disastrous than some of the others and which I haven’t seen noted elsewhere—Barth believes that demons are not fallen angels and declares the Biblical passages which indicate as much to be “obscure.” (p. 80) Despite these chapters being mostly descriptive, Berkouwer does critique the apparent universalism (denied by Barth) in Barth’s theology. He writes, “There is no alternative to concluding that Barth’s refusal to accept the apokatastasis cannot be harmonized with the fundamental structure of his doctrine of election.” (p. 116) There is also somewhat of an interlude chapter on Barth’s long battle against Roman Catholicism. In this chapter I felt a little bit like I was stepping into the middle of conversation at a party with those conversing all specialists in some field I am only vaguely familiar with. The discussion here regarding analogia entis and analogia attributionis and the theologies of Barth, von Bathasar, and Quenstedt certainly seems interesting and might even been understandable if only I hadn’t come so late the party.

In a chapter on “Ambiguous Triumphs of Grace in the History of Theology” Berkouwer asks, “Is a favorable judgment over a theology which emphasizes the grace of God so centrally and consistency not a matter of course?” (p. 196), and notes that “every theology of grace must be tested on the score of its scriptural legitimacy. Simply to posit the theme of the ‘triumph of grace’ does not in itself guarantee the purity of a theology. … Every theme must be tested in terms of the question: how does it function in the whole of the theology concerned?” (p. 197) He then aptly contends that “In [Marcionism, antinomianism, perfectionism, and universalism] the triumph motif occupied a central place but, because of the total theological structure in which it was given this place, justice was not done to the grace of which the Bible speaks.” (p. 204-205) Showing the error of those four views Berkouwer notes that “a speaking about the triumph of grace and the love of God is always complex speaking.” (p. 212)

In a number of places Berkouwer finds Barth’s views not to be supported by Scripture. He finds Barth’s view of sin as an “ontological impossibility” unacceptable “because the Bible speaks in a wholly different way about the ‘reality’ of sin.” (p. 233) And notes, “We do not in the Bible gain the impression that the battle is all ‘an emptied matter’ in the sense in which Barth speaks of it.” (p. 237) Furthermore, Berkouwer speaks positively of the criticism of Barth by H. Van Oyen (p. 247) and R. Prenter (p. 250). So it is clear that Berkouwer, at least at the time of writing this book, was not a Barthian.