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Trueman on Barth and Berkouwer

May 22, 2007

Carl Trueman has been recently interviewed, where he commented on Barth and Berkouwer’s theology in relation to preaching and practical Christianity.  Here was the question and response concerning Barth and Berkouwer:

Have you ever been drawn toward any views or movements that time has shown to have been unhelpful or even dangerous theologically?

I dallied briefly with Barthianism and then with Berkouwer’s theology in the late 1980s. Studying at the University of Aberdeen, I found the dominant theology to be Barthianism refracted through the writings of the Torrance brothers. Berkouwer’s The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth was helpful in giving me a critical handle on Barth and helping to free me from that particular dead-end; and his Studies in Dogmatics also gave me an appreciation for doing theology in a self-consciously historical manner. However, as my knowledge of confessional Reformed Orthodoxy developed in the early 1990s, through reading widely in the primary texts and the relevant secondary literature, and as I came to grips with the wider sweep of Western theology as I had to teach courses on medieval thought and on Thomas Aquinas at the University of Nottingham, I began to see how Berkouwer too had absorbed a lot of Barth and how this distorted his reception of theological tradition. At that point, I started to develop a much more carefully worked out confessional theology.

In practice, the theologies of Barth and Berkouwer have really proved sterile as ecclesiastical programs. The best one can say is that they failed to stop the collapse of vital church life in Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. For all of their criticisms of the ‘static’ God of orthodoxy, Barthian preaching is, in my experience, sterile and dull, and fails miserably to confront listeners with the God of the Bible. I personally know of no church which has really grown through Barthian preaching.

So I would summarise by saying that I am very grateful to Barth and Berkouwer for directing me to serious dogmatics, for fuelling my interest in theology and doctrinal history, and for raising big and important questions in my mind; and I still enjoy reading them on occasion for the tremendous intellectual stimulation and challenge they provide; but I have ultimately found little of any real use, theological or practical, in the actual content of their theologies.

I don’t entirely agree with Trueman on the practical use of both of these theologians.  But I do appreciate Trueman’s engagement of Barth and Berouwer’s theology in preaching and usefulness.   I do wish other theologians and their respective theologies would be sized up by their practicalness and usefulness in ministry and preaching.

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