Christianity Yesterday, Today, and Forever: When Henry Met Barth

for a church that will, amidst hostility and disbelief, clear its throat and speak. We have a sure foundation. It was sure yesterday; it is sure today; it will be sure forever.

In the postwar era, Karl Barth was one of Carl F. H. Henry’s most frequently referenced sparring partners. The two men labored in the same task from different theological poles. Both wished to vindicate Christianity as a system of revelation in a century that viewed the Word as outmoded.

Barth, though a churchman, championed what is called the “neoorthodox” position, claiming that the Bible-in-itself was not the Word of God, but became the Word of God through the Spirit’s influence. Henry, though recognizing Barth’s prodigious gifts—he called his writings an “epochal contribution to theology”—sided with the evangelical tradition in identifying the Scripture as the revealed mind of God.

In 1962, the two men had an epochal encounter. Barth came to America from Switzerland for a lecture tour. Henry attended his lectures at the McCormick Divinity School in Chicago and engaged him in the question-and-answer session. The exchange that followed, recounted by Henry in his Confessions, captured the differences between the two theologians.

“The question, Dr. Barth, concerns the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.” I pointed to the press table and noted the presence of leading religion editors or reporters representing United Press, Religious News Service, Washington Post, Washington Star and other media. If these journalists had their present duties in the time of Jesus, I asked, was the resurrection of such a nature that covering some aspect of it would have fallen into their area of responsibility? “Was it news,” I asked, “in the sense that the man in the street understands news?”
Barth became angry. Pointing at me, and recalling my identification, he asked: “Did you say Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?” The audience—largely nonevangelical professors and clergy—roared with delight. When countered unexpectedly in this way, one often reaches for a Scripture verse. So I replied, assuredly out of biblical context, “Yesterday, today and forever.”

Wherever one lands, this is one of the all-time great trading of wits of the Christian church. Henry’s last response—which Barth followed up with a question about whether photographers would take pictures of the virgin birth—crystallized his optimism about the future God directs. The church would suffer violence, and violent men would seek to destroy it. But they would fail. The kingdom of God might suffer violence but never defeat.

So it is today, many years after Barth and Henry locked horns. The faith still seems outmoded to some; a miraculous Christianity still draws scorn from onlookers. We are in strange times, to be sure. We are told that miracles do not happen, but are asked to believe in a non-directed “Big Bang” that created multifaceted order out of chaos. Perhaps our age is not so closed to wonder as it thinks. To be less polite, perhaps our age has a faith of its own, albeit one that rests on human discernment, not divine direction. If this is true, the need of the age has not changed: for a church that will, amidst hostility and disbelief, clear its throat and speak. We have a sure foundation. It was sure yesterday; it is sure today; it will be sure forever.

Taken from Essential Evangelism by Matthew J. Hall and Owen Strachan, ©2015, pp. 25. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,