Shao Kai Tseng on Karl Barth
Shao Kai Tseng’s Karl Barth is to date the most recent contribution to P&R’s “Great Thinkers” Series. Under the general editorship of Nathan Shannon, Tseng has previously written the entries in this series on Hegel and Kant. With impressive credentials, he is uniquely learned in the area of continental philosophy and theology. Mastering such complex material is not for the fainthearted.
Tseng's book consists of three chapters along with a glossary, bibliography, and index (the glossary and bibliography are together worth the price of the book).
Why Barth Matters Today
The first chapter consists of the legacy and reception of Barth. His influence on Protestant theology is beyond doubt. One finds a detailed overview of the reception of his thought. This section is unique in that Tseng brings to us the reception of Barth among Asian theologians (pp. 1, 20-30). Because of Tseng’s knowledge of multiple languages, we are treated to a global survey of Barth reception. Of special interest in the first section of this chapter is Tseng’s argument about the influence of Barth’s thought for today. While some have noted that theologians have moved on from Barth (to theologians like Pannenberg and Moltmann), Tseng argues this is a false impression given by an “anti-historical” understanding of Barth (such as you find, allegedly, in Cornelius Van Til). This position holds that history is irrelevant for Barth (2). Yet far from rendering Barth obsolete, — theologians like Pannenberg, Moltmann and Jenson are actually building on him, albeit as a “revisionist reconstruction” (8).
Tseng further argues that Barth’s influence is everywhere “across the theological spectrum,” including postliberalism, nouvelle théologie (a theological movement within Roman Catholicism), and (in a more critical sense) Eastern Orthodoxy (16-17). More recently, evangelical scholars have begun to engage with Barth’s thought (30-35). Tseng anticipates how later he will bring Barth in conversation with historical Reformed figures like Bavinck and Vos. Finally, the reader is exhorted to not just struggle with how Barth’s theology differs from evangelicalism, but to positively draw from him with “critically and selectively fruitful engagement.” (34-35).
A Summary of Barth’s Theology
The second chapter surveys Barth’s thought. This chapter begins with the question of why we need a reinterpretation of him for today. Here he opens with Van Til’s book Christianity and Barthianism. Contrary to how Barth was interpreted by so many evangelical and Reformed theologians in the past, today we need to interpret Barth “afresh.” (37). Van Til’s interpretation of Barth is “admirable,” even if mistaken (38). For instance, Van Til did not have adequate resources on Barth’s thought or the thought of philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, et al (38). There was also a problem with a Tseng calls the “rising Anglo-American paradigm in Kant scholarship” (39). This reading of Kant would have been foreign to Barth.
Here we are told that Van Til claimed that Barth was a “worshipper” of Kant. Tseng concludes: “The obvious problem here is that if Van Til’s interpretation of Kant is fundamentally wrong, his reading of Kant into Barth cannot be fundamentally right” (39). Nevertheless, Tseng gives credit to Van Til for using the resources he had at his disposal in his day, and still should be credited for reading Barth himself and engaging in “critical inquiry.” (40) Still followers of Van Til need to be open to the possibility of Van Til having misunderstood Barth, since Van Til himself was open to that possibility (41). Van Tillians just need to be humble, not being hostile toward him, but rather giving him a fair and objective reading (41).
The next section in the chapter is an intellectual biography which is, according to Tseng’s own admission, of a particular “school” of interpretation among Barth scholars, dubbed “traditionalist” as opposed to the “revisionist” school. Tseng has been greatly influenced by Princeton Seminary professor George Hunsinger (one of the chief proponents of the traditionalist school). Tseng goes on to outline the basic motifs Hunsinger gives in his How to Read Karl Barth book: Actualism, particularism, objectivism and personalism (46-62)
Next is a section on Ten “myths” believed by evangelicals:
The first myth is that Barth was a neo-Orthodox theologian.
The second has to do with how Barth supposedly says that the Bible becomes the Word of God and is dependent upon man’s response for its validity. Tseng is correct that Barth can be understood to teach the former (The Bible becomes the Word of God), but he cannot be understood to teach that the latter (it depends on man’s response).
The third myth is that the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is irrelevant for Barth. Tseng busts this myth thoroughly. Of course, what Barth means by history is a matter of considerable discussion and no little amount of confusion. But Tseng is correct that it is inaccurate to say that the historicity of the resurrection is irrelevant for Barth.
The fourth myth is that Barth undermines the idea of history by the average historian. Here Van Til is taken to task for his distinction between Historie and Geschichte. I was not persuaded that Tseng quite understands either Barth or Van Til here. But that will have to be for a discussion in another setting.
The fifth myth is the belief that, for Barth, revelation is not direct. He argues that what Barth means by indirect revelation is that man cannot gain unmediated access to the essence of God. I will address this more below.
The sixth myth is that for Barth Christ’s assumed human nature is fallen. Tseng makes an all too brief argument against this one, and I remain unpersuaded by it. This would, of course, be a potentially fruitful point for further discussion.
- The seventh myth is that Barth’s doctrine of election leads to universalism. Again, I am not persuaded by his argument here, which I will address more below.
The eighth myth is that Barth’s theology is dialectical. Tseng admits readily enough that it is, but then goes on to explain in which ways it is, and it is not.
The ninth myth is that Barth denies the immanent Trinity (i.e., the self-contained God back of his revelation in Jesus Christ). This is a “myth” Tseng is desirous of debunking. On the one hand, he claims “no serious reader” of Barth comes to that conclusion. That is a rather bold (some might say potentially insulting) claim. It is also, in my opinion, academically untoward. It is, functionally, to cut off a potential interlocutor at the root, and aids in easy dismissal of those who dissent. Be that as it may, Tseng puts forward two ways of dealing with Barth on this issue. The first is from the “revisionist” school, which claims that there is an inconsistency in Barth between his statements of denying the immanent being of God (i.e., the logos asarkos), and his statements seemingly affirming it. He disagrees with this reading, and proposes a way of harmonizing such apparently contradictory statements: “God’s love and freedom in the immanent Trinity constitute the condition on which God can love us in freedom and be free in loving us in becoming God-for-us without ceasing to be God-in-and-for-himself.” (93). I think that both proposals (the revisionist and Tseng’s) are wrong, and will address it some more below.
- The final myth is that Barth uses traditional theological language, but fills it with different meaning than found in the tradition. Tseng is correct that we ought not to assume that Barth does this with the intention to deceive. Judging his intentions is quite impossible. But we still wonder if, intentions aside, Barth does not do this. And it seems he does. And I think he does precisely because his explanation of the new meanings for those words is crystal clear (as Tseng himself recognizes). Again, unpacking this issue would make for a good discussion at another time.
Engaging with Barth
The third, and final, chapter seeks to set forth what evangelicals can gain from reading Karl Barth, specifically through the perspective of Reformed and Neo-Calvinist theology (98). To that end, Tseng has four observations to make, and a conclusion.
Mediated Knowledge of God in Historic Reformed Theology: Here Tseng compares Barth and Bavinck in regard to the mediated nature of revelation. Both affirmed that the creature has the knowledge of God only mediated through created media (99). He also contrasts Bavinck’s view with Carl Henry’s more “mechanistic” view of revelation, in which “God’s essence [is] immediately knowable to finite creatures.” This is a univocal understanding of human-divine knowledge, shared by others such as Robert Reymond (and, we might add, also Gordon Clark). Tseng is correct to observe that “Historic Protestantism and the broader Western tradition understands the difference between God’s self-knowledge and our knowledge of God to be both quantitative and qualitative” (102). This is a point which Van Til himself was zealous to make. But Tseng goes on to say more, as he identifies the idea of God’s incomprehensibility with his “essential unknowability” (102-106) The idea here is that historic Protestantism has always denied that “God’s triune essence ad intra is accessible to human cognition apart from mediatory revelation” (104). Therefore, the knowledge of God and his essence is mediated through revelation. This is something we can learn from Barth, says Tseng. We will discuss this more below.
Mediatory and Propositional Revelation: A Reformed-Covenantal Approach to General and Special Revelation (108-125). Barth offers evangelicals an alternative to Henry’s view of revelation because he does not identify Scripture with revelation. Recognizing that Scripture and revelation are distinct, yet inseparable, is a part of the Reformed tradition (108-109). Yet, admittedly, Barth’s “three forms of the Word” is a problem from an evangelical perspective (109). That is because Barth makes the distinction between the Word of God revealed and written. That is a distinction that has a coordinate in the Reformed tradition (110). Here Tseng suggests for Barthians and postliberals to reincorporate the idea of propositional revelation into their thinking (111). Likewise, it is suggested to evangelicals that they adopt the position of people like Packer, Hunsinger and Horton who affirm that we ought not to make inerrancy and infallibility the “linchpin of …truth” or “a rationalistic praeambula fidei” (112). This means, it seems, that we ought not to claim “that the Bible is scientifically and historically inerrant” (113). Tseng explains that “the verbal inspiration and thus the authority and inerrancy of Scripture are a function of who Jesus is and what he has done for us.” But what this means exactly is not entirely clear, except to say that it means Jesus has taught us to submit to Scripture (114). A comparison is then made between Geerhardus Vos and Barth (116). They are similar at several points, including, 1) their close interaction with German idealism, via organicism, 2) they both uphold the historical nature of revelation, 3) both hold that history is God’s “purposive activity” and thus is covenantal, and 4) both say covenant history is Christocentric. They part ways, however, in the covenantal nature of history. For Barth there is only one covenant, that of God’s electing grace for us in Christ, which – unlike with Vos – leaves no room for a covenant of works. Tseng then asks the question as to whether or not the introduction of the covenant of works takes away from Vos’ Christocentrism? The answer, he argues is no, because the pactum saltutis undergirds both covenants. And at the heart of the eternal covenant of redemption is the agreement between the Father and the Son for our redemption (119). Lastly, Tseng rightly explains how for the Reformed the beatific vision is also mediated knowledge (123-125). There, he concludes, evangelicals should not be “appalled by the Barthian contention that revelation is indirect, so long as this contention is not interpreted with the problematic framework of (neo-)Kantian or allegedly Kierkegaardian dialectics.” (124-125).
Saga versus Proposition: Historical Objectivity of the Resurrection (125-134). The point of calling biblical narratives saga has been a point of contention for evangelicals. Saga denotes the idea of the relation between events and the biblical account as “historicized fiction.” (126). This idea gives liberty to Barth (too much liberty, says Tseng) in handling the text, much more so than the “verbal inspiration model” (127, 132). For Tseng, There are strengths to this approach for evangelicals to consider. For example, Barth refuses to subject the text of Scripture to the standards of modern historical criticism (128). Here both Barth and Van Til are agreed (131-132). Just as Van Til rejects the idea of a neutral historian, likewise Barth says that the neutral facts are “always interpreted within definite presuppositional frameworks” (132). Tseng concludes that “on this point, Van Til may very well agree with Barth.” (132).
- Theology as Science: The Possibility of a Christian Worldview (134-139). Here we are told that Barth is not really as opposed to humanity’s natural knowledge of God as some have said. What Barth opposes is natural knowledge as a preamble to faith, not natural theology as such. This is evidenced by his “Anselmian method” (134). This yielded “the rational nature of theology as the theoretical study of God” (135). Tseng goes on to compare and contrast Bavinck and Barth. Bavinck makes a distinction between general and special revelation, whereas Barth denies the distinction (135). Barth’s denial of this distinction leads Tseng to an important critique. Since all revelation is in Christ, there can be no distinction between theology and the other sciences (136). However, the Reformed faith has an organic view of revelation, as it is one revelation in two forms – general and special. But both have their fulfillment in Christ (137). So while Barth believes in a scientific approach to theology, his denial of worldview is because he forbids that the knowledge of God can be found in the creature (138).
The chapter’s conclusion serves as a fifth observation. In summary Tseng’s main concern in his appraisal of Barth is about his Christocentricism (139). Tseng observes: “Barth expands on Calvin’s doctrine and makes unio Christi an ontological reality that determines the whole of creaturely existence. Barth even renders this ontological union determinative of God’s being as God-for-us (but never of God-in-and-for-himself, of course).” (140) So the real problem with Barth’s Christocentricism, says Tseng, is not that it leads to universalism – it does not. Rather it is his formulation of the doctrine of sin. Here there is no graduality in sanctification. The Reformed affirmed that man is both just and sinner, but for Barth man is only justified, and sin is an impossibility. This problem has brought about ethical inconsistencies in his own life, as documented by Christiane Tietz’ work (142).
This volume is certainly an attention-getter. It is erudite and challenging. The strongest points of the book are Tseng’s mastery of modern continental thought, the breadth of his knowledge on contemporary secondary literature, and the glossary and bibliography. I am no expert in the area of modern philosophy, so I cannot speak to the accuracy of Tseng’s interpretation of the various schools of Kantianism, Hegelianism, etc. But his situating Barth’s thought in context is certainly compelling and demands our attention when trying to rightly interpret Barth. Tseng is also up-to-date on the current discussions about Barth’s theology. This volume will get the reader not only introduced to Barth, but also the current scholarship and schools of interpretation. Lastly, the glossary is a helpful lexicon for those not familiar with the essential vocabulary necessary for effective engagement with the issues. And the bibliography will guide anyone interested in getting up-to-speed on all things Barth interpretation.
However, I do have disagreements with claims made by Tseng (e.g., that Van Til was mistaken concerning Barth, his supposed “anti-historical” reading of Barth, or that a technically precise reading of Kant is necessary for rightly reading Barth) which I will have to by-pass here. I do so for the sake of focusing narrowly on matters which are of greater and more urgent theological concern. There are three points in the book which I believe evidence problems in how Tseng understands Barth, especially relative to the Reformed tradition. Those three problems have to do with indirect revelation, Barth’s actualistic theology proper, and universalism.
First, I respectfully disagree with Tseng’s understanding Barth’s view of indirect revelation and how it relates to Reformed theology’s notion of mediated revelation. Tseng rightly understands that the Reformed tradition teaches that God reveals himself through created media, such that he never discloses his essence directly to us. However, while Barth does affirm that, he is saying something more than that. For Barth Jesus Christ himself, alone, is revelation. And we can know that revelation only indirectly through the other forms of the Word of God: Scripture and preaching. However, Scripture itself is not revelation. Only Jesus Christ is that. Scripture merely bears witness to revelation. So we can only access revelation (i.e., Jesus Christ) through the witness of the other forms of the Word of God. But for the Reformed, Scripture and nature are themselves the media of revelation. And we have direct access to that media. We can see, perceive, touch and handle God’s revelation (though certainly not his essence!) precisely because it comes in, by and through created media. But Barth is clear, neither Scripture nor nature are the media of revelation. Only Jesus Christ is, and we can know him only indirectly.
Second, I respectfully disagree with what Tseng says about Barth’s actualistic theology proper. Recognizing that on this matter we come from different schools of Barth reading, I do believe that there is some evidence of a major flaw in Tseng’s reading of Barth. I offer his words here again:
“Barth expands on Calvin’s doctrine and makes unio Christi an ontological reality that determines the whole of creaturely existence. Barth even renders this ontological union determinative of God’s being as God-for-us (but never of God-in-and-for-himself, of course).” (140)
If I read Tseng correctly he is attributing to Barth a kind of two-mode theology proper: God-in-himself and God-for-us. The first is God considered in itself, the other is in relation to creation.
This idea is not altogether different than the proposals found in K. Scott Oliphint (God in his essence v. God in his covenant attributes) and John Frame (God’s two modes of existence). But one thing I am fairly certain of is that this “two-mode theology proper” is not Barth’s doctrine of God. That is because Barth is a self-identified “realist.” In other words, that which can be said about God in his acts pro nobis must be said of God himself (CD II.1, 327-346). God does not exist in dual modes, but only in one. There simply is no God back of the God who just is his act of election, revelation, creation, incarnation and reconciliation. But the theology proper of Oliphint and Frame is inherently dualistic (God exists in two modes), whereas Barth will not allow for such a dualism. The only God Barth knows is the God who is pro nobis in Christo.
Third, I respectfully disagree with Tseng’s attempt to save Barth from the charge of universalism. It is true, Barth refused to affirm an apokatastasis – a universal reconciliation at the end of all things (CD IV/3.1, 477). He was clear that this is not the kind of declaration we can make; only God can make it. But there are two reasons why I believe the charge sticks.
The initial reason is that Barth’s entire theological structure militates for universalism. Putting aside the question of whether or not anyone will be in hell, the real question is “is there any human who is not in the humanity of Jesus Christ?” And the answer to that question, for Barth, is a resounding no. If Christ’s humanity is that of all men, then there are no reprobate men. That is a reality that transcends all the actions of man. It is a reality we can neither effect nor dissolve. Universalism is necessitated by Barth’s commitments which include the fact all men are elect in Christ, and no one is reprobate because Christ was rejected for us. God makes that determination for us in Christ.
The other reason is because of Barth’s dialectical method. On the question of universalism, there is a Yes and No. So, Barth is a universalist on the front end (i.e., at the point of the reconciliation of all men in Christ), but not a universalist on the back end (at the point of the eschaton). But even on the back end, his position is not a denial. Rather, it is a refusal (in order to avoid stepping on God’s exclusive prerogative) to affirm it absolutely. In fact, Barth exhorted his readers to have the strongest possible hope (one might say expectation) for the apokatastasis. This means, at minimum, Tseng is too confident in his claim that Barth denied universalism. He fails to take into consideration Barth’s two-tier conception of time. In God’s-time-us, God has reconciled all men to himself in Christ (the front end). But when viewed from our perspective, in our time, we cannot make such an assertation, for only God has the right to do that (the back end).
All that said, what Tseng has given us is a book that is well-researched and well-written. He knows his stuff. But Tseng does represent only one school of Barth interpretation. And he unapologetically seeks to set forth that particular interpretation. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But it is good to know the perspective of the author before taking up and reading. And it is also good to know that there is a whole other perspective out there.
Jim Cassidy is the pastor of South Austin Presbyterian Church. He graduated in 2014 from Westminster Theological Seminary with the Ph.D in systematic theology writing on the theology of Karl Barth. He is the author of God’s Time For Us: Barth on the Reconciliation of Eternity and Time in Jesus Christ (Lexham Press).
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 One might wonder what to think of all the German and Dutch resources Van Til used.
 More nuance is needed here. For example, it may very well be that Van Til’s Kant is not the real Kant. It could also very well be that Barth’s Kant is not the real Kant. Furthermore, it may very well be that Van Til’s Kant and Barth’s Kant are the same Kant (even if not the real Kant). In addition, it could very well be the case that Van Til had a wrong conception of Kant, yet that conception of what Kant thought could very well have parallels in Barth’s thought. In other words, structures of thought that may be wrongly applied to Kant could very well have been rightly applied to Barth. Tseng’s sweeping (and dismissive) argument that Van Til was wrong about Barth because he was wrong about Kant is simply a non-sequitur.
 It should be noted, in passing, that here Tseng cites Van Til from p. 14 of Christianity and Barthianism. And while Van Til does reject the idea that a historian can do history from a neutral perspective, that is not what he is saying there. In fact, here he is summarizing Barth’s position.
 See Christiane Tietz, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (Oxford: OUP, 2021).
 Compare with his position in CD II/2, 417-18. Barth refuses to take a definite position on the question of the eschatological result of Christ’s redemption of all men. To do so would be for man to dictate to God what he must do, and would infringe upon the freedom of his grace.