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Condemnation and universal salvation: Karl Barth's ‘reverent agnosticism’ revisited

  • Shao Kai Tseng (a1)


The question of Karl Barth's attitude towards universalism has been a topic of debate since his own day. By examining a twofold two-way determination of the actuality of world-history in Christo that Barth construes in the actualistic hamartiology of CD IV/3, §70, I will contend that he does not describe the prospect of the final condemnation of humankind as an empty threat, even though the whole of his theological witness to Christ clearly testifies to universal salvation. This dialectical aspect of Barth's actualistic hamartiology leads to an attitude towards the apokatastasis that George Hunsinger aptly describes as ‘reverent agnosticism’.



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1 Barth, Karl, The Göttingen Dogmatics, vol. 1, ed. Hannelotte Reiffen, trans. Bromiley, G. W. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 475.

2 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics [henceforth CD], 13 vols., ed. Torrance, T. F. and Bromiley, G. W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–75), II/2, pp. 417, 476–7. Hereafter I will refer to the original text in German only when ambiguities arise in the English trans.

3 See Barth, Karl, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik [henceforth KD], IV/3 (Zurich: TVZ, 1980), p. 531.

4 Barth, Karl, Gottes Gnadenwahl (Munich: Kaiser, 1936), p. 27.

5 Hunsinger, George, ‘Hellfire and Damnation: Four Ancient and Modern Views’, in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 226–49. Originally publ. in Scottish Journal of Theology 51 (1998), pp. 406–34.

6 Berkouwer, G. C., The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. Boer, Harry (London: Paternoster, 1956), p. 262.

7 Ibid., p. 296.

8 CD IV/3, pp. 173–81.

9 E.g. Bettis, J. D., ‘Is Karl Barth a Universalist?’, Scottish Journal of Theology 20 (1967), pp. 423–36.

10 Crisp, Oliver, ‘Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards on Reprobation (and Hell)’, in Gibson, D. and Strange, D. (eds), Engaging with Barth (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), p. 319.

11 McCormack, Bruce, ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’, in McCormack, B. and Anderson, C. (eds), Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), p. 248.

12 Ibid., pp. 247–8.

13 Ibid., p. 248.

14 Greggs, Tom, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (Oxford: OUP, 2009); ‘“Jesus is Victor”: Passing the Impasse of Barth on Universalism’, Scottish Journal of Theology 60 (2007), pp. 196–212.

15 Greggs, ‘Jesus is Victor’, p. 204.

16 Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation, p. 30. Greggs cites CD IV/3, pp. 173–80.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid. Cf. George Hunsinger, ‘Hellfire and Damnation’.

19 E.g. Greggs, ‘Jesus is Victor’, p. 208.

20 Congdon, David, ‘Apokatastasis and Apostolicity: A Response to Oliver Crisp on the Question of Barth's Universalism’, Scottish Journal of Theology 67 (2014), p. 472. See Greggs, ‘Jesus is Victor’, p. 199.

21 Congdon, ‘Apokatastasis and Apostolicity’, p. 472.

22 Ibid., p. 464; emphases added.

23 Ibid. Here Congdon may appear to some to be reading too much Bultmannian reasoning into Barth. The Swiss theologian's rejection of ‘worldviews’ is far more complicated than the way Congdon presents it in his article. One of Barth's early refutations of the concept of a ‘Christian worldview’ is found in The Göttingen Dogmatics, where he comments that ‘[t]he notion of a “worldview” [Weltanschauung] expresses itself quite clearly: the human being intuits the world from particular viewpoints, perhaps ultimately and supremely from religious, Christian viewpoints. Yet, the human being intuits what he intuits, and the world remains what it is.’ Here Barth is offering a (neo-)Kantian critique of the concept of a Christian worldview: as McCormack points out, Barth's famous 1915 dictum, ‘the world remains world, but God is God’, would always continue to express his ‘attempt to overcome Kant by means of Kant’. More specifically, Barth is rejecting the notion of a Christian worldview or world-intuition against the background of German Protestant theology in the nineteenth century, in which the term Anschauung carries specific meanings in German idealism's appropriation of the Kantian term intellektuelle Anschauung, as well as Schleiermacher's understanding of the intuition of the universe. For Barth, the concept of a Christian Weltanschauung is inevitably metaphysical and natural-theological. A worldview as such is an attempt to understand the world apart from Jesus Christ (see CD IV/3.1, p. 257). Thus understood, Congdon's discussion of Barth's rejection of worldviews may not seem to have reached sufficient depth. To Congdon's credit, however, despite the Bultmannian overtones of his terminology, he is right about Barth, if we understand him to be saying that Barth rejects universalism as a natural-theological worldview, and insists that theology needs to find its starting-point in the concrete, particular, and actual event of Christ, Jesus. See Unterricht in der Chrisliche Religion, vol. 2 (Zurich: TVZ, 1985), p. 217 (trans. mine). Also see McCormack, Bruce, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology (Oxford: OUP, 1995), p. 466.

24 Congdon, ‘Apokatastasis and Apostolicity’, p. 468.

25 Ibid., p. 480.

26 Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace, p. 12.

27 CD IV/3, p. 462; emphasis added.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., p. 469; emphases added. The German reads, ‘Wie er die Dinge sieht, so sind sie.’ KD IV/3, p. 540.

30 Ibid.; emphasis added.

31 Ibid.

32 CD IV/1, p. 492.

33 CD IV/3, p. 469; emphases and trans. mine. Here Barth is employing the verb strafen as a dialectical wordplay in the Hegelian grammar of the negation of a negation. The German word he uses for ‘falsehood’ is die Lüge. While strafen on its own means ‘to punish’, the idiom Lügen strafen means ‘to belie’. See KD IV/3, p. 540.

34 Congdon, ‘Apokatastasis and Apostolicity’, p. 466.

35 George Hunsinger, review of Barth, Origen, and Universalism: Restoring Particularity by Tom Greggs, Modern Theology 28 (2012), p. 357.

36 CD II/2, p. 471.

37 CD IV/1, p. 397.

38 CD IV/3, p. 469.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid., p. 465.

43 Ibid., p. 463.

44 Ibid., pp. 465–6.

45 Ibid., p. 477.

46 Ibid., p. 468.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., p. 465.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid., p. 466. KD IV/3, p. 536.

53 Ibid., p. 477.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid., pp. 477–8.

57 Ibid., p. 478.

58 Ibid.

59 Ibid.

60 Hunsinger, ‘Hellfire and Damnation’, pp. 243–7.

61 Ibid., p. 244.

62 Ibid.; emphasis added.

63 Ibid. Cf. Congdon, ‘Apokatastasis and Apostolicity’, p. 468.

64 Hunsinger, ‘Hellfire and Damnation’, p. 243.

65 Ibid., pp. 243–5.



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