Editorial: Karl Barth and Sino-Christian Theology

in Yearbook of Chinese Theology 2019
Free access

Editorial: Karl Barth and Sino-Christian Theology

Our current volume, with a special focus upon “Karl Barth and Sino-Christian Theology,” celebrates the 100th anniversary of the two significant publications by the famous Swiss Christian theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). The first is Barth’s first monography: the first edition of his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (Der Römerbrief 1919).1 The second is Barth’s speech delivered in September 1919,“The Christian in Society”(“Der Christ in der Gesellschaft”).2 At the time of writing his first monograph, Barth was still an unknown young pastor, who had not yet obtained any doctoral degree and been serving in the countryside for 10 years.The speech “The Christian in Society,” given by Barth at the Religious Socialist Conference in the Thüringer town of Tambach in Germany, when he was an alternate deputy of the Swiss Religious Socialist Movement, brought attention to Barth’s Commentary on the Epistle to Romans (1919) and propelled him suddenly to the status of a leading theologian and thinker in Germany and beyond. Two years later (1921), Barth was invited to become Chair Professor of Reformed Theology in Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, Germany. More importantly for the understanding of Barth’s whole theological thinking, the Tambach speech could be seen as “one of Barth’s most momentous work along his entire theological way. This paper is not only a transition from Barth’s first to second commentary on the Epistle to Romans, but also implicates the similar Trinitarian structure of his later master piece Church Dogmatics.”3

The name of Karl Barth is not unfamiliar in the Chinese context and Sino-Christian Theology, following the remarkable works of great scholars such as T. C. Chao,4 Liu Xiaofeng,5 Chin Ken Pa,6 and Zhang Xu.7 The latter three scholars are prominent representatives of Sino-Christian Theology. However, compared with his contemporary theologians such as Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jürgen Moltmann, or even Wolfhart Pannenberg, the introduction and research into Barth’s theological thought in both the Chinese academia and Sino-Christian Theology has been relatively shallow, and need broadening and deepening. Chinese versions of Barth’s theological works, for example, tend to depend upon English translations, or have been done by non-theological scholars. This situation does not accord with Barth’s influence and importance in the history of Christian theology. If we compare Chinese studies of Barth’s theology with those of Japan and South Korea, there is a lot of catching up to be done. Take Japan as an example. Japan has a tiny Christian population, and its traditional culture is very strong. However, most of Barth’s works, including more than ten volumes of The Collected Sermons of Karl Barth, have been translated into Japanese.

It is well known that Karl Barth came from the Reformed tradition in the German-speaking Switzerland. His influence is not only limited to the German-speaking Christian world, but also spread all over the Christian world including the Netherlands, Scotland, South Africa, USA, and Hong Kong in China. Barth has been called “the church father of the 20th century” and considered the most significant theologian of last century, who has revolutionized and shaped the history of theological thought in the twentieth century and profoundly influenced and changed the life and faith of numerous Christians. Some have even claimed Barth as the most important Christian theologian since Thomas Aquinas (e.g., Pope Pius XII). Outside of theological circles, Martin Heidegger, Barth’s contemporary and one of the most influential philosophers in the 20th Century, was influenced by Barth’s thinking in his early years. These two thinkers have important parallelisms in their thinking. Heidegger, who called himself a Christian theologian in his early years, appreciated Barth’s second Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Der Römerbrief 1921),8 and considered Barth’s Hegel-interpretation the best theological one which he has ever read.9

Barth never thought of himself as a theological and religious revolutionary, nor as a church father of modern Christian church, nor as a philosopher working at and beyond the border of church and world. Rather, he thought of himself as a witness of faith in his obedience to Jesus Christ in each concrete situation. He called his entire life as a “theological existence.” During this theological existence, he believed that he was called to be a preacher and teacher of the church, who was to witness God’s revelation in Jesus Christ in specific circumstances within and outside of the church. For Barth, God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is the theological subject matter (“die theologische Sache”), witnessed by the Bible and preached by the church. Barth consciously inherited the spirit of John the Baptist (John 3:30: “he must rise, I must fall”), and tried to focus on and point towards this theological subject matter through his entire life of theological thinking and acting.

By dint of Barth’s insistence upon the theological subject matter, he could be seen as a great model of “creating by returning to the original” (“mit dem Anfang immer wieder anfangen”). On the one side, Barth endeavors to “return to the original.” That is, he wants to return to the origin of the biblical faith, namely God and his revelation in Jesus Christ, so that he may inherit and promote the spirit of the Reformation in a radical way, deconstructing all types of intermediary which attempts to stand between God and human (such as prophecy, apostleship, the sacred tradition, the church, the Bible, human consciousness, human conscience, and individual faith experience). Through this radical deconstruction, Barth “formally points to” the theological subject matter, parallel to Heidegger’s critique and reconstruction of metaphysics in the field of philosophy. And yet Barth does not forget to be theologically creative. Compared with other contemporary and modern thinkers, Barth would be the one with most potential to guide and shape the future of theological thinking. Barth has indeed shaped the theological thinking last century and deeply influenced many significant theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Küng, Eberhard Jüngel, and Thomas Torrance. Barth would also inspired future possibilities of new theological thinking, because his theology is neither limited to the persistence of the past (as in Paul Tillich, or Wolfhart Pannenberg), nor mired in the present (as in Rudolf Bultmann), but points towards the future. This inclination towards the future in Barth’s theology anticipates the [self-]coming of the kingdom of God, and can be found also in the theology of hope by Jürgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson.

As a model of “creating by returning to the original,” Barth is an significant example for the further development of Sino-Christian Theology. In any given historical situation, thinkers need to recognize their own existential situation, and retrieve and point to the subject matter of their thinking, without any interference from any other factors such as political, ideological or economical; otherwise, their thinking is liable to fall into a certain Babylonian captivity. For Sino-Christian Theology, Barth’s significance lies not only in his critique of modernity, historicism and nihilism, as for example Liu Xiaofeng and his followers such as Chin Ken Pa and Zhangxu have emphasized, and his related critiques of technology, market and capital, but also in his constructive move focusing on and pointing to the theological subject matter. With Barth’s theology as a referential point or even as a guiding channel, Sino-Christian theology might be able to enter into the depths of Chinese thoughts and cultures. New possibilities of “creating by returning to the original” might be explored in the concrete Chinese context, especially with reference to the historical dilemma of “no great change encountered in 3000 years” in China.

If Sino-Christian Theology wants to open and embrace such new possibilities, there are various fundamental problems that must be confronted. For example, the relation between Christianity and China, or the tension between Christianity in China and Chinese Christianity. Barth’s theology might be a valuable aid in answering this question. According to Barth, theological thinking should always constantly return to theological subject matter, namely, God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Only Jesus Christ is the Word of God. This is the root and key of Christian thinking. No matter where we are or who we are, Christian thinking should always come back to this root and key (“returning to the original”). Meanwhile, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, which speaks to people everywhere, and people everywhere would respond to this Word of God in their concrete location and situation (“creating”). Thus, according to Barth’s theology, the brief answer to the question of the relationship between China and Christianity is: “Christianity in China” should first emphatically return and point to Jesus Christ and his revelated Christianity. Only then, there is some possibility of its becoming “Chinese Christianity.” Especially given the entanglements between the history of Christian mission and the history of modern capitalist and imperialist expansion, Sino-Christian Theology should constantly reflect on and criticize its own practice, and constantly “return to the original,” to the theological subject matter revealed in Jesus Christ. At the same time, Sino-Christian Theology needs to get rid of any arrogation of other factors upon the only root and key, Jesus Christ. In the light of the grace of Jesus Christ, Sino-Christian Theology could be constantly “creating.” Only in this way, Christianity in Chinese context can not only become and be “Christianity in China,” but also “Chinese Christianity.” These mutual actions between returning and creating, between “Christianity in China” and “Chinese Christianity,” may form or reframe a necessary mode of thinking way for the further development of Sino-Christian Theology.

In order to present Barth’s various thought-endeavors in terms of “creating by returning to the original” and their explosive and powerful possibilities for the further development of Sino-Christian Theology, this volume of Brill Yearbook of Chinese Theology offers ten papers and one book review on “Karl Barth and Sino-Christian Theology.” Our intention is that these articles may trigger further attention and deeper research into Barth’s theological thinking among Chinese academics. This way, Christian thinking represented by Barth’s thought might not only become “in China,” but also “Chinese,” and promote the further development and integration of Chinese and Christian thoughts.

According to the usual sections of Brill Yearbook of Chinese Theology, the above-mentioned eleven articles will be briefly introduced in the following, so that the reader could find quickly the papers which they would like to read firstly.

For Wai Luen Kwok, Barth is undoubtedly a leading figure of the twentieth century’s trinitarian renaissance. His paper “The Narrative and the Triune Reality in the Theology of Robert Jenson: A Post-Karl Barth’s Development” demonstrates that Barth’s doctrine of the trinity is an account of God’s self-revelation as a word-event. Based on this understanding of Barth’s theology, Kwok analyses carefully how Robert Jenson develops Barth’s ideas through an integration of language, reality, and time, and shows convincingly his critical appreciations of some theological implications of Jenson’s proposal.

Xin Leng’s paper “Karl Barth’s Triune God with Special Reference to Hegel’s Speculative Philosophy” would agree with Kwok’s understanding of Barth’s doctrine of trinity. Her paper shows first that Hegel’s philosophy is an influential root of Barth’s revival of the doctrine of the trinity, and then argues that Barth develops his understanding of God’s trinity from the intrinsic nature of the concept of self-revelation.

In Shi-Min Lu’s paper “Karl Barth’s Ecclesial Identity in Dialogue with Confucian Familism,” Barth’s understanding of human and ecclesial identity has been precisely analyzed, based on Barth’s lecture on the Epistle to the Ephesians in the winter semester 1921–1922. She aims to illuminate the importance of the blood tie between God the Father and the church as God’s children adopted through the blood of Jesus Christ. For Lu, this ecclesial blood tie serves as a bridge for theological dialogue between Barth and Confucian familism, the core Chinese cultural value that is rooted in biological blood ties.

From a similar cross-cultural perspective, Quan Li’s paper “Beyond the Politics of Redemption: Traditional-based Visions of Responsibility in the Thought of Karl Barth and Mou Zongsan” wants to uncover moral accounts of responsibility, while taking Karl Barth and the neo-Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan into account. Li compares their distinct views of responsibility connecting moral beliefs to political actions. In terms of source, structure, and action, these two thinkers represent two distinctive forms of act-deontology: transcendent and immanent. Meanwhile, both share dynamic, personal and dialectical characters. Both strived to develop an ethical relationship between the moral community and the political community, because for them such a relationship was essential for people’s liberation from political and ideological hegemonies.

Concerning the reception of Barth’s theology in current China, the status quo is quite different. Some people praise enthusiastically that Barth’s theology is a great example to follow in the history of theological thoughts. Other people criticize sharply that Barth’s theology is modernistic, liberalism, and even heretical, which should be corrected seriously at many points. The latter attitude, which is influential especially among Chinese evangelicals, has been deeply influenced by the interpretation and critique of Barth’s theology among American evangelicals. Because of this reason, we especially invite the influential American evangelical scholar, G. Wright Doyle, to write a surveying article on “Karl Barth and the Chinese Context: An Evangelical Evaluation.” Doyle’s overview introduces American evangelical interpretation and critique of Barth’s theology, which is full of rich background knowledge and resources for Barth scholarship in Chinese context and for Sino-Christian Theology. At the end of his paper, Doyle praised and recommend the name of Carl Henry. What this paper has reported and evaluated, reflects perhaps an interesting phenomenon: because of differences in philosophical tradition and language usage, or differences in denominational standpoint and reading perspective, American evangelical interpretation and critique could hardly be understood as a sympathetic understanding and interpretation to a large extent. This kind of viewpoints should be carefully examined and cautiously evaluated on the basis of both the works of Barth himself and specialized research literatures, if Sino-Christian Theology wants to develop itself further and deeper with reference to Barth’s theology.

In their paper “Theology in Crisis: Re-evaluating the Influence of Karl Barth on Chinese Theologian T. C. Chao,” Jin Li and Li Ma turn their eyes to T. C. Chao, one of most important Chinese theologians, and his relationship to Barth’s theology in a similar critical time of crisis. Chao was initially critical of Barth, but later became aware of Barth’s theological relevance to China. The shared world-wide crisis, which was threatening the moral authority of Christianity, motivated both Barth and Chao to reformulate their theological thinking. Because of Christianity’s complicate presence at a time of deep crisis in China, Chao’s reception of Barth led to paradigm-shifting consequences for Chinese religious thought, which should be seriously considered for the further development of Sino-Christian Theology.

In “A Critical Survey of Karl Barth’s Goethe-Reception,” Thomas Xutong Qu introduces his award-winning monography on Barth und Goethe: Die Goethe-Rezeption Karl Barths 1906–1921 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2014). Based on textual analysis of Barth’s numerous texts of various kinds (unpublished and published sermons, letters, essays, etc.), this book reconstruct carefully the development of Karl Barth’s theological thinking in changing political and cultural contexts. Surprisingly new and illuminating for Barth scholarship, Barth indeed engaged himself, especially in his early years, with Goethe on many occasions and with a quite a number of intentions. This engagement is crucially formative for the development of Barth’s theology till his master piece Church Dogmatics.

For Liang Hong’s “Dostoyevsky and the Dialectical Theology of Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen,” both in Barth’s second commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and in Thurneysen’s Dostoyevsky, Dostoyevsky was discovered by these two theologians as a borrowed spokesman of their life theology. They project their eschatological focus to Dostoyevsky, while they are convinced that they could understand him better even than himself. From their eschatological perspective, they tried actually to attain a critical understanding of the present life and to discover a soteriological solution to the mysteries of life in the mysteries of God.

Andres Siu-Kwong Tang’s paper “Engaging Karl Barth’s Christology with Tiantai Buddhism” does not aim to recognize simply that Tiantai Buddhism and Barth’s theology are similar in every doctrinal aspect. Borrowing some key words from the language of Tiantai Buddhism, Tang tries to demonstrate that God and human’s reconciliation through Christ means God and human eradicate their contradictions, sins and disease within “Wuben” (open ground). As a result, the union of God and human is a “Wuben” union. This paper is a good example to engage Karl Barth’s theology with Chinese traditions. shows a significant direction for the further development of Sino-Christian Theology, that is, how it could retrieve traditional Chinese resources to understand, reformulate, and even develop Christian theological thinking in Chinese, both for the Chinese context and for other contexts.

Shao Kai Tseng’s paper “Subject–Object Dialectic in Karl Barth’s The Göttingen Dogmatics” is another good example of engaging Karl Barth’s theology with Chinese traditions. By examining the subject–object dialectic in Karl Barth’s The Göttingen Dogmatics, Tseng attempts to extract from it a set of methodological principles worthy of consideration for the future development of Sino-Christian theology. Basically, this set of principles could be taken as a necessary starting point of any proper theology qua theology: to affirm both God’s absolute subjectivity and his true objectivity. Meanwhile, Mou Zongsan’s insights could help us to unveil the strong affinities between (neo-)Confucianism in China and the nineteenth-century consciousness theology in Germany, and incidentally shares Barth’s opinion that this theology has lost its essence qua theology.

Finally, Xiangchen Sun reviews constructively and critically the first monography on Karl Barth’s theology in mainland China: Xu Zhang’s Study in Karl Barth’s Theology. The publication of this monography shows that Barth scholarship is becoming important among the circle of Chinese theology today, as seen also in various commemorative conferences and publications across the great China area. Back to April 1999, Hong Kong Theological Symposium: Reflections on Barth’s Theology was convened by the Hong Kong Theological Fellowship and the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong, and its conference papers were then collated into an anthology.10 In the year of 2006, an international symposium on “Christ and the World: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sino-Christian Theology” was held by Chung Yuen University in Taiwan, and two of the participant scholars, Ou Li-Jen and Andres Siu-Kwong Tang, proposed to publish the Commemorative Anthology for the 40th Anniversary of Barth’s Death,which came out in 2008.11

This volume on Karl Barth and Sino-Christian Theology follows these two pioneering examples and is a further endeavor in the development of Sino-Christian Theology. As far as we know, in accordance with the celebration of the above-mentioned double centenary, the first “Barth Forum” will be held by School of Philosophy, Beijing Normal University from May 10 to 12, 2019 in Beijing. More than ten Chinese speaking Barth scholars will come together and rethink Barth’s theology in Chinese Context today. The editorial office will also participate in the co-organization of this forum. Before and after this forum, Prof. Günter Thomas, a leading Barth scholar in German academia and a chair professor at Bochum University, will give a series of lectures about Karl Barth’s theology. In addition, the Guest Editor of this volume, Associate Prof. Thomas Xutong Qu, has been invited to host the special issue Creating by Returning to the Original: Barth and China for the leading journal of Christian studies in Mainland China Journal for the Study of Christian Culture in the spring of 2019.


1. Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief (Erste Fassung) 1919, hrsg. von Hermann Schmidt, Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe 16 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1985).

2. Karl Barth, “Der Christ in der Gesellschaft,” Anfänge der dialektischen Theologie, Teil I: Karl Barth, Heinrich Barth, Emil Brunner, hrsg. von Jürgen Moltmann, 2. Auflage (München: Chr. Kaiser, 1966), 2–37.

3. Cf. Thomas Xutong Qu, “Barth and Goethe: A Critical Survey of Karl Barth’s Goethe-Reception” in this volume; for further details see Thomas Xutong Qu, Barth and Goethe: Die Goethe-Rezeption Karl Barths 1906–1921 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2014).

4. T. C. Chao, Bate de zong jiao si xiang (Karl Barth’s Religious Thought), in Collected Works of T. C. Chao, vol. II (Beijing: The Commercial Press, 2004), 1–37. It’s said that T. C. Chao was one of the most outstanding theologians in the history of Chinese Christian thought. This article, which was published in a separate edition, should be the first special work to introduce Barthian theological thoughts in Chinese academia. T. C. Chao, “Bate de zong jiao si xiang” (“Karl Barth’s Religious Thought”) (Shanghai: Shanghai Qing Nian Xie Hui, 1939). For a different viewpoint in a new research paper by Junjie Yang, “Before T. C. Chao: A Contribution to Barth’s Early Reception in China,” Journal of the Study of Christian Culture 41, 2019 Spring (forthcoming).

5. Xiaofeng Lui, Shangdi jiu shi Shangdi (God is God). Zou xiang shi zi jia shang de zhen (Shanghai: Shanghai SDX Joint Publishing Company, 1995), 42–75. Until now, Lui Xiaofeng’s article, which was originally published in the magazine Du Shu, is still a good work for understanding and explaining of Barthian theological thoughts. This one payed special attention to the relationship between the dialectical theological thoughts and the problem of modernity in The Epistle to the Romans (Second Edition).

6. Chin Ken Pa, Shangdi, guan xi yu yan shuo (God, Relation & Discourse: Critical Theology and the Critique of Theology) (Shanghai: East China Normal University Press, 2009).

7. Xu Zhang, Shangdi si le, shen xue he wei (What Can Theology Do if God is Dead? Fundamental Issues in 20th Century Christian Theology) (Beijing: Renmin University of China Press, 2010).

8. Karl Löwith, Mein Leben in Deutschland vor und nach 1933. Ein Bericht, 2. Auflage (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1990), 25, 29.

9. Personal conversation with Prof. Bruce McCormack, Director of the Center for Barth Studies in the fall of 2018 at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, USA.

10. Andres Tang, Pan-Chiu Lai (eds.): Barth and Sino-Christian Theology (Hong Kong: Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, 2000 (Frist Edition) and 2008 (Second Edition)). Xiaofeng Liu, as a mainland scholar participates in it.

11. Li-Jen Ou, Andres Tang (eds.): Barth and Sino-Christian Theology II: Commemorative Anthology for the 40th Anniversary of Barth’s Death (Hong Kong: Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, 2008). Xu Zhang and Xuefu Zhang, as the mainland scholars participate in it.