Evangelical Theology – The Spirit

We continue our slow march through Barth’s Evangelical Theology. This chapter on the Spirit in some ways epitomizes all that I appreciate about Barth. First off, even though the chapter is entitled “The Spirit” we’re a few pages in before he even mentions the third person of the Trinity. One of the things I like (most of the time) about Barth’s writing is that he is not in a rush to say what he wants to say. So what if we’re halfway through a chapter before he gets to the topic at hand? He takes the time to lay the foundation before he builds the edifice. As summer draws nigh, I am grateful for this one little insight that good theology – like “good” anything – takes time.

And yet, his discussion of the Spirit’s relationship to theology is what makes this chapter truly good. Theology, by virtue of its subject matter, runs the risk of thinking it enjoys the pride of place in being the most spiritually informed. Theology traffics in God-talk and can too easily assume that simply talking about theos is to take hold of the thing itself. The degree to which theologians (or anyone for that matter) thinks that trotting out clever ideas about God means that one has drawn closer to the truth only reveals how wide of the mark we truly are. The image that Barth employs is one in which our theological endeavors are left hanging in “mid-air.” And unless the Spirit chooses to blow into and through this theology set adrift, then no amount of cleverness or fidelity guarantees that anything will come of it. This is neither an anti-intellectual rant, nor a thinly veiled piety. This is Reformed theology in the key of Barth. It is the sovereignty of God with the static and austere bits stripped away. A truly sovereign God is entirely free to do as He wills, when He wills, however He wills. Theology that presumes to get a handle on the Divine only discovers that the Free One doesn’t simply know a few evasive maneuvers; he is the very definition of elusive. The Decalogue’s first three injunctions would seem to point towards the same.

The charismatically inclined might smugly think Barth is simply vindicating what they have known all along; namely that this sort of theological posturing falls flat on its spiritually impoverished face. However, true to all Barth’s dialectical glory, he performs a bit of theological judo which leaves the critical charismatic flat on his/her back.

“[One] imagines that the Spirit is a power of nature that can be discovered, harnessed, and put to use like water, fire, electricity or atomic energy. The Spirit is thought to be one whom it knows and over whom it disposes. But a presupposed spirit is certainly not the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, this goes for much more than academic theology. Those engaged in church work, activism, personal piety, and the like, all do well to remember that there are no guarantees when it comes to the eternally free Spirit. Energetic liturgies are no more (or less) likely to usher in the Spirit than “dead” ones. Emotive Christians are neither superior nor inferior to the rationalists among us. You can have one hundred ‘justs’ in your prayer or none at all. I hope it goes without saying that voting red or blue (or green!) is a poor indicator of one’s spiritual orientation. Simply put, no group can lay claim to the work of the Spirit, because it is the Spirit who lays its claim on us.

“The Holy Spirit is the vital power that bestows free mercy on theology and on theologians just as on the community and on every single Christian.”

11 thoughts on “Evangelical Theology – The Spirit

  • I guess He is not trying to accomplish the same things through each of us ‘just’ as He is not working to accomplish the same things in all of us.

      • So, Michael, are you and Sandy going to Scotland? Taido going to Kenya? The Chinos making a trip home? Or (D) none of the above? I’m out of the loop!

        • We are going to Kenya next week. You may want to consider a trip there next time a team goes. You would be welcome on any FN team.

          • I’v wanted to make a trip to Kenya ever since Steve started the work down there. Fellowship Batesville has plenty of mission opportunities (in fact, I’m on the Missions Committee), but thank you for the invitation. I hope your trip goes well!

  • “The degree to which theologians (or anyone for that matter) think that trotting out clever ideas about God means that one has drawn closer to the truth only reveals how wide of the mark we truly are.” Love this.

    Once again, Taido, your study of Barth has given me much food for thought. Thank you for your insights.

  • Taido,

    I gotta tell you that the first few times I (tried) to read this chapter from the book I wasn’t making it very far. I found a lot that I was disagreeing with, or that just didn’t make too much sense to me. And then a funny thing happened. The more I read it, the more I understood… and the more I ended up agreeing with it. And the more I ended up enjoying it.

    At first I was really not understanding where he was going with statements like – his view of the Word, the Witnesses, and the Community could be “only theologically guaranteed, only theologically intended and understood”, and “In every other respect theology is really without support.” I certainly don’t think that theology is “without support” in the sense of having no logical or reasonable foundation. But as the chapter unfolds I started to understand that he seems to be saying that the Spirit himself is the one that is actually supporting it, and that if the Spirit is not present in both the theology and the community, then all the work really comes to nothing. Close?

    Another difficulty I had was with the section he began by saying, “We will carefully refrain from speaking of a power presupposed … by us….” He uses the word “presupposed” or similar no less than 16 times in two pages. Would you please comment on exactly what sort of “presupposition” he’s attacking here? Sometimes it’s clear (as in the above quote) that he doesn’t want us to take the Spirit’s *power* (and presence?) for granted, but in other parts it seemed to me like he’s talking about something else.

    One thing that I really liked was his observation that the Spirit’s power is “the power present and active in what the affirmations of theology declare, in the history of salvation and revelation, in the hearing and speech of the biblical witnesses, in the being and act of the community summoned by them, and also in the work of theology when it testifies to these things.” Am I correct in summarizing that there is a unity between the Word, the Witnesses, the Community (of both then and now), as well as the Theology that informs and serves the Community? And that because of that unity, the Community and Theology are just as dependent on the Spirit as were the original hearers of the Word and its Witnesses?

    Keep it up, Taido… really enjoying reading along with you!

    • Mark, you have once again shown that you’ve really wrestled with the chapter. Don’t sweat not getting it the first time through. Everyone struggle to understand him. Including me.

      That said, I think you’ve more or less nailed it.

      On the first issue of theology’s foundation/support… a few things going on there. From “the viewpoint of an outsider” (49) suggests that theology as a discipline and the claims it makes seem suspended in ‘mid-air’ by those outside the church, and that the other disciplines of knowledge really don’t provide much in the way of support for theology’s claims. This is a pretty contested issue in theology. Does ‘nature’ (science, art, psychology, relationships) tell us about God or not. One could write a few books on this topic, so I’m not going to attempt to explain it. I will say, that the church in the US has over the last couple hundred years or so moved towards a belief that ‘science’ supports the claims of Christianity. Barth would simply say that apologetic attempts to prove Christianity are misguided, and generally speaking I would agree. The Christian faith worship a person we believe was raised from the dead. Despite all our attempts to ‘prove’ or make that sound reasonable, it doesn’t get much more irrational than that. “Foolishness to the Greeks.” We can have a long chat about it the next time we see each other 🙂 So yes, theology doesn’t rest on intellectual foundations, but on the work of the Spirit. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a logical coherence to theology, but it isn’t one that is universally recognized or affirmed.

      And then the ‘presupposed’ bit. I think if we simply changed the word to ‘presumed’ it might go a long way in clearing up any confusion. As you recognize, the Spirit is never to be taken for granted. It isn’t something we wield. God (and his Spirit) are eternally free and will grace churches, theology, believers, etc… entirely at his discretion. He is not bound to us. We can’t assume that because we have the ‘right’ theology or the ‘right’ holiness or the ‘right’ whatever that we can bend God towards our will. This isn’t subjectivism, existentialism, or romanticism, but a fundamental affirmation about what it means for God to be God. God simply cannot be subject to human anything – will, intellect, theology, logic, and so on.

      Finally, yes. Continuity is an important idea for Barth. Both in the then and now part as well as the spheres in which God reveals himself.

      Appreciate your reading along and one day we’ll finish this thing 🙂

      • I’d love to have a long chat with you, but it may have to wait till you cross the Big Pond again! 🙂

        I guess it’s on this point that I find myself disagreeing a bit, since I firmly believe that the Christian faith *is* rational (that is, it is non-contradictory, logically coherent, and we are justified in believing it to be historically true), and that it ought to be defended in this way. Paraphrasing one apologist, Without the Spirit, nothing works; but with the Spirit, many things (including apologetics) work.

        This is part of what was confusing me, because in parts of this first section of the book, Barth seems to defend having no defense; or in other words, offering a philosophy on how we ought not use philosophy. It seems self-defeating, though after having read it, I now see now that this is probably not his point anyway, compared with emphasizing that without the Spirit, none of it matters. In that, we’re in perfect agreement!

        Drop me a line next time you’re in town! 🙂

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