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.”