Barth’s Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit

A longstanding criticism of Karl Barth has been that his christocentrism so overpowers his theology that pneumatology often seems to take a theological back-seat. This was especially noted by Robert Jenson’s famous article cleverly entitled, “You wonder where the Spirit went” [Pro Ecclesia II (1993): 296–304.] Jenson, and others, while highly sympathetic to Barth’s theology, nevertheless are concerned that Barth’s christological centre is so unmoving that sometimes all we hear is “Jesus Christ” when we would expect to be hearing “Holy Spirit.” This critique focused especially upon Barth’s pneumatology as evident in the Church Dogmatics (CD). [For a similar critique, see Eugene Rogers, “The Eclipse of the Spirit in Karl Barth,” In Conversing with Barth, 173–90. London: Ashgate, 2004.]

In reviewing Barth’s chapter in Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “The Spirit,” I observe that Barth employs a form of speaking about the Spirit–a kind of pneumatological rhetoric–that is consistent with the way he speaks of the Holy Spirit in the CD. The good thing is that Barth’s method at work in this short chapter in ET is, I believe, representative of how he speaks of the Spirit more generally in the (much longer!) CD. The chapter in ET, in other words, can serve as a primer for understanding Barth’s rhetoric of the Spirit more broadly in his theology.
It is true, as Jenson and Rogers have noted, that Barth writes for pages on end in the CD about what any informed reader knows to be about the Holy Spirit without actually naming the Spirit per se. In fact, in the 12 page chapter, Barth mentions “God,” “Jesus,” “the Word,” and “Immanuel” repeatedly in the first 6 pages, but never once the Holy Spirit–this despite that the chapter is presumably all about the Holy Spirit! Indeed, his preferred descriptor in the first half of the chapter is “the power.” In the first half of the chapter, Barth takes pains to unpack the very nature of this power which is:
  • the power which sustains and is hidden in theological assertions (48,51);
  • the power that is present and active (51);
  • the power which is superior to theology itself (51);
  • the power that makes all arbitrary presuppositions superfluous (51);
  • the power which is productive (51)
  • the power which produces security, and which is creative and sufficient to produce security (51)
  • the power which the theologian does not have under his or her control (51-2)
  • the power which is sovereign over,and which upbuilds, and sends forth the church (52)
  • Etc.

Half-way through the chapter, Barth finally identifies  the “biblical name of this sovereign effective power”: The Spirit. I obviously do not think that Barth here is somehow tripping over himself to avoid speaking of the Spirit because he would rather talk about Jesus, or that he is so focused on Jesus Christ that he is unaware of his pneumatological reserve. On the contrary, I believe Barth follows a theological rhetoric of the Spirit that seeks to that speak in accordance with the very nature of the Spirit himself: a divine, sovereign, hidden, moving, creative, personal Power that consistently does not draw attention to himself, but who quietly and humbly sustains the believer and the church to carry out its task of witnessing to Jesus Christ. In other words, Barth carefully seeks to respect the “Holiness” of the Spirit of God by speaking about the Spirit not only in terms appropriate to him, but also following a rhetoric of “indirectness” and “hiddenness” which better aligns with the Spirit’s nature and role.

Barth’s pneumatological rhetoric is in contradistinction from those who would demand an equally “direct” pneumatology alongside their Christology, so as to have a kind of stereoscopic approach to theology (with Christology and Pneumatology being the right and left lens of the theological glasses.) No, for Barth, to thrust to Spirit forward for examination in the same way and manner in which we seek to know Christ is to thrust the inquirer’s gaze directly into the blinding beam of light illuminating a cross on the steeple of a Church rather than directing the inquirer’s gaze to the cross itself (J.I. Packer). In fact, to speak of the Spirit following Barth’s kind of rhetoric is, I believe, is a superior way to worship the Holy Spirit in his own distinctive kind of humility, just as Christ himself humbled himself in a peculiar kind of way in becoming a man. To thrust the Spirit forward in the same way that we would witness to Christ would be like thrusting a Secret Service member in front of the microphone at a Presidential address rather than respecting his authority and power that inheres in his relatively anonymous role in protecting, sustaining, and clearing the way for the President. The Spirit is not there to highlight himself, but to highlight Jesus. This is not to say we should avoid speaking of the Spirit–far from it. Rather, our manner of speaking of the Spirit ought to coincide as best as possible with his Eternal Humble nature.

In other words, we might wonder where the Spirit went all we want; but that should not be surprising given the Spirit’s own nature.  After all,  Jesus tells us, no one knows from or where the Spirit is going (cf. John 3:8). We should just be grateful that the Spirit sovereignly draws us to Christ and helps us to follow him in the way of discipleship.




3 thoughts on “Barth’s Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit

  1. The Spirit in John is more “disguised” as Jesus uses symbolism like the wind blowing (in Jn. 3:8, for the Spirit speaking in the one born of the Spirit) and living water; yet even in the use of “Paraclete” in Jn. 14-17 it is made clear that this is the Spirit of truth Jesus emphasizes and reveals (to his disciples). The Spirit is hidden from Nicodemus, because when he hears the sound of the wind/Spirit (in the words of Jesus), he does not know where this wind/breath/Spirit comes from (or is going) (Jn. 3:8). And this will be true for everyone born of the Spirit (3:8), that while the world does not see him or know him (the Spirit), Jesus’ disciples will know him because he will remain in them (Jn. 14:17) after Jesus breathes/gives the Spirit when he is lifted up (raised up from the dead). So Jesus’ more direct and extended teaching of the Spirit to the disciples in Jn. 14-17 prepares them for their lives and witness in the Spirit after Jesus “departs.”

    In Acts especially, the Spirit becomes a central figure as the disciples carry on Jesus’ mission in the often acknowledged power of the Spirit. Paul’s letters are also full of teaching about the Spirit (and include words about the “unspiritual” who do not understand or receive the gifts of the Spirit of God in 1 Cor. 2:14; the Spirit is “hidden” to them). But for many churches today, their experience is too often like those in Acts 19:2, where after Paul asks if they received the Spirit when they believed, they answer that they have never even heard of this Spirit. While Barth did not ignore the Spirit, many church teachers have “hidden” the Spirit to the extent that their students hear little or nothing about the Spirit (or even God the Father for that matter).

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