Karl Barth Conference 2016 – Dr. Michael Welker – The Spirit and Creation (June 19 PM)

I’m happy to be joining the Karl Barth Conference again this year at Princeton Theological Seminary. I will do my best to summarize in very brief form the plenary sessions this year. The overarching theme of the conference is Karl Barth’s Pneumatology and the Global Pentecostal Movement.

Sunday evening, June 19, began with an evening lecture from Dr. Michael Welker, who is professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg University. His topic was the Spirit and Creation.



Welker began by reviewing what he believed was Barth’s, and his own, commitment to critical realism in theology. Theology is realistic in that it believes that God has independent reality to which theology seeks to speak. Theology is critical in that it must always be subject to correction and clarification.

1) Unfruitful and fruitful orientations in the doctrine of Creation.

Today, when the doctrine of creation is spoken of, there is a too-common assumption that creation speaks of the totality of nature. In this regard, “creation” is nearly equated with that which can be examined through the disciplines of biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Welker called this a “naturalist” orientation. Furthermore, he noted that even up until the middle of the twentieth century, creation was more closely associated with “mentalism” whereby the human in his or her “self-consciousness” and “consciousness of the world” constituted the prime focus of the doctrine of creation, i.e., creation as “spirit” or “spiritual.” This “mentalist” notion Welker connected with Descartes and Fichte.

Karl Barth, Welker argued, sought to give both nature and spirit their due, even if Barth “leaned slightly” toward the spirit end of the doctrine of creation. This is consistent with Barth’s emphasis on both the Word and Spirit. Furthermore, when Barth speaks of the “Spirit” of God, he also does so in a trinitarian framework. There is, in other words, no “non-trinitarian spirit” to speak of in respect of God. This admittedly may be of less interest to those who are seeking pneumatologies that are not so tied to the Christian conception of God. Barth’s form of pneumatology is thus problematic for those seeking a more “philosophically” oriented form of theism that is not necessarily tied to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. For this, Welker made no apology: The doctrine of Creation, if it is to be Christian, relies on a trinitarian formulation. To speak of the Spirit of God is already to speak of the Trinity.

Barth refused to see creation only as natural or spiritual, but rather spoke of creation as the whole cosmos in relationship to full nexus of human culture and history. Creation cannot be “everything except humans and their culture and concepts.” The Christian doctrine of Creation includes the historical human culture as well as everything beyond it. More to the point,  the Spirit of God, Barth insisted, is to be sought only in connection with the incarnation of the Word in human history. Thus, Welker argued, Barth resisted any notions of the Spirit in a doctrine of creation that “floats above” human history and bodily existence, and especially those notions of the Spirit that overlook or ignore the incarnation of the Word. Notions of spirit as “mind”, “pure transcendence” etc. are useless to Barth for a doctrine of creation.

2) God’s Power and Creation’s Autonomous Power

Welker pointed out that far too often in the history of theology, God’s power (omnipotence) has been portrayed–weakly–as the idea that “God has created everything.” This, he argued, runs roughshod over the biblical accounts of creation in which God is not portrayed as creating “everything,” but of creating heavens which have some independences, the plant and animal worlds which have their own manner of existing, and of course, human history and culture, including all the artifacts which humans have made. Barth also emphasized that creation itself is given “powers” which are able to come into direct conflict with God. Thus, whether these powers are political, religious, legal, social or moral, they are autonomous powers given to humans to exercise–powers which in the Gospels and Epistles are all portrayed as ironically coming into conflict  with Jesus Christ. The main point, Welker noted, is that God’s omnipotence does not mean that God has effected by his power all that his power could enact, but that his power has given real autonomy to humanity in creation–autonomous power which can be used to serve or to rebel against God’s good creation.

3) Barth distinguishes between God’s Spirit and human & created spirits.

Welker suggested that ever since Aristotle, the human spirit has been closely associated with and unified with rationality. More specifically, this yields a God who is by definition one whose knowledge of the world is unified with the world itself. 

Barth, Welker notes, strictly resisted the conflation of the divine and human spirits. Indeed, for Barth, though the Spirit of God gives freedom, he nevertheless is a Spirit who “commands” and “rules” the human spirit.

In this regard, Welker noted that despite Barth’s insistence of the distinction between the divine and human spirits, he was nevertheless still too influenced by the binary polarity that inheres in the Aristotelian notion transmitted through the history of philosophy and theology. Welker thinks this shows up in Barth by his continuing to posit the tension between body and spirit–an inherent dualism which Welker admits also appears even in the Apostle Paul’s “flesh/spirit” distinction. However, in light of more recent scholarly (e.g., Gerd Thiessen) work on Paul which sees the spiritual, rational, social, etc. dimensions inhering more inherently in the Pauline concept of “body” or “flesh”, Welker argued for the need to be prepared to explore, intellectually and conceptually, at the level of a “poly-polarities” which shows up in the multiplicity of ways the Spirit of God is joined to and gifts  humanity. There are many bodies in multilayered manners of relational joining. In this regard, Welker went on to suggest that Barth already had a concept at hand which could have helped him break out of the bipolarity which still marked his own penumatology and anthropology. This concept is the biblical idea of the “outpouring of the Spirit” which, of course, Barth explored extensively in CD IV.

4) God’s Creative Action in Creation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

In order to move beyond bipolar ways of thinking about the Spirit, Welker advocated the notion of the “outpouring of the Spirit” which can be most clearly discerned in the book of Act–and which, of course, Barth explores extensively in CD IV. It is in Acts that we see the outpouring of the Spirit not simply in the union of the body and soul, as it were, but in a multitude of ways which was manifest in the community. These include works of service (diaconate), prophecy, and priestly ministries, which concretely include word manifesations (including preaching and the Pentecostal phenomena of prophecy and tongues), freeing from spiritual and physical oppression (demonic, illnesses), and through caring for one another’s needs–all done in recognition that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Although there is a biblical concept of “inpouring of the Spirit,” the church–widely–has still focused more on the indwelling of the Spirit in the individual soteriology, and often to the exclusion fo the “outpouring” o fthe Spirit on the community and its multiple forms of ministry.

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.




Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Final Day

On this last day of the Karl Barth conference, two papers were delivered. The first was by Dr. Gerald McKenny (University of Notre Dame) on the freedom of the human agent as evidenced in Evangelical Theology. (Sorry, I missed the title of this one).

McKenny opened by reminding us that for Barth, human agency is made possible only as it arises out of and inheres in prior divine action. However, this raises the question of whether Barth’s understanding of the ethical subject precludes the possibility of growth in virtue. As is well known, various Barth interpreters have criticized Barth for what appears to be a ruling out of such growth in the human agent independent of the moment-to-moment divine action. Thus, the question critics have asked of Barth is, “Does the agent defined as he or she is by divine decision and action allow the agent to be fully human?” Or to put it another way, “Doesn’t the human agent need some ‘virtue’ in and of her or himself to be able to respond to the divine command?”

McKenny went on in his paper to show, through broad attention to the structure of Barth’s argument in Evangelical Theology (ET) that human encounter with the command of God creates an “ethos” whereby the full humanity of the agent is ensured as one given freedom by virtue of prayer, existence, exposure to threat, and active work.

In this regard, McKenny points out how part 1 of ET is concerned with the “place” of theology, not defined in terms of the relationship of theology in the university or relative to other academic disciplines, but relative to the object of theology’s inquiry—the living, speaking God. Theology, and by implication, the theologian, is constituted in the first order by God’s Word spoken to the human agent. Further, the human agent is only able to respond as the Spirit enables. Consequently, the human agent is enabled by God from the outset to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit in order that the human might continually be freed for service to God.

McKenny argues that parts 2-4 of ET move to a description of how theology demands that the human agent engage in genuine human work. In part 2, “Theological Existence,” Barth describes wonder, concern, commitment and faith as the defining characteristics of a theologian, all of which demand of theologians a free response to God. Further, in part 3, Barth describes the threats to which the human agent is exposed—solitude, doubt, temptation—all of which the human must come through successfully by hope in the object of theology, the God of the Gospel. Finally, in part 4 Barth describes the activity of the agent engaged in theology—an activity which requires prayer, study, service and love, each of which is indicative of ethical demand. McKenny thus concludes that Barth’s theological description of the human agent is one which in response to God’s Word, the agent is constantly an existing, threatened, acting human being, but a human being which remains free in light of these demands, not in light of an ongoing growth in virtues of the agent in and of her or himself.

The second and final paper of the day was delivered by Dr. George Hunsinger (Princeton Theological Seminary” and was entitled, “Karl Barth on what it means to be Human: A Christian Scholar Considers the Options.” For this paper, Hunsinger focused on Church Dogmatics III/2 where Barth both provides a formal description of theological anthropology and considers alternative non-theological anthropologies of his day. Hunsinger noted at the outset that Barth distinguishes in his anthropology between the “real” and the “phenomenological”. In this regard, Barth insists that any non-theological anthropology may give genuine insight into human phenomena, but apart from a theological perspective, there is no possibility of gaining full insight into the reality of the human constitution.

Hunsinger then outlines what he calls Barth’s basic criteria for establishing a theological anthropology, each of which must be present to legitimately be called “theological anthropology.” Not surprisingly, each of the elements is also christologically focused for Barth. The six criteria are: 1) Divine presence – God is not generally present to humanity, but concretely present to humanity in Christ. All human creatures are thus conditioned by Jesus. 2) History – God exists for humans in a history of redemption—a covenant history which humans cannot be understood apart from this history, most specifically as they relate to the history of Jesus. 3) Glory – Divine glory is not compromised or lost in Christ who is God for man and man for God and in whom all humans are included and exist therefore for God’s glory. 4) Sovereignty – God’s lordship is seen concretely in and through Jesus, especially over the death of Christ on the cross. 5) Freedom – Freedom is substantive (freedom to decide for God), not merely formal (freedom of choice). Any human freedom is understood only in light of the substantive freedom to decide for God. 6) Service – Humans don’t exist for themselves, but for God. Such service to God is thus shown in prayer and praise to God, and witness and service to fellow humans.

Hunsinger then went on to delineate four types of anthropologies (three non-theological and one alternative theological) that Barth assesses. They are 1) Naturalism – typified by A. Portmann’s 1948 book on Evolutionary biology; 2) Idealism – typified by J. G. Fichte; 3) Existentialism – typified by K. Jaspers; and 4) Neo-orthodoxy – typified by Brunner.

Observing how Barth assesses these anthropologies, Hunsinger sees a helpful pattern for the development of a theological anthropology today. First, Barth examines contemporary voices attentively but assesses them normatively using theological criteria. Barth refuses, in this regard, to de-theologize his assessment on the terms specified by the anthropologies under consideration. Second, Barth always engages in description of the anthropology before giving assessment, and when he does assess, he is willing to provide both internal and external critique. Third, through it all, Barth maintains a consistent christological focus in the assessment of other anthropologies. This is not to say that he rejects the findings of non-theological anthropologies, but insists that such findings are only partial unless coupled together with a theological center in Christ.


Karl Barth Conference 2012 – Princeton – Day 2 – part 1

This morning’s papers were so rich that I decided I would do a quick summary before the afternoon sessions and hope to do part 2 of the day later on tonight. Our second day of the Karl Barth conference opened with a pair of papers that I will simply be unable to do justice to here, but hopefully you will get the gist. (I hope you will forgive me if these summaries aren’t as well written as they should be. I’m going for keeping up to date rather than perfect synopses!)

Dr. Katherine Sonderegger (Virginia Theological Seminary) treated us all to a homiletically and theologically rich presentation entitled, “The Theological Existence of the Pastor.” Sonderegger focused on the chapter in Barth’s Evangelical Theology (ET) entitled, “Temptation.” She noted, of course, that the word “temptation” in English does not quite convey the richness of the German word Anfechtung of which Barth spoke. In her lecture, Sonderegger sought to address how it is that pastors (and along with them, theological teachers) ought to view the failures which they will inevitably face in their ministry, despite the fact that such ministries are perennially concerned with the attention to the Word and God as their subject matter. In this regard, Sonderegger was careful to note that Barth does not so much exclude the role of Satan the tempter in an account of temptation as much as he makes Satan subject to the one work of God; Satan here is an unwitting agent in God’s hand.

But more importantly, Sonderegger points out how Barth locates the matter of temptation or trial–and most specifically, the trial faced by the pastor in those times when God is silent–directly in the context of the Goodness of God. God, according to Barth, is not only good by nature, but also in act, such that God is not only the ground of goodness (his being and nature) but also the God who in all his ways acts in goodness toward his creatures. Consequently, even in the experience of silence, the pastor must first remember that silence ought not be be equated to absence–a mode of speaking that is sometimes used in the mystical traditions and a notion which Barth would explicitly reject. For God to be silent is never to be taken as evidence that God is absent.

Sonderegger went on briefly to tie Barth’s description of temptation/Anfechtung together with his doctrine of “Nothingness” (das Nichtige), noting that for Barth, negation is not to be equated with evil. For example, a creature is not God, but this by no means implies that the creature is evil; rather, Negation in creation is the shadow of God’s good creation. Consequently, when dealing with failure, and indeed silence, in the service of God, the pastor/teacher/Christian must recognize that whether God speaks or is silent is no denial of God’s providential goodness toward us. On the contrary, the pastor must realize that both in God’s speaking and in his silence toward us, he is ever the good Judge who judges in freedom. Sometimes this means that silence is not to be regarded as a negation of our work and sometimes that silence is precisely a judgment of us as weak, sinning covenant partners, but always, whether in God’s speaking or in his silence, we must truly believe that in that speech or silence, God is truly good toward us.

The second paper, also profound beyond my ability to summarize here, came from Dr. Adam Neder (Whitworth University). Neder’s paper, “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Some Barthian Thoughts about Teaching Theology,” sought to bring some of  Barth’s thoughts in ET to bear on the matter of theological pedagogy. As Neder introduced the paper, he noted that ET can be read as good news to the theological teacher, mainly, that theological work can be one of the most important tasks a human can be asked to do and when done properly is “pleasing to God and helpful to people.” But ET is also a warning that when done badly, theological teaching  can be “the most terrible thing on earth.”  ET, as Neder put it, can be read as if were an “MRI of a sick theologian which reveals that such a malady as vain theological teaching is not only serious and contagious, but deadly.”

Neder’s outline was almost deceptively simple, yet profoundly moving. According to Barth, he argued, three things can be said about theological teaching:
1) Successful theological teaching depends on the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is so obvious that it almost needs no defence, yet as Neder pointed out, it sets before the theological teacher a serious conundrum: Whatever one does in the theological classroom will be meaningless if the Holy Spirit does not do his work, and yet, as the free Holy Spirit of God, there is nothing one can to do guarantee the Spirit’s work. Nevertheless, this does not absolve the theological teacher, as Barth says, “to sigh, cry, and pray that the Holy Spirit will show up.” This means there are no failsafe pedagogies upon which one can rely, and consequently, what works today may not work tomorrow. Whatever else we do, then, we must figure out how it is that we will ensure that at the very least, we do not fail to invoke the Spirit, in hope, into our classroom.

2) When the Spirit acts, our classes will NOT be a safe space filled with bored spectators. Neder began by pointing out how common it has become to assume that a classroom must be a place of safety for a student–a place where he or she can ask questions and not fear reprisal or ridicule. While that is a good philosophy as far as it goes, such a philosophy may lead a teacher to assume that when a student has enjoyed or felt safe in a class that it has therefore been successful. As Neder humorously put it, “If students are enjoying your classes, it may mean nothing more than that they are enjoying your classes!” However, as he points out, such a safe environment of enjoyment may not be the best place of learning. 

Here Neder pointed out how Barth insisted that theological teachers must be ever aware that the teaching of the Gospel demands a confrontation and a decision, a space in which a personal response to GOD is required (not just a response or reiteration of the class material). In this regard, Neder points out that Barth distinguishes between teaching a student about God and seeking to bring students before what God has said to them. It is only as we lead student to realize that they are recipients and addresses of God’s Gospel that we will be truly doing our duty as theological teachers. And in such instances, the classroom may be the least safe place, but it will certainly not be boring.

3) Good teaching is an act of service and love. As Barth put it, “Without love, theological work would be nothing more than miserable polemics.” Here Neder addressed the temptation to vanity that theologians face, and as he put it, theologians must learn ever anew that you cannot simultaneously win the praise of God and the praise of people–with the latter category uncomfortably indicated in in pursuit of top classroom evaluations, tenure, peer-reviewed articles, etc. The vain theological teacher is an ironic affront to the Gospel we seek to proclaim. Just as it is difficult to hear the billionaire quote from the Sermon on the Mount, so, too, it is difficult for students to hear the Gospel when their teacher is self-evidently concerned more about their own promotion and comfort than that their students should be confronted and comforted by the Gospel. True theological teaching, therefore, requires self-emptying love and service, but that runs contrary to every natural impulse we have toward self-promotion and self-preservation in our careers.


I’ve been trying to eat and live a bit healthier in these past few months. One of the things I’ve been forcing myself to do is to drink a lot more water than I have been accustomed to doing. It hasn’t always been easy, but something I read in a health email newsletter recently reminded me of the importance of water to physical health:

The human body is comprised of about 70% water. Next to air, water is the most vital substance our systems need to function properly. Water is involved in every aspect of the body’s functions . . . The human body can survive for five weeks without food, but only five days without water.

Many of us no longer experience the urge to drink, making water consumption feel like a chore. If you no longer get thirsty, this is the most important time to hydrate. A lack of the thirst sensation is an indication that the body has adapted to its state of dehydration and no longer tells the brain to trigger the thirst signal. Once you begin to hydrate yourself with water on a daily basis, you will find your thirst sensation is quickly restored and drinking water will become part of your normal routine.

The last line certain seems somewhat counterintuitive, but I can personally attest to its truth. Yes indeed, it is true: the more water I’ve been drinking lately, the more often I actually “feel” thirsty. There really IS something about actually taking in more water which makes you more sensitive for your need for it.

This little “H20 factoid” reminded me of Jesus’ invitation in the Gospel of John: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37b).

If we accept that physiologically, it is possible to be thirsty and not even know it, it isn’t difficult to think that this could also happen to us spiritually as well. You see, the problem isn’t that we really aren’t thirsty (we are!) and don’t need Christ’s Life Giving Spirit (we do!); on the contrary, we may be so desperately thirsty that our own bodies and souls have actually shut off the signal telling us of our need. The less I’ve eaten and drank of Jesus body and blood (cf. John 6:55), the more likely it is that I may be in danger of losing my spiritual thirst sensations! (Kind of makes sense why some ecclesiological traditions are so committed to observing the Eucharist each Sunday, doesn’t it?)

For me, at least, it is a startling realization to discover that the times when I am most “spiritually dehydrated” are precisely the times when I may be least likely to recognize it. Furthermore as a teacher of the Gospel, I probably shouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t clear evidence of the “streams of living water flowing from within” when I am living in such a spiritually dehydrated state.

So today, I ask, “Are you thirsty?”

Singularity or Unity of Truth?

I had this email come to me from an inquirer from the West Indies.

May I ask you a question about Christian Soteriology ?

With so many different denominations out there who insist that there are commandments which they keep that other churches do not keep (eg 7th day Sabbath) and with so many different interpretations of the bible, how does one know what the truth is and is finding the truth about every single commandment to be kept a matter of life and death?

Secondly, why is it that the indwelling Spirit doesn’t guarantee singularity of thought?

Here’s what I said:

1) You ask, “With so many different denominations out there who insist that there are commandments which they keep that other churches do not keep (eg 7th day Sabbath) and with so many different interpretations of the bible, how does one know what the truth is and is finding the truth about every single commandment to be kept a matter of life and death?”

Biblically, I think it is important to realize that “truth” is, first of all, most closely identified with the person of Jesus Christ. As he himself says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). One of the problems we have had in the modern period is assuming the “impersonality” of truth. But this is in contrast to the biblical assertion that God is grace and truth, and that he manifests that grace and truth personally in his Son Jesus Christ, who is also said to be full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Jesus is, in other words, the exact representation of God’s gracious and truthful being (cf. Heb 1:3). To know Jesus is to know Truth.

This leads me to conclude that no human individual (or denomination, for that matter) is able to grasp the truth in its fullness on her or his own. We know the truth analogously to how one knows another person. Thus, we would be better off thinking about “truth” in relational terms. In other words, to know, biblically, is to enter into relationship, not simply to grasp cognitively. To know means to know someone moreso than knowing something. While cognitive grasping of the nature of another person is an important aspect of knowledge, it is only a part of what it means to know.

To know the truth, therefore, means to know Christ personally in a growing way. It is what we call the walk of discipeship and following after Jesus. Consequently, differences of opinion on what Scripture means, how we are to keep commandments, etc. should not at all come as asurprise, given the fact that we (Christians) are all in the process of coming to know Christ more fully, and to becoming increasingly conformed to his image. Since we now only see dimly and only know in part, we are bound to disagree, especially because we continue to fall into sin and division. But when we see Jesus face to face, then we shall “know fully, even as [we are] fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12) Full knowledge in the kingdom of God will consist of knowing God the Father fully in and through the one mediator, Jesus Christ.  Though we cannot yet claim to know God fully in this life, we claim the Scripture that he does know us fully in Jesus Christ. Our knowledge of him is, in other words, in the process of “catching up” to how he already knows us.

In regard to whether finding the truth about every single commandment to be kept is a matter of life and death, I would say this: God alone is the one who holds life and death in his hand (Deut 32:39). As important as it is to ensure that we are living in obedience to God’s commands, we do so recognizing that it is only as God gives his Son and his Spirit that there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1-2). Those who think that a particular interpretation of a commandment is the key to life and death are still stuck in the idea that truth has something primarily to do with cognition, or even with right action, rather than right relationship. As disciples, we seek to do everything that Christ commanded (Matt 28:19), but we do so knowing that we do nothing to save ourselves. So we continue to debate over how best to live in obedience to Christ, but we do so recognizing, again, that our knowledge is still incomplete and dim.

2) You ask: “Why is it that the indwelling Spirit doesn’t guarantee singularity of thought?” Hopefully, the above begins to answer that, but I will expand here. Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to think of “unity” as “uniformity of thought” or “singularlity of thought” rather than “cohesion of thought around a common centre.” I use the example of a large group of people standing around a very large and complex architectural structure–like a Great Pyramid of Egypt or the Taj Mahal. Singularity of thought would mean that every observer sees the architectural wonder from exactly the same perspective and using exactly the same set of words.  But such uniformity wouldn’t likely even begin to capture the fullness of what is to be “known.” In contrast, “unity of thought” would accept that while all the people encircled around the object are viewing the same thing (i.e., they have a common centre of focus), they by no means will see the same thing. Thus, someone viewing the Taj Mahal from the north side will see very different things from the person viewing the Taj Mahal from the south side. But it is still the same central focus informing both. That is, I think, what it means to have unity of thought over against the idea of singularity of thought.

If in fact we all thought in uniform ways, the Christian pursuit of the knowledge of God (in the biblical sense) would be in danger of ceasing. Uniformity of thought would mean we would all agree on everything, and once we agree on everything, down to every possible minute detail, we would be tempted to set aside our pursuit of God and the fullness of his glory. We would be tempted by that great temptation which tempted Adam and Eve: You shall be like God, with the ability to know good and evil in the way that only God knows (Gen 3:5).

Furthermore, Scripture makes it clear that it is the Spirit of God alone who knows the deepest thoughts of God (1 Cor 2:11). In order for us all to know God in uniformity of mind, and to be agreed 100% on every minute detail of theology would require that all of us would know all things. And that, of course, would again, by definition, make us equal to God. Rather, it is as a fellowship of believers, the Church, the body of Christ made up of many members (1 Cor 12:12ff) that we come to know God. There is, in other words, no individual member that can claim to “know it all,” lest that individual be tempted to say, “I have no need of you.”

The Scripture teaches that the Spirit is a Spirit of unity (Eph 4:4), not a spirit of uniformity. (By the way, such a spirit of uniformity is what leads people into deception, especially in cults, and indeed, in all kinds of fundamentalisms where diversity of thought is discouraged). This is why the apostle says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). If the Spirit ensured uniformity, the moral imperative to us to make the effort to maintain unity would be negated. Instead, to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit means that we as Christians are called to recognize the spiritual unity that we have in Jesus Christ, in the unity of our baptism, and the oneness of God the Father, even in the midst of disagreements. It means working hard to remember that even when we disagree at various doctrinal points and in matters of practice, we still share a common confession of faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in whose name we were baptized. Technically speaking, then, the only appropriate cause for a break of fellowship with those with whom we disagree is when we disagree about the identity of the God whom we worship.