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.


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.