Barth on the Spirit – Evangelical Theology review pt 4

Posted: March 7, 2012 by J in Book review
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(continuing on Barth’s Evangelical Theology)

I love this chapter.

Barth begins by admitting that he can’t justify any of the claims he’s made about the importance of this thing, theology.

How does theology come to take and hold the place [we have claimed] – a place which seems to the onlooker to be situated in mid-air?

The science of theology has no outside supports – nothing, that is, outside the story to which it is summoned to bear witness. Nothing outside the incarnate Word, the apostles and the community that learns from them. Theology cannot justify its existence or task by reference to any pre-existing discipline or idea or presupposition. It cannot construct any supports to ground it:

Theology can only do its work… Its work can be well done only when all presuppositions are renounced which would secure it from without or within.

What power or authority, then drives and enlightens theology, and indeed this whole story of God’s revelation?

The real power that is present and active in theology is not to be harnessed or controlled by the theologian for his purposes. For that power is superior to theology and to the community itself. It renders logical foundations unnecessary,

since it is a productive power which replaces all safeguards stemming from other sources.

So, the appearance that theology hovers in mid-air is more than just an appearance! But what if the air in which it hovers is

flowing, fresh, healthy air in contrast to all motionless or stagnant office air [?] And to ‘hover’ in mid-air could also mean to be moved, borne and driven by this flowing air.

In fact, the whole community exists in ‘such free mobility and movement’. And so does the entire story of God’s Word, through Jesus and the apostles, which creates the church.

All this takes place in the realm of that freely moved and moving air, the gentle or stormy wind, the divine spiratio and inspiratio.

This air is the ruach or pneuma spoken of in Scripture. Both words mean moving air. ‘Ghost’ is a bad translation! The characteristic of God’s ruach  or Spirit is ‘freedom’: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” The Spirit acts in complete freedom or sovereignty, and creates freedom among men.

It is clear that evangelical theology itself can only be pneumatic, spiritual theology.

The Spirit can however depart from theology in two ways, rendering it lifeless:

1. When theology ‘refuses to permit itself to be led by him into all truth’ – through fear of the power, or through prior commitment to another power or ideology.

2. When we imagine we have some control over the Spirit’s actions, to dispense or harness his power like electricity.

All true theology, then, is the outworking of the prayer, ‘Come, Spirit of life!’



This is my favourite chapter of the book. There’s a bit of magic in it, which stands out all the more against the stodgy german style of the rest. Actually, it’s one of the most refreshing things I’ve ever read. I think here Barth manages to express the awe and glory of being involved in theology, and of being the church. It leaves me worshipping.

Two things here are important, I feel. One is Barth’s complete rejection of external presuppositions or foundations for the theological task. What a refreshing change from the foundationalist approach of so many modern systematic theology books! We don’t do this stuff because something outside the faith is allowing us to, or because we believe something else that can justify the whole project. No, we do theology as God’s people summoned to listen, believe and speak by the overwhelming power of the Spirit.  In other words, theology is relational from start to finish. We dispense with the question of justification, we make no apology for our activity, feeling ourselves caught up in the moving wind of something far beyond ourselves, not initiated or controlled by us – content to simply obey the summons! Somehow I feel released just reading it!

The other thing is that in Barth’s account, theology has a direction: it moves towards freedom. Indeed he says that our attempts at theology can be judged by this: do they produce freedom? I love this vision of the goal of theology! It resonates, because I’ve found that as I’ve come to understand better the Scriptural account of God and his ways, I have found myself delivered and released from many imprisoning and paralysing forces that had plagued me. This is one reason why I believe in doing theology – because of the liberation I’ve found it to bring.

How would it be if we assessed all theology be this standard in future: does it bring freedom?

What do you think?


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