Barth and the forgotten person of the Trinity

Been doing a bit of reading and research over the last while related to the Spirit and Paul including The Holy Spirit and the Renewal of All Things: pneumatology in Paul and Jurgen Moltmann by T. David Beck.

Beck starts with a bang: consistent with the Filoque clause in the Nicene Creed (the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son),  Western Theology has struggled to develop a consistent and biblically robust theology of the Spirit.

He’s right.

He identifies two opposing tendencies: the institutional and the experiential. I’ll look at the first in this post which has been reflected in Luther, Calvin and the institutional churches of the Reformation.

The Spirit’s location is in the sacraments and in the Word. But more than this, the Spirit is tied to Christ, as an agent through whom the atonement is applied to believers. This leads to a subordinationistic tone to Western Protestant pneumatology. The Spirit’s work  is tied to ecclesiology (Word and Sacrament) and acts as a function of the church and of Christ.

Beck argues that Karl Barth’s pneumatology is a classic example of the institutional tendency. Take his doctrine of Revelation, corresponding to the Trinity: God the Revealer makes known his Word, the Revealed, to humans. The only way for them to know the Revealed is through divine revelation, the Holy Spirit, God’s Revealedness.

In Barth, the Spirit is the revelatory bridge between sinful humans and God. It is God alone who enables and empowers people to know him. Only through God is God known.

This all sounds fine does it not? What is the problem for Beck? We’ll get there.

Barth, of course, has no time for natural theology. Revelation is the event where Scripture becomes ‘the dynamic and effectual Word of God’. The Word reveals Christ. The role of the Spirit is to make this happen. The Spirit’s role is to enable believers subjectively to know God, based on the objective work of Christ.

Barth’s theology of revelation is obviously trinitarian. Yet, here is the rub for Beck. Barth’s Trinitarianism is so strongly orientated around Christology that the latter overshadows pneumatology. Yes, Barth has an indispensable role for the Spirit, but the Spirit only makes subjectively real what ‘is already objectively real in the being of Jesus Christ.’

Put it this way. For Barth, the church is NOT made the body of Christ, nor individuals become members of the body by the gift of the Spirit. Beck quotes from CD IV.1:667. The church

became his body and they became its members in the fulfillment of their eternal election on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in his resurrection from the dead … there can be no doubt that the work of the Holy Spirit is merely to ‘realize subjectively’ the election of Jesus Christ and his work as done and proclaimed in time, to reveal and to bring it to men and women.

So the Spirit is the one who brings to historical reality the eternal hiddenness of believers’ prior election in Christ.  Yes, the church can only exist because of the work of the Spirit. But that church, for Barth, is already the body of Christ.

The Spirit, for Barth, is ‘wholly and entirely’ to be regarded ‘as the Spirit of Christ, of the Son, of the Word of God’ (CD I.1:452.) The Spirit is the power of Christ, whose ministry is orientated around revealing Christ and uniting believers to Christ.

So Barth can say of the Spirit ‘But fundamentally and generally there is no more to say of Him that He is the power of Jesus Christ ..’ CD IV.1:648.

This leads to Barth virtually merging the work of the Spirit and the work of Christ to a point where it is difficult to see any distinct agency for the Spirit.

Barth can say that Jesus attests his own reconciliation to us by the Spirit. He calls believers by the Spirit. He can even talk of the Spirit as the arm of Christ in his self-revelation to humanity. Even that the presence and gift of the Spirit are directly Christ’s own work. Such ideas tend to depersonalize the Spirit.

There is a lot to appreciate about Barth’s Trinitarianism: Father, Son and Spirit all work in harmony and grace in revelation and reconciliation. No-one can know God but through the subjective work of the Spirit.  Rightly he stresses the intimate and inter-related work of Christ and the Spirit and how they are related to the Father.

However, if the Spirit is functionally identified with Christ, the result is a pneumatology submerged within Christology. Another word for this is subordination.

As Beck puts it, the Spirit ‘tends to evaporate as the third person of the Trinity, appearing instead as a thin veneer of Christ’ (7).

Comments, as ever, welcome.


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