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[Common Places] New Studies in Dogmatics: Barth’s Pneumatology in Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit

Categories Common Places

Karl Barth

Zondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics series launches this fall with its first volume, Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit, which is now available. We will introduce readers to this work and engage with some of the doctrinal issues addressed therein over a series of four posts here at Common Places. In this third post, Ben Rhodes takes a closer look at Part 3: Engaging Barth: The Other-Directed Spirit. (Click here to read the other posts in this series.)


Christopher Holmes’s writing is an admirable model of patient exegesis, both of Scripture and of the Christian theological tradition. His most recent book, The Holy Spirit, largely consists of careful readings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth as they read the Gospel of John (both in more explicit commentary form and within larger dogmatic accounts) in order to develop a doctrine of the Trinity. Holmes has elsewhere described his increasing sympathy towards the kind of more speculative theology that this Western tradition has engaged in. In order to do justice to Scripture, particularly John, the most metaphysical of the gospels, Holmes believes it is necessary to give an account of who God is in se: what the economy of salvation reveals is the Triune identity of Father, Son, and Spirit, God in Himself. Within the book and elsewhere Holmes acknowledges that reading Aquinas helped him to make peace with this need for speculation in order to properly secure the mission of God in the world, the sending of the Son and the Spirit by the Father. The bedrock on which this speculative spade turns is the relations of origin between Father, Son and Spirit: what the missions reveals are the processions.

Barth is the most minor of the three main figures in Holmes’s account; but Holmes is a reliable guide to the major themes of Barth on the Holy Spirit. He provides an accurate account of Barth’s interaction with (the first few verses of) the Gospel of John, and the larger contours of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity. In keeping with the Western tradition, particularly the work of Augustine and Aquinas, Barth often speaks of the Spirit in reference to Jesus Christ. Barth’s shorthand is that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Much turns on the preposition’s scope and force.

Barth presents the work of the Spirit as primarily ostensive, testifying to the truth and reality of Jesus Christ, thereby making and sustaining us as Christians. The Holy Spirit does not speak of himself (to use the language of the Farewell Discourses in John). Within his own immediate polemical context, Barth insists on describing the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ—the Holy Spirit is not the spirit of German Christianity! Barth’s deeper concern is with what he believes is the perennial human temptation to reduce theology to anthropology, to intend to speak of God but to end up simply spouting about humanity in a loud voice. However, Barth’s own doctrine of the Spirit draws on much wider and deeper exegetical and historical theology than is sometimes evident from Holmes’s account.

The Holy Spirit by Christopher HolmesI entirely understand the need to delimit the scope of any book, and Holmes’s concentration on the Gospel of John produces some excellent results. But I wonder what different emphases might arise from a broader examination of Scripture. To take one example: what picture of the person and work of the Holy Spirit would emerge from complementing John with the Synoptic Gospels, particularly with reference to the Old Testament Messianic prophecies of liberation enacted by the power of the Spirit? Healing happens all around Jesus, demons are exorcised, and many time-honored religious traditions are radically challenged by the one who is the kingdom of God in person.

At the risk of over-generalizing, despite Holmes’s careful rejection of quietism when speaking of contemplation, the language of speculative or metaphysical theology often does tend towards peaceful and passive verbs. To take one of the contributions of Barth to heart, where is the actively disruptive work of the Holy Spirit in this pneumatology? The eternal being of the Holy Spirit, perfect fellowship in se between the Father and Son, is the deepest ground of the Spirit’s liberating and creative work ad extra. The activity of establishing and empowering men and women for fellowship with God, and consequently in solidarity and fellowship with one another, shapes the church as a body which exists for the sake of the world. This active work (Barth even occasionally describes it as revolutionary) cuts across the grain of many settled habits. The children of the Father are set free by Jesus Christ for freedom in the power of the Holy Spirit. Might it be that at least part of what our churches need is a dose of the Spirit who blows where he will, surprising us and upsetting our settled expectations? What might this mean for our ethics, both within the church and beyond its walls?

I offer these questions in a spirit of gratitude for Holmes’s work and in the conviction that pneumatology matters for the Christian life. I invite any readers who will be attending the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta to participate with us in a panel discussion with Holmes about his book on Thursday, November 19, 2015. We will be focusing especially on Barth’s pneumatology, but I anticipate a lively and wide-ranging conversation about the Holy Spirit.

(Image: Karl Barth. Transpositions.)


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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