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God's Freedom - An Excerpt from The Holy Spirit

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The Holy Spirit by Christopher Holmes

Today we continue our study of the third member of the Trinity. In The Holy Spirit, Chris Holmes takes up the questions surrounding the Spirit’s procession and mission with the help of three of the church’s greatest teachers—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. The following excerpt begins to outline Barth's contribution to pneumatology. This first book in the New Studies in Dogmatics series is now available from Zondervan Academic. Order your copy today.


Karl Barth is the last major classical interlocutor to feature in our account of the Holy Spirit. As Augustine and Thomas, Barth will not leave us room “for a facile self-dispensation from the burden of metaphysical thought.” This is because of one theological conviction above all else, the majestic reality of God. It is theology’s task to describe this God, especially the extent to which God remains God in all that he does for the life of the world.

Barth does not unfold the “who” of the Spirit in God’s life in a manner similar to Augustine’s or Thomas’s. That is not to suggest that Barth is indifferent to such talk. Rather, Barth’s pressing concern is the freedom of God — God’s remaining God in the creation, maintenance, perfection of covenant fellowship with creatures. Accordingly, Barth thinks language like that of “relations of origin” can be helpful to the extent that it deepens appreciation of this central insight. This is why it is fitting to include Barth in our account alongside Augustine and Thomas. With them he shares a common interest that God’s acts among us arise from the life of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our account in this chapter and the next will examine not only how Barth secures this point but also whether his way of doing so is satisfactory.

Barth has a profound sense of God’s ontological self-sufficiency and of God’s freedom in relationship to all he does. God’s freedom is on display in the accomplishment of humanity’s reconciliation and redemption in Jesus Christ, the covenant of grace. God’s freedom is the proper ground, indeed, the premise, Barth argues, of God’s being for us. At every step, Barth is keen to point out that the latter rests on the former. If God’s being is contingent on God’s acts, then God’s acts are necessary to God’s being. Acts thus become the means by which God becomes God rather than “an act of Trinitarian self-repetition.”

As with Augustine and Thomas, Barth has a strategy for helping us see how the Spirit’s acts are anchored in the Spirit’s antecedent divinity. Barth’s strategy is different from Augustine’s and Thomas’s, and yet it has deep affinities with theirs. We see this at work in part in Barth’s engagement with John’s gospel. Although Barth does not supply us with a full-blown commentary on John’s gospel as does Augustine (in the form of his homilies) or Thomas (in the form of his lectures), Barth’s Erklärung of John’s gospel from the mid-1920s is nonetheless highly suggestive of how the Spirit not only (1) remains God the Spirit but also (2) how the Spirit originates in God. To be sure, his Erklärung does not cover the whole of the gospel but rather 1:1–8:59. Nonetheless, Barth’s Erklärung, especially of John 2:23–3:21, infers interesting things regarding the Spirit as one of the three irreducible modes of the one divine being.

What also needs to be said is that we treat Barth (as we did Augustine and Thomas) in a manner that accords with his own procedural commitments. Barth’s ordering of the material on the Spirit in §12 of CD I/1 — the Spirit’s work in advance of reflection on the eternality of the Spirit — serves a distinct purpose. As we will unfold, this is based on Barth’s reckoning to describe the same subject, God the Spirit, twice. Barth describes the redemptive features of the Spirit’s work (§12.1) before and in dependence on what is primary — the Spirit’s “Godness” (§12.2). The Spirit’s divinity is the premise and ground of the Spirit’s impartation of freedom to the creature. To use language akin to Thomas’s, it is the Spirit’s procession that is manifest in the Spirit’s mission. We ask of Barth, as we did Thomas and Augustine, what he thinks the Fourth Gospel teaches of how the Spirit originates in God and how that is revealed in the Spirit’s work to the outside, in which the Spirit remains God’s Spirit and not our Spirit.

In the next chapter, we will also take up Barth on how the Spirit’s work relates to the Spirit in God’s inner life. Our concern, however, is not with his exegetical work but with his more synthetic and later work, namely, CD IV, §§62, 67, and 72, especially as it relates to how the Spirit does things. Although we do not find in CD IV a freestanding account of the immanent Spirit (which is what Barth gives us in §12.2), an economic treatment of the Spirit is in Barth’s hands never just that. As we will see, his treatment of the gathering, upbuilding, and sending work of the Spirit in relation to the Christian community trades on and amplifies what he says in §12.2. However, Barth does not say anything fundamentally new in CD IV. He does say the same thing, but he says it differently (that is, in relationship to Christ’s prophecy) and with more of an ecclesial focus. This is worth our attention. As with §12.1, §§62, 67, and 72 presuppose the Spirit’s antecedence as the ground of the description of the Spirit’s encompassing, liberating, transforming, and rendering transparent of all things in relationship to the purposes of the Risen One and his Father.

Before we turn to Barth on the Fourth Gospel, we need to be clear about how Barth uses the term “revelation.” For Barth, God’s revelation is self-revelation. Revelation as self-revelation is “reiterative” in character, which means that God acts among us as God is. In Christ and the Spirit, we are given to know and love God as God truly is. God self-discloses, argues Barth, not because God is in need of so doing or constrained by something outside of God. Rather, God gives of the divine self in an utterly saving way because God is free to do so. God is a God who shares with sinners the life God has in himself and from himself. Barth uses the term “revelation” in the service of describing this truth. (Pgs. 133-135)


The Holy Spirit is now available to order from Zondervan Academic.

[Common Places] New Studies in Dogmatics: Barth’s Pneumatology in Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit
[Common Places] New Studies in Dogmatics: Barth’s Pneumatology in Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit Zondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics series launches this fall with its first volume, Christopher Holmes’s The...
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