Jesus Christ is on His Way:

Transitioning from Christ to Us without Eclipsing the Spirit

In Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV/3 §69.4


By John L Drury


JANUARY 13, 2006


Karl Barth concludes his description of Jesus’ prophetic office with a sub-section entitled “The Promise of the Spirit.”[i] At first glance, this section seems to say surprisingly little about the Spirit, which has proved frustrating for Barth’s interpreters. This sub-section appears to be one more case of the “eclipse” of the Spirit in the theology of Karl Barth.[ii]

But appearences can be deceiving. Although there may be places where Barth marginalizes the Spirit, this sub-section is not one of them. Here the Holy Spirit does have a distinct personal activity. Thus the eclipse of the Spirit in Barth’s Dogmatics terminates a bit earlier than some have argued.[iii] The key to understanding the Spirit in this sub-section is to observe its place within the continuing prophetic history of Jesus in its threefold form. Only a thorough grasp of this larger context will make sense of the unique action of the Spirit described in this sub-section.

In order to complete his narration of the history of Jesus’ prophetic office (§69), Barth describes the transition from Jesus’ sphere to ours. This sub-section is unequivocally transitional, but not in a pejorative sense. Its argument is just as complex and integral to the whole as what has come before or what will come after. But its significance can only be understood as a transitional argument. It is the hinge which connects the history of Jesus to the history of our lives. Once this hinge is in place, the personal action of the Holy Spirit will become apparent.


Why does Barth make this argument? The Need for a Transition

In the pages preceding the sub-section under investigation, Barth makes the bold move of attributing the revelatory work of Jesus to his objective history (38-274). In the first instance, revelation is the radiance of his own history before any mention of human reception. And yet Barth has repeatedly insisted that human reception of revelation is not excluded but included in this history. Up to this point in the argument, however, he has yet to do more than assert this inclusion. In this transitional section, Barth explores how this inclusion happens.

How are we included in this history? What does this history have to do with us? How do we get from here and now to Jesus there and then? Or, in Barth’s terms, how does Jesus get from there and then to us here and now? Between him and us “there yawns a deep cleft” (277) and an “unbridgeable gulf” (283). Although Barth mentions him only once by name, Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between history and faith is precisely the problem that this section intends to tackle (286). Barth acknowledges Lessing’s problem (though not on Lessing’s terms) that the particularities of history are not immediately related to the universal sphere of humanity. An argument must be made for how they relate. Their connection cannot be merely asserted. This transitional section is dedicated to crossing that ugly ditch; or, more aptly, seeing how Jesus Christ himself crosses that ugly ditch.

Since no immediate, mechanical transition can be assumed, Barth offers this complex transitional section. Barth is avoiding precisely what he is so often accused of: bare assertion. He repeatedly notes that the transition “cannot be taken for granted” (276). Interestingly, Barth explores a more arbitrary argument only to cast it aside as inadequate. Barth’s “basic answer” to the question is that “Jesus Christ is not without His own” (278). His personal being-in-act is inclusive (279). Barth adds the specific answer concerning the prophetic determination of reconciliation: that the work of Jesus Christ has the dynamic and teleological character of movement beyond itself into our sphere (280-281). His work is intrinsically determined to be known extrinsically. But Barth concludes that these twin answers are insufficient on their own. Without the event of the resurrection they are bare assertions about the inclusive and teleological character of Christ. As Barth puts it, “his work … without … this event would have remained shut up in him” (283). One cannot merely say that the history of Jesus includes us without exploring how and on what basis it is inclusive. The basis, as we shall see, is the Easter event in all its multiform perfection. It is not based on a bare assertion of an immediate connection between Jesus and our human sphere.

However, avoiding arbitrary assertions is not Barth’s only concern. He also wishes to avoid inappropriate ways of making the transition. Barth is of course not the first person to attempt to cross Lessing’s ditch. But he believes that many attempts have failed at the crucial point by substituting something else for Jesus Christ. The primary alternative which Barth rejects is the move to attribute the transition to the Christian community. On this view, the church bridges the gap of history. There are both Roman Catholic and Neo-Protestant (read: Bultmann) ways of doing this. Both ultimately presume some kind of vacuum left open by Jesus which we humans fill. Barth contends that Jesus “cannot be replaced by Christianity” (349). One can see how such solutions do not really solve Lessing’s problem, as Jesus is left to the past (and possibly the future in the form of a delayed parousia) while we are left in charge of the present. In Barth’s eyes, such ecclesiocentric moves cannot avoid Loisy’s cynical remark that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, but the church came instead (348). By way of anticipation, one can see here what Barth might say to critics of his pneumatology. Barth does not appeal immediately to the Spirit to solve the problem, since such an appeal would leave Christ in the past.

In contrast to such solutions, Barth seeks to argue for the transition in a way that does not leave Jesus behind. This is his primary concern throughout the sub-section. Barth sets forth the rule that the transition “must maintain an awareness of its origin in this event” (285). Only if Christ himself makes this transition will the problem really be solved. Only if he is really present and active in our sphere will we be able to say that the ugly ditch has been crossed. How does Jesus cross this ditch? We shall now turn to this question.

How does Barth make this argument? The Structure of the Transition

Barth’s concrete answer to his question is that Jesus Christ crosses the ditch in the power of his resurrection. It is the Easter event which bridges the gap between him and us. This is the only way that Barth can see to move into our sphere without leaving Jesus behind. Easter is the “primal and basic form” of the prophecy of Jesus and therefore the “immediate and perfect revelation” of his reconciling work (289). Easter is “His new coming as the One who came before” (291). In other words, Easter is Jesus’ second coming. This initially strange yet quite obvious insight is the crux of Barth’s argument. Barth sees Easter as the crucial event of revelation. In the Easter event, Jesus Christ is fully revealed. Barth wishes to hear this statement in all its eschatological seriousness and weight. The whole history of revelation, including its reception and consummation, is contained within the risen Jesus. Easter is the final eschatological event breaking into a particular point in history. Although Barth will nuance this strong claim, Barth wants to state this boldly for a reason. Why? Because only on the basis of this first point can we regard the transition as the work of Jesus Christ himself. Once Easter is taken in all its radical seriousness, we can unfold the multiple forms that flow from this one event.

Having made this initial bold point, Barth moves on to provide a sketch of the threefold parousia. Easter may be the second coming of Jesus, but it is not the only form of his coming again. The parousia of Jesus Christ is his effective presence, which is linked to his manifestation (292). It is “one continuous event” which “takes place in different forms” (293). The first form is the Easter event itself. The second or intermediate form is the impartation of the Holy Spirit. The final form is the definitive revelation of Jesus Christ as the goal of history. These three forms of the parousia are the governing structure of this sub-section. Yet Barth does not simply walk through the three forms. Since the focus of this sub-section is the transition to our present sphere, Barth’s focus is on the intermediate form. In typical Barth fashion, he treats his focal point last, moving around it like a spiral in order to place it in its proper context. Thus Barth first discusses Easter in its relation to the Final Consummation in order to carve out the time and space in which the intermediate form takes place. Thus the impartation of the Spirit can only be understood in its proper place between the first and final forms of the parousia.

The structure of Barth’s argument in this sub-section parallels the development of the three-fold parousia in the Church Dogmatics. IV/3 is the first place where Barth makes explicit use of this conceptual framework. Yet the preceding steps toward its deployment can be detected earlier. First, Barth outlines a radically eschatological understanding of Easter in I/2. There Barth makes the bold claim that “the Easter story … actually speaks of a present without any future, of an eternal presence of God in time.”[iv] Although this appears to disallow any further forms, we shall see that Barth does not recant this bold statement. Rather, he consistently develops the notion of the threefold parousia as three forms of this one event, not as additional future events. Furthermore, at this early stage Barth already notes the connection between Easter and Pentecost, referring to the latter as “the sequel to Easter” (I/2, p. 114). The threefold parousia is certainly new for Barth in IV/3, but it is developed along lines previously laid out.

The next step in Barth’s development is the twofold parousia found in IV/1. Here he speaks of “the message of [Jesus Christ’s] first parousia which, as such, is aimed and pointed at His second, His relation to all those whom it concerns, to all those whom He judged in His death.”[v] Here, Easter remains the definitive first form of the parousia, yet the final judgment is added as “the second and final parousia of Jesus Christ” (IV/1, p. 727). Does Barth’s discussion of the two-fold parousia contradict his earlier statement that Easter is an event without any future? Although it is certainly a significant development, the main line of emphasis remains in tact, for he still speaks of Easter as the definitive event: “The first parousia of Jesus Christ might immediately have been His last” (IV/1, p. 734). Barth goes on to say that although it could have happened this way, it actually did not and that the one Easter event opens up into “an Easter history in an Easter time” (IV/1, p. 734). Thus Easter remains an event without any external future, though it contains within itself an unfolding eschatological history.

But how does Barth go from a twofold parousia in IV/1 to a threefold parousia in IV/3? Is this not a contradictory development? It would be if Barth’s presentation was linear in structure. If Barth had simply shifted from speaking of the first and second forms of the parousia to the first, second and third, the conceptual framework would undergo a massive change. But Barth does not make this shift. Rather, he speaks of the first, last and middle form. Thus the two poles of the parousia established in IV/1 stand firm in IV/3. Barth is not “adding” another form as much as exploring the middle time between the first and last forms.

This foray into Barth’s development illumines the counter-intuitive structure of his argument in IV/3. Barth does not lay out the three forms of the parousia as some kind of eschatological roadmap. On the contrary, his eye is focused on the outpouring of the Spirit as the transition from Jesus’ sphere to ours. But in order to get there he must clarify the temporal field in which this outpouring takes place. Hence Barth starts with the first form, moves through the final form, and then concludes with the middle form.

Accordingly, Barth’s first step in his deployment of the threefold parousia in IV/3 is to develop his thoroughly eschatological understanding of Easter. He makes three points, each of which has a corresponding problem. (1) The coming of Jesus Christ and therefore his effective self-declaration has taken place once-for-all in his resurrection (297). Reconciliation has been definitively announced and imparted in this event. The problem posed by this first point is the gulf between this accomplishment of Jesus’ prophecy and its remaining completion in us. (2) The next point is that there are no limits to the determination of God and humanity given at Easter. It is a total, universal, and definitive determination. The correlative problem with this point is its contradiction with the sinful existence of the world today. (3) Barth’s final point is that the Easter revelation is absolutely new (308). Although it is the same Jesus of the past, it is an utterly new coming of this same one because he has come out of the dead (309). This is not something that happens every day. What we have here is the presence within space and time of one who is no longer bound by such limits (311). In other words, he has eternal life. Thus at Easter we have the presence of the future (314). This third point brings with it the question of how the future could appear without there being immediate consummation (317). By taking Easter with all eschatological seriousness, Barth has admittedly painted himself into a corner. If this is the once-for-all, unlimited, absolute presence of the world’s future, why does history persist as before? Why is there this delay between commencement and consummation? Why is there a delay in (though not of) the parousia? Why does the Lord tarry?

Barth has developed his understanding of the absoluteness of Easter and the problem of its delayed consummation in order to lead us into this contradiction. He does not take the easy road whereby Jesus’ work is simply declared unfinished and we are now contributing our part. That would not be a genuine transition because it leaves Jesus behind. In characteristic fashion, Barth does not “solve” the contradiction but rather embraces it. As he puts it, “Our best course is to be confident that the contradiction which does actually confront us is not accidental but expresses an intrinsically meaningful and correct reality or order superior to and underlying the contradiction, so that we need not merely accept it with resignation but seriously respect and even joyfully assent to it” (325). This is the crucial move in his argument. It is within this embrace that the doctrine of the threefold parousia does its work. Barth leads us down a road which acknowledges the absolute perfection of the Easter event while at the same time acknowledges its divinely appointed development in history. Perfection, for Barth, allows for development because he defines perfection in terms of “plenitude” (324). As Barth succinctly says, “the Easter event is too great to be exhausted in a single Easter occurrence” (325). And with even more imagination, Barth declares that Jesus “is the Hero of the Easter Day, and as such He is too great to be merely the Hero of a day” (326). Thus the plenitude of the risen Jesus allows the Easter event to be radically eschatological without restricting its eventfulness from entering our sphere.

Jesus in his prophetic work is thus on the move from his commencement to his consummation (327). The remaining evil in the world is just a reflection of the fact that Jesus is still on his way (328). He is fighting and contesting this evil, and we can join him in this battle (329). In the midst of this suffering “not yet,” we understandably ask why Jesus has chosen to tarry in this manner. Why does he continue on his way, rather than immediately consummate his victory? Barth’s answer is that Jesus intends to give space and time for his reconciled creation “not merely to see, but actively to share in the harvest which follows from the sowing of reconciliation” (331). He wants us to join him as “independently active and free subjects” (332). If Jesus were to simply consummate the history of prophecy immediately, we would only be objects and spectators, not subjects and agents. Thus the time between the times is precisely his gracious decision to give us an opportunity to join him on his way (333).

Already at this stage in the argument, Barth has overcome Lessing’s problem precisely by making it a moot point. By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus himself is far from being trapped in history. Thus our sphere is not closed off from him at all. Our sphere is his, not on the basis of some vague universal proposition, but because he has entered it. The risen Jesus is on the move in our sphere, giving us time and space to join him on his way. This is Barth’s Christocentric response to Lessing’s ugly ditch.

But the argument is not finished; it has only just begun. The corner has been turned, but the new road has not yet been taken. Barth turns from the external form of the relationship between this prophecy and our own sphere (333) to the more precise shape of this relationship (335). The concrete mode of existence in this time between the times is the separation within the reconciled creation between those who know that they are reconciled and those who do not. The crucial difference between Christians and non-Christians is thus noetic. Since the difference is only noetic, Christians are in solidarity with non-Christians as sinners and in their imperfect knowledge (341). But this noetic difference results in a very different form of life, as Christians are concentrated on Jesus, filled with tension by him, constantly on the move with him, and called to proclaim him (342-45). But the bottom line for both Christians and non-Christians is that Jesus Christ is their hope (345). And as their past and future hope, he is also their present hope (348). Thus Jesus is present and active “in this second and intermediate form in our sphere” (349). He “associates” with us and makes us “companions in travel on this way” (349). By speaking of the unity and distinction between Christians and non-Christians, Barth brings into focus the significance of the threefold parousia: Jesus Christ gives time for all to come to him.

The proper name of this intermediate form of the parousia is the promise of the Spirit (350). As Barth explicates, “This is [Jesus’] direct and immediate presence and action among and with and in us. In it He is the hope of us all” (350). The preceding point that Jesus Christ is the one hope for both Christians and non-Christians remains the shape of existence under this promise. The difference between them is now illuminated in terms of the Spirit’s promise, understood both in terms of a subjective genitive and an objective genitive. The first sense of the promise of the Spirit is that the Spirit promises (subjective genitive) by giving presence and assistance to Christians while they are on their way with Jesus (351-53). The second sense is that the Spirit is promised (objective genitive) to non-Christians who still lack the Spirit (353-356). The Spirit remains their future hope, though they resist his presence and assistance.

After critiquing a number of prejudices against the fullness of the Spirit’s presence (356-360), Barth once again turns to the question of why. He has already answered that the time between the first form and the final form was that Jesus Christ is on his way giving an opportunity for the exercise of human freedom. He now fills out this answer by noting that the middle form itself has a particular glory. In this middle form, Jesus Christ shines in a particular way (360-61). Thus our lives correspond to this glory of his as we are alongside and with him (362-367). This applies to both non-Christians and Christians. Actually, “the main concern of the ongoing of the history of the prophecy of Jesus Christ which fills our time is with non-Christians” (364). Jesus Christ is on his way precisely because he wants to include those who do not yet know him. The focus of this whole sub-section is therefore not on the relationship between Christ and the Christian, but between Christ and all humanity. Barth thus confirms that his “concern is with the basic problem of the reach or relevance of His prophecy for the world reconciled to God in Him” (323).

Having walked through his argument, we can see how Barth argues for the transition from Jesus’ sphere to ours. By moving in this indirect way, Barth shows that the threefold parousia is not just a clever innovation, but an actual argument for how Jesus Christ himself moves from his sphere to ours. The argument rests on the eschatology of Easter, the time between this commencement and its consummation, and how this time is filled out with the promise of the Spirit which assists and accompanies genuine human action. In light of the crucial phrase introduced on pg. 327, “Jesus is on his way,” one could summarize both the content and the form of this sub-section as follows: Jesus Christ is on his way in the power of his resurrection from his Easter commencement to his final consummation through his intermediate accompaniment of humanity who walk with him on this way by the promise of his Spirit.

What does Barth achieve by this argument? The Results of the Transition

By arguing this way and coming to this conclusion, what has Barth accomplished? I will note seven significant results of this sub-section in light of the history of theology.

Barth answers Lessing without accepting his terms. Barth acknowledges the seriousness of Lessing’s problem, and deals with it directly. Such historical consciousness shows Barth to be a truly modern theologian. But he does not accept Lessing’s historicist terms. By answering his question in this way he does not leave Jesus in the past but frees him from the constraints of one time. He does this without loosing Jesus’ human historical particularity, for it is precisely the one who came before that is coming again.

Barth allows Jesus himself to solve the problem. Barth does not try to fix the problem merely by his own ingenuity, but points to the reality of Jesus Christ and its power to overcome the dilemma. Note Barth’s distinction of the “reality” and the “reference to this reality” (350). He makes it clear that the reality itself “is the decisive answer to the question of this sub-section” (350). So once again for Barth, God solves theological problems.

Barth gives a theological account of the thoroughgoing eschatology of the New Testament. There is an oft forgotten shadow cast over Barth’s career: the early 20th century “discovery” of the thoroughgoing eschatology of the New Testament. Although Barth has no loyalties to Weiss and Schweitzer, their assessment of the radical apocalyptic of Jesus and the early church was a constant inspiration to him. How do we re-imagine classic doctrine in light of this discovery? The threefold parousia allows Barth to assimilate a radically eschatological interpretation of Easter without getting caught in the talk of a “delay” of the parousia. The parousia is fully present, and yet awaits its fulfillment. And this time between is not a problem but a divinely willed opportunity for human action.

Barth offers an integrated account of eschatological stages. Eschatology often suffers from overly disjunctive temporal stages. One stage is so utterly different from the other that one wonders whether the gospel has the same content in each (and this can take on more sophisticated forms than Dispensationalism). For Barth, the three “stages” are fully integrated into the way of the risen Jesus. Their content is identical, though their form varies. It is one complete whole that is too great to be exhausted in a single moment. As Barth puts it, “His intrinsically perfect work is still moving towards its consummation” (327). Easter is perfect, and in its perfection it takes on many forms. Thus Christ is not cut up into pieces but remains a whole throughout his history.

Barth lays out a radically anti-Pelagian account of human freedom. Although he develops it elsewhere, this sub-section illumines a particular aspect of Barth’s understanding of human freedom. It is all too easy to say that humanity takes over during the time between the times. Barth blocks any Pelagian answer to the question of transition. Jesus gives us time and space for human action, but it is accompanied and upheld by his present action. We are not subjects acting in a vacuum. No, we act as fellow travelers alongside him.

Barth synthesizes Lutheran and Calvinist concerns regarding real presence. Although he does not deal with the Lord’s Supper here, Barth does address traditional Lutheran and Calvinist approaches to the presence of Jesus. On the one hand, he maintains a genuinely personal presence against the Lutheran idea of ubiquity (357). On the other hand, he maintains that the total God-human in both deity and humanity is present against the Reformed tendency to lock Christ’s humanity in heaven (357). In both cases, Barth wishes to uphold the freedom of God: Jesus is free of us and free for us. Within this critique, both of their prime concerns are affirmed: the Lutherans get real presence with us while the Calvinists get local presence in heaven. The bottom line is that this is not a lesser presence, but the full presence of the God-human by means of the divine Spirit (358).

Barth assigns a missional thrust to the scandal of particularity. Barth makes a move whereby Lessing’s problem of historical distance between Jesus and us morphs into the very different problem of the noetic difference between Christians and non-Christians. Barth surprisingly states that the non-Christian is the real concern of this section. How does this issue relate to the question of the transition? The overarching problem of the sub-section is the scope of Jesus’ prophetic work. The question of scope embraces both Lessing’s problem and the problem of mission. The scope of prophecy goes beyond even the Christian, touching the whole world, giving it time to respond. The thrust of the Christian’s response is its call to join Jesus as he seeks for a response among non-Christians.

Barth describes human participation in active historical terms. Barth emphasizes the theme of human participation. In his typically loaded use of prepositions, Barth maintains that Jesus works “among” and “with” and “in” and “through” us (278, 285, 328, 330, 346, 350). He correspondingly states that we “participate” and “take part” and have a “share” in him (279, 280, 283, 312, 317, 330, 331, 344, 363). But participation for Barth is decidedly non-mystical. He avoids language of deification or mystical union. Instead, he uses the language of action. We participate in Christ by joining him in his history. As he acts, so we act alongside him sustained by his primary action. Participation is thus a historical reality. The human subject participates in divine activity without either subject losing his or her distinct identity.

Does Barth eclipse the Spirit? Interpreting the Transition

Despite these accomplishments, one is struck by the paucity of reference to and minimalist development of the doctrine of the Spirit in this section. In a sub-section entitled “The Promise of the Spirit,” one expects more on the Spirit. But it turns out that this argument is really about Jesus Christ. This slight-of-hand has confused and annoyed critics. Can it be accounted for? Is there a reason why the Spirit is in the background? And despite its scant treatment, is Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit in this sub-section defensible?

These questions can be re-framed by the perceptive criticism of Eugene Rogers.[vi] Rogers identifies an eclipse of the Spirit in Barth’s Church Dogmatics which begins in I/2 and carries through IV/3. Throughout the bulk of the Dogmatics, the Son eclipses the Spirit with the result that the Spirit lacks any personal agency. Accordingly, the Spirit has no unique gift to offer in the economy of salvation. Rogers contrasts this eclipse with the “Athanasian interval” he finds in I/1 and IV/4.[vii] In these two cases, Barth speaks of the Spirit’s unique personal agency. Applying Rogers’ analysis to the sub-section under investigation, we can ask, “Does Barth eclipse the Spirit here?”

My answer is “no.” Barth certainly shifts the Spirit to the end of his exposition. But the Spirit is far from eclipsed. Rather, he exhibits genuine personal agency. Furthermore, the whole sub-section is structured in a way that the agency of the Spirit is being supported even when it is not mentioned. Finally, if any constraints on the Spirit’s agency remain, they are fully defensible within Barth’s overall project and serve to uphold the divinity of the Spirit. Thus it can be shown that if there is an eclipse of the Spirit in Barth, it has already passed by IV/3.

The Location of the Spirit in Barth’s Argument

Rogers points out how long the reader must wait for the Spirit to show up in this sub-section.[viii] This long wait is set in contrast to the expectation given by the title “The Promise of the Spirit.” But such a criticism pulls this sub-section out of its proper context.

First, it is important to note the architectonic location of this sub-section. This is not a treatise on pneumatology. That much should be obvious. It lies within Christology proper. So Barth should not be expected to develop a lengthy doctrine of the Spirit. Furthermore, there is a Trinitarian shape to the parallel transition sections in CD IV. This is seldom noted in the criticisms of this section. Each bears a Trinitarian title: the Verdict of the Father (IV/1 §59.3), the Direction of the Son (IV/2 §64.4), and the Promise of the Spirit (IV/3 §69.4). The transition sections in each part of volume four treat the resurrection from different perspectives. Therefore, all three are Christological in content. Despite the title, this is not a section on Pentecost but on Easter. How much Barth invests in these titles is debatable. But their focus is clear: how do we get from Christology to Anthropology?

But why, one might ask, does Barth not answer this question more thoroughly on the basis of the Spirit? Is not Pentecost the bridge between Jesus and us? Although on a larger systematic scale this may be an open question for Barth, such a criticism completely misses the point of this sub-section. If Barth answered Lessing by asserting that the Spirit bridges the ugly ditch of history, then Jesus would remain shut off from us and Lessing wins. Jesus himself cannot stay at a distance from us. He himself comes to us, and the form of his coming is his Spirit. Could Barth have developed his pneumatology more? Sure. But to have answered Lessing’s question without direct attention to Christ would fall short of the achievements of this sub-section.

Yet despite such a locus within Christology, this sub-section does deal with the Spirit directly. Although Barth does not want to leave Jesus behind when describing the transition from him to us, he also does not want to forget the Spirit. As shown above, the placement of the Spirit at the end of the sub-section is not an afterthought. The Spirit’s role in the middle form of the parousia is the focus of Barth’s argument. To ensure that we do not leave Jesus behind, he begins with Easter. But the point is to move within this eschatological time frame to the outpouring of the Spirit. The structure of Barth’s argument alone “correlates the Spirit and the Son in such a way that the role of each is ineliminable,” as Rogers desires.[ix]

Personal Agency of the Spirit

Despite his surprising location at the end of the argument, the Spirit undoubtedly has a significant role to play in this sub-section. Yet the critical doctrinal question remains: Does the Spirit exhibit personal agency in Barth’s exposition? Here is where Rogers’ criticism is felt more acutely, for the Spirit appears to be described as an impersonal power of the Son. Barth repeatedly defines the Holy Spirit as “Jesus Christ Himself in the power of His resurrection” (352). If Barth’s Spirit is only a power and not a person, then it is not the Spirit of Constantinople. Is this not an eclipse of the Spirit?

            Barth certainly defines the Spirit with reference to Jesus Christ. But this is no theological crime. The test is not whether the Spirit’s agency is bound by his relationship to Christ, but rather whether the Spirit within this relationship displays his own actions – whether he is the subject of his own verbs. There is ample evidence in this sub-section of the Spirit’s subjectivity. First, the use of the subjective genitive categorically attributes agency to the Spirit: the Spirit promises (351). The Spirit is not only an object that is promised, but a subject who promises. What does the Spirit promise? The Spirit promises to do concrete things for the Christian. “[T]he Holy Spirit … sets them on their way … accompanies them … continually permits and commands and helps them … bestowing upon them gifts and lights and powers … makes them Christians, and arms them” (353). This long string of verbs shows that the Holy Spirit is behaving as a personal agent, just as Rogers claims he does not for Barth during the eclipse.

But the quantitative question remains: why does Barth so seldom speak in this manner. The answer can be approached by means of a parallel problem in Barth interpretation: does Barth make room for genuine human agency. John Webster has argued that even when Barth is not speaking directly about human agency, the whole of his Church Dogmatics functions as a moral ontology, creating the moral space in which human agents act.[x] The threefold parousia is a case in point for this logical process. The middle form of the parousia is the time for genuine human action. The Spirit fits into this sub-section in a similar way. Even when Barth is concentrating his attention on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he is doing so in a way that creates space for the action of Christ’s Spirit. Thus, linking Pentecost to Easter does not eclipse the Spirit, but rather carves the logical space in which the Spirit acts.

             In light of this logical function, Barth has established the agency of the Spirit for the remainder of this part of the doctrine of reconciliation. Any future action of the Spirit can be seen as rooted in the achievements of this sub-section. Are any such instances of the Spirit’s personal action found in the remainder of this part-volume? Yes. “He [the Holy Spirit] is the One who constitutes and guarantees the unity of the totus Christus.”[xi] “The work of the Holy Spirit, however, is to bring and to hold together that which is different … to co-ordinate and therefore to bind them into a true unity” (IV/3.2, p. 761). “In virtue of the gracious act of the Holy Spirit, who is Himself God … there exists and persists … the people of His witnesses in world-occurrence” (IV/3.2, p. 762). The logical possibility for such statements can be traced back to the transition section under investigation. The threefold parousia of Jesus Christ opens up the time during which his Spirit engages in these binding actions. So, the threefold parousia puts an end to any eclipse of the Spirit in Karl Barth.[xii]

The Spirit’s Horizon

Clearly the Spirit is not eclipsed in this sub-section of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. The quantitative problem has been explained as necessary and fitting for Barth’s argument. The open question for systematic theology after Barth is how to increase the quantity of pneumatological reflection without undermining Barth’s achievements. Some restraints remain in Barth’s account, and we might be tempted to remove them. However, these are not intended to constrain the Spirit’s agency but only set the proper horizon for the Spirit’s work. Three particular aspects of this horizon must be noted.

(1) The Trinitarian Horizon. One must take seriously Barth’s use of perichoresis both in the Trinitarian dogma and in its analogical application to the threefold parousia. The persons of the Trinity fully interpenetrate one another, so much so that their works in history are indivisible (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisia sunt). Where we find one, we find the other two. One can never get away from this formula. So when Barth brings in the Spirit, it is fully tied to the history of Jesus. The Spirit has his own special work to do during this intermediate form of the parousia. But even this special work is the work of Jesus in the form of his Spirit. Could it be that here Barth is not falling short of the orthodoxy of the Cappadocians (as Rogers claims), but rather drawing on the later orthodox developments of John of Damascus? Could it be that he is more orthodox that the patristic sources marshaled against him?[xiii]

(2) The Christocentric Horizon. Barth’s relentless tying of the Spirit to Christ is not an eclipse but an encircling. Barth begins this sub-section with the apt metaphor of a circle. Jesus Christ is the center, whereas we humans are the circumference (276, 278, 281, 283). The rest of the sub-section is dedicated to describing the transition from the center to the circumference. This spatial metaphor falls by the wayside for the remainder of his exposition, most likely because it would distract from the temporal content of his argument. But it is a helpful metaphor for understanding the place of the Spirit between Christ and us. The Spirit fills the space between the center and circumference. Within this space, the Spirit acts freely. But the Spirit ought never to be understood as occupying some independent space or positing some competing point. The Spirit works as the Spirit of Christ for our sakes.

(3) The Eschatological Horizon. Barth’s pneumatology is linked to his radically eschatological outlook. Barth is simply not that concerned with the maintenance of normal human institutional action.[xiv] The time of the church is the end of time. The end of time has begun unequivocally at Easter. The last judgment impinges on every moment. Between this commencement and consummation is the time of the Spirit’s promise. Talk of the Spirit is thus radically conditioned on all sides by eschatology. So Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit will never take the form of solid sacerdotal institutions. The Spirit blows where it wills, and thus freely creates infinitely varied forms of human community. This is not a disparaging of the Spirit, but rather an acknowledgment of the Spirit’s thoroughly eschatological character.[xv]

Barth’s pneumatology is qualitatively justifiable but quantitatively inadequate. Hence, a Barthian pneumatology requires development. If we want to be true to Barth’s best insights, we must keep these horizons in mind. Only within these parameters will the Spirit’s unique action be genuinely divine.


Despite appearances to the contrary, Barth has not eclipsed the Spirit in this sub-section. His indirect path to the personal activity of the Spirit is not a weakness but genius. By first moving through the threefold parousia, Barth has included the Spirit in the transition from Jesus’ sphere to ours without making an arbitrary appeal. Rather than pulling the Spirit out of the hat, Barth has argued for the personal movement of Jesus Christ by his Spirit. As we continue to develop a pneumatology beyond Barth, this mode of argumentation invites us to take the road less traveled whereby we develop Barth within the parameters he has wisely set.[xvi]







Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956).

_________. Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956).

_________. Church Dogmatics IV/2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958).

_________. Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961).

_________. Church Dogmatics IV/3.2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1962).

Hunsinger, George. “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 148-185.

Jenson, Robert W. “You Wonder Where the Spirit Went.” Pro Ecclesia 2:3 (1993) 296-304.

Rogers, Eugene F. “Eclipse of the Spirit in Karl Barth.” Conversing with Barth. Eds. John C. McDowell and Mike Higton. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004. 173-190.

Webster , John. Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.



[i] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961) 274-367. Hereafter cited in-text.

[ii] Eugene F. Rogers notes this sub-section as an example of the eclipse of the Spirit in Barth, “Eclipse of the Spirit in Karl Barth,” in Conversing with Barth, eds. John C. McDowell and Mike Higton (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004) 174. Robert W. Jenson also identifies this sub-section as an instance of Barth’s binitarianism, “You Wonder Where the Spirit Went” Pro Ecclesia 2:3 (1993) 298.

[iii] Rogers argues that the eclipse of the Spirit begins after I/1 and does not pass until IV/4, “Eclipse” 184-88.

[iv] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956) 144. Hereafter cited as I/2.

[v] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956) 726. Hereafter cited as IV/1.

[vi] Eugene, “Eclipse” 173-190.

[vii] Rogers, “Eclipse” 181-88.

[viii] Rogers, “Eclipse” 174.

[ix] “Eclipse” 178.

[x] John Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[xi] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1962) 760, emphasis added. Hereafter cited as IV/3.2.

[xii] The results of this study call into question whether the eclipse may terminate even sooner. Note for instance the personal action of the Spirit in IV/1, p. 308 and Church Dogmatics IV/2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958) 326.

[xiii] Rogers, “Eclipse” 173.

[xiv] The revolutionary political implications of his pneumatology are evident at this point.

[xv] The eschatological form of the Spirit is explored by George Hunsinger, “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) 173-79.

[xvi] A word of thanks is in order to Professor Daniel Migliore and the students in his seminar “Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics” (Fall 2005) for feedback on an earlier draft of this essay. Any problems that remain are the sole responsibility of the author.