Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study Edition

Selection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:3-10, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Barth’s chapter on the foundation of the Christian life (Church Dogmatics IV/4) begins with a discussion entitled, “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” in which Barth addresses the origin, beginning and initiation of human faithfulness which replies and corresponds to the faithfulness of God. How is it that one becomes a Christian, especially given that this is a human impossibility? Barth assumes that one may indeed become a Christian, yet how this occurs is both a miracle and a mystery. The Christian is a completely new person with a new name and character; despite being identical with the person that they were previous to becoming a Christian, they are now utterly new.

On pages 3-4 Barth turns to Scripture to validate his assertion that the possibility of human faith is a divine rather than human possibility. He goes on to insist that to say otherwise, or to count on something other than God himself as the foundation of Christian life is to speak ignorantly. That a person is faithful, a Christian, is the work of God; and yet, it is the person who is faithful. The human agent is the subject of their own faithfulness, yet the ground of their new subjectivity lies not in themselves but in God. This is both the mystery and the miracle of the event in which a person becomes a Christian.

Barth rejects three common approaches to understanding the question of the foundation of the Christian life. First, he rejects what he terms the view of Lutheran orthodoxy following Melanchthon, in which a favourable divine verdict has been issued concerning the person but which leaves the person unaltered by it in their inner being, so they remain a sinner rather than a faithful covenant partner. Second, he rejects the popular Roman Catholic view whereby a person is infused with supernatural grace by which, if they use it properly, they may become faithful. Third, he rejects the view he associates with Neo-Protestantism (of both liberal and Pietist varieties?) whereby the work of God is simply to catalyse inherent moral impulses in the human personality. Barth sets these approaches aside:

None of them makes it clear how there comes into being the Christian, the man who responds to God’s faithfulness with faithfulness, the man who as a free subject is God’s true partner in the covenant of grace. None of them can show in what sense the existence of this man is grounded in the great possibility of God, in this alone, but in this truly (5).

Against these three common approaches, therefore, Barth sets “the answer which Holy Scripture gives,” which he describes as

The change which comes on man himself in the freedom of the gracious God, the change in which he himself is free to become what he was not and could not be before, and consequently to do what he did not and could not do before, i.e., be faithful to God. … The Christian life has its true source in this change which God brings about in man (5-6).

Barth then concludes his opening salvo with a discussion of four primary sets of images from the New Testament which describe the ‘mystery and miracle’ of the ‘divine turning’ to particular individuals in terms of the miraculous renewal whereby the recipient of divine grace receives a new being and a new heart by which it is indicated that they have become a new person. They have been born from above as a new creation, raised from the dead and given a new existence.

The Christian life begins with a change which cannot be understood or described radically enough, which God has the possibility of effecting in a man’s life in a way which is decisive and basic for his whole being and action, and which He has in fact accomplished in the life of the man who becomes a Christian (9).


  • Barth does not reject the particular truth which each of the three approaches endeavours to set forth, but denies that they can function as the ground by which one becomes a Christian. It is evident that against the three common approaches Barth appeals to his Reformed heritage to emphasise the priority of divine grace in the event of conversion. This graces operates monergistically (my word, not Barth’s), ‘coming upon’ the person and ‘opening’ them, etc.
  • Barth refers to God’s action as a ‘divine turning’ – similar to the language used to describe the action and movement of divine grace in his discussion of the perfections of the divine loving.
  • Barth refers several times to the ‘miracle and mystery’ of this event, using the same kind of language he uses to describe the mystery and miracle of the incarnation.

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