Monthly Archives: July 2016

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:31-40, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Karl Barth brings his meditation on “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” to a conclusion with a summation in five points of what he means by this term, including a discussion of the form of Christian life which issues from this work of God, as is appropriate in a discussion of ‘the command of God the Reconciler.’

First, Barth reiterates that the beginning of Christian life is the ‘direct self-attestation and self-impartation of the living Jesus Christ’ in the work of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author and finisher of Christian faith. Jesus Christ himself is the divine change which occurs in a person’s life and by which they become a Christian. Barth’s emphasis here is to preclude the idea that the Christian life results on account of the mediation of the Christian community, or even the Scripture. Jesus Christ may use these means as an instrument of his Word, but his call to a person is direct and immediate. This is a person’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit, whereby Jesus Christ imparts ‘Himself as at once the Guarantor of God’s faithfulness to him and of his own faithfulness to God’ (33).

Second, this divine work whereby Jesus Christ gives himself to specific persons in the work of the Holy is the form of grace in which God actually reconciles the world to himself. ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit is effective, causative, even creative action on man and in man. It is, indeed, divinely effective, divinely causative, divinely creative’ (34). That is, it is not the human response or the ecclesial work of water baptism which is the means of this grace, but the direct work of Jesus Christ as he baptises with the Holy Spirit. By this grace a person is changed ‘truly and totally,’ and is liberated for their own decision of faithfulness in correspondence to the faithfulness shown them by God. This divine change is so transformative the person can and will never forget it (35).

Third, this ‘omnipotently penetrating and endowing’ grace demands the response of gratitude, for this grace not only liberates the person for a new obedience but claims them for this obedience to their new Lord and Master whom they have now acquired. The grace that forgives and frees also commands (35).

The problem of ethics is thus raised for him, or more exactly, the problem of the ethos corresponding to it, of the response of his own being, action and conduct. … He has to take up a position in relation to this, the only position in relation to this, the only position which can be taken, but a position taken in freedom. It is not that God’s act on and in man makes of him a cog set in motion thereby. The free God does not act thus with man. On the contrary, what the free God in His omnipotence wills and fashions in Jesus Christ in the work of the Holy Ghost is the free man who determines himself under this pre-determination by God, the obedience of his heart and conscience and will and independent action. Here man is taken seriously and finds that he is taken seriously, as the creature which is different from God, which is for all its dependence autonomous before Him, which is of age. Here he is empowered for his own act, and invited, commanded and encouraged to perform it (35).

The human person is set in an immediacy of relation with their God from whose direct command they cannot escape. They have been snatched from the power of sin and death, liberated from their own impotence, and freed from their assumed autonomy whereby they were supposedly ‘free’ alongside God; God has ‘beset them behind and before’ (cf. Psalm 139:5).

Fourth, the beginning of Christian life is the beginning of a person’s life in a distinctive ‘fellow-humanity.’ That is, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit sets a person in the Christian community where they become the companion and fellow of others who themselves are likewise bound to God and so to one another. ‘He ceases to be a self-enclosed man, and there is actualised his relationship to all those to whom Jesus Christ has also attested and imparted himself as Lord and Brother. … He is redeemed from all isolation and also from all contingent or transient attachments to others, and incorporated in the communion of saints (37). The Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not identical with a person’s entry and reception into the Christian community, but it will lead to this. Further, in this community the person will receive their own special spiritual power and their own special task in the total life and ministry of the community (38). These spiritual gifts can never be rigidly defined or limited to institutional offices:

The criterion of the authenticity of the discharge of all institutional office in the Church is always and everywhere the question whether the one who serves in this or that office is a recipient and bearer of the charisma indispensable to his work, and first and finally whether he is a recipient and bearer of the love which is above all spiritual gifts. At no time, then, in the life and ministry of the community, in the fulfilment of Christian fellow-humanity, can one dispense with the petition: Veni Creator Spiritus. Always and everywhere this must be prayed afresh.

Finally, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is only the beginning of the Christian life, a beginning which must be ever-renewed in its always fresh continuation. Just as the seasons are always renewed, so the fruit-bearing Christian life is ever renewed, and so requires ever-new sowing and reaping, cultivation and pruning, a daily penitence and striving for those new possibilities which lie ahead (39). The whole of the Christian life is one long Advent-season, a life of ‘waiting and hastening’ (2 Peter 3:12) toward the ultimate kingdom, in prayer and eucharist, caught up in the movement of God: ‘the power of the life to come is the power of his life in this world’ (40).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 10:1-10

Samuel Anoints SaulI started my talk at Princeton, and my ANZATS talk this week in Melbourne, with a reference to this biblical passage. It is, perhaps, a little unusual to start an academic paper this way, but the topic allowed it, and I enjoyed it. The title of my talk was “‘Changed into Another Man’: The Meaning of ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit’ in Karl Barth, in Conversation with the Pentecostal Doctrine.” Here is the beginning of my talk with a reflection on this passage.


The title for my paper today includes a phrase taken from 1 Samuel 10, the story of Samuel anointing Saul to be Israel’s king. The main point of the story, however, is not Samuel’s anointing Saul with oil, though that anointing is not without significance: it confirms the divine election of Saul for the service to which God has called him and affirms the same election to the young man. As such it has symbolic, confirmatory and declarative aspects. Nevertheless it is not Samuel’s oil that actually equips Saul for the service to which God has called him. Rather it will be the presence of God given him when the Spirit comes mightily upon him.

1 Samuel 10:6-7, 9-10
“Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man. It shall be when these signs come to you, do for yourself what the occasion requires, for God is with you.” … Then it happened when he turned his back to leave Samuel, God changed his heart; and all those signs came about on that day. When they came to the hill there, behold, a group of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him mightily, so that he prophesied among them. (NASB)

As a young Pentecostal pastor I preached from this passage emphasising those aspects of the passage which highlighted the central doctrinal Pentecostal distinctives: the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as an experience of the Holy Spirit to empower Christians for witness and ministry. This experience was separate from and subsequent to conversion, and was accompanied with the gift of tongues as the initial evidence that one had received ‘the Baptism.’ This was a transformative experience by which we ‘are changed into another person.’

These verses and others like them spoke clearly to the condition of our lives and the experience of God that we had received. Like Saul we had been wandering through life looking for ‘donkeys’ that could never be found, all kinds of donkeys which could never satisfy; when suddenly, inexplicably, we were turned aside from our path, thrown off our course, encountered by the reality of the divine call and presence that opened up a whole new world to us, a ‘strange, new world’ we might say, the world of God. Like Saul, we were called into God’s service; like Saul, we were called to inherit a kingdom. And like Saul we too experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit mightily into our lives, a transformative power such that we too, like Saul, were given a new heart, and we too, like Saul, were ‘changed into another man.’

Some may say that our exegesis was poor and our hermeneutics poorer still. Certainly we were pre-critical in our reading of biblical texts. Nevertheless, although we may have been hermeneutically naïve, at least we had an expectancy of the presence of God in powerful, life-transforming ways! At least we had a sense of being captured by God and called to participate in the dynamic movement of God’s kingdom at work in the world! At least we had, as James McClendon has said, a ‘shared awareness of the present Christian community as the primitive community and the eschatological community’ (Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1, Rev ed., 30). Although referring generally to all kinds of ‘baptistic’ groups, McClendon’s definition captures something essential concerning the ethos of classic Pentecostalism: we were the eschatological people of God identified and in continuity with the community of God’s people found in Scripture. Their story was our story. Our hermeneutic may have been more implicit and inchoate than explicit, but none the less real for all that.

Yet if I were preaching this passage today I would preach it differently in some respects. I have come to realise with many others that the Pentecostals’ experience was superior to their explanation of that experience. I would not be concerned to proclaim a strict two-stage reception of the Holy Spirit. Nor would I teach the gift of tongues as the so-called initial evidence of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. I would, however, still speak of the experiential aspects that often accompany the Spirit’s coming, by which I mean a palpable sense of divine encounter. I would still emphasise the prophetic nature of the Spirit’s presence, including the idea that the Spirit’s coming in Scripture normally issues in inspired speech events and/or divine direction. I would seek a more expansive understanding of the Spirit’s presence, not limiting it simply to empowerment. Finally, I would emphasise even more strongly the transformative intent and nature of the Spirit’s self-gift, and link this transformative intent to the service of God’s purposes for his people and his world.

At its heart and at its best, the Pentecostal idea of Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not an explanatory model justifying an experience, but the experience and the ethos itself. Those who have been baptised in or with the Holy Spirit have been plunged into a new life with God. Their lives have been immersed in the dynamic, sanctifying, liberating and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. They have been made participants in the divine fellowship, partakers of heavenly powers, and have been caught up in the ecstatic movement of the eschatological Spirit’s activity in the world. Their lives have been determined by this singular event, with the Spirit’s presence expressed henceforth in their lives in manifestations of spiritual gifts, in sanctification, mission and worship. At its heart and at its best, then, Pentecostalism refers to a people who have been encountered and transformed by God, whose lives are in-spirited in fruitful and dynamic ways, Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed for they have been made participants in the divine fellowship and mission.

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:23-30, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Barth now drills more deeply into the primary question he is discussing in this section: how is it that something which took place in the history of Jesus Christ becomes an event in us? He does so by exploring two presuppositions associated with his “event” language:

The divine change in which the Christian life is founded has been described as an event. Viewed from above, this means that the history of Jesus Christ becomes once in time the origin and commencement of the reorientation and refashioning of the life of a specific man liberated therein. Seen from below, it means that once in time a specific man is liberated for the reorientation and refashioning of his life in the history of Jesus Christ as his origin and commencement (p. 23)

In these pages Barth explains how the ‘event’ of Christian faithfulness takes place in the lives of particular individuals. Two things are necessary, which Barth refers to as his two presuppositions.

The first presupposition, which he calls ‘viewing this event from above’ has to do with God’s faithfulness to humanity generally in the person and history of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ is the Representative of every person, what takes place in him – back there, back then – takes place for every person and in their stead. On their behalf Jesus Christ is faithful to God and his faithfulness is theirs. His death includes them, and so too does his resurrection. In him, they have been faithful to God, have received forgiveness of sins, and been reconciled to God. Thus Barth says,

We presuppose that the history of Jesus Christ which took place in time pro nobis, His birth, His being as a preacher of the imminent kingdom of God, and finally His crucifixion, which fulfils the purpose of His birth and being, contains the power to become the factor which posits a new beginning in nobis, in the temporal life of man (23).

How does this history—then and there—become the factor which posits a new beginning in our life—here and now? How is the power of this history communicated to each person? Barth’s answer is simple and profound: the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that the power of his history is no longer limited to his historical existence, but has broken the banks and overflowed the borders of that historical existence, such that the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself is now present to every person in every time, and further, is in every person. His resurrection is the manifestation of his perfect work for every person, a divine pledge and promise pledged and given to every person.

In Jesus Christ God has taken up the cause of every person and been faithful to them. This divine faithfulness is the ground and foundation of Christian life, because this history of Jesus’ perfect obedience as our Representative and Liberator is made fruitful, efficacious and immediately present to every person through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In other words, Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed the situation of every person with respect to God. God has been faithful to them and has taken away the sins of the world.

Barth’s second presupposition, which he calls ‘viewing the event from below,’ has to do with human faithfulness to God in response to God’s faithfulness to them. Whereas God’s faithfulness to humanity in Jesus Christ concerns humanity as a whole, now God’s work in the Holy Spirit is concerned with particular individuals. Once more Barth elucidates his presupposition:

In the life of these men, certainly not apart from the awakening, quickening and enlightening power of the history of Jesus Christ demonstrated in his resurrection, a power is at work which makes these men free, able, willing and ready to give this event a place, the central place, in their willing and thinking, a place where it may exercise a force and authority which are seriously and ultimately decisive. We presuppose that this power enables, permits and orders them, that through the history of Jesus Christ it both commands and liberates them, to become responsible subjects of their own human history, which, renewed by the presence of the living Jesus Christ, has become a history of salvation rather than perdition (26-27).

That this divine change which has occurred in the history of Jesus Christ for all and in all may then actually take place in the life of a particular person is the work of the Holy Spirit:

In the work of the Holy Spirit this man ceases to be a man who is closed and blind and deaf and uncomprehending in relation to this disclosure effected for him too. He becomes a man who is open, seeing, hearing, comprehending. Its disclosure to all, and consequently to him too, becomes his own opening up to it. In the work of the Holy Spirit it comes about that the man who with the same organs could once say No thereto, again with the same organs, in so far as they can be used for this purpose, may and can and must say Yes. In the work of the Holy Spirit that which was truth for all, and hence for him too, even without his acceptance, becomes truth which is affirmed by him. The pledge which was previously given to him and to all becomes the pledge which is received by him. The promise which was good for him and for all becomes the promise which is grasped by him. By him! Inasmuch as he himself affirms, receives and grasps! … The point is that the man on and in whom the work of the Holy Spirit is done has to put himself seriously at God’s disposal in his creatureliness. … Moved by the Holy Spirit, he is opened up to the history of Jesus Christ as his own salvation history, and he thus begins to cry ‘Abba, Father’ (28-29).

For Barth, the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit are not two separate works, but the one work of God, commencing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and continuing as a movement in the Holy Spirit which reaches its goal with the concrete awakening of specific individuals (29). Together, these two presuppositions elucidate the one work of God by whose power a divine change may take place in a person’s life that they may become faithful to God, that they may be and live as Christians. Barth calls this one work of God by which specific persons become Christians, their “Baptism with the Holy Ghost” (30).

It is clear that Barth wants to ground Christian life and salvation wholly in the grace of God while also ensuring that the human agent is not rendered passive in the process. The individual must choose, must decide, must trust, and must act; that they can do so, however, is because they have been freed for this through the ministry of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Equally clear is Barth’s contention that the term “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” refers not to an experience separate and subsequent to conversion, but refers specifically to the individual’s conversion itself.