Quick Book Review: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology

BarthpneumatologyTitle: The Spirit of God and the Christian Life: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology

Author: JinHyok Kim

Bibliographic info: 288 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

Two of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann and Jacques Ellul, show a clear influence from Karl Barth. Because of this I myself have naturally taken an interest in the theology of Barth. In my readings of Barth, I have come across on a few occasions a criticism such as this: “A problem with Barth’s theology is that it is not adequately trinitarian as it is held back by an underdeveloped pneumatology” (Robert Jenson even once quipped that Barth’s theology was more binitarian than trinitarian). This criticism is due to the fact that Barth died before he could finish writing the volume in his Church Dogmatics on the Holy Spirit. This is where JinHyok Kim enters the scene for his book presents an attempt at reconstructing what Barth’s fully developed pneumatology would have looked like.

There have been two important English studies on Barth’s pneumatology published in decades past: Philip Rosato’s The Spirit as Lord (1981) and John Thompson’s The Holy Spirit in the Theology of Karl Barth (1989). JinHyok Kim’s contribution, which is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Oxford, aims to show “that it is possible to read Barth as offering a robust Spirit theology, in which he attempted to rehabilitate human subjectivity and to facilitate ethics within a wider framework of God’s dealing with humanity and human response to God.”

The book breaks down into the following chapters:

  1. Introduction: Redemption, Pneumatology, and the Christian Life in Karl Barth
  2. Prayer, the Spirit, and Redemption: A Constructive Reading of Barth’s Pneumatology
  3. The Spirit and the Drama of Salvation in History
  4. The Spirit and the Revelation of the Word of God
  5. The Spirit and the Beauty of the Lord
  6. Conclusion: A Prayerful Seeking for the Fulfillment of God’s Promise

The introduction contains a good section on various modern receptions of Barth’s pneumatology. Kim looks at four types of modern critical appropriations of Barth’s Spirit theology: the first is the dangers of modalism and the evaporation of the Spirit’s personality; the second is pneumatology’s subordination to Christology and the lack of eschatological insights; the third is that there is no room for human autonomy and faith; and the fourth is insufficient reflections on history, nature, and the church. I’ve frequently encountered the charge that Barth had a modalistic view in his doctrine of the Trinity. Kim explains the issue this way:

Barth resisted using the term “person,” because this term might have implications of modern individualistic, psychological, and idealistic views of personhood. Instead, he opted for the German term Seinweise, which was translated as “mode of being” in English. When “person” was replaced by “mode of being,” it was inevitable that God would be understood as one personal Subject who exists in three modes of revelation – the Revealer as the Father, the revelation as the Son, and the revealedness as the Spirit. Many critics, however, have found that, because the role of revealedness is to unite the Revealer and the revelation, the bond between the two is already implied in their eternal loving relationship as the Father and the Son. In Barth’s theology, therefore, the Spirit is superfluous in the Godhead, or, at the very best, can be understood in an impersonal way.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on revelation in which Kim examines Barth’s theology of history within his doctrine of revelation, including a fine examination of the differences and similarities between Barth and Pannenberg. Kim demonstrates how Barth’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit bridges his theology of election and revelation.

Kim’s explication of the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer was also well done and quite beneficial. In regards to the topic of prayer, Kim actually coins two new terms – “pneumatic prayer” and “prayerful pneumatology” – which are derived from how Barth repeatedly links together the Spirit’s intercession with prayer (e.g. Romans 8).

The Spirit of God and the Christian Life: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology is not a general introduction to Karl Barth’s theology, thus if one does not have at least a modicum of familiarity with Barth’s thought (and the giants upon whose shoulders he stood), then you might not be able to fully appreciate this volume. However, if you are a fan of Barth and desire a fuller understanding of his pneumatology then this book is the perfect prescription. Kim provides numerous valuable insights into the role that the Spirit plays in Barth’s theology, specifically in the life of the Christian.

I am by no means well-versed on Barth’s theology. I’ve read his Evangelical Theology and Romans commentary, as well as some smatterings of his Church Dogmatics here and there. I am, however, quite interested in the great dialectician since he influenced two theologians I enjoy reading (Ellul and Moltmann). Most of what I learn about Barth is from literature written on him and his theology, and this book has certainly been the most helpful for explicating Barth’s theology of the Holy Spirit and I have learned a lot from it. If you’re a fan of Barth, I recommend you pick this volume up!

I will finish with this nice quote which summarizes what “theology” is to Barth:

For Barth, theology is not primarily a human construction or projection; rather each doctrine uniquely witnesses the triune God’s act of election, creation, reconciliation, and redemption in their unity.

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