"You Wonder Where the Spirit Went"

Anyone attempting to tackle Barth's pneumatology has at least one hurdle to cross, and it's one that's been attempted by no less a theologian than Robert Jenson himself. The resulting article, "You Wonder Where the Spirit Went," appeared in Pro Ecclesia in 1993, and it pops up fairly regularly in the literature. For my dissertation, I'm going to have to make a solid attempt to clear this hurdle, and in practice I had as well make a serious attempt at the criticism Jenson leveled in his analysis. (Keeping in mind, of course, that I'm not so much arguing with Jenson himself, as trying to do better than this one concerted attempt of his from 20 years ago! The mistakes of brilliant minds are always easier to fix, because they get so much else right.)

The contention at the root of the article is that, for a man who almost single-handedly reintroduced trinitarian thought to the Protestant West, Barth's work in the Church Dogmatics can be disappointingly binitarian. And in exploring that, Jenson winds up at the exact point of my own frustration with the Augustinian tradition: the Holy Spirit as the "bond of love between the Father and the Son," the vinculum caritatis. The Spirit as existing between, rather than as a full and true tertium quid in equal relationship. Now, frankly, I hate this idea—I think it and the vestigium trinitatis that Augustine devises are no better than the best he could do at the time, while focusing on properly Christological heresies, and that we are remiss if we cannot do better by paying direct attention to the Spirit. However, pushing past Jenson and deeper into Barth may be giving me a reason to believe that there is a serviceable version of this role of the Spirit to be had, one that provides for genuine personal existence and agency.

Now, reading the article, I do think Jenson missed a trick in his disappointment with every instance in CD IV in which Barth makes the person of the action Jesus rather than the Spirit. The problem is that there is simply no existing volume V in which the particularity of the person of the Spirit is presented as the person to whom an entire ad extra locus of God's action can be appropriated—even though we know quite well what that locus is: redemption. Volume IV on reconciliation is appropriated to the Son, just as volume III on creation was appropriated to the Father. Volume IV bends all points to the Son schematically and intentionally.

That leaves the real trick for anyone who wishes to grasp Barth's mature pneumatology: it has to be reconstructed from the bits scattered throughout by connection with the preliminary expositions in volume I, because while it has a place in the schema, the full treatment of this locus doesn't exist. There is no volume of the Church Dogmatics in which Barth schematically and intentionally bends all discussion of redemption to the Spirit—but there would have been. The same kinds of complaints were leveled at volume II, in terms of the weaknesses of its discussion of human agency, when the answer was to come in volume III. Barth steadfastly attends to the locus in question, and its questions, and expects you to understand that the questions of the next locus belong to the next locus. It is simply unfortunate that the next locus, in this case, never came.

While Jenson raises the spectre of modalism, Adam McIntosh has more recently set out an understanding of this "appropriation" Barth does that ought to be corrective. These are ways in which the persons exist as self-interpretations of the deity, because they are self-revelations of the deity. And it isn't as though Barth corrals these actions and these persons off from one another in pairs; they are all actions, and persons, of the one God who exists in trinity and acts in unity. Both "other" persons appear in the action of the loci of creation and reconciliation. He simply makes analogically appropriate, but strictly-speaking improper, associations between loci and persons on the basis of the nature of the relationships that make up the person. These are pedagogy, rather than ontology. And yet Barth still leaves us with the Spirit tagging along in what are described as primarily Paternal and Filial actions.

That pushes us back to the vinculum caritatis issue. In what we have of Barth, it does seem that the emphasis on the persons of the Father and the Son is primary, and that the Spirit does not in fact come into its own. Given the vacuum, Jenson goes so far as to raise the idea that a historical identity for the Spirit in action in the world would become bound to the institutional church. I see no reason to believe that Barth would ever have gone in that direction, especially as his basic redefinition of "church" precludes it. Nor, for the same reason, do I see any reason to believe that Barth is engaged in avoidance of the Spirit in order to avoid this identification, as Jenson suggested at the time. The church will simply never become the "mediatrix" or the "Bedingung der Möglichkeit [condition of the possibility] of faith" that Jenson feared in Barth, because it is at all points nothing more than us before God. The Spirit remains free over against us, which is a basic assertion of Barth's pneumatology in I.1. It is these things, it is mediation and the condition of the possibility of faith, in and of itself as God acting in and upon us. The Spirit is the only way that we come to be what we are in Christ.

And that gets closer to real personal particularity. But, as Jenson rightly notes, Barth still uses the Spirit as the vinculum caritatis, albeit in an expanded sense. In his obsession with the binary I-Thou relationship, Barth uses the Spirit as this bond not only between the Father and the Son, and therefore the Father and the man Jesus, but also between God and humanity. For Jenson, this is the thing that drags the ship down, and ought to be cast overboard. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, I have thought that about its appearance in Augustine, too. But this presumes that this is the only role given to the Spirit. It is undeniable that the Spirit is the spirit of the Father and the spirit of the Son, being God as Spirit. Surely in an ad intra sense, the Spirit stands in this relationship to both, however we determine the procession. And there is an aspect of theosis in which we may say that we are taken up into the divine life when the Spirit serves as the bond of love between God and humanity. But what must still be said is what role the Spirit as a person in particularity may be said to play in the schema.

I do believe Barth was on his way to saying something in this direction, and in order to get at it, I'm going to quote Jenson in an irritable moment and push him towards what I see as the missed direction.
A second instance of apparent binitarianism occurs in IV/3, §69, 1, 2, 4. In these daring and in many ways even beautiful pages, Barth conducts a probing and systematically way-breaking discussion of the "objectivity" of the proclamation. Surely he is right: to be faithful to the logic of the gospel, we must think of the gospel's occurrence also pro nobis as itself a salvation-historical event antecedent to its sounding in any set of our ears, as itself an "external" reality. Perhaps we will be especially sensitive to this logic, if we have been attending to Orthodox ecumenical initiatives. Both common teaching and Orthodox urging will then make us expect Barth to designate the Pentecostal coming of the Spirit as the event just posited. Instead, Barth conducts some of the most tortuous dialectic in the Kirchliche Dogmatik, in order to locate the proclamation's objectivity in the Resurrection of the Son. Does Barth suppose that an act of the Spirit cannot transcend subjectivity?
The "tortuous dialectic" with which Barth locates the objective fact of the gospel in the objective fact of the resurrection—the single most essential moment of our reconciliation—follows directly upon the dialectic set up in the first half of I.2. Barth makes Christ and the Spirit two halves of a whole: the objective achievement in history, and the subjective realization in the creature, of the same act. The notion that "subjectivity" is in any way pejorative, something to be transcended, something to which the Spirit is relegated, is in this case a misinterpretation—though an understandable one, since the objective/subjective binary can be taken in so many different ways. There is a kind of equality of the Son and Spirit here, given different responsibilities within the ad extra acts of God. But Jenson appears to have believed that Barth "ought to conceive a specific salvation-historical initiative of the Spirit," and had been prevented from doing so by his adherence to problematic Western tradition.

This "lack" of an objective role with respect to the accomplishment of salvation should, however, not be taken as though it implied a lack of a proper role analogous to the Spirit's Personlichkeit, in what Barth understands as redemption. And yet this is what Jenson saw:
It seems unavoidable: in Barth's system, the Spirit is precisely the Geschichtlichkeit of "the relation of the being of Jesus Christ to that of his congregation…." The Spirit is the capacity of God as archetype, at whatever ontological level, to evoke an echo in some subjectivity. When does the Spirit disappear from Barth's pages? Whenever he would appear as someone rather than as something. We miss the Spirit at precisely those points where Bible or catechism have taught us to expect him to appear as someone with capacities, rather than as sheer capacity—in the archetype/image scheme, as himself an archetype.
And yet what is the "subjectivity" of the Spirit's action? Christ does not act on us; Christ is the achievement of the facts of our true existence in advance of us, we particular people who exist individually throughout all of history, being at all. It is the Spirit who, throughout all of history, is the active and working presence of God shaping every creature into new created life, conforming us into Christ by realizing Christ subjectively in us, each and all of us for whom Christ died and was raised. If we do not understand the objective component, God's special work ad extra performed once for all in history, we will not understand this special work of God ad extra throughout all of history which Barth finds most appropriate to the person of the Spirit. It is utterly undesirable for the Spirit to "transcend" this most necessary subjectivity, the creation of faith in us, the production of life in us, the binding and conforming of each one of us to God.

If, in accepting the vinculum caritatis and its role in relationship, Barth remains concerned repeatedly to demonstrate this role in which there is a distinct and personal responsibility, a genuine modus essendi rather than a mere means of re-presenting Christ, then I can accept the combination as worthy of the full and equal personhood of the Spirit. The Spirit in this way remains active and present in history, if not as an "image," then as the far less glamorous yet far more necessary worker whose job it is to reproduce the image out of the given material. Its action is not other than the action of God, as befits the dictum that the opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt. Yet to imagine God at work in this way, who better than the Spirit should we imagine, whom the author of Acts as well as Paul framed in these ways? And this is our redemption, to be transformed into the image, to become properly what it is that we are.


  1. Perhaps address this not as an issue of Trinitarian theology but as an ecclesiological issue. Jenson's complains are ecclesiologically motivated, and Barth's pneumatology is tied to a very specific set of ecclesiological concerns.

    1. True; I'm aiming at the stated text rather than the subtexts, and actually kind of pointedly in spite of them because Jenson's ecclesiological motivations seem so at odds with the stated text. It hadn't occurred to me that I was the one missing the point. ;) But I do recognize the period concerns in the ecumenical case at the time. I'll have to make more clear the ecclesiological differences, as well as a way of addressing Jenson's concerns on that front positively, both to myself and in a follow-up. Thanks!

  2. Note: Massive adjustment is coming, but the writing is slow. It takes nearly as much work to do justice to Jenson as to Barth, which I knew; hence this first attempt, which did not. That was a mistake!

    Now, if only I could find the bottom of this rabbit hole…


Post a Comment