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The theology and influence of Karl Barth: an interview with Terry Cross

The caricature of Barth as liberal theologian is a false picture.

However, Barth himself refused to speak of his theology as “neo-orthodoxy.” He did not like the moniker. Instead he preferred that his theology be referred to as “A Theology of the Word of God.” While some may still use this term, I find it so outdated that it is meaningless. Besides the misleading nature of the phrase “neo-orthodoxy,” there is also the overreaching character of it (too many theologians of very different stripes were too often thrown under this ‘neo-orthodox’ tent).


PR: As a Pentecostal, do you find Barth’s understanding of the Spirit to be helpful or troubling?

Terry Cross: Let me respond in several ways. First, some Barth scholars have missed the boat here because they have not seen the Spirit in the writing or work of the Church Dogmatics. Not only do I see the Spirit burning forth on almost every page of the Dogmatics, I see the Spirit in his numerous letters from 1915 to the end of his life, in his “Conversations” from 1957-1968 that cover three volumes in German, in his preaching, especially in his years as a pastor in Safenwil (1912-1921). The occasional writings or shorter treatises are also replete with references to the Spirit as well as clear connections between Christ and the Spirit.

Second, there is undoubtedly some “training” that one must undergo in order to see what is referred to in Barth’s theology as the work of the Spirit. While people say that Barth never got to the doctrine of the Spirit since that was his large fifth volume that was left unwritten, the Spirit in Barth’s writing is much more evident in the language of “activity” or in German, Wirkung or wirken. Just take the role of the Spirit in relation to Scripture—both its original writing by the “witnesses” to God’s revelation in Christ and the current way the Spirit allows the preached word to become the actual Word of God to them so that they believe in faith and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (this is most clearly in Dogmatics I/1 and I/2). As a Pentecostal reading these first two part volumes of Barth’s Dogmatics, I was overwhelmed by the clarity of expression and understanding of the power that the Spirit had in salvation, in the attestation of Scripture’s authority, and especially in the way that faith would rise up in humans in response to the Spirit’s depiction of Christ to them. As a Pentecostal, I had a new appreciation for the Spirit’s work to re-present Christ to us today. For my own theology, this has become one of the pillars of my understanding about the Spirit: the Spirit’s role in creating faith and causing people to believe the unbelievable Gospel of our Lord is to re-present to us Jesus the Christ in a spiritual yet very real sense. However, one may not read without reflection on these passages or one might come to a conclusion that since there is not a very large volume devoted just to the Spirit then Barth deemphasized the Spirit in his theology.

Third, one cannot read Dogmatics I/1 and I/2 and all of IV without seeing the word “miracle” rise to the surface of these thousands of pages. Grace is a miracle; belief is a miracle; salvation is a purely miraculous event. For Barth, it is the Spirit of God who encounters humans here and now in our present with the Living, Risen Lord who is seated in the heavenlies. It is the Spirit who clears the way for the realm of eternity to touch the realm of this earth—for a miracle to occur. And here Barth seems to be using the only term he has left to describe it: miracle.

Finally, in working through the doctrine of reconciliation (or salvation) in Dogmatics IV/1, 2, 3, and 4 (fragment), Barth encounters the Spirit everywhere in the Christian’s own life before God. It is the Spirit who fans the flame of faith so that the believer can and must experience faith that Jesus Christ lived and died for them in human history but also that this life and death transformed reality so that we are no longer left in our trespasses and sins but are translated from dark to light, from death to life—in the here and now! And it is the work of the Spirit to bring us that reality in this present realm.

Does Barth have a view of speaking in tongues or phenomenal display of spiritual gifts that might be coordinated somehow with Pentecostals? I do not think so. I do not wish to make Barth out into a Pentecostal—he wasn’t one. However, he did know Pentecostals and Evangelicals. Indeed about a year before he died he had a conversation with some Mennonites in Switzerland that was recorded. They asked him his thoughts on the Pentecostals. His response was very Gamaliel-like. He said that he wasn’t all that much in favor of emotionalism for the sake of emotionalism, but that he liked the life that such people seemed to bring to the church. And who knows but what God has planned for Pentecostals to come about at this time to revive the church. We should leave open at least this possibility!

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2015

About the Author: Terry L. Cross, M.A. (Ashland Theological Seminary), M.Div. (Ashland Theological Seminary), Th.M. (Princeton Theological Seminary), Ph.D. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is dean of the School of Religion and Professor of Systematic Theology at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. Before coming to Lee University, he was a pastor for twelve years and a high school teacher of Latin and history. He is a former president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (2008) and a Barth Translation Fellow at the Center for Barth Studies, Princeton Theological Seminary, working with a group on translating Barth’s Conversations (1957-1968). He is the author of Answering the Call in the Spirit: Pentecostal Reflection on a Theology of Vocation, Work, and Life (Lee University Press, 2007) and a complete revision of his dissertation was published in 2001, Dialectic in Karl Barth's Doctrine of God (Peter Lang International Academic Publishers). With Emerson Powery, he edited a collection of essays in honor Donald N. Bowdle, The Spirit and the Mind: Essays in Informed Pentecostalism (University Press of America, 2000). Faculty page

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