If I were to describe my theological framework that I work from, I would describe myself as a blend of John Wesley and Karl Barth. From Karl Barth, I derive a deep appreciation of the concrete, specific, particular action of God to make Himself in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, from John Wesley, I am finding myself to be increasingly congenial to aspects of his Spirit-based epistemology while maintaining the importance of the synergistic union of God’s grace and human response. While certainly, the epistemic emphases of Christ in Barth and Holy Spirit in Wesley are congenial to each other, Barth’s Reformed background makes his construal of the event of God’s Word in a unilateral way, conflicting with the more synergistic account of Wesley.
Barth’s argument in CD I.1.6.3 supposes that synergistic theories where God’s determination and human determination both play a contributing role are out of bounds. He says: “No determination man can give himself is as such determination by God’s Word. Nor is there any place here for the view that this experience is a kind of co-operation between divine determining and human self-determining.”1 He expresses the
If man lets himself be told by the Word of God that he has a Lord, that he is the creature of this Lord, that he is a lost sinner blessed by Him, that he awaits eternal redemption and is thus a stranger in this sphere of time, this specific content of the Word experienced by him will flatly prohibit him from ascribing the possibility of this experience to himself either wholly or in part or from dialectically equating the divine possibility actualised in this experience with a possibility of his own.2
In other words, God’s revelation will come in such a clear way that one can and must distinguish it from ourselves. Barth presupposes that God’s self-disclosure will always result in a clear communication that this comes from outside of ourselves. Divine self-disclosure doesn’t just
Meanwhile, he rejects the synergistic theories as essentially distant abstractions of an onlooker who assumes these two existing determinations are in competition with each other, overlooking the co-existence of God and human determination in the experience of God’s Word.3
In summary, if I am reading him correctly, Barth’s argument for a more monergistic account rests upon the 1) the determined hermeneutic recognition of the origins of God’s revelation and 2) the distant abstraction that synergism entails. However, I would suggest both of these accounts fail when we take into account Paul’s account of faith.
In Galatians 3:1-5, Paul attempts to try to determine the origination of God’s work among the people when their faith started. He essentially makes an hermeneutic argument, asking them to interpret when God’s provision o the Spirit and power was and is demonstrated among them. Paul’s argument is this: God worked powerfully when you heard with faith. Paul does not ask “when and how do you determine that it is God speaking to you?” but rather, “when do you determine God started working in your midst?” For Paul, the human response to God is conceived as happening in a separate sphere from the work of God; human hearing and faith is not reducible or determined to God’s works, but rather human heart and faith is the context in which God’s pouring of the Spirit and working miraculously occurs. For Paul, the hermeneutical argument concerns connecting God’s work and human response.
However, this is not Paul’s account of how conversion happen, per se, but rather a call for a post-hoc reflection on the event of their inclusion by the Spirit. So, one could perhaps argue this is not an account of what happens in the event of God’s self-disclosure. But then in Galatians 4:6, Paul recounts how people come to recognize they are children of God, which he describes as occurring because “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts.” So, here we are getting a description of the event or receiving the Spirit that Paul asked them to reflect on in 3:1-5. Here, the language of who is crying “Abba! Father!” on the surface seems ambiguous. Is it the Spirit that cries or our hearts that cry? Grammatically, the verb for cry (κρᾶζον) is singular, suggesting it is God’s Spirit. However, the logic of the discourse dictates that it is people, not the Spirit, that are called children of God, so it is the people that cries. This grammatical and logical tension can be explained that is it the singular Spirit that gives the plural people a united recognition of their spiritual family. As a consequence, Paul is suggesting this experience of the Spirit emerges as part of the experience of the community. This recognition of Spirit and human hearts is not some distant, abstraction about God and a singular human, but a recalling of the initial formation of this specific community of Christians in Galatia. The recognition of two agents in the cry emerges from the concrete, lived experience, and not some distant, abstract notion.
Furthermore, the integral relation between the Spirit and the inner nature of the human person in the recognition of one’s spiritual family is exhibited more clearly in Romans 8:15b-16: “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (NRSV) There is a clear division of God’s Spirit and the human spirit in the cry such that the recognition and determination
Also, the fact that what the Spirit testifies with our spirit is not the origin of the divine disclosure, but rather one’s relationship to God. The human is enabled to hermeneutically identify their relationship to God, not the ontological origins of their knowledge as Barth suggests. Keep in mind that this is what Paul derives from the Galatians
In other words, for Paul, human recognition of one’s inclusion in God’s People is experienced and understood1) as a bilateral work between God’s Spirit and ourselves that 2) emerges from a generalization made from the concrete experiences of Christian communities and not from some abstract, distant observation. Rather, I would suggest Barth’s attribution of an abstract distance to synergistic accounts is not fair,5 but that one can derive from the bottom-up an account of two distinct, independent determinations from within human experience that does not logically entail a hermeneutical recognition of the ontological status of God’s Word except that the Spirit is doing something separate from ourselves.
Furthermore, I would like to emphasize the correct hermeneutical recognition is not even the initial condition of inclusion in the community of God. In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul expresses a concern that the Corinthians faith be grounded in the power of God, rather than in the wisdom of men. This implies that Paul does think that the Corinthians have a misdirected faith, not actually and fully recognizing the nature of God’s power. But nothing in Paul’s correspondance to Corinth suggest that Paul does not think they have genuinely encountered God; indeed, they have many of the marks of being redeemed by God and have the giftings of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, their faith, while including them within God’s community, is misdirected. They don’t truly comprehend God’s power, which comes from outside of the word, but they still construe their faith according the standard expectations of wisdom in this world, which would have been influenced by a Stoic pantheism that obliterates almost any distinction between God and the self. Despite this, Paul considers them as in Christ, but they are largely ignorant of what the nature of God’s power is or how it works in dramatic fashions that does not operate according to the wisdom of the world. In other words, the Corinthians are an example of Christians who have been impacted by God’s self-disclosure through the preaching of the word the cross of Christ and the powerful demonstrations of the Spirit, and yet they do not amount to anything that suggests they have a clear, ontological recognition that what God has disclosed is entirely outside of themselves. Instead, this is something that with maturity, people can and would come to recognize as in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.
Thus, what is essentially Barth’s rejection of any serious synergism in my mind fails on grounds to adequately explain the Pauline witnesses. Nevertheless, there is something legitimate to Barth. When we are maturing, growing in wisdom in Christ, putting to death the deeds of the flesh and living by the Spirit, we do come to the recognition that what we are being transformed into is fundamentally coming from God’s Word and Spirit, rather than truly from within ourselves, even as our selves, body
So, Barth’s insights can be appropriated and appreciated, insofar as we demythologize Barth’s ontology of revelation and recontextualize it to the apocalyptic eschatology of Paul. Barth and Second Temple apocalyptic are not equivalent, even if there share some common features about the distinctiveness of God from the world, as Barth seems to have the role of time in God’s self-disclosure in the background, wanting to put the full force of revelation within the singular event. But for the apocalyptic, time is also an essential factor for God’s work and purposes. So, in other words, if we recontexutalize Barth’s ontology of God’s disclosure into the context of time, both time for maturation of the Christian and time for the outworking of God’s power in Christ and Spirit in the world, Barth’s theology can bear much fruit and can be brought into line with a Wesleyan-Arminian synergism.
- Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, vol. 1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 199.
- Ibid. 200.
- In other words, Paul doesn’t say if one has received the Spirit, one must immediately recognize one’s spiritual family and origins in God; Paul is describing not norming.
- perhaps it is a caricature dervied to delegitimate any opposition from the outset?