Smith, Aaron T. A Theology of the Third Article: Karl Barth and the Spirit of the Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), ix + 254pp. $39.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jonathan D. DePue (December 05, 2014)

Karl Barth’s Christology could hardly be emphasized more than it has been in the brief history of Barth studies, but his pneumatology has often been forced into the backseat. This has led to serious misunderstandings of his doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Smith’s book is a much needed reevaluation of Barth’s account of the Spirit. Smith interacts with some of Barth’s overlooked works, as well as material from other disciplines, in support of his ultimate suggestion that a robust pneumatology has been at the heart of Barth’s thought all along.

Smith, however, does not set out to articulate a new account of Barth’s theology as such. Rather, his book advances a freshly-clarified Barthian pneumatology. Furthermore, Smith exposes a common theological failure to think pneumatocentrically. His work challenges Christian readers to allow the Spirit to confront them and re-schematize their mental architecture as members of Christ’s body.

At the heart of Smith’s project is the notion that the Spirit is God a third time. Incarnation is inextricable with what Smith calls inverberation: the Spirit’s reiteration of God here-and-now parallel to the logically prior Incarnation-event (7). In this inverberation, God as Spirit confronts us objectively, reshaping us as listening subjects. The Spirit meets us where we are through our senses and allows us to speak truthfully about God and ourselves; this is the pneumatocentric dialectic of God coming to humanity, which is central to Barth’s theology at large (19). According to Smith’s reading of Barth, the Spirit’s inverberation is not a second incarnation but is a life-act in which the Spirit witnesses and corresponds to the logically prior event of the Word becoming flesh.

In the first chapter Smith works through the implications of the Spirit’s being and moving in the dialectical tension between objectivity and subjectivity. The Spirit speaks here-and-now as God in an unhindered, objective sense in Jesus Christ; in this same event, the same Spirit re-schematizes our minds as creaturely subjects (60). These are the two “sides” of the dialectic. Thus, the Spirit has being, life, and work in making this revelation into reality––exegeting and actualizing Jesus Christ in the present. When encoutnering God in the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, one is not left to figure out how to grasp it by faith through one’s own faculties. The Spirit makes this possible by gifting humanity with the conceptual capability to understand what God is already doing.

Smith moves on to interact with Barth’s 1922 lectures on preaching and theology where he grounds his discussion of the Spirit’s objectivity and subjectivity in a pastoral context. The exegetical work of pastors is not a way of mastering or controlling Scripture as an object of study, like a scientist studying bacteria under a microscope; rather, it is primarily an encounter with the living God (37). This encounter, in turn, becomes actualized each week when the pastor composes and delivers a sermon. Theology is therefore an event emerging from, and formed after, the event of Immanuel, which is the work of the Spirit. Theology as emerging from the event of Immanuel is an essential dynamic for helping the Church begin to think pneumatocentrically and a reminder for those of us who remain comfortable in our academic settings. We do not master the content of revelation by preaching or in theological reflection. It masters us.

Chapter two sees Smith continue to engage Barth’s lectures on John’s gospel while interacting with significant pneumatological moments in Barth’s Göttingen dogmatic lectures. As John 1:1-5 suggests, the Word is primary in all Christian confession; all that is in the incarnate Word established all that might be. God’s revelation determines all that is real and possible for God and humanity (71). It is the office of the Spirit that makes this encounter real in the present precisely because this Spirit has life in the ongoing event of the Word. Thus, the community of believers formed by and under this same Spirit exists in this ongoing event—this life-in-transit called ‘Church.’

Smith goes on to argue that the adjustments from Barth’s early to late work are often exaggerated. The heart of what he is all about remains in place throughout his life’s work. One such theme is the relationship between reality and possibility as articulated in the Göttingen dogmatics and the later Bonn/Basel dogmatics. In the former specifically, God establishes the possibility of God’s turning toward creation because his being as the Word is precisely this turning. This turning is made known and actual here-and-now by the Spirit of the Word, who is God’s presentness (83).

Smith then elucidates an important epistemological reality on the human side: theological thought and speech can only take place a posteriori from the event of revelation. That is to say, all theology happens retrospectively; it thinks backwards. All that God could reveal is defined by what God has revealed and is revealing in Jesus Christ, and theology finds its true content and meaning in the contemporary event of the Spirit of the Word—the one who gifts us the understanding of God’s reality and possibility in the first place (90).

Chapter three is the most stimulating portion of the book for here Smith interacts with sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul and theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. Smith follows Barth in rejecting either a purely objective or a purely subjective account of truth. Needed instead is a dialectical/relational account of truth. Smith suggests here that reality and truth are eventful in nature, that is, they are dynamic rather than static in character. Truth, in this sense, “is a living quality” (111). It is both objective (unconditional) and subjective (relative) in its happening. In the light of Barth’s exegesis of John 1:6-9, Smith not only solidifies the claim that God’s being is in God’s continuing reality of the Word made flesh (and thus truth’s continuing reality), but also reinforces the claim that this coming to the world is a coming to and recreation of space-time. The question is: Can this be? Enter Jacques Ellul and Albert Einstein.

For Ellul, truth is relational; it resides at the intersection between being proclaimed and being received, which meshes seamlessly with Smith’s account of inverberation (128). But what about space-time? For Einstein, time and space are not isolated independents. They condition one another relative to a certain frame of reference. The values of time and space are contingent upon relative motion; neither can be fixed, static “measurements” of the Real but are determined in and as moment-by-moment occurrences. Smith’s engagement with these interlocutors suggests that truth and space-time are structured in such a way as to be open to the dialectical encounter of God through the Spirit. God enters the stage of space-time for the performance of this divine drama and, thus, transforms it as its Lord. (83).

In chapter four Smith takes up themes that he had expounded previously, now teasing out their further implications. He also tracks these insights as they come to expression in Church Dogmatics I/2.

Smith’s fifth and final chapter turns to Barth’s doctrine of election Church Dogmatics II/2 to give an account of how human submission and obedience correspond to God’s choosing to make Godself known in Christ. Election is, first and foremost, an act of God choosing Godself. According to Smith, a critical error here would be to say the Word made flesh is a “plan B”—that is, since the Torah did not work out for Israel as planned, God had to intervene and fix the aftermath of God’s poor planning. God’s election of Godself in Christ is “plan A” from before the beginning in complete continuity with the creatureliness of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ is both the object and subject of election: the electing God and the elect human being.

In all this Smith follows Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth’s doctrine of election. While Smith acknowledges that a full explanation of McCormack’s reading is beyond the scope of the book, the reader would have been better served had Smith included a brief summary of other possible readings (223). Delineating counter positions would allow the reader to better understand the contentiousness of Smith’s conclusion regarding Barth’s doctrine of election. What is more, including a counter position would demonstrate with greater potency why he argues what he does. Without such an explanation in the body of chapter 5, Smith seemingly ducks the controversial nature of his (and McCormack’s) conclusion.

Humanity is elected by way of participation “in Christ”—in his election of himself. Humanity has been drawn into Christ’s being by the Holy Spirit for active obedience (230). Yet, in God’s eternal election of Jesus there is also a negation of darkness, sin, and death. This “No” to darkness takes place “in Christ” as all non-being is rejected in his self-election to judgment and executed in his execution. The Spirit is the continued reiteration and actuality of all this here-and-now—God’s ongoing refusal of sin and death (213). Smith asserts that God’s inverberation gives Christians the capacity to speak of God’s election in terms of God’s covenantal history while ever remaining the Spirit of the Word in God’s electing event.

In addition to the points of criticism noted above, it seems that Smith’s dense prose often replicates Barth’s, which can make for unwieldy sentences that take a second or third read to internalize. While there is a danger in that it can distract from one’s argument, Smith’s use of “Barthian” prose might also be a way of allowing the reader to live into the rhythm and cadence of Barth’s logic. By the end of the book, it is hard to imagine any careful reader of Barth remaining convinced of his neglect of the Spirit and unconvinced of the Spirit’s inseparability from Barth’s Christology.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.