Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Let's Begin at the Beginning

There is something about interacting with Barth that makes a person feel in over his head.  As I stated in my last post, this blog is an attempted resurrection of a book project that I felt unprepared and under-qualified for.  The idea was to propose a marriage between the theology of Karl Barth and the spiritual experience of Pentecostal Christianity.  I am not sure which topic I am less qualified to write about, Barth or Pentecostal experience.  I am in many ways a novice in both arenas.  I also have my reservations about both Barth and Pentecostalism, to be perfectly honest.  My default theological mode is evangelical conservatism, which tends to be critical of what it perceives as liberalism/unbelief in Barth and fanaticism in Pentecostalism.  But evangelical conservatism can become a stifling fortress, not without it's own sins of unbelief and fanaticism.  And so the marriage seems to be going forward as planned.

But it is probably worth taking the time to explain when, where, and how this whole Pentecostal-Barthian thing began for me.  So forgive the forthcoming bit of biography.  Perhaps it will help put my own theological agenda into a clearer light.  If biography bores you, feel free to read no further and await a more theological post in the (Lord willing) near future...

I was raised in an evangelical home, the son of a preacher.  I was raised knowing and believing in Jesus Christ.  I was loved.  I love my family.  I have no baggage here.  After the typical preacher's kid rebellion in my late teen years, I eventually wound up in a black Pentecostal church as one of about five white people who were welcomed, loved, and discipled, but who in both a visual and cultural sense stuck out like sore thumbs.  It was in this context that I learned to have a deeply emotional and felt faith.  The preaching was almost entirely exhortative, and so I was given no clear doctrine of Spirit-baptism or tongues-speech (I only recently even realized that this church's tradition was Wesleyan Pentecostal and so technically were supposed to believe in three works of grace: salvation, entire sanctification, and then baptism in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues.  Nothing like this was ever explained to us.).

Eventually the strong emphasis on personal holiness and abstention from sin led to a personal crisis.  The teaching was beneficial in that it caused me to fear God and abandoned at least certain sinful practices, but it failed to ground me in the grace of God and in the "free" nature of salvation (which I don't think they necessarily believed).  Overwhelmed by my own sinfulness, I eventually had a small nervous breakdown.  I moved back home, began attending my father's church, and began a long-term love affair with the epistles of the apostle Paul.  I rediscovered the gospel.

Eventually my grasp of the gospel of God's grace found in Christ led me to Reformed theology.  I essentially ditched whatever Pentecostalism was left in me and became a Calvinist.  But by means of a rather meandering path, God brought me to the place of serving as associate pastor of an Assemblies of God congregation.  God brought me back to Pentecostalism, but I came with my Calvinism and my skepticism toward Pentecostal claims and experiences (including my own).

Over time my experience of God has melted the cold resistance I have had toward the work of the Spirit among us.  I've retained what I hope is a healthy skepticism toward exaggerated claims, but God has humbled me and shown me how he does indeed move through broken clay pots, and how I need to "quench not the Spirit" even when he works through his all-to-human subjects, including me.  Exegetically I have also been convinced of the validity of Pentecostal experience.  Scholars like Gordon Fee and Wayne Grudem have opened my eyes textually (Fee) and systematically (Grudem).  But the calm piety of Reformed orthodoxy and the vibrant spirituality of Pentecostal experience seem always at odds.  It is difficult to spend too much time interacting with writers like Michael Horton, RC Sproul, Benjamin Warfield, and others without feeling that if one were to follow them all the way, one would need to abandon all things Pentecostal and go join the author's congregation.  On the other hand, Pentecostal scholars like Roger Stronstad and Arminian scholars like Roger Olsen leave their reader with the impression that Reformed Christians are mean people who worship a mean god (small "g" on purpose).  Pentecostalism and Reformation Christianity seem to stand on opposite ends of the field holding up signs saying, "Choose ye this day whom you shall serve..."  They are mutually exclusive.  One is the path of life, the other the path of death.  Which is which depends on who you ask.

There is no room to lay out the entire biography of my relationship to Barth.  But I can say that the impasse between Reformation piety and Pentecostal experience began to crumble while I was reading Barth's book whose English title is The Gottingen Dogmatics.  The book itself is Barth's prior attempt at building a dogmatics before embarking on the breathtaking Church Dogmatics for which he is famous, or infamous (again, depending on who you ask).  I had been reading Barth for some time, both his shorter works and the occasional foray into CD.  But his earlier and clearer writing in the Gottingen work rang clear like a bell in my ears.  The only topics which Barth covers in this earlier work are his doctrines of revelation and of God. 

Barth's doctrine of revelation famously follows two different trinitarian structures.  First of all, God's self-revelation comes to us: 1) in revelation [culminating in Christ], 2) in scripture [the witness of the apostles and prophets], and 3) in preaching [the witness of the church, not just in sermons but in all proclamation].  Secondly, according to Barth, God's revelation (as an event) is trinitarian: God the Father reveals himself through God Son by the Spirit.  God the Father is the revealer, God the Son is the revelation, and God the Spirit is the revealedness of God.  In my own words: God the Father throws the ball; God the Son is the ball; God the Holy Spirit catches the ball within God's people - or, perhaps, causes the ball the be caught. 

For Barth, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is the Subjective Reality of Revelation.  God's self revelation is Jesus Christ.  Old Testament saints and New Testament believers all have believed in Jesus.  God's self disclosure is there, in Jesus.  But the Spirit comes here, in the believer, drawing him or her there, in faith, to Jesus.  For Barth, the ministry of the Spirit has obvious experiential overtones, but not in the sense that the experience is the issue that matters.  When the Spirit works, the believer is not drawn to his own experience of believing, but to the one in whom he believes.  Barth's battle against theological liberalism, for me, created a plausible paradigm for critiquing an unhealthy, individualistic, subjective and self-focused Pentecostal spirituality while at the same time affirming the revelational reality of Pentecostal experience as an experience that draws the individual away from herself and her experience at toward the One who is God's self revelation: Jesus Christ.

I am currently rereading The Gottingen Dogmatics for the sake of this project.  More on this to come, God granting us all another day. . .


  1. I am really grateful for your exploration. Growing up Pentecostal and conservative, I have no complaints, either. I find Barth incredible, and incredibly challenging. I read about 300 pages to figure out one. Thanks for the boost in thinking!