Book Review: The Spirit of God and the Christian Life

Author: JinHyok Kim
Publisher: Fortress Press
Reading Level: Moderate to High
Pages: 329 (eBook)

There are few theologians more verbose than Karl Barth. This truth makes it even more amazing that Barth wrote few direct words on the work of the Holy Spirit. This could have been because He did not get to complete his epic Church Dogmatics. It may have been because of His Biblical obsession with Jesus Christ. In either case, JinHyok Kim in The Spirit of God and the Christian Life presents a compelling construction of what Barth’s complete pneumatology might have looked like had the theologian been able to fulfill his Church Dogmatics.

JinHyok Kim’s work on Karl Barth’s theology of the Holy Spirit is nothing short of stunning. There are numerous devotional portions amidst taxing descriptions of Barth’s philosophical distinctions. For an evangelical America that is far too similar to Barth’s liberal Germany, the renewed majesty found in studying the Holy Spirit and prayer is delightful. Both subjects are compellingly brought back into focus in the theology of Karl Barth. The activity of prayer is portrayed as sacred. The Holy Spirit is shown to be essential in all activities of the Trinity. 

The Communication
The Spirit of God and the Christian Life: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology is a doctrinal thesis republished. In many ways it reads like a thesis (e.g. extensive endnotes). But in spite of its deep insights The Spirit of God and the Christian Life overcomes the difficulties of communicating high-level theology clearly and efficiently. The language of the book is effective in its communication but also common and inviting in many places. In his own voice and tenor, JinHyok Kim communicates at both a technical and practical level with surprising efficiency.

The Spirit of God and the Christian Life does not act as a good introduction to Barth’s theology. Those lacking previous exposure to the more foundational elements of Barth’s teaching will be provided only brief introductions on crucial subjects. Similarly, some background in the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant and theology of Fredrich Schleiermacher is beneficial to those seeking to analyze the fine-tuning of Barth’s theology in its cultural context (particularly true in chapter 2).  Regardless, the communication by Jin is proficient and the book is accessible for those with a critical mind.

The Content
The Spirit of God and the Christian Life is broken up into four chapters that highlight specific relationships to the Holy Spirit. JinHyok Kim walks through the topics of redemption, salvation history, revelation and finally beauty as he brings to light either obscure or small portions of Barth’s written material. 

In the first chapter, JinHyok Kim explores previous interpretations of Barth’s pneumatology and provides his own lens of context. Barth’s theology of prayer, which Jin argues focused on the Holy Spirit and redemption, are difficult to construct given the incomplete nature of his final volume in Church Dogmatics. Nevertheless, The Spirit of God and the Christian Life is an attempt to reconstruct Barth’s theology using previous writing and lectures materials.

It is the Trinitarian foundation of Barth’s theology that made him stand out in the surrounding liberal atmosphere. His relation of the Holy Spirit to prayer in his commentary on Romans 8 stands out as the primary mode of Barth’s exploration on the role of the Holy Spirit in the elevation of believers to prayer. The Holy Spirit illumines the Word of God and relates us to the person of Jesus Christ. It is in this way that Karl Barth’s views on prayer move beyond the subjective anthropology of Schleiermacher. The Holy Spirit is the means of adoption in the Trinitarian act of redemption. The Holy Spirit in prayer lifts the “pray-er”, a term developed fully in the book, up together with Jesus Christ who is in fact God come down to man. Far from making prayer a less providential experience, Barth’s theology stresses the role that the Holy Spirit plays in bringing the eschatological realities of our identity in Christ to the forefront of verbal communication back to the Father. The effects on prayer should be sweeping and sweet. 

In the second chapter Barth’s Pneumatology is applied to the doctrine of election. Barth’s Pneumatology sets the context of election both as an eternal decree and an event in history. This interacts well and profoundly with Barth’s particular form of Christology: the double predestination found in Jesus Christ. This eternal decree of God upon “God-self”, a phrase utilized by Kin, stands eternal before all of creation and God’s creation cannot be fathomed apart from His previous decree, upon Himself, to save man through man. But election for Barth also must be an act of God’s freedom.

This focus on God’s freedom in election can only be sustained by emphasizing the Holy Spirit’s role in applying the election of Jesus Christ in time and space. God’s eternal election must work itself out from God-self, to the covenant community and only finally to individuals. Without these nuances Jin confirms that Barth can be misunderstood “as an amalgam of Reformed and Arminian soteriology, which eventually opts for the doctrine of universal salvation” (133).

The third chapter of The Spirit of God and the Christian Life focused primarily on revelation. Though Barth’s work in the realm of election is well known, his neglected theology on revelation was equally groundbreaking. Once again JinHyok Kim aptly demonstrates how the Holy Spirit mediates across the natural chasms of Barth’s theology. One of the more applicable highlights of the book occurs early in the chapter as Kim applies Barth’s pneumatology to the relationships of Divine-logic to human-logic, subject to object and finally revelation to language. It is in this last section that Kim presents valuable insight to the Spirit’s work in God revealing “God-self” to mankind. That God can assume the “medium of language to speak to humanity” (177) is meant to be an encouragement. Ultimately the church is told by Barth that it can rest assured in God’s ability. There is no such thing as church language and Christians “should keep silence again, enjoying their Sabbath and leaving it to the Word of God to speak for itself” (178).

The fourth and final chapter covers the Holy Spirit’s involvement with beauty. Barth’s presentation of the beauty found in the Lord is a unique theological characteristic. JinHyok Kim aptly brings the glory of God, as Barth defined it, to the forefront of theology via God as God is and as God does. God’s glory and perfection (and hence His beauty) is made manifest in His freedom to love the world. This of course in Barth’s paradigm is recognized solely through the work of the Holy Spirit. Barth saw this as necessary to avoid the natural theology he felt plagued Protestant liberalism.

The Spirit of God and the Christian Life comes to a close with a profound section on Barth and the arts. Though this section was some of the most enjoyable to read, the inclusion of the Holy Spirit directly was noticeable.

Conclusion
The Spirit of God and the Christian Life is a must read for individuals seeking to re-introduce joy, beauty and the Holy Spirit into theology. The language and presentation provokes further interest while supplying substantial insights into the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians. The final chapter on the beauty of the Lord is needed substantially in the church today. 

Ultimately, Barth’s response to the philosophy and theology of his day was grounded in Jesus Christ known through the Holy Spirit. And it is this same Holy Spirit that is needed today in the church. JinHyok Kim presents a starting point for analyzing Barth’s theology in light of a complete pneumatology. It is up to the church to invest in the study of the Holy Spirit and improve on His doctrine

Joshua Torrey is the sole proprietor of Torrey Gazette (don't tell Alaina) and the fullness of its editorial process. That means everything wrong with TG can legitimately be blamed on him.