The mature Barth: Schleiermacher and a ‘Theology of the Holy Spirit’ with a footnote from Pierre Maury.

Karl Barth has an amazing Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Schleiermacher, an appendage to his series of lectures delivered at the University of Göttingen in the winter of 1923/4, when he confronted and challenged the pillar of theological liberalism (The Theology of Schleiermacher – Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24, Ed. D. Ritschl, Trans. G.W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1982). He ‘sticks to his guns’ but at the same time speaks of ‘the possibility of a theology of the third article, in other words, a theology predominantly and decisively of the Holy Spirit’, which Pentecostal theologian Frank D. Macchia in The Spirit of God and the Spirit of Life: An Evangelical Response to Karl Barth’s Pneumatology 1 has also reflected on.

This is the mature Barth looking back at his lifelong tussle with the revered father of liberal Protestantism in Germany. He recalls his friendship with Eduard Thurneysen and how from Hermann Kutter he had

‘ learned to speak the great word ‘God’ once again seriously, responsibly, and forcibly’ [2]. He remembered when

‘.. the First World War broke out and brought something which for me was almost even worse than the violation of Belgian neutrality – the horrible manifesto of the 93 German intellectuals, who identified themselves before all the world with the war policy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. And to my dismay, among the signatories I discovered the names of almost all my German teachers (with the honourable exception of Martin Rade). An entire world of theological exegesis, ethics, dogmatics, and preaching, which up to that point I had accepted as basically credible, was thereby shaken to the foundations, and with it everything which flowed at that time from the pens of the German theologians. And Schleiermacher? Had not even he in the first of his Speeches from 1799 written impossible things about the British and the French? Had he not also been a leading Prussian patriot from 1806 to 1814? Would he also perhaps have signed the manifesto? Fichte certainly, perhaps Hegel, but Schleiermacher? According to what I know of his letters from the period after 1815, I remain convinced that, no, he would not have done. Nevertheless, it was still the case that the entire theology which had unmasked itself in that manifesto, and everything which followed after it (even in the Christliche Welt), was grounded, determined and influenced decisively by him’. [3]

And yet Barth could say, in retrospect, many constructive, positive and winsome things about Schleiermacher, while remaining true to his break with the tradition that had nurtured him in his early years.

Then comes his famous and truly fascinating conclusion regarding ‘a clarification of his relationship to Schleiermacher’.

‘.. what I have occasionally contemplated for here and now-  and thus not only with respect to a theological event in the kingdom of glory (which will then form the triumphal ending to my history with Schleiermacher), but, so to speak, with respect also to a millennium preceding that kingdom – and what I have already intimated here and there to good friends, would be the possibility of a theology of the third article, in other words, a theology predominantly and decisively of the Holy Spirit. Everything which needs to be said, considered, and believed about God the Father and God the Son in an understanding of the first and second articles might be shown and illuminated in its foundations through God the Holy Spirit, the vinculum pacis inter Patrem et Filium (the bond of peace between the father and the Son). The entire work of God for his creatures, for, in, and with human beings, might be made visible in terms of its one teleology in which all contingency is excluded. In Church Dogmatics IV:1-3, I at least had the good instinct to place the church, and then faith, love, and hope, under the sign of the Holy Spirit. But might it not even be possible and necessary to place justification, sanctification, and calling under this sign – to say nothing of creation as the opus proprium of God the Father? Might not even the Christology which dominates everything be illuminated on this basis (conceptus de Spiritu Sancto!)? Isn’t God- the God confessed by his people through the revelation of his covenant and who is to be proclaimed as such in the world – essentially Spirit (John 4:24, 1 Corinthians 3:17), i.e., isn’t he the God who in his own freedom, power, and love makes himself present and applies himself? Was it perhaps something of that sort which, without having gotten beyond obscure intimations, was so passionately driving my old friend Fritz Lieb in the past decades of his life, a life which was moved and moving on that basis all along? And is that perhaps also what in our own day the promising young Catholic dogmatician Heribert Műhlen in Paderborn is getting at? Be that as it may, interpreting everything and everyone in optimum partem, I would like to reckon with the possibility of a theology of the Holy Spirit, a theology of which Schleiermacher was scarcely conscious, but which might actually have been the legitimate concern dominating even his theological activity. And not his alone! I would also like to apply this supposition in favour of the pietists and (!) rationalists who preceded him, and, of course, in favour of the ‘Moravians of a lower order’ of the 18th century, and beyond that, in favour of the ‘Enthusiasts’ who were so one-sidedly and badly treated by the Reformers, and still further back, in favour of all those agitated and contemplative souls, the spiritualists and mystics of the Middle Ages. Could it not be that so many things which for us were said in an unacceptable way about the church and about Mary in Eastern and Western Catholicism might be vindicated to the extent that they actually intended the reality, the coming and the work of the Holy Spirit, and that on that basis they might emerge in a positive-critical light? And then even – in etwa – more or less, as one is won’t to say today in bad German, Schleiermacher’s miserable successors in the 19th century and the existentialist theologians in our 20th century as well? The whole ‘history of sects and heretics’ could then be discovered, understood, and written not ‘impartially’ but quite critically as a ‘history’ in which everything is thoroughly tested and the best retained, a history of the ecclesia una, sancta, catholica et apostolica gathered by the Holy Spirit.

This is merely a suggestion, as is only proper, of what I dream of from time to time concerning the future of theology in general, and in particular concerning the perplexity in which I find myself as I attempt to evaluate Schleiermacher as well as also those who preceded and succeeded him. I will no longer experience this future, to say nothing of leading the way into it or taking its work in hand.

Not, however, that some gifted young person – in the supposition that he or she is called to it – should now immediately run down the path and into the marketplace for me with a buoyantly written brochure entitled ‘Toward a Theology of the Holy Spirit’ or something of that sort! And how misunderstood my beautiful dream would be if anyone supposed that what is at stake is now to say ‘the same thing from an anthropological standpoint’ once again! As if that were not precisely what is so deeply problematic about Schleiermacher, that he- brilliantly, like no one before or after him – thought and spoke ‘from an anthropological standpoint’! As if I, instead of dreaming of a possibility of better understanding Schleiermacher’s concern, had dreams quite crudely of continuing in his path! I warn! If I’m not to have dreamed sheer nonsense, then only persons who are very grounded, spiritually and intellectually, really ‘well-informed Thebans’, will be capable of conceiving and developing a theology of the third article. Those who are not or not yet to that point, instead of boldly wanting to actualise a possibility of the millennium, should prefer to persevere for a little while with me in conscious ‘perplexity’.’ [4]

To give some further context to Barth’s reflection above, Leo Stossich has pointed out in his essay ‘The Human Election of God‘ (Election, Barth and the French Connection, 201) that

‘In Karl Barth’s Table Talk, Barth states that due to the theological situation in 1932, he wanted to strongly emphasise the objective side of revelation in order to redress the over-subjectivising of election (Barth in Godsey, Karl Barth’s Table Talk, 27.) Barth viewed Schleiermacher and the theologians of immanence as attempting an essentially pneumatocentric approach to theology. Schleiermacher appealed to “a general and innate human God consciousness as both the basis and the object of theological reflection.” (Hart, Regarding Karl Barth: Toward a Reading of His Theology, 8.) While the exposition of the subjective side of revelation resonated with Barth, he saw that the effects were the relativising of Christ and dissolution of the Word; and hence, concluded that the theme of Schleiermacher’s theology “is not the Holy Spirit, but, as Schleiermacher claims, merely man’s religious consciousness.…” (Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, 472.)  Macchia states that ‘Barth came to combat this “anthropocentric” (or, more accurately, “believer-centric”) point of departure for theology not only with a Christological centre for defining revelation but increasingly from the vantage point of the implications in God’s self-giving as Spirit’. (Macchia, “The Spirit of God and the Spirit of Life,” 152-153.)’

In the light of Barth’s revealing confession in his later years, it is also more than of passing interest to read the excerpt below from his dialogue with a group of the spring district meeting of preachers from Methodist churches in Switzerland on May 6, 1961. Barth answered questions in morning and afternoon sessions for a total of 4 ½ hours. One of the questions that was asked concerned faith and experience [5].

Question. In Methodism the salvation experience has great significance. This relates to the fact that the Holy Spirit works in such a way in a human being that a person can come to a joyful certainty of the redemption that has been accomplished by Christ for that person and for the whole world. What is your position on the recognition of the psychological dimension experienced in salvation?

Barth. Here we are concerned about the joyful certainty of the salvation that Christ has accomplished for humans and for the whole world. The Holy Spirit brings about this joyous certainty, and it is not based upon something that I have accomplished and what I have apprehended. It is not something that somehow might have arisen in my heart, as it is spoken about in 1 Corinthians 2:9, but rather it is about something that could not have arisen in ‘the heart of anyone, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ specifically from me, this human being, and for the whole world, indeed not somehow just me. The certainty here concerns something that lies completely and wholly outside of me, not within me. When I consider myself, what I feel, my little or big theology, my experience- yes, I have these, but what I am certain about (is not this experience). I am not certain about my certainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather, I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orient myself always and only on the cross of Golgotha.

With respect to what I can experience psychologically of salvation: naturally salvation is something that we can experience. I am a being who has been given a psychological dimension. Nevertheless, in this matter we must always clearly differentiate: What is an impulse of the mind? What is an impulse of the conscience and of the will? ‘We have this treasure in clay jars’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). What there is on my human side, I will rejoice that I am permitted to have this treasure in this clay jar. But I do not want to confuse the treasure for the jar. I do not want to say, The Holy Ghost is present inside my little soul or my small head; rather, let us look to that place from which we may also live, namely, that which comes ‘from above’ anōthen, and not in a way that there is still something to be found here below. What there is here below is what I am as the one who is addressed, the addressee. I want to be glad that I am the addressee to whom God directs his word, the Bible, this ‘letter’. I will want to read the ‘letter’ and be amazed over the fact that I am the one who may travel this path, this ‘theological path’, about which you asked me in your first question (on which path I suddenly have the most wonderful thing occur, as Martin Luther put it): ‘From heaven above, I come down here. I bring you tidings good and new’ [6].

I do not know whether what I have said here is ‘Methodist orthodoxy’ or not. I do not deny the salvation experience. I wouldn’t think of doing that! The salvation experience is that which happened on Golgotha. In contrast, my own experience is only a vessel. And now you have to contradict. It’s probably time for that.

Question. There was a time when you were not disposed to speak in this positive way about the experience of salvation. Considered on a purely psychological level, what has changed for you to bring this about?

Barth. I will give you an answer. I come (originally) out of the liberal theological stream, from Wilhelm Herrmann in Marburg, and also from Adolf Harnack [7]. At that time I was (also) an assistant editor for the then famous journal Christliche Welt of Martin Rade [8]. In that little circle I heard no word as often as the word ‘experience’. I absorbed all this, and for years I preached to my people in Safenwil [9] about this ‘experience’. And then I discovered that behind this theology stood the great Schleiermacher. Then through my reading I also met up with Pietism. I noticed that before Friedrich Schleiermacher there was also a Philip Jakob Spener and an August Hermann Francke (back then I had not concerned myself so much with John Wesley)…

Then in the pulpit I had my breath taken away. I began to read the Bible more and so to look more attentively at what God has done. And then it dawned on me: the Bible does not testify to ‘experience’, rather to the acts of God. And then as it happens in these matters, there has to be a 180 degree turn made, from pious humans to God himself, who has done everything in Christ that was needed to redeem the world. Then I began to write books [10]. I read a great deal for this task, including many Pietist biographries, and in this activity I said to myself: wait a minute, it does not work like that! Pietism and rationalism are brothers: they both think in human centred ways. In Romans and in my early writings about 40 years ago, I offered people some very tough things to swallow. Whenever I even heard the word ‘Pietism’ or just had the inkling that it was close by, I believed that I had to engage it strongly [11]. So it happened that with the position I took against the experientiality of salvation, I gave offense to many good, pious people.

Now I have become somewhat older, and now I can speak tenderly as well with this part of Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:2). Now I do not have to turn so fiercely against this expression of faith.

Interjected comment: Our critique of your position on this has proved to be of some use then!

Barth. I hope so… Many people were expecting (in fact) that things should develop exactly this way further through my life, (namely, to push the critical boundaries further). No, it has been so for me that doors and windows have opened in a variety of directions. I do not have to take back anything. At that time, it was right, and these things had to be said. And it would probably be good if this or that group would still today read my Romans.

Interjected comment: Thank you so much for describing this part of your ‘theological path’!

Barth. I think you have noticed that I’m not completely without feeling.

I will add my own postscript to these fragments from the life and ministry of Barth’s ‘French Connection’, his dear friend Pierre Maury (1890-1956), who was certainly no Pietist but he always began his lectures at the Protestant Faculty of Theology in Paris with an invocation to the Holy Trinity. Willem Visser’t Hooft said that Maury’s “..discovery of Barth was enriching, clarifying, without rupture”. Bernard Reymond candidly observed that Maury was “won over and full of enthusiasm for the discovery of a doctrine which met his expectations, because it corresponded to the orientation of his own reflections” yet Suzanne de Dietrich said of him “…Barthian? Yes he is; but in a very French way, that is to say with no restrictions, an inner independence; he is a Barthian while remaining his own man. And through him a biblical and theological renewal became for a whole generation of French pastors, youth workers, parishioners, a living and concrete reality”. (Pierre Maury and the beginnings of the Barthian era) [12]  Maury certainly shared the same conviction about the necessity of the operation of the Holy Spirit in revelation and assurance. In a memorable sermon he preached on a Pentecost Sunday at the Reformed Parish of Passy in Paris he affirmed that “…we have received in Jesus Christ, a spirit of adoption. It is of this adoption that the Holy Spirit tells us, and certifies to us – deep within us, invincibly. Because of Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear from God. And that is the miracle of Pentecost: the great change, the overturning of our life” [13]


[1] Chung, Sung Wook: Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences. Milton Keynes, UK : Paternoster Press, 2006, 149.

[2] The Theology of Schleiermacher – Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24, Ed. D. Rirschl, Trans. G.W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1982, 263.

[3] Ibid, pp. 263-4.

[4] Ibid, 277-9

[5] Barth in Conversation, Vol 1, 1959-1962, Ed. Eberhard Busch, Louisville Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, 120-122.

[6] The first lines of a Christmas carol by Martin Luther.

[7] Barth studied with A von Harnack (1851-1930) in the winter of 1906-7 in Berlin and with w. Herrmann (1846-1922) from spring 1908 until fall 1909.

[8] From fall 1908 until summer of 1909. Professor Martin Rade (1837-1940) in Marburg was the editor of the journal from its founding.

[9] From 1911 to 1921 Barth was a pastor in the Aargau town of Safenwil.

[10]  the first edition of Barth’s work Der Romerbrief  (The Epistle to the Romans) written in 1916/18, appeared in 1919. The second edition written in 1920/21 came out in 1922 in Munich.

[11] In fact, Barth addressed himself aggressively against Pietism only in his first exposition of Romans, not because of its emphasis on the experience of salvation, but rather because of its individualism. In the second Romans exegesis, Barth did negatively address the issue of experience, but in that discussion he did not name Pietism. (Karl Barth and the Pietists, trans. D.W. Bloesch, Downers Grove. Il: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[12] (Translation – Simon Hattrell) – A short extract from Reymond, B. 1985. Theologian or Prophet, French speakers and Karl Barth before 1945, Symbolon, L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, pp 51-55).

[13] (Maury, P. ‘Le témoignage de l’Esprit’ – Quand Jésus est là, Paris, Société Centrale d’Evangélisation, 1956, 163).

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