This essay was within the field called ‘systematics’ – which is about drawing out doctrines from the whole teaching of scripture. In this essay I chose to look at the differences between Barth and Pentecostalism. I grew up under a synthesis of Evangelicism and Pentecostalism. Barth has been described as the ‘Most influential theologian since Thomas Aquinas’ – and no, I don’t have a reference for that.
What I found is Barth waffles. Strong statement? Maybe. His ‘Dogmatics’ runs to 13 volumes. Fortunately, his writing on the baptism in the Spirit runs to around 30 pages. Interesting?
The last section of this, on the encroaching nature of the Kingdom had me lifted a step nearer to that eschatological event we dream of. Quite wonderful.
So, read on if you dare – its a long one!
Critically evaluate Karl Barth’s account of baptism with the Spirit and compare this with either a Pentecostal or Charismatic account of Spirit baptism.
This essay seeks to critically examine Karl Barth’s doctrine of Spirit baptism and compare it with a Pentecostal account. For Barth regeneration and Spirit baptism occur together, and form the beginnings of the new Christian’s life which is empowered for missiology, and at least partially eschatologically focused. Barth’s theology of Spirit baptism therefore begins with how a person can be saved. Pentecostals would argue that regeneration and Spirit baptism are usually two distinct events, the later often being dramatic and often accompanied by speaking in tongues. Pentecostals again stress the empowerment for mission and also have an eschatological focus.
Brief Overview of Scriptures and Terms
The phrase ‘baptism in/with the Spirit’ occurs only in the New Testament, and then only a few times. In some cases it is within teaching, and in others within narrative, a fact which has led to much debate about textual interpretation. ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ appears early on in all the gospels, just prior to the baptism of Jesus. In Mark 1:8 for example, John the Baptist says ‘I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ and the other gospels have similar statements. (Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16, John 1:33) In Acts 1:5 Luke reports Jesus as saying to the disciples ‘for John truly baptised you with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ Later in Acts 11 Luke has Peter quoting this verse as he is defending the spread of the word of God to the gentiles in verse 16.
Lastly it’s worth mentioning that there is some debate about the Greek of 1 Cor 12:13 where Ponsonby translates it as ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ where others have it as ‘For by one Spirit’ (emphasis added). Ponsonby cites Gordon Fee, a Pentecostal theologian, who says that the structure of the Greek almost certainly implies that Paul is speaking of the Spirit as the element into which one is baptized rather than by who one is baptized. Thus Ponsonby is able to state that the Spirit is therefore the element into which one is baptised, like the water in water baptism, rather than the element performing the baptism.
With this in mind we turn to the teaching of Karl Barth.
Karl Barth and Spirit Baptism
Karl Barth was a prolific Swiss reformed theologian, who wrote the four volumes of ‘Church Dogmatics’ which are widely viewed as one of the most significant works of theological written in the last century. Despite the size of this work, Barth devotes only some 37 pages to our subject, which whilst the contents are indeed very profound, does not seem very much.
Barth begins his study of the baptism in the Holy Spirit by asking about the ‘origin, beginning and initiation of the faithfulness of man which replies and corresponds to the faithfulness of God.’ He ventures that a man is not naturally able to be faithful to God, and so the beginning of the Christian life must be such a miracle that the change that has taken place as a person moves from faithlessness to faithfulness is nothing short of ‘astounding.’ He puts it beautifully when he says of the Christian that ‘everything he was before… though not expunged, is totally relativized, bracketed and overshadowed.’
For Barth, conversion has its source in God alone, and is subject to His control. Whilst it is impossible for a person to begin the Christian life by their own choice, Barth believes that the same person is ‘nevertheless enabled by divine judgement, on the basis of divine possibility, to will, commence and do this.’ So, despite being powerless to act, God in an unexplained way makes it possible for us to respond to God with dignity. God causes the movement, and yet it is the person who wants to move. Barth says ‘it is God’s power to draw and turn, so that this man will voluntarily and by his own decision choose that which God in His Grace has already chosen for him.’
The Event of Jesus Christ
Barth writes that the history of Jesus is ‘an event in the life of all’ but that this event must become personalised to the individual, who needs to see that their own life ‘took place along with the history of Jesus Christ.’ In some mysterious way the life of Christ, which happened in another time, becomes in their time ‘the event of his reorientation and refashioning.’ Thompson, commenting on Barth, states that
the way in which the divine reconciliation becomes ours is by the resurrection opening up Christ’s finished work and the significance of the cross and, by the Holy Spirit, applying it.
What was external to us is now by the power of the Holy Spirt made internally powerful in us.
Thus this individualisation occurs through the work of the Holy Spirit and it effects an inner change within the Christian, such that ‘he freely… and of his own resolve, thinks and acts and conducts himself otherwise then he did before.’ A person becoming free to be faithful to God is only made possible by the ‘supreme majesty and condescension’ of Jesus Christ. What was ‘impossible for man, is made possible by God’ through the life of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit. (Luke 18:27)
We now arrive at the point where Barth feels able to give a definition of the Spirit baptism and thus he writes
that the power of the divine change in which the event of the foundation of the Christian life of specific men takes place is the power of the baptism with the Holy Ghost.
In this very clear statement Barth is bringing together the point of re-birth as a Christian with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. For him, the moment of initiation into the Christian faith is the moment at which you are baptised in the Spirit, the operation of which turns a person from living faithlessly into a person living in faithfulness to God. Thus the point at which a person is cleansed and reoriented is the point of initiation into the Christian faith – the point of Spirit baptism.
Barth makes five points to describe the significance of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
- It is Christ who does the baptising, often via human agents but ‘the church does not represent Christ nor does he delegate his authority to another.’
- Our response to the completed event of our baptism is not perfect.
- We are liberated by this baptism which Barth sees as ‘part of our Christian
ethic’ because it demands our gratitude, obedience and faithfulness.’
- As the Holy Spirit is a creative being, the process of baptism is varied. However, when we are baptised we enter the community of believers, the church.
- The baptism in the Spirit points us forward as we move towards its eschatological completion. We see glimpses of what could be, and these draw us on. Barth says of the Christian ‘The power of the life to come is the power of his life in this world,’
Critical evaluation of Barth’s Perspective
Whilst it behoves caution on the reader’s part, it seems odd that Barth does not engage often with difficult scriptures or proof texts in his arguments. There is, for example, no mention of the fact that the disciples at Pentecost were clearly ‘believers’ when Jesus told them to tarry for a few days before the baptism of the Spirit. Maybe this is because of the systematic rather than exegetical nature of his Dogmatics.
For Barth there is no question – the initiation into the Christian life and the baptism in the Holy Spirit occur at the same time. There is no possibility that the Spirit baptism comes at a later stage. This gives rise to the question ‘what does Barth make of the person who has a powerful second experience but was clearly a Christian beforehand?’ Such people can be found in many congregations and probably across denominations, and of course some would argue, with good reason, that they are described in Acts as we shall see.
Barth would have two options. Firstly these experiences could be real Spirit baptisms. This would then mean that according to Barth these individuals who had claimed to be previously followers of Jesus were in fact mistaken. This is hardly credible, and very damaging. A more likely conclusion for Barth is that these people were incorrectly describing their second experiences as ‘Spirit baptism’ when in fact what was happening was more likely to be just a fresh encounter with the God. After all, we have seen above that Barth states that our response to the complete work of Christ in our Spirit baptism is at best imperfect. As Ponsonby, who agrees with Barth that Spirit baptism happens at initiation puts it, ‘Through sin, ignorance, apathy and poor instruction we can hold back the dam of the Spirit’s power within us.’
A similar question arises concerning the person who is unable to describe a point of entry into the kingdom. Again, this is a common situation, especially for those who grew up in Christian households. Barth’s insistence that initiation and Spirit baptism occur together could lead to difficult, pastoral questions around issues of assurance. One could easily image someone becoming quite distressed, seeing no evidence for their Spirit baptism and then questioning their very salvation. Would he suggest that on deeper questioning and reflection such people can eventually arrive at some event when the event of Jesus became personal to them? Barth might argue that this too is a mystery and best explained by saying that God is outside of time and so the question has no meaning.
Barth emphasises that conversion has its source in God alone which seems correct, given Jesus statement that ‘no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.’ (John 6:44) Barth’s emphasis on the majesty and mystery of God’s interaction with our free wills is both thought provoking and a timely reminder that God is beyond our understanding. It is this mystery and majesty that gives rise to the ‘gratitude, obedience and faithfulness’ mentioned above.
In a wonderfully compelling and uplifting piece of writing at the end of the section Barth begins to unpack the eschatological nature of baptism in the Spirit. He describes it as a ‘take off for the leap towards what is not yet present’ and as a ‘looking to and stretching for a future.’ Barth has a strong emphasis on the ‘equipped for service’ motif and you could suggest that there is a hint of the gifts of the Spirit just coming through. However, there is room in Barth’s writing to unpack how the gifts of the Spirit contribute towards both this service and the eschatological fulfilment. These gifts are not mentioned with the Dogmatics and it would be interesting to read what Barth would have to say now given that these gifts are far more widespread than they were when he was writing.
We now turn to look at the Pentecostal account.
Baptism in the Spirit and Pentecostalism
What Pentecostals Say
Pentecostals, coming from a broad world-wide church, naturally have many shades and variations within their theology of the baptism of the Spirit. They get their name of course, from the events that happened in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost. Although the debate has clearly moved on since Bruner wrote his book in 1970, it still has some useful introductory things to say. He states that ‘Pentecost to Pentecostals signifies … the powerful descent of the Spirit upon the first disciples’ and adds that this ‘filling with the Holy Spirit’ enabled them to speak in tongues as described in Acts 2:4.
Bruner, quoting Riggs tells us that ‘being baptised in the Spirit’ is for Pentecostals, something of a catch all phrase. Thus when the bibles uses phrases such as ‘filled with’ (Acts 2:4) and ‘to receive the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38) it is synonymous for Spirit baptism. However, Pentecostals would say that there is a difference between ‘receiving the Spirit’ and ‘fully receiving the Spirit.’ The first happens at conversion, and the later at some other time.
For Pentecostals this subsequent experience of Spirit baptism carries something of a crisis about it as a person is ‘submerged by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Bruner adds that this is both supernatural and experiential, and that the person is fully conscious. He also believes that the experience follows three markers – that it is ‘distinct from, and separate to’ the new birth, that it is accompanied by glossolalia, and that it needs to be earnestly sought.
Macchia, whose work is much more up to date than Bruner’s, helpfully stresses that ‘Spirit baptism is a fluid metaphor surrounded by ambiguous imagery.’ Amongst Pentecostals ‘usually included is an understanding of Spirit baptism as an empowerment for ministry distinct from regeneration or initiation into Christ.’  For Macchia this understanding is the ‘crown jewel of Pentecostal distinctiveness.’
Macchia is wanting to define what facets of doctrine are distinctive and universally accepted by Pentecostals. Although he admits that this is impossible, he suggests ‘Subsequence’, the doctrine that initiation and Spirit baptism are distinct, is perhaps to be regarded as the most distinctively Pentecostal doctrine. He writes that
many Pentecostals have viewed Spirit baptism as analogous to a rite of passage among Christians to an intense awareness of the presence of God and an experience of the kingdom of God in power. 
After Spirit baptism it is as if a new door has been opened, or a new level accessed. The experience, it is believed, opens the way to the ‘empowerment of Christians for vibrant praise and dynamic witness’, both of which can be expressed through signs and wonders of the kingdom. It is believed that such signs and wonders ‘should be experienced to some degree in the everyday lives of ordinary Christians.’
Whilst many American Pentecostals would cite speaking in tongues as evidence for Spirit baptism, that opinion is not universally held. Macchia suggests that most Pentecostals ‘view [Spirit baptism] as a revival or renewal experience… and link it to involvement in the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, especially speaking in tongues and divine healing.’ Like Bruner, Macchia wants to state that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is experiential – ‘a certain kind of spiritual experience of an intense, direct and overwhelming nature focusing on the person of Christ.’
Furthermore Macchia recalls that Luke in his gospel and in Acts describes Spirit baptism as a ‘clothing with power’, reminding us that Jesus told the disciples to wait until they were clothed in power. (Luke 24:49) This clothing is to be used for the work of ministry; the furthering of the kingdom. Macchia, in similar vain to Bruner, has ‘clothed in power’ as being operationally the same as baptism in the Spirit.
One of the out workings of Spirit baptism, is that of empowerment for service. Bruner states that Spirit baptism is not to be understood soteriologically but rather ‘dynamologically’. By this he means that the second blessing has no effect on a person’s salvation, but has a significant effect on their power for ministry. Acts 1:8 of course has Jesus saying ‘but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses.’ So it is clear that the main feature of Spirit baptism should be that the Christian community will be empowered for witness. Bruner quotes Paul Rabe, a German Pentecostal leader as saying ‘by being born again we as individuals have been saved ourselves, but by the baptism of the Spirit we receive… power to save others.’
A Brief Look at Pentecostal Theology
A lot of the discussion surrounding Pentecostal theology hinges on the hermeneutics of Acts. As the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the fledgling church was experiencing a new thing and Schweizer usefully reminds us that it was a long time before ‘she developed step by step a doctrine of the Spirit.’ Schweizer is suggesting that Luke himself does not have a clear pneumatology of Spirit baptism and that it is then to be expected that theologians looking back will come to different conclusion as the search for a coherent theology of Spirit baptism.
Much of the theology of the Pentecostal second blessing, or subsequence, is based on the writings of Luke. Firstly, Jesus himself tells the first disciples to wait saying ‘for John truly baptised you with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ (Acts 1:5) This of course was fulfilled at Pentecost. Then there are several case studies that he presents in the book of Acts that appear to show a second experience, a Spirit baptism. The manifestations that occurred at Pentecost are comparably experienced again at Samaria (8:14ff), in the household of Cornelius (10:44ff) and in Ephesus (19:1ff). In each case it can be argued that the protagonists are believers who experience some form of ‘crisis’ event and are baptised with the Spirit, although with Cornelius you could say that the two events happen concurrently.
Barth of course, would not have any of this and he is not alone. Many scholars, including Dunn, Stott and Fee have tried to argue consistently against Pentecostal hermeneutics and theology to say that the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs at initiation.
One ongoing argument has been that Pentecostal theology is primarily derived from the narrative in Acts, which can lead to a historical precedent being set. Stronstad, quoting New Testament scholar J. Ramsey Michaels, writes ‘There is nothing wrong in principle with deriving normative beliefs and practices from narratives’ to which we can add Macciah’s comment that ‘the Pentecostal practice of drawing theological conclusions from biblical narrative is no longer a major point of contention.’
Stronstad describes the years of work that Pentecostal theologians have put in to defend their theology, and because of this he is now able to say ‘Pentecostal theology is derived from the so-called didactic portions of Luke’s narrative.’ He goes on to explain how rather than being based on Luke’s descriptions of a few experiences it is in fact based on the teaching of Jesus, and of the apostles and the ‘theological terms which are embedded in the narrative.’
Comparing the Barthian and Pentecostal Views of Spirit Baptism
Perhaps the most significant difference between the two outlooks hinges on the doctrine of subsequence. For Barth initiation into the Christian faith and Spirit baptism form part of the same event and are therefore inseparable. This naturally enough means that Barth has to include such issues as how can faithless humanity become faithful in order to deal with Spirit baptism. For Pentecostals initiation and baptism in the Spirit are separate events, the later usually occurring in some form of ‘crisis’ event at a later period. Pentecostal Spirit baptism therefore requires little, if any, theology of conversion. There has been much debate about subsequence and Macchia has reached the conclusion that whilst the debate has been helpful it has now reached the end of the road since it ends up as an ‘impasse of competing ecclesiologies.’ Perhaps it is time to just accept this and move on.
As explained, Barth remains unhelpfully quiet when it comes to explaining what is going on when a Christian appears to have some form of secondary, dramatic post-initiation encounter with God. Ponsonby does suggest that it could be that the Christian is somehow breaking down part of the dam he describes, and Barth would probably agree. Pentecostals of course have no difficulty in explaining this ‘second’ experience. But what of a third or even fourth? Many Christians will talk of several such ‘high points’ in their lives as their communicational and relational intimacy with God ebbs and flows. To such Christians, this is just the normal the way that relationships go. Barth and the Pentecostals would say this is a natural outworking of Spirit baptism.
As we have seen, Barth’s model has yet to deal satisfactorily with the Christian who claims to have had a ‘subsequence’ experience of the Spirit. Of course, the Pentecostals have the opposite pastoral problem to deal with – that of the Christian who despite their best efforts, seems unable to avail themselves of Spirit baptism with all the potential for self-doubt, confusion and anger that this can bring.
Both ways of looking at the baptism in the Holy Spirit want to stress that it is linked to missiology, which is to be expected given the clear teaching of Jesus in Acts 1:4-8. Whilst Barth would of course agree that Spirit baptism brings power he does not really say what this power looks like, and does not dwell at all on the gifts of the Spirit. He does talk about how a person is internally changed so that they can be faithful to God, and be empowered without expressly saying what that empowerment looks like, or how the Christian knows that they have it. On the other hand, Pentecostals have a lot to say about power in the lives of Christians!
It must be a common experience for a Christian to read Luke’s writings and ask ‘where is this power for mission today in the life of the Christian community that I belong to?’ There are a myriad of answers to that question, and both schools of thought have to deal with it. It could be argued that The Pentecostals have a clearer idea of where the sources of power is in the life of the church, as they seek for modern day expressions of Pentecost. As we have seen Macchia states that such power should be visible at least to some degree in the ordinary Christian. This in and of itself however is a problem for Pentecostals. Just what does ‘some degree in the ordinary Christian’ life look like?
Barth describes the baptism in the Holy Spirit as being eschatological in nature, and this is another point of agreement between the two schools. Barth expresses elements of this more precisely and powerfully, but similar ideas are inherent in the Pentecostal theology as Pentecostals seek a personal, modern day ‘Pentecost’ and then the future expression of this new empowerment as it relates to the coming kingdom.
In this essay I have attempted to contrast the theology of Karl Barth and the Pentecostal movement regarding Spirit baptism. If we could leave aside the issue of subsequence then the most significant difference is that of the manifestation of power and the gifts of the Spirit. One could easily image powerless Pentecostals and Barthian followers who experience the miraculous. Neither has a monopoly of successful missiology or eschatological longing.
When I embarked upon this essay I was firmly of the belief that there was no time between conversion and Spirit baptism – that they were part of one event as Barth describes. I also believed that there were powerful experiences of the presence of God available to all Christians – so wonderful, empowering, dynamic ‘second events’ were to be expected, but that they were not however baptism in the Spirit. Whilst having to live with the tension created by the passages in Acts I was sure that later experiences of the Spirit were much as Ponsonby describes them – the breaking down of the dam allowing the Spirit to flow, sometimes manifesting in gifts of power. Barth is frustratingly quiet on these issues, and we are left to infer what he would think.
However, the hermeneutical arguments of Stronstad are particularly interesting, providing for an easier reading of scripture that fits with the subsequence doctrine of Spirit baptism. This way of looking is new to me, and I therefore can say that this research has, and is influencing my outlook as I find myself now drawn, with some reservations, towards the Pentecostal outlook. When all is said and done, and whilst it is important to be as careful as possible with our understanding of scripture, perhaps our understanding of the ‘when’ of Spirit baptism is of less importance to the fact that it happens, and that we learn to walk with our God.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV.4 The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Translated by G W Bromiley. New York: T & T Clark, 2010.
Bruner, Frederick Dale. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971.
Macchia, Frank D. Baptized in the Holy Spirit. A Global Pentecostal Theology. Michigan: Zondervan, 2006.
Macchia, Frank D. “Tongues as a Sign: Towards a Sacramental Understanding of Pentecostal Experience.” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 15, no. 1(93): 61-76.
Ponsonby, Simon. More. How you can have more of the Spirit when you already have everything in Christ. Ontario: David C Cook, 2009.
Schweizer, Eduard. “The Spirit of Power. The Uniformity and diversity of the concept of the Holy Spirit in the NT.” Interpretation 6, no. 3(1952): 259-278.
Stronstad, Roger. “Pentecostal Hermenutics.” PENUMA: The Journal oif the Society for Pentecostal Studies 15, no. 2(1993): 215-222.
Thompson, John. The Holy Spirit in the Theology of Karl Barth. Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 1991.
Accessed but not cited:
Barth, Karl. The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life. The Theological Basis of Ethics. Westminister: John Knox Press, 1993.
Dunn, James D G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press LTD, 1970.
Hunsinger, George. “Cambridge Companions Online.” The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth05 2006. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521584760.001> (12 01 2015).
 Simon Ponsonby, More. How you can have more of the Spirit when you already have everything in Christ (Ontario: David C Cook, 2009), 153.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4 The Doctrine of Reconciliation (New York: T & T Clark, 2010), 37.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 1.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 1.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 1.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 3.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 4.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 11.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 25.
 John Thompson, The Holy Spirit in the Theology of Karl Barth (Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 1991), 117.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 16.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 11.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 27.
 Thompson, The Holy Spirit, 118.
 Thompson, The Holy Spirit, 118.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 37.
 Other Barth sources that I investigated hardly mention ‘Spirit baptism’ or ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit.’ I list these in the bibliography but the net impression is that there remains not much of Barth’s teaching on this subject, or that in fact, he simply did not engage with it very much beyond Dogmatics.
 Ponsonby, More, 158.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, 35.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971), 56.
 Bruner, A Theology, 59.
 Bruner, A Theology, 60.
 Dale Bruner, A Theology, 61.
 Frank D Macchia, Baptized in the Holy Spirit. A Global Pentecostal Theology (Michigan: Zondervan, 2006), 14.
 Macchia, Baptized, 20.
 Macchia, Baptized, 34.
 Macchia, Baptized, 35.
 Macchia, Baptized, 35.
 Macchia, Baptized, 20.
 Macchia, Baptized, 21.
 Macchia, Baptized, 14.
 Bruner, A Theology, 73.
 Bruner, A Theology, 74.
 Eduard Schweizer, “The Spirit of Power. The Uniformity and diversity of the concept of the Holy Spirit in the NT.,” Interpretation 6 (1952), 259002E
 Roger Stronstad, “Pentecostal Hermenutics,” PENUMA: The Journal oif the Society for Pentecostal Studies 15 (1993), 215.
 Stronstad, Pentecostal Hermenutics, 219.
 Frank D Macchia, “Tongues as a Sign: Towards a Sacramental Understanding of Pentecostal Experience,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 15 (93), 65.
 Roger Stronstad, Pentecostal Hermenutics, 220.
 Stronstad, Pentecostal Hermenutics, 220. Regarding the theological terms within Luke’s narrative Stronstad suggests that apart from the phrase ‘baptised with the Spirit’ the remaining terms that Luke uses to describe the activity of the Holy Spirit can be found within ‘charismatic contexts within the LXX.’ (see p222) This underlines that the fact that the narrative does not dictate the meaning of these terms, but that their meaning contributes to the narrative.
 Macchia, Baptized, 62.