Let Karl Barth Turn You Into a More Spiritual Theologian

Every pastor goes through periods of theological drought. Sometimes the congregation can see it, sometimes they can’t. But the pastor notices it immediately. It gets difficult to plumb theological depths in sermon prep. Leadership becomes a matter of pragmatics. Cliches abound in counseling meetings.

Indeed, the theological drought withholds rain from all aspects of ministry.

Karl Barth has an answer for it. Though we wouldn’t accept everything he said and taught, he nails this issue in his little, but extremely helpful book, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (a book as much about the theologian as it is about theology).

His diagnosis is that the theological drought occurs because the rain of the Spirit has not been welcome.

The necessity of spiritual theology

“It is clear that evangelical theology itself can only be pneumatic, spiritual theology. Only in the realm of the power of the Spirit can theology be realized as a humble, free, critical, and happy science of the God of the Gospel. Only in the courageous confidence that the Spirit is the truth does theology simultaneously pose and answer the question about truth” (55).

The problem of unspiritual theology

“Unspiritual theology, whether it works its woe in the pulpit or from the rostrum, on the printed page or in ‘discussions’ among old or young theologians, would be one of the most terrible occurrences on this earthly vale. It would be so bad as to be without comparison with the works of even the worst political journalist or the most wretched novels or films.”

“Theology becomes unspiritual when it lets itself be enticed or evicted from the freshly flowing air of the Spirit of the Lord, in which it alone can prosper. The Spirit departs when theology enters rooms whose stagnant air automatically prevents it from being and doing what it can my, and must be and do” (56).

2 causes of unspiritual theology

1. Lack of confidence in the leading of the Spirit: “This theology does not muster the courage and confidence to submit itself fearlessly and unreservedly to the illumination, admonition, and consolation of the Spirit. It refuses to permit itself to be led by him into all truth. By such refusal, theology fails to give, in its inquiry, thought, and teaching, the honor due the Spirit of the Father and the Son that was certainly poured out over all flesh for its sake” (56).

2. Familiarity that leads to domesticating the Spirit: “Just because of this familiarity, theology may once again fail to acknowledge the vitality and sovereignty of this power which defies all domestication. In such a situation theology forgets that the wind of the Spirit blows where it wills…But theology now supposes it can deal with the Spirit as though it had hired him or even attained possession of him…But a presupposed spirit is certainly not the Holy Spirit, and a theology that presumes to have it under control can only be unspiritual theology” (57, 58)

How to return to spiritual theology

Ask the Spirit for mercy: “The Holy Spirit is the vital power that bestows free mercy on theology and on theologians just as on the community and on every single Christian. Both of these remain utterly in need of him. Only the Holy Spirit himself can help a theology that is or has become unspiritual. Only where the Spirit is sighed, cried, and prayed for does he become present and newly active”

“‘Come, O come, thou Spirit of life!’ Even the best theology cannot be anything more or better than this petition made in the form of resolute work” (58).


  1. Hi, Eric. Great post. I took a class on Barth here at SBTS last fall. This was the first thing we read. It was such a refreshing read. Next to nothing is written about the theologian himself today. Barth’s insights were such a blessing. It should be required reading in seminary. It’s definitely a work I’ll come back to again.