Travis E. Ables’s book, Incarnational Realism. Trinity and Spirit in Augustine and Barth, takes as its point of departure the late 20th century claim that Latin Christianity lacks a robust pneumatology, and this dismal state of affairs is due to Augustine’s problematic trinitarian theology. Ables, however, rejects this reading of Augustine and Latin Christianity and argues convincingly that Augustine is not guilty of the alleged Geistvergessenheit. However, this is not merely a book championing Augustine’s teachings; rather, as the book’s title indicates, Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit, contrary to charges that his overemphasized Christology eclipses pneumatology, likewise has a role to play. In other words, Ables argues that both Barth and Augustine provide us with theologically rich teachings on the Holy Spirit that, when read together and properly synthesized, offer important correctives to contemporary trinitarian theology.
In particular, Ables focuses on the shortcomings of trinitarian personalism and trinitarian idealism. Ables worries that both contemporary expressions of trinitarian teaching are too reductionistic and thus ultimately fail to maintain “the integrity of God’s reconciling act in the economy of salvation” (180). On the one hand, Ables’s concern regarding trinitarian personalism is that it diminishes the essential character of God’s act in history, rendering it as “an accidental occasion or concrete illustration of what is essentially a purely metaphorical relationship between human community and divine community” (ibid.). In other words, the metaphorical relationship becomes so primary that it downgrades the revelatory significance of the Triune God’s work in salvation history to Jesus’s “exemplary relational existence as Son to the Father” (ibid.). On the other hand, trinitarian idealism is overly smitten with Hegel’s Geist. Here “God’s self-revelation in the economy is only possible as a result of the necessity of God’s self-alienating otherness internal to Godself” (181). In this narrative, God is not depicted as pouring out his love in history but rather as incorporating “history into Godself in what sometimes begins to look like a startlingly narcissistic picture of self-reflexivity” (ibid.). Finding neither account satisfactory, Ables argues for a trinitarian theology wherein “the singularity of divine self-donation in Jesus Christ is the material content of trinitarian doctrine as such” (181). This claim is, in fact, what Ables has in mind with the term “incarnational realism.” For not only is the incarnation the “material content of trinitarian doctrine,” but it is likewise “the measure of our knowledge of God, [and] the agent of our redemption” (189).
In short, on Ables’s historically rich reading coupled with his own constructive contributions, there is no lack or absence of the Spirit in Latin theology owing to an fatal Augustinian misstep, nor does Barth privilege Christology to the detriment of pneumatology; rather, when the best insights of both theologians are synthesized, what we have is doctrine of the Spirit that emphasizes our participation in the mystery of God as dramatized or performed in the life of Christ. Since there is one work of God, Christology need not compete with pneumatology; rather, as Ables has shown, “[t]he stronger one’s Christology, the stronger one’s pneumatology” (186).
Travis Ables is an independent scholar working in historical and systematic theology. His research interests focus on Christology, trinitarian theology, and anthropology in Augustine and his readers. He is the author of Incarnational Realism: Trinity and the Spirit in Augustine and Barth (Bloomsbury, 2013), and is currently working on a theological history of the cross within political, cultural, and artistic contexts (forthcoming from Fortress Press, 2017), as well as an introduction to the Victorines in the Cascade Companions series (forthcoming from Cascade Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Vanderbilt University.