The Holy Spirit, by Robert Letham. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2023, xxii + 343 pages, $29.99, paper.

Robert Letham has established himself as an expert on the doctrine of the Trinity with his 2004 work The Holy Trinity, which makes him an ideal person to write a book on the Holy Spirit.[1] This book culls from his earlier book on the Trinity and his systematic theology.[2] The book has two sections. Part 1 gives a historical-theological overview of the doctrine and sets forth basic theological axioms. Part 2 surveys the doctrine in Scripture from the Old Testament (ch. 5), to the ministry of Jesus (ch. 6), Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost (ch. 7), the ministry of the apostles (chp. 8), New Testament gifts (ch. 9), eschatology (ch. 10), and the nature of the Spirit’s redemptive work (ch. 11). The book concludes with a critical appendix on “Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Renewal.”

The book has a number of strengths that commend it to readers. First, Letham provides a historical overview of the doctrine that spans the patristic to the contemporary period. For those unfamiliar with the history of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the survey covers many key persons and events. Second, the book gives a redemptive historical overview of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments. In the day of hyper-specialization and books that focus on either biblical theology or conversely systematic theology, this book covers both. In short, one need not choose between ontology or history but rather may study and appreciate the intra-trinitarian processions as they become manifest in their historical missions as they relate to the Holy Spirit. A third strength of the book is that it explores and critiques Pentecostal theology. These days much of our culture, and thus sadly the church, is given to experience-driven ideologies and theologies. Thus, Letham’s final analysis of Pentecostalism gives readers important food for thought: “A movement that has no discernible distinctive theology and is based not on the textuality of the Bible but rather in experience cannot, as such, be judged to be in harmony with the biblical gospel and the Christian tradition” (297). A fourth strength of the book is that Letham provides a glossary of key theological terms to assist the uninitiated and students in navigating the book’s contents and concepts.

Letham’s book is a very good contribution to the field, though there are several desiderata that would enhance it. Letham covers the history of the doctrine but skips over nineteenth-century developments. The influence of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) upon nineteenth- and twentieth-century theology is considerable. Hegel’s “trinitarianism” and his own understanding of the “Spirit” caused orthodox theologians to respond and write works on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate and contrast the Bible’s teaching from Hegel’s. Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), George Smeaton (1814–89), and James Buchanan (1804–70) wrote in response to Hegel.[3] Letham cites Kuyper periodically, but Smeaton and Buchanan do not appear in the book at all. The fact that so many contemporary theologians have written on the Holy Spirit is arguably due to Hegel’s influence, which explains the explosion of works on the Spirit in the twentieth century, yet the book says very little about this significant development.[4]

A second desideratum is greater attention to the Westminster Standards—they only appear as supporting cast, yet for all the complaints of an absence of the Holy Spirit in the documents, the Spirit features quite prominently in chapter eight on Christology, among many other places. In this vein, one of the missing works in Letham’s book is Thomas Goodwin’s (1600–80) The Work of the Holy Ghost in Our Salvation.[5] Goodwin was a Westminster divine, and his work gives insights into the nature of the Spirit’s work as it relates to Christology. When Letham rightly states that Christ offered himself on the cross through the power of the Spirit (Heb. 9:14), he neither mentions nor cites Westminster Confession 8:5. By not integrating analysis and citation to the Standards, Letham misses an opportunity to showcase the theological riches that some might otherwise not realize are in these documents.

A third desideratum is that, at times, certain sections cry out for greater exposition but get the briefest treatment. For example, when he treats the Holy Spirit and justification, Letham rightly highlights the forensic nature of justification and says that because of Christ’s justification believers share in his legal status (178). But Letham mentions nothing of 1 Timothy 3:16, that Christ was “justified in the Spirit” (translation mine). What role does the Spirit play in Christ’s justification? Or, Letham rightly notes the Spirit’s work in equipping Bezalel and Oholiab to construct the desert tabernacle (115) and correlatively treats the gifts of the Spirit (197–231), but he does not fully close the circle to connect these two giftings. Just as the Spirit gave the Old Testament gifts for the construction of the tabernacle, so the Spirit gives New Testament gifts for the construction of the church, God’s final dwelling place. Closing the loop between the Spirit’s work in the Old and New Testaments would further strengthen Letham’s overall arguments.

These three desiderata notwithstanding, Letham’s book is a fine treatment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit that lays out the issues and points to avenues for further research. Students and laymen should carefully study this book if they want to learn more about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The book also bodes well for the two prospective follow-on volumes on the Father and the Son. Letham’s contributions to the study of the doctrine of the Trinity will undoubtedly contribute to the church’s understanding about the God we love and serve.


[1] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, rev. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019).

[2] Letham, Holy Trinity, 131-352; idem., Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 212–13, 296–97, 860–65. For this information see publication information page of The Holy Spirit.

[3] Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri DeVries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1900); George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1882), 95–109; James Buchanan, Office and Work of the Holy Spirit (New York, NY: Robert Carter, 1847).

[4] E.g., Nicholas Bye, Liz Disley, and Nicholas Adams, eds., The Impact of Idealism, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2013), IV: 48–112.

[5] Thomas Goodwin, The Work of the Holy Ghost in Our Salvation, in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862).

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as Harriett Barbour Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. Ordained Servant Online, June/July, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2023


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Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 5

Getting to Know Your Pastor: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 6

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