What We Believe

The Holy Spirit by Christopher R. J. Holmes

John V. Fesko

The Holy Spirit, by Christopher R. J. Holmes, New Studies in Dogmatics, series edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015, 218 pages, $24.99 paper.

Ever since the nineteenth century, theologians have been producing a steady stream of books on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Scottish theologians James Buchanan (1804–70) and George Smeaton (1814–89) wrote books on the Spirit in 1847 and 1882 respectively. Around the turn of the century, in 1904, Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) produced his famous work on the Spirit. Kuyper’s concern was twofold: (1) G. W. F. Hegel’s influential philosophical doctrine of the Trinity, which posited the Spirit as an impersonal force that moved in and shaped history; and (2) Kuyper’s perception that the Reformed tradition had paid insufficient attention to the doctrine. These factors played a role in the American Presbyterian Church’s efforts to revise the Westminster Confession by adding a chapter on the Holy Spirit in 1903. Other theologians continued to write on the subject, such as R. A. Torrey (1856–1928) with his 1910 work on the Spirit. This trend continues unabated in our own day with works by a wide cross-section of theologians, including Gordon Fee, Yves Congar, Michael Welker, Christopher J. H. Wright, David Coffey, Robert Peterson, John Levison, Jürgen Moltmann, Sergius Bulgakov, Anthony Thiselton, Veli-Matti Kärkäinen, Matthew Levering, and now, this most recent contribution from Christopher R. J. Holmes.

Holmes’s book is part of a new series on dogmatics, edited by Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando) Professors Michael Allen and Scott Swain. This new series follows in the tradition of G. C. Berkouwer, Reformed theologian and professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, and his multi-volume dogmatics on the chief loci of systematic theology. Notably, Berkouwer had no volume dedicated to the doctrine of the Spirit. In this respect, Holmes’s volume is a welcome contribution to the growing field of pneumatology.

There are a number of strengths to this volume, first of which is its slender size. The chapters are relatively short, which makes it very readable. Second, Holmes does not follow common approaches to the doctrine by engaging first in exegesis and then theological reflection. Rather, he chooses three dialogue partners to explore the person and work of the Holy Spirit: St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. Some have opined that this is a disadvantageous approach because there is no Reformed theologian. Yet, readers should not be too hasty in drawing this conclusion. Few, I suspect, in contemporary Reformed circles have given much consideration to the catholic roots of the Reformed doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In one sense, most of the constituent elements of what one might identify as Reformed on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit are in fact catholic. In other words, the Protestant Reformation offered few modifications to the catholic understanding of doctrine of the Spirit. Some have argued, for example, that the Westminster Confession’s chapter on Christ the Mediator (WCF 8), has unique and unprecedented pneumatological accents. Yet, in actuality, the Confession’s pneumatology finds precedent in the work of Augustine, Aquinas, and to a certain extent Peter Lombard (1100–1160). Given the catholic roots of the Confession’s pneumatology, Holmes’s treatment of Augustine and Aquinas is quite appreciated and warranted. Some might welcome treatments of Augustine and Aquinas, but draw the line at Barth. Despite the orthodoxy in his neo-orthodox theology, some believe there is too much that is neo, or new. Nevertheless, I find it a fruitful exercise to read theologians with whom I might not agree in order to challenge my own convictions and ensure that I have rightly understood the Scriptures. Too often we get locked into the echo chamber of our own theological circles and never ask critical questions.

Another benefit of this book is the manner in which Holmes has presented exegesis. Some might accuse him of offering no exegesis because he only engages the exegesis of Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth, and thus offers an admirable historical-theological treatment of the subject but far from an exegetical one. Once again, we should not be too hasty in drawing this conclusion. Whether a living person, such as Holmes, offers exegesis, or a dead person presents it makes little difference in my mind. My desire is to see someone, alive or dead, engage the biblical text. In this respect, the living do not have a monopoly on the ability to do exegesis. Instead, to borrow the title from John Thompson’s recent book, Reading the Bible with the Dead, we should consult the exegesis of theologians in the past so we can learn from them. Yes, Holmes’s treatment falls under the discipline of historical theology, but it also captures exegesis. Exegesis and historical theology are not hermetically sealed-off from one another. Yes, Holmes focuses upon a very narrow swath of exegesis, particularly Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth’s exegesis of John’s gospel as it relates to the Spirit, but a narrow focus does not detract from the book’s utility. Rather, it provides a window into how three theologians from different eras of church history have understood the doctrine of the Spirit through the exegesis of John’s gospel, a canonical locus classicus for the doctrine.

These strengths make the book an interesting and stimulating read, one worthy to provide grist for the mill in thinking through the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It also provides ample opportunity to reflect upon the gospel of John. To what end does Holmes write? He argues:

The Spirit does not detract from Christ, supersede Christ, or act as his substitute. As we will see, the Spirit is primarily at work in relation to the Word (incarnate, written, and proclaimed), strengthening baptized children of God to remain true to Christ. Indeed, the mission of the Holy Spirit is coextensive with the mission of the Word (the Lord Jesus Christ). (21)

Such a focus is most welcome, especially during a time when many theologians displace Christology with pneumatology, such as in the case of Thomas Weinandy and his Spirit-christology. Moreover, Holmes’s Christ-centered pneumatology, especially through his treatment of Augustine and Aquinas, provides an excellent window to better understand the pneumatology of the Westminster Confession, particularly when the divines write, “The Lord Jesus … was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit” (WCF 8.3).

Will readers find weaknesses in Holmes’s book? Undoubtedly, yes. But do those weaknesses prevent one from reading his book with great profit? Not at all. As series editors, Allen and Swain have lined up a formidable roster of contributors for their New Studies in Dogmatics, and this first installment bodes well for the rest of the series. Readers will undoubtedly find themselves on new terrain at times, but unfamiliarity is the opportunity for learning, sharpening, and growing.

John V. Fesko is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of systematic and historical theology and academic dean at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, November 2016.

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Ordained Servant: November 2016

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