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The Spirit of the Age: The 19th-Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession

J. V. Fesko

Reviewed by: Joel D. Fick

Date posted: 07/29/2018

The Spirit of the Age: The 19th-Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession, by J. V. Fesko. Reformation Heritage, 2017. Paperback, 144 pages, $14.00. Reviewed by OP pastor Joel D. Fick.

I went to seminary a Pentecostal and came out a Presbyterian. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that in 1903 the PCUSA had revised the Westminster Confession of Faith to include a chapter on the Holy Spirit and one on the love of God. I was a little suspicious of these new chapters, because although I didn’t know much, I knew that neither the PCA (of which I had become a part) nor the OPC (in which I hoped to one day serve) had adopted this revised version of the confession. But given my Pentecostal background, I was especially interested in the chapter on the Holy Spirit, and when I read it, I remember thinking “Well, that doesn’t seem so bad. What’s the big deal?” Why had both the OPC and the PCA rejected these confessional revisions?

In his most recent book, The Spirit of the Age: The 19th-Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession, J. V. Fesko shows us what the “big deal” is. He does this by examining these confessional revisions in light of the historical context (“the spirit of the age”) and the progressive philosophical impulses that were driving them. The resulting revisions “take on a different meaning depending on who reads them. In the hands of Warfield,” who opposed the revisions, “the new chapter on the Holy Spirit largely repeats doctrine already present in the confession. But in the hands of someone like Briggs or Schaff … the chapter on the Holy Spirit can be read in a different manner,” (96) one that is consistent with their evolutionary view of history.

Over against these post-Enlightenment revisions, Fesko demonstrates the catholicity of the confession by locating it in “the best theology of the church, whether from the church fathers, or theologians of the middle ages” (49).

But while Fesko’s sketch of the historical context is well-researched, interesting, and useful, even more useful is his sketch of the confession’s thoroughgoing pneumatology with special attention given to its connection with Christology. He ably defends the confession against the charge that the absence of a separate chapter on the Holy Spirit betrays a pneumatological deficiency. Rather:

Far from absent, the Westminster Confession presents a richly biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit, one from which we have much to learn and would do well to make our own. (115)

Then, in a wonderful effort to help us make the confession’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit “our own,” Fesko includes an appendix entitled “The Holy Spirit in the Westminster Standards.” In this eminently useful harmony of the standards, Fesko systematically works through the confession, listing every reference to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, together with the Scripture proofs and parallel references in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The appendix itself is worth the price of the book!

So if you’ve ever read the 1903 revisions to the Westminster Confession and found yourself asking “What’s the big deal?” pick up this book by theologian and professor J. V. Fesko and discover that “one of the biggest mirages in the theological wilderness is the idea of progress” (71).

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