Taking a Closer Look at the Holy Spirit

Had Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit been available in August for the start of my theology elective on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, it would’ve been the first reading assignment for my students.

Its major thrust is to demonstrate that the Spirit’s ministry in the lives of Christians and in the church is due to the Spirit’s relationships with the Father and the Son. That is, the ontological/immanent Trinity grounds the economic Trinity, or the economic Trinity reflects the ontological Trinity; thus, the acts of the Spirit in space and time reflect his eternal procession from the Father and/through the Son. For classical Trinitarians like me, this emphasis is a very welcome and much-needed corrective to the “disproportionate significance” that “God’s work toward the outside” (the economic Trinity) has assumed in contemporary theology (21).

On almost every page Holmes—Anglican priest and senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand—underscores the necessity of starting with “God’s work toward the inside” (the immanent Trinity) as grounds for the divine missions of the Son and the Spirit. Such a starting point enables us to answer the question “why does the Holy Spirit do what he does?” in both the church and the world.

As I was led to contemplate the Father, the eternally generated/begotten Son, and the eternally proceeding Spirit, adoration for our triune God welled up in my heart and expressed itself in praise and thanksgiving.

Of course, discussing the relations of paternity (Father), generation (Son), and procession (Spirit) doesn’t exhaust the matter, and Holmes rightly emphasizes that the three are consubstantial (of the same divine substance or essence):

Godhead is neither an abstraction nor an a priori with respect to the three; likewise, the three are not subsequent to the being of God. (64) 

In the Trinity, there is ontological equality with relational differences, and the eternal order of Father, Son, and Spirit by no means diminishes the equality of the three persons. 

Exegesis and Engagement 

The means by which this metaphysical grounding for the activity of the Spirit is presented is in keeping with two of the essential commitments of this series (New Studies in Dogmatics) for its doctrines: attention to biblical reasoning (e.g., exegesis) from which the doctrines arise, and engagement with significant theological statements and theologians treating those doctrines. Accordingly, Holmes interacts with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth—particularly as they addressed the doctrine of the Spirit in relation to John’s Gospel. Readers will immediately acknowledge the fittingness of Holmes’s choice of these three interlocutors.

As to the three’s exegesis of the Johannine passages selected, and as to Holmes’s interpretation of the their theological formulations, readers must decide for themselves. For example, I’m not convinced of Augustine and Thomas’s exegesis of John 3:5 (“born of water and the Spirit”), which identifies the “water” as baptism. Interaction with other interpretations—for example, because one preposition (“of”) governs both “water and the Spirit,” then the two nouns refer to one entity, likely the cleansing from sin and outpouring of the Spirit prophesied in Ezekiel 36:25–27—would have been appreciated and, it seems, in keeping with the first of the two essential commitments. 

Moreover, I’m confused as to Holmes’s understanding of generation and procession: does the Father eternally grant the Son his being/deity, or does he grant the second person his person-of-the-Son? Similarly, does the Father eternally grant the Spirit his being/deity, or does he grant the third person his person-of-the-Spirit? As a follower of Calvin on this issue, I would’ve liked to see the Reformer’s notion of autotheos—each of the three is “God of himself”—utilized or, at minimum, mentioned. This move would have been consistent with the second of the two essential commitments. 

Works of the Spirit 

As a distinct person proceeding from the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit engages in acts that are appropriate to his procession. Holmes focuses on two such works: (1) regeneration and (2) church and tradition. Concerning the first, regeneration is linked to sight (theological vision) and love, leading to the anticipated beatific vision to be experienced in the age to come. Holmes’s simple language propels readers to majestic heights of contemplation:

When the Lord Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead, we will no longer pray in terms of either confession or supplication but ceaselessly pray in the form of prayer and thanksgiving. . . .  We will see him as he is in all that we do. (211)

As for the second, Holmes’s rightly underscores the importance of starting with the ontology of the church—as the work of the triune God—before engaging in discussion of what the church does. Moreover,

tradition [primarily, the ecumenical creeds; secondarily, church documents like the Heidelberg Catechism] works to aid the church in hearing the Word and calling on the Holy Spirit. (182)

The presentation of both works of the Spirit is appropriate and will generate more discussion.

What’s missing in terms of the works of the Spirit, however, constitutes the greatest weakness of this book. While it satisfied me in terms of its presentation of intratrinitarian relations and trinitarian mission, it left me yearning for discussion of the Spirit and other theological topics: Scripture; hermeneutics; creation; providence; humanity; sin; atonement; other saving acts (especially repentance, faith, confession of Christ, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification); spiritual gifts; resurrection; consummation; Pentecostal/charismatic theology; other religions; and more. Perhaps this is asking too much, but in place of tangential discussions of the continuity between Barth’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in Church Dogmatics I/1 and IV/3.2, treatment of these other matters would have better fulfilled another essential commitment of the series: “appreciation of the doctrine’s location within the larger system of theology” (16).      

Despite this weakness, Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit addresses the metaphysical ground for the Holy Spirit’s activity in Christians and in the church like no other book. It is the first of 16 projected volumes in Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series, edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain. If this book is representative of the forthcoming volumes, this series will make a significant contribution to evangelical scholarship.

For this reason alone—and there are many others—it’s a must-read.

Christopher R. J. Holmes. The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. 224 pp. $24.99.