Systematic Theology: Volume 3: The Holy Spirit and the Church

Written by Douglas F. Kelly Reviewed By Thomas Haviland-Pabst

Douglas Kelly, professor of theology emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, has completed the third installment of his multivolume systematic theology. Its arrival is bitter-sweet as it signals the end of his systematic theology, with the author’s commentary on the book of Revelation (Mentor, 2015) standing in place of a volume on eschatology.

Kelly writes from a Reformed perspective, as is evidenced by his many references to Reformed theologians such as Francis Turretin, Herman Bavinck, and John Murray. The volume is divided into three parts. The first part (chs. 1–4) gives explicit attention to the Holy Spirit. The second part (chs. 5–11) looks at the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. The third part (chs. 12–16) focuses on the Christian life.

It is worth mentioning are some overall strengths that characterize this work at the outset. First, Kelly is deeply conversant with Scripture. It is difficult to find a page that doesn’t engage with Scripture somehow. Second, he is engaged with the “Great Tradition” of the church. Such luminaries as T. F. Torrance, Augustine, Athanasius, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, and Dumitru Staniloae are cited. There is then a catholicity to Kelly’s thought that is not always the case with Reformed theologians. Third, this volume is marked by an evident devotion to the Lord. This quality breathes life into the discipline of systematic theology—a field known, even if unfairly, for its dryness.

Kelly starts off his discussion of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament (chapter 2) by beautifully writing, “the Holy Spirit, who does not possess His own image (or eikon), is precisely fit for the grace and beauty of the image or form of both the Father and the Son to shine through him” (p. 43, emphasis original). Kelly offers a sophisticated account of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in this same chapter. From the Holy Spirit’s role in Christ’s work, Kelly presents a fascinating thesis: “the blessed Holy Spirit himself had to be fully adapted to dwell in holy power within human beings, by way of being shaped through His presence and working within the incarnate Christ” (p. 65). By his involvement in the incarnation, the Holy Spirit was prepared to indwell humans united to Christ.

While treating the reception of the church at Pentecost (ch. 3), Kelly persuasively argues that in order to avoid subordinationism, it is the being rather than the person of the Father from whom the Spirit proceeds. In the fourth chapter, Kelly discusses issues that often accompany a discussion of the Holy Spirit, such as the continuation of prophecy and tongues. Though Kelly takes a cessationist approach to these questions, arguing for a closed canon and the ceasing of prophecy and tongues, he argues that we ought not to deny a true encounter with God’s grace to believers who have experienced tongues or prophecy. Thus, “We do not need to deny that millions of [charismatic] believers have had some kind of mystical experience of the Holy Spirit” (p. 101).

Discussing justification and sanctification in chapter 7, Kelly argues that such texts as Hebrews 6:4–6 and Matthew 25:41, 45–46 support the idea of temporary faith, i.e., some people seem to experience the effects of salvation but later are shown to be unconverted. Thus, apostasy, given its corollary of temporary faith, does not conflict with real perseverance of the saints. Giving attention to the attributes and marks of the church, Kelly helpfully affirms that grace is “conveyed through the sacraments” but that this is not mechanical or automatic. Instead, “it is one of the offices of the Holy Spirit to use both baptism and the Supper to convey such grace as He deems appropriate” (pp. 222–23). In his treatment of election (ch. 10), though Kelly does affirm reprobation, he states that “election and reprobation” are not “parallel decrees” (p. 245) since the main emphasis of Scripture is salvation, not condemnation. One last thing is worth mentioning. Kelly compelling argues that our prayers “go up through” (p. 341) the ascended Christ to the Father’s presence. In sum, the Triune God is involved in our prayers!

This brief sampling of this third volume of Kelly’s Systematic Theology ought to give the reader a sense of Kelly’s offering with this volume. There is much to commend this work. It is irenic, theological sound and nuanced, creative, catholic, devotional, biblically saturated, and, on top of that, clearly written. The only drawback that we can discern with this volume, beyond the obvious statement that one will not agree with everything found in its pages, is that Kelly fails to engage with growing contemporary literature on the Holy Spirit besides his discussion of the charismatic phenomenon. Thus, if one is looking for a systematic theology up-to-date with contemporary theological formulations and concerns, this may not be the best place to start. Yet, we hasten to add that the volume’s many strengths significantly outweigh what to some readers would be considered a significant weakness since Kelly proves to be an able and sound theological guide. To conclude, this third and final volume of his Systematic Theology is essential reading for the busy pastor, student, or scholar sympathetic to a contemporary articulation of Reformed theology from the pen of a mature theologian.


Thomas Haviland-Pabst

Thomas Haviland-Pabst
Asheville, North Carolina, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

In the book of Kings, Elisha is the Spirit-empowered man of God who walks with God, represents God, and shows the way to covenant faithfulness through word and deed...

Baptists provide an excellent window into the American identity during the antebellum period...

This article explores Colossians, a letter in which Paul says a considerable amount about work...

This article offers a reading of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which has seen a kind of rebirth amongst both Catholic and Protestant theologians in recent decades...

The Targums were not translations for the Aramaic-speaking masses who were ignorant of Hebrew...