Zondervan Academic has introduced a series entitled New Studies in Dogmatics. General Editors, Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, have recognized that modern theology has shown great facility in the fields of exegesis and history yet, constructively speaking, has displayed “a sideways drift rather than an upward progression…” Therefore these new studies endeavor to advance theological dialogue beyond merely a descriptive phase. This will not be accomplished by ignoring the vast treasure deposited by the church’s great theologians, but exactly the opposite – by retrieving their insights and building upon the ancient edifices new and constructive thought.
The first installment was released early this month, entitled The Holy Spirit, by Christopher R.J. Holmes. In his book, Holmes enters dialogue with three of the churches most voluminous theologians: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. And Holmes particularly interacts with each theologian regarding their engagement with the forth gospel. Holmes accesses Augustine’s teachings of the Gospel of John regarding the Holy Spirit’s being, Thomas’ Johannine views on the Spirit’s identity, and Barth’s Johannine conclusions regarding the Spirit’s activity.
More than just a book about the Holy Spirit, this volume is a study of protology. It’s a book of origins – origins of God’s activity in the world. Holmes contends that the power and glory of God cannot simply be collapsed into what He does. Yes, Barth has famously concluded that God remains God in all that he does. But, for Holmes the reason for this always begins with who he is. It’s not so much being and then action, but rather being in action (157). Antecedent to the acts of God is the being of God, and the being animates the action. The essence of God is fundamental to all of His acts. So, first and foremost, this is a book about the life of God – a community of three.
Once we establish that, Holmes helps us to understand and appreciate the divine missions as expressed in Son and Spirit. Allow me to attempt a diagram of what I take to be a beautiful reality expressed in the book.
Holmes points out that Christ was generated of the Father by the Spirit. Technically speaking, the Spirit precedes the Son, through the virgin conception. Then the Spirit proceeds from Christ, as a gift of the Father. The Spirit brings people to Christ, and Christ gives glory to the Father. And notice that Christ is the centerpiece of it all.
Now the order does not speak of importance – as if the Father is preeminent and the Spirt is his grandchild. Rather, the divine missions – as explained in the book and sketched above – can be viewed as circular. And this should serve to reflect the united and equal nature of the trinity. The order does not speak of importance but only serves for differentiation. The mission of God (aka the gospel) can be seen in this unfolding and infolding of divine activity in the world. The mission of God is the perfect extension of the community of God – a harmonious, loving, and
non-competitive environment where love reigns. Being of the same essence each person of the Godhead defers to and relies upon the other.
But what does Holmes have specifically to say about the Holy Spirit?
It was important for Holmes to establish the Spirit’s origin first because, at times, the Spirit has been considered by the church a detachable gift. But Augustine reminds us “the Spirit is not ours to manage or control.” (187) He remains God in the world. “The church does not possess the Spirit, but ever only receives the Spirit… the Spirit is proper to Christ by nature, whereas the Spirit indwells the church by grace.” (194) So he’s not a detachable gift, nor should he be considered a substitute for Christ. Rather, Holmes points out, “to declare is not to replace but to attest.” (41) The Spirit never departs from Christ, for he is the Spirit of Christ – for Christ breathed him, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). God is God and God is one.
And although the Spirit is one with Christ, he does bears witness of another. “The Spirit does not glorify the Spirit’s self but rather the Son. The Spirit is other-directed.” (93) He spends profound energy in promoting another. Barth puts it this way: “the only content of the Holy Spirit is Jesus.” (157) And Jesus gives glory to the Father.
This triune unfolding and infolding of redemptive history is continually held before the reader to marvel upon and glory in. A fascinating subject for the patient and observant reader.
Now for a few caveats.
For those who are looking for a pure treatment of pneumatology, this may not be the volume. To the present reader, Holmes’ subject was primarily about the immanence and economy of the trinity. And given that, I found the work incomplete – particularly the Son’s connection to the father. Holmes spends considerable energy speaking about the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit – only to speak of the Spirit’s ministry of the Son, but what of the Son’s glorifying of the Father? I understand this was not the burden of the author’s title, but his presentation leant in that direction, and left this reader at least hungry for closure.
Also, it will be wise for the reader to understand the genre he or she holds. This is constructive theology, and to many it may appear somewhat abstract and speculative, but it seeks to extend a conversation that is already underway. If the author is not privy to that conversation, he or she may need to do a bit of background work. The author does not assume this burden for the reader. But for the patient and thoughtful reader this can make for a deeply profound and fascinating discovery of the triune God, and particularly its implications for our understanding of the Spirit’s work among us.