By Christopher R. J. Holmes
Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, General Editors
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015
224 pp. | $24.99
Zondervan Academic recently introduced the New Studies in Dogmatics series, which is being positioned as an heir to G. C. Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics. The stated intent of the series is “to offer concise, focused treatments of major topics in dogmatic theology that fill the gap between introductory theology textbooks and advanced theological monographs” (p. 15). Each volume addresses a different topic, and is being written by a different author. Overall, the series represents an attempt to advance theological dialogue in a constructive fashion, “in a program of renewal through retrieval” (p. 15). The advisory board for this project only enhances its appeal: John Webster, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Katherine Sonderegger, and Henri Blocher.
The inaugural volume in this series, The Holy Spirit, was recently released, having been penned by Christopher R. J. Holmes, an Anglican priest and a senior lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Considering the great expectations for the series, due to its professed lineage, practical aim, and present oversight, the question is: does this present monograph live up to the promise of the series overall? Well, as unfolded below, the answer is reservedly affirmative. However, before going any further, let me first provide a brief overview of the book.
Structurally, the book is divided into four parts and ten chapters. In Part 1, Holmes appeals to Augustine as he seeks to explore the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Part 2 switches conversation partners, and proceeds in dialogue with Thomas Aquinas concerning the hypostatic subsistence of the Holy Spirit. In Part 3, Holmes engages Karl Barth regarding the other-directed Spirit. Finally, Part 4 takes the work done in the prior three parts, and applies it to the topics of regeneration, church, and tradition, prior to offering a concluding treatment of theological vision.
Ok – but how does Holmes go about filling out this framework? In short, he selects an approach that is, in the words of George Hunsinger, both “thorough and novel.”
As to the former, this book is nothing if not thorough – albeit narrow in scope. Holmes fixes on his central thesis, namely, that any talk of the Spirit must be grounded in “first principles” (or, as he alternately puts it, “God’s prevenience”), and, for the most part, does not divert his attention. Other than a couple of brief digressions (one to engage with Sarah Coakley, and the other to interact with the Spirit Christology of Thomas G. Weinandy and Myk Habets), Holmes remains on target.
In this sense, Holmes’ work here is unique for its lack of innovation; in an era when Trinitarian theology seems to want to address just about everything but “how things are in God,” Holmes’ emphasis is as refreshing as it is surprising (p. 170).
This focus stems from Holmes’ conviction that there has been a “disproportionate” emphasis on God’s external works “in contemporary theology,” and, as such, a course correction that rightly connects God’s economic activity with His inner life is sorely needed (p. 21). Doing so, for Holmes, entails dedicating the bulk of this volume to highlighting the notion that the divine missions are intimately related and logically subsequent to the divine processions.
The novelty of this book is twofold. First, there is the way in which the author aims at supporting his thesis, namely, through interrogation of the Gospel of John, in dialogue with three primary interlocutors: Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. Second, the book is novel for what it does not do, namely, wander beyond the bounds established by classic Trinitarian theology of the Nicene variety. In this sense, Holmes’ work here is unique for its lack of innovation; in an era when Trinitarian theology seems to want to address just about everything but “how things are in God,” Holmes’ emphasis is as refreshing as it is surprising (p. 170).
On the whole, Holmes’ approach and its outworking here are worthy of admiration. However, adulation of this volume is not without some reservations:
- Stemming from his single-minded and searching concentration on explicating the relationship between the divine processions and missions, Holmes’ prose at times straddles the fine line between being thorough and being labored.
- While the right dogmatic orientation of one’s pneumatology is indeed of critical concern, this book, unfortunately, does not move far beyond this prefatory step. The most intriguing chapters in this book are in Part 4, where Holmes begins to show how divine relations of origin map on to topics such as soteriology and ecclesiology. In my view, tightening up Parts 1 through 3, and expanding Part 4, would have yielded a more satisfying result, overall.
- Due to its emphasis on divine processions and missions, this book leaves little space for any number of topics that would be classically treated under the heading of pneumatology. For instance, there is no extended discussion of the Spirit’s role in prayer, his different workings under the Old and New Covenant economies, or of spiritual gifts.
- In an effort to showcase their (legitimate) similarities, the nuances that set apart the respective theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth are not always given their full due. For myself, this was most obvious in Part 3, where Holmes glosses over a number of current concerns that are central to the interpretation Barth’s Trinitarian theology.
The above reservations having been made, this is an important book, at a minimum for the way in which it vigorously defends the contemporary relevance of a classic approach to the Holy Spirit. Too often, the Spirit’s person and work has been removed from the domain of Triune processions and missions. If Holmes’ book here serves to ignite fresh interest in retracing the contours of this established dogmatic pattern, then it has more than done its job.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.