Monday, October 17, 2016

The Holy Spirit in Historic Dogmatics

Christopher R. J. Holmes, The Holy Spirit, New Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015). 219pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

In the previous century, G. C. Berkouwer wrote a series entitled, Studies in Dogmatics. These books presented Reformed doctrine in conversation with Scripture and recent theological trends. Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics aims to follow Berkouwer’s model, while pressing for the retrieval and incorporation of classic expressions of Christian theology into contemporary discussions (15). Christopher Holmes’ work on the Holy Spirit is the first contribution to this series. His aim in this volume is to establish the being, identity, and activity of the third person in the Trinity (19). His treatment is effective and helpful in many respects, but it also reveals some interesting shifts in recent theology.

The Holy Spirit is an intriguing analysis and synthesis of three of the most significant teachers in church history. The author’s emphasis is primarily on the identity of the Spirit in relation to the Father and the Son within the Trinity. After introducing his doctrine in general, he gleans insights from Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth. This had the advantage of combining ancient, medieval, and modern theology (15). This choice of authors enables Holmes to treat the doctrine of the Spirit in relation to three very different theologians from three dramatically differing contexts.

The disadvantages to this approach lie in the absence of Reformed contributions to the doctrine of the Spirit as well as risking losing a unified doctrinal presentation of his subject. Each section traces the doctrine of the Spirit from the exegetical labors of each figure from the gospel of John and then in light of their doctrinal treatises. Holmes reminds his readers that who the Spirit is in the order of subsistence in relation to the Father and to the Son determines how he works in the world and in believers. In doing so, he also demonstrates effectively that contemplating the glory of the Triune God and placing worship at the heart of the Christian faith should be the highest priorities of every believer.

Holmes’ work includes telling omissions, however. While his analysis of Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth is both learned and penetrating, he includes very little exposition of Scripture beyond his historical analysis of the work of these men on the gospel of John. Coupled with a lack of familiar theological terms and Barth-like vague expressions, the virtual absence of references to Reformed authors in this volume is conspicuous. The result is that while Holmes directs his readers to seek edification through contemplating the glory of the Triune God and worshiping him, few will likely be edified beyond a narrow scholarly audience. This is ironic, particularly since Holmes argues vigorously that God revealed theology for the edification of the church. Some of the analyses, particularly synthesis of Barth and Aquinas, will be difficult even for some academics to follow.

Holmes’ treatment of the Holy Spirit puts a finger on some significant needs in the church today. The church needs to engage critically and constructively with prominent figures in Christian history. The church needs to retrieve older models of theological reflection as well. Yet the church needs the voice of Reformed theology to enter this conversation, and she needs to bridge the gaps between the academic theologian, the pastor, and the people in the pews. This series should prove interesting, but it remains to be seen how effectively it will suit the needs of Christian theology and the church at large.