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.

Monday, October 10, 2016

How to Think and Communicate Better

From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research, by Michael Kibbe. Downer's Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2016, 152pp, $12.00, Paper.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

Theological papers and sermons often share in common the fact that they hover around a topic without a clear aim in view. Both theological students and pastors need to develop the skill to tell people what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they plan to do it. This easy to read book by Michael Kibbe gives theological students needed help to do just that. It is a must read for theological students and for those seeking to write and to teach more effectively in the church.

Kibbe places theological research on the right footing. He asserts that those doing theological research must confess their unworthiness to know God, trust in the Spirit to help their labors, rest in God’s self-revelation in Christ, and submit to God’s authority (27-28). He also exemplifies focused writing in the flow and structure of his book. He breaks down the task of theological research into finding direction, gathering sources, understanding issues, entering discussion, and establishing a position (43-44). He illustrates his principles helpfully in light of widely differing sample research projects related to the kingdom of God in Mark and the doctrine of divine accommodation in John Calvin (e.g., 50-52). The appendices, which treat a range of research-related issues, are invaluable. This is true particularly of the sections on ten things not to do in writing a theological paper and in his introduction to the indispensable Zotero bibliographic software. He furnishes readers with much needed help to learn how to argue for positions rather than merely present information.

Kibbe overstates his case slightly at one point when he says that we must read the Bible as we do any other book and that one’s view of the divine inspiration of Scripture has no bearing on hermeneutical methods (21). The primary difference that he overlooks is that, unlike human authors, the Lord is aware of every consequence of his words. While it is true that we should read the Bible grammatically and in its context, it is also true that we must piece together theological consequences from Scripture in order to conclude things such as God’s Tri-unity and Christ’s two natures. Such doctrines revealed by God in Scripture as clearly as are express statements in particular texts and they provide the backdrop without which the message of Scripture would unravel. While this principle does not allow for wild private interpretations of Scripture, it also distinguishes the Bible from any other book. While the methods of theological research overlap substantially with other disciplines, theology remains a unique discipline in these respects.


This book is precisely the tool that both seminary professors and students need to make the task of writing papers an exercise in developing a skill instead of completing an assignment. By teaching readers how to research and to write well, Kibbe teaches them how to think and to communicate better. The church needs men in the pulpit who are clear and interesting. While preaching sermons and writing papers are very different tasks, they are not unrelated, since they both require students to make a point clearly and persuasively. This reviewer hopes that this book will be useful to the church by teaching men how to think and to express themselves better in the seminary so that they might communicate more effectively in the pulpit.