The Holy Spirit
A Denver Seminary Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor of Theology and Christian Formation Don J. Payne
Holmes, Christopher R.J. The Holy Spirit. New Studies in Dogmatics series. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015. 219 pp. Paperback, $24.99. ISBN 9780310491705.
In this volume, Christopher R.J. Holmes, senior lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Otago, New Zealand, offers a fresh look at the doctrine of the Holy Spirit within an explicitly Trinitarian framework. While the Trinitarian approach is not novel, Holmes’ exploration is nevertheless somewhat fresh in that pneumatological studies in the Western theological tradition have not always made knowledge of the person and work of the Holy Spirit dependent on the Spirit’s Trinitarian relations. Rather, the Western tradition has characteristically devoted more attention to questions of the intrinsic deity of the Spirit and then, in sequence, to the work of the Spirit. The Spirit’s work, Holmes would contend, cannot be understood properly or fully apart from who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does within the Trinity.
Holmes’ primary agenda is to explore the longstanding questions of pneumatological immanence and economy from the vantage point of three theologians whose voices have dominated different eras of theology: St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth. Indisputably, Augustine and Aquinas have wielded incalculable influence on the Western theological tradition. Yet despite the general trend of Trinitarian emphases in the Western tradition, Holmes argues that when examined more closely we find in these towering figures highly nuanced understandings of the Spirit’s Trinitarian relations. Their presentations constitute plausible advances on some of the perpetually vexing questions about the Holy Spirit, e.g., issues related to the filioque controversy, the economic/immanence tension, and Third Article theology.
Karl Barth not only represents arguably the dominant theological voice of the twentieth-century, but he also drew (often creatively) upon sources in both the Eastern and Western traditions to formulate his pneumatology. Holmes’ rationale for selecting Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth is that “each appreciates first principles and the function of these principles in describing God’s being and activity.” He argues that though their emphases differed, “they largely speak with one voice. We see this in their exegesis of the Fourth Gospel” (29).
Methodologically, Holmes engages the overarching questions related to the Spirit’s person and work by examining how his three theological representatives treated key passages in John’s Gospel. His Augustinian presentation utilizes Homilies on the Gospel of John and On the Trinity. For Aquinas he draws upon Summa Theologica I and Commentary on the Gospel of John. Finally, he relies on Barth’s lectures on John’s Gospel and, of course, Church Dogmatics.
The burden of Holmes’ argument rests on the significance of the eternal processions within the Godhead. Sometimes considered either an arcane or intractable debate, Holmes contends that questions of divine Personhood and divine mission must be engaged via proper understanding of the two great processions: the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. Those themes shape Holmes’ understanding of the Spirit’s divine essence and Personhood, and subsequently, the basis for the nature and means of the Spirit’s work.
Early in his argument, Holmes takes a theological excursus to address Sarah Coakley’s proposal (in God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity”) that human incorporation into God’s triune life depends on a hypostatization of the Spirit that makes the Spirit the more explicit, experiential starting point, as realized in and expressed through prayer. Though sympathetic to Coakley’s concerns about the liabilities of a “linear” approach to the Triune incorporation, Holmes finds Coakley’s proposal wanting for lack of adequate attention to “what qualifies the Spirit to do what the Spirit does” (39). Hence, he argues for “the immanent as the basis of the economic” (40) and proceeds throughout the book to develop that thesis.
Holmes begins his argument in earnest with chapter 2, “The Spirit and the New Birth,” where he treats John 2:23-3:21 to show how Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth highlight the themes of light and life as the results of the Spirit’s work with respect to the Son. Stated succinctly, Holmes finds Augustine and Aquinas to emphasize light and life as unique to God and, since the Spirit effects that light and life, the Spirit is God. “The Spirit’s work reveals the Spirit’s antecedent divinity, that the Spirit is essentially God together with Father and Son” (49).
In chapter 3 Holmes engages Augustine to probe more deeply the nature of divine being so as to clarify both the differences and the relationship between shared divine essence and hypostatic relations in the Triune God. The context of these ontological nuances, for Holmes, is epistemically crucial in order for us to know God as God really is and to appreciate how and what the Spirit does in that epistemic venture.
Without rehearsing the early conciliar debates on these issues, a few summary emphases from Augustine capture Holmes’ argument. First, “The three do not participate in a reality that is prior to them” (61). Rather, “The three are the way in which the one God, the what, exists. The three persons bear the divine nature. That nature is not prior to them but coterminous” (62). “When the three persons are described, they are described in relation to one another. But the three do not add up to make one God . . . Relationship-talk cannot be confused with being-talk. . . . The one God subsists in an internally differentiated way” (65). “Relational language does not refer . . . to being. . . . What each is—God—is so by way of being and not by way of relationship” (66). “Were we to talk about ‘three persons out of the same being,’ we would hopelessly compromise the simplicity of the divine being and endorse the false notion that being precedes the three. The one divine being is simultaneously three. That is Augustine’s basic rule. . . . That, says Augustine, is where Scripture, but especially John’s gospel, leads us. God is one in a being sense and in a relational sense” (67).
This leads Holmes to consider the Spirit’s procession, where he argues from Augustine that “the Spirit proceeds from the being of the Father within the one being of God” (68). “Talk of the Spirit’s procession is not accidental but relational or relative” (70). “The Spirit has no Father, just as the Holy Spirit does not have a Son. . . . Their relations are eternal. . . . It is from the Father that the Spirit is forever given as a gift. . . . The Spirit proceeds as given” (71). Thus, on this Augustinian platform, much of the confusion about how the Spirit can proceed from the Father and still be consubstantial dissipates as it becomes clear that “proceed” is not understood in terms of ontological/substantive point of origination, but from perpetual ontological origin in eternal relation.
This particular ontological framework for divine essence and Triune relations constitutes for Augustine the basis for his conclusion “that salvation is expressive of actions (immanent processions) internal to the one being of God. The Spirit as the gift of God has an origin in the life of God, not only from the Father but also by the Son” (73). In other words, the Spirit’s role in salvation reflects the Spirit’s identity as God and the nature of the salvation in which the Spirit participates. Salvation would not be what it is, nor could the Spirit be instrumental in that salvation were not the Spirit both consubstantial with and proceeding from the Father in the way Augustine describes.
Chapter 4 develops Aquinas’ contribution to a highly relational understanding of the Spirit’s person and work, focusing on the Spirit as gift and love. Contrary to common perceptions of Aquinas’ theology as sterile, abstract, and obsessed with precision, Holmes presents Aquinas’ methodology as driven by desire to plumb as deeply as possible the relational depths of the life-giving Spirit. Holmes observes, “The shape of the Spirit’s working indicates the shape of the Spirit’s own procession in God. The Spirit as the ‘Love of God’ conforms us to Christ; this is what the Spirit does” (89).
Holmes continues with Aquinas in chapter 5, emphasizing the unique ways in which the Son and the Spirit participate in and express the love of God, correlating to their unique relationships within a common divine essence (114). As a result, “Our love for the Father and the Son is . . . ‘the same love.’ The Christian does not love the Father differently than the Son and vice versa, for ‘the love by which we love God is from the Holy Spirit.’ Love for God is from God, and that love is the Holy Spirit” (115).
Barth enters the scene in chapters 6 and 7. Holmes argues that while his approach to the Spirit’s person in relations differed somewhat from Augustine and Aquinas, he shared the same concerns. “Barth has a strategy for helping us see how the Spirit’s acts are anchored in the Spirit’s antecedent divinity” (134). Barth’s familiar emphasis on the freedom of God frames his insistence that from the freedom of God’s own life the Spirit gives the gift of freedom to the human creature through Christ. This is, for Barth, a Trinitarian movement from which the very life of God animates the human creature. “The indivisible work of the Trinity has its focal point in the activity of the Spirit. . . . For Barth, the doctrine of the Trinity explains . . . the origins of God’s acts. The doctrine unfolds why God’s life moves as it does” (139).
The Spirit’s relation to the Son within the Trinity unfolds into the Church as the community of the Son created by the Spirit. Hence, to know the Son through the Spirit is to be made part of the Church. “In sum,” Holmes states, “the Spirit gives rise to the Son’s body, the church, gathering and enabling it to be a modest reflection of Jesus Christ himself. . . . We see that what the Spirit does corresponds to who the Spirit is in God” (154). In a more practical sense, Holmes appeals to this perspective from Barth to offer a nuanced view of the relation between act and being in the nature of the Church. “The church’s acts do not make it what it is, Christ’s body. Indeed, the community’s acts of obedience issue from its being. The relationship between being and action is irreversible” (155). However, “Jesus’ ruling and his Spirit’s quickening attests that he with the Spirit is God, and that their common being is indicated in their indivisible acts . . . Accordingly, it is not being and then act, but being in act” (157). Holmes uses Barth’s pneumatological emphases to remind us that because the work of the Spirit is always a work of the freedom of God, grace is always a gift that comes from the very being of God and is never owned or controlled by us.
Following his exposition of Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth, Holmes summarizes with three chapters on what he labels “correlates”. First, he suggests that sight, perfection, and love are mutually defining characteristics of the Spirit’s regenerating work. Second, he offers a positive and hopeful view of tradition, portraying it as part of the Spirit’s work of illumination. Third, he offers a vision for the work of theology, which is to know by the Spirit the inner beauty of God according to reality of divine relations. The immanent structure of divine being—the Triune God—constitutes the “grain of the universe”. Who God is, as made known to us in the Son and by the Spirit, regulates our contemplation and allows for the deepest and truest human happiness.
Christopher Holmes reexamines the Holy Spirit’s Person and work through the lenses of three towering theological figures. For theologians, one effect of his work may be to challenge some stereotypes and caricatures of those figures by demonstrating both a congruence between their views of the Spirit and a more highly relational character to their theology overall. His treatment of the relationship between divine being and divine act adds helpful clarification to the long (and sometimes tired) conversation about the immanent and economic Trinity. Additionally, Holmes shows how Barth cannot be easily pitted against Augustine and Aquinas, as is often the case.
For all readers, Holmes’ demonstrates that rigorous and highly nuanced theological work can be done in service to a life of knowing, loving, worshipping, and happily serving God. Those who tend toward reactionary polarization of theological thinking and spiritual formation or the life of the mind and the life of the heart can learn from Holmes a model for theological thinking that both grounds and animates life before God. In the final paragraph of the book he summarizes his overarching concern by stating, “one’s pneumatology is only as good as one’s wider doctrine of the Trinity” (213).
In order to benefit well from The Holy Spirit, by Christopher R.J. Holmes, readers will need at least a modest background in pneumatological studies. Some exposure to the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth will also be helpful, though not mandatory. He attempts to elucidate numerous dense concepts in a relatively brief monograph. Thus, without that background some readers will be left with lots of questions. Even theologically informed readers will have ample opportunity to interact with Holmes by way of marginal notes! As he has tackled in one fairly short volume a vast subject by way of three theologians whose writings are vast, it is to be expected that readers will be left with far more to ponder. Yet, the character of his work relentlessly models and leads readers to the life-giving Person in ways that are as worshipful and refreshing as they are challenging and informative.
Don J. Payne, PhD
Associate Professor of Theology and Christian Formation