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[Common Places] New Studies in Dogmatics: The Holy Spirit

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So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

Psalm 63:3-4

I am grateful for the opportunity to have written The Holy Spirit. It was a wonderful learning exercise because it brought me face-to-face with important tracts of the Christian tradition to which I had become indifferent.

First, in the book I engage a great deal with the Fourth Gospel. The most metaphysical of the Gospels, the Gospel of John encourages us to consider the first principles of our Lord’s own person and the Spirit whom the Father sends in his name. Up until this study, I had embraced a rather negative view of the long and distinguished tradition of theological metaphysics in Christian theology. Caught as I was in Eberhard Jüngel’s bold and arresting attempt to articulate an ontology appropriate to the Gospel, I absorbed the idea that the cross is constitutive not only for our talk about God’s work but also about God’s being. Reading Augustine, and especially Thomas, in conversation with the Fourth Gospel, has taught me to think otherwise. Indeed, I have much more time for talk deemed speculative because of the way it illuminates the biblical testimony to God and to the mission of Son and Spirit among us.

It is not surprising that my thinking has moved in a more metaphysical direction. Karl Barth taught me to take God’s prevenience seriously, as the basic truth that God remains God in all that he does for us and for our salvation. However, it was Thomas who encouraged me, following Augustine and moving me beyond Barth, not to rush forward, but to think about the ground of that prevenience. Augustine and Thomas instruct us to be still before God as one whose being is inexhaustible plenitude and beatitude. They champion a knowledge of God that is responsible to the reality that God is. The fullness of God, the being in which the three are united absolutely, is that from which salvation springs.

Metaphysics, indeed the first principles of God, is not an abstraction from the particulars of the Gospel. Rather, the calling of Abraham and the fulfillment of that call in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus assume a source, namely the fullness of God. Why do the three act as they do? Why does the Spirit act as the Spirit does? Theological metaphysics helps us to answer these questions. We begin to learn the deep truth that the Spirit is “the love with which you have loved me” (John 17:26). In my book I describe how the Spirit’s origin is expressed in the Spirit’s life-giving work among us. I argue that the Spirit’s origin in God is a basic principle of intelligibility for understanding the Spirit’s acts among us.

Another way of saying this is that the doctrine of revelation has been asked to do far too much in Protestant modernity. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament encourage us to behold God’s power and glory in ways that transcend the category of acts. God’s power and glory, which we learn to love as we follow Jesus, cannot be collapsed into what it is that God actually does in Christ. Yes, Barth reminds us—and rightly so!—that God remains God in all that he does. But why? The reason why God remains God in all that he does is because of God’s divinity, God’s unicity from which our salvation comes.

The works of the Spirit come from somewhere, and that somewhere has to do with the Spirit’s origin in God. Augustine teaches us that the Spirit’s mission reveals Spirit’s procession: indeed, the Spirit’s mission is to express the Spirit’s origin, as one who comes from the Father primarily, and the Son secondarily. The Spirit’s work in the New Testament has the other-directed shape that it does because the Spirit “comes from the Father” (John 15:26). The ministry of the Spirit bears witness to this. In the book I think about why the manner of the Spirit’s origin is crucial to appreciating the Spirit’s ministry and testimony on the Son’s behalf.

I also found the writing of the book to be invigorating because of the way in which it helped me to understand why the doctrine of God cannot be conflated with the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of God unfolds the unicity of God, the absolute oneness of God upon which Israel’s faith and Jesus’ ministry are predicated. The doctrine of the Trinity, rather than being an addendum to talk of God’s oneness, teaches us about the origins and order of the three one to another.

What I hope readers take away from The Holy Spirit is that God’s essence is the principle of all God’s acts. Yes, God’s acts are good: mercy in abundance accompanies them! The work of the Lord who is the Spirit is to perfect us in the gift of God in Christ Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is actual life, “the life-giver,” in whom all the perfections of all things are. In the words of Augustine, of God only is it said, “that You abide in the fullness of Your being.” The book attempts to map this great truth. The effects of the Spirit among us have what Calvin calls a “fountainhead and source.” The book will have succeeded to the extent that it encourages clear beholding and acknowledgement of that source. 

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Christopher R. J. Holmes (ThD, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto) is Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Christopher is an Anglican priest and is the author of Revisiting the Doctrine of the Divine Attributes: In Dialogue with Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, and Wolf Krötke (2007), Ethics in the Presence of Christ (2012), as well as many articles on the theology of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and on Christian doctrine.

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Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Zondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics series seeks to retrieve the riches of Holy Scripture and the church’s tradition for contemporary theological renewal. We have asked each contributor to give us an interim report on the questions, figures, texts, trends, or even surprises they are finding or looking forward to engaging in their respective volumes.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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