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

Categories Common Places

Zondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics series launches this fall with its first volume, Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit, appearing in print this month. We will introduce readers to this work and engage with some of the doctrinal issues addressed therein over a series of four posts here at Common Places. In this first post, the author speaks to some of the germinal principles that shape his approach to the topic.


One of the reasons I wrote the book was to think through the matter of origins. Origins is one of the main concerns of Fourth Gospel. Jesus is repeatedly asked, “Where do you come from?” The question of origins is the question of antecedence, specifically the antecedent life of God. I wanted to think through why that life is important to describe in relation to everything it accomplishes among us in the missions of Son and Spirit.

For much of my earlier thinking, I thought one needed simply to stick with the divine missions. Or, expressed in a more Rahnerian mode, I thought it was enough to say that the immanent is the economic, the economic the immanent. Rahner’s dismissal of Thomas’s order of teaching, and its alleged indifference to soteriological themes, was a criticism I largely bought.

After having re-read Thomas’s Trinitarian treatise in the Summa Theologica 1, I realized that there was much more to Thomas’s distinction between the one God and the triune God, as well as the processions and the missions, than one would be led to assume, if one took their cues from Rahner, among others. Part of what is so compelling about the way in which Thomas unfolds the Trinity is the ease with which it maps onto the biblical testimony. John’s Gospel, as is well known, tells us about God’s life “full of grace and truth.” John, in other words, thinks that protology matters for the unfolding of good news. The gospel has protological origins, and they matter for everything that follows. Expressed in the idiom of the Fourth Gospel, the Father sends, the Son is sent, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father in the name of the Son.

The book argues, in part, that matters of antecedence are material in nature. It is God’s nature that is the spring from which his great acts arise. For example, the mission of the Spirit among us is to express the love that the Spirit is, “the love with which you have loved me” (John 17:26). John’s Gospel is patient with a theme that theology has to be patient with as well, namely the theme of the origins of the three, expressed as they are in the mission of Son and Spirit among us.

One of the reasons I focus on Augustine and especially Thomas is because I wanted to read Karl Barth with fresh eyes. Barth’s profound insight that God remains God in all that he does for us and for our salvation expresses God’s great prevenience. Barth teaches us, following the witness of the Bible, that God is not only independent of what he has made and upholds, but also is utterly sufficient in relationship to it. God does not need anything outside of God in order to be God. Thomas is especially attractive because his treatise on the Trinity deepens and extends one of Barth’s most edifying insights in a way complementary to the biblical testimony. Accordingly, it is not a matter of abandoning Barth in favour of Thomas, but of seeing that Thomas’s metaphysics enable us to extend some of Barth’s best insights, and all that in a way that is transparent to Johannine themes and idioms.

To put all of this differently, the book makes the point that metaphysics is a good thing. Why? Because the Bible itself is metaphysically motivated, the Fourth Gospel concerned with the metaphysics of our Lord’s person. In order to see why this is so important, I think you must learn to love the subject matter of which Scripture speaks so as to see why protological questions are not “abstract” but actually germaine to Scripture itself.

holy spirit cover

In John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus then tells Peter to “Feed my sheep.” Love for Christ, which expresses itself in the feeding of his sheep, involves love of where he comes from, that is the Father, and of the Spirit, with whom he loves the Father. Technical language, like that of a person as a subsisting relation, meaning a relation internal to the divine essence itself, safeguards the mystery that we receive in the Gospel. Jesus is one with the Father and with the Spirit. Extra-biblical language, like that of processions, is serviceable, I think, to the mystery. It does not violate the mystery, but helps us to hear and describe it in a fresh way.

It is my hope that the polemic against Greek metaphysics that animates key stretches of theology in Protestant modernity will exhaust itself. Why? Because the Bible encourages us to think that God is truly sufficient in relationship to God’s acts towards the outside, in his will to seek and to save lost humanity through the fulfillment of the promises made to the Patriarchs. A metaphysical apparatus, such as Thomas gives us in Summa Theologica 1, does not detract from the mystery but heightens our attention to it, reminding us that to receive it in all its fullness is to love it, something we do all too provisionally on this side of glory.

The Holy Spirit is a doxological read. Its aim is to draw the reader upwards so as to be made like the one of whom it speaks, and to waken expectation for the day when “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).


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.


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.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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