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[Common Places] New Studies in Dogmatics: The Holy Spirit—Interview with Christopher R. J. Holmes

  • Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places
  • October 15, 2015
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Categories Common Places

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 8.51.12 PMZondervan Academic’s New Studies in Dogmatics series launched this fall with its first volume, Christopher Holmes’s The Holy Spirit, which is now available. 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. For our second post, we have asked Chris a few questions about his book. (Click here to read the first post in this series.)

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You begin your book by addressing the distinction between theology and economy. What benefit does that distinction offer the student of Holy Scripture? What is it meant to do or to prompt us to remember?

Chris Holmes: The distinction between theology and economy maps nicely onto Scripture. Scripture is concerned not only with what God does (economy) but also with what God is (theology). Moreover, Scripture is interested in promoting an asymmetrical understanding between the two: God’s nature (theology) is the source of God’s great works (economy). Theological teaching reminds us that God is, for example, good, and that God does good precisely because goodness is identical to God’s essence. The distinction between theology and economy encourages us to remember that God is completely sufficient in relationship to what God does, and does not need to do what he does in order to be the one he has always been, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You contrast your account of the Holy Spirit with another recent pneumatology (pp. 33-42, which address the “Spirit-leading approach” of Sarah Coakley in her recent book, God, Sexuality, and the Trinity). What would be the fundamental differences between your approaches?

Chris Holmes: Coakley’s approach differs from mine in two respects. First, my approach does not assume that “linear” accounts of the three persons are to be resisted, and second, that the Spirit in declaring Christ thus replaces Christ. Coakley’s approach is immensely learned and classical in scope, indeed total, but is more suspicious than I am of Thomistic metaphysics and less convinced than I of the degree to which they promote attention to biblical teaching.

You do speak, positively it seems, of language of the Father’s monarchy (p. 77). What does that term mean? What should it not mean?

Chris Holmes: When speaking positively of the Father’s monarchy, we mean the Son and Spirit originate in relation to the Father, and not vice versa. The Son is eternally born (and not made) of the Father’s being, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the same. What the term “monarchy” does not mean is that the Father is ever Father in advance of the Son and Spirit. The three are eternally one. There is an eternal order that Scripture compels us to observe between the three, but that order does not imply a diminution of divinity on the part of Son and Spirit. The Father eternally shares with the Son the faculty of spirating (or breathing) the Spirit. Thus we say that the Spirit proceeds in a principal sense from the Father and in a secondary sense from the Father’s only begotten Son. To talk this way is to try to talk in fidelity to John 14:26, 15:26, and 17:26.

The Holy Spirit by Christopher HolmesIn comments in the recent festschrift for John Webster, Ivor Davidson has noted that Professor Webster’s recent reading of Barth values Barth most where he’s in line with the classical tradition of catholic and Reformed divinity. You speak of how Thomas does not require dismissing Barth’s emphasis but of supplementing it (e.g., p. 145). How do you see the relationship of these two figures especially with regard to their pneumatology?

Chris Holmes: I share Professor Webster’s judgments about Barth, and continue to learn much from Webster as he assesses Barth’s dogmatic contributions via the classical tradition of catholic and Reformed divinity. Indeed, I don’t think that an appreciation of Thomas’s metaphysics discourages us from attending to Barth. Quite the opposite: it is Thomas’s metaphysics that help us to better appreciate God’s prevenience and sovereignty by giving us language with which to articulate its depth dimensions. Yes, as Barth has taught us, God’s remains God in all that he does for us and for our salvation precisely because God’s relations to the world are not “real.” Rather, the only real relations God has are those relations whereby divinity is communicated, namely, relations of begetting, being begotten, spirating, and proceeding. Thomas’s account of the Spirit helps us to see that the rationale for why the Spirit does the things that the Spirit does has to do with who the Spirit is in God. The Spirit is the Love of God proceeding among us, the Love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father from and to all eternity.

Your final chapter addresses “theological vision.” How does the Holy Spirit shape our thinking about the beatific vision and, perhaps we might also ask, how does the beatific vision shape how we think of the Holy Spirit?

Chris Holmes: We love God in the Spirit who is Love. The Spirit mortifies the flesh and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ. It is in the Spirit that we love the Father and the Father’s beloved Son. Only through the Spirit do we learn to love the God who did not spare his own Son. Moreover, through the Spirit we learn to see things as they are, as we are made like Christ. But of course we cannot be like him if we do not love him. We love God with the Love that is God, the Holy Spirit. Only as we come to contemplate and to see the things of which Jesus speaks do we come to truly love him in the Love that is the Spirit. There is no knowledge of the Spirit that does not give way to love of the Spirit who is the love of the Father and Son. One of the elementary insights I learnt in writing the book (and am still learning) is that one cannot speak intelligently and faithfully of these mysteries unless one loves the Love in which one speaks to the glory of the Father who will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Your book provides an extended engagement with the Gospel according to John and its teaching about the Holy Spirit. How has your study shaped the way you think about the Bible as a source for theology and about the nature of biblical interpretation?

Chris Holmes: Dogmatic theology involves patiently unfolding God and all things made new in relation to God. To do this faithfully means that we do not part company with Scripture. The Bible is not merely the source for theology but is where we turn in prayer and faith so as to inquire intelligence at least somewhat worthy of the mysteries to be proclaimed. I have come to see that exegesis of Scripture, especially in homiletical form, is the task of theology. Of course, many have already said this. What voices like Calvin continue to teach me is that to hear Scripture’s voice, indeed to hear it as the Lord’s Word, has ascetical consequences. Until quite recently I was not the kind of person who could receive the whole counsel of God, not that I have fully become that kind of person. What classical interlocutors like Augustine and Calvin have helped me to see is that dogmatic work, for which there is a place and time, is always ancillary to Scriptural commentary and to the proclamation of its message. In the book I move from Augustine’s, Thomas’s, and Barth’s engagements with the Fourth Gospel to their synthetic engagements, precisely because their synthetic works are a distillation of insights arrived at exegetically and homiletically.

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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.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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