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What is the Holy Spirit? Augustine and Barth Help Us Understand

Categories Theology

The Holy Spirit by Christopher HolmesWhat is the Holy Spirit?

Is it akin to George Lucas’s pantheistic vision of The Force? Is “it” even the proper pronoun, an affront to the Third Person of the Trinity that bleeds him of his personhood?

Christopher Holmes’s accessible, rich resource, The Holy Spirit (New Studies in Dogmatics), answers this question and more via three historical interlocutors: Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth. His work fills a crucial gap in evangelical dogmatic scholarship by providing concrete answers about the Holy Spirit’s identity, origin, and acts.

In the post below, we excavate a narrow slice of Holmes’s work using our friends Augustine and Barth to shed new light on how we understand what/who the Holy Spirit is. They answer this question in similar, yet complementary ways, helping us think about the Spirit specifically and God generally in a new way.

Augustine, the Spirit, and the New Birth

In dialoguing with Augustine Holmes focuses on his commentary on John 2:23–3:21 in Homilies on the Gospel of John. “The points that Augustine makes circle around a few important themes, one of which is God’s provenience. The Spirit bears anew because he is God…He emphasizes that because the Spirit is God, the Spirit does these things.” (45–46)

This is what makes Augustine’s homily so instructive. Part of the burden it bears, Holmes explains, is to show that “The Spirit’s work reveals the Spirit’s antecedent divinity, that the Spirit is essentially God together with Father and Son...The Spirit’s work expresses the Spirit’s divinity.” (49) In other words, who the Spirit is as God is revealed through his new-birth work.

Such a revelation is rooted in the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. As Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5–6) Such a birth couldn't possible if the Spirit wasn't essentially God. “This is the Spirit who produces children for life. Such work is evidence of the Spirit’s divinity.” (48)

Augustine exhorted his catechumens to the humility of Christ, which the Spirit himself gives. As he explained, “Nobody can be born of the Spirit without being humble, because humility is what brings us to birth by the Spirit; because the Lord is close to those whose hearts are bruised.” (Homilies on John, 12, 233)

Holmes remarks, “Augustine cannot conceive of preaching a text such as this without hearing it as a text that makes metaphysical claims…The Spirit baptizes us in Christ’s humility, making us into his disciples. The Spirit does this because the Spirit is God.”

Barth and the Redemptive Spirit

Along with Augustine, Barth argues the Spirit’s redemptive acts spring from his being. Here, we should note that it isn’t the other way around. God’s being is not predicated on his acts, because that would deny his freedom: “If God’s being is contingent on God’s acts, then God’s acts are necessary to God’s being. Acts thus become the means by which God becomes God rather than ‘an act of Trinitarian self-repetition.’” (134)

Instead, “An account of the operations of the Spirit must be accomplished by an account of the eternal Spirit,” (140) which Barth gives through exegeting Scripture and mining tradition: “What Scripture teaches, Barth argues, is that ‘the Spirit is in revelation [what] He is antecedently in Himself. And what He [the Spirit] is antecedently in Himself He is in revelation.’ [CD 1/1, 466]” (140)

Holmes draws our attention to Barth’s handling of the works and person of the Spirit, noting Barth doesn’t collapse the two. Rather, “The Spirit is a distinct agent. The source of that agency is God’s life. The Spirit in revelation is ‘God.’ This is who the Spirit shows the Spirit’s self to be. The agency of the Spirit in revelation corresponds to the Spirit’s life in God.” (140)

How does the Spirit come to be in God? Barth turns to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which “provides the conceptual tools for unfolding how the Spirit’s acts rest upon the Spirit’s origin in God—‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son.’” (141) According to Barth’s reading of Scripture as rooted in tradition, “The work of the Spirit is the outworking of an origin, a particular originating relation with respect to Father and Son.” (141)


What I appreciate about Augustine’s and Barth’s engagement with our question is how they connect the Spirit’s acts to the Spirit’s life. As Holmes says, “The Spirit’s agency is derivative of the Spirit’s origin.” (143) Which means we should worship him and cling to him as God in light of his works—as much as we cling to Christ in light of the cross.

Holmes has done the evangelical church a tremendous service in his careful, revealing work, showing through this engagement how the Spirit's works reveal his divinity. Engage The Holy Spirit yourself to know the Trinity more completely, to love the Trinity more deeply.

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