What is Sin? Dr. Cornelius "Neal" Plantinga

Guest: Dr. Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Plantinga about sin. Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Neal Plantinga holds a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and served as the president of Calvin Seminary from 2002-2011. Dr. Plantinga is the author of several books, including Engaging God’s Word: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Eerdmans, 2002), Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans, 2013), and Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1996).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

We live in a world of brokenness. We constantly hear horrific things. School shootings are becoming all too common. We hear of wars and rumors of wars in Russia and with China. We grow fatigued of hearing about divorces and fractured relationships. We're stunned to know that over 60 million babies have been killed through abortion. Add to this catastrophic natural disasters. Tsunamis take out hundreds of thousands of lives and cause nuclear plants to fail, risking many more. Earthquakes in Turkey cost tens of thousands of lives. Hurricane force winds and waves beat against levees until they fail. We live in a world of absolute destruction, and we often feel like things just aren't right. The world around us gropes for answers. Sadly, they often miss the point. Perpetrators are often called victims. Natural disasters are entirely the result of carbon emissions, even though ancient writings talk about floods and droughts.

Brian Arnold (01:14):

The truth is, all of these problems, natural and moral, come down to sin. We are sinners living in a fallen world, and things will go from bad to worse, as Paul tells Timothy. We need a robust view of sin if we're going to understand ourselves, our world, and our hope that is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, with us today to talk about sin is Dr. Neal Plantinga. Dr. Plantinga earned his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary, and served as president of Calvin Seminary from 2002 to 2011, as well as several stints in pastoral ministry. Dr. Plantinga is the author of numerous books, including Engaging God's Word: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living, Reading for Preaching—which I must say, I found very delightful—and, for our topic of conversation today, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Dr. Plantinga, welcome to the podcast.

Neal Plantinga (02:08):

My pleasure.

Brian Arnold (02:10):

So I always ask our guests one big question, and today the question is pretty simple, and yet very complex—what is sin? And let's just kind of go straight at it. How do you define sin?

Neal Plantinga (02:21):

Lots of ways to define it, but a simple biblical definition would be—any thought, word, or deed that displeases God.

Brian Arnold (02:34):

And so that, obviously, yes, then encompasses so many different things. I love the basic kind of definition. It's very similar to the one I use with my kids, to get them to understand the significance of sin, and disobedience, and rebellion against God as fallen creatures. And that we not only sin just because we sin, but we're sinners, and we sin because we're sinners. So you wrote this book, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, and if I recall, you talk about bringing this doctrine out of the moth balls of kind of the theological closet. How, or why, rather, do you think sin has been relegated to kind of a peripheral thing in the churches?

Neal Plantinga (03:19):

That's a sad story of 20th century Christianity, that the only reality that we have to understand, in order to understand grace, is sin. And yet lots of churches have put the pause on this topic, have refused to talk about it much, or talk about it only superficially. One of the reasons, I think, is that a lot of American Christianity is a little bit in bondage to the desire to add people to the congregation, to make many more seekers join the church. And if you have sin on the agenda, it can sound discouraging or depressing. So a lot of preachers have really soft pedaled it. And I think that's a mistake.

Brian Arnold (04:16):

And it does seem like if we want to be very over...do some overgeneralization, a lot of the early 20th century to the mid 20th century, there was a lot of theological liberalism, which relegated sin to a different level, because people didn't want to talk about man's sin and God's wrath. And then, yeah, you get the seeker-sensitive movement of the eighties and nineties, in particular, which is—let's attract people into the church by reminding them that there's a God out there who loves them. And, of course, that's not a bad thing. But it misunderstands the character of God, and man's fundamental problem and plight, which is sin. So—

Neal Plantinga (04:59):

One of the most spectacular things about God is that God loves us while we are still sinners. In other words, that God is a God of grace. And you can't make any sense of grace unless you have a robust view of sin.

Brian Arnold (05:16):

So maybe let's step back to the very beginning of the story. And we see, just two or three pages into the Bible, we are met with human sinfulness. And then the whole rest of the Bible really is God's rescue mission, of coming—and you just, you know, quoted Romans 5:8, that God demonstrates his love for us, and that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. So the Bible does not try to push sin under the rug. It actually tries to expose it, in order to fix it. So how do you kind of help people in the church, and your time in theological education, have that more robust view of sin? Even thinking maybe biblical theology, and then also systematic theology?

Neal Plantinga (06:02):

If people are students of the Bible, if they have an appetite for Scripture, I can talk with them simply about what the Bible says. And the Bible is clear about sin. It's what disturbs the way it's supposed to be. It's what disturbs God's plan for human flourishing. And we are culpable for it. It displeases God because it's a spoiler. It wrecks God's good creation, and it wrecks even God's approach to us in grace. If people are not students of the Bible, or don't take Scripture seriously, then I would talk to them about the fact that you'd have to be numb not to notice that there are terrible things wrong in the world, and that people are often to blame for the things that are wrong. Even people who superficially confess a no-fault morality, if somebody cheats them or lies to them, they will be indignant—which shows that they themselves have a concept of sin.

Brian Arnold (07:14):

And I love that that's a universal reality. Even going back to the book of Romans—"all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We could even say, "all have sinned and know that they have sinned." They recognize this in themselves. And, of course, as you mentioned, in interactions with other people, when they themselves have been wronged, it stirs up that justice that God has put inside of us. Which should actually lead them to recognize—wait a minute, if I get upset when somebody sins against me, and God is morally perfect, how must he feel when I have sinned against him as well?

Neal Plantinga (07:51):

Yeah. Well, I think that every Christian needs a concept of what it means to grieve God. We can offend God, we can be scandalous toward God, we can ignore God. We can trespass against God's law, or come short of God's law. But because God loves us, when we sin, we grieve God. We make God wounded. And I think that is a personal angle on sinning that I think is healthy.

Brian Arnold (08:31):

Yeah, I'd love to hear you even expand more on that, because I think that's probably foreign to a lot of people who might even be listening.

Neal Plantinga (08:41):

You know, early on in Scripture, we read that God repented of having created at all. Now that needs a good commentary, to say that God repented of having created at all, but it tells us at least that God is deeply offended and gravely disappointed with how the perfect world he created has deteriorated and fallen victim to sin and corruption. So God has a capacity for being grieved, for being wounded, for being gravely disappointed in people he loves. And I think, for Christians who love God, the knowledge that God is grieved by our sinfulness is a helpful governor, a helpful break on our sin.

Brian Arnold (09:35):

Yeah. And I appreciate you using even the story of Noah. And I'll ask people, when I'm talking about that story, if they even have a category of a God who, because of human sinfulness, will save eight people on the ark and the rest will be drowned. You know, when we often tell the story of the ark, it's in kids' church, and there's this picture, you know, put up with giraffes' heads out the window, smiling, and Noah waving on the top with his wife and kids. But it's a tragic story.

Neal Plantinga (10:10):

It’s a desperate story

Brian Arnold (10:11):

And a seriousness of how God views sin. And then not to confront people with that in the church, or even in our evangelistic opportunities, is a dereliction of their greatest need for us to communicate to them.

Neal Plantinga (10:29):

I think preachers who won't preach about sin are committing homiletic malpractice.

Brian Arnold (10:34):

Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, a lot of it is a reaction to...you know, this is everybody's favorite person to dump on, on this question, but Jonathan Edwards—Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. And you think about this fire and brimstone preaching and things, but one—the Great Awakening happened. People saw their sinfulness and turned to God. And the second thing is—Jesus wasn't ashamed or embarrassed to talk about hell. I think that's where a lot of it comes from, Dr. Plantinga, is there is an embarrassment that people feel today, or just a level of uncomfortability, to say to people that their sins will lead them to hell, but that God has loved them so much he has paid the price to purchase them from that.

Neal Plantinga (11:20):

Well, I think that's entirely right. And that, when we think about what our Savior endured—I'm thinking this week, for example, and will preach on Sunday about Jesus being mocked, and how this is an assault on human dignity. Soldiers who isolate Jesus, who strip him, who put a fake scepter in his hand, and a painful fake crown on his head, and bow before him. These soldiers are committing a grave offense against the eternal Son of God. And they don't see it, and don't understand it, but it is nonetheless a huge offense. And I think in Matthew's account of it, in chapter 27, he says very tellingly that when the soldiers had quit mocking him, they led him away to crucify him. As if crucifixion is simply a way of finishing mockery off.

Brian Arnold (12:35):

Wow, that's powerful. Yeah, that's the...it is the epitome of human sinfulness that those who were created by God put the Son of God to death.

Neal Plantinga (12:48):

Right. And so here we see that sin is not just anti-creation. It is anti-grace. Jesus Christ is God's gift to the world, to save the world. And here human beings are resisting their salvation and, in fact, attempting to cross him out. To make him of no effect. A great part of what's tragic about sin is not just that it spoils creation, but that it also resists grace.

Brian Arnold (13:23):

Absolutely it does. And it shows just how deep and pervasive the sin problem is in the human heart. You know, for those who who have come to faith in Jesus Christ, it is almost unthinkable that we would've stayed in our sins and not turned to him by grace. But for the one who is still living in sin, dead in their trespasses and sin, as Paul says in Ephesians chapter two—they're following the course of this world. They don't want the grace of God. They don't want God. They want to be their own masters of their own fate, and live life according to themselves, which is the cosmic treason. We were created to have relationship with God and follow the Lord, and his will, and his commands, in obedience. And yet we've turned, each one of us, like sheep and gone astray. Go ahead.

Neal Plantinga (14:12):

I think it's important to accent what you just said, in quoting Paul—that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. The grace of God to me is most impressive in that it requires a supernatural act to regenerate a dead human heart. It takes the power of the Holy Spirit to raise a dead human heart and to make it alive, to make it responsive, to make it aware of God, and to kindle love for God. So one of the standards of faith that in my denomination we adhere to is called the Canons of Dort. And in one of the places in the Canons it says that "God's regeneration of a dead heart is a miracle no less spectacular in power than creation or the resurrection from the dead." And I think that's something very much worth thinking about when we confess that, without the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Not just comatose, not just out to lunch, but dead.

Brian Arnold (15:33):

And for somebody who might be listening, yeah—Ephesians chapter two, one through 10, really lays this out. But the creation piece is Second Corinthians four, where in order for people to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, the same one who said, "let light shine out of darkness"—Genesis one—has to shine in our hearts. It is that significant, I agree with you, of a miracle to watch the dead come to life. But it is the overwhelming grace of God that allows it to happen, that purchased it, that paved the way in order for sin to be dealt with. If I may, I want to transition us just a little bit, and ask a question that I hear a lot of times come up, as it regards sin. And it is this idea coming from James chapter two—that all sin is kind of equal in the sight of God. And yet in Scripture we have even different words used for sin, whether it's just "sin," or "trespasses," or "abomination." How do we think about even various levels, if I can use that word, or intensities of sin?

Neal Plantinga (16:42):

It's an important question. And the answer to it is, I think, not going to be entirely easy. But here's one thing to say—all sin is equally wrong. So a murder is wrong, but hatred of a person is wrong. They may not be equally grievous in the consequences that each generates, but they are both wrong. So I would say that all sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad. There are relatively minor sins, and there are truly grave sins. And one way of measuring the difference is whether Scripture is explicit in prohibiting them. And also in how grave their consequences are.

Brian Arnold (17:46):

I think that is a good way to look at it, even—think about the Old Testament law. Some things came with very kind of minor punishments, but that doesn't mean you weren't disobeying the Lord. And that didn't mean that it wasn't pretty significant. But at the same time, not everything called for the death penalty, let's say. And even in our current penal system, we would say the same thing. There are laws that have different consequences to them, but once you break the law, you're a law breaker, which I think is James's point, right? Is once you've stumbled at any point and broken the law, you are guilty of sin. You know, even with Adam and Eve—it may seem trivial to some people that God would cast them away from the garden because they ate a piece of fruit. But the reality was—it was a heart turn from God, turn towards self, and wanting to follow their own sinful appetites. It was way bigger than just the act of what they were doing. It was the heart behind what they were doing.

Neal Plantinga (18:41):

I think it's important, not only to say that, Brian, but also to add that even at the beginning when Adam and Eve are guilty, and they are threadbare, and they are cold, and they are wretched, and they are naked, and they know they're naked, God sews for them skins to warm them in a world grown chilly from their own sin. This is an amazing first instance of the grace of God. They should not have needed something to warm them, and yet they do. And God provides something much better than their own pathetic attempts to cover up.

Brian Arnold (19:30):

And I don't know if you'd agree with this, but I actually see that as one of the first examples of imputation—of the one who did not need to die—which was the animal dying in the stead of the sinners—and yet they are clothed with the garments of the one who died, as a symbol of what Christ's righteousness will do for us, as it covers us. And he's imputed us with his righteousness.

Neal Plantinga (19:57):

I think that's a very suggestive idea.

Brian Arnold (19:59):

Yeah. Not everybody agrees with me, but I've always seen that in that picture. And then, even the recognition that we're clothed in heaven, you know, it's something I press on people is—if Adam and Eve were naked in the garden, why are we not naked in heaven? And I think a lot of it is—just as they were covered in the garment, we are going to be covered in these white robes to signify we're not in heaven on our own. We're only there because Jesus Christ has paid the penalty of our sin. Which before the fall, they did not need, right? And then after the fall, of course, that's what they need. But it does...sin ties together the entire narrative of the Bible from beginning to end, of no need for Christ as sacrifice for us until sin enters. And then the whole rest of the story is Christ coming for us to die in our stead. What a beautiful thing. I mean, we're recording this just before Easter, and excited for the celebrations that will come as we reflect on the need for Christ to come and die. And how grateful I am that he conquered sin in his death, and conquered death in his resurrection.

Neal Plantinga (21:08):

The atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Brian Arnold (21:11):

Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Dr. Plantinga, what resources would you recommend for our listeners on the topic of sin? This could be everything from just a theological work on this to very practical things about fighting sin.

Neal Plantinga (21:27):

Yeah. I think every Christian who has a little education—and actually, if you have only some education, you can do it too. Every Christian ought to read Saint Augustine's Confessions. It's a confession of sin. It's a confession of faith. It tells you about the soul of one of our faith's greatest thinkers and theologians. And then I never get tired of suggesting that people read—and reread—C.S. Lewis. He saw deeply into the human predicament, and his descriptions and accounts of human pride, and envy, and anger, and so on, are often right on the mark. So I would suggest those two things right off the bat.

Brian Arnold (22:19):

I love that. I mean, both of them have a way of peeling back the human heart and saying things that we all know are true, that reveal ourselves. I mean, Augustine and the pear tree, for instance. And not even wanting those, but sinning just because he wanted to sin. And Lewis is so good.

Neal Plantinga (22:39):

Yeah, and he ended up throwing those pears away.

Brian Arnold (22:40):

Yeah, exactly. What a remarkable testimony of the grace of God, as we've been talking about, even of how God saves him, and pulls him from those things. And then the beautiful testimony of his mother, who prays for him incessantly. So much we can learn from Augustine's Confessions. And then, yeah—C.S. Lewis is just a master of the human soul, and writing in that kind of way. And then we commend your book to people as well, that I mentioned before. Not everything's right in the world. And I think everybody knows that. It's one of the best evangelistic tools we have to just point to the sinfulness of the human heart that we all know is there and present. And what an opportunity to take people from that to the place of mercy and grace at the cross of Christ. Dr. Plantinga, I'm so grateful that you joined us today to talk about this important topic.

Neal Plantinga (23:28):

I was glad to be with you, Brian.

Outro (23:30):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

Who is the Holy Spirit? Dr. Christopher Holmes

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Holmes on the person of the Holy Spirit.

Topics of conversation include:

Dr. Christopher Holmes is professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He holds a ThD from the University of Toronto and is ordained as an Anglican priest. Dr. Holmes is the author of several books, including The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (IVP Academic, 2018), A Theology of the Christian Life: Imitating and Participating in God (Baker Academic, 2021), and, as part of the New Studies in Dogmatics series, The Holy Spirit (Zondervan Academic, 2015).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.


Brian Arnold (00:17):

At the core of the Christian faith is our confession that God is triune. For 1700 years, the church has confessed that God is one in essence, three in person—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As the church was solidifying her doctrinal convictions in the Nicene Creed in A.D. 325 about the person of Christ, the Holy Spirit received just a passing reference. The Nicene Creed simply said, "and in the Holy Spirit." Several decades later, after there was much debate about the person of the Holy Spirit, the Council of Constantinople added, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father,"—and then a debated idea of—"and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets." The church had to grapple with the identity of the Holy Spirit.


Brian Arnold (01:05):

If we're honest, it's easier to conceive of the Father, and of course, the Son who became Incarnate. But the identity of the Spirit is not so easy to grasp. Yet, it's the Spirit whom the Lord Jesus promised to send for our benefit. And so, knowing the Spirit dramatically impacts our Christian lives. Here to help us understand the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is Dr. Christopher Holmes. Dr. Holmes is professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Otaga in New Zealand, making him our southernmost podcast guest to date. He holds a ThD from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, and is the author of several books, including The Lord Is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter, A Theology of the Christian Life, and, especially relevant for today's episode, The Holy Spirit, as part of Zondervan's New Studies in Dogmatics series. In addition to his academic work, Dr. Holmes is ordained as an Anglican priest. Dr. Holmes, welcome to the podcast.


Christopher Holmes (01:59):

Thanks, Brian. Thanks for having me.


Brian Arnold (02:01):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today it is a very large one, as we're talking about a member of the Godhood—who is the Holy Spirit? And in your book, you unfold the doctrine of the Holy Spirit by talking about the being, the identity, and the activity. And I thought we could frame our discussion today around those three ideas in particular. So let's hop right in with the being of the Holy Spirit. How do you explain the being of the Holy Spirit?


Christopher Holmes (02:30):

Yeah, that's a great question. Very simply—that the Spirit is God. So when we think about what is the Holy Spirit, the first answer that comes to mind as we consider Sacred Scripture is that the Spirit is God. One being is common to the Father, Son and the Spirit. So Christians, of course, are monotheists—we're Trinitarian monotheists. And so we confess that God is one. And that one being is common to the three. One Godhead is common to the three, if you want to use a more technical term.


Brian Arnold (03:00):

Well, and of course that definition took the church quite a while to come up with. We can say things a lot simpler now, because it took a whole lot of theological reflection in the early church to come up with some of those statements that we can say with some simplicity. But the concepts behind them obviously are quite deep indeed. Like—what does it mean for God to have that one singular essence among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity? So when we say the Spirit is God...well, we'd say the Father is God. And we'd say the Son is God. So how do we unravel that?


Christopher Holmes (03:35):

Yes. Very carefully. With great spiritual and intellectual humility, and in deference to the testimony of Sacred Scripture. And so I think when we confess as Christians that the Holy Spirit is God, we're saying something about the Spirit's divinity. And of course the Spirit is God, together with the Father and the Son. We don't worship three Gods as Christians. We worship one God. And so, one Being, as I said a moment ago, is common to them. And so when we talk about the Spirit's Person, when we talk about the Spirit's work, we talk about the Spirit as one who is truly God. Just as divine as is the Father and the Son, albeit divine in a different way, which is something we'll talk about in a few minutes. But when we refer to the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, we're referring to the third Person of the Holy and Blessed Trinity as, indeed, God. Spirit is God. Fully God, together with the Father and the Son. Not less God than the Father and the Son. Not more God. But truly God, in unity with them.


Brian Arnold (04:51):

It does seem like the Holy Spirit gets the short end of the stick, if we can say that, when it comes to thinking about the Trinity. Like I mentioned before, I mean, people have a conception of the Father, and, of course, of Jesus, as he became incarnate for us and for our salvation. But the Holy Spirit less so. I even think about in popular kind of literature in the last couple years, all these...that period of literature that had these stories of people going to heaven. And there was one by some four-year-old kid, Heaven is for Real. And he said, "The Holy Spirit has a bluish tint," as though he saw the Holy Spirit in heaven. <laugh> And the Holy Spirit had this bluish tint. And so there's so much mystery even surrounding the Person of the Holy Spirit, like I said. I mean, he is obviously co-equal God, but lesser known. So it might even help us to think through—how does the Spirit relate, then, to the Father and the Son?


Christopher Holmes (05:44):

Yeah. So I think as we try to assimilate the pattern of Holy Scripture, I think it's important to consider the order in the divine life. And so when we read, for example, John's gospel, and I'm thinking specifically of the 15th chapter, the 26th verse, we encounter a key text in pneumatological reflection, and ultimately, in Trinitarian theology. And so I'll read it for you. "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth, who comes from the Father—he will testify on my behalf." That's an extraordinary text for our conversation today. And so the Spirit...John is telling us—Jesus is telling us through John—that the Spirit comes from the Father. The Father doesn't come from the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit comes from the Father. And what is the ministry of this Spirit? Very simply, to testify on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Christopher Holmes (06:42):

And so the Spirit relates to Father and Son in a very particular way. The Spirit is from the Father. And so the Spirit leads us to the Father, but the Spirit does so through the Son. And so this Trinitarian pattern is evident throughout Sacred Scripture, but especially in John and Paul's writing. So the Spirit doesn't relate to the Father and the Son as some kind of, you know, distant sort of third cousin. The Spirit is one, together with the Father and the Son. And the Spirit's ministry among us is to lead us, as I said, to the Father, through the Son. The Spirit isn't interested in testifying on the Spirit's behalf, but on behalf of the Son, and in so doing, leading us to the Father so that we might live a life of obedience, and of gratitude, and, ultimately, of love for God and the neighbor in relationship to God.


Brian Arnold (07:36):

Well, you mentioned there even kind of the ordering. And it may not even be something that most Christians have noticed—how we always say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We never say Spirit, Son, and Father. Or Son, Father, Spirit, or something. But there's this order that the church has always used when referring to the Godhead. Why is it that we say that? And how do we keep people from then assigning lesser roles, if you will, as we go down the taxis, this ordering, of the Persons?


Christopher Holmes (08:05):

Yeah. It's really important to appreciate that order doesn't mean or denote inferiority. Because the Spirit is the third of the three doesn't mean that the Spirit is somehow less divine than the Father and the Son, or less relevant, or less significant. There's order in the divine life precisely because...well, we say that, because it's what Sacred Scripture teaches—the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father. And so we don't want to think that just because the Spirit comes from the Father, again, that the Spirit is somehow less God than than the Father. There's order in the divine life. It's an eternal order. It's not something that the three thought up, as it were. It's the order that we see among us as we reflect on Sacred Scripture. It's an eternal order. So the Spirit comes from the Father from eternity, and comes from the Father through the Son.


Christopher Holmes (09:07):

Now that's a big sort of doctrinal question, in terms of whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. It's my view that the Spirit does. But in articulating that, I want to be mindful of St. Augustine's understanding that the Spirit proceeds from the Father in a primary sense, and from the Son in a secondary sense. So it's a nice way to say—it is from the Father through the Son. But yes, this order is eternal. And again, we oughtn't to think because the Father is the first among the three, that somehow the Father is more God. Your listeners will be, no doubt, familiar with Jesus's language in Matthew's gospel—at the tail end of Matthew's gospel—about baptism and discipleship about baptizing "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit."


Christopher Holmes (09:55):

That order, again, is an eternal order. And it's all over Sacred Scripture, this order, that Jesus's ministry in John's gospel is about helping folks to appreciate where he comes from. Where do you come from? Are you from above, i.e., are you from God? Or are you from below? And some folks think he's from below and some folks think he's from above. And so, yeah, this order business is really important. But we oughtn't to equate order in the divine life with degrees of divinity—i.e, Father more divine than Son, or somehow, you know, suggesting that the Spirit is less God, is inferior to the Father and the Son, simply because the Spirit is the third of the three. Again, just keep coming back to the testimony that New Testament, plain reading of John's gospel—"Who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf."


Brian Arnold (10:50):

And that's a strange thought for a lot of people, probably, is there is a specific ordering, but that ordering does not diminish the role or significance or divinity of the Son or the Spirit. And the way the Church Fathers talked about this, which might also come as a surprise for some people, is in terms of origin. So we would say—well, all three are eternal. But how did the early church kind of untangled this, in terms of the question of origin?


Christopher Holmes (11:20):

Yeah, it's such a fundamental question. I think our ancestors in the faith...obviously they really struggled with how to articulate order in the divine life in a way that doesn't imply diminishment or degrees of divinity. And so our ancestors really did their homework by way of Scripture. And so another important text from John's gospel is from chapter 14, verse 26...interesting that it's verse 26.


Brian Arnold (11:51):

It is. Yep.


Christopher Holmes (11:53):

And chapter 14, "But the advocate,"—I'm reading here—"the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of all that I've said to you." "Whom the Father will send in my name"—so the Father sends the Spirit. Not in the Father's name, but in the name of the Son, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so our ancestors in the faith, our ancestors at Nicea and at Constantinople, they articulated the mystery as they did, using in part the language of Greek philosophy. They used words like homoousios, which some of your hearers will be familiar with from the Nicene creed of "one substance," in order to kind of do justice, to unfold what the plain teaching of John's gospel here is—"whom the Father will send in my name." So we believe in the Holy Spirit, we believe that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, and in so doing, leads us back to the Father through the Son. So the creeds are all about, I would argue, trying to unfold the deep logic of Holy Scripture, and in so do doing, they make kind of informal use of some Greek philosophical categories.


Brian Arnold (13:12):

That's right. Even of the Father being in a state of the ungenerate one, the Son being eternally generate from the Father. And that one of the illustrations that the church would use is "light from light." You see even in the creed...


Christopher Holmes (13:25):

"Light from light, God from God."


Brian Arnold (13:26):

That's right. Like Justin Martyr talking about like fire and flame. And if you pull one flame off the other, it's from that same flame, but it's its own flame, right? Trying to understand these things. And then the Holy Spirit, like you said, proceeding from the Father. And—as I would agree with you—and the Son. In the Western tradition—some people probably won't know this, either—that one of the big debates of the split from the Eastern and the Western church has to do with this question of—is the Spirit sent from the Father, or from the Father and the Son? We call it the filioque, from the Latin filius, meaning son, que. And so, is the Holy Spirit sent from the Father, or from the Father and the Son? So that says a lot about his being. I think we've been able to kind of get an idea of who the Spirit is, in terms of the Trinitarian relationship. What about identity? Especially in terms of the fact that we know him as the Holy Spirit. So what even this name, this title, if you will, of Holy Spirit, tell us about the Person of the Spirit?


Christopher Holmes (14:27):

Yeah. A great deal. So I'm going to read a passage from the 17th chapter of John's gospel. This is the 26th verse, interestingly <laugh>, this is Jesus, of course speaking, "I have made your name known to them, and I will make it known." And the name, of course, there, Jesus is referring to is the Father. He continues, "so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them." "So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them." And so our ancestors in the faith, great teachers of the Church Catholic, like Augustine and Thomas, drawing on the testimony of Scripture, used names like love and gifts to describe the Holy Spirit. Now holiness, of course, is common to the three Persons. It's not as if the Holy Spirit is more holy than the Father or the Son, or is more loving than the Father and the Son.


Christopher Holmes (15:23):

That, of course, isn't the case. Father, Son, and Spirit are love. But as we contemplate Scripture, as we seek to assimilate its testimony in faith, certain names have emerged, and the principle name is love. So who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is love—the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father. And the Spirit pours that love out upon us, so that we may share in the Father's love for the Son and the Son's love for the Father, in and through the Holy Spirit. So the name love is a name that is very significant with respect to the Holy Spirit. And so, too, with gift—that's more...that language emerges more from Luke/Acts. The Spirit is the gift of the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, poured out upon the believing community.


Christopher Holmes (16:19):

And so, that these names, as it were, help us to appreciate something of the Spirit's ministry among us—which I would suggest is a very kind of self-effacing ministry. That the Spirit isn't, you know, interested in showing off the Spirit itself. <laugh> The Spirit is interested in bringing us to the Father through the Son, in order to glorify the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father. And so these names like love and gift not only help us to understand what it is the Spirit does, they help us understand something of the Spirit's identity in the Godhead, in the life of God, in the eternal life of God. And so they're not designed to take our attention away from Scripture, but to draw it back to Scripture. And again, I'd argue that John 17:26, in the history of reflection on the Spirit's personal work, is quite central. "So that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them." The Holy Spirit is that love.


Brian Arnold (17:18):

And what you said is quite profound, in thinking of the Holy Spirit's role in the life of the believer is to shine the spotlight on Christ. And so when we talk about, you know, the Holy Spirit getting a little bit less attention—it's the Spirit's role to point us towards the Lord Jesus Christ and what he's done for us in the incarnation, in his death and resurrection. And that has been a beautiful aspect of what the Lord has taught us in John 14 through 17. I mean, there's this beautiful Holy Spirit discourse, in many ways, that we have just before his death, and talking about the role of the Spirit is just going to show us more of the Father and the Son. Which we see. And so I'd love to shift and even talk about some of the activities of the Spirit. What his role and function is in gathering the church, and building up the church, and sending the church. How does the Holy Spirit act in the church today?


Christopher Holmes (18:13):

Yep. The Spirit's busy. <laugh> The Spirit is at work, thankfully. The Spirit is busy drawing us to Christ and gathering us to him, and thus to his body, the church. So the Spirit is at work, not only in the church, but outside the church, drawing folks to Christ so that they might love and serve him in life and death and gathering them to him. And as someone who works in a church tradition that takes proclamation and sacraments quite seriously, I would argue that the Spirit gathers us to Christ by way of hearing the preached Word of Christ. And it's the sacraments, specifically the Lord's Supper—following John Calvin's lead—that seals us in the promises of the preached Word. So the Spirit is at work gathering us to Christ, and in gathering us to Christ, the Spirit gathers us to the church, that is, his body. And the Spirit is at work edifying us, building us up in relationship to the promises of the gospel.


Christopher Holmes (19:16):

And so the Spirit isn't, again, sort of working on a part-time basis. The Spirit is helping the faithful indwell the promises, and in so doing, be conformed to Christ, so that they might love him and serve him in life and death. And the Spirit is at work helping us to faithfully respond to God's call to be a sent people. So the Spirit sends the believing community forth in the name of the Son, in order to speak of his wonderful deeds. So I would suggest—and this is not sort of unique to me, by any means, but I'm following the lead of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth—that the language of gathering up, building, and sending helps us to understand something of what it is that the Spirit is doing. Gathering us to Christ, and thus to his body, the church. Building us up in relationship to the promises of Christ as they are proclaimed the Word, and as we're sealed in those promises through the sacrament. And sending us forth, in and through the Spirit's own power, so that we might boldly testify to what it is that God is doing in and through Christ to reconcile the world to himself.


Brian Arnold (20:27):

And I like that you said the Spirit's always at work. I know there's got to be some people listening, Dr. Holmes, who have felt neglectful in their walks with Christ, and wondering then if the Spirit's kind of gone dormant in their life. And maybe they've grieved the Spirit and things, but the reality is—the Spirit's always at work. The Spirit's interceding for us with groans that words cannot express, crying out "Abba Father" in our hearts. And that's a great comfort to us, isn't it? When we recognize how desperate we are for this Advocate, this Helper, this Paraclete, sent on behalf of Christ, indwell those who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who does not foresake, does not leave, does not abandon, but is there always interceding for the saints? It's a remarkable thing of what God has done for us.


Christopher Holmes (21:13):

Yep. I concur wholeheartedly.


Brian Arnold (21:16):

So what...you've obviously done a lot of work on the Holy Spirit in your scholarship. What are some of the best resources you could point our listeners to? Maybe at different levels—something that's a really lovely, profound, more devotional, even, introduction to the Holy Spirit, all the way up to something that's a bit more technical?


Christopher Holmes (21:36):

Yeah, sure. I'd actually encourage your listeners to read St. Basil's treatise On the Holy Spirit. This was written in the late fourth century, and folks might think—oh, because it comes from the pen of someone who wrote over 1600 years ago, it must be really hard and quite technical. But it's actually, really, it's a straightforward read. It's not a big book. It's quite short, probably only 30 or so thousand—if that—25,000 words in English translation. So I would...I'm a big believer in the primary sources of the Christian tradition, that they are far more accessible than we often think. So I'd encourage your listeners to read St. Basil's treatise from the late fourth century On the Holy Spirit.


Christopher Holmes (22:23):

And if they wanted something more technical, in my judgment, the best thing that's been written, or one of the best things that's been written in the 20th century on the Holy Spirit is by...a work by the French Dominican—so Roman Catholic theologian—Yves Congar, and it's simply titled I Believe in the Holy Spirit. It's big, but it is remarkably profound, spiritually and intellectually. And he takes you through the Patristics, so through the Fathers, through the greats of the middle ages, always with Holy Scripture in view. And so if your listeners are looking for something a bit more technical, I would recommend Yves Congar I Believe in the Holy Spirit for just a basic kind of introduction. But a primary source introduction, go with St. Basil's remarkable little book On the Holy Spirit.


Brian Arnold (23:19):

And I've read Basil a couple times and have also found it to be remarkably helpful. And I'll need to check out the other one. I have not read the other resource you've given. Well, Dr. Holmes, this has been an incredibly helpful discussion. Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit gets so little press in our day...


Christopher Holmes (23:36):



Brian Arnold (23:37):

<laugh> But how important is this Paraclete, this Helper that Christ has sent for us. And we need more Spirit-filled Christians, living out life in the Spirit, understanding who our God is as Triune Father, Son, and Holy spirit. Dr. Holmes, thanks so much.


Christopher Holmes (23:52):

Thank you so much for having me.


Outro (23:54):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

How Jesus was, is, and always will be the Light

Darkness is an apt metaphor for 2020. Yet in spite of how we might feel at the end of this long year, we are surrounded by lights on trees and houses, in windows and on lawns. Why are we drawn to light? Why do we long for the days to lengthen and for the gray of winter to fade away?

God made light and darkness and he called them day and night. There was nothing evil in night. But when sin entered the world, night and darkness became places to hide and symbols for places where sin and evil rule.

The Light From Before the Beginning

Matthew and Luke began their gospels with Jesus’ birth, his entrance into the darkness of this world. Mark launched immediately into Jesus’ mission as the son of God who would suffer and die before being resurrected and glorified. John begins, not with Jesus’ birth, nor his mission, but with his eternal existence.

“In the beginning” Jesus was already there. Everything and everyone else has a beginning, but not Jesus. Yes, as Matthew and Luke recount he was born as a man, but he had always been. He had always been with the Father. He had always been God. And from before the beginning of time, the beginning of the earth or the universe, Jesus had always been the Light. And now with darkness reigning, Jesus has come to earth, born as a man, but still God from all eternity. He came and shone in the darkness and the darkness could not, cannot, and will not overcome the Light.

The Light Foretold in the Old Testament

John’s teaching that Jesus is God and that he is the Light was not new. He was connecting with a significant theme in Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of a savior who would come, someone who would be called Immanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14). Other deliverers had represented God to man (Exod 7:1), but this one would truly be God among men. This savior would be called Mighty God, and he would be the great Light that would shine on people who walk in darkness (Isa 9:2, 6). This savior would be a suffering servant whom God would make a Light to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6) and who would carry our sorrows, be crushed for our sins, and bring us peace. He would bear our iniquity, to make us righteous in him (Isa 52:13–53:12).

The Light for Those Who Have None

This is the story of Christmas. The Light has come into our darkness and he has conquered sin and death. We try hard, in the darkness of our own lives, to light our way, but the savior Isaiah promised comes for those who realize they have no light of their own, to those who trust the name of the Lord, and in the Light he has given to the world. May God grant us eyes to see and hearts to receive the Light that shines forth from before the beginning.

J. Michael Thigpen (Ph.D.) serves as Provost and Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. His special areas of interest are prophetic literature, God’s motives, and the theology of work and economics in the Old Testament. Dr. Thigpen’s passion is to help the church connect more deeply to the Old Testament by understanding its literary nature and historical background. He and his wife Bonnie have two daughters, Abigail and Hannah.