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Who is the Holy Spirit? Dr. Christopher Holmes

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

Topics of conversation include:

  • The being of the Holy Spirit
  • The identity of the Holy Spirit
  • The activity of the Holy Spirit
  • Resources for both devotional and technical study on the Holy Spirit

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):

Yes

 

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.

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