The Holy Spirit and Tradition

Christopher R.J. Holmes, a graduate of Wycliffe College and senior lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has penned the first volume in Zondervan’s new series New Studies in Dogmatics. The goal of the series, inspired by G.C. Berkouwer’s series Studies in Dogmatics, is “to offer concise, focused treatments of major topics in dogmatic theology that fill the gap between introductory theology textbooks and advanced theological monographs” (15). Holmes contribution, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), certainly fits the bill and will therefore be of interest to those with some theological education who are looking to delve deeper into the area of pneumatology.

Holmes’s central contention could perhaps be economically stated in the following manner: To properly understand what the Holy Spirit does, it is necessary to understand who the Holy Spirit is. Against the grain of what Holmes’ believes to be a reductive emphasis upon the economy of salvation (put simply, God’s saving actions in the world) in recent Trinitarian theology, an account of the immanent Trinity (that is the eternal life of God in Godself) is a pneumatological necessity. Holmes draws upon three towering figures in the Western theological tradition – Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth – to, in turn, engage the questions, “What is the Spirit?”; “Who is the Spirit?”; and “How does the Spirit do things?”

This is not the place for a full book review. Instead I’d like to focus on an interesting chapter towards the end of the book that engages with the theme “Church and Tradition.” In this chapter, after carefully laying the groundwork to guard against misunderstandings that would seek to understand the church as merely a human institution on the one hand or that would be tempted to conflate Christ and the church on the other, Holmes presents a pneumatological argument for recovering tradition as “a promising theological category, a necessary derivative of church” (194). Considering this series of books is geared towards a Protestant audience, more particularly a contemporary evangelical audience, this is a significant contribution. Protestants, particularly evangelicals, have been historically suspicious of tradition. Rightful concerns surrounding the origin, content, and practice of various church traditions (plural) has often morphed into the outright neglect or rejection of an ultimately necessary theological understanding of tradition (singular) with disastrous consequences for the contemporary church with respect to its ability to read the Bible and shape its life and witness in light of the testimony of Scripture. Those who have studied theology with me will have heard me advance arguments for the necessity of recovering tradition as a theological category. Here are few quotes from Holmes’s presentation which illuminate his manner of approaching the argument:

“Tradition, rightly understood, is a fruit of the Spirit’s continually being breathed upon his people by the glorified Christ” (194).

“Tradition indicates those instruments that promote attention to the Scriptures. In a primary sense, I mean the ecumenical creeds and, in a secondary sense, those documents in the history of the church – for example, the Barmen Declaration – that point us to the Christ to be confessed in life and death” (195).

“The ‘permanent Pentecost’ of the Spirit is what makes it possible to speak of tradition. This is tradition’s principle of intelligibility. Christ is never without his witnesses, his faithful, his remnant, for by the Spirit is his promise to create a people guaranteed” (195).

“Tradition is the fruit of faithful proclamation. It is the river that such proclamation sources, and in turn that which the Spirit uses to bind us to what is to be proclaimed” (196).

“The Spirit is the promise of life whose breathing is never without effect. Talk of tradition as living is talk of one of the primary instruments whereby Christ teaches us to remember him and his promises” (196).

“the Spirit who rests on the Word’s body, the church, generates a history marked by a tradition that witnesses to Christ” (196)

“The Lord Jesus promises not to leave his people alone. Rather, by his Spirit he continues to raise up gifted teachers who help God’s people hear. It is their hearing that constitutes the church’s tradition” (197).

“Tradition is used by the same Spirit to encourage clear hearing of the apostolic testimony” (197).

Holmes rightly suggests that “tradition is a salutary theological category” (197). May his chapter contribute to a theologically-informed recovery of the category of tradition with salutary effect for the contemporary Western Protestant church.

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