Review: The Holy Spirit by Robert Letham

Robert Letham is well-known for his previous books on the Trinity—as well as his work on the Westminster Assembly and his recent Systematic Theology—and has just produced his best book to date. Although I have not always followed Letham’s conclusions on certain matters, especially concerning his covenant theology, this book is a masterful treatment of the doctrine of the third person of the Trinity. His aim is to produce two sequels, one on the Son and one on the Father, to round out a full monograph set on the Trinity.

The book starts with an historical survey of major points in the development of trinitarian doctrine to the modern period. He dives into several debates in the ancient church that helped codify the Nicene view of the Spirit, as well as the Son. He tackles several controversial figures in more recent theology, explaining some points along the way about how modern theology has often departed, at least on the level of language, from more traditional patterns of theological explanation.

Letham’s survey is helpful in several ways, but the reason to spotlight here is his awareness of the traditional categories that we need to formulate trinitarian theology well. He makes repeated appeals throughout the book to the doctrine of inseparable operations, which teaches that God’s external works (namely toward an object outside his essence such as creation) cannot be divided as if one person of the Trinity performs them without the others, but rather every person is involved in performing those operations. Modern theology has all but lost track of this doctrine, although changing due to the popular new book by Adonis Vidu, The Same God Who Works All Things. Letham also defends the filioque, which argues that the Spirit proceeds essentially from the Father and the Son, although he does a good job of sympathetically explaining both sides of that historical debate between Eastern and Western Christianity.

I am going to register my one complaint about this book here, both because I want to get it out of the way early and because it pertains to this section. Letham’s survey is a bit of a snapshot view of the history of doctrine concerning the Spirit, pulling one theologian out of the deck at a time to inspect him on his own. There is not really a synthetic narrative about the doctrine of the person of the Spirit here. Perhaps that approach is arguably most useful in a book that is not aiming to be an advanced academic-level treatment, since that sort of narrative requires a far more detailed description of doctrinal nuance.

The second aspect of this complaint is that, as Letham turned to examine the Spirit in redemptive-historical perspective, these initial good discussions about the Spirit’s personal processions—that is, what makes the Spirit distinct as a person within the Godhead—more or less disappear. The focus shifts from the Spirit’s person under the historical survey to his work under the biblical explanation. Incorporating more about the Spirit’s person, drawing out more exegetical support for the conclusions we reached in our creedal statements, would have significantly supplemented this book’s contribution.

That said, the discussion of the Spirit in redemptive history is rich and helpful in what it does say. Letham starts by showing that the Spirit was active, obviously a divine person, in the Old Testament. He then considers the Spirit from three vantages of New Testament developments to redemptive history: Jesus’ earthly ministry; his resurrection, ascension, and pouring out the Spirit at Pentecost; and the apostolic mission.

One of Letham’s shining moments is in pushing back against “Spirit-Christologies,” which overemphasize the place of the Spirit for Christ’s incarnation. Although maintaining the right balance in conjunction with the doctrine of inseparable operations, Letham also comes in hard to defend the many aspects of Christ’s earthly ministry that some want to chalk up to dependence on the Spirit—which then makes Christ into a pure example of how we are to live in dependence on the Spirit—as manifestations of his divine personhood. Although not devoid of a place for the Spirit, Christ’s miracles often demonstrate his divine identity, not by an impressive feat, but by intertextual connections to what the Old Testament said that God does.

Another stellar contribution here is Letham’s chapter on spiritual gifts. Often these discussions are rather stale, devolving to a reassertion of what someone already believes. Letham carefully works through modern scholarship from multiple perspectives and presents a nuanced and clear statement about the nature of spiritual gifts in the New Testament. Although he does not get as directly to the question of their cessation—albeit his positive use of several overtly cessationist arguments suggests his position—his discussion of what the gifts were in the New Testament period shows that much of what gets labeled today as manifestations of the Spirit has nothing to do with what occurred in the apostolic period.

Letham’s crowning achievement in this book is perhaps his large appendix on Pentecostal and charismatic theology. I know of no better survey of the historical background and theological trajectories of various sections of these movements. His evaluation is spot-on and very helpful. He argues that Pentecostal theology is overtly non-Protestant, departing from creedal theology as well as our understanding of salvation. The biggest surprise, although welcome since it is about time, is Letham’s critique of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ involvement in charismatic theology and his endorsement of higher spiritual blessings for some believers. Theologians in whose camp Lloyd-Jones falls have been largely reticent to tackle this problem on the nose. Letham, however, did a bang-up job of it.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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