Not the Binity But the Trinity: The Holy Spirit’s Place in the Life of God

The Holy Spirit, unless you’re a Pentecostal or Charismatic, is often left in the background somewhere in theological discussion. Never mind that John Calvin has been called the ‘theologian of the Spirit’ or the fact that Colin Gunton made great appeal to the Spirit in his doctrine of creation, or that folks like my friend and Evangelical Calvinist colleague, has edited books devoted to Third Article Theology; the Spirit, in my experience anyway, is often under-referenced in the Reformed circles I have contact with when discussing things theological. And maybe some of this is actually by design: I mean the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to magnify the person and work of Jesus Christ; so He, by His person (hypostasis) stands in the background. As T Torrance was fond of highlighting, the Holy Spirit comes along for us with the coming of the eternal Son in the Incarnation; in other words, the Spirit comes with the Son for us, indeed he paves the way (think of the overshadowing of the waters in Genesis [protology – creation] or the overshadowing of Mary’s womb in Luke [eschatology – recreation]).

The aforementioned noted, the Holy Spirit was given his rightful place in the development of the Trinitarian theology that took was given expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. Kooi and Brink highlight this especially well when they write:

The question might be posed as to why, between 325 and 381, the view arose to describe the Spirit too as being of one essence (“consubstantial”) with the Father and the Son. Was that not a little too much of a good thing? Was a binitarian concept that safeguarded Jesus’s divinity not complicated enough? It was precisely in the fourth-century controversy with those who doubted the divinity of the Spirit that it became clear that the Trinitarian concept was not to be relinquished. It was not based just on some Bible texts that linked the Spirit to God; it had much more to do with the pneumatological insight developing in the early church that we human beings do not have the Spirit at our disposal and that we cannot manipulate the Spirit. A spirit that does not issue from God would automatically be on the side of the creatures and open to such manipulation. Nor would such a spirit be able to genuinely connect us with God. We would be left out on our own. Only because the Spirit is radically on God’s side is he able, through the Son, to incorporate us into communion with the Father. However, this work can happen only if the Spirit belongs fully, as a distinct person, to the divine essence. This soteriological insight played a major role in the labors of Athanasius and the Cappadocians and would eventually lead to the confession that the Spirit “is Lord and gives life” and must “be worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son” (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, an expansion of the Nicene Creed; hereafter we will refer to both forms simply as the Nicene Creed).[1]

I like how they highlight that the Holy Spirit indeed is God of God; i.e. that He is indeed a hypostasis within the Godhead (Monarxia), and as such is Lord (cf. II Cor. 3.17). He is not an energy or a spark within humanity, He finds His reality in the eternal relation and coinhering life of the Father, Son, and indeed, the Holy Spirit.


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 94-5.

Doctrine of God: Let There Be No Daylight Between the Being and Persons of God. Kooi and Brink

As I underscored and wrote upon how the Being (ousia) of God has been separated from the Persons (hypostases) of God in many medieval and Post Reformed orthodox treatments of the doctrine of God in my personal chapter for our volume one Evangelical Calvinism book, I am happy to see that Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink do not follow this type of disjunction in their just released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. They would be critical then, as I am, of Katherine Sonderegger’s approach and return back to this more classic rendition of developing a doctrine of God; i.e. by starting with God’s oneness and only later getting to his threeness, as if we could think them apart in any meaningful way as Christ[ians]. Here is what Kooi and Brink have to say about this (in extenso):

We join then this recent turn in asserting that the doctrine of God, with the related treatment of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine attributes, must be approached from the basis of the doctrine of the divine Trinity. There there can be no misunderstanding that, speaking from a Christian perspective, God can be thought of only as the Trinity; the Christian church confesses no other God than the Father of Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit. In that sense the doctrine of the Trinity may be regarded as the Christianized version of the doctrine of God. The church does not worship an anonymous Supreme Being but the God who has made a name for himself in Israel and has gotten a face in Jesus Christ. The divine attributes will also have to be viewed and studied from this perspective, for they do not concern—as has often been suggested—a “universal” divine being, but the triune God. This perspective implies, that right from the start, these attributes must be colored and interpreted by God’s sovereign turn toward us human beings in the history of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the Spirit.[1]

And then in small print[2], just following, this Kooi and Brink dig further into the way the being of God has been spoken of in abstraction from his persons,

There are numerous examples in history [sic] of studies that first deal at length with the attributes before getting to the doctrine of the Trinity, but the paradigmatic cases are Thomas Aquinas (STh I.2–26 and 27–43) and Schleiermacher (CF, paras. 170–72); yet he judiciously suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity needs to be constructed anew from the oldest sources). The sharp criticism of Karl Rahner (e.g., in Feiner and Löhrer, MS 2:317–97) on how the theological tradition has split apart the tractates  De Deo trino and De Deo uno (“On the triune God” and “On the one God”) has become famous. But even Berkhof stays with this tradition. Being disappointed with its classical form, he even decided toward the end of his life to incorporate the doctrine of the Trinity in his doctrine of God at all but to deal with it at the end of his treatment of the doctrine of Christ (CF, paras. 19–23 and 38).

In Calvin’s Institutes the attributes receive little attention, and the doctrine of the Trinity much more. Calvin wanted to stay close to the Bible and practical faith and feared the “idle speculations” that would arise if we isolate various elements of the doctrine of God and make them stand alone. His dictum was, “Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us” (Inst. 1.5.9). In his own doctrine of God, therefore, Calvin focused to a large extent on the doctrine of the Trinity, which over time he accepted as fully biblical (1.13; see also Letham 2004, 253, 265, 267–68). In the twentieth century many followed Barth’s example by prioritizing the doctrine of the Trinity over a discussion of the divine attributes (e.g. Genderen and Velema, CRD 143–64 and 164–92; see also 135), but few did so as consistently as Wolfhart Pannenberg (ST 1, chap. 6, as sequel to and colored by chap. 5) and Robert Jenson (ST 1, esp. chaps. 4–9 and 13). See above, chapter 2, for the consequences of mixing the Christian doctrine of God with philosophical ideas about God, which became the target of the prominent critics of religion in the nineteenth century.[3]

To continue to press this let me share a quote I used in my chapter from Thomas Torrance; it is an interesting quote, particularly because while agreeing with Kooi and Brink, in the main, Torrance would appear to disagree with their assessment of Calvin. But the primary reason I am sharing this, for our purposes, is simply to reinforce this type of critique relative to the artificial separating of God’s oneness (‘being’) from his threeness (‘persons’). So Torrance,

in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

You might be wondering why this is important, at this point; it has to do with the topic of a recent post of mine on apophatic versus cataphatic theology. When theologies start with the oneness or ‘being of God’ over against the threeness or ‘persons of God’ they are typically taking the apophatic approach to knowing God. They are starting with a discursive rather than concrete way to God; using philosophical categories that conceive of Godness prior to being confronted by that in the definitional reality of His own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It potentially gives us a God, the approach under critique in this post, that is abstract and personally removed from his creation; who is not easily understood as a ‘relational’ and dynamic God.


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 78-9.

[2] The small print is a stylistic move used throughout Kooi’s and Brink’s Christian Dogmatics with the purpose of providing more detailed analyses of various loci. It is reminiscent of how Karl Barth used his footnote sections (his “small print”) to accomplish the same thing.

[3] Kooi and Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 79.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 3–4 cited by Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis?: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 110.

The Relationship Between Secularization and Christian Theology. Kooi and Brink

The world has been thoroughly secularized at this point; I think it is safe to say that we most certainly live in a post-Christian society, globally. During pre-modern times the way Christian theology developed, because of the overt belief in the Christian God (in the West and in large swaths of the East), in ways that are different than what the 21st century Christian theologian is confronted with. We inhabit a pluralistic and secular society wherein belief in the Christian God is set up next to the Buddha, Allah, and many other nature worshipping religions. Clearly all of this has been present ever since the beginning, but we live in unique times given our information age and the rapidity with which ideas are marketed and exchanged. Christian theology lives in this environment, as such the way it navigates its way through or within such an environment requires prudence on the thinker’s part and reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s leading. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink opine on the secularization of the world and its ramifications for Christian theology; they write:

The process of desacralization poses an enormous challenge for Christian theology. It makes it impossible to point to a world that is divine in nature; instead, it must point to a revelation in the past (the gift of the covenant and the law, the prophets, the mission of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Spirit) that is historical in nature and represented in the present through the ministry of the church. This arrangement implies a drastic reduction of the grounds to which Christian theology can refer. The truth of the gospel cannot at all times and all places be called forth and made available by mystical experience, esoteric induction, or practice. Such attempts will almost inevitably lead to malformation and confusion.

In short, we do not deny that human religious awareness may be a road toward the Christian faith. It may help us in our sincere search for God. But we remember Calvin’s observation that the religious urge, the sensus divinitatis, may come to the front much more often in explicit or subtle perversions of the way in which God has made himself known. In a culture that manifests a widespread interest in the cohesiveness of life (holism, spirituality, esoteric movements), Christian faith is confronted with many difficulties, just as the imageless faith in YHWH faced major challenges in Israel. Both have, at first glance, less to point to. Nature religions and the esoteric live from what is always at hand; in contrast, the Judeo-Christian tradition points to what is not at hand. It invites us to learn from what is invisible. It posits an intrinsic relationship with a specific tradition, with a faith community that meets together around sacred scriptures; and as far as Christianity is concerned, it implies an extraordinary coming of God into the world. Only through the power of the Spirit does the believer become involved with these movements in his or her inner being….[1]

As I transcribe and thus reflect upon this quote, it makes me wonder if I fully agree. I agree that in our modern/post-modern period we clearly live in a profane and/or secular time. But in reality, for the Chrisitan, and in particular, the Christian theologian, I am wondering what in fact a secular world does to the act of theologizing itself. Yes, as theologians we are to be exegeting the cultures and societies within which we live; and yes, we are conditioned very much so by the times we live within. But at the same time God’s Self-revelation is not delimited or conditioned, per se, by the time we find ourselves inhabiting. The human heart has not changed, even if technologies have; as such, I am not totally sure I agree that living in a secular “desacralized” world poses the type of enormous challenge for the development of Christian theology that Kooi and Brink seem to think.

Christian theology, Dogmatic theology, while being something that is developed within whatever time it is indeed done within is contingent, objectively, upon the Self-giveneness of God in Christ. This is an event reality that breaks in upon us ever afresh and anew in such a way that in fact a new culture and new society is given other-worldly shape by the foolishness and weirdness of the Gospel itself. If this is so, I am not sure a desacralized world has the type of impact upon a Christian person who is living under the pressure of God’s life and Kingdom come in Jesus Christ that Kook and Brink seem to think.

It almost seems that Kooi and Brink are focused on the apologetic aspect of Christian theology. Indeed, it should be noted that the quote I provided from them comes in a section where they are talking about the phenomenon of religion, and Christianity’s place within that phenomenon. Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that Christian theology’s primary concern is trying to figure out how to engage with the culture; instead I believe that some of the fruit of Christian theology will actually confront societies and cultures with the power of God and the strangeness of the Gospel itself. In other words I see a centripetal to centrifugal movement from the communio sanctorum (the church), as it lives coram Deo, in koinonial bond with Christ and his church which moves in such a way that it represents and ambassadors Christ to the nations as it bears witness to her sustenance and reality in Jesus Christ. As I write all of this, I don’t think Kooi and Brink would disagree, but at least in the section I just shared from them it causes me some pause.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 66.

‘A Theological Mode of Existence’ theologische Existenz: The Place of the Theologians and Their Jargon for the Church of Jesus Christ. More Kooi and Brink

I just got Cornelius van der Kooi’s and Gijsbert van den Brink’s freshly translated (from their native Dutch) Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction; and thus far it is wonderful! My last post touched upon what they think about the relationship between apologetics and Christian Dogmatics (which I’m still pondering); in this post I want to get into what they have to say about what they call (After Barth) the ‘theological mode of existence’ (theologische Existenz). This is an existence the Lord graciously put me into back about twenty-two years ago, and one I would never give up; it’s this existence in Christ that is life to me, without it I’d have no sanity.

I will share at some length what they have to say about this type of existence, and then offer up a few of my reflections on it in closing. Kooi and Brink write:

1.9 Theology as Mode of Existence

So far we have described theology and dogmatics primarily as a particular discipline—one of the many that one might study at an academic level. But many who are involved with it feel that theology is more than this. Theology carries with it a unique mode of existence. Barth and his followers referred to this as a theologische Existenz (theological mode of existence).

This theological mode of existence involves more than acquiring a substantial amount of knowledge, more than doing theology as creatively as possible. It concerns the cultivation of a certain underlying passion. This passion is, first, a passion for God and his kingdom. As the word indicates, a true theologian speaks about God. But his or her passion also concerns the people of God and the world of God. This dimension will perhaps not radiate from every page the theologian writes. It is a cultivated passion; that is, it lies in the background and will typically surface in a restrained manner. This limitation relates to the ability to maintain distance, which is part of the theological mode of existence. That is to say, as a theologian, one is able to look at the faith that is lived by people from a distance. It is possible to formulate abstractions and speak about them in intelligible language. Dogmaticians perhaps speak more about pneumatology than about the Holy Spirit, and more about eschatology than about heaven. This preference may be risky, but things will go wrong only when they speak exclusively in a detached kind of language. To a certain extent they must speak in terms of “–ologies” if they want to maintain an overview of the various parts (loci) that together form the content of the Christian faith, and to quickly see how, in a particular array, these elements may fit together. A sentence like “Barth suffers from pneumatological anemia” is typical theological jargon (apart from the question as to whether or not it is true).

As can happen in other areas of scholarship, such concepts help to create a jargon that is understood by representatives of different denominations and worldviews, enabling them to carry on a meaningful communication. Where believers without theological training will often listen to the views of others without understanding them and with great distaste, a common terminology enables theologians to learn about each other’s views in a fruitful—but often critical—dialogue. In other words, part of the theological mode of existence is the ability to change one’s perspective and, through a common theological language, to empathize with the faith-worlds of other groups of believers.

At the same time, it also belongs to life-as-theologian that one will always return to the “simple faith” and not get lost in a critical attitude, whatever one’s ability to talk about faith in abstract terms and to retain a critical distance. It is crucial to know when you must be critical, but also when you must leave your critical attitude behind,  in order to believe as a child in what Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) has called a “second naïveté.”[1]

This is very well said. This has been something that has personally dogged me over the years, even, and in particular online. When you enter into this arena you necessarily learn a bunch of jargon, but it is not an arbitrary education; it is intended to provide the Christian thinker with a lexicon filled with precision language in order to communicate clearly and pristinely among other initiates. Some gripe that such jargonese is necessarily elitist, but this is not the case; as Kooi and Brink so eloquently highlight.

There indeed is a ‘theological mode of existence,’ not all Christians, in fact most Christians probably never enter into it. But this is okay. Not all of us are called to be teachers, but if we are it should be expected that as teachers and theologians we would imbibe a certain mood filled with its realm of special symbols, and grammar for the express purpose of edifying and building up the church. Indeed these symbols or ‘words’ might seem abstract and removed from anything edifying at all, but they are present so that the theologian can help build a solid foundation wherein the practice of the church can move ‘rightly’ and grow deeper and wider in the grace of Jesus Christ. Theologians, or in Pauline language, teachers in the church have their place (Eph. 4). True, as for anyone in the body, there is always the danger of making one’s office an end in itself; an end where the potential glory of the office becomes inward curved and self-focused. And those who spend all their time thinking about the deep things of God, those who glean insights about God that are unique and special might be tempted to start glorying in this; in what they’ve come to understand about God. They might lose sight of the church, and the perspective that they have been given this gift of insight for the edification of others. But even with this always lurking danger, theologians have their place in the body of Christ; it is a place that I think needs to be appreciated more, particularly in our experienced based individualistic church culture.

As Kooi and Brink end, they mention Ricoeur’s second naïveté; I personally love this! Barth adopted this Ricoeurian approach himself, particularly in the way he navigated his engagement with the higher critics of the biblical text. Maybe we will have to unpack this jargon at another time, but it signifies something that I think can be of benefit for the body of Christ catholic.


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 29-30.

What Hath Apologetics to do With Christian Dogmatics? van der Kooi and van den Brink Speak

I have often decried the apologetics culture, particularly in North American evangelicalism (which I inhabit). My concern has always been the conflation of apologetics with the doing of Christian Dogmatics and/or what some term as Systematic Theology. Indeed, this conflation has happened, and when it does it needs to be well “decried.” Karl Barth was someone who saw this problem, and so intentionally, and early, avoided apologetics, even, as some would say, to a fault. Barth believed that the best apologetic for the Christian faith was a good Christian Dogmatic.

Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink provide a wonderful sketch of how apologetics have often fallen prey to the temptation of substituting its means for the means of actual Christian Dogmatic development; in their sketch they touch upon Barth, and I would suggest build upon Barth’s reaction to the apologetic culture. They build on it by uppointing the value of allowing good Christian Dogmatics to in and of themselves function as an intentional apologetic; potentially by the sheer force of the compelling vision of God in Christ that they offer to the world as witness. They write:

We want to give a final indication of the lines between various disciplines. Dogmatics is closely linked to apologetics, by which we traditionally mean the defense of the Christian faith against all sorts of criticisms to which it is subjected. This definition has given apologetics a rather defensive connotation—as if the Christian faith is characterized by defensiveness, because it supposedly presents a less-than-solid worldview. In addition, apologists may, at times, be subconsciously inclined to adopt the patterns of thought of those they want to combat. As a result, they may in fact jeopardize the uniqueness of the Christian faith they want to defend.

For this reason, Karl Barth, for example, long held back from any significant involvement with apologetics. He felt there was a major risk that the Christian faith would become caricatured if one were to adopt the models of thought of one’s critics. (He saw how it happened, for instance, to Rudolf Bultmann, whom he considered a kindred spirit.) Barth maintained that it is impossible to reason slowly but surely toward Jesus Christ by using a foreign model of thought, that one who does not begin with Christ will never find him in the end. For this reason, we must, when we want to give an account of our Christian faith to a broad public, simply be very direct and put our cards on the table. In his on dogmatics Barth faithfully followed this procedure by constructing his theology in a totally Christocentric way. We must add, however, that Barth eventually became more appreciative of the apologetic project, more aware of how dogmatics and apologetics do not necessarily exclude each other.

There is ample evidence that the Christian community continues to need a voice with an apologetic orientation. As society becomes increasingly secular, and as the Christian faith is increasingly subjected to a wide range of criticisms, there is a heightened sense that Christians need to know how they can best respond with good arguments when they receive all kinds of reproaches. Rather than elevating apologetics into a separate discipline, however, we think it better to integrate it into dogmatics. This gives it a place in a positive, comprehensive elucidation of the content of the Christian faith, rather than in a discourse with inevitably defensive undertones. Moreover, because of a constant orientation toward the sources of the faith, apologetics will shift less easily to very dissimilar philosophical models. And finally, in its turn, dogmatics will be protected against fuzziness when it has to seriously assume its responsibility of giving an account of the Christian faith to secular and religious forms of criticism. In short, good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature.

When dogmatics fails in performing this task, it will, to its shame, see how non-theologians or “ordinary” pastors and their publications assume greater significance with regard to the apologetic orientation of the church than professional theologians. In this connection, we may be grateful for the work of apologists like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, as well as, more recently, Tim Keller, the leader of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.[1]

Much to consider here. When they say that “…good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature” it makes me squirm a bit. We will have to wait and see how van der Kooi and van den Brink develop this further; if they do. I do agree that good dogmatics will always have the incidental force of providing a power of God like witness (cf. Rom. 1.16) to the world of the beauty, grandeur, and reality of the Gospel; and I do believe that there indeed is a place for combating for the faith at an intellectual level. But I still turn more the way of Barth, even the early Barth, against doing outright apologetics. We would have to ask what purpose apologetics are serving. Are they for the body of Christ herself; for witness to the world; to make the world look foolish through the foolishness of the Gospel; or a combination of all this and more?

I’m going to have to ponder this further. I was raised and weaned on the evangelical apologetics sub-culture and its attendant material. I have used it over and over again in evangelistic situations, and it has helped in some instances. Usually, though, all it helps me to do is win arguments and jousts. Some of the apologetics material sustained me intellectually at a time when I needed it, but that was before I was aware of historical theology and the riches just waiting to be laid bare in the history of the church of Jesus Christ; i.e. including Christian Dogmatics etc. I am not totally sure what van der Kooi and van den Brink mean by “good dogmatics will … have an apologetic nature.” I can see that in a incidental maybe de facto way, but not in a formal de jure or objective way. What hath apologetics to do with Christian Dogmatics indeed?


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 21-2.