What is the Holy Spirit?

Is it akin to George Lucas’s pantheistic vision of The Force? Is “it” even the proper pronoun, an affront bleeding the Third Person of the Trinity of his personhood?

Christopher Holmes’s practically accessible, theologically deep resource, The Holy Spirit, aids us in answering this question and more via three historical interlocutors: Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth. It is the inaugural volume in the new New Studies in Dogmatics series that aims to retrieve the riches of classical Christian doctrine for the sake of contemporary theological renewal.

Holmes’s work fills a crucial gap in evangelical dogmatic scholarship on the Third Person of the Trinity by providing concrete answers about the Holy Spirit’s identity, origin, and acts. One of those concrete answers stems from our question regarding the essence of the Holy Spirit.

In the post below, we excavate a narrow slice of Holmes’s work using our friends Augustine and Barth to shed new light on this old question. They answer this question in similar, yet complementary ways, helping me to think about the Spirit specifically and God generally in a new way.

Augustine, the Spirit, and the New Birth

In dialoguing with Augustine on the “One what” of God’s Spirit, Holmes focuses on his commentary on John 2:23–3:21 in Homilies on the Gospel of John.

“The points that Augustine makes circle around a few important themes, one of which is God’s provenience. The Spirit bears anew because he is God…He emphasizes that because the Spirit is God, the Spirit does these things.” (45–46)

Barth echoes what Augustine argues and Holmes makes plain: the Spirit does what God does, because he is God. “The Spirit’s work reveals the Spirit’s antecedent divinity, that the Spirit is essentially God together with Father and Son.” This is what makes Augustine’s homily so instructive, and part of the burden it bears. “The Spirit’s work expresses the Spirit’s divinity.” (49)

Such a revelation is rooted in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. As Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5–6) No such birth could be possible without the Spirit being God. “This is the Spirit who produces children for life,” Holmes explains. “Such work is evidence of the Spirit’s divinity.” (48)

Likewise, Augustine exhorted his catechumens to the humility of Christ, which the Spirit gives. As he said himself, “Nobody can be born of the Spirit without being humble, because humility is what brings us to birth by the Spirit; because the Lord is close to those whose hearts are bruised.”

Holmes remarks, “Augustine cannot conceive of preaching a text such as this without hearing it as a text that makes metaphysical claims…The Spirit baptizes us in Christ’s humility, making us into his disciples. The Spirit does this because the Spirit is God.”

Barth and the Redemptive Spirit

Along with Augustine, Barth argues that the Spirit’s acts spring from his being. Although we should note that it isn’t the other way around. God’s being is not predicated on his acts, because that would deny his freedom: “If God’s being is contingent on God’s acts, then God’s acts are necessary to God’s being. Acts thus become the means by which God becomes God rather than ‘an act of Trinitarian self-repetition.’” (134)

Instead, “An account of the operations of the Spirit must be accomplished by an account of the eternal Spirit,” (140) which Barth gives by engaging the dogma of eternal Spirit through exegesis of Scripture and turning toward tradition: “What Scripture teaches, Barth argues, is that ‘the Spirit is in revelation [what] He is antecedently in Himself. And what He [the Spirit] is antecedently in Himself He is in revelation.’ [CD 1/1, 466]” (140)

Holmes draws our attention to Barth’s handling of the works and person of the Spirit, noting Barth doesn’t collapse the two. Rather, “The Spirit is a distinct agent. The source of that agency is God’s life. The Spirit in revelation is ‘God.’ This is who the Spirit shows the Spirit’s self to be. The agency of the Spirit in revelation corresponds to the Spirit’s life in God.” (140)

The question remains, however, “How does the Spirit come to be in God?” Here Barth turns to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, which “provides the conceptional tools for unfolding how the Spirit’s acts rest upon the Spirit’s origin in God—‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son.’” (141) According to Barth’s reading of Scripture as rooted in tradition, “The work of the Spirit is the outworking of an origin, a particular originating relation with respect to Father and Son.” (141)


What I appreciate about Augustine’s and Barth’s engagement with our question is how they connect the Spirit’s acts to the Spirit’s life. As Holmes reveals, “The Sprit’s agency is derivative of the Spirit’s origin.” (143)

Thus, not only does this mean the Spirit is as much God as Father and Son. It also means we should worship him and cling to him as such—as much as we cling to Christ’s cross, for instance.

Holmes has done the evangelical church a tremendous service in his careful, revealing work. Engage The Holy Spirit yourself to know the Trinity more in order to love the Trinity more.