Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life
Hardback: Zondervan, 2017
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Reviewed by Alicia Brummleler
Recently, while discussing the final paper for her senior Faith and Culture class, my daughter posed a question that I think many Christians have wondered at different points. Mom, what is the role of the Holy Spirit?
Often, there is an ease and comfort with which we discuss the role and attributes of the Father and the Son. But when we mention the Holy Spirit, we find ourselves, well, pausing and perhaps struggling to find the right words to describe who he is. As Michael Horton, the author of Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in the Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life (Zondervan, 2017) aptly acknowledges, “Who exactly is the mysterious third person of the Trinity? Why does he seem to posses less reality or at least fewer descriptive features than the Father and the Son?” (13).
Horton carefully and thoroughly gives the reader a theology of the Holy Spirit. For the pastor, seminary student, or highly motivated layperson desiring a comprehensive understanding of the Holy Spirit, which includes an extensive historical and biblical perspective, Horton’s book fits the bill. However, the average reader will struggle with accessibility. To be honest, the book was a disappointment to me on this front. Nothing in the back copy or title suggests that this book is a systematic theology of the Holy Spirit. As a reader, I was drawn to the book’s subtitle, God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life, which suggests that the book will address the Spirit’s work in ordinary, daily matters—a topic that I think many thoughtful Christians would find helpful and practical.
Horton’s overall goal for the Christian, and the broader Church, is to recognize the distinctness of the Spirit’s person as well as his “unity” with the Father and the Son (29). In addition, he wants readers to see the work of the Spirit throughout redemptive history by following the narrative of Scripture closely. He does this by methodically explaining the various roles of the Spirit in creation, redemption, and consummation, showing how the Father, Son, and Spirit work together. Horton has another goal too. He wants readers to recognize the Spirit’s involvement in every aspect of their life.
Horton begins by establishing the Holy Spirit as Lord and Life-Giver. Throughout the Church’s history, Christians have confessed in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is “Lord” and that he is the “giver of life.” This acknowledgment affirms the Spirit’s active and ongoing role in creation. Horton rightfully notes that too often we think of the Spirit’s work beginning with redemption. By failing to recognize the Spirit’s involvement in creation, we miss a central aspect of the biblical narrative. Citing various theologians and early church fathers, Horton unpacks the Spirit’s work in the first creation; his involvement in the present creation; and finally, his work in the eventual new creation. As Horton beautifully describes, we see the Father redeeming his own creation, the Son assuming its very existence, and the Spirit turning a barren desert (because of sin) into a blossoming orchard (because of grace) (80).
Chapters three through five give a historical perspective of the Spirit’s work throughout Scripture; chapters six through twelve examine the specific roles of the Holy Spirit. In these latter chapters, I struggled with Horton’s organization of his content. For instance, chapter nine is entitled “The Spirit Gives”; chapter ten is called “How the Spirit Gives”. It was never clear to me why these chapters needed to be separated. Couldn’t they have been condensed and combined into one chapter? Additionally, If Horton wants the reader to recognize the Holy Spirit’s active role in everyday life, then it seems he could have arranged the second half of the book around everyday themes such as how the Spirit works in the daily life of the believer and how the Spirit works in the local church, grouping his material around these larger ideas and thereby making it more approachable for the reader.
As I read Rediscovering the Holy Spirit, I was curious to see how Horton would handle the role of tongues, a topic that has been the source of discussion and debate in the Church at times. What was its purpose? Horton tackles this subject in his chapter entitled “The Age of the Spirit.” The ecstasy or trance-like utterances that some ancient Greeks or Romans sought, or the chaotic nature of worship in the Corinthian church, which Paul rebukes in his letter to them, has no connection to the work of the Spirit, which is meant to instruct and to communicate truth to all present. The purpose of Pentecost and the speaking in tongues was to proclaim Christ and his death and resurrection. Yes, it was a miraculous event and too often Christians only think about the Holy Spirit in the context of the miraculous. On this day, the gift of tongues was the signal of a new beginning—the spread of the Gospel and the start of the church. As for whether or not Horton thinks the sign gifts continue today, though he never uses the word “cessationism,” it is clear that this is his viewpoint. In fact, Horton notes that the climactic moment of Pentecost is Peter’s sermon, not the miraculous tongues. The chapter concludes with a call and a charge for solid preaching and faithful proclamation of the Word. Christian preaching must not lose its “announcement” character. In addition, pastors must not forget their dependence on the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and regenerates and illuminates our hearts to embrace Christ (169).
In the chapter “The Gift of Salvation,” I found Horton’s explanation regarding the fruit of the Spirit to be helpful. This is where the book is most beneficial to the layperson and I wanted more content like it. I agree with him that too often devotional materials emphasize the believer’s inner life as it relates to the fruit of the Spirit. Horton says that isn’t the point. The Spirit’s work in our lives should reflect an outward focus, not an inward one. How do we treat others? Do I show love to my difficult co worker? Do I treat my spouse or children with kindness? Horton concludes this section by stating the point of being filled with the Spirit is not speaking in tongues or healings or new revelations, but patience, joy, love, peace, self-control, and so forth (221).
Churches following the liturgical calendar recently observed Trinity Sunday. Special prayers that emphasize the Godhead appeared throughout the service. One such prayer struck me as particularly fitting after reading this book. It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. For with your co-eternal Son and Holy Spirit, you are one God, one Lord, in Trinity of Persons and in Unity of Being.
Alicia Brummeler teaches middle school English at The Stony Brook School, a Christian day and boarding school, on Long Island, NY. She is the author of Everywhere God: Exploring the Ordinary Places (Kalos Press, 2016), a book about encountering God in the everyday moments of life. She and her husband have a college-age son and daughter. Visit Alicia at alwaysorange.wordpress.com.