A Reformed Theology of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton Theology Conference 3)

Vector doveWe’ve been taking a look at some of the papers presented at this year’s Wheaton Theology Conference (see the others below). And the third one I want to consider came from Oliver Crisp, who focused on presenting “a dogmatic sketch of the Holy Spirit that draws on the Reformed tradition.” Far from being a neglected doctrine, Crisp argued that the Reformed tradition has much to offer for theologies of the Holy Spirit today.

Does the Reformed Tradition Neglect the Spirit?

Many critique Reformed theology for paying insufficient attention to the Spirit, pointing out that chapters on the Spirit in Reformed theologies tend to be rather brief. So Crisp began his lecture by pointing out that counting chapters isn’t the best way to establish a doctrine’s relative importance. Reformed theologians tend to deal with the person of the Spirit under the doctrine of the Trinity and the work of the Spirit in sections on creation, providence, salvation, and Christology. This means that skimming the table of contents might give the impression that pneumatology is relatively unimportant, reading the text carefully would reveal that pneumatology impacts “almost every topic in Reformed theology.” Some might disagree with what Reformed theology has to say about the Spirit, of course, but that’s far different from claiming that it has little to say.

Is the Spirit a Full Member of the Trinity?

The second main section of Crisp’s paper focused on the person of the Spirit, setting out a clear summary of the church’s historic position that the Spirit is fully divine and the third person of the triune God. Taking us on a quick tour of creedal statements from Nicea to Westminster, Crisp demonstrated the consistency of the Reformed position on this point.

In one interesting section, though, Crisp addressed the arguments of some Reformed theologians (e.g. Hendrikus Berkhof) that the Spirit is not in fact a distinct, divine person. Appealing to biblical passages that seem to suggest that “spirit” language in the Bible is just a way of talking about God’s presence in creation (or sometimes more specifically Christ’s presence). And Crisp quickly dismissed such arguments by again pointing to the consistent witness of tradition and by suggesting that such theologians need to pay more attention to the biblical texts.

How Should We Understand the Work of the Spirit?

People looking for an extended discussion of spiritual gifts are going to be rather disappointed here as Crisp focused largely on providing the theological framework necessary for understanding the Spirit’s work. To that end, he offered two important principles:

The Trinitarian Appropriation Principle: This principle has two key pieces. First, it acknowledges that “the external works of the Trinity are indivisible.” In other words, everything that God does, all three of the persons do together. So, although we might talk about the act of creation as something that the Father does, we must recognize that the Son and the Spirit are both fully involved as well. It may be more fitting to emphasize the Father’s role, but we cannot separate the three as though any particular action is the act of one alone. Second, we must also recognize “the distinction and order of the persons” in each work. Although the three are inseparable in every act, that doesn’t mean we can’t identify some distinctions in role and order. For example, all three persons are involved in the incarnation (the Father in sending, the Spirit in conception, the Son in becoming incarnate), but clearly they play different roles in the one, indivisible action of the godhead.

Applied to the doctrine of the Spirit, then, Crisp contends that this principle gives us resources for maintaining his indissoluble unity with the Father and the Son as well as his distinctive role in every work of God:

the Spirit is at work everywhere, at all times, in all places, and in particular ways in the action of creation, conservation, redemption, and the consummation of all things. He is at work in this way as a member of the Godhead because all the divine persons are at work in this manner, though their particular roles in any given work may differ….However, one of the reasons why the universality of the Spirit’s work is sometimes overlooked is that the TAP is not taken with sufficient metaphysical seriousness. He is not merely at work in certain divine actions and not others. Necessarily, he is involved in every divine action in creation.

The Intention-Application Principle: Here Crisp focused his attention on the idea that “what is first in intention is last in application.” To explain what he means here, Crisp used the analogy of a journey. When you go on a trip, your destination is your ultimate goal (the destination) is your “first intention”–that is, you first decide that you’re going to go somewhere. But you only arrive at the destination after you do everything necessary to get there. So although the destination was first in intention, actually arriving comes last in the story of your journey.

Applied to pneumatology, Crisp argues that this principle helps us see the vital importance of the Spirit. The Spirit’s work is not something that comes tacked on to the story after all the important stuff has already been done by Christ on the cross. The real goal of the story comes at the end in the eschatological consummation of all things. And the Spirit has a very prominent role in regenerating human persons, uniting them to Christ, and transforming all of creation, all necessary aspects of the end of the story. Thus, if the end communicates God’s ultimate goal, then the work of the Spirit is fundamentally important for understanding what God has been about from the very beginning.

The Spirit and Union with Christ

In his final section, Crisp turned his attention to the Spirit’s particular role in uniting us to Christ, which Crisp sees as the full expression of God’s ultimate goal. And this is also where Crisp offered his own constructive proposal for pneumatology.

Crisp began this section by arguing for the importance of “union with Christ” in Reformed theology, pointing out that although it has always been a significant theme, it has received even more attention in recent years, with many Reformed theologians arguing that it is the fundamental motif that grounds every other aspect of salvation. And he further argued that the Spirit is so central to God’s ultimate goal of uniting creatures to himself that this would have been the Spirit’s work even if we had never fallen into sin. Creatures do not have any “natural” capacity for uniting themselves to God. Thus, even in an unfallen creation, we still would have needed the indwelling Spirit to draw us into the divine life and accomplish God’s ultimate purpose for creation.

But exactly how does the Spirit do this? That’s the question Crisp wants to wrestle with in his own constructive proposal. And he is clearly unsatisfied with fuzzy appeals to some kind of “mystical” union. Instead, Crisp called us to think about how the discrete pieces of a composite whole (like a tree or an armchair) are bonded together to form that whole. On that analogy, the Spirit is the “adhesive” that holds those various pieces together, turning us from isolated bits (e.g. wood, cloth, buttons) into one indentifiable whole (e.g. armchair). Just as the Spirit was the one who shaped Christ’s body in the incarnation, so he is the one who forms his Body in the church.


Although Crisp necessarily left much unaddressed, you can only do so much in one paper, he offered an interesting look at a Reformed pneumatology that aptly demonstrated that pneumatology is a central and fundamentally important aspect of Reformed theology. I’m sure it won’t stop people from claiming that Reformed theologians have something against the Spirit, but maybe it will help at least a bit.

Other Posts on the Wheaton Theology Conference:




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