Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life

Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. pp. 336. $22.99, paperback.

If a poll were to go out among Reformed churches today, how would congregants answer the following questions: Who is the Holy Spirit? Where do we see him at work in the Bible, particularly before Pentecost? How is the Spirit at work in your daily, ordinary life? And finally, which church denominations have the best understanding and experience of the Spirit?

It seems that in the church today, not least the Reformed church, these questions would be met with confusion, by and large. Very few would answer the final question by affirming the Reformed understanding of the Spirit as the most learned, biblical, and richly experiential among the denominational landscape. This is why Michael Horton’s Rediscovering the Holy Spirit should be a welcome addition to what is, in fact, already a rich tradition of Pneumatology. Horton reminds readers that “whatever forgetfulness of the Holy Spirit may be evident in Protestantism generally and in Reformed circles particularly must be part of a forgetfulness of the rich treasures of our own past.” (19)

Horton relies on this rich, Reformed tradition of Pneumatology, including the work of Kuyper, Warfield, Owen, and especially Calvin (called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” by Warfield), to explore the Spirit’s distinctive role in every external work of the Godhead. Rather than working as a “freelance operator”, the Spirit’s work is not supplemental but integral to the divine drama. (16) Horton’s aim for the book is to rescue the church’s understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in our faith and practice from “that which is spectacular, unmediated, spontaneous, and informal. When this happens, we easily settle for a false choice between formalism and enthusiasm.” (15)

Horton begins with a tongue-in-cheek illustration from the 2010 movie Heaven Is for Real, where a three-year old boy allegedly glimpses into heaven and later describes the Father and Son in detail, but recalls the Spirit as “bluish, but hard to see…” (13) It is that description which captures the sentiment many feel when it comes to understanding the Holy Spirit. But the church hasn’t always felt so uncertain about the identity of the Spirit and his work, and the introduction traces a brief history to demonstrate. Of particular importance for Horton, the Reformation era saw two sharply-divided approaches to the Spirit’s work: the Roman Catholic institutionalized approach and the enthusiast approach. The former rendered the Spirit somewhat irrelevant, as “the pope, the saints, and the Virgin Mary” became “substitutes,” as did their ex opere operato view of the sacraments. In response, enthusiast movements “sought a direct and personal experience of God through visions, miracles, and ecstasy even apart from the ordinary ministry of the church.” (18) It is this landscape which frequently frames the polemical sections of the book, as Horton often returns to these two errors to show how Reformed doctrine avoids both. “Engaging Scripture as well as patristic and medieval sources, the era of what is often called Reformed orthodoxy reopened grand vistas on the Spirit in liturgical and devotional forms alongside more scholarly explorations” (19).

Chapter 1 begins in the necessary starting place – establishing the onotological equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son, being of the same essence, equal in power and glory. Affirming the Nicene phrase, that the Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life,” Horton then draws out the distinct economic role of the Spirit in bringing to completion the plans of God. While carefully affirming the perichoretic work of the Trinity, Horton labors to demonstrate that the Spirit is the Perfector who brings the plans of God to completion, as a builder brings to completion the plans of the architect. He is at work not only in regeneration and the giving of spiritual gifts, but in every divine operation from creation to redemption to consummation. (39) And in all of those operations, he completes the work not only through the extraordinary and miraculous, but the mundane and ordinary.

Chapter 2 begins to outline the patterns with which the Spirit normally works. With Beale-like skill, Horton traces the recurring themes of the Spirit’s agency from the OT to the NT. Observing his work at creation, the Exodus, and through the prophets helps us anticipate how he will work in the life of Christ and then the church. Chapter 3, recalls the words of Luther: that all of the OT is the manger in which the baby Jesus is laid. (82) In other words, the Spirit’s overarching work in the OT was to prepare a body, Israel, from which the one Messiah would come. This explanation sets the stage for a discussion on a much neglected aspect of redemption history – the Holy Spirit’s work in the earthly life of Christ. Kuyper observed this and more recently Sinclair Ferguson, and Horton’s emphasis should be a welcome voice. Indeed, as they all explain, if we fail to understand the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the humanity of Christ it is ultimately our Christology that suffers. But when we begin to look for the Spirit in the Gospels, we see one who was the constant companion of the Savior. He was there at the incarnation, there as Jesus grew in wisdom (through the application of the Word), there at the full-anointing of baptism and then driving Jesus out into the wilderness to do battle – general-like – with the Enemy, and there, as he returned preaching the good news with the Spirit upon Him. This continued all the way to the cross and then the resurrection. This significance of the Spirit’s work here cannot be underestimated, as it reveals his work in the accomplishment of redemption, not just the application of it.

Chapter 4 focuses on the oft overlooked characteristics of the Spirit’s work – that of judgment and power. Though we often associate the Spirit with “a gentle breeze, a still-small voice, peace, love, and a sweet dove,” the Scriptures connect him to powerful judicial acts. (105) Standing on the work of Kline, the benefit of Horton’s work here is that it delivers us from a view that sees the Spirit as “passive or shy or vulnerable” or simply as a “benign comforter.” (110) The Spirit is both immanent and transcendent, and his presence can bring both comfort and conviction/ judgment.

Next, in dealing with the Farewell Discourse, Horton forces the reader to deal frankly with the bodily absence of Christ. While we can speak of the omnipresence of Christ in his divinity, we must affirm that the resurrected body of our Lord is right where we need him to be – “enthroned in our glorified humanity – at the Father’s right hand, ruling and subduing the enemies of his kingdom and interceding for us. (122-23) Knowing this underscores the importance of the Spirit’s work and helps us understand why the Lord Jesus could say that it was to the disciples’ advantage (and ours) that he go away (John 16:7). The disciples would eventually learn this lesson at Pentecost, the topic of chapter 6. Before discussing that monumental day however, Horton deals with one of the most challenging questions in the study of the Spirit’s work: how did believers experience him in the OT as opposed to the NT? Was it merely a quantitative difference or was it also qualitative? Those who object to Horton’s view of the Sinaitic covenant will take most issue with this chapter, as he uses his interpretation of Sinai to support his view that the difference of the Spirit’s work between the Testaments was both quantitative and qualitative. However, while his Sinai view supports this argument, it is not the linchpin of it. A critique of Horton’s overall conclusion here, is that he articulates it with a great degree of confidence, in spite of the hesitancy of other scholars to land so firmly on an answer to such a challenging question. Nonetheless, Horton’s argument is very intriguing as he appeals to a wide variety of passages. Most helpfully however, is where this chapter ultimately leads: to demonstrate that the Spirit’s work in the early church was not to bring chaos and ecstatic languages, but power unleashed through the preaching of the Word.

Having demonstrated the uniqueness of Pentecost and its inseparable bond to Christ’s crucifixion-resurrection-ascension, chapter 7 explores baptism with the Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit is union with Christ and therefore, not a “second blessing” to be sought after. Distinguished from a second blessing however, Horton explains that the “filling of the Spirit,” while continual, does fluctuate as we are led by him rather than the sinful passions of the flesh. (196) The next two chapters explore the gifts the Spirit gives in salvation: first the gifts all believers share, and then the variety of gifts he distributes for the benefit of the church. (203) In using the ordo salutis to explain the gift of salvation, Horton argues (as Ferguson has), that we should be careful not to unhinge the golden chain from union with Christ. In other words, “one receives the whole Christ, Lord and Savior, with all of his gifts, including justification and renewal.” (213) For one thing, this rightly guards against a take it or leave it attitude toward sanctification: “The Scriptures know nothing of two acts of faith – one that receives Christ for justification (“making Jesus your personal Savior”) and another that submits to him as Lord. We do not make Jesus anything. Faith merely embraces him for all that he is, does, and gives.” (213). Next, Horton’s discussion of the variety of gifts given for the edification of the church (chapter 9) provides good exegetical explanation of the gifts and their overall purpose. Within the right framework, the distinction is easily made between foundation-laying gifts (prophetic and miraculous) and that which continues.

In many ways, chapter 10 is the crescendo of the book as it most directly demonstrates the point it set out to make: that the Spirit is identified in Scripture not only, or even primarily, with the extraordinary but also that which we might call ordinary (244). When the Spirit “shows up” we need not expect spontaneous, extraordinary fireworks, but instead we can expect the Spirit to continue working in the same patterns he has set since the formation of the world, bringing to completion that which God has designed and spoken. It is with the Word then, where we see the Spirit most clearly at work. While we might look at this as “ordinary” it is far from it, as the Spirit brings the dead to life through the preached Word and renovates hearts and lives once enslaved to sin. Chapter 11 deals with the Spirit’s work in glorification and chapter 12 leaves us with a fitting conclusion: a high ecclesiology. The Spirit is not opposed to the church, but is creating the church by the Word. And therefore, “the church is not merely a means of mission; it is the mission.” (320)

Given the juxtaposition of the rich history of Reformed teaching on the Holy Spirit against the amount of confusion on the Spirit today, this is a timely and much-needed book for the church. My main critique is the accessibility of the content for the church. Zondervan seems to have marketed the book to the average church goer (available on Audible, and the back cover advertises: “Gain a fresh dependence on the Holy Spirit in every area of your life”). However, much of the content would seem to lose the average reader, such as the lengthy discussion in chapter 2 on post-enlightenment theological debates on the Spirit, that most readers will not even know existed. Here, as in elsewhere, Horton demonstrates an impressive command of these theologies and their errors, pointing out how they fall either into a dualistic approach (God vs. the world), or in a pantheistic or panentheistic approach. While this is useful for Horton’s overall argument, one wonders how many church goers would persevere to the end (of the book).

That said, I would enthusiastically recommend this book to pastors, scholars, pastor/scholars, and seminary students alike. The recovery of the rich history of Reformed teaching on the Spirit should lead us to confess with the Nicene Creed that the Spirit “together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,” and to more fully understand what that means. And it should lead to the very conclusions Horton makes – that the Spirit is pleased to further the kingdom by the “ordinary” means of grace, with a particular emphasis on the preached Word. And thus, the end result should be a fresh dependence on the Holy Spirit in every area of life, but especially our preaching.

Jordan F. Olshefski
Cross Park Church, Charlotte, NC