Book review: “The Holy Spirit” by Sinclair B Ferguson

The Holy Spirit
Sinclair B Ferguson
Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, 1996. 288pp.

The Holy Spirit

“Why are you scared of the Holy Spirit?”

“The Trinity you believe in is God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Bible!”

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have made statements like these to me and to others who do not hold to a ‘charismatic’ view of the work of the Holy Spirit. These sorts of comments have become more common recently as the issue has returned to the forefront of discussions with the rise of the so-called ‘Reformed charismatic’ movement—that is, people and churches who seem to have much in common with the traditional evangelical view, yet who also call themselves charismatics. From my limited reading, these ‘charismatics with the seatbelt on’ argue that they avoid some of the excesses and associated theological misunderstandings of the traditional charismatic movement, while being more open to a ‘continuationist’ view of the work of the Holy Spirit.1

One of the great difficulties in dealing with this issue is that most of the literature on the Holy Spirit is polemical in nature. Much recent popular work on the Holy Spirit begins with the phenomena associated with the charismatic movement and then seeks to support or deny its authenticity from the Bible. My experience of these books, sermons or articles is that they become a study in proof texting: both sides line up verses that support their position and then explain why verses that appear to support the other position actually don’t. All these sorts of studies tend to do is confirm people in the position they already hold. While I agree with what I’ve come to jokingly call ‘a cessationist with the seat-belt on’ position, I can often see why people who hold a contrary view will not change their mind on the basis of such studies.

It’s in this context that I found The Holy Spirit by Sinclair B Ferguson very helpful. Rather than starting with our experiences and controversies, the book starts with the sweep of the Bible’s teaching on the Holy Spirit. Put simply, Ferguson provides a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit. He traces our understanding of the Holy Spirit through the Spirit’s ‘shadowy’ presence in the Old Testament, helpfully pointing out the role the Spirit played in the Old Testament as well as the distinctiveness of what was promised in the future.

Perhaps most helpful is the second chapter that details the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus. Moving from conception and birth through Jesus’ baptism, temptation and ministry to his death, resurrection and ascension, Ferguson details the connection of the Spirit to Jesus at each point. What becomes apparent is that the Spirit is not, in one sense, distinct from the Son. That is, the Spirit and the Son do not have distinct ministries, but share in a common ministry. This is a vital point to grasp (and this chapter alone is worth the price of purchase), as Ferguson argues (correctly) that this connection must shape our understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost:

The ministry of the Spirit in this increasing identification with Jesus is in order that, being ‘shaped’ as messianic Spirit by the life and ministry of Jesus, he may come to us thus qualified to reshape us to be ‘like Christ’, from one degree of glory to another. This is the central function of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. (p. 56)

Chapters 3 and 4 then consider the rest of the New Testament in the light of this connection. The consideration of Pentecost and its understanding as a key event in redemptive history, rather than as an event normative for today, is particularly helpful.

Having laid the biblical theological groundwork, Ferguson turns to considering the different aspects of the Spirit’s activity. He begins with an excellent chapter on the Spirit’s role in uniting us to Christ, thus applying Christ’s redemptive work to us. At times, one wonders if Ferguson is writing about the Holy Spirit at all, so focused is he on a discussion of the different aspects of redemption. But ultimately that is the point! The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ who applies Christ’s work to us for our benefit and who then works in us to make us more like Christ. When we talk about justification, regeneration, sanctification or glorification, we are in fact talking about the work of the Spirit. The book’s focus on this area particularly challenged me. The answer to the accusation of ignoring the Spirit is not to look for different works of the Spirit, but to give the Spirit the credit for revealing and applying Christ to us.

It is only after this thorough ground­ing that (in Chapter 10) Ferguson turns to the controversial questions of our time—namely, the role of the Spirit in giving gifts to the church, especially the gifts of prophecy and tongues. Ferguson gently deals with those whose viewpoint differs from his, but his biblical theological approach helpfully illumines what a snatch of proof texts cannot do—the major problems with a continuationist view and the support for a ‘cessationist’ position. Then he deals with the historical and experiential issues that need to be addressed, but in the light of Scripture. Ferguson’s approach is helpful because it works on two principles. Firstly, he ensures that he never makes parts of the New Testament that are descriptive normative:

The wisest theological approach, here as elsewhere, is always to move outwards from concrete biblical statements to settled principles, only then extrapolating to broader generalizations. Any other procedure lacks controls, and loses the ability to exercise discrimination with respect to identifying the work of the Spirit, which, as we have seen, never ceases to be mysterious. (p. 245).

Secondly, he deals with all of the texts in their appropriate place in redemptive history. That is, he applies his biblical theology to all parts of Scripture. This is a very good lesson for us in reading and understanding Scripture.

There are some weaknesses in the book, though none that stop me from recommending it. In particular, I would have appreciated a more thorough treatment of the connection of the Spirit and the word. The issue is dealt with through­out the book, but a chapter pulling together this important topic would have been helpful and would have perhaps strengthened further his treatment of prophecy in Chapter 10.

I recommend this book to anyone who seriously wants to grapple with the who, why and what of the Holy Spirit. It’s particularly helpful for those who are dissatisfied with arguments based on proof texts and arguments that start with experience and only then use the Bible to support their views. Reading it will surely equip thoughtful Christians to demonstrate that when it comes to the Holy Spirit, there is nothing to be scared of; instead, there is much to thank God for.

  1. The terms ‘continuationist’ and ‘cessationist’ appear often in discussions of the Holy Spirit. Put simply, the former view holds that gifts associated with the book of Acts in the New Testament (such as prophecy, speaking in tongues and healing) should still be sought and expected in the church today. The latter view argues that such gifts were tied to the apostolic era and ceased sometime during or immediately following the New Testament era. I personally find these terms unhelpful as they are used to characterize opponents in an unhelpful manner. For more about continuationism and cessationism, see John Woodhouse’s in-depth article on the subject on page 11.

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