This Incredibly Benevolent Force

The Holy Spirit in Reformed Theology and Spirituality

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Cornelis van der Kooi
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , January
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reformed pneumatology tends to be contrarian in its focus. Calvin has been called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” by his interpreters, and the Puritans would write on the Spirit as much as anyone of their time. Modern Reformed theologians have not regularly sought to engage pneumatological trends in a direct fashion with great regularity, however, and the rich Reformed doctrinal engagements of pneumatology tend to fixate upon other themes (whether the application of salvation, the domain of common grace, or the task of cultural transformation) and engage the Spirit indirectly.

Cornelis van der Kooi’s little book seeks to make a big turn in Reformed pneumatology by merging into more ecumenical lanes on the theological highway. This Incredibly Benevolent Force was originally given as the 2014 Annie Kinkead Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. It seeks to engage five trends that elicit new pneumatological reflection: “(1) a general new interest in religious experience, spirituality, and pneumatology, (2) the retrieval of Trinitarian theology, (3) modern biblical research, (4) the Pentecostal and charismatic renewal movements, and (5) the ecumenical movement” (7).

The book has six chapters, the first of which plots the terrain for engaging with recent pneumatological trends in biblical research and in the Pentecostal and ecumenical movements. Interestingly, van der Kooi turns to pneumatology as a necessary salve for the secular wound, reminding us that “this universe is not empty. It is the place where God by his Spirit moves, dwells, struggles, and interferes” (8). Yet the author notes that his own Reformed tradition “has been deeply stamped by modernity” (18), occluding or foreshortening certain pneumatological strands (e.g., “the existence of evil spirits” or “the meaning of dreams and visions” on 18).

Following this introductory chapter, two chapters address recent accounts of Spirit christology. First, van der Kooi provides a survey of relevant biblical material that has generated this discussion and then offers a threefold typology of approaches to Spirit Christology. He describes a model whereby Spirit christology substitutes for Logos christologies (as in Roger Haight and Hendrikus Berkhof), or of models whereby Spirit christology is an alternative to Logos christology (as in Piet Schoonenberg), or, finally, of the purportedly complementary model of David Coffey, whereby a Logos christology can attest to the descent of the eternal Son and a Spirit christology can lend shape to the ascent of the anointed human to the throne of God (56-57). Van der Kooi probes each model for strengths and weaknesses and suggests that the constructive challenge will be “how the language of Sonship is related to the language of the Spirit and how these metaphors must be interpreted ontologically” (61). Second, he sketches what he deems a “sustainable Spirit-Christology” as “attention to the Spirit in the life of Jesus will drastically reinterpret and correct classical Logos Christology” (65). In so doing he draws on the ascending and descending models suggesting a tandem approach which cannot be isolated into discrete strands (66).

The final three chapters turn then to the ways in which the Spirit relates to those other than Christ. He looks to Calvin, Schleiermacher, and Kuyper for guidance in thinking of the world not as a secular void but a space of the Spirit’s energetic presence (72-95; see also xiv, 1-6). Having listened to these three (who are likely far more diverse in their proposals than his account seems to suggest: see for instance the reading of Schleiermacher’s high Christology [83-84, esp. n19]), he then observes a number of features of a Spirit-forgetfulness: the sometimes pacific link of “God’s eternal council” with the project of modernization, the “medicalization of the body within the church,” the fate of vibrant prayer (96), and, finally, the somewhat sclerotic atomization of the Spirit’s purported acts even when they do register our attention in modern theology (97).

A chapter on “criterion for living the Christian life” begins, perhaps surprisingly, with discussion of the threefold office of Jesus Christ (per Heidelberg Catechism 31). This messianic rubric appears, because van der Kooi follows Heidelberg in moving immediately to discuss the church’s participation in that threefold office (104-107; see also Heidelberg Catechism 32). He concludes the chapter with a resounding emphasis upon the shape of this officed orientation for all Christians, not merely office-holders in vocational ministry (120-23). And this congregational witness alerts us to many movements of the Spirit: “The Spirit of Christ sees to it that the reign of Christ is at work in a multiplicity of circumstances, settings, and dimensions” (125). Thus his final chapter turns to the need for discernment (discretio) and offers a set of rules for doing so in an ordered way. He points to an eschatological hope that can only be described, he says, as the way of “emergence” (140, a term taken from Michael Welker) to attest the “total unexpectedness of a qualitative transformation” by the Spirit (141). The chapter is suggestive rather than hermeneutical, befitting a short lecture series.

It is the diversity of the Spirit’s witness that perhaps demands further questioning. Remember that van der Kooi said: “if the Spirit takes from what belongs to Christ and gives it to us, various media or avenues may be used to which Protestant theology has given very little, if any, attention--dreams, visions, words of wisdom, words from the Lord; even the architecture of a building and modern media may become an avenue of the work the Spirit of Christ does with us. They can all be considered means of grace” (123). Leave to the side for the moment the fact that van der Kooi simply seems to assume that the more cessationist tendencies in his own Reformed tradition must be jettisoned without any attention to their arguments (138). What shall we make of his claims that Protestants have given little thought to these wide ranging “means of grace,” whether Pentecostal dreams or Gothic architecture? Is this a novel claim and how do we assess it?

If it is not a novel claim, it is a weighty one. I can only suggest here that this argument would have been bettered by engaging the rather significant literature of the last two centuries whereby a host of Anglican theologians (Michael Ramsey and E. L. Mascall, most impressively) have commended a sacramental worldview (sometimes paired with an incarnational principle) that views sacraments as an inclusive category meant to combat the void of a secular materialism. While “means of grace” is a more Reformed intonation, van der Kooi’s argument sounds significantly similar. A literature has arisen to commend and to critique these Anglican trends (and their presence more broadly in la nouvelle theologie or in the recent work of Hans Boersma and Jens Zimmerman), and it is worthwhile to engage them, even while charting a new course.

I believe a viable path forward will likely demand some wider engagement of the doctrinal architecture whereby the Spirit’s work will be glimpsed by faith. The book is generous in tone, especially to its ecumenical partners, and judicious in its attention at key points to exegetical patience. Its conclusion rightly gestures toward the significance of fostering Christian discernment. Alongside significant contributions in the last few years by Christopher Holmes, Matthew Levering, and Michael Horton, it warrants careful study and attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at the Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cornelis van der Kooi is Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Center for Evangelical and Reformation Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam.


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