Few topics generate as much division as that of the Holy Spirit. The mention of pneumatology can take discussions into a wide array of subjects with an even greater assortment of conclusions. Essentially every debate about the Holy Spirit comes down to the following question: What is the role of the Holy Spirit and what functions does he engage in to fulfill that role? Yet a journey into answering these questions can compel discussions into deeper realms that seek out the most minute details of pneumatology.
One such detail that many believers seek to understand and explore is the role of the Holy Spirit in the old covenant. Of great concern here is how the old covenant saints found their way to salvation and maintained a path of sanctification. This question is asked under the pretense that salvation only happens with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ while the work of progressive sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit who came at Pentecost. The understanding of the former subject matter affects one’s understanding of the latter subject matter and so it becomes impossible to investigate the topics individually.
As churches across the world meet, there is little doubt that the content of this question will be discussed in some Sunday school class this week. As much as those discussions are readily available, the resources about the same discussion are not so readily available. This is perhaps why James Hamilton Jr.’s book, God’s Indwelling Presence, is a resource that stands alone. Part of the New American Commentary Studies in Bible & Theology, the book was released in August of 2006 and exists alongside titles and topics such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, the future of Israel and even the role of the old covenant law of today.
Early on, Hamilton established himself as a leader in the world of biblical theology. In fact he has written several books on the topic, such as What is Biblical Theology? (2013) and God’s Glory of Salvation through Judgment (2010), a book that is used as a textbook in Biblical studies classes around the country.
Aside from his writing project, Hamilton maintains positions of vocational ministry. Those positions include his role as the preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church and a professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, both located in Louisville, KY, where he and his wife raise their five children.
With these roles, Hamilton has immersed himself in the study of biblical theology. Thus it is appropriate that he be the author of a book that examines the work of the Holy Spirit across the history of salvation.
It’s easy to appreciate Hamilton’s layout of such a complex topic in that every chapter develops a specific facet to his argument. His seven chapters follow a logical progression with the following divisions:
- Chapter 1: The Premise
- Chapter 2: The Various Views
- Chapter 3: An Old Testament Study
- Chapter 4: A New Testament Study – The Writings of John
- Chapter 5: A New Testament Study – John 7:39
- Chapter 6: A New Testament Study – Regeneration and Indwelling in John’s Writings
- Chapter 7: The Conclusion and Concluding Remarks
Each chapter is meant to guide readers through the process of evaluating the role of the Holy Spirit in old covenant times. It is Hamilton’s goal “to understand and articulate the role of the Holy Spirit in the faithfulness of believers who live both before and after the exaltation of Jesus” (page 3). Each chapter then is a continuation of exegesis that mounts towards fulfilling that goal.
It’s interesting that upon asserting his own goals and conclusions in chapter one, the author then establishes a foundation not merely in Scripture, but also with a historical background. From the early church fathers through modern day scholars, Hamilton traces the views that have shaped the current discussion about the topic.
In his elaboration of the various postures, Hamilton narrows them down to the following six primary views about the Holy Spirit’s operation across the old and new covenants (although he explains that he is not aware of any person who holds to view number 5):
- Complete Continuity
- More Continuity than Discontinuity
- Some Continuity; Some Discontinuity
- More Discontinuity than Continuity
- Complete Discontinuity
- Vague Discontinuity
With each view in mind, the next chapters cover much exegesis that causes Hamilton to assert points such as new birth in the New Testament is the same as a heart circumcision in the Old Testament and that there is a great difference between God’s dwelling with His people under the old covenant and His dwelling in His people under the new covenant.
Ultimately this leads him to the conclusion that indwelling and regeneration are not the same thing and thus the old covenant saints were sustained by God’s presence in the tabernacle (and later the temple) while the new covenant saints are sustained by God’s presence in them through the Holy Spirit.
James Hamilton writes in such a logical manner that it allows for some great strengths to come forth in this book. His understanding of biblical theology combined with strong exegesis allows for a comprehensive overview of the issues contained within the details of discussion. This exegesis brings forth some key points that most readers often fail to acknowledge in their discussions. This is especially beneficial in chapters five and six as he wades through John 7:39 and the issue of indwelling and regeneration according to John. With the exertions of his labors of study, one sees that the assertion that the Holy Spirit will come upon Christ’s glorification is a reference to Christ’s death and resurrection, which is important in understanding Christ as the fulfillment of the sacrificial system. Furthermore, this is accentuated as Hamilton elaborates on the old covenant temple as a physical building and the new covenant temple which is the body and its relationship to how God dwells with or in his people.
One of my personal appreciations about Hamilton’s writing is the humility with which he writes. From the outset, the author asserts the need to allow the text to speak for itself and not put our own meaning into the text. This humble attitude is particularly important to this topic because there are times when certain conclusions cannot be made based on that text alone, and Hamilton has no hesitation in saying so as he does at the end of chapter three when he concludes that the Old Testament evidence is not completely clear about the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of all saints in the Old Testament. He is willing to genuinely assert that if the evidence is inconclusive, then it must remain so without our own presuppositions.
However, this acknowledgement of inconclusiveness accentuates just how difficult a topic this is. This, coupled with the author’s own personal writing style, makes it difficult to follow the concepts. While he is logical in the flow, the individual premises can be difficult to comprehend. This is further underscored by Hamilton’s constant repeating and overlap in content. True, this is sometimes unavoidable, but at various times he will make a point and then direct readers to a forthcoming chapter and in some cases a previous chapter. This creates a back and forth dialogue making it difficult to maintain continuity.
As the author analyzes the views of scholars spread out through the generations, he pinpoints their leanings and tells readers where each person is in their own personal belief of the subject. I appreciate this is in many ways and there is no doubt that many others do as well. Often times it is helpful to know where others stand on certain topics because it allows one to understand more of that person’s writings. However, I would also suggest that this detracts from his writing some, even though it is not meant to do so. I have found that names can be divisive. More than opinions about certain aspects of theology, people have opinions of the people behind those aspects of theology. In fact, it seems at the mere mention of a topic, one will often decide its truthfulness not based on the biblical content contained in that topic but based on who the proponents of that topic are. Because Hamilton lays out where various theologians stand on this topic at the very beginning of the book it can cause readers to lose sight of Hamilton’s arguments and instead engage in a debate with his writing rather than being teachable and attempt to learn from him.
Related to this is the author’s choice to state his conclusion at the very beginning. I understand the advantage of this in that it allows readers to get a clear direction of where the author is taking them. However, by stating the conclusion first, it causes readers to be polarized to one side or the other on the topic and again, rather than interact with the text, they form conclusions to either prove or disprove the author’s point (depending on whether reader agrees with the author or not). Perhaps the question for any author in this circumstance is to decide whether or not such a strategy adds more value to the book than it takes away. In this case, I think it detracts more than it adds.
The question then becomes whether or not this book should be recommended for readers. Frankly, this is a difficult question to answer. Biblical in content with a great emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the Word, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to fellow believers who are already grounded in their pneumatology. I would say however, that this is not a book to recommend arbitrarily. It is complicated in material and in reading and thus not suitable for every person. However, at the same time there are so few writings on this topic, especially ones that cover the topic with such depth and brevity. And so it alone becomes the standard for anyone who desires more information on the role of the Holy Spirit in the days of the old covenant. Thus, the only reasonable conclusion to have is to say it is a suitable book depending upon the circumstances and background of the reader. It must be reserved for those readers who have an interest in such a topic combined with a keen ability to focus, comprehend, and sort information in great detail.