I just finished reading J.V. Fesko’s new book – The Spirit of the Age: The 19th Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession. It’s a little book (just over 100 pages) with a big title and big themes to match. His project can be viewed as two-pronged. First, his goal is to describe the background behind the 1903 revisions of the Westminster Standards that were adopted by the mainline Presbyterian church. Amongst these revisions was the adoption of a new chapter Of the Holy Spirit. (There was a second new chapter as well – Of the Gospel of the Love of God and Missions – but Fesko’s focus is on the the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.) He spends the bulk of the book (the first four chapters) addressing this issue. The second part of his project is to show how this debate connects with current theological debates which he does in the final chapter.
I’ve always wondering about what prompted the liberalizing mainline church to compose these new chapters and Fesko did an able job of describing that story. Along the way, he demonstrates the robust pneumatology of the Westminster Divines and locates their work in the context of catholic Christian thought. He shows their careful attention to exegesis, their masterful grasp of Patristic and Medieval insights, and their mature doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
He tells a fascinating historical tale so I won’t spoil the story by going into the details of his argument. Suffice it to say, I found the book engaging and fascinating historically while also deeply edifying theologically and personally as well. This little volume is a model of scholarship with a thorough bibliography and many fascinating footnotes. Fesko is obviously well-versed in current scholarship and leans heavily on the work of Richard Muller to advance his arguments. This is a book that will probably be of greatest interest to Pastors and seminarians but historically and theologically inclined laypeople will find it accessible as well. If there was a criticism, it would be that his account of this debate seems to put diverse figures such as Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin in the same camp as Charles Briggs without acknowledging key areas where they disagree. That said, there was much helpful information here that was new to me and I continue to find myself enjoying Fesko’s writings!