Listening to the Past

By Stephen R. Holmes
Grand Rapids : Baker (2002). 167 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 340-341

Stephen Holmes is a minister in the Baptist Union of Great Britain, a lecturer in Christian Doctrine at King’s College, London, and associate lecturer at Spurgeon’s College. His book deals with theological method, and particularly, as the subtitle of the book indicates, “the place of tradition in theology.” Holmes admits that Baptist theology and tradition are not often allies. But he tries to make the case that, hand led properly, historical theology is vital to understanding doctrine correctly.

The book consists of a series of independent essays. Actually, only chapters 1, 2, and 10 deal specifically with the theme. Chapter 1, for example, is entitled, “Why Can’t We Just Read the Bible?” Holmes responds, “but the Bible we have, if it is a translation, is shaped by a tradition of Bible translation, and by its translator(s)” (6). In fact, “the standard editions of the Greek New Testament bear witness on nearly every page to the textual criticism that has come up with this text . . . and so we cannot even find a text of Scripture that has not been ‘handed on’ to us by those who came before” (6-7). Holmes then explains how John Calvin and the Anabaptists differed on the place of tradition in theology.

Other chapters are case studies of how tradition helps understand doctrine. As in any book of essays, some of these chapters are more useful than others, depending to some extent on the reader’s knowledge and interest. For those interested in historical theology, Holmes’ chapters on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, the tradition of the doctrine of divine simplicity, and Karl Barth’s doctrine of reprobation (as contrasted with the Reformers) will be instructive. In one notable chapter entitled “Calvin Against the Calvinists?,” Holmes takes up the issue of whether later scholastic Calvinists actually disagreed with Calvin in theological method or in the content of theology. His answer is no, though some will not be convinced by his explanation. Those who enjoy reading and thinking about the theology of Jonathan Edwards will appreciate Holmes’ insightful explanation of Edwards’ doctrine of the will.

Some essays may not be as helpful. In one chapter, Holmes examines the views of Cyprian and Augustine to suggest that Baptists, in the spirit of ecumenical unity and charity, ought to consider various methods of baptism to be acceptable. And perhaps only a few will be interested in his chapter on how Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s neoplatonism impacted his view of the state.

This book is not for everyone, of course. It deals with fairly complex theological issues. But if one is interested in any of the individual essays, historical theology, or in the overall topic of how tradition should impact theological method, the book is worth one’s time.