Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Druchesis VI: The Holy Spirit

This week we reach the third section within our series of reflections on the Apostles' Creed. The first three posts concerned the first article of the creed, as we considered our faith in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. The last two weeks were dedicated to the second article of the creed concerning Jesus Christ in his identity and saving significance. The next three posts concern the Holy Spirit, his own special role in God's story with us, and the anticipated completion of that story.

This week we focus on the first phrase of the third article of the creed: "I believe in the Holy Spirit." And so we come to pneumatology, or Spirit-talk. But here we hit a snag, for there is not much Spirit-talk in the creed. "I believe in the Holy Spirit." That's it. That's not a lot to work with. Although we've seen in this series how theologians can squeeze a lot of content out of a few words, we have to admit that talk of the Spirit in the Apostles' Creed is pretty thin. Unlike God the Father, who is praised for his attribute of almightiness and his activity of creation, and unlike Jesus Christ, who is confessed with honorific titles and whose story is told in detail, the Holy Spirit is simply acknowledged before moving on to other things like church, sacraments, forgiveness, etc. The Spirit seems to get short shrift. The Apostles' Creed ought not be singled out here, for such Spirit-forgetfulness is endemic, especially in the Western church. Not that the Spirit never makes an appearance, for outbreaks of exuberant Spirit-talk regularly occur. But such exuberant promotion of the Spirit is in fact a function of our pneumatological deficit, which invites an oscillation between Spirit-forgetfulness and Spirit-enthusiasm.

Now before we get too critical, we should remember that when we move from confession of faith in the Holy Spirit to what we believe about church, sacraments, forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life, we are not in fact "moving on." These are the works of the Spirit, his own identifying narrative, his saving significance for us. That's how the Spirit works -- in and among us. So he can be hard to pick out for direct reflection. The Spirit blows where he wills. But this quite true reminder is no excuse for forgetting to attend to the Holy Spirit in his unique identity. Who is the Holy Spirit? What is the Spirit like? How does the Spirit relate to God the Father and his son Jesus Christ?

In order to answer these sorts of questions, we need to be guided by the thicker talk of the Spirit found in the Nicene Creed. Just as with our reflections on the identity of Jesus we found it helpful draw on the results of that great council, so with our reflections on the identity of the Spirit we return again for guidance from Nicaea. Unfortunately, the original Nicene Creed from 325 does not fare much better than the Apostles' Creed (which shows how easy it is to ignore the Spirit). But this lacuna was filled a generation later at the first Council of Constantinople in 381, which produced what is now commonly called the "Nicene Creed" (a.k.a., the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). Constantinople both solidified the orthodoxy of the Nicene declarations concerning Son and extended parallel declarations to the Spirit. The first phrase of the third article of the Nicene Creed goes like this:
And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and Giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke through the prophets.
We will organize our reflections around these five lines.

1. "And we believe in the Holy Spirit"

Here we find again that little word "and." Just as the "and" at the head of the second article signaled that faith in God the Father must be paired with faith in Jesus his Son, so this second "and" demands that our faith in God and Christ must be completed by our faith in the Holy Spirit. This is crucial, for we seldom think of the Holy Spirit as an object of faith. It's not that Christians don't believe the Spirit exists (ala the first sense of faith: belief), but rather that the Spirit is not often treated as a person (ala the second sense of faith: trust). Spirit-talk is often more akin to attribute talk: "God, send us your power, give us your grace, pour out your spirit." The Spirit in our everyday language is more of a thing than a person -- a divine thing for sure, but still something less than personal.

This impersonal manner of speaking is not inappropriate. It is in fact a very biblical way of speaking. The Spirit is the power by which God's people say and do things he asks of them. It is by the Spirit that we believe in God the Father and in his Son Jesus Christ. All this stuff we have been confessing in the creed is made possible by the Spirit. As Paul puts it, "Only by the Spirit can one say Jesus is Lord." So the Holy Spirit is in the first instance the means by which we believe.

But we can't stop there, for the Christian church from early on and with little fanfare took another step. Christians began to regard the Holy Spirit as an object of faith. We not only believe by the Spirit, but also in the Spirit. In so doing, the church speaks of the Spirit in personal terms. He is not just a thing about which we believe, but a person in whom we believe. He is not just a thing we may ask for, but a person to whom we may address our requests. He is not just the object of actions (e.g., "God poured out his spirit"), but the subject of actions (e.g., "The Spirit sanctified them"). The Holy Spirit is a person.

Once the Spirit begins to be spoken of in personal terms, we run up against the question of his identity. Who is this Spirit? How do we distinguish this Spirit from all the other spirits we may encounter? Well, we might first identify the Spirit as the spirit of the church. The Holy Spirit is the personified team spirit of the church of Jesus Christ. Now such an answer has a grain of truth, and we will come back to it next week when we speak directly of the church. Yet it is insufficient in itself, for the spirit is not the church, full stop. The church has many other spirits animating it, such as the unholy spirits of its many members and the spirits of the age that so often invade her. No, there must be a more definite way by which the Spirit is identified not only in and with the church but also over against it. The Spirit must be the Holy Spirit.

This more definite way is supplied by asking an alternative question: Whose Spirit is this? The possessive relative pronoun is not meant to revert back to impersonal Spirit-talk. Rather, it is to identify the Spirit by his relations. As we have seen in the case of God the Father and God the Son, there is nothing impersonal about being identified by one's relations. Quite the opposite. At least for the Christian God, persons are always and primarily identified by relations. One could even say persons are their relations. And there are those in the Christian tradition who have said such things, such as Thomas Aquinas, who said it both carefully and thoroughly. So, God the Father is the Father because he is the Father of the Son. And the Son is the Son because he is the Son of the Father. This much we have already stated. So also the Spirit is the Spirit because he is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is quite clearly both the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. He is both the Spirit of God the Father and the Spirit of the Lord Jesus (Paul). He is both the promise of the Father and the one who Jesus pours out (Acts). He is both sent by the Father and breathed by the Son (John). Or, to tie all these relations together in one complex sentence: "the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is in you" (Rom 8:11). The Holy Spirit is the common Spirit of God the Father and God the Son, whom God shares with us and by whom we are drawn to God.

2. "The Lord and Giver of Life"

Having identified the person of the Holy Spirit by his relationship to the Father and the Son, we return to the question of his divinity. I say "return," because when we initially spoke of the Spirit, we spoke of him as an attribute of God, the mode of God's empowerment, a gift given by God. And so his divinity was not really questioned. Of course the Spirit of God is divine, just as the power of God and the grace of God are divine. But once we begin to speak of the Spirit in personal terms, the question of his divinity immediately arises. Is this third person truly God? Is the Spirit of God also God the Spirit? Is there room enough in God not only for a Father and a Son, but also a Spirit?

Well, once this question was put to the church, she very quickly said Yes. There were certainly objectors. But the argument was won pretty quickly. Perhaps too quickly, given the trouble the church has had since in clarifying its teaching on the Spirit. The proclamation of the Spirit's divinity is expressed nicely by the second line of third article of the Nicene Creed: He is "the Lord and Giver of Life." Those are two terms within theological discourse that may only be predicated of God. God and God alone is the Lord and Life-Giver. Not only is Jesus Lord, but so is his Spirit. Not only is God the Father Almighty the Creator (a.k.a., Giver of Life), but so is his Spirit. The Spirit is the Sovereign Lord and the Life-giving Creator. In other words, the Spirit is God.

Although these appellations are code-names for divinity, they are carefully chosen to be refracted in light of the unique personal activity of the Spirit. To get at this unique lordly and life-giving activity, let's take our cue from Paul in 2 Corinthians 3. In the course of defending his ministry, Paul speaks of the life-giving Spirit of Christ in contrast to the death-dealing letter of the old covenant. After speaking distinctly of the ministry of the Spirit and the unveiling of the Lord Jesus, Paul declares: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17). Here the Lord and the Spirit are identified ("is") and distinguished ("of") in such a way that Jesus' Lordship in and as the Spirit does not bind us but frees us. By the Spirit, who is the Lord and is of the Lord, we are freed. What are we freed from? The letter which kills. In other words, from death. To be freed from death is to be given life. The Spirit by whom the Father freed Jesus from the dead is the Spirit who frees us from death. This is the Spirit of the living God, the Spirit of resurrection, the Spirit of new creation. God is Spirit, which means God as Spirit is free -- free from the chains of death, free from arbitrary restraints, free to be our Lord, free to adopt us as children and share his freedom with us. The Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, is the Spirit of freedom. So the titles "Lord" and "Life-giver" indicate both the Spirit's divinity and the Spirit's way of being divine, his unique personal activity of liberation. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life.

3. "Who proceeds from the Father"

We must, however, return to the question of the Spirit's divinity a second time in order to sharpen the question. Up to this point, much of what we have said could be said of a quasi-divine intermediary being. The Spirit's role in Scripture is so clearly one of mediation, that it is easy to think of the Spirit as a sort of super-angel, God's primary agent of interaction with his world. If this were so, the Spirit would certainly be God-like and worthy of respect. Yet, if this were so, the Spirit would not be truly God. To be truly God, the Spirit must be God as God is God. For the Spirit to be truly divine, the Spirit must be God himself, God as he relates to himself, God in eternity. Is the Spirit God in eternity?

The Council of Constantinople answered this question in the affirmative. It confessed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Just as the Son is truly God because he eternally generates from the Father, so the Spirit is truly God because he eternally proceeds from the Father. Now "procession" may sound like a technical term, but it is simply the noun form of the verb "comes forth." In Scripture, Jesus says that the Father will "send" the Spirit, who will "come forth" from the Father to his disciples (cf. John 16). What the fathers of the council wished to say was that this coming forth of the Spirit in time has as its ground a coming forth in eternity, and eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father. This distinction between the eternal procession and the temporal mission of the Spirit parallels the distinction between the eternal generation and the temporal mission of the Son. Each in his own way relates to God the Father eternally, and we know this because each is sent to us by God the Father in time. The divine missions reveal the divine relations. The personal distinctions in God's story with us correspond to and are rooted in personal distinctions within God's own eternal life.

Now let's us conclude with two briefer points, each of which turns in a slightly more practical direction.

4. "Who with the Father and the Son together
is worshiped and glorified

If the Spirit is an eternal divine person, then he is a proper object of worship. He is not only to be believed in, but also worshiped. It is worthy of note that the worship of the Spirit sparked the controversy that eventually led to the Council of Constantinople. Although the person of the Spirit can sometimes be a bit slippery in the New Testament, his presence in its many doxologies alongside the Father and Son is thoroughly anchored. Paul's blessings often take on a trinitarian structure, and Matthew's baptismal formula is unmistakably triadic. These doxological references to the Spirit flowed naturally into the worship life of the early church. Many of the arguments for the divinity of the Spirit emerged in order to defend this practice against its critics. The fathers argued that the Spirit is not just honored but truly worshiped, not alone but together with the Father and the Son. The phrase "together with" points to the doctrine of perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of the persons of the trinity. The fullness of the Father dwells within the Son and the Spirit. The Father and the Son mutually glorify one another throughout eternity (cf. John 17). The mutual glory of the Father and the Son dwells fully in the Spirit, and so the worship due the Father and the Son may and must also be given to the Spirit.

The practical important of the doctrine of the Spirit's divinity in particular and the doctrine of the Trinity in general is a summons to worship God in his triunity. Orthodoxy means, in the first instance, "right praise." So my advice to those who doubt the doctrine of the trinity is to begin to worship and glorify the Father and the Son together with the Spirit. Try it and see if it seems appropriate to you. My advice to those who are confused by the doctrine of the trinity is to pray to the Father with the Son in the power of the Spirit. Try it and see if the logic of their relations comes into view. My advice to those find the doctrine of the trinity irrelevant is to let the grammar of the trinity guide your proclamation and praise. Try it and see if makes any difference for you, even if its just a word here or there.

5. "Who spoke through the prophets"

Having moved from the mission of the Spirit in time to the procession of the Spirit in eternity, the creed turns its attention back to the Spirit's activity in history with the phrase "who spoke through the prophets," and thereby terminates its direct talk of the Spirit. Such a "coming back down to earth" is appropriate, for all that talk of eternal procession and mutual indwelling is not a speculative end in itself, but rather a necessary means to a very practical end. The eternal procession of the Spirit within God's own triune life assures us that the Spirit's work among us is trustworthy. The Spirit who speaks to us can be trusted to speak the very mind of God, for he is God. The Spirit searches the deep things of God. The Spirit who testifies with our spirit that we are God's children is not just any spirit but the very Spirit of God. The Spirit of adoption is God's own Spirit, by which we cry Abba Father. God's eternal Spirit gives us confidence to speak the word of God, to say that Jesus is God's only Son and our Lord, that we are his brothers and sisters and so therefore sons and daughters of God the Father Almighty. The assurance of faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit--God's gift of himself to us.

How does the Spirit so testify? How does the Spirit assure us that we are children of God? By speaking through the prophets. Here is the right place to speak of the inspiration of Holy Scripture. Although we have been using the Bible all along as the source and norm of our knowledge of God, we chose not to speak of its inspiration earlier in order to avoid the impression that an inspired text provides some kind of foundation on which theology builds its towers. Theology does not build on Scripture, it lives by Scripture. So here, in the third article of the creed wherein we speak of the life-giving power of the Spirit, is the right place to talk about the inspiration of Holy Scripture.

The holiness of scripture is grounded in the holiness of the Spirit who inspires it. God the Father set apart the writings of the Bible to bear witness to his Son Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit. All scripture is God-breathed, inspirated, equipped for its task so that it will not return void. This extends not only to the prophets of Old Testament but also the apostles of the New. In a different but related way, the Spirit illumines the Christian to believe and understand and apply the Bible today. The import of inspiration is that we must always contend with both the Word and the Spirit. The Spirit never blows without using his concrete inspired Word. Yet the Word never speaks without the empowerment of the Spirit.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for us? On the one hand, we ought to test the spirits against the written word to see if they are of God. In light of the eternal relation between the Spirit and the Son and Father, we should expect the Spirit to reveal today in a way consistent with the way he has revealed in the past. The Spirit is not predictable, but he is faithful. On the other hand, we ought to be filled with the Spirit as we read and hear the written word. We must listen to the written word of God always and only by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit guides all genuine reading of Scripture. As one medieval monk put it, we cannot understand the Word of God if we are not filled by the Spirit who inspired it.

Any thoughts?
  • What are some of the causes of our Spirit-forgetfulness?
  • What are the limitations of speaking of the Holy Spirit in personal terms? Does understanding triune persons in terms of their relations help or hurt the matter?
  • Is it right to think of the Spirit's Lordship and Life-giving power in terms of divine freedom? What are some other ways of refracting these divine code-names in light of the unique personal activity of the Spirit?
  • Is the doctrine of the eternal procession of the Spirit a necessary one? What problematic avenues of reflection does it wisely seal off? What problems to it create?
  • How do you speak of the person of the Spirit in your own life? Do you address the Spirit in prayer and praise?
  • Any thoughts on the place of the inspiration of scripture within the context of the Spirit's unique role in the story of God with us? Was this the right place to bring it up? If not, when should it come up?


Ken Schenck said...

Your bracket speaks of publication... do you have a venue yet... look forward to the finished product...

JohnLDrury said...

Oops. I didn't mean to leave that in ;-). This series' initial use is to to form the basis of audio lectures for an online course this fall. After that, I'm just 'filling the attic' for later teaching and writing.

David W. Congdon said...


As always, great stuff. Two things come to mind. First, it would be very helpful if you added Scriptural references. There are many points where you are basically quoting Scripture, and it would be great to have the references noted as well.

Second, I take it that your silence on the "filioque" debate is simply due to your limited space. Or is it more for ecumenical reasons? Will you take it up in the online lectures? If so, what would be your position? Your adherence to the original version of the creed suggests to me that you find the Western addition of the filioque ecclesiastically inappropriate and theologically unnecessary, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

JohnLDrury said...


Thanks for the props.

Re: your helpful comments:

(1) I will do my best to add Biblical references some time. This post was unfortunately a rush job, and I just kind of spew Biblical texts when I am writing (which I guess is a good thing ;-) and then fill in references later. Sometimes I like to keep the more allusive style, because citations can make the text clunky and choppy. But I do add them in my audio lectures, and really should in text, at least eventually.

(2) The lack of discussion on the filioque clause was an unfortunate result of space and time restrictions. I had a spot for it in my notes (see Ken's comment re: brackets, which have since been removed). I know what I would say, but this post was already way too long and so something had to give. I'm glad you asked, because it gives me the occasion to briefly fill it in here. So here goes ...

It terms of canon law, adding phrases to an ecumenical creed is out of line. So the West screwed up on that account, even though it had its reasons (e.g., blocking lingering Arian-style subordination of the Son and solving speculative puzzles about the distinction b/w Son and Spirit) -- whatever their enduring value.

But theologically I defend the filioque clause, for two different but related reasons:

(a) Something like the filioque follows from the tight correspondence between missions and processions my trinitarian model already operative in this post. The Son participates in the pouring out of the Spirit in the economy, and so also must in some way participate in the eternal procession of the Spirit. If the ecumenical compromise "and through the Son" upholds this value, then I'm okay with that. The theological value is more important to me than the historic clause itself.

(b) We ought to test the spirits, in any age but especially these days. What better way to test the spirits to see if they are of God than to test them against the Word of God? By eternally linking the person of the Spirit to the Son, the filioque clause supplies theological grounding for a proper relation of Word and Spirit in the church. I suppose one could tests the spirits against the church itself, but I already rejected too strict an identification of the Spirit with the church. In other words, Protestants need the filioque.

Thanks for your questions!