This article discusses the work of the Holy Spirit, and the relation of the Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Filioque is also discussed.

Source: Om het Hart van het Christelijk Geloof (Kok Kampen). 5 pages. Translated by Wim Kanis.

The Holy Spirit — the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son

A Still Missing Part of the Faith?🔗

In the previous chapters in this series of discussions about an ancient creed of faith, that of Nicea-Constantinople, great gems from the treasury of the church have been uncovered and displayed. The glory and the love of the Father, the multifaceted nature of the work of the Son, Jesus Christ...does not the confession of faith in all those treasures mean that nothing more is lacking for us? Did not the Lord Jesus say, “Whoever believes in me has eternal life?” Does anything need to be added to this? Particularly when this ancient creed goes on to say: “...And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified; who spoke through the prophets.” Do we then still have to confess even greater riches in faith that were still lacking in the confession of the Father and the Son?

The answer to that question is “no” and “yes” at the same time! There are no greater treasures than those that a believer has in and through Christ, and we should not want to seek anything beyond this. Yet when we confess faith in the Holy Spirit it does imply a knowledge of God that makes us even more astonished and reverent in the realization of everything that the eternal God makes known through his revelation of himself. We can therefore note two things.

Firstly, the knowledge of the Holy Spirit does not expand our salvation, but it does bring us closer to it. We are especially concerned about this in the next chapter, as we reflect more about the work of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly: The knowledge of the Holy Spirit makes God greater for us, however much we realize that we can only speak the mysteries of God in a stammering way, especially when we spend some time considering: Who is the Holy Spirit?

Who is the Holy Spirit?🔗

We have to ask the question like this: “Who is the Holy Spirit?” And not: “What is the Holy Spirit?” In the time that this confession came into being, after it had first been confessed in 325 in Nicea that “Christ was one of being (homo ousios) with the Father”, it was pronounced in 381 in Constantinople about the Holy Spirit, that he is Lord. There had been theological leaders who had proposed the view of subordination. This meant that the Son was subordinate to the Father. Such was the thinking of Paul of Samosata (in the second half of the third century). In line with this there was the view that the Holy Spirit was only a gift or a power of God. After Nicea, it was the Pneumatomachians, who considered the Holy Spirit to be of lower order than the Father and the Son, and who did not regard the Spirit as worthy of the same honour as them. When Constantinople counters this with “The Holy Spirit is Lord”, then the Holy Spirit is thereby given a divine Name, which also stands for divine majesty and authority. The Holy Spirit is “Someone”! He is a divine Person. With this confession the church rejects the idea of subordinationism. The Holy Spirit is no less an independent Person than God the Father and than God the Son are. 

On the other hand, this also rejects the error of modalism, which says — as, for example, Sabellius did — that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are no more than appearances of the one and the same divine Being; God presents himself alternately, and consecutively, as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. Already in the movement of Montanism, in the second century, with its strongly charismatic tendencies, there were thoughts that one could describe as a radical modalism, well before Sabellius. According to this view the three modes are successive phases in history. The Father and the Son are now enjoying their heavenly rest after completing their work. Now it is the time of the Spirit. The future belongs to him.

When the church confesses that the Holy Spirit is Lord, it explicitly confesses the unique identity of the Holy Spirit. The confession uses powerful language. We do well to notice this, while we realize at the same time that we are dealing here with the unspeakable mysteries of the Trinity of God. How, after all, will we understand, let alone explain, how the Holy Spirit himself is eternally and truly God, as much as the Father and as much as the Son, while with all that is in us we hold on to it that there is one God? With this confession of the Holy Spirit “who is Lord and who makes alive” even more is said than only that modalism and subordinationism are rejected. The Holy Spirit has a Name. The Holy Spirit lets himself be known, also in the work that he is doing.

But it is clear that the church only wants to, and can, speak about the Holy Spirit in close connection with the Father and with the Son.

The Spirit is Not Without the Father and the Son🔗

In the history of the church, the attention to the person of the Holy Spirit has seen something of a wave movement. What we have pictured so far is how in this ancient confession of Constantinople, after much effort and struggle, the uniqueness of the Holy Spirit has been put into words. Before this, attention was given to God the Father, and to the Son, and people spoke about the Holy Spirit mostly as of the Father’s activity or power.

This confession now speaks for the first time in an ecclesiastical statement so clearly about the Holy Spirit, with a rejection of the deviations to the two sides that we identified. But this does not mean that the history of professing about the Holy Spirit has been put to rest!

Even in our twentieth century — and here we skip multiple centuries — many opinions are again expressed, either in line with the old idea of modalism or in line with the old view of subordinationism. We meet the latter most commonly in considerations about the Christology. When it is about the Holy Spirit, it appears a modalistic trait comes more frequently in view. I will only mention a few recognizable names. The dialectical theologian Emil Brunner only reluctantly wanted to speak about the mystery of the Trinity. He therefore does not want to speak of one Being and of three Persons in God. In Christ and in the Holy Spirit we are dealing with the eternal “I” of God. Brunner did not want to think modalistically, but it is understandable that we start to suspect some of this view here. It can then no longer be said that the Holy Spirit is Lord.

H. Berkhof goes to great lengths when in his book Christelijk Geloof [Christian Faith], he speaks of God as “the Changeable”. The “movement of descent” of God is more than just an indication of the way God reveals himself; it is a movement in God himself. In his view the Holy Spirit is not the third Person, but “the active God”.

Also A. van de Beek, especially in his book about the Holy Spirit, De adem van God [The breath of God], raises thoughts of modalism by speaking about the cosmic significance of the Holy Spirit, in which he allows for the most universal limits to be opened up. The Spirit is at work in the world in such a way that it can be interpreted as a pantheistic way! Even though it is emphasized that the Spirit always remains the Spirit of Christ, it should be noted that the work of the Spirit has a wider scope than the work of Christ. Thus, in the opinion of van de Beek and others, the Spirit works for example in the sphere of the World Council of Churches, and therefore also in other religions, which have no place for Christ. In the dialogue with other religions it sometimes appears easier to speak about the Holy Spirit than about Christ!

However, when the church confirmed the confession of the Holy Spirit, it maintained the intimate and inseparable bond between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The church was aware of speaking according to the Scriptures. Matthew 28:19 gives the command to baptize in the Name — not: the names! — of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One Name, which stands for unity, yet in which three divine Persons are distinguished. In the apostolic blessing in 2 Corinthians 13:13 the communion of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the same breath as the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God. The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son, the Spirit of Christ.

That is why in the confession of Constantinople we read about the Holy Spirit: “He who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.”

We are dealing here with the description of what is most unique of the Person of the Holy Spirit. Our Belgic Confession of 1561 deals with the attributes of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as their distinct and incommunicable properties (Art. 8). Thereby Father, Son and Spirit are distinguished from each other. But at the same time we must also think in terms of what the church has, for centuries, confessed in addition to this. Each one of the three Persons is also in the most intimate manner connected to the other. They pervade each other. The Father is wholly in the Son, as he is in the Spirit. The Son is wholly in the Father, as he is in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father, as he is in the Son (Council of Florence, 1439).

When we, as Western Christians, unconcernedly read these words about the very nature of the Holy Spirit — “who proceeds from the Father and of the Son” — in this symbol of the Church, we must realize that a great deal has been said. In particular I focus on the words “and of the Son”. When we use these words, we must be aware that on the left and on the right side of it there are large groups of Christendom that have become separated from these four words — in Latin it is even one word — the greatest ecclesiastical dividing line in all of church history, which became a fact in 1054.

“...and of the Son” — the Filioque🔗

The “Filioque” — this word indicates and implies an extensive and drastic discussion! In Constantinople, AD 381, the church only confessed: “who proceeds from the Father”. In this case, the very nature of the Holy Spirit was expressed as a “proceeding”. The uniqueness of the Son of God is his Sonship. He is the eternal Son of the Father. “Generatio”, i.e., generated from eternity. The uniqueness of the Holy Spirit is different from that of the Son. For that reason alone we use a different word. “Who proceeds from the Father”: “Processio”—“going out of”. How this difference can be described or explained is beyond our comprehension. The church has only tried to stay as close as possible to certain biblical statements about the Holy Spirit, especially from the Gospel of John. For Jesus promised to send the Comforter from the Father, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). Jesus sends him himself, but can also speak of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, “whom the Father will send in my Name” (John 14:26; see 16:7). In addition, when we consider how Scripture, as we have already seen, speaks about the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son, then we agree with the words of the church, which spoke in such words about the essential, the eternal uniqueness of the Father and the Son and the Spirit.

In 381, however, the church only spoke about a proceeding of the Spirit “from the Father”. But not too long afterwards, certainly under the influence of the church father Augustine, many began to understand that the Holy Spirit could not be spoken of without mentioning that double relationship, with the Father and with the Son. In that other ancient confession of the church, the Symbolum Quicumque — erroneously referred to as the Athanasian Creed, but rather deserving to bear the name of Augustine even if he is not the author of it — the “Filioque” is also confessed. In Spain it was explicitly taught by a number of church assemblies, and in the 11th century it was officially introduced in the church of the West, i.e., where the pope of Rome was in charge, in the ecclesiastical liturgy as belonging to the creed of Constantinople. There is therefore a history that is connected to the text as we now read it and profess it! And it has everything to do with the confession of the Holy Spirit in the way of the Western and in the way of the Eastern churches. It turned out that there would be two distinct ways, with all of its consequences.

The Western Way and the Eastern Way  🔗

In the church of the West — and this is where also Protestantism in all its diversity has sprouted from! — this confession that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son has a long history. But no less does this confession have a profound meaning.

The confession of the Holy Spirit is not separate from knowing the Holy Spirit, nor is it separate from knowing the salvation of God. “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God,” writes Paul (1 Cor. 2:12). When we insist on the fact that the Holy Spirit is inextricably bound to Christ, then we know that there is no salvation and also no knowledge of salvation outside of the Saviour, Jesus Christ. We realize that Christ sent the Spirit from the Father after his work was finished. The Lord Jesus himself said about the Spirit of truth, “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).

In the church of the East, the Greek Orthodox and the various Eastern European Orthodox churches, there is a profound distrust in regard to this doctrine of the West. It is thought, among other things, that in this way the Spirit and his work are diminished; that the Holy Spirit is subordinated to the Son. The freedom of the Holy Spirit would be limited by this binding to Christ. But there we arrive exactly at the point where the West has reproached the East for going in the opposite direction.

When it is emphasized in the East that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit who proceeds from the Father, then they certainly do not deny that there is also a relationship between the Holy Spirit and Christ. However, the emphasis is on the fact that there is also a direct way from the Spirit of God to the Father. The work of God in human life is not bound to Christ alone! The Holy Spirit works not only through faith in the Son, but also works directly on the mind of man. The Spirit works in the mysteries of the church, also outside of Christ, outside of the history of salvation, including also outside of our consciousness. After all, the Spirit can make a direct connection with the Father.

In the Eastern church we find here an important justification of a flourishing mysticism. Spiritual life is possible also outside of Christ. All too easily then Christ is given a place that is historically determined and historically limited. His work has been preparatory; the most important aspect was yet to come: the actual salvation can be ascribed to the Holy Spirit.

With conviction, our choice in this dispute between East and West is for the confession of the unity of God’s work and God’s salvation as the West saw and confessed it, by God’s grace. The Holy Spirit does not lead to the Father except through the Son. The Spirit of Christ will not impinge on Jesus’ own Word; that no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14: 6). There is unity — also in the salvation of the triune God: enacted by the Father, acquired by the Son, and proportioned by the Spirit!

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.