Analysis of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed’s Pneumatology (A Reformed View)

August 29, 2013

in Filioque, Reformed View

holy-spirit-doveby Dr. Robert L. Reymond (taken from A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith)

Consumed as the Nicene Council was with working out the doctrine of the person of the Son over against the claims of the Arians, it said nothing about the Holy Spirit beyond the simple declaration that the Church believed in him. It was but natural that until the Church had settled the issue of the deity and personal subsistence of the Son it could not make much progress regarding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

This lack was addressed at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. when, in addition to addressing the teaching of Apollinaris (or –ius) which damaged the full humanity of Christ, it declared against the Arian and Semi-Arian parties who were teaching that just as the Father had created the Son so also the Son had created the Spirit, that the Church believes “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [to ek tou patros ekporeuomenon], who, with the Father and Son, is worshiped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets.” By the phrase “who proceeds from the Father” (the Vulgate had translated the Greek with qui a Patre procedit) the Council intended to point out the unique property (idiote¯s) of the Spirit which distinguished him from the Father and the Son, and by this confession it meant to say that just as the Son is essentially, necessarily, and eternally generated by the Father, so also the Spirit essentially, necessarily, and eternally proceeds from the Father.

The later doctrine of the Double Procession—that the Spirit proceeds also from the Son—can be traced back to Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine and was current at Rome in the fifth century with Pope Leo I declaring it an aspect of the orthodox faith.(1) It is also reflected in the et Filio in verse 23 of the fifth-century Athanasian Creed. Accordingly, the Third Council of Toledo in 589 A.D. proclaimed it a tenet of orthodoxy and may have had the words “and the Son” (Lat. filioque) inserted in the third article of the Creed, reflecting Western Christianity’s anti-Arian theology by announcing in the fact of the Spirit’s procession from both the Father and the Son the latter’s co-equality with the Father.

Louis Berkhof approvingly defines the Holy Spirit’s “spiration” as

“that eternal and necessary act of the first and second persons in the Trinity whereby they, within the divine Being, become the ground of the personal subsistence of the Holy Spirit, and put the third person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation or change.”

The actual scriptural ground for this doctrine, beyond the names of the Persons of the Godhead, is quite slight at best. The New Testament teaches that the Father and the Son “send” (John 14:26, pempsei, 15:26, pempso¯, 16:7, pempsei) the Holy Spirit, and that the Son “breathed” (John 20:21, enephyse¯sen) and “poured out” (Acts 2:17, ekcheo¯; 33, execheen) the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. But these expressions are descriptive of the Father’s and the Son’s soteric activity as well as the Spirit’s operational submission to them in the economy of redemption and not of an inscrutable mysterious process transpiring eternally within the Trinity. In fact, only one verse in the entire New Testament even remotely approaches such a teaching, namely, John 15:26, which contains the phrase, “who is coming forth [para … ekporeuetai] from the Father.” But even here, the much more likely meaning, in accordance with John 14:26, is that the Spirit “comes forth from the Father” into the world on his salvific mission of witnessing to Jesus Christ.

B. F. Westcott, commenting on this verse, declares:

The original term [ekporeuetai] may in itself either describe proceeding from a source, or proceeding on a mission. In the former sense the preposition “out of” (ek) would naturally be required to define the source (Rev. i.16, etc.); on the other hand the preposition “from” (para) is that which is habitually used with the verb “to come forth” [exerchomai] of the mission of the Son, e. g. xvi.27, xvii.8. The use of the latter preposition [para] in this place [15:26] seems therefore to show decisively that the reference here is to the temporal mission of the Holy Spirit, and not to the eternal Procession.… it is most worthy of notice that the Greek Fathers who apply this passage to the eternal Procession instinctively substitute ek, for para, in their application of it. (B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, 224–25)

Alfred Plummer concurs:

It seems best to take this much discussed clause as simply yet another way of expressing the fact of the mission of the Paraclete … there seems to be nothing in the word [ekporeuesthai] itself to limit it to the Eternal Procession. On the other hand the para, is strongly in favour of the reference being to the mission. (Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. John, 288–89)

J. H. Bernard writes:

Here [in John 15:26 ekporeuesthai] is used … of the Spirit “coming forth” from God in His mission of witness. To interpret the phrase of what is called “the Eternal Procession” of the Spirit has been a habit of theologians … But to claim that this interpretation was present to the mind of Jn. would be to import into the Gospel the controversies and doctrines of the fourth century. [The clause] does not refer to the mysterious relationships between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but only to the fact that the Spirit who bears witness of Jesus Christ has come from God. (J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John 2:49944)

H. R. Reynolds declares:

[John 15:26] is the great text on which the Western Church and the Greeks have alike relied for their doctrine concerning the “procession of the Spirit,” the timeless, pre-mundane relations among the Personalities of the Godhead.… There are those … who urge that these passages do not bear at all upon the internal relations of the Godhead, but simply refer to the temporal mission of the Holy Spirit … and much may be said in favour of this view. If this verse does not furnish the basis of an argument, there is no other which can be advanced to establish the view either of the Eastern or Western Church. (H. R. Reynolds, The Gospel of John, 2:276 )

Raymond E. Brown concurs with these studied opinions, as do F. F. Bruce, Leon Morris, and J. I. Packer. And D. A. Carson declares:

The procession of the Spirit was understood [by the creed of Nicaea and of Constantinople] in metaphysical terms, i. e. this clause was understood to refer to the Spirit’s ontological relationship with the Father, not to the mission on which he was sent. [But] it is almost certain that the words ‘who goes out from the Father’, set in synonymous parallelism with ‘who I will send to you from the Father’, refer not to some ontological ‘procession’ but to the mission of the Spirit. (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 528–29 )

Loraine Boettner writes:

In the original Greek [of John 16:28] the phrase “came out from,” which is here used of Jesus, is stronger than the “proceedeth from” [in 15:26], which is used of the Spirit; yet the context of John 16:28 makes it perfectly clear that what Jesus said of Himself had reference to His mission and not to what is commonly termed His eternal generation; for His coming forth from the Father into the world is contrasted with His leaving the world and going back to the Father. We are, of course, told that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and by the Son; but the mission as He comes to apply redemption is an entirely different thing from the procession. It seems much more natural to assume that the words of John 15:26, which were a part of the Farewell Discourse, and which were, therefore, spoken within the very shadow of the cross, were not philosophical but practical, designed to meet a present and urgent need, namely, to comfort and strengthen the disciples for the ordeal through which they too were soon to pass … Hence, John 15:26, at best, carries no decisive weight concerning the doctrine of the procession of the Spirit, if, indeed, it is not quite clearly designed to serve an entirely different purpose. (Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology, 123.)

With this basic conclusion I am in essential accord. Therefore, I would suggest that Christians should not believe that the Holy Spirit, through an eternal act of proceeding in the depth of the divine being that is always continuing, is continually proceeding out of the Father and the Son as to his essential being as God, which act thereby “puts the third person in possession of the whole divine essence.” They should believe, rather, that the Holy Spirit, with respect to his essential being, is wholly God of himself (autotheos). They should also believe that the Holy Spirit, as the third Person of the Godhead, derives his hypostatic identity as the Holy Spirit from his “spiration” “before all ages” from God the Father, the first Person of the Godhead, and God the Son, the second Person of the Godhead (what this means beyond “order” and how spiration differs in nature from generation I cannot say and will not attempt to say except to assert that the former is from both the Father and the Son and the latter is from the Father alone), and that the Father and the Son precede the Holy Spirit by reason of order. This means that there is no essential subordination of the Spirit to the Father and the Son within the Godhead.


(1) In his letter, Quam laudabiliter, to the Spanish bishop Turibius of Asturica, dated July 21, 447, Leo I, following an earlier Latin tradition, declared that he wanted to see the doctrine of the double procession of the Spirit affirmed at a council to be held in Toledo. See Enchiridion Symbolorum (ed. by Denzinger and Schönmetzer), 284.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: