In The history of the Creed: Affirming the truth about Jesus Christ, we saw how in its first few centuries, the Church fought to preserve the living memory of Jesus Christ. From early baptismal rituals to the first ecumenical Creed, Christians went to great lengths to stress the human-divine history of Christ—the Word of God who had become flesh, who in dying, rising, and returning to the divine realm opened heaven’s doors for all humanity.
Getting the words right about Christ was and is critical because of how his history is the center of salvation history—all of which brings hope for our salvation, yours and mine.
But salvation history is also the story of the Holy Spirit. We are, after all, baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so, the words we use to speak of the Spirit also need to be the right words, especially in our Creed.
Speaking about the Spirit
The incorporeal nature of the Spirit makes speaking about Him all the more difficult. Early Christians could of course point to Christ as a person with a history—a real man who was born, lived, performed amazing acts of great goodness, who was publicly executed and three days later was encountered in an entirely new, amazing way. But what was and is known about the Spirit comes from two primary sources: the sometimes mysterious words of scripture and the transcendent experiences of believers.
And so, where early baptism rituals had precise, historical things to say about Christ, this was not as easily the case for the Holy Spirit.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit” was about the extent of early statements of faith and even the formal Creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Here’s the actual Trinitarian language of that Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the Son of God,
begotten from the Father, only-begotten,
that is, from the substance of the Father,
God from God,
light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten not made,
of one substance with the Father,
through Whom all things came into being,
things in heaven and things on earth,
Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down,
and became incarnate
and became man,
and rose again on the third day,
and ascended to the heavens,
and will come to judge the living and dead,
And in the Holy Spirit.
The Creed of Nicaea goes on to specifically state heretical teachings about Jesus Christ, which is essentially everything in opposition of what the Creed affirms. But there are no further statements about the Holy Spirit, and this caused a bit of an issue.
You would be right to assume that if there had been so much confusion and many errant teachings about Jesus Christ, there would also be errant teachings about the Spirit. And in fact, for many in the early Church, the divinity of the Holy Spirit was a point of heated discussion. With the matter of Jesus Christ settled (well, for most people, anyway) in the year 325, the great minds of the Church turned their attention to affirming what we today take for granted: the divinity and co-equal status of the Holy Spirit with God the Father and Jesus Christ.
A fourth-century bishop of Constantinople named Macedonius (d. between 360-364) was a most-notable proponent for the belief that the Holy Spirit was not co-eternally divine. This heretical belief took on the name Macedoniansim in recognition of its champion, but the more technical term for sects that denied the Spirit’s divine nature, or even his personhood in the Trinity, is “Spirit fighters” or Pneumatomachians. (As an aside, Macedonius had an interesting life. His beliefs also held a denial of Christ as true God and true man, among others. His time as a bishop was rather clouded by all this, as well as the difficulties and politics of a time when the Church was struggling to subsist in the cultural, intellectual, and political realities of its time.)
In any event, the Spirit Fighters not only denied the divinity of the Spirt but also the certainty of the Holy Trinity. God the Father and Jesus Christ are truly divine, they believed, but the Holy Spirit was for them a sort of servant, created to continue Christ’s work in human history.
To say this belief infuriated others is an understatement. Much as the turmoil about Christ’s divine-human nature of the third century led to the 325 Council of Nicaea’s formal declaration about Christ, the later decades of the fourth century were a time of fierce debate and intellectual warfare to protect the belief in the divine, co-equal status of the Holy Spirit.
It should be mentioned that even after Nicaea, bickering continued about Christ’s nature. But the theological and intellectual groundwork had already been laid down to defend orthodox teaching about the Son of God. What took place in the fourth century related to Jesus Christ was a mere mopping up exercise in places where heresies such as Arianism stubbornly persisted. And they did persist.
The real work of this time centered around developing language for a defense of the Holy Spirit. As was occasioned with the theological battles about Jesus Christ, the battles to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the very nature of the Holy Trinity found champions that were some of the most intellectual minds of their age.
Chief among this group were three bishops called Cappadocians, named for the Cappadocia region of what is now Turkey. The Cappadocians included St. Basil the Great (330–379), bishop of Caesarea; his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), bishop of Nyssa; and Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389), Patriarch of Constantinople and a good friend of brothers Basil and Gregory. These men were classically educated and more than a match for voices that could not reconcile the Trinity with monotheism or, like the Pneumatomachians, those who rejected the Spirit’s divine nature. (They were also heavily influenced by Basil and Gregory's sister Macrina, who championed the monastic lifestyle that the three men adopted readily.)
St. Basil became best known for tackling errors in belief about the Holy Spirit with his treatise On the Holy Spirit. Like most such works, this text was written in response to questions put to Basil about what words one should use when calling upon the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What surprises many today is that the words most often debated in the fourth century were the simple Greek prepositions used in the Gospels and later in baptismal rites and Eucharistic liturgies. This makes St. Basil’s great defense of the Holy Spirt both an examination of the Gospels and, oddly, a detailed primer on prepositions.
Here’s a little of how this all sounds in St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, as translated by Bl. Jackson at Elpenor.org.
On this heresy [about the divinity of the Spirit] depends the idle subtilty of these men about the phrases in question. They accordingly assign to God the Father, as though it were His distinctive portion and lot, the phrase "of Whom;" to God the Son they confine the phrase "by Whom;" to the Holy Spirit that of "in Whom," and say that this use of the syllables is never interchanged, in order that, as I have already said, the variation of language may indicate the variation of nature. Verily it is sufficiently obvious that in their quibbling about the words they are endeavouring to maintain the force of their impious argument.
Such were the academic and theological debates of the middle and late fourth century, and they were no small undertakings. But these deliberations about prepositions and the smallest theological nuances were not simply academic. They were deeply rooted in a faithful unpacking of the traditions and written words of scripture—and they were vital for a proper understanding of what God has revealed to us about his Triune nature. Equally important, the efforts of Basil, Gregory his brother, Gregory their friend, and so many others were meant to defend the proper understanding of the promise of salvation.
But as with earlier debates about Christ, those about the Holy Spirit were contentious and highly divisive. And so, as Constantine had done in 325, Emperor Theodosius called a council of bishops to meet in Constantinople in 381 to debate and answer the great questions of the age—most especially the matter of the Holy Spirit.
Advancing the Creed of 325
The council fathers drew from several sources for the right words to use about the Holy Spirit. Chief among these sources were the depths of scripture—from Genesis to the Gospels. But the works of Basil and his fellow Cappodocians provided a proper understanding of the Greek prepositions in use, and the implications thereof.
And so, The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 affirmed this about the Holy Spirit:
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 worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets.
Note that in the years hence, the English translation used by the Catholic Church has slight wording changes for modern usage. More importantly, the Western Church of Rome added “and the Son” after “proceeds from the Father.” This addition began in Spain in the sixth century and was soon adopted in the Latin-speaking West in large part to counter the continued spread of Arianism—which subordinated Christ to the Father. Because this addition was adopted by the West without an ecumenical council—that is, a joint gathering of the bishops of the West and East—the addition of “and the Son” caused a significant disagreement. In time, this provided a theological foundation for the West’s schism with its Eastern brothers and sisters.
In any event, the wording used today in Catholic worship:
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
There is a dreadful irony that, as with the early centuries, the Church today is divided and debating theological nuances of words. This is no small matter because words have meanings and meanings are vital to faith. The complexities of different languages and traditions have certainly clouded the road to unification between East and West these many centuries, but there is always hope in our God, who makes all things new and for whom all things are possible.
And so, we pray that in the years to come, the Holy Spirit will raise up a new generation of great minds who will find the right words to unite us—to bring together all those who profess God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and who firmly believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.