Celebrating Pentecost and the Holy Spirit with the Council of Constantinople


This Sunday (May 28) is Pentecost Sunday, the day Christians remember that the ascended Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church as recorded in Acts 2. The arrival of this holiday has caused me to think about the Holy Spirit this week. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on the words used to describe the person and work of the Holy Spirit found in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed. 

This creed, commonly known as the Nicene Creed, was written at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.  It reiterated what the Council of Nicaea said about Jesus in AD 325 and, because of some theological debates about the Holy Spirit, included some additional words about the Holy Spirit. In particular, ater the statement “I believe in the Holy Spirit” (which appeared in both the Apostles’ Creed and the AD 325 Nicene Creed), it includes these words in discussing the person and work of 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 by the prophets.” Let’s consider the meaning of these words and their biblical basis. 

The term “Lord” is one we often used to describe God (the Father) and also Jesus, so the application of this term to the Holy Spirit is an indication that he is God just like the other two persons of the Trinity; it also explains why, later in the creed, it says that the Spirit is “with the Father and Son worshiped and glorified.” There are many passages in the Bible that lead to this belief in the equality and divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Key places are the direct references to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14; this wording puts all three persons on the same plane. The fact that we see distinct references to all three of these individuals at Jesus’s baptism in Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3 indicates that these are not three manifestations of the same person, but rather three persons who stand in intimate unity with each other. Passages that speak of the Spirit in personal terms (e.g., John 14:16, 26; 15:26-27; 16:7; Acts 13:2; 20:28; Ephesians 4:30) are further indications that the Spirit is a person like the other members of the Trinity. In addition, we see a reference to the Spirit being God in Acts 5 through the equation of Ananias and Sapphira lying to the Spirit as lying to God (see Acts 5:3-4). Other pointers to the divinity of the Spirit are statements that point to the Spirit’s omniscience (1 Corinthians 2:10-11), omnipresence (Psalm 139:7-10), and eternality (Hebrews 9:14). The Spirit is not a power or a thing, nor is His divinity junior varsity or below that of the Father and the Son. He is God, He is the Lord.

“Giver of Life”
If “Lord” reminds us of the Spirit’s identity as a divine person, the title “Giver of Life” reminds us of the work that He performs. He is the giver of life in a couple of different ways. One way is His involvement in creation, as we read in Genesis 1 that the Spirit was hovering over the waters; we also read that the Spirit breathed life into the first humans. The Spirit’s work in creation is a great reminder that all members of the Trinity work together; it is not just that the Father creates the world while the others stand by, but that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all at work in creation. The Spirit is also at work in bringing life to sinners as Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 that the new birth we need happens through the Spirit (also see John 6:63 and 2 Corinthians 3:6). The Spirit also leads us to new life by leading us out of sin and into the true life found in obedience (Romans 8:5-11).

“Proceeds from the Father”
The most confusing phrase in the creed might be “Proceeds from the Father.” This confusion is partly both to the fact many churches recite this as “proceeds from the Father and the Son” because the Roman Church added the words “and the Son” to the Latin version of the creed in the sixth century as a way to affirm the fully divinity of Jesus since some Arians (who did not believe in the fully divinity) were converting. This addition would prove to be controversial, as churches in the East did not think the Roman church or Pope would have the authority to alter or change a creed agreed upon at the councils, and would lead to the split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of the churches in AD 1054. Protestant churches largely follow the Roman Catholic version with the additional words.

The text originally did not include the words “and the Son,” but the concept behind this idea is found in the Bible and has a good reason to believe it. Jesus speaks about sending the Spirit in multiple passages (John 14:25; 15:26; 16:7; 20:22), and the disciples state that the ascended Jesus sends the Spirit (Acts 2:33) in fulfillment of the statement that he would baptize with the Spirit (see Luke 3:16; 24:39; Acts 1:8). Passages will describe the Holy Spirit both as the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:11-12) or Father (Matthew 10:20) and also the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:2; Philippians 1:9; 1 Peter 1:11) or the Son (Galatians 4:6), showing a link between the Spirit and Son. At the same time, we must recognize that the words spoken by Jesus do not technically say that the Spirit proceeds from the Son, but that the Spirit comes from the Father in His name. Regardless of the person(s) from which the Spirit proceeds, this is still a confusing phrase because of this question: What exactly does proceeding mean? 

In some ways, it connects back to the language about Jesus found in the creed: the son is “Begotten, not made” (as you beget a person, you don’t make them!), so the Spirit is not made, but “proceeds” – this means the Spirit is divine and not a created entity below the Father and Son. The division between “begotten” and “proceeding” reflects the relationship of the Father to the Son and Spirit, with “begotten” being a term used for father/son relationship and “proceeding” drawing upon the imagery of the Spirit as being “breathed out.” This does not mean there was a time when the Spirit (or the Son) did not exist, as this is an eternal proceeding. While still mysterious to a degree, the root idea being expressed here is to show that the Spirit is distinct from the Father and Son, though one in essence and equality, using language that is reflected in the way the Bible describes their relationship with each other.   

“Who Spoke by the Prophets”
While there are other many aspects of the Spirit’s work that could be mentioned in the creed, the final component highlighted is that the Spirit is the one who moved the prophets for them to deliver us God’s Word. This statement is a reminder that the church was united in the idea that the prophets were delivering God’s words since they were moved by the Holy Spirit; thus, what we have in the Bible are not the words of men but the words of God that came through humans (2 Peter 1:20-21). Every time we open the Bible or say that the Bible is God’s Word, we need to remember the work of the Spirit, both in that the Spirit wrote these words and also now that the Spirit guides us in understanding these words. 

“With the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified”
I skipped over this statement because I wanted to end with it. We often praise God the Father and praise Jesus, but we are also called to praise – to worship and glorify – the Holy Spirit. While such worship should not just happen once a year, the remembrance of Pentecost can lead us to offer special praise and thus worship and glorify the Holy Spirit. May this day be a reminder not just of the existence of the Holy Spirit, but of who He is and what He does. Let us praise Him and worship Him alongside the Father and Son – not just on this day but with all of our lives all the year long.

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