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The Deity of the Holy Spirit (Blogging the Belgic, Article 11)

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I have often said that the Holy Spirit is the most often overlooked and forgotten member of the Trinity; I am not alone in making this comment (for example, Francis Chan wrote a book on the Holy Spirit called Forgotten God). The creeds and confessions of the church in many ways support this statement about the Spirit being overlooked, as there was much time spent talking about the person and work of Jesus Christ but little dealing with the Holy Spirit. The original Nicene Creed (written in 325) only says this about the Holy Spirit: that we believe in the Holy Spirit (following the Apostles’ Creed which simply says that we believe in the Holy Spirit). There was some development in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, though, as the revision of the Nicene Creed at Constantinople in 381 (which is what we usually call the Nicene Creed) does expand on the Holy Spirit, noting that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and the Life-giver, who proceeds from the Father [and the son], and with the Father and Son is worshipped together, and that he spoke through the prophets. This ancient creed of the church helpfully points out what the Spirit does but alsothat he is to be honored and glorified; that he is on par with the Father and the Son. Article 11 of the Belgic Confession also addresses this topic and speaks more about the Holy Spirit. I think it is good to consider, as I wonder what most of us would say if someone asked us what we believe about the Holy Spirit and why he is God.

In one sense, we would say that we believe in the deity of the Holy Spirit because we believe that the Bible tells us this truth. But where and how? One element are the passages in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are put into equal position — like in 2 Corinthians 13:14 and Matthew 28:19 (in baptism). Another spot (and this is not highlighted in the confession) is in Acts 5:1-6, where Peter talks about Ananias lying to the Holy Spirit (5:3) and to God (5:4), thus equating the Spirit with God.

The confession also helps us think through how the Holy Spirit relates to the other members of the Godhead. It tells us that the Holy Spirit “proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son — neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but only proceeding from the two of them.” This language of proceeding can be both confusing and controversial. At its root, the idea of the Spirit proceeding is similar to the idea of the Son being begotten; these things are said to have happened eternally (as the Son and the Spirit existed before all things), which is a bit confusing. Just as the birth of Jesus is not the start to the Son’s life, so the arrival of the Holy Spirit on believers at Pentecost is not the beginning of the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit was there in the creation of the world (Genesis 1:2). The Son is said to be begotten because that is language used with a Son (we beget children) while the language of proceeding is used because that is language of the Spirit — the Spirit proceeds. The language of begetting and of proceeding are examples of “accommodation” in which God uses language that makes sense to us to express these deep truths; we as finite creatures cannot fully grasp all divine truths. In this accommodation, we look to what happens in our history (the Son being born, the Spirit being sent and proceeding) to help us understand how things work on the eternal level.

Hopefully that addresses a bit of what is confusing about the idea of proceeding. But what is controversial? That is the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This was an issue that divided what became the Roman Catholic Church from what is known as the Eastern Orthodox family of churches, as the Nicene Creed was revised in 589 to say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Belgic Confession supports that view — why? In part, this statement of the Father and the Son seeks to protect the divinity of Jesus, trying to make sure that he is not viewed as lower than the Father. In addition, there is Scriptural support for it, as the Spirit is associated both with the Spirit of the Father but also the Spirit of Jesus (see Romans 8:9; also see Galatians 4:6). In fact, Jesus speaks about sending the Spirit who proceeds from the Father in John 15:26 and makes a similar a comment in John 14:26. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are connected and this language of the Spirit proceeding from Father and the Son helps in this regard. Again, this is a point in which the Reformed Confession does not differ from other traditions, including the Roman Catholic one.

While there is much more than can be said about the Holy Spirit, and the history of the church since the writing of the Belgic Confession has helped to explore this in many ways, hopefully the language of the confession reminds us that we cannot forget the Holy Spirit, as He “is the third person of the Trinity – of one and the same essence, and majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, being true and eternal God, as the Holy Scriptures teach us.” Even if we don’t fully understand what this all means and how it works, we are to worship Him and see the new life that he give us and produces in others (remember what article 9 says, he is the sanctifier and lives in our hearts).  In fact, I would submit that we only fully understand and grasp the deity of the Holy Spirit when we see his work in our hearts, that work of sanctification and making us more like Jesus. In addition, the mystery that is found in the Trinity should enhance our worship, as we worship a God who makes himself known to us but also is mysterious and beyond us.

Questions about Bible or theology, e-mail them to Pastor Brian at Theology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe by filling out the info on the right side.

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