The Nicene Creed
And I believe in the Holy Spirit
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life;
who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified;
who spoke by the prophets
I have sinned in leaving myself just one day to speak of the Holy Spirit; but, we do not here speak of all that he does for us on which theologians have written tomes, only of his divine nature and Person equal to the Father and the Son.
What we call the Nicene Creed is really the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, an expansion of the Creed of Nicaea in 325 where the Bishops defined the relationship between the Father and the Son as being of one nature and substance (homoousios) to combat the heresy of Arius. The Bishops who met in Constantinople were fighting a related heresy propounded by a certain Macedonius who taught that the Holy Spirit was not God but a creation of Him. The Fathers at the Council rejected this and affirmed the complete divinity of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son. It is important that we understand that the Bishops were not deciding between two opinions as to which one was best; the Bishops were decreeing what the Church had always taught based upon her understanding of holy Scripture. And what she had taught for three-hundred years was that the Holy Spirit was “the Lord and Giver of Life.” Indeed, the Holy Spirit was there at creation “hovering over the face of the waters” when the world was yet in its unformed shape (Genesis 1:1-2). The power of the Holy Spirit took the love of the Father and the design of the Son and turned primeval chaos to cosmos. And the Spirit is also the one who rebirths fallen men bringing new life where sin and death reigned (John 3:5-8). That is, the Spirit gives life both physical and spiritual—which only God can do. Moreover, he was the Spirit who spoke through the prophets of both the Old and New Testaments (2 Peter 1:21). And for this, the Holy Spirit is both worshiped and glorified—as he had always been in the Church’s liturgy.
So we have a God who is “one in being, three in person,” the Early Church declared. Our God is one, but not a monad; He is three but not divided. To sum, our God is much more than we can imagine—so incomprehensible to us but ever so lovely—always filling our minds with wonder and amazement, and our hearts with adoration and worship.
Perhaps you have never heard but there is a tremendous controversy in the history of the Church over the Creed, and it concerns what in Latin makes for one word: filioque. It occurs in that part of the stanza about the Holy Spirit which says, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” It’s the, “and the Son” (in Latin, filioque), that has generated so much controversy. Why?
The original text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed says, “who proceeds from the Father”; it says nothing about the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Son as well. “Does this really matter?” you ask. Well, it has from the ninth century until now and was the cause of schism in that century between the Eastern and Western Churches, what are now referred to as the Orthodox Churches in the East (Greece, Balkans, modern-day Turkey and much of the Middle East) and the Catholic and Protestant Churches in the West (Europe and America). Of course, there are many other issues dividing the Church today, but this one still remains.
So why does it matter? It seems like some fine point of doctrine over which only the most fastidious theologians would argue. The issues lie here:
1) As I said, the original Creed did not include, “and the Son.” For the Churches of the East, who are scrupulous about Tradition, this settles the matter. Once a Creed has been agreed upon by bishops from all churches involved (as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan was in 381), no single church can go back and change it. There is some legitimacy in this argument. To the Churches in the East, changing the Creed in the West was an unforgiveable act of impudence. The fact that the papacy later tried to impose the filioque on the Eastern Churches only made matters worse.
2) There are some very subtle theological issues regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. Though there never was a time when any one of the three were not, the Eastern Churches see the filioque: a) as an affront to the Father’s position as the sole origin of the other two from which the Son is begotten and the Holy Spirit proceeds; and, b) as a subordination of the Holy Spirit to the Son.
3) The Catholic Church originally saw the importance of the filioque in proving the divinity of the Holy Spirit against those in the West who denied it. Protestant churches have seen the filioque as a means of tying the Spirit to the word as the one who enlightens our minds to the meaning of Scripture against those who would claim the Spirit as the origin for every misbegotten and heretical idea, dream, vision, teaching they say they had.
Much of the confusion in ancient times centered around the distinction of the “immanent” Trinity and the “economic” Trinity. The immanent (or theological) Trinity regards the relations of the Persons to one another within the Godhead, while the economic concerns the relations of the Persons of the Triune God with the world. The Eastern Orthodox point to John 15:26 (“the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father”) as referring to the immanent Trinity (the relations among the Persons within the Godhead itself) while considering those passages which speak of the Spirit as sent from the Son as referring to the economic Trinity (the relations of the Persons working together in the world). This may seem like splitting hairs to the uninitiated but these were the thoughts of Eastern theologians before the Western Churches added the filioque.
It seems like a sensible compromise to me: 1) to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone while the Son is begotten of the Father alone in their respective origins from that same Father in the internal workings of the Triune God; and, 2) then to add that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son as that concerns the work of the one God and three Persons in the world.
Of course, compromise is not the issue but truth. And here I profess my opinion: that the East is correct concerning the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead “in the beginning,” affirming that such a doctrine protects the singularity of the Father’s origination of the other two, while also protecting the integrity of the Holy Spirit’s equality with the Son. At the same time, I equally affirm that the Spirit is sent by both the Father and the Son (or sent from the Father through the Son) as that sending involves the work of the Triune God in the world as the Spirit convicts and convinces men of their need for Christ (John 16:8-15) and enlightens believers’ minds to the meaning of the word of God (Acts 16:14; 2 Timothy 3:14-17).
But may such theological wranglings ultimately be resolved by the One who heals all breaches—that the Church may be one as our Lord so prayed for us (John 17:20-26).