Who’s dat?” This is the repeated question of my 1-year-old as she points at people and clutches her favorite book, Who Am I? Meanwhile, my 3-year-old is constantly asking her friends, “What are your mum and dad’s names?”
At a very young age, humans start their quest to understand the identity of others and the relationships between themselves and others.
It’s the same with trying to understand God. As we get older, we want to know how God relates to us, but also how the Persons of the Trinity relate to each other. It’s not hard for us to get a handle on the idea of Father and Son, even though we know that that relationship somehow transcends our human understanding of persons and family relations.
The early church believed in one God, but the relationships of the Father, Son and Spirit were not clear until the fourth century.
For example, we see from the New Testament that Jesus is our Brother, and through him we learn to call God our Father or Abba (or Papa). With that, we might be tempted to think that we have figured out our relationship with God. But then a third Person, the Holy Spirit, drifts in, and exactly where he fits into these relationships is a little like trying to nail down the wind. We know he is a Person because he guides, hears, speaks (John 16:13), decides (Acts 15:28), ordains (Acts 20:28); and he uses the personal pronouns “I” and “me” when he speaks (Acts 10:19-20, 13:2).
Gregory of Nazianzen, a prominent church Father who wrote in the mid-to-late fourth century, in describing the biblical revelation of the triune God, wrote, “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.”1
The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 4:3-6, calls the Spirit “the bond of peace” who maintains unity in love among believers and between them and God. In a way we cannot comprehend, the Holy Spirit is the essence and presence of the Father and the Son with us. In other words, the very love shared by the Father and the Son is a third divine Person, eternally springing from their perfect union and communion, distinct from them, yet one with them.
But the primary question confronting the church in its first 300 years was “Who is Jesus?” The church struggled with this question in the crucible of Roman persecution, pagan worldviews, Greco-Roman philosophies and its own Jewish heritage. From its earliest creeds, doxologies and baptismal formulas, it is clear that the early church believed in one and only one God while acknowledging the personhood and divinity of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit.2 But exactly how to express the relationships between the Father, Son and Spirit did not reach clarity until the fourth century.
Confronting the questions
In the early 300s, a priest of Alexandria, Egypt, named Arius created a major controversy by popularizing the idea that the Son was not divine in the same way as the Father, but was instead crowned with divinity as the first and greatest creation of the Father before all time. According to Arius, the Father first created the Son as a unique and special creation, and then delegated the rest of creation to him. At the Council of Nicea (a.d. 325), the church took up the controversy and ruled the teachings of Arius as heretical. The council, consisting of bishops from all over the Empire, dogmatically affirmed in what became known as the Creed of Nicea, that the Son is not of a similar essence as the Father, as the followers of Arius contended, but of the very same essence, or being, as the Father. The council also included in the creed the statement, “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”
Later in the same century, controversies arose over the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Certain groups, disparagingly referred to as the Pneumatomachi (fighters against the Spirit), taught that the Spirit was only the greatest creature, like an angel, a power, or an instrument of God.
The church turned its attention to the Holy Spirit in order to counteract these heresies by reflecting further on Scripture in order to clarify and explain what the church had always believed and experienced. Athanasius, the chief opponent of the heresies of Arius, concluded that the Christian baptismal formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) demonstrated that the Spirit shared the same divine essence as the Father and the Son.
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Gregory of Nazianzus, a younger contemporary of Athanasius, confirmed that the Holy Spirit must be God since he does what only God can do, such as sanctify human beings. With Scripture and the arguments of these and other great theologians, the Council of Constantinople (a.d. 381) affirmed that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and life-giver, proceeding from the Father, object of worship and the same glory with the Father and the Son.”
In each age of the church, the full divinity of the Son and of the Spirit has been attacked from without and within. These attacks force the church to explain, in its limited human vocabulary, the mystery of the Triune God.
With us and for us
Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5, NRSV). In Revelation 22:1-2, the water of life (an image of the Spirit) flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb (an image of the Son) toward the servants.
The Holy Spirit is the gift of God in our lives (Acts 2:38-39). The Holy Spirit is the Giver who gives us his gifts (1 Corinthians 12-13) and his fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). The fruit and gifts go together to edify and unify the body of Christ. And the greatest gift of the Spirit is the same as the first fruit of the Spirit: love.
As God is in eternal loving relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so also he has made us to be in loving relationship with him and one another. As the Holy Spirit unites the divinity and humanity of Christ (Matthew 1:18, 20), so the Spirit also unites us to the Son so that we are united with each other as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12: 12-13).
Because Christ has taken humanity into himself, we are partakers and participants in the divine nature with him (Hebrews 2:14, 3:14, 6:4, 12:10; 2 Peter 1:4). Because we are in Christ, because he is both the Son of God and the perfect human with us and for us in our humanity, we share in his perfect relationship with the Father. In Christ, we are the beloved children of the Father, in whom he is well pleased. And because we are united with Christ in his humanity, we share in the Trinity’s grace, love and communion (2 Corinthians 13:14).
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15), who ministers to us our union with Christ, who is our righteousness and our life. As Jesus’ brothers and sisters we are children of the Father, and with Jesus, we stand in the Father’s eternal love, calling him “Abba.”
1 Gregory Nazianzen, Orations XXXI Theological V, 26.
2 Stanley Burgess, The Holy Spirit: Ancient Christian Traditions, p. 16.
Author: Eric Wilding