The Apostles' Creed: The Holy Spirit

            Walking up to his pulpit before preaching, Charles Spurgeon would often repeat to himself that great line of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” For Spurgeon this was no doubt a reminder that any fruit which would come from his preaching would be fruit attributed only to the gracious work of God the Spirit. But for Spurgeon, the evidence of such fruit would not be any preoccupation with the Holy Spirit himself but rather upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. If Christ was at all exulted, it was only because the Spirit was working to exult Him.

            Indeed, as Jesus himself taught, “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Rather than drawing attention to himself, the Sprit has always delighted in shining the spotlight upon the Son, to the glory of the Father. And this is precisely why, as Joel Elowsky has wisely noted, any discussion of the Holy Spirit is fraught with particular difficulty as the church seeks to define and understand Someone who purposefully averts attention away from himself![1] We are tempted, lest we blaspheme the Holy Spirit, to remain silent. And yet, as Gregory of Nyssa wrote so long ago against the Macedonian heresy, “there is a danger that through our silence error may prevail over the truth.”[2]

            And so it was, in light of such encroaching error that the church sought to formally confess what we believe about God the Holy Spirit. As already noted, the Apostle’s Creed provided the church with a short confession concerning the Spirit, succinctly saying “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” And in 325, the First Council in Nicea retained this simplicity, ending the Creed with “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”

            But alas, this mere confession allowed too much leeway for variant interpretations. And so, in order to shore-up any misconceptions, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) came to clarify that by believing in the Holy Spirit Christians also believe that the Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.”

            Here the full divinity of God the Spirit was explicitly confessed, a confession grounded in Christ’s own words when in Matthew 28:19 he instructed the church the go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

            Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), perhaps the clearest Trinitarian writer living during the formation of the Nicene Creed expressed well what Christians mean when we confess that “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”

            “The Holy Spirit must certainly be conceived of in the category of one who is self-existent... If he were considered only as an activity of God, he would be the action but would not himself do anything and would cease to exist as soon as the action occurred. For this is the nature of an activity. How is it then that he acts and says various things, and defines, and is grieved, and is angered, and has all the qualities that belong clearly to one who moves, and not to movement?”[3] For Gregory, the Biblical witness was clear - the Holy Spirit was a Person who moves, who speaks, who can be angered or grieved, and was therefore not just the impersonal actions of God.

            This is why when we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we also confess that the Spirit is Lord. The Apostle Peter, when confronting Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 charges them with lying to the Holy Spirit, explaining in verse 4 that they were in fact lying to God! The Holy Spirit is Lord and God (see also 2 Corinthians 3:17 and 2 Thessalonians 3:5). And it was this truth that was hotly contested in the middle of the fourth century. The Arians, who denied the eternal divine aseity of the Son, also saw the Spirit more as a created emanation rather than an eternally divine person. And yet, they would still affirm belief in the Holy Spirit. It became clear that a mere profession of belief in something called the Holy Spirit was not enough.

            Thus we meet with our good friend Gregory of Nazianzus once more, seeing him rise to the occasion. Presiding over that Second Ecumenical Council[4] in 381 to bring clarity to what is meant by believing in the Holy Spirit, Gregory asked outright if the council believed that the Spirit is God. Sadly, there was no immediate unified answer. But through Gregory’s leading we see the councils’s conclusion: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” To ascribe the title Lord, a title used to underline Christ’s divinity, the implication was clear: The Spirit is God, the One who gives life to all.

            Listen again to Gregory of Nazianzus: “This Spirit shares with the Son in working both the creation and the resurrection, as is seen in Psalm 33:6, Job 33:4, and Psalm 104:30. He is the author of spiritual regeneration. Here is your proof: None can see or enter into the kingdom unless he is born again of the Spirit and is cleansed from the first birth that is a mystery of the night, by a remolding of the day and of the Light by which everyone is created anew.”[5]

            And so we come back to Charles Spurgeon ascending the stairs of his pulpit and silently confessing that ancient, biblical belief in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. To Spurgeon, this was not some mere historical curiosity, nor a matter of cold doctrinal agreement. For him and for us, there is life in this belief - “the Spirit is life” (Rom. 810). Indeed as Jesus himself confesses, “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] We Believe In The Holy Spirit, in Ancient Christian Doctrine, vol. 4. edited by Joel C. Elowsky. pp. xiv.

[2] NPNF 2 5:315 as seen in We Believe In The Holy Spirit, pp. 4. The Macedonians, named after Macedonius of Constantinople, was a group who denied that the Spirit was homoousios with the Son and with the Father. Thus they were also known as “Pneumatomachians” - enemies of the Spirit. Their views were condemned as heresy by the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.

[3] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration, NPNF 2 7:319

[4] aka the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381

[5] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration, NPNF 2 7:384


Stephen Unthank