Church Doctrine from Nicea to Constantine

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Course: Church HIstory I

Lecture: Church Doctrine from Nicea to Constantine


Let’s pray together, shall we, and we can begin. Father, thank you for this day. Thank you for all the many things that you give us and bless us now, we pray, as we work and as we study together. Help us in all that we do to grow to be more like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for whose name’s sake we ask it. Amen.

This morning, then, I want to talk to you about the way in which Christian doctrine evolved in the fourth century between the time of the council of Nicaea in the year 325 and the first council of Constantinople in the year 381. This is the key period. This is the time when Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire but not the official state religion. I keep saying that but people need to get this through their heads, you see. It was not the official state religion until the year 380, although, of course, it was gaining in influence all the time and it had a great deal of support from the emperors and so on. But it was still nevertheless having to compete with other things, and as long as that was the case, solving questions like Arianism were not vitally important. I mean, they were important, of course, in the point of view of the church but as long as other things were tolerated – you could imagine Arianism being tolerated along with other religions and so on – it’s only when Christianity became the official state religion and therefore the only tolerated religion that dealing with the Arians finally became necessary, that something had to be said and done so that they could be legally excluded from the church. So this is a different situation, one which required much more careful thinking through of Christian doctrine.
However, the time lag between 325 and 381 was a time in which the preparation for this was being made within the church itself, because it was during these years that the essential framework of Christian doctrine was being laid. And it’s this that we need to look at today. The council of Nicaea as I pointed out the other day had come up with the idea that Jesus Christ, the son of God, was consubstantial, homo-usios, with the father. This did not receive universal acclaim or approval. There were those who disliked the homo-usios because it was not a biblical word and they were afraid that it might be bringing in non-biblical ideas into the study of scripture. That was one group of people who disliked it. There were others who reinterpreted it to mean homo-usios, like the father, rather than identical with the father. And, of course, Athanasius spent most of his life or a lot of his life anyway, trying to demonstrate that this was a logical impossibility, that while it is true that you and I can be like one another, we can only be like one another because for me to say that I am the same as you does not mean that you and I are identical; it just means that you and I are similar, we’re alike. So in human terms this is perfectly normal and natural, but when it comes to God, of course, the problem with God is that there’s only one God. And so, therefore, you can’t be like God without being God. You see what I mean? You’re either God or you’re not. And so this was the dilemma which was posed for people who were trying to hold that kind of compromised position.

But Athanasius realized also that there were other issues that had to be dealt with and not least the whole question of what we call the incarnation – the incarnation, the becoming flesh, of Jesus Christ. Now this, of course, is a biblical teaching. It is found in John’s gospel most obviously. John chapter 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” and then verse 14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten son of the father full of grace and truth.” And most of the discussion in the fourth century really hinges around how you interpret these verses. What do they mean?

Now the first thing you have to grasp is that in the early church at this time when people used the word “God” or indeed when they used the word “man” as well, what they were thinking of primarily is what we would call today the thing. In other words, the question that they were asking themselves is not “who is God” or “who is man” but rather “what is God” and “what is man.” In other words, talking about the objective reality of the thing. Now if you do this, of course, in terms of God and you put God on one side and man on the other, what you end up with are polar opposites because any word which you use to describe God you will have to use the opposite to describe man or indeed any material creature.

Let me give you some examples. God is invisible; man is visible. God is immortal; man is mortal. God is infinite; man is finite. And so on. All the definitions, all the descriptive adjectives that you can find to describe what God is – when you then apply them to us, you find that the same words have to be used as opposites because we are completely unlike God as beings. There is nothing in us as beings which is similar to the being of God at that level. All right. If you ask that question.

Now, of course, this cannot be the end of the story because the whole Christian message is to do with a relationship between human beings and God. So, therefore, in order for a relationship to exist, there must be some common factor. There’s got to be some way in which we can connect with God. And the question is what is that? What is it in us which makes it possible for us to have some contact with God? And conversely, what is it in God that makes it possible for God to have some contact with us? Some meaningful relationship, that is to say. I mean, of course, if God is our creator, I mean, he can do with us what he likes and so on, but if you make something, you make a pot or you make some sort of woodwork or something like that. I mean, you can control it. You can do with it what you like, but you’d hardly say you had a relationship with it. You see what I mean? It’s not the same kind of thing.
So what is it that makes this relationship possible? How do we categorize this? Where do we find it in us? And this is the question, of course, which preoccupies Athanasius and his followers in the fourth century, how to describe the incarnation, what we call the incarnation.

Now John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And this was the starting point for Athanasius. This was what the scripture said. This is the way in which it had to be described. All right? What is the Word? The Word is, of course, the Logos. The Logos – the word which is used in John 1 to describe the son of God, the one who became flesh. What does this actually imply? It is, of course, the mind of God, the reason of God, everything in God which has to do with ordering, putting things in an order. We can see this, of course, from the words which are derived from Logos in English. The word “logical” explains what we’re talking about. We see it in other words like “catalog.” A catalog is a list, and presumably a good catalog is a list which is in some kind of order, and so on. You see what I mean? We’re dealing here with something which contains within it the notion of sense of reason or organization, and this all implies a mind. All right? A mind who is behind all of this.

Well, human beings, of course, also have a mind. You are born with a mind, and therefore the ancient Greek philosophers were inclined to believe that the human mind was in some sense a reflection of the divine mind or of the supreme mind – they wouldn’t have called it divine in the same way that we would – but the supreme mind governing the universe. And, of course, many Christians, particularly those with a platonic education, took this over and regarded this as true. In other words, the human mind is the reflection of God in us, what the Bible calls the image and likeness of God. And the fact that you and I have a mind means that we can connect with God who is also a mind. The difference between your mind and his mind is one of degree rather than of kind, so that while you may not be able to understand everything about God, nevertheless you can understand something. You can connect with him and he can communicate with us. He can use words. He can use speech in order to speak to us and we can understand the meaning of those words and we can respond to them. So this is the point of connection, you might say, between God and man.

Now, of course, there’s a great deal of truth in this. I mean, it is true that God has a mind. It is also true that we have a mind, and it is true that we connect in this way. However, is this enough? Is this really what the image of God in man is? I mean, can you simply say that it is the mind and no more than that? The difficulty becomes more acute when we look at John 1:14 and say, well, the Word, the Logos, became flesh. The word for flesh in Greek, of course, is sarx. The Greek word for flesh is sarx. What is this? You see, how do you define flesh?

Now most Greeks or people of that type of thinking defined flesh as material body. In other words, the flesh is what you can touch. The flesh is what you can see. The flesh is what you can feel. The flesh is what is left behind after death. All right? That is the flesh. Now if the Word becomes flesh, presumably this means the Word – the Logos of God – enters human flesh. All right? It comes into human flesh. All right. Does this make the Word in flesh – the incarnate word, because incarnate is simply the Latin word for becoming flesh – is the incarnate Word a human being in the normal sense of the word or not? In other words, are you and I just flesh?
Well, of course, if you interpret flesh in the sense of meaning just the physical body that you can touch and feel and so on, then it is clear that we are not simply flesh. There is something else. There is something that we call life, because our flesh is a living flesh. And in the Old Testament, of course, this life which is breathed into the flesh, into the inert body, is called the nephesh in Hebrew or, as we say in English, the soul. And the soul is what makes the difference between a living body and a dead body. And, of course, you can soon see that the living body is very different from the dead body because the living body is not simply a thing moving around. It is also a body which is capable of thinking and acting and reasoning and so on. So the question then arises is what is the relationship between the mind and the soul?

Now most Greek type people – you know, the philosophers of antiquity – believed one way or another that the mind and the soul were essentially the same. They spoke about the rational soul, and they believed that the rational soul was a spiritual thing which entered the flesh, the material flesh, and that when death occurred the soul separated from the flesh and presumably went back to its origin in the spirit world. So however that was defined and however you think about this, you know, whether you image the soul being reabsorbed into the divine spirit or into the divine soul and so on or what, it is really a secondary question. The primary thing is that death is a separation of soul and body. The soul survives as a mind – the rational soul as a sort of bodiless mind – and this is a form of salvation because the soul is in fact liberated from the flesh. The flesh is a kind of bondage. It’s a prison house for the soul. The soul is liberated from this, set free in order to go back to where it really comes from, where it really belongs. All right? That’s the idea.
Now if this is what you believe and you see in John 1:14 that the Word has become flesh, the Son of God has become flesh, what is the difference between the divine Word – the son of God – and the human soul? Are these two different things or are they simply the same thing but perhaps in different degrees? In other words, is the human soul a kind of spark of the divine fire, if you picture God as a fire, and a spark sort of flies off the fire and then lands? As it cools off, it sort of falls to the earth and it lands inside human flesh, and this is the human soul – a little spark of the divine fire. Whereas what happens in the incarnation is that the entire divine fire enters human flesh. In other words, not just a spark but the whole thing. However, the difference between the spark and the fire is one of degree, not one of kind, because the spark is also fire, just not that much of it. You see what I mean? You’re dealing with a much smaller portion of it.

Now if this is what you think, then you will be inclined to say that Jesus Christ was the son of God, the Word of God, the divine mind, inhabiting human flesh but there’s really no need for him to have a human soul. Because why should the divine fire bother with having a spark? I mean, the sparks are in it. It doesn’t need this in addition to what it already is. And this is the way in which people of a platonic mind set tended to think. This is the way that Athanasius tended to think. I’m not saying that Athanasius thought exactly like this but this is the kind of mentality which he had, the way in which he developed his ideas.

The problem with this, though, is that the human soul as understood by the ancient Greeks was a rational entity, had a will of its own, and therefore, of course, was capable of having not only a relationship with God but also a relationship with other spiritual beings and in particular evil spiritual beings who could tempt it away from the truth. And in fact this is what had happened, that Adam and Eve had been enticed away from the truth, away from following God, by a spiritual being whom we call Satan who was himself a spark of the divine fire only hadn’t quite fallen to earth in the same way but nevertheless he came from that same source, and he was able to entice, to tempt Adam and Eve away from service to God because of the spiritual connection which there was, because he could speak to the soul of Adam and Eve; the soul of Adam and Eve could respond to this, could choose to fall away from God. And therefore, of course, the soul was the cause of sin, the seat of sin. The soul was imprisoned in the flesh. When the soul is cut off from God, the soul becomes subject to the flesh, you might say. The soul has nowhere else to go, nowhere else to turn, and this is why the flesh acts as an oppressive force, you see, containing the soul and keeping the soul away from God and so on. And in that sense, the flesh can be regarded as provoking sin and so on. But the origin of sin is not in the flesh because the flesh by itself has no way of acting like this. The origin is in disobedience, and disobedience by definition can only be an act of the soul.

Now if the son of God becomes a man in Jesus Christ and the son of God is the divine fire, the Word in its fullness coming into the flesh of a man whom we call Jesus of Nazareth, and theoretically at least, this divine fire, this divine Word does not need a human soul because a human soul is basically redundant. It’s an unnecessary extra, because when the fullness of the reality is there – the shadow of the partial manifestation of it is hardly necessary – can Jesus Christ sin? Can Jesus Christ be tempted? Does it make sense to talk in these terms? What is the connection between Jesus and other spiritual beings, notably the devil?

Now here, of course, Christians found themselves in a dilemma. On the one hand, of course, they wanted to say, as we would say today, Jesus did not sin. All right. That everybody would agree. He did not sin. The question is why did he not sin? Did he not sin because he was God and therefore could not sin, or did he not sin because he was perfectly obedient to the will of his father, resisted temptation, and as the scripture says learned obedience in the school of suffering and so on?

Now, clearly, of course, the answer has to be the second of these: that Jesus Christ could have sinned. He was tempted. This was not excluded automatically from the beginning and therefore, of course, some way has to be found for explaining how this was possible. How could this happen? And several people said, well, Jesus must have had a human soul because if Jesus did not have a human soul then he could not have been tempted. He could not have sinned. He did not have a human will or a human mind. And this is untrue to the scriptures, first of all, because the scriptures speak of the temptations of Jesus and so on. But it’s also untrue to our salvation because if Jesus does not have a human soul, if only the flesh dies on the cross and not the soul, then our soul is not saved. Jesus never really became a human being, not in the way that we are, and therefore cannot have saved us because the thing which matters most about us which is our soul is something that Jesus did not have, if you follow this line of reasoning. You see what I mean? This is the way that you’re thinking.

Now this was the dilemma which the Christians of the fourth century had somehow to resolve. The heart of it, of course – the real reason why there was a problem at all – was because of a misunderstanding of what the soul actually is. And this is where we have to begin because we have to look at this and ask ourselves, you see, what is the fundamental mistake? Everybody in the argument agrees that the human being is composed of three elements: spirit, soul, and flesh. All right? These three things. However, what of these three comes from God directly, somehow directly connected with God, and what of these three is part of the created order, is part of our normal sort of created status?

Now people with a Greek mentality, of course, inevitably believed that the dividing line is here, that spirit and soul are in effect the same thing, very difficult to distinguish one from the other. Because the soul, as I say, is just simply a spark of the divine fire. The divine fire is the spirit, so you might use the word spirit to indicate the opening of the soul to God or something like that, but when it comes to the substance, to the thing itself, spirit and soul are both invisible. Spirit and soul are both eternal. Spirit and soul are both the same fundamental thing, you might say, underneath, just different forms of the same thing. That would be the general sort of line of argument here, so that when the Holy Spirit is given to a believer, the Holy Spirit attaches himself naturally to the soul because that’s where the community of interest lies. That’s where they can sort of connect with one another because they’re essentially the same in underlying substance and so this is what happens when you become a Christian, that the Holy Spirit enters your soul, transforms your soul, lives in your soul, saves your soul when you die. All right? And the flesh is just a transitory thing. The flesh is just here for the time being. The flesh is not really saved in that sense. This is the way in which people generally tended to think.
Now the trouble, of course, is that this is not what the Bible teaches. What the Bible teaches is that the essential distinction is not where I’ve drawn the red line here between the soul and the flesh but here between the spirit on the one hand and the soul on the other. And you see this because, of course, the word for spirit in the New Testament is pneuma. The word for soul is ''psyche''. The word for flesh as we’ve already seen is ''sarx''.

At this level you may not notice much of a difference. You may not see the point, but if you look at the adjectives and if you read the New Testament and see how these adjectives are used, a spiritual person is called a pneumaticos. A person of soul is called a psychikos, and a person of flesh – a carnal person – is called sarkikos. Now in English, of course, we have the word spiritual for the pneumaticos and we have the word carnal for sarkikos, but what are we going to say for psychikos? We have a difficulty with this. We actually don’t have a word for this, because the various words which are possible which you could use don’t actually fit very well. I mean, you could, for example, simply take the Greek word and turn it into English – I mean, we do have this word in English. But what you get, of course, is the word psychic and this is not the same thing. I mean, someone who is psychic is not somebody who is governed by their soul - you see what I mean? – who is the life of the soul. This is not really the way we use this word.

You could, of course, take the Latin word for soul which is anima and come up with animal, which is also a word we use but again with a different kind of meaning. I mean, if you talk about animal man, you know, people think you play for Auburn or something. I mean, this is not the kind of word you can use in ordinary theological usage. And, of course, you could have the English word soul or "soulish" or something like that, but this has the air of being invented. You see what I mean? We don’t use this word in ordinary discourse and nobody would know what you meant if you said somebody was a soul man or a “soulish” man. They’d probably think they played rhythm and blues or something like that. I mean, it would have a very odd feel to it for most people. Okay? So basically we just don’t have this word. And it’s a problem because if you look in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 2:14 gives a very good example of this. The Greek says that the psychikos – this person – does not know the things of the spirit of God, and traditionally in English this has been translated as the natural man does not know the things of the spirit of God. Why? Because it’s hard to come up with a better translation. Unfortunately, however, natural is not the right word because the Greek word for natural is physikos, and of course the meaning can be seen from the Greek if you take the Greek and just turn it into English as physical. I mean, that’s really what you’re talking about, the physical man, the way we are as beings, what goes under the knife on the surgeon’s table and so on. I mean, that’s what it is and this is not what we’re talking about either.

So it’s a difficulty. It’s something which plagues our theological understanding, but I’m stressing this because the fact that we do not have a word for this, why do we not have a word for this? We do not have a word for it because over the years people have found it difficult to see that we really need one. I mean, if we needed one, we’d have it. We’d sense the necessity for this. And so we are blocked. We are in a bad way somehow because of the limitations of our own language and therefore the limitations of our ability to think this one through clearly.

However, in the Bible it is obvious that flesh and soul belong together as part of the human body. The biblical picture of mankind is of a unity of body and soul. It is not a picture of a soul which is imprisoned in flesh and when the body dies the soul goes back to God and the flesh disappears. This is not the biblical view. In the Bible souls can die. The soul that sins it shall surely die. So the life of the body, the life of the flesh can die, and on the other hand, if there is salvation – salvation is only conceivable as resurrection of the flesh. As Job, you know, “I know that my redeemer lives and in the last day I shall see him in my flesh. My flesh will see God.” So there is no distinction of this kind between flesh and soul. The two things belong together as part of the same human reality.

So if the Word became flesh in John 1:14, we cannot interpret this as meaning simply that the divine Logos, the divine word, came into flesh and bone. I mean, our sort of physical reality. We must interpret it as meaning that the word flesh includes what we think of as the soul. The two things are together so that in becoming a man the Word of God – the son of God – took on a human being, became a human being in the fullness of that term and not just a physical body, which he then inhabited but without having a human mind, a human will and human emotions and so on. So this is the conclusion which we are logically driven to if we look at scripture and follow what scripture says about the nature of the human being, what it means to be human. You can’t just be flesh; you have to be flesh and soul together. These two things belong together.

Okay. Back to the fourth century. This was not fully or properly understood. One of the big questions with Athanasius is did Athanasius really believe that Jesus had a human soul. Now this is difficult to answer because it seems that Athanasius was grudgingly prepared to admit that there must be a human soul in Jesus but he couldn’t find anything for the human soul in Jesus to do, so the human soul in Jesus was basically inert. It was basically overpowered by the Logos. Now what does this mean in practice? It means in practice that when Jesus Christ spoke, this was the Logos, the word of God speaking all the time. That when Jesus thought, when Jesus responded to the devil, when Jesus did whatever Jesus did, he was doing it as the Logos, as the divine Word, not as a man, as a human being. And therefore, of course, he did not have the limitations of the human being.

Today this question comes up in a different way. I mean, it wouldn’t be asked by Athanasius like this, but if I ask you a question like could Jesus have built an atom bomb? Question, you see. Well, what lies behind this question is Jesus is God, God can do everything, so presumably yes, Jesus could have made an atom bomb because he was not limited. I mean, he had the mind of God so he could do this. And the fact that he was a man who lived in first century Palestine would not have been a barrier to that.

Did Jesus know that there was such a place as America, for instance? Well, again, the answer would have to be yes, he did, because he was God, even though nobody else did at that time. You see what I mean? It was not something that would be common knowledge but he must have had a knowledge which went beyond that of the ordinary person.

Fine. I mean, you could argue all of this, but can you picture Jesus walking around Palestine as some kind of superhuman genius of this type? Is there any indication in the Bible that he was like that? And there the answer would have to be no. There’s nothing in the New Testament to suggest that Jesus as a human being knew things or did things which we know about and we can do now as human beings but which his contemporaries – people like Peter, James and John – would not have been able to do or even understand. You see what I mean? So in his humanity, in his incarnation, Jesus was a man of his time. He lived at that time and he thought as people of that time would think, and we don’t expect to find him saying things or doing things which do not fit within the mindset of the people he came to at that point in history.

But the question, of course, remains in our minds. And it’s interesting that people would ask this sort of thing today. A question which did occur to Athanasius in this respect is that when Jesus said to his disciples that “no one knows the hour which the Son of Man will come back again, only the Father knows. I don’t know. I can’t tell you,” he was in effect lying to the disciples. When Jesus said on the cross, “I thirst,” he was faking it. Because, of course, as God, God is never thirsty. It’s silly to talk about God being thirsty. So “I thirst” is really just faking it, showing that I’m really one of you.

Now this is very disturbing because Athanasius does in fact say these things. In other words, Athanasius reveals in comments of this kind that he doesn’t fully accept that Jesus was an ordinary human being in his humanity, that the thirst of Jesus was real, in other words. That the ignorance of Jesus was genuine. And by saying this, by thinking like this and so on, basically what Athanasius is doing is he is compromising the integrity of the humanity of Jesus Christ. You see, there’s something not fully there, something not fully present in him. Now the issue, of course, then immediately turns around again and we’ll say, well, if this is true, then Jesus is not like you and me, and if Jesus is not like you and me, then he can’t take your place or my place on the cross; it doesn’t mean anything. You see, it’s all very well for Jesus to say, “Thou shalt not sin,” but he had a power not to do it in a way that you and I don’t. So really what he’s telling us to do is all right for him but impossible for us. This is not something which makes him more like us but less like us. It actually distances him from us rather than the other way around, and of course, people who read Athanasius, people who listen to him and so on, realized this. Not everybody but enough people understood this to understand that this solution to the problem was not going to work, that the word flesh Christology, as it’s called, the idea of the Word becoming flesh, cannot be regarded as adequate if you end up with having to say that Jesus was faking it when he was talking to his disciples, that really he was God and he thought like God and he acted like God but in order to sort of play along with the others he pretended not to know things and to feel certain things that we would feel, and so on, in order not to upset them or whatever, however you’re going to put it. So this solution, as I say, long term would not work, and yet that is basically what Athanasius came up with, and in coming up with this, he unintentionally revealed the inadequacy of his position. Now we haven’t got time today to go into this in great detail and I will look at this again. What I want you to do today is just understand what the problem is and understand why it could not be resolved in that particular way. If you follow Athanasius’ thinking to its logical conclusion, you actually end up denying the humanity of Jesus or compromising it to the point where it might as well be denied. So this is where we have a real problem here, or Athanasius had a real problem and where I want you to understand that. Okay? We’ll come back to the solution some other day, but just get this point for now.

All right. While Athanasius was doing this at the same time as this was being worked out, other people were working on different aspects of the question, in particular, the whole question of the Trinity. How can it be that father, son, and Holy Spirit share together the life of the Trinity? Because, of course, as you see, the other thing about Arius – I mean, Arius raised the question how can God become man and solved it by saying that Jesus wasn’t fully God. But the other question how can God be three in one, Arius also resolved by saying Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not fully God. So Arius has an answer, if you like, to both of these possibilities.
So the other question how can God be three in one comes back and has to be thought through more carefully than it has been up until this time. What happened at Nicaea is that the hierarchy which had come down from Origin – father, son and Holy Spirit – and which Arius had interpreted as meaning that the father is God. You see, Arius had sort of drawn a line under here and said this father is God, the son and Holy Spirit are creatures. By claiming that the son is homo-usios with the father – in other words, consubstantial and shares the same being with the father – what the council of Nicaea was doing was this: saying that the son must be seen as part of the reality of God, however you define it, not as part of the creation. All right? That is their conclusion. That’s what they insist on, that Jesus Christ – whatever else you say about him – is fully God.

Well, this raises the first issue. Well, then what do you then say about the Holy Spirit? The council didn’t say anything about the Holy Spirit except that there was a Holy Spirit but, I mean, didn’t go into the Holy Spirit in detail. And so the first question that comes up with this is do we regard the Holy Spirit as somehow inferior to the father and the son? In other words, do we end up with a model something like this? Is this viable?

And this was the first challenge which the people in the fourth century had to deal with, had to face, and it was faced by Basil of Caesarea, first of all, who is one of the Cappadocian fathers. He was born about 329 and died in 379. Basil was assisted in his work by his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, who lived from about 330 to 390, and by his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, who lived from about 330 to 395. They are called the Cappadocian fathers because they came from and worked in Cappadocia which is in central Asia Minor, sort of eastern Turkey today.

Note that two things about these people. First of all, Gregory of Nyssa is the brother of Basil. Some people for some reason think the two Gregory’s were brothers, but they’re not. It’s Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa were brothers, and the names of the places which they are attached to – this is not where they were born but where they became bishops. All right? So Basil of Caesarea is so called because he became bishop of the church in Caesarea. Same with Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. So this is the usage which comes into play at this time. It’s the city at which they became bishops. All right? So this is what you need to bear in mind.

All right. Well, first of all, Basil is the first person in Christian history actually to sit down and write a book about the Holy Spirit exclusively. It’s actually called “The Holy Spirit.” I mean, that was the subject. And what he does is he endeavors to demonstrate from the New Testament that the Holy Spirit is God, but he is aware, of course, that this is not as simple and easy a task as it appears on the surface. He doesn’t actually say anywhere in his treatise that this is the case. Even in his conclusion he does not say the Holy Spirit is God. What he does is he draws out a series of arguments which will lead you to that conclusion. And what are his arguments? First of all, he says the Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit as Lord. He talks about the Lord who is the spirit. So this is the first thing: the use of the word Lord is indicative of a divine character which, of course, applies also to the father and the son but you wouldn’t use this term of the Holy Spirit unless there was some specific reason for doing so. So that’s the first thing.

The spirit is also portrayed in the New Testament as the one who brings life, spiritual life. He is the one who comes to dwell in our hearts by faith to make us born again. How do you get born again? Well, by the Holy Spirit coming into your life to bring the life of Christ to you. Only God can do this. An angel cannot give you spiritual life. And, of course, nothing else will be able to give you spiritual life either. Therefore, Basil says, well, if the Holy Spirit gives you the life of God, who is he? Sort of leaving you with this question. He doesn’t answer the question, just leaves you with the question.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the father. This is John 15:26. Jesus says, “I will go away. I will send you another Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the father.” What does it mean to proceed from the father? Clearly, the Holy Spirit cannot be a creature because it does not say that the father will create him. It says he proceeds from the father; he comes out of the father’s being in some way. All right? So that’s another question: what does this imply about him?

He then says that the Holy Spirit is worshiped and glorified along with the father and the son and quotes, for example, Matthew 28:19 where Jesus sends people into all the world saying baptize them in the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Why is the Holy Spirit put on that level? What makes him so special that you should be baptized in his name as well as in the name of the father and the son? I mean, it doesn’t say “father, son, and Virgin Mary,” or “father, son, and the archangel Gabriel” or something, but “father, son, and Holy Spirit.” Does this not give the Holy Spirit a special status?

And then lastly, says Basil, the Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the prophets. This is from 2 Peter 1:21, where it says “holy men spoke by the spirit of God and gave the scriptures.” But it also says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that the scriptures are inspired by God. So if the scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and the scriptures are inspired by God, what conclusion are we supposed to draw from this? What is the character of the inspired texts? What do we mean by this?

This is where Basil leaves it. Basil’s arguments are picked up by Gregory of Nazianzus, his friend, and Gregory goes the extra mile. Gregory says you see Basil has demonstrated by these arguments that in fact the Holy Spirit is God. No other conclusion is possible.
Gregory of Nazianzus just happened to be chosen as the president of the first council of Constantinople in 381. Basil was already dead by then, so was Athanasius, so they weren’t there. Just bear that in mind. But Gregory of Nazianzus was there. He presided over the meeting and he, of course, was therefore in an excellent position to introduce Basil’s teaching, Basil’s theology, to the council which accepted it and which added it to its creed. And this is why in the creed which we today call the Nicene Creed – it’s not the Nicene Creed but what we call the Nicene Creed – in its article on the Holy Spirit puts Basil’s theology on paper. It says, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the 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.” This is Basil summed up, and in 381 it was accepted by the church as the truth. And so at this point the Holy Spirit is recognized as forming part of the Trinity. He is the third person in the godhead.

Now once you establish that, once it is clear that you must have three – you must account for the three, then the question becomes, well, how are they different from each other? What makes them who they are or what they are? And this question Gregory of Nazianzus goes into in enormous detail. In fact, Gregory completely restructures the doctrine of God as it was held in the Eastern Church up until that time. What Gregory does is he rejects this model, of course – this father equals son but Holy Spirit less. I mean, that is clear from the beginning. But the model which he puts in its place is this: The father remains God in himself. In other words, this is the legacy of Origin. The father is the source of the godhead, the Autotheos, the source of deity. If you want the Greek for that, is theotetos. This is the father. All right? He is God in a way that the other two persons are not. There’s something special about him.

So Gregory of Nazianzus accepts this but he says within the context of the Trinity, the best way to understand the father is not like this. The best way to understand the father is to understand him as the unbegotten, or in Greek agennhtos, unbegotten, because he has no origin, no source. He doesn’t come from anywhere else. The distinction between the father and the son lies here, because the son is begotten of the father. This is, of course, New Testament teaching. The son is begotten, or gennhtos, begotten, and therefore the relationship between father and son can be described as one of generation. The son comes from the father by generation, the only begotten son of the father. John 1:14. Remember it all goes back to John’s gospel in the end, I mean, one way or another.

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, as we see from John 15:26, proceeds from the father and so the Holy Spirit comes out of the father by procession. The Greek word for that if you want it is ekporeusis. Procession. John 15:26. The obvious question which actually occurred to Gregory of Nazianzus was what’s the difference between generation and procession? I mean, can you establish a difference here? And Gregory said this is a mystery. There must be a difference between generation and procession because if there’s no difference then the son and the Holy Spirit are identical or else twins. And clearly they are not twins and the Holy Spirit is another comforter but he’s not a second son. Therefore, his relationship to the father must be different from that of the son’s, but we cannot describe precisely what the nature of that difference is. We see the fruit, we see the result, we see the Holy Spirit come into being as a third person, as a third entity and as different from the son, and so we know that a different process is at work, but we can’t describe it in detail. We don’t know.

The other thing, of course, which Gregory of Nazianzus might have dealt with but for some strange reason did not, is what is the relationship between the Son and the Holy Spirit? Because that is the missing link in this particular diagram. You see, the Son and the Holy Spirit are both connected to the Father, but precisely how they are connected to each other is not spelled out. And this, it has to be said, is a weakness in Gregory's theology which was going to tell in the course of time because people inevitably were going to ask this question. When it came to the incarnation though, Gregory was very firm in dealing with the view of Athanasius. I mean, he did not follow Athanasius' line particularly. What Gregory had to say about this a very famous phrase, was "what has not been assumed has not been healed." What has not been assumed has not been healed. In other words, the Son of God had to assume a complete human being otherwise the complete human being is not saved. It is not healed. So if Jesus does not have a human mind, the human mind has not been saved. If Jesus does not have a human will, the human will has not been saved. And, of course, you can see where this is going. If Jesus does not have a human soul, the human soul has not been saved. Gregory says this cannot be, and the principle which he lays down - the principle is very important - is to say that, well, as I've just put it, what has not been assumed has not been healed. Jesus must be fully human if you and I are going to be saved completely. Not just part of us but all of us is saved. This must be the way in which it's worked out. And, of course, he sees this within this context.

Now this is the way it was left at the first council of Constantinople in 381. This was the development which had occurred up until this time. It was not the last word on the subject by any means. But what happened in 381 when Gregory's views and Basil's views were adopted is that a new framework, a new pattern of thinking replaced the older one, so that instead of a hierarchical model, which of course was susceptible to Arianism, what you have instead is a relational model in which the Son and the Holy Spirit are connected to and defined by the process which brought them into being, the process which has caused them, and by inference the Father is also defined by the lack of such a process. In other words, to call the Father unbegotten in Gregory's way of thinking is to make him in some sense understandable only in relation to the Son. You see, you wouldn't say the Father was unbegotten unless you were going to say that somebody else was begotten. And Gregory would argue this is true to the scriptures because you would not call God "Father" unless there was a son. I mean, the word would not apply to God unless there was some offspring to account for it, just as it doesn't apply to you and me. I mean, if you don't have a child, you're not a father or a mother. I mean, you might be capable of becoming one but you aren't one yet, and so to call God "Father" and to say that the father is eternal and he is eternally Father, is by implication to say that the Son is equally eternal. Both of them must be there in eternity. Otherwise the Father is not "father" in eternity. All right? And that's the logic, that's the way of thinking which gets us to this point. As I say, it's not the last word on the subject. We'll come back and see more in due course, but I just want you to take that on board as much as you can for today.

Assessment

Name Description
1 Church History I - Quiz 7

Church History I - Quiz 7

Duration

1 hour 12 min

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