The Creed, Part 9: The Holy Spirit

Many people want to know where the Church “came up with” the Holy Spirit—as though he is something the Church invented in a spasm of needless complexification. Such people forget that Revelation is like falling in love, not like designing a car. It happens—then you spend the rest of your life saying, “Whoa! What was that?” The Church has been doing that since the Holy Spirit came rushing down on her head at Pentecost. We believe in the Holy Spirit because, well, there he is, just as Jesus promised. Exactly what that means, we don’t know completely. But we believe, just as the Beloved believes in her Lover without understanding it all.

Part of the Spirit’s mystery is that he is within us, operating in a hidden way so that we will see, not him, but the Father and the Son. Because he is the ultimate Servant, it is easy to think of him as somehow inferior to the Father and the Son, like an angel or something. But the Creed calls the Spirit, “the Lord.” That is, he is God Almighty, Creator of all. It is easy to forget but essential to remember. When we pray in the Spirit, we are praying with the power of God himself.

The Spirit is “the giver of life”. Tradition distinguishes between bios and zoeBios is the sort of life you got from your mom and dad. Zoe is the life of God, a life that is not only eternal, but more, well, lifeful. The Holy Spirit makes bios. But He communicates zoe. Why? Because bios is merely like the life of God as a statue is like a living man. But zoe is the life of God and the Holy Spirit gives it to us so that we become “partakers in the divine nature.”

In John’s Gospel, one of the favorite titles for the Holy Spirit is “Paraclete” or “Counselor.” The term is taken from law and refers to a defense attorney. The question naturally arises: What exactly do we need defending from? Some people have the notion that the Spirit defends us from God the Father and pleads our cause before his Tribunal that would otherwise convict us of sin. But this is a rather schizoid picture of God since the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” and is of one substance with him. Rather, the Spirit defends us from the world, the flesh, and the devil. For God is with us, not against us. That is why his name is Emmanuel, God with—not against—us.

In the West, the Creed teaches that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father. This has been a bone of contention between East and West, but the core of its meaning is certainly biblical: the Spirit is not merely from the Father. He is the “Spirit of Jesus” and his purpose is to transform us, as the Eastern Church so beautifully insists, into the image of Christ.

One question that bugged early Christians was whether it was proper to worship the Holy Spirit. Christian imagery has never given us an easy and obvious picture to grasp like those of the Father or the Son. The Church Fathers wrestled with the question of whether he was a mere “force” or some other impersonal thing, but were always constrained by things like St. Paul’s declaration that “The Lord is the Spirit” and by Christ’s command to baptize in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So the Holy Spirit is glorified with the Father and the Son. “Glorified” is such a gaudy pre-modern word. Isn’t that getting carried away? Such parsimony is not, however, the language of love nor of God. Rather, the God of Glory has extravagantly chosen to bring into being a radically unnecessary creation, to let us creatures share in his glory and to even let our fall be the occasion of multiplied glory by redeeming us from death and making us sharers in his Spirit of Glory.

It is the peculiar glory of the prophets through whom the Spirit spoke that, supreme among human beings, they did not know what they were talking about (cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21). That’s because the Spirit truly spoke through them, readying both them and the world for a revelation which neither they, nor the world, could have anticipated. When it did come, even those who ate and drank with the Revelation and met him on the Emmaus Road after his death and Resurrection still did not understand, any more than the prophets, what the words of the prophets had ultimately meant. The Revelation himself, crucified and risen, had to open their eyes, in the breaking of the bread so that they—and we—could finally drink of the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10).


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