What must we say about the Holy Spirit? In its eleventh article, the the historic Belgic Confession addresses this foundational question. Here is the next installment in my attempt to offer brief commentary and reflection upon this significant theological document.
THE HOLY SPIRIT IS TRUE AND ETERNAL GOD
We believe and confess also that the Holy Spirit from eternity proceeds from the Father (Ps 33:6, 17; John 14:16) and the Son (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:9; John 15:26); and therefore is neither made, created, nor begotten, but only proceeds from both; who in order is the third person of the Holy Trinity; of one and the same essence, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son; and, therefore, is the true and eternal God, as the Holy Scriptures teach us (Gen 1:2; Isa 48:16; 61:1; Matt 28:19; Acts 5:3-4; 28:25; 1 Cor 2:10; 3:16; 6:19; Ps 139:7; 1 John 5:7).
I’ve always found the creedal, confessional, and catechetical treatment of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate a somewhat odd internal tension. On one hand, all of the historical and orthodox statements explicitly affirm the deity, eternality, and glory of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, most all of them have surprisingly little to actually say about the third person of the Trinity.
This isn’t unique to Reformation-era statements. Even the earliest ecumenical creeds are quite terse in their content. The Apostles’ Creed may be the most culpable here, including nothing more than the phrase: “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. The Nicene Creed elaborates a bit more with this: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets”.
The Athanasian Creed has somewhat more to say overall because it treats the Trinity together, but similarly contains only one statement unique to the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding”. [Note the similar language used in Article XI above.]
Reformed confessions and catechisms more contemporary with the Belgic follow suit. The Heidelberg Catechism offers one short question appended to a longer section on Jesus Christ. There are more examples, though perhaps most egregious on this front is the Westminster Confession of Faith. Often seen as the standard bearer for confessional Reformed theology, the original version (1647) does not have a specific chapter for the Holy Spirit at all! [The extensive American revisions of 1894 and 1910 add a new chapter (34) on this topic, and it is quite good–but it is not original to the document.]
So the Belgic Confession’s brief treatment of the Holy Spirit stands in this same stream. I don’t bring that up to excuse it, however, merely to point out what strikes me as an odd, yet common, occurrence. A recent, popular-level book points out the commonality of this theological trend, as does an older and much better work of theological reflection on the person and work of the Spirit.
Still, this confessional minimalism is odd because the Holy Spirit is, as we confess, “the true and eternal God” and “of one and the same essence, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son”. Yet we often think of the Spirit as the little brother who tags along with the Father and Son. Or, we attribute to the Spirit whatever actions we can’t seem to directly attribute to the Father or the Son.
So why it is that we can’t find much to say confessionally about the Spirit, and what discomfort can this silence produce?
I’m not sure why there isn’t much usually said about the Spirit in most creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Scripture certainly has much to say about the Spirit, as does the bulk of Reformed theological reflection. [B.B. Warfield even famously called John Calvin “the theologian of the Holy Spirit”–an epithet not usually used of most Calvinists, regrettably.]
The Spirit is vitally active throughout Scripture from Creation–from when the Spirit was “hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2)–to the spiritual re-creation of individuals (Ezekiel 36:26-27), to the coming restoration and re-creation of all things (Revelation 21-22).
This Spirit, not begotten (i.e. distinct in personhood from the Son) but proceeding from the Father and Son, is the one who inspired the Word and bears witnesses to Jesus Christ. This Spirit is sent to regenerate the hearts of the elect, to draw people to Jesus Christ in saving faith, to apply his works and righteousness to them by grace through faith, to equip and empower Christ’s Church, and the seal believers for the coming day of redemption (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30).
It is this Spirit who indwells us, unites us to Jesus Christ, and remakes into his image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). He is the Comforter and Counselor sent by Christ to guide us into truth and make his home with us and bring us peace (John 14:15-31).
Certainly this is a lot to include in a brief confessional article such as this one. But not including any of that can prove problematic. It truncates the ecclesiastical resources we have when debates and discussions arise regarding the nature and work of the Spirit. In other words, churches who consider themselves confessional in identity may feel like they don’t have much confessional identity when it comes to matters of pneumatology.
This has been a bit of a digression, and I don’t bring it up to express displeasure or disagreement with the historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms that the Reformed tradition has produced. But I have always found it odd that a tradition which so strongly emphasizes the deity of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work in all areas of creation, redemption, and restoration can come across as being at a loss for words when it comes time to talk about the Spirit.
As for the actual content above, we can celebrate the clear statements and affirmations about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God, uncreated and unmade. The Spirit is equal in essence, glory, and majesty with the Father and the Son. The Spirit is distinct from the Father and Son in that the Spirit proceeds from both. This we confess and believe, alongside the faithful in every generation whom the Spirit has drawn to Jesus Christ by grace through faith.
Interesting and puzzling indeed! Francis Chan’s book “The Forgotten God” also looks at how the Holy Spirit seems too often to be relegated to a lesser status.
What’s the line from the hymn — something like “thank you for sending your spirit until the work on earth is done.”
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