Here are my notes for a lecture that I’m giving today.

Interesting points from readings compared to what your church teaches?
How does the Spirit function in your church?
Why is the Holy Spirit so important for Basil and others?
What’s lost without a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit?
Thought experiment: What if the Arian’s won?
Does one need to believe in the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity to be saved?

I want to divide my time into two parts. The first (1) we will look at the evidence in Scripture to see how the Holy Spirit functions in both the Old and New Testaments and what conclusions we can draw from it. The second half (2), we will sketch a picture of Patristic thought up until Athanasius to see how they tried to reconcile the evidence found in Scripture.

Part One- Scriptural Evidence
What are the ways in which the Holy Spirit is talked about in Scripture?

  • It is present at creation (Gen. 1:2)
  • It gives skill (Ex. 35:31)
  • It’s associated with the prophetic ministry (e.g., Is. 61:1; Ezek. 11:5)
  • It gives power (Mic. 3:8)
  • Renewal and giving of new life (Ezek. 36:26-7; Is. 44:3; Joel 2:28)

On the whole, one could say that the Spirit is intimately connected with God (YHWH, that is) and his activity in the world. It’s not always clear, though, what the Spirit is. Is it just a name used to express the invisible manifestation of God’s power or is it an independent agent?

In the New Testament, we see the same type of ambiguity, although now the Spirit isn’t associated only with God’s activity, but Jesus’ as well (it’s even called the “Spirit of Jesus” in Acts 16:7). Throughout the New Testament, there begins to emerge a coordination of activity in the salvific process involving between God (Father), Jesus (Son), and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is part of baptism (Matt. 28:19), sanctifies (2 Thess. 2:13-14; 1 Pet. 1:2), gives gifts (1 Cor. 12:4-6), and regenerates (Tit. 3:4-6). While this doesn’t necessarily make the Spirit more than just a power, one begins to see a move there in the New Testament. What are some passages that bring this out?

  • Mk. 13:11 – The Spirit speaks (cf. Acts 1:16; 5:32; 8:29; 10:19; 11:12; 13:2; 20:23; 28:25; Jn. 14:26; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:11; 1 Tim. 4:1; ; Heb. 3:7; Rev. 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22; 14:13)
  • Acts 8:39 – Snatches
  • Acts 13:4 – Sends
  • Acts 15:28 – Thinks good
  • Acts 16:6 – Forbids
  • Acts 16:7 – Prevents
  • Acts 20:28 – Appoints
  • Rom. 8:14, 26; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 4:30 – Is grieved, cries, leads, intercedes
  • Jn 14:16; 1 Jn. 2:1 – Is another Paraclete

One sees, then, ambiguity in Scripture. There is no definite statement that the Holy Spirit is a individual “thing” beyond a mere extension of God’s activity (i.e., power), but one sees hints towards that conclusion. At the same time, there is no indication that the Spirit is a creature of some kind, like an angel.

Part Two- Patristic Evidence
Apostolic Fathers

Shortly after the New Testament (c. 120 AD), one sees a diminishing in the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian communities. Compare the Didache with the epistles of Ignatius. In the former, the Spirit is seen actively in the role of itinerant prophets/apostles. In the latter, with the rise of a more organized ecclesial structure, the role of the prophet decreases and so goes the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that it disappeared completely for as an examination of the scriptural evidence showed, the activity of the Holy Spirit played an important role in the Gospel.

In the mid to late second century, we see a revival of sorts in the interest of the Holy Spirit in the movement known as Montanism. Montanism originated in Phrygia in Asian Minor around one prophet, Montanus, and his two prophetess, Maximilla and Priscilla. Most of what we know about them comes from their opponents (it’s not clear if Tertullian was actually a Montanist though he did have sympathy for them), but from what can be gathered, the Montanists emphasized the ongoing revelation of the Spirit through Montanus and his prophetesses. But, as Harold Camping did/should figure out, a failed prophecy about the end times in 177 AD marked their downfall, though bits of it survived into the early third century.

Irenaeus (second century)
Irenaeus was from Asia minor, but was a bishop in Gaul (Lyons) whose principle work was a against the “gnostics” called Against Heresies. In this, not much is made of the Spirit, though that may be due to the polemical nature of the work. But there are a few things worth mentioning. First, Irenaeus takes God’s Wisdom as God’s Spirit (common in Hellenistic Judaism). So, the Spirit is Wisdom and the Son is the Word, and these become the “two hands of God” used in creation. As such, following Proverbs 8, the Spirit is antecedent to creation (AH IV.xx.3). But, the Spirit is also subordinated in some way to the Son as it is the first step on the ladder to God, “By the Spirit man ascends to the Son, through the Son to the Father” (AH V.xxxvi.2).

Origen (184/5-2343/4)
When we come to Origen, we meet a personality of immense importance comparable to that of Augustine. Origen sets the stage for later development, both good and bad. Origen was first and foremost a exegete, but one of his most important works was one of speculative theology known as On First Principles (which only survives in the Latin translation by Rufinus because his ideas were later condemned). To understand what he said about the Spirit, it is first important to see how he understood the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.T

The main cognitive tool he uses is that of participation, a key tool in Platonic philosophy. Now, before we start throwing around “platonic” as a pejorative, know that 1) Origen was using the intellectual tools of his day to synthesize biblical exegesis (which we also do today) and 2) his understanding of philosophical concepts is tempered by his exegesis. That being said, I should explain what participation means. Participation is a way that Plato explained how multiple things in the physical world (known through sense perception) share common characteristics. For example, things which we call good in this world are good because they participate in a higher, non-material thing called Good (with a capital g). This higher Good is known by the intellect, not sense perception. For Origen, the created world is good in the first sense, whereas the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are good in themselves.

If this concept is transposed onto the idea of divinity, we see an important idea which is that the Son receives his divinity by participation with the Father. The Father is the source of divinity, like the sun is the source of a ray of light, a common metaphor used in the Early Church. The ray is distinct from the source, but they share the same nature. Now, concerning the Holy Spirit, Origen thought that it received its existence, wisdom, reason, etc… from the Son through this type of participation. How this works out in the church is that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians some specific qualities which it has by nature, such as holiness. Origen at one point isolates the sphere of the Spirits activity to the Church. All creatures receive their existence from God, reason from the Son (i.e., the Logos), but holiness is restricted to the church. One sees in Origen a type of subordination, though which the Christian is made holy and thus able to attain a new degree of righteousness and wisdom as he/she ascends to the Father through the Son. Yet, there is an equality among the three because what is true in the life of God must be true timelessly (this is all discussed in DP 1.III).

Council of Nicaea (325)
Nicaea didn’t offer any clarification affirming only that they confess that they believe in it.

Cyril of Jersusalem (313-386)
Cyril is most famous for his catechetical lectures (c. 350; instruction given to those about to be baptized). In it, he devotes a section to the Holy Spirit in which mostly talks about the activity of the Spirit through scriptural exegesis affirming the general consensus of his day while attacking early heretical views. His views can be comparable to that of Origen (a unity of the three but with hints of subordinationism), but with less speculation (he opens this lecture with warnings and resolves to stick to what Scripture says). Cyril is important because here we see extensive teaching on the nature on the Holy Spirit before the works of Athansius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Council of Constantinople (381), only with less of an effort to iron out the difficulties presented in Scripture and Origen.

Athanasius (c. 298-373)
Athanasius was the first to write extensively on the Holy Spirit when he was exiled in Egypt around 358. He wrote at the request of Serapion, the bishop of Thmuis in Lower Egypt, to respond to objections about the nature of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius’ response centers around the interpretation of three key texts:

  • Amos 4:13 LXX: “I am he who creates spirit(pneuma)…and declares his anointed one(christos) to men”(I.3)
  • Zech. 4:5: “the angel who spoke in me”
  • 1 Tim. 5:21, where we find ranked together God, Christ and “the elect angels” (so the fact that the Spirit is mentioned with F and S does not show that Spirit is of similar origin and rank) “(I.10-11)

First, we must remember the creator/creature divide that became so prominent in the Arian debates. Either the Holy Spirit is on the creator side or the creature side. The Tropici, (Metaphoricals) as Athanasius called them, used these three texts to argue that the Holy Spirit was a creature (they believed the Son to be on the creator side, so they weren’t technically Arians). It should be remembered that this was a possible conclusion in line with some of Origen’s statements.

A quick look at these texts will make it clear why they thought what they did. In the first text, it is clear that “spirit” is being created by the Father. They take this to be the Holy Spirit because of the second part of the verse which mentions Christ and so gives one a triadic formula. The second and third verse go together for their argument that the Holy Spirit was one of the angels. Zech. 4:5 has an angel performing the same task that is attributed to the Spirt elsewhere in Scripture. 1 Tim. 5:21 has a Triadic formula without specific mention of the Holy Spirit, mentioning angels instead. Thus, the Holy Spirit must be an angel. If he’s not, they argued, then he must be another Son, making it the brother of the Son and the grandson of the Father, in which case how can you say that he is equal to the Son and Father?

Athanasius’ responds primarily through exegesis, show why their interpretation is faulty. In the first cause, he shows that the spirit referred to is not the Holy Spirit noting that throughout Scripture when one is referring to the Holy Spirit there is usually an article preceding the name or it is clear from context which is being referred to. In the second case, he shows by context that the angel must be distinguished from the Holy Spirit which is referenced shortly after. In the third case, he argues that in 1 Tim. 5:21 Paul is calling for witnesses to his charge to Timothy. More so, Athanasius argues, even if the Holy Spirit isn’t mentioned, he should be assumed because elsewhere in Scripture we see that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit act in union with each other. Where one is, there are the others.

This is important to Athanasius’ argument. To say that the Holy Spirit is a creature collapses salvation entirely because the Holy Spirit plays a necessary role. This is because of a fundamental belief on Athanasius’ part that you cannot give what you do not have. If the Holy Spirit gives holiness, it must be holy. If it is the instrument of the Father’s salvation accomplished through the Son in the lives of creatures, then it must itself be on the creator side. Following Origen and others, Athanasius sees the Holy Spirit as sharing the being of the Father and the Son with an emphasis on the order in the divine triad. Or, to put it in modern theological terms, the economic Trinity (they order in which God comes to us) is the immanent Trinity (God as he is in himself). This would lend credence to their critique about the Holy Spirit being a grandson. The way Athanasius responds here points to the direction the later debates would take. When we use the terms Father and Son, we must understand the analogy on the divine side. That is, we do not impose human qualities on the Trinity. Instead, what it means to be a Father, and what it means to be a Son are perfectly represented in the life of the Father and Son. To bring in language of grandson would be to impose human experience on the divine life. One would be better off using analogies such as light (Father)/radiance (Son)/enlightenment (Holy Spirit). The relationship of Father and Son is a set. When we talk about the Holy Spirit, it is first in terms of its relationship with the Son because that is how the divine life works, the Spirit points to the Son. The Holy Spirit is an image of the Son as the Son is the image of the Father.

What we have seen so far is that 1) the evidence in Scripture is not really as clear as we might want it to be and it demands some sort of reconciliation. 2) The history up until this point bears that fact out as we see Patristic writers emphasizing specific texts over others and attempting to organize the disparate data. In other words, the issue of the Holy Spirit couldn’t be put off any longer. The debate with the Arians over the nature of the Son forced the question: what about the Holy Spirit? Their task was primarily exegetical, but even then everything had to be brought together. Not as some sort of abstract intellectual speculation, but a fundamental aspect of the life of the Church, of salvation, and of the nature of the God whom we worship.


13 thoughts on “A Romp through the History of the Holy Spirit: From Scripture to Athanasius

    1. To whom it may concern:
      I did not see Acts 5:1-4 esp. verses 4&5. I’m wondering was this an honest oversight on your part?

      1. ServingHim: I’m not sure what exactly you are referring to. If it didn’t include it as a reference or example, it’s because this wasn’t intended to be exhaustive. I was trying to note general trends as one moves towards the debates on the nature of the Holy Spirit around the time of Athanasius and after. Do you think these verses negate anything that I said or are you just adding a helpful reference?

      2. Thank you for your reply Ryan. #1) I am trying to helpful and #2) it would seem to me that if one were to make a somewhat conclusive statement as was made above: “There is no definite statement that the Holy Spirit is a individual “thing” that it would appear to me that they had not seen the scripture I indicated at Acts 5:1-4 esp verses 4 & 5. Because it seems apparent that (1) Ananias lied to someone, “the Holy Spirit; and (2) that this someone “the Holy Spirit” was not a man, but in fact God. To make the statement above “There is no definite statement that the Holy Spirit is a individual “thing”, and then to further state as you did below,”because this wasn’t intended to be exhaustive, seems a bit dishonest. My apologies if I am wrong

      3. By exhaustive, I meant closely examining every single verse about the Holy Spirit. Also, this was an outline and so I anticipated anything I missed hopefully to be filled by class discussion. As to your specific point, I see the confusion. By definite statement I mean an explicit statement such as, “the Holy Spirit is a distinct and separate thing/person/entity.” One doesn’t find that in Scripture, but there are some indirect statements, such as the one you listed and others that I mentioned as well (esp. those related to feelings such as grieving, etc…) that lead towards the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is indeed more than just an extension of the activity of God the Father. By indirect I mean what you stated, that certain activities are associated with the action of the Holy Spirit that move towards a more personal understanding of the Holy Spirit’s identity. Does that makes sense?

        Thanks, I should add, for your comment. I always need to know if I’m being unclear or inconsistent.

      4. Thanks again Ryan, my apologies. I now see the journey you are trying to lead the class into a discussion of. However, when dealing with cults and their heretical teachings (esp. JW’s – in essence, modern day arians), you will see such statements similar to this, “There is no definite statement that the Holy Spirit is a individual “thing” beyond a mere extension of God’s activity.”
        It was my concern that scriptures were being left out on purpose to deceive. Such are the methods of these cults. Not merely stating what the scripture says, but indicating what it means, even altering the text to fit their views. Sorry if I have created any confusion. I have learned that because of the growing heresies (stemming from gnosticism), prior to 325ad, the councils became necessary
        I’m sure you can appreciate the special blessing God placed in Athansius and the importance he had during the council of Nicea. A contemporary witness, St. Gregory said this of Athansius:

        Unexcelled in virtue. Easily accessible for conversation. Gentle, free from anger, sympathetic. Kind in words and even kinder in disposition. Angelic in appearance but even more so in his way
        of thinking. Calm when delivering a rebuke and persuasive when he gave praise — not spoiling the effect of either by overdoing it — rebuking with the tenderness of a father and praising with the dignity of a ruler.


  1. With the Holy Spirit referred to as the initiator or active agent in the biblical texts that you cite, I am puzzled why you see the conglomerate as ambiguous. But assuming the ambiguity exists, what would you expect to see in Scripture that might clarify personhood to your satisfaction.

  2. Good question. I would want to see consistency between the OT and NT. The NT, as I tried to bring out, attributes more personal qualities than the OT. That being the case, even if the Holy Spirit is initiator or active agent in the OT, what that says about personhood is not definitive (compare the way the Spirit of God is represented in the OT and the way angels are represented) and might merely be a way of speaking about God’s activity in the world.

  3. Ryan: Can you give me the names of some scholars who hold your views about Tertullian and Montanism? I have researched Montanism extensively and have dialogued with many Patristic scholars and have never heard the ideas you have proposed. Thanks!

    1. It sticks in my mind as something a professor of mine mentioned, but it is also in Alistair Stewart-Sykes introduction to the Popular Patristics Series volume On the Lord’s Prayer (pp. 14-15). There he references David Rankin, Tertullian the the Church (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 27-51; W. Tabbernee, “Remnants of the new Prophecy: Literary and Epigraphical Sources of the Montanist Movement,” in E. A. Livingstone, ed., Studia Patristics, 21 (Leuven: Peeters, 1989), 193-201 at 196; and E. Evans, Tertullian’s Tract on the Prayer (London: SPCK, 1953), xi.

      Hope that helps!

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