Holy Spirit, breath of God (3): 'the same in substance' with the Father and the Son?

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  • The Holy Spirit a person
  • The Spirit a distinct person
  • The Spirit a divine person


Jesus had promised the disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (Jn.16:13), and under their instruction and guidance the church from the very beginning revered the Holy Spirit as a divine person.  But in the generations after the apostles, men began to speculate.  If there were but one God, how could the Son and the Spirit be God; and supposing the Spirit to be divine, how was he related to the Father and the Son?

Inevitably, one result of these speculations was that there arose in the 4th century church a group who denied the deity of the Holy Spirit and came to be known collectively as the ‘Pneumatomachians’: literally, the Spirit-fighters.  This was a parallel heresy to Arianism, the precursor of modern Unitarianism.  Arius (250-336) denied the deity of the Son; the Pneumatomachians denied the deity of the Spirit, arguing that he was ‘like’ God but was not God.  On the other hand (and this is what gave the heresy plausibility) he was not a mere creature.  He was something in between: neither altogether God nor altogether a creature.

Over against the Pneumatomachians the deity of the Spirit was championed by some of the most illustrious names in the history of Christian theology, particularly by Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) and the great Cappadocian (Turkish) theologians, Basil of Caesarea (329-379), Gregory of Nyssa (330-395, Basil’s brother) and Gregory of Nazianzen (330-389).  One outcome of their labours was that the original Nicene Creed (325) was enlarged to include a fuller statement on the Holy Spirit.  Originally it had said merely, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’, but in its later, Constantinopolitan form (381) it declared, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver … who with the Father and the Son is to be worshipped and glorified; who spoke through the prophets’.

The key point here is that the Spirit is to be worshipped and glorified.  The Pneumatomachians were prepared to say that God was to be worshipped through the Holy Spirit: the Creed takes the much stronger line that the Spirit is to be worshipped together with the Father and the Son.  This means that no distinction is to be drawn between the honour and praise accorded to the Holy Spirit and the honour and praise to be accorded to the Father and the Son.  Instead, he is to be included in the same doxology:


Glory be to God the Father,
Glory be to God the Son,
Glory be to God the Spirit,
Great Jehovah, Three in One!

The two titles which the Creed gives to the Spirit are also charged with significance.  First, he is ‘the Lord’, a title which in the Old Testament belonged to Yahweh (Jehovah) alone, but which the New Testament regularly applies to Jesus, declaring, for example, that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ (Phil. 2:11).  Here the Creed confesses the Spirit in these same terms.  The Spirit is the Lord, sharing equally with the Father and the Son the unique, non-transferable lordship of the one God.


The ‘life-maker’

But the Spirit is also the ‘life-giver’ (or, more precisely, the ‘life-maker’).  This is a separate title from Lord.  The Spirit is not merely ‘the Lord-and-giver of life’.  He is the Lord; and he is the giver of life.  This presupposes, of course, that he himself is a living, vibrant, dynamic being.  It was as such that he played a primary role in the work of creation, and particularly in the creation of life.  But the language of the Creed also echoes the language of Ephesians 2:5, which declares that God made us alive with Christ.  The root-verb here is the same as the one in the Creed, zōopoieō.  We were dead, but God he Father made us alive; and, like the Father, the Spirit, too, is a life-maker.  He hovered over the face of the waters at creation (Gen. 1:2), and through him we are re-created in the miracle of rebirth and regeneration (John 3:5, Titus 3:5).  In 2 Corinthians 3:6, we are told that while the ‘letter’ (the law) kills, the Spirit gives life (again, the same verb, zōopoieō). 

There is a further fascinating link in Romans 8:11, where we are told that it is the Spirit who will ‘make alive’ (zōopoieō, once again) our mortal bodies in the glory of the resurrection.  In sum, it is due to him, as the Lord of Life, that the waters bring forth life, that the crucified Messiah is made alive again, that the spiritually dead are made spiritually alive, and that our mortal bodies come alive again in the glory of the resurrection.


Who spoke through the prophets

The Creed also asserts that it was the Spirit who spoke through the prophets.  This reflects the language of 2 Peter 1:21, where the Apostle declares that, while the prophets spoke as men (and, no doubt, found writing as difficult as the rest of us), they spoke as men carried by the Holy Spirit, speaking by his initiative and saying precisely what he intended them to say. 

But we must also note the language of 2 Timothy 3:16, where Paul reminds Timothy that all Scripture is ‘God-breathed’.  This word (theopneustos) has at its heart the word pneuma, which can mean either wind, breath or spirit according to the context.   God breathed-out his word through the Spirit who carried the prophets.  No distinction can be drawn, then, between the word of God and the word of the prophets; nor can any distinction be drawn between the word of God and the word of the Spirit.


The same in substance?


But can we go further and speak of the Spirit as ‘the same in substance’ with the Father and the Son?  This English phrase (found, for example, in the Shorter Catechism, Answer 6) translates the Greek word, homoousios, which the Nicene Creed adopted in order to repudiate the Arian heresy.  It declared unambiguously that the Father and the Son were ‘one and the same in being’: a doctrine which no Arian could admit.  However, the Creed, even in its expanded form, does not apply this word to the Holy Spirit, no doubt because it seemed quite enough to describe him as ‘the Lord, the giver of life’ and ‘with the Father and the Son to be worshipped and glorified.’  But such an outstanding Church Father as Gregory of Nazianzen had no hesitation about speaking of the Spirit as homoousios with God.  ‘What then?’ he asks in his Fifth Theological Oration, ‘Is the Spirit God? Most certainly.  Well then, is He Coessential (homoousios)?  Yes, if he is God.’

The great Reformation creeds followed this precedent.  For example, the Westminster Confession, having asserted that there is but one living and true God, goes on to declare (Chapter 2:3) that, ‘in the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power and eternity; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.’


A non-biblical word

Like the word ‘trinity’ itself, homoousios is a non-biblical word, and some will object to both words for this very reason.  But the very point of interpretation, whether of the Bible or any other piece of writing, is to put ourselves in a position where we can express in our own words the meaning of what we have read: otherwise, exegesis and exposition become impossible.  This is why the early fathers adopted the phrase, ‘the same in substance’.  It expressed their unshakeable belief that the sum and substance of biblical teaching was that both the Son and the Holy Spirit were God in exactly the same sense as the Father was God; and by putting it in the Creed they declared any denial of this belief to be off-limits within the Christian church.  In other words, it was a heresy.  When the later Puritans, out of a misconceived biblicism, began to refuse to subscribe to any ‘man-made creeds,’ Puritanism quickly degenerated into Unitarianism.

But then, the word homoousios itself needs to be unpacked.  It signalises, first, that the three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equal in power, authority and glory; and, secondly, that the Three are the same in nature.  Just as three men share the same human nature, defined by the one human genotype, so the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit share the same divine nature.  All the attributes and perfections of deity are found in each.  Without any equivocation, then, we can apply to the Holy Spirit the Shorter Catechism’s answer to the question, ‘What is God?’  and affirm that, ‘The Holy Spirit is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’   What the Father and the Son are, the Spirit is.

But this is not all.  Homoousios not only means that the Three are generically one, like three human individuals who belong to the same species and share the same nature but are numerically distinct.  The three divine Persons are numerically one.  The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not three gods, but the one living and true God.  There are not three Almighties, but the one Almighty is triune; and he is triune not because at some point he decided to be triune, but because it is his very nature to be triune.  He has never been, and could never be, except as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Yet the Three, to use the language of Basil of Caesarea, are not only consubstantial but co-numerate.  Together they are the One, and together they are the First. 

With us, three persons are three separate beings, but not in the Trinity.  They are one being: communing, cooperating and co-acting, one in love for each other and one in love for the world; and living in each other (Jn. 17:21) with an intimacy and mutual indwelling that defies our understanding.  Where the One is, the Three are; what the One does, the Three do, but each in his own way. 

God is Light (1 Jn. 1:5), and in that light each person shines, distinctly, each one essential to the divine spectrum.  But it is a spectrum in which no colour can be isolated from the others.