Holy Spirit, breath of God (5): ‘proceeding from the Father and the Son’

Previous postings

  • The Spirit is a person
  • The Spirit is a distinct person
  • The Spirit is a divine person, the same in substance with the Father and the Son
  • The Spirit is to be worshipped



This posting: the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son


If, however, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one co-equal and co-eternal God, how are we to describe the eternal relations between them?

With regard to the Son, it was relatively easy to propose an answer.  He was ‘begotten’ of the Father.  But what of the relationship between the Father and the Spirit (and between the Son and the Spirit)?  He was not a Son, and he was not begotten.  What then? 

The original Nicene Creed (325) offered no answer, contenting itself with the bare statement, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit.’  The expanded (381) form, however, added the clause, ‘who ‘proceeds from the Father;’ and to this the Western church eventually added the words, ‘and from the Son’ (Latin, filioque).  This is the form we find in, for example, the Articles of Religion of the Church of England: ‘The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, glory and majesty with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.’ (Article V)  The Westminster Confession (2:3) speaks in identical terms.


Basis of the idea of ‘procession’

The basis for the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ statement in John 15:26, ‘But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.’ (ESV).  In the original context, Jesus’ concern was to encourage the disciples with the promise that after his Ascension he would send another Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, and the phrase, ‘who proceeds from the Father,’ was a parenthesis.  Yet it is remarkable for all that.  For one thing, the Spirit comes ‘from God’.  The word translated ‘from’ here is para, a preposition which strongly suggests that the Spirit comes from God’s side.  Indeed, the wording is reminiscent of John 17:5, where Jesus speaks of the glory he had ‘beside’ (para) the Father before the world existed. We are surely warranted to believe that the Spirit, as no less divine than the Son, shared that glory, and that it was from the space that he eternally shared with the Father and the Son that he came to serve as the Helper of those charged with witnessing to Christ and as the Consoler of those who would suffer for his Name.  

But the tense Jesus uses when he speaks of the Spirit proceeding is also notable.  While he says that the Father ‘will send’ the Spirit (Jn. 14:26) he doesn’t say that the Spirit ‘will proceed’ from the Father.  Instead, he uses the present-continuous tense: the Spirit proceeds, or even, is proceeding, and this suggests not so much a mission on which the Father sends the Spirit as an enduring relationship between the two persons.

Still, we can hardly argue that the word as used by the Lord bears the technical meaning it came to bear in later theology, where the procession of the Spirit was paired with the generation of the Son.  The Son is begotten, the Spirit proceeds.    The problem is that, unlike ‘beget,’ the verb ‘proceeds’ (ekporeuetai) bears no very precise meaning, least of all a theological one.  In John 5:29, for example, it is used of the dead coming out of their graves at the resurrection; in Mark 7:23 it is used of evil thoughts proceeding out of a man; according to some manuscripts it is used in Matthew 17:21 of demons going out as a result of an exorcism. 

English versions of John 15:26 reflect this imprecision.  The AV and ESV follow the Vulgate in keeping the translation ‘proceeds,’ but the NIV speaks of the Spirit who ‘goes out’ from the Father and the NRSV refers to him as the Spirit who ‘comes out’ from the Father.  Both versions, we can assume, reflect the view that ‘proceeds’ refers to the mission of the Comforter, not to eternal relations within the Trinity.

But when the expanded version of the Nicene Creed adopted the word ‘proceeds’ it did so precisely to describe these eternal relations though, even in doing so.  Procession was an eternal relationship between God the Father (and the Son) and the Holy Spirit.


Is ’procession’ the most appropriate term?

But is this common, everyday verb the most appropriate for describing the absolutely unique relationship between God the Spirit on the one hand, and the Father and the Son on the other?

Part of the problem is that no one has been able to clarify what is meant by ‘proceed’ in this connection.  In fact, it has seldom been attempted.  Instead, ever since the Western church expanded the original wording of the Creed and adopted the form, ‘who proceeds from the Father and the Son’, attention has focused on the dual procession to the almost total exclusion of the meaning of ‘procession’ itself.  Theologians have been clear that the Spirit was not made by God, and equally clear that he was not begotten.  But when it came to shedding light on the difference between being ‘begotten’ and ‘proceeding,’ they confessed themselves at a complete loss, not least because Eternal Generation was as great a mystery as Procession.  This should not surprise us, of course.  We know only in part, and every theological reflection quickly ushers us to the brink of the unknown.  It is no wonder, then, that Gregory of Nazianzen in his Fifth Theological Oration (VIII) warns us to ‘learn in silence’ and expresses his frustration with those who probe too far: ‘What then,’ he asked, ‘is Procession?  Do you tell me what is the Unbegotten-ness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken [go mad!]  for prying into the mystery of God.’



But going mad is not the only danger here.  There is also a grave risk that on the back of the terms ‘begotten’ and ‘proceeding’ we will introduce into our understanding of the Trinity a dangerous element of subordinationism, as if the Son owed his being to the Father who begat him, and the Spirit owed his being to the Father and the Son from whom he proceeded.  The language of the great patristic theologians encouraged this tendency, suggesting that the Father alone was un-originated and self-existent.  Even Athanasius, the great champion of the homoousion (the doctrine that the Father and the Son were ‘the same in substance’) allowed himself to speak of the Son as the ‘off-spring’ of God; and talk of the Father as the ‘source’ or the ‘cause’ or the ‘fountain’ or the ‘beginning’ of the others (or even of the Godhead itself) was not uncommon.  Such language was indeed hedged around with numerous qualifications, but it still encouraged a belief-culture in which the Father had primacy and the Son and the Spirit were subordinate. 

If we remember, however, that the Son and the Spirit are homoousios with the Father, and that homoousios means that they are one and the same in being, none of the Three can be said to be the source of the being of another.  The Three have the same being, they are the same being, they are the one God, not three gods.  None owes it to the other that he is God.  On the contrary, each is God in his own right.  The Son is from the Father in the sense that he is his Son, but precisely because he is his Son he is the same in nature with the Father and equal in power and glory; and likewise, precisely because the Paraclete is the Spirit of the Son he is equal with the Son. No understanding of ‘begetting’ or ‘proceeding’ can be allowed to compromise this equality.  In particular, it cannot be allowed to compromise the self-existence of the Son and the Spirit.

But there is a further difficulty.  While there is a clear correspondence between the term ‘Son’ and the term ‘begotten’ there is no such correspondence between ‘Spirit’ and ‘proceeding’.  Does it not follow, then, that no amount of reflection on the word ‘proceeds’ is going to shed much light on the relationship between the Father and the Spirit, or between the Son and the Spirit? 

At this point there is an intriguing difference between the Creed’s statement on the generation of the Son and its statement on the procession of the Spirit.  In the case of the Son, we are not only told that the Son was begotten of the Father, but are given the further explanatory statement that he was begotten ‘of the essence of the Father’ (ek tēs ousias tou Patrou): a reinforcement of the doctrine that the Father and the Son were one in nature (‘co-essential’).  In the case of the Spirit, however, the Creed contents itself with the briefer statement, ‘who proceeds from the Father’ [plus the later Western addition, ‘and from the Son’]. 

Can we not assume, however, that those who framed the Creed saw the procession of the Spirit, no less than the generation of the Son, as ‘from the essence of the Father’?  This would certainly seem to be required by the way the Creed makes plain that no distinction may be drawn between the worship ascribed to the Spirit and the worship ascribed to the Father and the Son. 

Still, the omission of the phrase ‘out of the Father’s essence’ is to be regretted, because it would immediately have made clear (a) that the ‘procession’ referred to the eternal and internal life of the Trinity; (b) that it was of the very essence of the deity that the Father should have a Spirit just as he had a Son; (c) that the Spirit is one and the same in  nature with the Father and the Son; and (d) that just as the Son is ‘very God out of (ek)very God’ so the Spirit is ‘very God out of very God’.  We might also pick up on the related language of the Creed which, on the basis that ‘God is light’ (1 Jn. 1:5) speaks of Christ as ‘light out of light.’  Bearing in mind that ‘God is Spirit’ we might equally well speak of the Holy Spirit as ‘spirit out of spirit.’   The Son is the ‘radiance’ of the glory of God (Heb. 1:3); the Spirit is the ‘breath’ of that glory.  The Son (the Logos)is the Word of the Almighty, or his Almighty Word.  The Spirit is the breath of the Almighty, or his Almighty Spirit; and as such, as Donald Carson puts it in his commentary on the Gospel of John (p. 529), ‘he belongs to the godhead every bit as much as the Son’.


The best hope of progress

Our best hope of progress in understanding the relations between the Spirit and the other persons of the Trinity is to focus, not on the word ‘procession’ but on the personal name, the Spirit or the Holy Spirit, always bearing in mind that while the Spirit is the ‘breath’ of God, he is not an impersonal breath, any more than the Logos is an impersonal word.  The Spirit is a living, loving, personal intelligence, who cares deeply for the glory of the Father and the Son, and cares no less deeply for the salvation of the world; and while the word ‘spirit’ (or breath) tells us no more about the origin of the Spirit than the word logos tells us about the origin of the Son (both of them being eternal and without beginning) it is under his personal name that Scripture describes for us the rich complex of relations between himself and both the Father and the Son.

What we then notice, first of all, is that he appears along with the Father and the Son as an equal.  The clearest instance of this is in the language of the Lord’s last commission to his disciples, where he directs them to baptise in the name of God and then defines the Name as, ‘The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’  This, as Basil of Caesarea remarked, is a clear affirmation ‘that in all things the Holy Spirit is inseparable and wholly incapable of being parted from the Father and the Son.’ (On the Holy Spirit, 37).  But it is no isolated instance.  We find the Three again at the Baptism of our Lord (Mk. 1:9 – 11), the Son being baptised, the Spirit descending on him, and the voice of the Father speaking from heaven.  In 1 Peter 1:1 – 2, the Apostle links together election by God the Father, consecration by the Spirit, and sprinkling with the blood of Christ; and in the Benediction at the close of 2 Corinthians the Spirit is once again given an honoured place when Paul writes, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ (2 Cor. 13:14)  It is fascinating that the order in which the persons are named could have been have been different without any change to the meaning (for example, it could have read ‘the love of God, the communion of the Holy Spirit and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all).

Secondly, the Holy Spirit constantly appears as God’s co-worker.  We see this already in Genesis One, where, immediately after the statement that God created the heavens and the earth, we read that the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2); and the flow of thought clearly suggests that it was through him that the earth was given form, the darkness dispersed, and the earth filled with life.  

More fundamentally, the Spirit’s involvement in the work of creating clearly implies that he, too, was eternal.  Like the Word, he already existed at the Beginning; like the Word, he was with God; and like the Word, he was God.  But his involvement in creation also portrays him as the Son’s co-worker, because it is no less true of the Spirit than of the Logos that ‘without him nothing was made that was made.’ (Jn. 1:3)

Thirdly, although they are distinct persons, there is an intimacy between God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit that far transcends the intimacy between any two human beings.  This appears particularly in 1 Corinthians 2:7 – 11, where Paul attributes to the Spirit a complete knowledge of the secret and hidden wisdom of God.  While the heart of man cannot begin to imagine what God has prepared for those who love him, the Spirit is fully acquainted with it, because he knows the mind of God as comprehensively (at least) as our human spirits know and understand our own thoughts; and we know what God has prepared for us only to the extent that God the Spirit shares God’s mind with us. 

This contrasts with the way that one human being communicates their thoughts with another.  We do it through words: the Father, the Son and the Spirit do it without words because each indwells the mind of the other.  This must be borne in mind when we reflect on such fundamental biblical concepts as the covenant between the divine persons.  This was not arrived at by a process of discussion and negotiation.  The agreement between them was eternal and immediate, each sharing in the others’ love for the world, each knowing the mind of the other, and the Three being of one mind.

Fourth, while the Spirit plays a foremost role at key moments is salvation-history, he always does so in the closest union with God the Father.  We see this at once in the miraculous conception of Christ.  Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be with child ‘from the Holy Spirit’ (Mt. 1:18, 1:20), while Luke tells us that her pregnancy was due to the Holy Spirit’s ‘coming upon’ her (Lk. 1: 35).  Luke’s account also makes clear the co-agency between the Spirit and the Father: in the coming of the Spirit the Virgin is ‘overshadowed’ by the power of the Most High (Lk. 1: 35); and the child conceived from the Holy Spirit is not the Son of the Spirit, but ‘the Son of the Most High’ (Lk. 1:32) or, alternatively, ‘the Son of God’ (Lk. 1:35).

The same communion-in-operation appears in connection with spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1 – 11).  Here again the Spirit is prominent: so prominent, in fact, that the gifts bear his name: they are pneumatika.  But in three compact statements the Apostle attributes them successively to the Spirit, v. 4; to the Lord, v. 5; and to God (the Father), v. 6.  He does more, however, than trace the gifts to a threefold source.  He speaks of the threefold source as the same source: the same Spirit, the same Lord; the same God; and he then sums up his message in the statement (v. 11) that all the recipients of gifts are ‘empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.’


The Spirit and the Son

If we now turn our attention to the relationship between the Spirit and the Son, we note, first of all, that the Spirit is no less the Spirit of the Son than he is the Spirit of the Father.  In 1 Peter 1, for example, we are told that it was ‘the Spirit of Christ’ who spoke through the prophets, and it was from this, no doubt, the Fathers took their cue when in 381 they inserted into the Creed the  words, ‘who spoke through the prophets’; and although the specific reference is to the Spirit predicting the sufferings and subsequent glories of Christ, we are fully entitled to believe that it was precisely as the Spirit of Christ that the Spirit delivered the whole Old Testament message. In every instance where a man could rise up and claim, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ it was the Spirit of Christ who spoke through him.  The word that proceeded from the Spirit proceeded no less surely from Christ.

We find this same title given to the Spirit in Romans 8:9, where he is designated both ‘the Spirit of God’ and ‘the Spirit of Christ;’ and so intimately related are Christ and the Spirit that, if we take verses 9 – 11 together, we hear the Apostle making crystal-clear that to have the Spirit indwelling us is the same as to have Christ indwelling us; and conversely that the person who does not have the Spirit does not belong to Christ (v. 9).

Then, in Acts 16:7, we see the Spirit referred to as ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ and, as such guiding, leading, and even restraining the missionary advance of the church.   

But not only is the Spirit described as ‘the Spirit of Christ’ and ‘the Spirit of Jesus:’ He is also (Gal. 4:6) described as ‘the Spirit of his Son.’  This passage is remarkable from several points of view. For one thing, the mission of the Spirit is described in the same terms as the mission of the Son.  In both instances (Gal. 4:4 and Gal. 4:6) the verb ‘sent forth’ (exapesteilen) is used.  But not only do the Three appear together in this single frame.  The whole family (Eph. 3:15) is here: the Father, the Spirit, the eternal Son, and the adopted sons and daughters; and it is to minister to these adopted children, Christ’s children (Heb. 2:13), that the Spirit is sent forth, just as it was to serve them that the Son was sent forth.  

Specifically, the Spirit is sent forth to assure us of our special relationship with God and to enable us to approach him as children approaching a father, crying ‘Abba, Father!’  But if we utter this cry through the Holy Spirit, we also utter it with Christ, the Eternal Son; and the underlying assumption is that is in and through the Holy Spirit (his own Spirit, who so fully knows the mind of the Father) that the Son himself calls God ‘Abba!’  Of course, the Spirit does not dwell in our hearts independently of Christ.  It is precisely because Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20) that the Spirit lives in us, and we may well link the Spirit-given assurance that God is our Abba with the fact that it is by the same Spirit that the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5).  But may we take a step further and conclude that the Holy Spirit also pours out the love of the Father in the heart of the Eternal Son?  If so, then part of our communion with Christ (what we have in common with him) is that is it through his Spirit that we, too, are able to cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 


The ‘breath’ of God

To feel the force of these titles, ‘the Spirit of Christ,’ ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ and ‘the Spirit of his Son’, we need to remind ourselves of the root meaning of the word ‘spirit,’ which in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuna) means ‘breath.’  Throughout the Old Testament the Spirit is either, therefore, ‘the Breath of God’ or ‘the Breath of Yahweh’.  This usage continues, of course, in the New Testament, but with one significant innovation: now the Spirit is also ‘the Breath of Christ’ and ‘the Breath of Jesus.’  Here, no distinction is drawn between the Spirit’s relation to the Son and his relation to the Father.  He is equally the Spirit of both and, just like the divine sonship, this relationship is of the very essence (ousia) of God.   The Father never existed without his Son and his Spirit; and the Son never existed without his Spirit and his Father; and within these relationships, so far beyond our experience, and so mysterious to our limited understandings, ‘none was greater, and none was less.’  The Father, the Son and the Spirit were one in love, as they were one in power and glory.  Through the Spirit the Father breathed his love for the Son; through the Spirit the Son breathed his love for the Father; and in himself the Spirit knew that he was loved by both.


‘Spiration’ rather than ‘procession’?

Would it not be better then, as some have suggested, to speak of the ‘spiration’ of the Spirit rather than of his procession?  This would certainly harmonise with the idea of the Spirit as the breath of God.  The problem is that ‘breath’ (and hence ‘spiration’) are impersonal.  This does not preclude our referring to the Spirit as the Breath of God, any more than we are precluded from speaking of Christ as his Word.  But we know that Christ is more than Word.  He is the beloved Son, and such a phrase has a warmth which Word (or logos) does not.  Similarly, the Spirit is more than breath, just as our human spirits are more than our breath.  He knows us, teaches us and is grieved by us.  The challenge is to find a term which (as far as human language can) defines the relations between the Spirit and the Father (and the Son) in personal terms. 

In reality, the term ‘begotten’ adds little to our understanding of divine sonship, and the term ‘proceeds’ adds even less to our understanding of the relation between God and his Spirit.  Why, then, did they come to figure so prominently in trinitarian discussion?  Mainly because the Church Fathers saw a need to establish a clear distinction between the three divine persons in their eternal, intra-trinitarian relations: or, as they expressed it, to identify a personal ‘property’ (idiom) which was unique to each.  The conclusion they came to, was that the unique, distinguishing property of the Father was that he was Unbegotten, that of the Son that he was Begotten, and that of the Spirit that he Proceeded.

Which may sound OK till you try to preach it.  Truth is, it carries us little further forward.  The persons are already distinguished by their names, and these names carry connotations to which such terms as ‘begotten’ and ‘proceeding’ add very little.  Do we really need to go behind them to clarify why one is the Father, another the Son and yet another the Spirit?  On the face of things, at least, the names themselves take us as far as we can go in understanding intra-trinitarian relations (unless, that is, we dare to ignore Gregory of Nazianzen’s warning and venture to proffer a ‘physiology’ of ‘begotten-ness’).

In Christian devotion and practice, what really distinguishes one divine person from another is not their ‘personal properties’ but their individual histories.  Each has his own share in the work of redemption.  The Father is the One who gave his Son; the Son is the One who went to the cross; the Spirit is the One who came at Pentecost.  It was from this history, the history of redemption, that the church came to know what it had never known before: that God was  Redeemer in a threefold way; that in the one Godhead there was an eternal Father who had a beloved Son who was eternally with him; that with this Father and this Son there was also an eternal Spirit; that the Three lived for each other’s glory; that they were one in their love for the world and worked together for its salvation; and that relations between them were so intimate that when one came into our hearts, the Three came.  

It is because of this intimacy, so inconceivable to us, that Jesus can speak of the Holy Spirit as his own replacement: ‘I will not leave you as orphans.  I will come to you.’ (Jn. 14:18).  Part of the meaning this, as indicated in the preceding three verses of this chapter, is that Jesus’ departure will not mean the disciples being left bereft of a Paraclete: the Spirit will come as ‘another Paraclete,’ to continue the ministry which up to this point had been delivered by the Master himself.  But the words of verse 18 seem to promise more: not merely the continuation of the same ministry, but the continuing presence of the same person: ‘I will come to you.’  Not all exegetes agree with this interpretation, of course.  Some, for example, argue that Jesus is referring only to his own post-resurrection appearances.  But if this were all, then after the Lord’s Ascension the disciples would have been left in the very condition he had promised would not happen.  His departure would have made them ‘orphans.’ 

But the even more important consideration is that on other occasions the Lord had assured them of his continuing personal presence.  In Matthew 28:20, for example, he had promised, ‘Behold, I am you always, to the end of the age.’  True, this would not be a visible or physical presence, but it would be more, not less, intimate.  He would live in them (Gal. 2:20): but then (as yet another reminder of the intimacy between the persons), the fruit of that indwelling of Christ would be described as ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22).  The presence of the One was the presence of the Other.   

These arguments are taken, of course, from the economical Trinity: God’s triune-ness as revealed in the course of the history of salvation.  We can be sure, however, that God in his eternal self is the same as he has shown himself to be in his revelation.  He is Redeemer in a three-fold way because in himself he is Three: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

But not only is this a true revelation: it is the only revelation.  We cannot go behind it into the ontological trinity to probe, for example, how the Son ‘became’ the Son or how the Spirit ‘became’ the Spirit.  ‘The Good News of God concerning his Son’ (Rom. 1:3) does not answer such questions: a sure sign that we do not need to know (and, in all probability, have no capacity for knowing).

Yet, enough is revealed to keep us praying, Da lucem, Domine! (‘Give light, Lord).