The British Orthodox Church

within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

Orthodoxy and the Procession of the Holy Spirit

(Part 1)

There are a variety of reasons why it is worthwhile to consider the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit. In the first place there is the reality of the continuing theological controversy between the Eastern and Western churches. As our Orthodox churches engage more and more closely, in positive and negative contexts, with the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant communities, it is necessary that we have a clear understanding ourselves of those issues which separate us. It is undoubtedly the case that ecumenical contacts have discovered and described a number of possible pathways towards a greater consensus in the understanding of this doctrine. But our own ecumenical participation is not furthered if we lack a proper sense ourselves of how Orthodox have expressed their faith in the Holy Spirit from the earliest centuries.

It is also the case that there are numbers of Orthodox, perhaps taught in Catholic schools, or reading Catholic teaching materials, who fail to understand and appreciate that there are differences and distinctions between Roman Catholic and Orthodox teachings on many matters. These are not always crucial, and sometimes reflect an acceptable variety of historical and cultural development. But in the case of the procession of the Holy Spirit, and some other important Roman Catholic doctrines, these differences are significant, and a faithful Orthodox Christian does not have the liberty to act as though they were merely matters of theological opinion or theologoumenoi.

All theological reflection must begin with the Scriptures. But there is a danger that while the Fathers of the Church studied the Bible, and prayerfully taught what they had learned, we tend too easily to turn to the Fathers alone and use their own writings as sources for proof-texts and ready-made arguments. We must make the effort to read the Bible with the Fathers, and especially so in the case of this doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit.

We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by these terms at the outset, it is enough to begin by turning prayerfully to the Scriptures and asking what they say. This doctrine is concerned with a variety of questions which the early Church asked itself, it is not simply an academic exercise. Who is the Holy Spirit? Indeed is the Holy Spirit a person at all? And if a person, is the Holy Spirit to be considered God, and if God then is the Holy Spirit to be considered truly God, or only God in some secondary and derived sense? These questions must be asked if we are to understand the importance of the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit. While asking and reflecting upon them with the Fathers will indeed enable us to understand why this issue matters even now.

This study of the Holy Spirit will be composed of several sections, each produced as a separate essay. There is a need to consider the description of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, and then according to the writers of the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament. Having collected together those passages and teachings from the Scripture we will then consider how the Fathers of the Church interpret them, and only then will it be possible to consider the controversy surrounding the procession of the Holy Spirit, and its implications for ecumenical dialogue.

This four part investigation must start with the Holy Scriptures themselves, and perhaps it is rather surprising that we must begin with the Old Testament. Of course we will not find a fully developed doctrine of the Holy Trinity because the Old Testament is a record of the obscure and hesitant strivings after God by men who lacked the fullness of the knowledge which was revealed in Christ. Nevertheless there are a great many references to the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the Lord in the Old Testament, and these passages allow us to form an understanding of the degree to which the Spirit was recognised in the period before the Incarnation.

This paper will consider some of the aspects of the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of the Lord, which are described in passages of the Old Testament. In fact there are many such references, more than might be expected by a Christian who had been brought up to consider that the teaching of the Holy Trinity was entirely a feature of the Christian Church. As careful consideration of these relevant passages will allow us to see how the Jewish people understood, even if only in an implicit sense, the existence and activity of the Spirit.

We find that the Spirit of God is first mentioned in the second verse of the book of Genesis.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Genesis 1:1-2

It can hardly be accidental that at the very beginning of the Holy Scriptures the Spirit of God is described as being involved in the creative process. More than that, we see from this passage that the Spirit of God is not the same person or identity as God. God created, and the Spirit of God moves over the waters. We can see that the Spirit of God is associated with God the Creator, but is not entirely the same as the Creator.

There are other passages in the Old Testament which speak of this creative role of the Spirit of God. The book of Job says,

By his Spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent. Job 26:13

The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life. Job 33:4

The first reference is to the creation and adornment of the heavens by the Spirit, and the second to the continuing creative activity of the Spirit of God in forming Job himself, and each one of us. But again there is a distinction made between the one described both as the Spirit of God, and the Breath of the Almighty, and the Almighty God Himself. The same description of the Spirit as involved in the creation is found in the Psalms.

Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth. Psalms 104:30

Again there is a clear distinction between the one who sends the Spirit and the Spirit who is sent, and there is a clear connection between the Spirit and the work of creation. This seems to suggest that it would be a mistake to consider that the Old Testament expresses only a bare monotheism in which God is completely alone. In some sense we must recognise that from the first chapter of the Old Testament God is accompanied in His creative work by His own Spirit, whom He sends to do His will.

But the Spirit of God is not only active in creation. The Old Testament reveals the Spirit of God as descending on those whom God chooses, and granting them special graces. In the first place we can find various passages which show us that the Spirit of God comes to dwell in men. One example is found when Pharaoh’s dream was interpreted by Joseph.

And Pharaoh said unto his servants, Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is? Genesis 41:38

Another passage is found when Moses is instructed to take Joshua and appoint him as his successor.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay thine hand upon him. Numbers 27:18

Yet another is found in relation to Saul, when it is said,

And the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard those tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly. 1 Samuel 11:6

There are indeed a great many similar references to the Spirit of God coming upon people in the Old Testament. Nor is it only the case that the Spirit of God comes upon godly people. In the book of Numbers we find that the Spirit of God comes even upon the false prophet Balaam,

And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the Spirit of God came upon him. Numbers 24:2

So we can see that in the Old Testament there was an understanding that together with God the Creator there was the Spirit of God, and that the Spirit of God not only had a relation to the creation, as working out God’s creative will, but that He also came upon men, and had a relation with men. He is in some sense a mediator of God’s presence among mankind.

When the Spirit of God acted upon men we can see a variety of actions and responses. In the book of Judges for instance, we read that the Spirit of God came upon several leaders of Israel. The first case is that of Othniel. We read,

And when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them, even Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.  And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel, and went out to war: and the LORD delivered Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed against Chushanrishathaim. Judges 3:9-10

Here we see that when the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of the Lord, comes upon Othniel he is given the ability to judge Israel, that is he is given wisdom and insight beyond the ordinary. More than that he is given the ability to lead the people of God in battle against their enemies. He becomes part of the history of God’s action in the world, leading God’s people and defending God’s people from their enemies.

Indeed throughout the book of Judges we see similar descriptions of those upon whom the Spirit comes. A few instances illustrate the point.

But the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet; and Abiezer was gathered after him. Judges 6:34

 

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. Judges 11:29

In both these latter cases the Judges are leaders in warfare, and the Spirit of the Lord both sets them apart for this ministry, and also enables them in their leadership. The most colourful of these Judges is of course Samson. He is a complex character, but the manner of his conception of barren parents, after an angelic visitation, and the divine instruction that he be a Nazirite from his birth, place his experiences of the Spirit in the context of a particular purpose of God. The Spirit does not descend randomly, but just as Othniel, Gideon and Jephthah were all used of God, so Samson is most clearly set apart from his birth for the service of God.

Even before his adulthood we read,

And the Spirit of the LORD began to move him at times in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol. Judges 13:25

And only a little later we read,

Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done. Judges 14:5-6

This passage suggests to us that when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon a person they are enabled to act beyond their own abilities. In the case of others of the Judges they are granted wisdom and the grace of leadership, and this might be confused with ordinary ability, but in the case of Samson there can be no doubt. Even as a young man, while living with his parents, he tears apart a lion as if it was a young kid.

The book of Judges contains many more examples of the super-human strength of Samson, which derived from the presence of the Spirit of the Lord with him. But we also learn that when he gave away the secret of his strength, and his hair was cut, breaking his Nazirite vow, the Lord departed from him, and he was left in his natural human weakness.

What is most important in this passage is that it is said that the Lord departed from him. There is an equivalence made between the Spirit of the Lord which descended on him, and the Lord Himself, understood as God. In some sense, the Spirit of the Lord makes the Lord Himself present, and is the Lord, even while also being called the Spirit of the Lord.

Another complex Old Testament figure who had experience of the Spirit of the Lord is Saul , who was anointed the first King of Israel by Samuel. In one passage we read,

After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where is the garrison of the Philistines: and it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy:  And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man. 1 Samuel 10:5-6

This is an interesting passage because it combines the presence of the Spirit of the Lord with the prophetic ministry, a ministry which might be considered to have superseded that of the Judges. The prophet declares the word of the Lord by the presence of the Spirit of the Lord upon him. And here we find that Saul is transformed by the Spirit of the Lord coming upon him, and is ‘turned into another man’. There are other passages in Samuel which also combine the presence of the Spirit of God with prophecy. These include the following,

And Saul sent messengers to take David: and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as appointed over them, the Spirit of God was upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. 1 Samuel 19:20

It could perhaps be considered that the Spirit of God stands for God Himself and does not clearly suggest some other agent, but a passage in Chronicles makes this distinction clear even in the case of the prophets.

And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the LORD, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the LORD, he hath also forsaken you. 2 Chronicles 24:20

Here we see that the prophet is speaking in the power and by the presence of the Spirit of God upon him, but he does not speak for God in the first person. He does not say, as if speaking the words of God, ‘I say’, rather the Spirit of God upon him says, ‘you have forsaken the Lord, he hath also forsaken you’. The Lord is quite clearly distinct from the Spirit of God who speaks the words of God through the prophet. Indeed we see that it is the Spirit of God which speaks and says, ‘Thus saith God’.

What have we gathered so far from this study of the Old Testament? There is a Spirit of God, or Spirit of the Lord, and it is distinct from the Lord God. It is seen to act as the agent of the creative will of God, and to be the voice of God in men. This Spirit comes upon men and uses them to accomplish the will of God. It is the Spirit which comes upon the Judges, and the Spirit which speaks in the Prophets. The Spirit is a person in his own right, since He Himself speaks in the prophets, and this Spirit has some relation to the Lord God since when the Spirit of the Lord withdraws from Samson it is said that it is the Lord who has withdrawn.

The later writings in the Old Testament confirm this personal nature of the Spirit of God. We find in Isaiah that the Spirit is referred to as ‘He’ and ‘Him’.

Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counsellor hath taught him?  With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding? Isaiah 40:13-14

Elsewhere in Isaiah we find a veiled reference to the Holy Trinity when the prophet says,

Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord GOD, and his Spirit, hath sent me.  Thus saith the LORD, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the LORD thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go. Isaiah 48:16-17

This perhaps represents the height of the spiritual knowledge which was gathered by the saints of the Old Testament. In this passage we see that there is the Lord God, and there is his Spirit, and there is also the one who speaks, the one of whom it is said that the Lord God and His Spirit hath sent him. Of course it is not suggested that the Old Testament writers had in mind the complete doctrine of the Trinity as expressed by St Athanasius. But it does seem that veiled in obscure references throughout the Old Testament there is a constant witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit with the Lord God, and a constant understanding that it is by His Spirit that the Lord God accomplishes His will in the world.

When we turn to consider the New Testament understanding of the Holy Spirit it will be with these passages in mind. And we can be sure that the New Testament was indeed written with an understanding and appreciation of the witness of the Old Testament. On the day of Pentecost the events which took place were interpreted in the light of the Old Testament. St Peter says,

But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel;  And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:   And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: Acts 2:16-18

Clearly the Apostles did not consider that what was happening was something entirely new and without precedent. They were Jews, and the ministry of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit was the fulfilment of their Jewish hopes and aspirations. That being so, we should not be surprised to find references to the Spirit of God throughout the Old Testament. We have been able to see that in fact there was a reasonably well developed sense of the Holy Spirit throughout the Old Testament period, even an understanding that at the beginning of all things the Spirit had been active, and continued to be active. It was not entirely surprising that the Spirit of God had fallen upon Jewish people, but the wonder was that it had fallen upon rough and ready fisherman, and tax collectors, and Galileans.

The Old Testament should not be quietly ignored as if it has nothing to teach Christian believers. On the contrary, the truth of our Christian Gospel and the New Testament can be found in every chapter of the Old, even if veiled and seen only ‘as in a glass darkly’. The Spirit of God has been active throughout the ages, and we should not be surprised to find that the believers of the Old Testament were also aware of his activity. It remains, in the next paper, to consider how a greater understanding of the role and person of the Holy Spirit was expressed in the New Testament.

Father Peter Farrington




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