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“The Lord and Giver of Life”

The Nicene Creed and the Holy Spirit

The Nicene Creed was adopted in 325 at the Council of Nicaea. This creed secured the theological formulation of the Godhead. The ancient creeds utilized the phrase πιστευο, or credo, which means “I or we believe.” Using the phrase “we believe” gave the universal Church the ability to determine an orthodox standard as published in the creed. The ecclesiastical implication is that the Church has specific perimeters that define orthodoxy. Thus, the Nicene Creed, which was expanded at Constantinople (381), established doctrinal matters concerning Theology Proper, Christology, and Pneumatology.

The creed is structured with three articles. The first article addresses God the Father, whereas, the second article reviews God the Son. The third article of the creed presents the person of the Holy Spirit. The creed naturally progresses from Theology Proper to Christology to Pneumatology, thereby presenting a concise understanding of the individual members of the Trinity while affirming one God (see article one of the Nicene Creed).

The creed established Trinitarian orthodoxy for the universal Church. Any doctrinal deviation that diminished or denounced the content of the creed was considered heretical in subsequent years and outside the accepted perimeters of orthodox doctrine. Unfortunately, the modern Evangelical Church has deemphasized or denied the theological assertions of the Holy Spirit contained in Nicene Creed.[1]

The goal of this essay is to examine the content of the creed concerning the person of the Holy Spirit in relation to interpretative mode of the Great Tradition.[2] I hope that the modern Evangelical Church, ecclesiastical leaders, and contemporary theologians will discover the rich doctrine of the Holy Spirit as presented by the biblicism of the Nicene Creed. I hope that the modern Evangelical Church, ecclesiastical leaders, and contemporary theologians will discover the rich doctrine of the Holy Spirit as presented by the biblicism of the Nicene Creed. Click To Tweet

Brief Historical Overview

The aftermath of the Council of Nicaea witnessed the continued problem regarding the person of Christ and his relationship to the Trinity.[3] The discussion eventually turned to the roles of both Christ and the Holy Spirit within the Godhead. Even though both the Council of Nicaea and Constantinople dealt with the issue of Arianism by adopting an ecumenical creed condemning the position, their efforts did not cease Arianism’s existence.[4] Regardless, Constantinople attempted to settle the roles of the persons in the Godhead, as the creed declares the Holy Spirit is divine.

Tertullian, Didymus the Blind, and Gregory of Nazianzus Revisited

The work of Tertullian will serve as an example of Western Theology. [5] One must remember that the previous Monarchian Controversy[6] was challenged and championed successfully by Tertullian, which meant that language was already forming in the West.[7] Tertullian coined the phrase “one substance, three persons,” (una substantia, tres personae), giving Christianity the phraseology that is still employed to describe the Trinity.

Tertullian’s work Against Praxes pointedly states that the Spirit proceeds from the Father: “I believe the Spirit to proceed from no other source than from the Father through the Son.”[8] Not only does Tertullian affirm the procession of the Spirit, but he gives the formula that has become known throughout the Greek-speaking Eastern Church: The procession of the Spirit is through the Son. Many later Greek theologians would develop this thought. The early dating of Against Praxes in approximately 213 and the subsequent developing thoughts about the Spirit’s procession suggest that the Great Tradition has a long-standing history within Christianity.

Edward Siecienski writes, “It was [Tertullian’s] writings that the idea of Spirit’s procession ‘through the son’ was made explicit, and it was following Tertullian that Latin theology began to link our understanding of God’s very nature and the biblical revelation.”[9] This resulted in certain passages being read with the understanding of the procession of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. In general, Latin theologians utilized specific language that allowed a clear, defined Trinitarian concept for the West.

The early Church Fathers were clearly reading John 15:26 (that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Son and proceeds from the Father). No one disputed this claim, but the theological implications of John 15:26 were another issue. Tertullian was the first to grasp the distinct meaning of procession, or ἐκπορεύεται. His work laid the foundation for later Church Fathers to contemplate the nature of procession. The Eastern Church elaborated on the concept.[10]

Didymus the Blind states that “He [John] does not say ‘from God’ or ‘from the Almighty’ but ‘from the Father,’ because though the Father and God Almighty are the same, yet the Spirit of truth properly proceeds from God as the Father.”[11] Gregory of Nazianzus comments, “Insofar as he proceeds from the Father, he is no creature; inasmuch as he is not begotten, he is no Son; and to the extent that procession is the mean between ingeneracy and generacy, he is God.”[12] These two men exemplify fine exegetical work that distinguished the Holy Spirit’s personhood as distinct from the Father and Son. Yet, these men, along with the Church Fathers, understood the Trinitarian formula that aided in defining the person of the Holy Spirit. Didymus the Blind and Gregory of Nazianzus helped establish the Great Tradition of the reading of Scriptures.

Didymus the Blind also revealed that the actual language of procession of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Son is not mentioned in the Scriptures. The procession is only mentioned in relation to the Father. A careful exegesis of John 15:26 yields that the word πἐμψω (sending) is related to the Son’s ministry, and ἐκπορεύεται is related to the Father: the Son sends the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.[13]

Theology in a Greek Tense

The word πἐμψω (sending) is in future tense. The tense suggests the event Jesus references is in the future and rests upon the Lord’s desire to send the Helper. When will the Lord send the Helper? The future tense indicates that the event did not happen immediately. A parallel text in John 16:7 states that the Helper cannot come unless Jesus goes away. Therefore, the sending relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus is a future event that takes place after the Lord leaves the earth. The Helper seems to parallel the same type of ministry of Jesus. In the economy of salvation, Jesus sends the Helper.

The Helper’s relationship to the Father is underscored by the word ἐκπορεύεται. The Helper ἐκπορεύεται (proceeds) from the Father. Εκπορεύεται is in present tense, indicating that the Spirit’s procession from the Father is taking place now. In other words, the Spirit always proceeds from the Father, as he is ever before the Father. These two differing tenses that refer to the procession of the Holy Spirit and the future sending of the Holy Spirit raise a litany of questions: How is the Spirit’s procession (in the present) different from when Jesus will send him in the future? What do the two separate and different tenses mean? Do the tenses say anything about the Trinity?

One must carefully scrutinize the differences between both tenses to see the relationships of the three members of the Trinity. John 15:26 states that the Son will send (πἐμψω) the Helper in the near future. The future tense demonstrates that the relationship between the Son and Spirit is different than the relationship between Father and Spirit. The relationship between Father and Spirit is indicated by the present tense usage of “procession” (proceeds), meaning the relationship between the Father and Spirit is a present reality and not a future economic event. The Spirit ἐκπορεύεται (proceeds) from the Father simply because they have the same essence in being as one another (so does the Son). Click To Tweet

The persons of the Trinity have an equal and same essence. The Spirit ἐκπορεύεται (proceeds) from the Father simply because they have the same essence in being as one another (so does the Son). Thomas Oden writes, “The relation of the Father and Spirit is described not as generation, as in the case of the Son, but as a sending-forth (πἐμψω, Jn. 14:26) and a procession (ἐκπορεύεται, Jn. 15:26).”[14] The word “procession” reveals a difference between the Spirit and the Son. Yet, this is not tri-theism; therefore, Tertullian’s maxim is correct: “three persons, one being.”

So, as God is one being with three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have mutual and perfect relationships now (in the present extending from their eternal existence). Malcolm Yarnell comments:

The Son tells us that the Holy Spirit is going to be “sent,” typically taken as an economic term, and then refers to the eternal relation between the Father and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” is typically taken as a theological term. Proceeding from the Father eternally, the Holy Spirit is also sent into the world to lead the disciples into the truth.[15]

One may see the economy of the Trinity in that the Son will πἐμψω (send) the Holy Spirit in the future (which was accomplished in Acts 2). The sending of the Holy Spirit in the future is foundational, revealing the Spirit’s mission from the Father and the Son. The three are one in their essence but are distinguished according to their eternal relations of origin. As for the Helper, it is fitting that he is given to us in salvation history because he is spirated from the Father and the Son from eternity. For example, just as it is fitting that the Son died on the cross, so too is it fitting that the Spirit fills the Church.

Reclaiming a rich tradition

The Evangelical Church shares in the rich tradition of the first five hundred years of Christianity. The modern Evangelical Church has largely accepted the third article of the Nicene Creed as it relates to salvific matters. Yet, the church has questioned the interpretive mode of the Great Tradition that produced the creed.[16]

The modern Evangelical Church has largely accepted the third article of the Nicene Creed as it relates to salvific matters. Yet, the church has questioned the interpretive mode of the Great Tradition that produced the creed. Click To Tweet

The Great Tradition states that the generation of the Son[17] and the procession of the Spirit reveal the relations that both Son and Spirit have with the Father. The Scriptures do not reveal information about those relations, only that they exist. The fact that all three members are consubstantial in the being of God indicates the unity of the Trinity. God is one in essence, or being, and all three share in that essence, or being. Thus, the words generation (referring to the Son) and procession (referring to the Spirit) indicate relation differentiations between the Trinity but do not refer to the essence, or being of God. This has been the position of the Great Tradition, and, hopefully, the modern Evangelical Church can reclaim it.


[1] Two prime examples are 1) A. Edward Siecienski, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 30. Siecienski states “that it does not appear exegetically sound to read John 15:26 as proof of the Spirit’s ‘eternal procession’ from the Father alone.” Siecienski has written an outstanding book but seems to oppose the interpretive mode of the Church Fathers. 2) George R. Beasley-Murray, John in Word Biblical Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1999), 276. Murray writes, “the latter clause must be interpreted of the sending of the Spirit on mission to humankind, and not of the so-called ‘procession’ of the Spirit from the Father, as many Greek Fathers maintained, and as is represented in the historic creeds.” To be fair, these men accept the Nicene Creed, but they challenge the interpretive reading that produced the creed.

[2] By using the phrase “the Great Tradition,” I am referencing reading the Scriptures with a Christological emphasis, including both Old and New Testaments, and a Trinitarian platform. The Great Tradition was the traditional style of Scripture reading starting with the NT (including the OT) authors, continuing through the early Church Fathers and the Protestant Reformers. There were various nuances of interpretive skills required to navigate between the plain sense of meaning and the spiritual meaning, but the key was to read Scripture from a Christological motif.

[3] The paper assumes that the reader (audience) is familiar with the Nicene Council, which attempted to solve the Arian crisis of the early fourth century.

[4] The Council of Constantinople (381) dealt an ecumenical blow to Arianism via condemning the position by vote and by restating the official Nicene Creed. See Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2011) 26-27. The somewhat redacted but restatement of the Nicene Creed declared Arianism as outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity.

[5] Tertullian is used as an example of Western Theology and the Latin tradition. Space constraints do not permit a review Novatian, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, or Ambrose of Milan.

[6] The Monarchians were a heretical group that denied the deity of the Son with the Father.

[7] Lewis Ayers states, “Whereas their opponents argued that John 14:10 (I am in the Father, and the Father is in me) implied that Father and Son were the same one divine reality, Tertullian and Novatian argued that the very grammar of Scripture here demands that for one to be ‘in’ another, one is not the other.” Lewis Ayers, “Augustine on The Trinity,” in The Oxford Handbook of The Trinity, eds. Gilles Emery and Matthew Levering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 125.

[8] Tertullian, Against Praxes 4. [on-line]. Accessed 5 August 2020. Available from; Internet.

[9] A. Edward Siecienski, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 51.

[10] Didymus the Blind and Gregory of Nazianzus are used as an example of Eastern Theology and the Greek tradition. Space constraints do not permit a review Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, or Cyril. It is unfortunate that Didymus the Blind was condemned at later church councils. He was not particularly an original thinker, but his condemnation was seemingly because of his association with Origen.

[11] Patrologia Latin 23:126-27.

[12] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31:8 in “On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius” Popular Patristic Series Vol 23 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Press), 122.

[13] Unfortunately, spatial limitations do not allow for a review of the filioque clause (double procession of the Spirit from the Father and Son) that developed in the work of Augustine.

[14] Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology: Life in the Spirit, Volume Three (Peabody: Prince Press, 1992), 24.

[15] Malcolm Yarnell, God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 153.

[16] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) is a good resource, and Dr. Carter personally attempts to recover the exegesis used by the Church Fathers in the reading of the Scriptures.

 [17] This phrase has not been used throughout the article. The rationale is that other articles will mention it, and I have chosen to honor my colleagues who work specifically with the phrase.

Marvin Jones

Marvin Jones (Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) teaches Theology and Church History at Louisiana College. He also is a pastor at First Baptist Church Hargis. Dr. Jones has written several books including, Athanasius’ Concept of Eternal Sonship as Revealed in Contra Arianos, Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact, Beginning of Baptist Ecclesiology: The Foundational Contributions of Thomas Helwysand Historical Christology for the Contemporary Church. Dr. Jones is married to Stacy and they have two children and a daughter-in-law.