We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.
Today we continue the series with a look at the first council of Constantinople.
The city of Constantinople (named by the ever-so-humble emperor Constantine) played host to three councils, and quickly became synonymous with Christianity. There were a wide variety of issues addressed by these councils; Constantinople I established the full deity of the Holy Spirit, Constantinople II & III elaborated and established the nature and divine will of Christ. As always, these councils were considered ecumenical, as they built on the work of the Christian church previously laid down by former councils. Today, we’ll take a closer look at the first of these three gatherings.
At the council of Nicaea, the church had condemned Arianism and declared Christ “very God of very God”. However, a form of Semi-Arianism survived, whereby people could affirm the words of the Nicene Creed (such as we “believe in the Holy Ghost”), but because the creed said nothing else about it, they could hold that the Holy Spirit was not in fact a person – but more of a power or force – without contradicting orthodox Christian belief. Both sides held a persuasive view of their position, argued from Scripture. On one side, the Semi-Arians could lay hold of verses like Joel 2:28, where the Holy Spirit is a thing ‘poured out’ rather than a person, or Psalm 51 where David asks God not to take the Holy Spirit from him, as though the Holy Spirit is simply a possession to be given. On the other side, the orthodox position argued that the majority of the Bible presented the Holy Spirit as a person; that he possessed personal capabilities like being able to be grieved (Isaiah 53:10) or lied to (Acts 5:3). Also on the side of the orthodox position, historically it had long been customary to baptise new believers into the three names of the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
To remove this ambiguity, the Nicene Creed was consequently expanded to read
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father [later ‘and the Son’ was added], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
The Holy Spirit was now identified as a person, co-equal and co-eternal with God, and the final heresy of Arianism was put to rest.
Why it Matters
The invitation to Christian faith is the invitation to participate in the Trinitarian life. The deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit is therefore critical not only for a right understanding of who God is, but for salvation, and the continuing Christian life – the obedience of faith (Romans 16:25-26). For modern Christians it is no different; the Holy Spirit is the least talked about and understood of the Trinity, and we would do well to get to know all we can of Him as we seek to obey Scripture by walking “in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
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