The Filioque: a Church-Dividing Issue?

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I. The Holy Spirit in the Scriptures

In the Old Testament “the spirit of God” or “the spirit of the Lord” is presented less as a divine person than as a manifestation of God’s creative power – God’s “breath” (ruach YHWH) - forming the world as an ordered and habitable place for his people, and raising up individuals to lead his people in the way of holiness. In the opening verses of Genesis, the spirit of God “moves over the face of the waters” to bring order out of chaos (Gen 1.2). In the historical narratives of Israel, it is the same spirit that “stirs” in the leaders of the people (Jud 13.25: Samson), makes kings and military chieftains into prophets (I Sam 10.9-12; 19.18-24: Saul and David), and enables prophets to “bring good news to the afflicted” (Is 61.1; cf. 42.1; II Kg 2.9). The Lord tells Moses he has “filled” Bezalel the craftsman “with the spirit of God,” to enable him to fashion all the furnishings of the tabernacle according to God’s design (Ex 31.3). In some passages, the “holy spirit” (Ps 50/51.13) or “good spirit” (Ps 142/143.10) of the Lord seems to signify his guiding presence within individuals and the whole nation, cleansing their own spirits (Ps.50/ 51.12-14) and helping them to keep his commandments, but “grieved” by their sin (Is 63.10). In the prophet Ezekiel’s mighty vision of the restoration of Israel from the death of defeat and exile, the “breath” returning to the people’s desiccated corpses becomes an image of the action of God’s own breath creating the nation anew: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live...” (Ezek 37.14).

In the New Testament writings, the Holy Spirit of God (pneuma Theou) is usually spoken of in a more personal way, and is inextricably connected with the person and mission of Jesus. Matthew and Luke make it clear that Mary conceives Jesus in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, who “overshadows” her (Mt 1.18, 20; Lk 1.35). All four Gospels testify that John the Baptist – who himself was “filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1.15) – witnessed the descent of the same Spirit on Jesus, in a visible manifestation of God’s power and election, when Jesus was baptized (Mt 3.16; Mk 1.10; Lk 3.22; Jn 1.33). The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to struggle with the devil (Mt 4.1; Lk 4.1), fills him with prophetic power at the start of his mission (Lk 4.18-21), and manifests himself in Jesus’ exorcisms (Mt 12.28, 32). John the Baptist identified the mission of Jesus as “baptizing” his disciples “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3.11; Lk 3.16; cf. Jn 1.33), a prophecy fulfilled in the great events of Pentecost (Acts 1.5), when the disciples were “clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24.49; Acts 1.8). In the narrative of Acts, it is the Holy Spirit who continues to unify the community (4.31-32), who enables Stephen to bear witness to Jesus with his life (8.55), and whose charismatic presence among believing pagans makes it clear that they, too, are called to baptism in Christ (10.47).

In his farewell discourse in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as one who will continue his own work in the world, after he has returned to the Father. He is “the Spirit of truth,” who will act as “another advocate (parakletos)” to teach and guide his disciples (14.16-17), reminding them of all Jesus himself has taught (14.26). In this section of the Gospel, Jesus gives us a clearer sense of the relationship between this “advocate,” himself, and his Father. Jesus promises to send him “from the Father,” as “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father” (15.26); and the truth that he teaches will be the truth Jesus has revealed in his own person (see 1,14; 14.6): “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (16.14-15)

The Epistle to the Hebrews represents the Spirit simply as speaking in the Scriptures, with his own voice (Heb 3.7; 9.8). In Paul’s letters, the Holy Spirit of God is identified as the one who has finally “defined” Jesus as “Son of God in power” by acting as the agent of his resurrection (Rom 1.4; 8.11). It is this same Spirit, communicated now to us, who conforms us to the risen Lord, giving us hope for resurrection and life (Rom 8.11), making us also children and heirs of God (Rom 8.14-17), and forming our words and even our inarticulate groaning into a prayer that expresses hope (Rom 8.23-27). “And hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Rom 5.5)

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