At the First Council of Constantinople, a movement led by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, among others, resulted in the declaration of the Full Divinity of the Holy Spirit and the adoption of the third paragraph of the ‘Nicene’ Creed. In a three page essay:

1. Describe the theological issues concerning the Spirit’s divinity at the time of the First Council of Constantinople, the extent to which they were resolved, and how.

2. Identify the ongoing theological implications of the First Council of Constantinople for contemporary pneumatology. Include in your answer appropriate consideration of the doctrine of divine providence.



There can be no greater support for Prosper of Aquitaine’s dictum “legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” than that provided by the study of the history of Christian thought. From the time of our Lord onward, we find believers struggling to come to intellectual terms with what they see, hear and believe—with what they already practice. The biblical narrative itself clearly illustrates and supports a belief in the divinity of Christ long before any definitive creedal statement on the matter (this is perhaps most easily illustrated in John’s gospel and in the letters of Paul where Christ is so frequently invoked along side the Father). That creedal statement, with the Creed of Caesarea serving as a basis, was produced and promulgated by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and portions of it are intimately familiar to Episcopalians. Yet, the Creed as we know it did not take shape until several decades later at the First Council of Constantinople (381), hence it is also known as the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

All things being fulfilled in their time, the time was ripe in 325 for a clear statement of Christology, of Christ’s divinity and relationship with the Father. At the time however, little theological reflection had taken place on the role or character of the Holy Spirit, as such pneumatology was not sufficiently developed to support a clear statement of belief, and as such the authors at first Nicea left us with as much of an affirmation as they were prepared for, i.e. “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.”[1]

When there is not clarity there is variety; this was certainly the case in regards to beliefs about the Holy Spirit in the interim between Nicea and Constantinople. Despite their defeat at the Council in 325 Arians remained a force within the Church. Post-Nicea the Nicene party who supported the formulation that the son was homoousia sought rapprochement with the semiarian party that favored the term homoiousia, indeed, compromises at Synod in 362 put the two groups on a path toward settlement—one which Athanasius, the great defender of the Nicene cause, was able to see beginning during his correspondence with Basil of Ancyra, a leader among the semiarian party, toward the end of his life.

The foundation for the final resolution of this controversy however, was laid by the subsequent generation of theologians, particularly the three leaders known as the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil of Caesarea, his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and younger brother Gregory of Nyssa. Their task involved a difficult work of clarification and differentiation. Because of the ambiguity of the words ousia and hypostasis—used as synonyms in philosophical literature and even at Nicea—both of which could refer both to “the individual subsistence of a thing as well as to the common essence of which all the members of the same species participate,” a great deal of disagreement had emerged over the decades.[2] For instance, Origen could never have affirmed the Nicene formula that stated the Son was of the same substance as the Father for he “understood homoousios to designate co-ordinate members of a single class, beings sharing the same properties,” and the gnostics he had so ably argued against believed that the souls of the holy were of the same substance as God, leading him to perceive such an affirmation as a belief that God was subject to the possibility of change or corruption, something Origen could never countence, and important element in the debate since the Nicene and anti-Nicene parties could in certain terms be seen as left-wing and right-wing Origenists, suffering in the same semantic confusion as their predecessor.[3]

The first step toward clarity offered by the Cappadocians was the strict definition of hypostasis “as the individual subsistence of a thing,” and the use “of ousia to refer to the essence that is common to the various members of a species,”[4] hence the Trinity is defined as three individual subsistences participating in one essence or three persons in one substance. Such clarification offered the chance for fruitful debate and set the path forward in Christian theology.

Despite the great benefit offered by the clarity of the Cappadocian definitions, there was still a great deal of disagreement surrounding the nature of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s relationship to the Father. Basil understood this, and knew that it was pointless to defeat the Arians in the realm of Christology only to succumb to the Pneumatomachians, who were “Arian” in regards to the Spirit—i.e. they argued that the Spirit was a creature and not co-eternal or co-equal to the Father—in the realm of Pneumatology. Basil demonstrates the connection between the issue of Arianism and the Pneumatomachi in that his published work Against Eunomius (an Arian) in the third book, where he affirms and attempts to prove the Divinity of the Spirit. His most extensive work on this subject was his treatise On the Holy Spirit, which was written in response to criticism of his liturgical changes.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Basil’s effort to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit is the role that prayer and liturgy played. Basil altered the Caesarian liturgy, specifically the doxology, that had stated “Glory be to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Ghost,” which he altered to state “Glory be to the Father, with the Son, jointly with the Holy Ghost.”[5] Basil justified this change theologically on the grounds of the Baptismal formula; his argument can be summarized thusly: “If saving regeneration begins through baptism in the name of Father, Son and Spirit, with name in the singular, then Father, Son, and Spirit form a coordinate series, with all three sharing equal rank.” Indeed, as Jaroslav Pelikan notes (as a generalization), quoting Hans Lietzmann in Credo, “It is indisputable that the root of all creeds is the formula of belief pronounced by the baptized, or pronounced in his hearing and assented to by him, before his baptism.”[6]

Though Basil died (c. 379) shortly before First Constantinople, his work was carried forward by his friend and brother, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. The success of his arguments is strikingly illustrated by the virtual end of the Arian controversies at the first Council of Constantinople shortly after his death.[7]

The ongoing implications of the decisions of First Constantinople are manifold, not least in the West because of the charge that the filioque creates a hierarchy in the Trinity, at least implicitly lessening the status of the Holy Spirit, and ecumenical opinion seems to favor a version or modification of the Eastern view, i.e. sans filioque and its negative accretions.[8] There is no doubt that the most direct way that the Council of Constantinople affects us currently in the Episcopal Church, as well as in the other liturgical Churches that recite the Nicene Creed on a regular basis, is in its addition of the third paragraph to the Creed itself.

It has been noted that people often limit their concept of the work of the spirit to the process of sanctification, and it is certainly a true and important aspect of the Spirit’s work. And yet, as the Creed demonstrates, this is not the limit of the Spirit’s role. The Creed affirms that the Holy Spirit is Lord and the giver of life—the Spirit in other words is that aspect of God’s triune being which gives life to the lifeless; the Spirit is called our advocate and comforter in scripture. In Acts the Spirit descends upon the fledgling church in tongues of fire and in the Gospel of John, Christ breaths on the disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit” (possible biblical support for the filioque.) The Holy Spirit is that Person of the Trinity which inspired the prophets, speaking through them the words of God, and like the Father and the Son he is to be worshiped and glorified.

Whether one accepts the filioque or not, the intimate connection between the Persons of the Trinity cannot be denied. Indeed, wherever one Person of the Trinity is, the other two are there also because of the perfect harmony of the Godhead. The Perichoresis in which the Trinity exists is such that the Persons are indivisible even as they are individual. Through the testimony of Scripture and the Creed we see that the Spirit is the giver of live—God breaths life into Adam, and the Spirit (breath/spirit—ruach in Hebrew) animates the earth creature. Indeed, the Spirit of God as the Person of the Trinity sent to inhabit and imbue the Church both corporately and individually, is intimately involved in the fulfillment of God’s divine purposes, the eschatological summing up of all things.

God’s providence is such that it can embrace his will both for the entirety of creation and for the individual soul without differentiation. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God who desires to dwell with his people, to redeem them from their sins and restore creation which groans for redemption. The Work of the Spirit is therefore unitive, restorative and sanctifying. The Spirit is unitive as it indwells the believer, offering strength and sustenance. The Spirit is restorative as the Comforter who heals the people of God from their self-inflicted wounds and is sanctifying as the giver of all good gifts (charismata) which testify to the Kingdom of God and its power in our world. The Providence and provision of God is such that the Spirit works out the salvation of the individual and the restoration of the cosmos through its indwelling power, restoring all things to relationship with the creator and allowing participation in the very life of the Triune God.


Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Cross, F.L., and E.A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third Revised ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Gonzalez, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987.
Hastings, Adrian, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, eds. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought: Intellectual, Spiritual, and Moral Horizons of Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Credo. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Williams, Rowan. Arius : Heresy and Tradition / Rowan Williams. Rev. ed. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.

[1] Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27-28.
[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), 287.
[3] Rowan Williams, Arius : Heresy and Tradition / Rowan Williams, Rev. ed. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 135.
[4] Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, 287.
[5] Ibid., 309.
[6] Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 382-83.
[7] F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Third Revised ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 167.
[8] Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, eds., The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought: Intellectual, Spiritual, and Moral Horizons of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, {2000), 305.

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