The Church Councils, part 5
Sep 05, 2019
The fourth-century church conflict between the “Orthodox” and the Arians continued long after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. That council obtained a political victory and forced many to conform to a creed that they did not believe in their hearts. Unity remained an illusion.
Perhaps part of the problem was that Constantine himself personally concurred with the Arians, even though his desire for political unity caused him to side with the majority opinion. Just before he died in 337, he was baptized by an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia, a bishop who had been exiled until 329 for his vigorous defense of Arius at the Council.
Constantine’s son, Constantius II, succeeded him and ruled openly as an Arian from 337-361. In the midst of this continuing controversy, the place and role of the Holy Spirit arose, which only added fuel to the fire.
The distinct Person-hood of the Holy Spirit did not form any part of early Christian theology, but the Binitarian creed established at Nicea raised the question about the Holy Spirit. Some began to promote the Holy Spirit as a third member of the Godhead, to which many said, “Oh no, not another one!”
The Holy Spirit Joins the Godhead
The earliest extended statement about the Holy Spirit came through the Dedication Creed of 341. Even so, it was not until the 350’s that the issue was seriously debated. In 357 Athenasius “The Hammer,” who was in exile for the third time, wrote his Letter on the Holy Spirit defending the Holy Spirit’s position in a Trinity.
Others then took up the banner for the next 20 years. The Cappadocian Fathers refined the terminology established at Nicea by distinguishing between hypostasis and ousia. They argued that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three hypostasis (which they defined as Persons) within a single ousia (essence, or substance). These Fathers openly lauded Greek polytheism for having preserved this “truth” of the plurality of Hypostases.
This innovation was not something Athenasius wanted to see, for it violated his own post-Nicean terms. He had taught that hypostasis and ousia were synonymous. Yet because the final result was the elevation of the Holy Spirit to the Trinitarian Godhead, he went along with it for the sake of unity. So it came to be established that the Godhead was a mystical “diversity-in unity and unity-in-diversity.”
A New Mystery Religion
The more they parsed words and redefined their Greek terms, the more mystifying their creeds became. The average person could not comprehend how three Gods could remain monotheistic. Were there three Gods in one, or one God in three? Were these three Persons or three distinct manifestations of a single God-Person? Was this a family of Gods in unity of purpose or a single God in more than one place at a time?
The complexity of Christian theology made it difficult to explain sensibly to the public. Athenasius himself, wrote in his Letter on the Holy Spirit,
“If one were to enquire… how is it really a Trinity if the three are depicted as one? … Let such an enquirer begin by separating the radiance from the light, or wisdom from the one who is wise, or else let him say himself how these things can be. But if this cannot be done, then how much more is it the presumption of insane people to enquire into these things with respect to God?” (The God of Jesus, p. 214)
In other words, the average Christian would have to be “insane” to think he could possibly understand the nature of the Godhead. The implication is that only the highly intelligent theologians could hope to understand these paradoxical mysteries. Please just accept our view of the Godhead, even if you are incapable of understanding it. If you question it, you are insane.
As time passed, Christianity became increasingly a mystery religion, where one must advance by degrees through the priesthood to arrive at the Final Truth hidden at the top. When men dared to question the validity of the Councils, where men threatened and bribed their fellow bishops to procure the votes necessary to establish their creeds, they were told to accept what more capable churchmen were teaching. In other words, follow our religion. The right to hear God’s voice for one’s self and to be taught directly by the Holy Spirit was removed from the people if their revelation differed from the established creed.
The Old Testament Holy Spirit
The “Spirit of God” was revealed as early as Genesis 1:2, but Moses did not try to explain the nature of that Spirit. The term “Holy Spirit” was later used three times (Psalm 51:11; Isaiah 63:10, 11). Yet perhaps the most significant term used by the prophets was nacham, a verb meaning “to comfort, console, repent, have compassion, be moved with pity.” This is why Jesus later used the term Comforter (John 14:16 KJV), translated “Helper” in the NASB.
The meaning of the term evolved over time from a personal assistant to give aid and comfort into a more formal, legal term applied to the one in authority who was responsible to protect them from harm. If injustice was done to them, the comforter was responsible to defend them in a court of law and to see to it that they received restitution for their losses.
In other words, a comforter was the kinsman redeemer, usually mistranslated as the avenger of blood or the revenger of blood. The kinsman redeemer was not out for revenge (as the term is often used today) but was a defender of rights and of justice in a proper court of law. The Hebrew term nacham (comfort) and naqam (revenge) are homonyms, which the prophets often associate as near synonyms. Hence, the people are forbidden from taking revenge and to leave revenge to God alone (Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19-21).
Why? Because men’s emotions and lack of objectivity get in the way of genuine justice. God’s “vengeance” is true justice, which is not without mercy, for it is limited by the law of Jubilee. The justice of men is usually too harsh, especially when they are the victims of injustice, because emotion overpowers love and thereby departs from the standard of God’s own nature.
Jesus presented the Holy Spirit as a Paracletos, “Comforter,” which in its legal context, was an Advocate or counsel for defense in a court of law. Gesenius’ Lexicon defines it:
“One who pleads another’s cause before a judge, a pleader, counsel for defense, legal assistant, an advocate.”
In biblical law, the kinsman redeemer was that counsel for defense, or defense attorney. So when Jesus ascended, He did not leave His disciples “orphans” (having no kinsman redeemer to advocate for them), but sent the Holy Spirit to them as “another Comforter” to replace Him.
What Jesus said about the Holy Spirit
Jesus said little about the Holy Spirit until the final hours before going to the cross. Jesus had far more to say about Himself and His relationship with the Father, and He admonished His disciples to believe “that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me” (John 14:11). But then He began to speak of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16-18,
16 I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper [or Comforter], that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
The term “Comforter” was a masculine term in Greek grammar, and so the personal pronoun “He” is usually used by the translators. But one cannot use this pronoun to prove that the Holy Spirit is a Person. But by the same reasoning, it cannot be asserted that the Holy Spirit is a lifeless “it” with no personality. Since the Holy Spirit was Jesus’ replacement, it can be said that the Holy Spirit is as much a Person as Jesus was and is. Likewise, one can grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and Jesus takes it personally when one blasphemes the Holy Spirit (Luke 12:10).
As we saw in the case of Jesus in His pre-existent state, a “Person” is defined, not as having flesh and blood (or a physical brain), but as having life and a conscious identity. Hence, Jesus Christ was a Person long before His incarnation at Bethlehem. Yet He was distinct from His Father, “the only true God” (as Jesus called Him in John 17:3).
If the Holy Spirit was “another Helper” (or Comforter) in Christ’s absence and in His stead, then it stands to reason that He took Jesus’ subordinate position in assisting us. In other words, the Holy Spirit is not part of a Trinitarian Godhead but is rather another Being subordinate to the Father. The main difference is that Jesus Christ was flesh and blood, whereas the Holy Spirit is spirit. This, Jesus said, was actually an advantage, for He said in John 16:7,
7 But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.
In fact, it appears that the Holy Spirit is technically subordinate to Christ Himself, even as Christ is subordinate to His Father. Jesus said of the Holy Spirit in John 16:14, “He shall glorify Me,” even as He glorified His Father (John 17:4). It is the place of subordinates to glorify the One in authority over them, so that they may receive praise and glory as well.
The Spirit of Truth
The overall mission of the Holy Spirit is set forth in John 16:13, 14,
13 But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 He will glorify Me; for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you.
Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6), and the Holy Spirit glorifies Jesus by guiding us into all the truth that characterizes Jesus Himself. How does the Spirit of truth glorify Jesus? He does so by not speaking on His own initiative, just as Jesus Himself glorified His Father by not speaking on His own initiative (John 5:30; 8:28). Jesus spoke only what He heard His Father say, and likewise, the Spirit of truth speaks only what He hears Jesus say.
The same Holy Spirit that filled Solomon’s temple with the presence of God is the Spirit that now indwells our own temple-bodies. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was seen as the Father’s presence; in Romans 8:9 and in 1 Peter 1:11 we are told that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is synonymous with “the Spirit of Christ.”
When we are filled with the Spirit, we can expect to be guided into all the truth, if indeed we learn to hear His voice without idols of the heart leading us astray. The Spirit did not lead us into another mystery religion, where the knowledge of God and His nature are so complex, paradoxical, or downright contradictory that they cannot be known by the average person.
Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit came to reveal the only true God, so that we would be able to pattern our lives after His nature and thereby to glorify Him. In my view, we ought to recognize the Holy Spirit as the agent of Jesus Christ, even as Jesus Christ is the agent of the only true God.
This is part 5 of a series titled "The Church Councils" To view all parts, click the link below.