Early Christian Creeds – JND Kelly pp. 338ff

Early Christian Creeds

While the anti-Apollinarian bias of the clause about Christ’s  birth is not unambiguously clear, there can be no doubt as to the polemical bearing of the next clause in C to elaborate and extend the teaching of the original Nicene creed. This, of course, the sentence OF WHOSE KINGDOM THERE SHALL BE NO END.. These words, taken bodily from St Luke (1.33) were aimed at the doctrine, attributed to Marcellus of Ancyra, that the relationship of Sonship in the Godhead was limited to the Incarnation, and would disappear when the purposes for which the Word became incarnate had been accomplished. The Word would then become, what He had been from all eternity, immanent in the Father. Who would be all in all. We saw in chapter 9 that anti-Marcellan clauses, expressed in these or similar terms, were incorporated in most of the Eastern conciliar creeds constructed in the forties and fifties of the fourth century: they testify to the dread in which Marcellus’s views were held. The words themselves made an appearance in the creed commented upon by St Cyril of Jerusalem, who gave his animosity against the heretic full rein: “If ever you  hear anyone saying that there is an end to the kingship of Christ, hate the heresy. It is another head of the dragon which has sprouted lately in the region of Galatia.” Marcellus died in 374, and the excitement over his dangerous doctrines had  to a large extent passed away. Yet so late as 377 St Basil’s letters reveal that they were still feared, and that there was opposition to restoring communion too easily those who shared them. The Marcellians and the Photinians (followers of Marcellus’s extremist disciple and ally) were among the heretics singled out for condemnation in the first canon of the council of Constantinople. The council’s object, manifestly, was to dispose once and for all of all the various heresies by which the pure teaching of the Nicene faith had been embarrassed since its formulation, and since it was placing the Arians and their successors under its ban, it was fitting that those whose error lay on the Sabellian side should be proscribed as well. In all probability the clause OF WHOSE KINGDOM, etc already stood in the creed which the 150 fathers took over and made their own. It was an item of St Cyril’s creed as early as 348 and it must have spread to other creeds of the Jerusalem and related families.

The ban on Marcellus’s doctrine seemed to some scholars, not altogether justly, as a mere pro forma re-enactment of anathemas which had become conventional. But the third article of the Constantinopolitan Creed beyond question represented a development of and advance on the teaching of N which the controversies of the hour made imperative. Several of the credenda listed in it—the Church, baptism, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, the life of the world to come—were perfectly normal constituents of the third article of Eastern baptismal formularies. The clauses  in which the distinctive ideas of the second general council found an outlet were those concerned with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The heretics against whom they were directed were the Pneumatomachians, otherwise know as Macedonians (The latter name, which later historians like to us, was scarcely appropriate: the Semi-Arian Macedonius, who had been bishop of Constantinople between 342 and his deposition in 360, was not really the founder of the party called after him) While the Arian controversy was at its height, the problems raised by the status of the Holy Spirit had been kept in the background, although neither Arius himself nor his followers had concealed their view that the third Person of the divine Trinity, like the second, was to be ranked with the creatures. In the late fifties, however, of the fourth century His true nature and position began to be matters of public discussion. About this time, as we learn from the letters which St Athanasius addressed (356-362) to St Serapion, bishop of Thmius in the Nile delta, the theory was being put forward even by Christians who believed in the divinity of the Son that the Spirit was a creature or, to be more precise, one of the ministering spirits or angels. In his reply St Athanasius vigorously defended the veiw that His consubstantiality with the Father and the Son was as indispensable as the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son with each other. In 362 the council of Alexandria expressly declared that only those could be received into communion who, accepting the council of Nicaea, rejected the thesis of the creation of the Spirit. from now onwards the issue was a burning one, although when it came to the positive formulation of the doctrine great uncertainty prevailed in the Nicene camp itself. St Basil, for example, thought it prudent to refrain from proclaiming openly the divinity of the Spirit; and it was only after his rupture in 373 with his former friend Eustathius of Sebaste, who henceforth became “the protagonist of the Pneumatomachians,” that he and other Cappadocians began to speak out with greater confidence. Meanwhile the Macedonian opposition, the right wing of which was orthodox on the doctrine of the Son while the left wing slipped more and more down the Anomoean slope, was clearer as regards the Holy Spirit in its negations and affirmations. What seems certain, however, is that its more moderate leaders took refuge in Scripture, refusing to admit full divinity to the Spirit, but at the same time recoiling from the old Arian idea that He was a creature. The words which Socrates put into the mouth of Eustathius were probably typical of most of them: “For my part, I neither choose to name the Holy Spirit God, nor should presume to call Him a creature.”

When the council of Constantinople met in 381, one of its express objects was to bring the Church’s teaching about the Holy Spirit in line with what is believed about the Son. Several years before, it was interesting to observe, St Basil had reached the conclusion that, while not the smallest addition must be made to the Nicene faith in general, an exception was the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. In their creed of the 318 fathers had only touched upon Him in passing, for He had not yet become the object of disputes. Quite understandably, therefore, the council of 381 anathematised the Pneumatomachians in its first canon, and, to judge by the letter of the synod of 382, proceeded to assert the full deity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit, and His existence as a separate hypostasis. Thirty-six Macedonian bishops, led by Eleusius of Cyzicus and Marcian of Lampsacus, were present at the earlier meeting of the council, but the historian Socrates reports that they preferred to pack their bags and depart rather than become a party to the homoousion (it is clear that the reference here is to the homoousion of the Spirit). Hence it was to be expected that the creed of the council would be marked by a more precise and definite doctrine of the Holy Spirit in conformity with the synodical decisions of the 150 fathers.

We noticed in the first place of the Scriptural flavour of the language employed. St Paul had used the word LORD of the Spirit in 2Cor. 3.17f. He had also spoken of the Spirit as “the Spirit of life” (Rom. 8.2) and the epithet LIFE-GIVER (ζωοποιόν) in its verbal form (ζωοποιεῖν) had been used of Him in John 6.63 and 2Cor 3.6. The description PROCEEDING FROM THE FATHER was borrowed from the Lord’s own words, “The Spirit of truth, Who proceeds from the Father,” recorded in John 15.26, with only a change of preposition (ἐκ for παρά); and even that change of preposition was authorised by St Paul’s language (“the Spirit Who is from God”) in 1Cor 2.12. The words WHO SPOKE THROUGH THE PROPHETS which of course had a long history in creeds and went back to the primitive kerygma of Christendom, recalled the verse of 2Peter 1.21, “For no prophecy every came by the will of man, but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.”

In the second place, it is obvious that the creed was intended to convey the conception of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, though in language which was guarded and calculated to give no more offence that was unavoidable. The Greek word LORD (τὸν κὺριον) was the septuagint equivalent of the Hebrew Yahweh, though its use was  too widespread in the Hellenistic world for it to be decisive. The all-important clause, however, was WHO WITH THE FATHER AND THE SON IS TOGETHER WORSHIPPED AND TOGETHER GLORIFIED. The expressions used almost reproduced Athanasius’ own choice of words, “Who is glorified with the Father and the Son” (Ad Ser 1.31). Even more strikingly did it reflect St Basil’s usage. He had spoken of “that sound doctrine according to which the Son is confessed as homoousios with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is together numbered with Them and worshipped together with Them with identical honour (ὁμοτίμος συναριθμεῖται τε καὶ συνλατρεύται).” He had also written: “Glorifying the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son because of the conviction that He is not alien from the divine nature. For that which is foreign in nature could not have shared in the same honours.” The starting point of his treatise De Spiritu Sancto was his desire to demonstrate the legitimacy of a doxology giving glory to the Father “with the Son and with the Holy Spirit.” The burden of its central section was the demonstration of the identity of honour (ὁμοτιμία) enjoyed by the Spirit with the Father and the Son. For St Basil these phrases “con-glorification” and “identity of honour” had a  very definite meaning: they were the equivalent of “consubstantial” since their applicability was based on identity of being.

A feature if this article about the Spirit which is at first sight somewhat puzzling is the comparative mildness of its tone. The council of Constantinople, our records say, took its stand on the full consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Godhead. It was because they could not stomach this, apparently, that the Macedonian representatives decided to take their departure. Yet the clause we are studying scrupulously avoids the term homoousion and contents itself, apart from the mention  of the worship and honour due to the Spirit, with biblical phrases which, however unexceptionable if pressed, could be accepted by the Macedonians in their own sense. Scholars have pointed to this fact as conclusive evidence that this article could not be the work of the council, which must have expressed itself in much more decisive language if it had made a credal pronouncement on the Spirit. Yet such arguments betray a curious failure to understand the historical situation. The aim of Theodosius in summoning the council was genuinely conciliatory, and he insisted on including a quota of Macedonian bishops in his invitation. According to Socrates, “The emperor and the bishops who shared the same faith spared no efforts to bring Eleusius and his party into unity with them.” Renewed efforts to win them over were to be made a couple of years later: hopes ran high that the Church might be reunited on the basis of the Nicene faith. At the same time, it must be remembered that not all orthodox ranks felt completely easy about the frank description of the Holy Spirit as God and as consubstantial with the Father and Son which was becoming de rigeur. Their leaders generally, starting with Athanasius, had deliberately exercised restraint in their language about the Spirit. St Basil, in particular, practised diplomatic caution which was sometimes harshly judged in more uncompromising circles, and even in the De Spiritu Sancto, while in effect pleading for the doctrine of consubstantiality, had desisted from using the term. There is a revealing passage in one of the sermons of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, preached almost contemporaneously with the council, in which, expiating on the prevailing uncertainty about the real status of the Holy Spirit, he admitted that some of those who held Him to be God kept this pious opinion to themselves.

Bearing these points in mind, we can appreciate that C’s firm but temporarily worded theology of the Spirit may well have corresponded exactly to the teaching which the 150 fathers felt it advisable to incorporate into their creed. In their discussions with the Macedonians at the first session of the council they could hardly conceal thier acceptance of the consubstantiality of the Spirit. No doubt they pressed Eleusius and his supporters to join them in acknowledging the homoousion. But C was a creed intended of widespread popular use: if it was to be regarded as their version of the Nicene faith, it was natural that they should show certain reserve. The had both those within their own ranks who were still not wholly converted and the Macedonians, of whose conversion they had not given up all hope, to think about. However boldly they had to express themselves at the council, or in the fuller official exposition of their teaching sent to Pope Damasus, the creed stood apart as a specially binding formula, and in the circumstances it was desirable that its wording, while firm and to the point, should steer clear of provocation.