The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Athanasius’ approach to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is entirely in line with his approach of the doctrine of the Son or Logos. Just as he turned sharply away from any conception of the Logos in terms of cosmological principle, or of ‘seminal reasons’ (the logoi spermatikoi), immanent in the universe, and as occupying an intermediate status between God and creation, so he would have nothing to do with any attempt to reach an understanding of the Spirit beginning from manifestations of operations of the Spirit in creaturely existence, in man or in the world, but from the propriety of the Spirit to the being of God on the divine side of the line of demarcation between the Creator and the creature. Precisely because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, he developed the doctrine of the Spirit from his essential relation to the one God and his one undivided activity as God, and specifically from his inherence in the being of the eternal Son. ‘The Spirit is not outside the Word, but, being in the Word, is in God through him’ (οὐ γὰρ ἐκτός ἐστι τοῦ λόγου τὸ πνεῦμα, ἀλλὰ ἐν τῷ λόγῳ ὄν ἐν τῷ θεῷ δι᾽αὐτοῦ ἐστιν).1 The operations of the Spirit are not on a lower level than the operations of the Son, as if they were limited to the many spiritual manifestations within us, so that a proper understanding of the gifts and diverse operations of the Spirit is reached from the perspective of their source and ground in the divine Trinity, from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. It is one God who works all things in all. ‘For the Father himself works through the Word and in the Spirit and gives all things.’2 This explains why in the order of Athanasius’ development of formulated doctrine, controlled knowledge of the Spirit is taken from our knowledge of the Son and of the Father through the Son.3
It is not surprising, therefore, that the foundation of Athanasius’ doctrine of the Spirit, in its essential points, is already found in the Contra Arianos in which he established the mutual relation of the Son and of the Father as constituting the epistemic ground for all our knowledge of God, for the mutual relation included the relation of the Spirit to the Son and to the Father and therefore the inseparable place of the Spirit in the Triune God. These essential points are: the sending of the Spirit from the Son as his very own from whom the Spirit on his part receives;4 the equality of the Spirit with the Son in giving and participating;5 the mutual relation of the Spirit and the Son in God’s gift of the Spirit in which the Deity of the Spirit is evident;6 in the Spirit the one God is present and active as he is in the Son, for the Father, Son and Spirit are one Godhead in a Triad;7 as the Father, Son and Spirit dwell in one another, so God is in us by the indwelling of the Spirit and by participation of the Spirit we are in God, and thus our being in the Father is not ours but is the Spirit’s who is in us as dwells in us.8 ‘For since the Word is in the Father, and his Spirit is given from the Word, he wills that we should receive the Spirit, that when we receive him, having thus the Spirit of the Word who is in the Father, we too may be found on account of the Spirit to become one in the Word, and through him in the Father . . . For what the Word has by nature in the Father, he wishes to be given to us through the Spirit irrevocably . . . It is the Spirit then who is in God, and not we, viewed in our own selves; and we as sons and ‘gods’ because of the Word in us, so we shall be accounted to have become one in the Son and Father, because the same Spirit is in us who is in the Word who is in the Father.9 These are the same points which Athanasius took up again and argued out in some detail in his Letters to Serapion in refutation of a semi-Arian denial of the deity of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit bears the same relation in being and act to God as the Son does to the Father in being homoousios with the Father, the Spirit is homoousios not only with the Son but with the Father.10 Moreover, since the Spirit is in himself in accordance with his own nature what he does and bestows upon us from God, he in himself of God and in God and to be confessed as God with the Word;11 and since the Spirit shares indivisibly with the presence and activity of the Father and the Son in all the acts of the Godhead, he belongs essentially to the divine Triad through an identity of ousia.12 ‘There is, then, a triad, holy and complete, confessed to be one God in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of one that creates, and one that is originated, but all creative; and it is self-consistent and in nature indivisible, and its activity is one. The Father does all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit. Thus the unity of the holy Triad is preserved. Thus one God is preached in the Church, ‘who is over all,’ and ‘through all in all,’—’over all’, as Father, as beginning, as fountain; ‘through all,’ through the Word; ‘in all,’ in the Holy Spirit. It is a Triad not only in name and form of speech, but in truth and actual existence (ὑπάρχει). For as the Father is he who he is, so also his Word is one who is and God over all. And the Holy Spirit is not without actual existence (but exists and his true being οὐκ ἀνυπαρκτόν ἐστιν ἀλλ᾽ ὑπάρχει καὶ ὑφέστηκεν ἀληθῶς).’13 Thus the essence of the formulation of the doctrine of the Spirit is not only the fact that knowledge of the Spirit is to be taken from the knowledge of the Son, but that the Spirit has the same coordination and unity of being and activity with the Son and through the Son with the Father as the Son has with the Father. There is not only a single divine activity at work in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but one and the same Godhead.14
Three elucidatory comments may be offered upon this doctrine of the Spirit.
(i) The stress upon the fact that the Spirit is of and in the Son and with the Son is always in God, so that for us to be in the Spirit is to be in God, gives the doctrine of the spirit a profound objectivity.15 It is indeed a distinctive mark of Athanasius’ understanding of the Holy Spirit that it does not carry with it a concept of psychological inwardness such as we have in the teaching of St Cyril of Jerusalem or of St Augustine. While the mutual indwelling of the Spirit and the Son in the Godhead has its counterpart in a mutual indwelling of the Spirit and the Son in us and of us through them in the Father, this is essentially an ‘objective inwardness’: ‘Our being in the Father is not ours, but is the Spirit’s who is in us and dwells in us’;16 ‘It is the Spirit who is in God, and not we viewed in our own selves.’17 For us to be in the Spirit or to have the Spirit dwelling within us means that we are made partakers of God beyond ourselves and even share in the inwardness of God himself. That is to say, the Athanasian doctrine of theosis or theopoiesis through the Spirit, in which we are sanctified, renewed and enlightened through adoption in the incarnate Son to be sons of God, does not impart any inner deification of our human nature, but the assuming of us into the sphere of the direct and immediate activity of God himself in such a way that our human being is brought to its teleiosis in relation to the Creator and we find our real life hid with Christ in God.18 Crucial to this whole position is the inherent relation in being and act between the Spirit and the Son—for the Son is in the Spirit as the Spirit is in the Son19 —that is, not only a mission of the Spirit from (παρὰ) the Son but a community of being and act between the Spirit and the Son, for the mission of the Spirit from the Son follows from that community in being and act in which the Spirit receives of (ἐκ) the Son.20 It is through his proper relation to the being of the Son that the Spirit is said to proceed from the Father.21 Thus while Athanasius neither speaks explicitly of a double ‘procession’ of the Spirit nor rejects it, at the heart of his position is an understanding of a profound ontological relation between the Spirit and the Son which does not lend itself to the later tendency toward a subjectification of the Spirit in the Church. Since this union of the Spirit and the Son means that it is through and from the Son that the Spirit is given to us, it follows, Athanasius argued, that the Incarnation itself is the ground of our ability to receive the Spirit. Expressed the other way round, this means that we human beings are enabled to receive the Spirit in and through the Incarnation of the Son, for when he came into man, man himself received in him. Thus our receiving of the Spirit is objectively grounded in and derives from the self-sanctification of Christ through his own Spirit, and is not a different receiving of the Spirit from his.22
(ii) It is in the Spirit that we have to do with God, who is Spirit, in the unity of his being and act. While Athanasius holds that the distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are eternal distinctions, the Father always being the Father, the Son always the only Son, and the Holy Spirit always the Holy Spirit, there is yet one divine activity and one divine being in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.23 It is this unity of activity (ἐνέργεια),unity of being (οὐσία), and the unity of the Godhead (θεότης) which force themselves upon our understanding when we know God in the Spirit, and know the Spirit who realises and actualises the power of the Godhead to be one with God in the identity of his eternal being.24 That is to say, it is particularly as the theology of Athanasius moves from the doctrine of the Son to the doctrine of the Spirit that we find him thinking of the one Being of God in his acts, and of his one Activity in his Being. It must be said, then, that the very basis of Athanasius’ doctrine of the One triune God in co-activity and co-essentiality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, depends upon his holding together the Being of God in his Act and his Act in his Being—that is, in declining to have anything to do with the distinction between his being (οὐσία) and his activities (ἐνέργεια) which developed in later thought, starting with the Cappadocians and becoming characteristic in Byzantine theology. From Athanasius’ point of view, however, diversity in activity could only call in question the unity of Being in God,25 while the unity of activity would be evidence for the unity of being only if there was no separation between them—that is, if the activity inhered in the very Being of God as ἐνόυσιος ἐνέργεια.26 In other words, separation between the activity and the being would imply that God is not after all in himself always and reliably what he towards us through the Son and in the Spirit,27 and so far as the Spirit is concerned that he is not by nature what he imparts to us.28 Once again, it is the propriety of the Spirit to the Son, and his oneness in being with the Son, which is crucial in Athanasius’ thought; for the intrinsic oneness of God’s Act and his Being is discerned from the fact that the Spirit is the activity (energeia) of the Son, who is not outside of him but in him as he is in the Father;29 and it is from the Son who is the one Form of Godhead (ἔν εῖδος θεότητος) that we discern that there is only one Godhead, in the Father who is above all things, in Son who pervades all things, and in the Spirit who is active in all things through the Word.30 The inherent unity of Being and Act which this entails forces upon us an understanding of God in which movement belongs to his eternal Being. If God is he who is in his activity towards us through the Son and in the Spirit, then it belongs to the essential nature of his eternal Being to move and energise and act. When, therefore, it is said of the Logos or Son of God who inheres in his eternal Being that he became man or became flesh, that becoming must be regarded not as something adventitious or accidental to God, and idea that Athanasius rejects,31 but as the outgoing movement of the divine Being in condescension and love, the coming-and-presence (parousia) of the Being (ousia) of God himself among us in Jesus Christ. It is, however, essentially an active presence, a presence in which God himself is immediately present in the Spirit. What is decisive, of course, is the intimate relation of the Spirit to Jesus Christ.32
(iii) While God remains ultimately ineffable, beyond all created being, he is not closed to us, but makes himself accessible to us and knowable by us through his Word and in his Spirit. This follows from the previous point: for if the activity which God directs towards us is finally separated from his Being, then he is finally inscrutable to us as he is in himself; but if his activity and his Being instead of being separated inhere in each other, then God really does make himself accessible to us and known by us through his activity towards us. That is to say, God really does reveal himself to us through his activity towards us, if he thereby does not just communicate something about himself but communicates himself to us in such a way that we participate in him, which is precisely what God does through his Word and in his Spirit. Nevertheless, while in this way we are enabled to apprehend God in himself we are unable to comprehend (καταλαβεῖν) him, for we cannot grasp what he is (τί ἐστι θεός) or seize his divine Being with our minds. Finite creatures are quite unable to get behind God’s Being and know what it is for the specifically divine manner of being eludes in them, but they can say what he is not, for God is not as man.33 This ineffability of God applies also to the Son, for even in our knowing of him, he remains far from what we are by nature able to comprehend. That is to say, the kind of ineffability which Athanasius has in mind is not the negative ineffability of mere apophaticism, but the ineffability of God who in making himself known to us through the Son reveals he infinitely transcends the grasp of our minds. The only knowledge of God proportionate to God is that which obtains between the Son and the Father, where there is a mutual relation of being as well as knowing between them. No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son, and he to whom the Son wills to reveal him.34 Such is the knowledge of God mediated to us through Christ, but it is a knowledge which is realised only through the activity of the Spirit and only as in the Spirit we participate in the Son and through him in God.35 That is to say, it is through the Son and in the Spirit that a way is opened up for us to the Father, and we come to know him in some real measure as he is in himself since the Son and the Spirit are proper to the Being of God and dwell within his Being; and it is in the Spirit that our knowing of God really is knowing, since through participating in his Spirit (μετέχοντες τοῦ πνεύματος αὐτοῦ) we are made partakers of God.36 This does not mean that by receiving the Spirit we lose our own proper being, any more than that the Lord when he became man for our sakes became less God.37 That is the characteristic emphasis of Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion Concerning the Holy Spirit: in the Spirit we have participation in God and therefore in the Spirit, creatures though we are, we are lifted up to know God in his own Being as he discloses himself to us through his Word.38 It is therefore in the Spirit that we have access to the intrinsic intelligibility and his essential knowability, for inter-relation with God in the Spirit imports a two-fold openness: (a) an openness on the part of God in which by the inherent movement of his eternal Being he is able to relate himself to what is not himself and to become open to created realities beyond himself; and (b) an openness on the part of God’s creation, for through the Spirit God is able to take possession of his creatures and to be present to them in such a way that they are lifted up to the level of participation in God where they are opened out for union and communion with God far beyond the limits of the creaturely existence—which is another way of describing theosis. To be in the Spirit is to be in God, but the Spirit is not external but internal to the Godhead; but since it is only the Spirit of God who knows what is in God and it is he who joins us to the Logos in God, through the Spirit we are we are exalted to know God in his inner intelligible relations as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet in such a way that we are restrained by the sheer holiness and majesty of the divine Being from transgressing the bounds of our creaturely being in inquiring beyond what is given through the Son and received by the Spirit, and therefore from thinking presumptuously and illegitimately of God. Before transcendent intelligibility and ineffability of the Godhead we veil our faces like the cherubim, and faith and a pious and reverent use of reason together with worship, wonder and silence inform the movement on our part to the Father through the Son and in the Spirit answering to the movement on God’s part from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.39
2. Ad Serapionem 3.5.
6. Contra Arianos 2.18.
7. Contra Arianos 3.15.
8. Contra Arianos 3.24.
9. Contra Arianos 3.25.
16. Contra Ariano 3.24.
17. Contra Arianos 3.25.
21. Ad Serapionem 1.20; ‘ . . . who is said to proceed from the Father (ἐκ πατρὸς λέγετια ἐκπορεύεσθαι), because he is from the Word (παρὰ τοῦ λὸγου) who is confessed to be from the Father (ἐκ πατρὸς), that he shines forth and is sent and is given.’ Cf. 1.15.
28. Ad Serapionem 1.23-24. ‘If he makes men divine, it is not to be doubted that his nature is of God.’
30. Contra Arianos 3.6, 15-16; De synodis 52—the term εῖδος in these passages is the equivalent of ὑπὸστασις, or οὐσία or φύσις. For the use of these terms by Athanasius see below, pp. 243ff. (If you want more, it is best to buy the book. Click on the link above.)
32. Of the closing words of Festal Letter 14: ‘Let us keep the festival to the Spirit, who is always near us, in Jesus Christ, through whom and with whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.’
35. Contra Arianos 1.15-16.
36. Contra Arianos 3.19.
37. De decretis 14.
38. Ad Serapionem 1.23-9.