Confessing the Holy Spirit

It has been many years—37 to be precise—since I graduated with my doctorate in church history from the University of Toronto and Wycliffe College, a constituent college of the Toronto School of Theology. The focus of my thesis was the battle for the deity of the Holy Spirit during the Pneumatomachian controversy of the late fourth century.

That interest in pneumatology has dominated my academic career since: a good example of the way in which some choices made early in life have enormous impact down the road. At the core of my interest then, and now, was how New Testament pneumatology informs later pneumatological confessions.

As a Christian historian, though, my historical interest has never been merely antiquarian. I am interested deeply in a usable past in which the past is respected for what it was and yet insights from the past are retrieved for present life. Learning to do this well is a life-long craft, for it is so easy to ask the wrong questions or use the past in a way that betrays historical integrity.

In other words, my academic and spiritual interests revolve around the twin disciplines of reception history and ressourcement.

One key area, therefore, that I have been studying all of these years is the ontological status of the Holy Spirit and the nature of his relationship within the Godhead. I learned early on that the history of discussion of this subject in the Church was deeply tied to the Bible, especially, the New Testament.

The baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19 contains an initial and succinct point of departure in this discussion. Here God is described as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Since this baptismal formula implies a radical, whole-hearted commitment to God, Christian authors in the New Testament and in the Church since that era naturally included the Holy Spirit within the Godhead.

Numerous texts in the New Testament are also found that speak of his deity, doing only what God can do. The Spirit enables men and women to confess the true identity of Christ and worship him (1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 3:3; Ephesians 2:18); he is the source of spiritual life (Galatians 5:25; 6:8; Ephesians 1:13–14); he gives believers insight into divine mysteries, since he plumbs the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10); he gloriously transforms believers into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). He is also described as eternal (Hebrews 9:14) and he is called by the divine title of “Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Confessing the Holy Spirit as God, then, is at heart of what it means to be a Christian.