Heidelberg 53: We Believe In The Holy Spirit (2)

53. What do you believe concerning the Holy Spirit ?

First, that He is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Secondly, that He is also given to me, by true faith makes me a partaker of Christ and all His benefits, comforts me and shall abide with me forever (Heidelberg Catechism).

In part 1 we made a brief survey of some of the ways Scripture speaks about the Holy Spirit, particularly with respect to his work in the history of redemption, and saw that it is not necessary to become charismatic or Pentecostal to have a rich doctrine and experience of the Holy Spirit, that the Reformed churches have a different paradigm for understanding the person and work of the Spirit, and that the Reformed theology and piety cannot be correctly understood or evaluated on the charismatic/pentecostal paradigm.

Now we need to look briefly at the way the church has spoken about the Holy Spirit. When the catechism says “co-eternal God with the Father and the Son” it is echoing the language of the catholic (universal) or ecumenical creeds that summarize the Christian faith believed in all times and places. Please understand that the word catholic as used in this context has no reference to the Roman communion, which calls itself “The Catholic Church.”  The catholic faith to which the Athanasian Creed refers when it says: “Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith, which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” existed before the bishop of Rome became the first among equals and it long pre-existed the claims by the Roman communion to be mother of the church etc. In short, the Roman communion is not “The Catholic Church” and when we use the expression, “catholic faith” or “catholic church” or “church catholic” (note the lower case) we’re referring to the church and faith of all times and places and not to the Roman communion.

The Apostles’ Creed, which developed over time in the Patristic church, was substantially complete by the middle of the 4th century, says only “I believe in the Holy Spirit” (Credo in Spiritum sanctum). This completes the fundamentally Trinitarian structure to the most basic creedal account of the faith. Under the doctrine of the Spirit is the doctrine of the church, which is the locus (place) and the institution where the Spirit ordinarily operates, in which and through which the Spirit applies salvation to his people.

The Nicene Creed (325) ended with “ And the Holy Spirit” (Καὶ εἰς τὸ ἍΓΙΟΝ ΠΝΕΥΜΑ) and with an anathema against those this say that there was when the Spirit was not. The clauses after “And the Holy Spirit” were added at Constantinople (381) and recognized at Chalcedon (451). One, external stimulus for expanding the Nicene Creed was the need to reply to those who, as the Arians had denied the consubstantiality of the Son, denied the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son. The Synod of Alexandria (362) had explicitly declared the Holy Spirit co-equal and consubstantial. Those who denied the consubstantiality of the Spirit came to be known as the Pneumatomachi (πνευματομάχοι; Spirit-fighters) or “the Macedonians.” It’s possible that it was against this group that Athanasius wrote c. 355–61 but they were identified in the 370s. They were condemned by the Roman Bishop and by the Cappadocians and at Constantinople in 381.1

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), i.e., the Nicene Creed (325) as revised and expanded at Constantinople in 381, is more expansive:

And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son;2 who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets….3

As in the Apostles’ Creed, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, all believers confess the Holy Spirit as an object of true and saving faith. All Christians believe that God is one in three persons. There is no other God than the God is who is one God, Father, Son. and Holy Spirit. He is not one person but one God, not three gods but three persons. The Athanasian Creed explains the Trinity more completely. The essence of the Trinitarian faith may be summarized in one sentence: “And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” The Holy Spirit is a distinct person whose essence (substance) is indivisible from that of the Father and the Son. The Athanasian says that the deity of the Father, Son. and the Spirit “is all one.” Their glory and majesty is “coeternal.” Whatever it is that makes Father and the Son God is what makes the Spirit God. All the persons of the Trinity are “uncreate.” They have no beginning and no end. They are immutable (they do not change) and they are immense (they fill all that can be filled with all of themselves all the time). The Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is “incomprehensible.”  The Holy Spirit is co-equal with the Father and the Son. With respect to their being none of the Trinitarian persons, including the Holy Spirit may be said to be “afore or after” because “none is greater, or less than another.”

In both the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and the Athanasian catholic and Reformed Christians confess that the Holy Spirit is “Lord .” He is sovereign. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan also says “giver of life.” That’s a wonderful phrase and suggests that the Augustinian and Reformed conviction, that it is the Holy Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep, who gives new life (regeneration) to the elect is not an idiosyncratic view. It is rooted in the truth revealed in holy Scripture that we must be born again:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3–8; ESV)

The Apostle Paul says that God sovereignly gives new life to the dead:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….(Eph 2:1–6; ESV)

In view of the teaching of Scripture and the confession of the church catholic we understand that there are objective and subjective aspects to Christian truth concerning the Holy Spirit. Objectively, he is God the Spirit, with all that entails and subjectively, i.e., considering him with respect to us believers and our salvation he is our Lord, the Trinitarian person with whom we most closely associate the application of redemption to God’s elect in Christ.

Next time: The Spirit of union.

All the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. s.v. “Pneumatachi,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

2.  The Latin text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan (381) as revised by the Third Council of Toledo (589) ratified the use of the filioque clause  (and the Son) to further define the procession of the Holy Spirit. This revision is received by the Reformed and Presbyterian churches but is not received by the Eastern Churches. The Heidelberg Catechism does not address the filioque but the Reformed Churches do confess it in the Belgic confession (Art. 8):

The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the Word, wisdom, and image of the Father; the Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, God is not by this distinction divided into three, since the Holy Scriptures teach us that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit have each His personality, distinguished by Their properties; but in such wise that these three persons are but one only God (emphasis added).

The Westminster Standards also confess the filioque Westminster Confession 2.3:

III. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father;p the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son (emphasis added).

Here is a more detailed explanation of the history of the filioque controversy.

3. Πιστεύομεν…Καὶ εἰς τὸ ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΤΟ ἌΓΙΟΝ, τὸ κύριον, (καὶ) τὸ ζωοποιόν, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον, τὸ σὺν πατρὶ καὶ ὑιῷ συν προσκυνούμενον καὶ συνδοξαζόμενον, τὸ λαλῆσαν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν· Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Greek and Latin Creeds, with Translations, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 57–58.

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  1. It really bothers me when people, and I have heard pastors do the same, refer to the Holy Spirit as “it” instead of He! He is co-eternal and co-equal with and to the Father and the Son. He too partakes of the essence of God equally and identically. Trinity in Unity, Unity in Trinity, the Triunity of God is an essential truth.

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