The last two articles set forth two reasons why the second ecumenical council in Constantinople (381) was necessary. One is that some denied that Christ is truly God, as the Council of Nicea (325) asserted. The second ecumenical council was necessary to reaffirm this doctrine. Another reason is that some wrongly explained how Christ is God. The Council of Constantinople had to explain this rightly.
In addition to these reasons, the Council of Constantinople was necessary to develop the doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit. As adopted at the Council of Nicea, the Nicene Creed led believers to say, “We believe in one God the Father…and in one Lord Jesus Christ…and in the Holy Spirit.” The Nicene Creed further explained our faith in God the Father and in Jesus Christ. But beyond saying, “and in the Holy Spirit,” the Nicene Creed said nothing more.
So the church had to face questions about the Holy Spirit. Is He a third person of the Godhead, or is He merely the power by which God works? If He is God, is He coequal with the Father and the Son?
The early church recognized that the Holy Spirit was “divine.” But what does that mean? Some taught He was divine in that He belongs to God. Others considered Him divine because He was the power by which God worked. According to these explanations, He belonged to God, but was not truly God. Others taught that He was a creature, and not eternal.
Still others understood that the Spirit was eternal, but could not accurately explain how He was related to the Godhead. Some said that God revealed Himself in the Old Testament as Father, during Christ’s time on earth He revealed Himself as Son, and after Pentecost He revealed Himself as the Holy Spirit. In other words, one God, one person, but three ways of revealing Himself. Others said that, regardless of how the Holy Spirit was related to the Father and the Son, the Spirit was inferior (subordinate) to them.
God used three men in particular to help the church see that the Spirit is truly God. These three were Basil, bishop of Caesarea; his brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa; and their friend Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus. All three labored in Asia Minor during the years between the Council of Nicea and the Council of Constantinople.
Basil taught that the Spirit has God’s names and attributes, and performs actions that only God could perform. He also taught that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Gregory of Nyssa agreed, and added that the Spirit is of the same essence as the Father and Son. The three are all eternal, equal, and individual persons, but one God. Gregory Nazianzus advanced the thought by more clearly defending the Spirit’s individual personality.
As a result of their work, many in the church had come to a clearer understanding of the divinity of the Holy Spirit when the Council of Constantinople opened. Basil was not at the Council; he had died two years earlier. The two Gregorys were there; in fact, Gregory Nazianzus briefly served as the bishop of Constantinople during those years, and so presided at part of the Council.
The Council of Constantinople enlarged the Nicene Creed. In 325, Nicea led the church to say: “And in the Holy Spirit.”1 In 381, Constantinople declared: “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father, who with Father and Son is worshiped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets.”2 The church had come to recognize that the Holy Spirit was worthy of divine honor, performed divine works and proceeded from the Father. It would be another two hundred years before the words “and the Son” would be added to say that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son. But Constantinople laid a solid basis for the church’s doctrine of the deity of the Holy Spirit.
Having explained the three reasons why the Council was necessary, we plan to examine the history of the Council itself in the next article.
1 “The Creed of Nicea,” in Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettensen and Chris Maunder, eds., 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 25.
2 Documents of the Christian Church, 26.