For some time, the single procession of the Spirit made good sense to me. In the monarchy of God, the right order seems to be: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the sole principle who begets the Son and from whom the Spirit proceeds.
I found the phrase “the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son” helpful because it mediated the two positions (single and double procession). Like single procession, the Spirit comes from the Father. And like double procession, the Spirit comes from the Father by coming through the Son.
I was satisfied. Then I read Thomas Aquinas and Gilles Emery. They forced me to reconsider what the Bible said and to re-reflect on my theology.
What Does Holy Scripture Say?
In Scripture, the Spirit is often the Spirit of God or rarely, the Spirit of the Father (Matt 10:20). So much so good for the single procession view.
And John 15:26 seems to end the debate: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” The Spirit proceeds from the Father, and the Son sends the Spirit from the Father. So, the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.
And yet: Jesus makes the claim that both the Father and Son act in the sending or procession of the Spirit.
When we take another look at Scripture, we might be surprised at how often Scripture speaks of the Spirit of Jesus:
- Acts 16:7: “the Spirit of Jesus”
- Romans 8:9: “The Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ”
- Galatians 4:6: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts”
- Philippians 1:19: “the Spirit of Jesus Christ”
- 1 Peter 1:11: “Spirit of Christ”
These numbers increase when we consider the titles of the Spirit. The Spirit is “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation” (Eph 1:17) and “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:3). Both Wisdom and Truth are names of Jesus (1 Cor 1:30; John 14:6).
And the reason why the Spirit is a Spirit of Truth is because Jesus is Truth; the reason why the Spirit is the Spirit of Wisdom is because Jesus is Wisdom (Aquinas and Emery make this point).
This makes sense when we realize Spirit’s role is to testify of Christ (John 15:26). It is who he is and what he does. He is Christ’s Spirit, which means he is of Christ or from Christ.
John 16:14, a favourite verse of Aquinas, clinches the teaching double procession: “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (See Summa Q36). The Spirit takes all that is Christ’s and declares it to his disciples. That sounds very much like an immaterial procession.
And the actions of the Spirit further show a special relationship to Christ. For the Spirit gives life, something which the Son has in himself because the Father granted it to him (John 5:26). And so Jesus gives life, even calling himself life (John 14:6), by giving the Spirit.
So we have to conclude that Scripture itself leads us to consider the Spirit in close relation to both Father and Son. The double procession view becomes much more attractive, and even more so when we consider how to conceive of three persons in God.
To interpret Scripture rightly, we consider the whole Bible says (canonically), reflect upon that meaning theologically (metaphysics and ontology), and grow by the grace of this knowledge (sanctification). Put simply, read the whole Bible, think about what it means, and grow by the Spirit.
We must then consider God. And one of the earliest questions posed to Christians was: if we distinguish the Son from the Father because one is a Son and one is a Father, then is the Holy Spirit another son or grandson?
The Bible never claims this. And neither should we. So how in the world should we think about the Spirit?
Well, we can distinguish each person in God by oppositional relations. Here is what I mean:
- The Father begets the Son (a relation) and spirates the Spirit (a relation).
- The Son is begotten of the Father (a relation) and spirates the Spirit (a relation).
- The Spirit proceeds from the Father (a relation) and the Son (a relation).
Since God is a triunity, each person in God must have two oppositional relations. to distinguish one person from the other. The reason why this must be true is because simplicity is true. In God, three-persons subsist simply.
If they were three persons in a compound way, then the oppositional relations would not be necessary. But God is simple. Therefore, we must distinguish God through these relationships to avoid tri-theism and to rightly conceive of God.
The Father has some distinguishing mark from the Son and Spirit. Obviously, the name Father implies begetting but we need to discern biblical theology to understand how the Father relates to but is not the exact same as the Spirit. And we find that the Spirit proceeds from the Father (or that the Father spirates the Spirit).
While not overly complicated once it has been explained, these relationships greatly help us to understand God. They also prevent us from making major errors like conceiving the Spirit as the grandson of the Father!
The Son Is Logos
Each person in God also has a name. That’s obvious. The Father is Father, the Son is Son, and the Holy Spirit is Holy Spirit. But other proper names belong to the Son and Spirit. For example, the Son is called the Logos or Word (John 1:1).
Logos like Son fittingly describes how the Father and Son relate. If the Logos is the word or thought of person, then the Logos is like a thought in a mind of the Father. It is in the Father but not quite the same as the Father. Now, this analogy still cannot describe an infinite and simple being of God perfectly but neither can anything else.
The personal name Logos still clarifies the oppositional relation between the Logos and the Father as well as insight into how the Logos subsists in God.
The Spirit Is Love
What about the Spirit? His proper personal name is Love. Paul maintains that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). The Spirit can be said to share God’s love with us despite each person inseparably working to accomplish this impartation of love in us.
And this only makes sense when we consider that the Spirit dwells in us and groans with us in prayer. The Spirit makes God present to us. And God is love (1 John 4:8). So the Spirit too is love essentially, but he also personally communicates love to us.
Irenaeus calls the Son and Spirit the two arms of God. They do the work of God. And God so loved the World that he sent the Son. And the Son so loved the World, that he and the Father sent the Spirit. And we so love each other, that our love tells the world that we are Jesus’ disciples.
Through the effect of the Spirit’s love in the world, we can infer that the Spirit himself may be called Love like the Son may be called Logos (i.e. Word). Love relationally describes the Spirit like Word relationally describes the Son. If we use the analogy from John 1, God thinks and conceives a Word and loves and creates an imprint of Love.
Thomas Aquinas explains it like this. In God, to think conceives a Word in the intellect. So Word describes an immanent relationship in God. In God, to love implies an imprint in the Lover. So Love describes another immanent relationship in God—except this time it relates to will (see Summa Q27 and Emery’s discussion).
Put more simply (but not that simply!), the name Love distinguishes the Spirit from the Logos because Love proceeds according to will and not intellect as Logos does. When speaking of the personal property of the Spirit, Love signifies the imprint of love within the lover (God) for the beloved (the Son). It’s just another way to express the oppositional relations above but with a more specific descriptor.
As Aquinas writes, “But from the fact that Father and Son mutually love one another, it necessarily follows that this mutual Love, the Holy Ghost, proceeds from both” (Summa, Q37). Love proceeds from God to the Son and vice versa; the imprint of that love on the lover, whether Father or Son (so double procession) is the person of Love.
The most basic rule of theology is that we cannot name God. By name God, I mean to describe him perfectly—something that we cannot do since he is infinite and we are finite. We do, however, uses words to name God, but these names cannot perfectly get at his essence. His essence is super-essential—beyond all essence and beyond all knowledge.
As we grasp to know God, we find that Scriptural testimony, aided by natural theology, begins to reveal to us the inner-life of God.
And this truth is wonderful for God has infinite depths of love and goodness to explore and to receive for all time as we grow in our knowledge of his glorifying light by the Spirit of Jesus.