Within the first few hundred years of the church, several teachings emerged that were incongruent with the worship, convictions, and beliefs of the Spirit-filled, worshipping community. Take, for example, the heresy of the pneumatomachi (“spirit fighters”) in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. They denied that the Holy Spirit was God and taught that the Holy Spirit was created by God the Father and God the Son. At the time of the pneumatomachi, the church did not have a definitive statement on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, but they knew that they worshipped him just as they worshipped Jesus as the divine Son of God.
The challenge to the divinity of the Spirit caused the church to revisit the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament for clarity on the matter. The Holy Spirit then led the (whole) church in interpreting passages from Scripture that taught that he was, in fact, a divine person. The result of that process was an update to the Nicene Creed at the First Council of Constantinople, which became the definitive declaration of the church’s witness to the divinity of Christ. The beliefs held by all Christians are fixed in these early councils.
We must remember that Christianity is not just a biblical religion, it is also a historical religion. God showed up in time and space among witnesses. The Bible is the recording of that witness. The New Testament is built on the authority of what the apostles witnessed firsthand in Jesus of Nazareth. This means that councils were not deciding what was right and wrong. They were not determining orthodoxy. Instead, the early councils of the church were working out—with the help of the Holy Spirit and using accurate and faithful language—how to describe best what they inherited from the apostolic witness and the earliest worshipping communities.
Which Creeds and Which Councils?
There have been dozens of church councils that have produced numerous creedal statements through the centuries. Are they all authoritative, or only some of them? For all Christians, the only councils that are considered authoritative for all believers are those developed with representation from the whole church. The first council of this type was the Jerusalem Council from Acts 15. That council—which was attended by leaders from every region of the early church—determined that Gentile Christians were not required to observe the Mosaic law of the Jews. In other words, the church had to come together to interpret the teachings of Jesus to arrive at an answer for a new problem.
The key dynamic of that council is that those in attendance represented the entire church. Leaders from the whole church were there. Global representation is the determining factor for authority. The final decision, or decree, had to be a proclamation of the unified, collective body of Christ. Kevin Vanhoozer writes:
Church councils are called at particular times and places where decisions about something vital to the story of redemption have to be made in order to preserve the integrity of the gospel and the unity of the church (e.g., that charge that the Son is the highest created being as refuted by the homoousios of the Council of Nicaea). They reflect the recognition that authority is vested in the whole church, not simply a monarchy or hierarchy. “Catholicity” means the whole congregation of the faithful.1
The councils that meet the criteria of representation from the entire church are:
- The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325)
- The First Council of Constantinople (AD 381)
- Council of Ephesus (AD 431)
- Council of Chalcedon (AD 553)
- Second Council of Constantinople (AD 553)
- Third Council of Constantinople (AD 680–681)
- Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787)
The two councils that brought clarity to the Bible’s witness to the Holy Spirit’s work and identity are the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople. Therefore, we will draw on language from these councils in this study since these are proven reliable and authoritative as doctrines that the Holy Spirit inspired and affirmed by the witness of the entire church.
While the Bible is the final authority on divine revelation, we also look to tradition in assistance in understanding the Holy Spirit as revealed in Scripture. The reliability and authority of tradition is based on the need for Holy Spirit–inspired interpretation of the Bible within the worshipping community. As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit not only inspired the writing of the Scriptures, but also the reading of the Scriptures. The fact that the Holy Spirit is the originator of the proper interpretation of the Bible makes tradition reliable and authoritative when affirmed by the witness of the entire church.
Why It Matters
Doctrine matters because the Bible needs to be interpreted. We must go from observing what the text says to what it means. Doctrine allows us to have a clear understanding of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith. When heresy crops up in the church, it is vital to be able to succinctly declare, with accurate language that is faithful to the message of Scripture, how wrong teaching deviates from the experience of the church and its witness in history. Doctrine, as enshrined in the creeds and the councils, provides a historical foundation directly connected to the apostolic witness that is trustworthy and faithful to the teachings of Christ. Doctrine is a concise way to understand what Christians believe and why. It ensures that worship today is consistent with those who walked with Jesus.
If you would like to learn more about the Holy Spirit, you’ll appreciate Matt Ayars’s new book The Holy Spirit: An Introduction. This readable systematic theology works through the person and work of the Spirit that offers a comprehensive overview not just of this doctrine but as a vision for the Spirit’s indispensable role in the victorious Christian life.
Readers will come away with the sound biblical and historic Christian basis for the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit and the optimism of living a Christian life that is free from the power of sin. This results from the graceful reality of the indwelling Spirit, who unites our lives with Christ. This book—The Holy Spirit: An Introduction—drives home our high privilege of having the Holy Spirit restore the image of God in individuals by uniting us to Jesus. It will serve as an indispensable resource for leaders, students, and anyone desiring to deepen their understanding of the Holy Spirit.
1. Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 135.