The Problem

Discussions about relationships between Christian faith and scientific knowledge of the world often neglect the work of the Holy Spirit.1I considered some matters discussed here in George L. Murphy, “The Third Article in the Science-Theology Dialogue,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45.3, 1993, pp. 162-168. One reason for this lies on the side of faith education because educational efforts of churches often make use of the Apostles’ Creed, to the neglect of the fuller Nicene Creed. This limits the theological understanding of members in at least two areas, the phenomena of life and chaos theory, which this essay explores.       

The doctrine of the Trinity says that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God. All three persons of the Trinity are involved in everything that God does in the world. Omnia opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt is the old principal  “All the external works of the Trinity [those going beyond God’s own being] are undivided.” But many things God that does are associated in scripture primarily with, or “appropriate to,” one person or another. That is often done in teaching the basics of the Christian faith.  Lutherans in particular are familiar with this practice from Luther’s Small Catechism.2Luther’s Small Catechism, as well as his Large Catechism that follows the same pattern, is included among the Lutheran confessional writings in the Book of Concord. Unlike the other writings in that collection, those catechisms (don’t explicitly address theological controversies of the sixteenth century. Most of the texts in Arthur Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century (Westminster, 1966), also focus on issues being debated in that period. The one exception is the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 which is included as an appendix of this work. The First Article of the Apostle’s Creed is about the Father as the creator of all things, the Second is about the Son as our Redeemer, and the Third speaks of the work of the Spirit in bringing us to, and keeping us in, the true faith.

Of course, instruction about basic Christian doctrines should be informed by scripture, but the creeds organize basic themes. Therefore, many Christians through the centuries have learned Christian doctrine in the way I’ve described. This presents a problem in that  learners can get the idea the idea that there’s a division of labor among the trinitarian persons.  It goes something like this. First the Father creates the world. When humanity sins, the Son becomes incarnate and suffers, dies, and rises again to save people. Then the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Jesus and keeps us together in that faith.   

This simple idea of appropriation may suggest that only the Father is involved with the origin and ongoing existence of the physical world and what happens in it. That’s corrected to some extent if attention in education and preaching is given to texts such as the prologue of John’s gospel, where John 1:1-3 speaks about the role of Christ in creation. But church members can easily get the idea that the Holy Spirit has no involvement with the natural world beyond — perhaps — ways in which people think or feel about it. In order to correct that impression, we need to look first at the way early Christians came to read the Hebrew scriptures. 

The Trinity in the Old Testament?           

Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brought early Christians to read their received scriptures in light of their belief that he was God’s “son” in more than a metaphorical sense. So, e.g., the declaration of “the LORD” in one of the coronation psalms, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7), could be read as a statement about Jesus’ relationship with God as his Father. Other texts, such as Isaiah 9:2-7 and Micah 5:2-4, could be seen as “messianic prophecies”.

The situation is similar with texts that refer to the ruach of God.  That Hebrew word is often translated “spirit,” but may also mean things such as “wind”, “breath”, and “air.” “God” in Hebrew is elohim, so ruach elohim can be translated as “spirit of God”, as it is in KJV and RSV.  If that translation is accepted, Genesis 1:2 says that  before God’s creative Word was spoken, “the spirit of God was moving upon the face of the waters.” Other translations, such as “a wind from God” (NEB) or “a mighty wind” (NEB) (with elohim giving a superlative sense to ruach) are possible. But when we’re told that the ruach elohim “filled” someone (Exodus 35:31), we’re clearly not talking about a meteorological phenomenon.          

Critical biblical scholars generally agree that the writers of such texts didn’t mean them to be about a person who shared the divine nature, as Christians would come to believe. The Hebrew scriptures, read on their own terms, don’t speak of a triune God. But early Christians read them in the light of God’s revelation in Christ, and saw deeper meaning in them. To put it differently, the writers of those texts didn’t understand them to refer to a divine Trinity, but early Christians came to understand them as open to a fuller interpretation through the work of the Holy Spirit who had inspired them.

On to Nicea and Constantinople            

The Apostles’ Creed developed from the early baptismal creed of the church of Rome, and spread among churches in the western part of the Roman Empire. The Nicene Creed, on the other hand, developed from the creeds of eastern churches.  It was adopted as a statement of faith by the first ecumenical council, that of Nicea, in A.D. 325. (The 1700th anniversary is now on the horizon!) This council’s primary purpose was to deal with a challenge to belief in the full divinity of Jesus Christ.  Its answer was the credal statement that the Son is “of one substance (homoousias) with the Father” — or in a modern rendering, “one in being with the Father.” That is, the Son is fully divine.

The creed’s Third Article in 325 was brief — “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.”  That was expanded at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in A.D. 381 into what became known as the Nicene Creed.  An English version of the part of its Third Article that speaks explicitly about the Spirit is as follows.3Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (eds.), The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical LutheranChurch (Fortress, 2000), pp.22-23. 

            And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceeds from the Father 

            and the Son4These last words, “and the Son (Latin filioque)” were added later.  See the final section here., who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who

            has spoken through the prophets.             

In paintings of the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary that she will be the mother of “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:26-38), we often see the figure of a dove flying toward Mary’s ear.  The Holy Spirit enables her to conceive the divine Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, as human.  When Mary asks how she, a virgin, can conceive a child, the angel explains that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you” (v.30). 

Some who realize the significance of the Spirit’s presence there may think that was unique to Jesus’ conception.  He was “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” as the Apostles’ Creed says.  But that’s true of all people — indeed, all living things.  The description of the Spirit in the Nicene Creed as “Life-giver” means the Spirit is the giver of all life. In Genesis’ second creation account, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Breath is intimately connected with life, so in the flood story, “everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.” (Genesis 7:22). (Early theologians didn’t realize that plants take in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen.)  

The Spirit is “Lord and giver” of all life, and science, of course, is very much concerned with life! A religion professor at Luther College, where I once taught, commented, semi-humorously, in a chapel talk, that if we really took that idea seriously, there should be some dogs and cats on the college’s spiritual life committee! 

The hands of God             

The author of John’s gospel exploited the fact that the Greek word pneuma can mean both “wind” and “spirit” when he wrote Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:6.“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, 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 3:6). Until recently, scientists thought that high speed computers would make that statement about wind obsolete. Long range weather forecasting would become as precise as celestial mechanics, and predict weather for years in the future.

We now know that that that won’t happen. Similar limitations apply not only to weather but to many other physical phenomena. The problem isn’t with our knowledge of the laws of physics but from a basic fact about those laws. There will always be small errors in initial data, and thus small uncertainties in predicted behavior. For systems described by linear equations, the difference between predicted and actual behaviors remains small.  

But for other systems, like many described by nonlinear equations, small errors in initial data quickly lead to large and growing differences between the system’s predicted and actual behaviors. Weather forecasting was the first place in the physical sciences where this feature of what’s now called “chaos theory” was recognized. That’s not ideal terminology — phenomena like weather are very sensitive to initial conditions, not totally lawless.  But it’s hard to change established terminology. 

This inability to predict precisely the future of complex physical systems takes its place alongside the uncertainty we note in the behavior of systems at the quantum level.  Both are basic features of the way God has created the world. In different ways they mean that there is some degree of flexibility in the connections between events in the world. Some have suggested that God may use this flexibility to bring about what we might regard as miracles, or to affect evolution’s course.[mdn]E.g., Robert John Russell, “Special Providence and Genetic Mutation: A New Defense of Theistic Evolution” in Keith B. Miller (ed.), Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (William B. Eerdmans, 2003), pp.335-369.[/mfn]            

An image of the Trinity suggested by the second century bishop Irenaeus is useful here. He spoke of God’s Word (Logos) and Spirit (Pneuma) as the two “hands” of the Father, by which everything is brought about in the world. As John Polkinghorne put it, “The Father is the fundamental ground of creation’s being, while the Word is the source of creation’s deep order and the Spirit is ceaselessly at work with the contingencies of open history.”5John Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality (Yale, 2004), p.81.

Trinitarian relations

The creed approved in 381 says that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father”.  But Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit (e.g., John 15:26) led some to believe that the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son (Latin filioque). That addition to the creed became popular in the western church, partly because it seemed to strengthen the case against those who denied the full divinity of Christ. At a council in Toledo in A.D. 614, filioque was added to the creed. This eventually became the common practice in the western church, thought the east has never accepted it.6For a brief discussion of the filioque see Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1981), pp.178-185. In recent years this has become a renewed topic for dialogue.7Footnotes on the Nicene Creed in Evangelical Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), pp. 104 & 106, provide a reading without the filioque, noting that it’s a later addition to the creed.            

Augustine, the preeminent theologian of the western church for centuries, associated the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, as the bond of love between them.8St. Augustin, “On the Holy Trinity,” pp.215-217, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (William B. Eerdmans, 1978 reprint), Volume III.  While in a way an attractive idea, that seems to put the Spirit in a secondary position relative to the Son. That impression can be reinforced by a lack of attention given to the Spirit in Jesus’ ministry.  We can get the impression that during Jesus’ ministry, the Spirit is just his sidekick.

That’s why it’s important to emphasize that Jesus’ mission has its very beginning when he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”.  The Spirit “descending like a dove” (Mark 1:10) on Jesus at his baptism is familiar in pictures of that event, but the Spirit wasn’t just a symbol. Mark says that “the Spirit immediately drove him [N.B.] out into the wilderness” to be tempted (Mark 1:11-12). We can imagine the Spirit whispering, “Hurry up — move it!”

Luke (4:14 – 30) tells us that Jesus began his ministry “filled with the power of the Spirit”. In the synagogue in Nazareth he read a passage from Isaiah that begins, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” and told the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Then he reminded the people of his hometown of stories in the Hebrew scriptures about prophets who came to the aid of foreigners, and so enraged them that they wanted to push him over a cliff. Throughout Jesus’ ministry we can read of unexpected actions that suggest the Spirit’s inspiration. While God’s work of redemption is appropriated to the Son, the Spirit was certainly present and active in it as well. Omnia opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.


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