The Spirit Who Proceeds

“The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”

- John 14:26

Protestants and Roman Catholics differ on a great many issues, including the doctrine of justification and the relationship between Scripture and church tradition. These differences are significant and touch on issues essential to Christian faith and practice, so we dare not make them less important than they are. Despite these differences, however, Protestants and Roman Catholics do agree in some key areas.

For example, Protestants and Roman Catholics agree on the doctrine of the Trinity. When the Reformers broke with the papacy, they did not break with all that the Western Christian tradition had taught for millennia. They retained, for example, the Niceno­Constantinopolitan Creed, particularly the version of the creed used in the West, which differs from the version used in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Western version states that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The “and the Son” portion of the creed is also known as the filioque clause, and it identifies what distinguishes the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son.

As we noted in our last study, the Holy Spirit is fully God, along with the other two persons of the Trinity. The three persons are not distinguished by different divine attributes, for They share the same attributes. Instead, they are distinguished by Their relation one to another. We confess that the Father is unbegotten and that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father (John 1:1–18). We confess that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, though Eastern Orthodoxy says the Spirit proceeds eternally only from the Father.

The biblical evidence favors the Western position affirmed by Roman Catholics and Protestants. Today’s passage tells us that the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the name of the Son (14:26), and biblically speaking, to send in the name of a person is to send someone on behalf of that person. This would mean that the Son agrees in the sending of the Spirit, that the Spirit is His ambassador. In turn, theologians see in this text an allusion to eternal realities. The Father and the Son send the Spirit because from all eternity, the Spirit has proceeded from the Father and the Son.

John 15:26 is another key text. It tells us that the Spirit proceeds from the Father but that the Son sends Him. If the Son sends the One who proceeds, that is likewise a clue to eternal realities. The Son can send the Spirit because He proceeds from the Son just as He proceeds from the Father.

Coram Deo

Getting our language about God right is crucial for handing down the faith once delivered to the saints. While we do not know exactly what it means that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, we confess this in order to preserve the biblical truth. There is much about God that we confess but that we cannot understand fully, but we strive for precision in our confession in order to help people think rightly about God.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 44:3
Ezekiel 39:29
Acts 2:32–33
1 Thessalonians 4:8

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.