A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Wilhelmus à Brakel on the Spirit as Breath

In his excellent discussion of the Holy Spirit (in volume one of his four-volume The Christian’s Reasonable Service, pages 166-174), Wilhelmus à Brakel places special emphasis on how the Spirit’s name displays his character. There is something breathy about his person and work; his name shows this. A teacher like Brakel, with his keen eye for how to organize, simplify, and apply Christian doctrine, is especially well suited to the task of teaching deep pneumatology in this memorable way.

Scripture calls the third person of the Trinity ruach and pneuma, and Brakel admits that in different contexts, these words can mean wind (John 3:8), angels (Heb 1:14), the human soul (Eccl. 12:7), and the motions or attitudes of the soul (Gal 6:1) (166). But when used of this particular person of the Trinity, there are three good reasons:

  1. “Because it is His personal property as the third Person to proceed from the Father and the Son, which cannot be expressed any more clearly than by use of the word ‘Spirit’ which means ‘to breathe.’ Therefore he is called ‘the breath of the Almighty’ (Job 33:4), and ‘the breath of His mouth’ (Psa 33:6).”
  2. “Due to His manner of operation which…is compared to breathing. When the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the entire house was filled with the sound ‘as of a rushing mighty wind’ (Acts 2:2,4). When the Lord Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to His disciples, He breathed on them (John 20:22).”
  3. “In view of the consequences of His operation, which produce in His people a ready and diligent disposition towards the service of God. ‘Who maketh His angels spirits; His ministers a flaming fire’ (Psa 104:4); ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth…so is every one that is born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8).” (166-167)

Notice the order in which Brakel presents these reasons: eternal procession, then way of working, and then results. Later he reaffirms, “The third Person works by way of breathing, and it is also the manner of his existence” (173).

Brakel is a filioquist and argues that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son (more on that below). But emphasizing the biblical imagery of the Spirit’s mode of procession as breath, and distinguishing it clearly form the generation or filiation of the Son, takes some of the pressure off of Brakel’s filioquism. He doesn’t make much use of the word “procession” as a general term covering both Son and Spirit; for him the word makes much more sense as a breath image reserved for the third person. Brakel speaks of generation and procession rather than of two processions. His pattern of usage aligns more with John of Damascus (and Greek Patristic theology generally in its treatment of ekporeusis as essential pneumatological vocabulary) than with Thomas Aquinas. It seems to me there is a correlation between attending to the metaphorical meaning of Spirit as breath, and reserving a special vocabulary word for his hypostatic origin.

Brakel devotes an entire page to the doctrine that “the third Person proceeds from both the first and second Persons.” (173) He makes a few brief remarks on the controversy between Greek and Latin churches, and then provides his reasons for affirming the filioquist position. Three kinds of texts decide the issue for him:

  1. “Texts in which the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of the Son and the Spirit of Christ.” (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:9; 1 Pet 1:11).
  2. “Texts in which the Son is said to send the Holy Spirit.” (John 15:26; 16:7). “What is true for His manner of operation is also true for His manner of existence. The manner of His operation is a necessary consequence of His manner of existence.” (173)
  3. “Texts in which it is stated that the Holy Spirit imparts to the elect that which He receives from teh Son. (John 16:13-15)

Brakel has one final brief paragraph in which, without going into much technical detail, he nevertheless shows familiarity with some of the historical arguments surrounding the filioque. Notice the distinctions he draws or presupposes here:

The operations of both the Father and the Son relative to the procession of the Holy Spirit should not be viewed as proceeding from two distinctly different origins, for it is one and the same operation and power. Both the Father and the Son ought rather to be viewed as the primary cause of all that transpires, rather than viewing the Son as a primary cause of lesser importance, implying that the Father would cause the Holy Spirit to proceed by means of the Son. If, however, we consider manner and order of both existence and operation, then the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son, as well as from the Father through the Son. (173-174)

Western theology had affirmed that the Spirit’s procession from the Father and Son was “as from one single source,” and Brakel speaks as one who knows this argument and affirms it. But his supporting reason is only an appeal to divine unity (“one and the same operation and power”) rather than an appeal that picks out the character of the Spirit’s actual procession (as procession by way of will, for example, or co-belovedness or something). And then he makes a further distinction: There is another way of looking at the procession, in which “we consider manner and order of both existence and operation.” This is not (to me, at least) a very clear distinction. But the stated distinction seems to be between (1) oneness of operation and power and (2) manner and order of existence and operation. In the case of the latter, Brakel says, the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and from the Son,” which is standard filioquism, and also “from the Father through the Son,” which is to say per filium, an interpretation used by John of Damascus, though strenuously denied by later anti-filioquists.

Hypothesis: attention to the Spirit as breath tends to specify the character of the Spirit’s procession itself in a way that could be helpful on either side of the filioquist/monopatrist divide.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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