A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Synopsis of a Purer Pneumatology, Too

The Synopsis of a Purer Theology (Leiden, 1625) is one of the most satisfying products of Protestant Scholasticism. It’s now available in English, and soon in paperback (Davenant, 2023). So there will be no excuse for being ignorant of the excellent argumentation in these rigorous disputations.

I want to post a few excerpts from Disputation 9, on the person of the Holy Spirit, mainly because I wish this solid and vigorous Protestant pneumatology was more widely known. But another reason I want to share it because in my recent work on the Holy Spirit, I followed the guidance of the Synopsis’ treatment of the Spirit quite closely, but only cited the work once. So it’s not as visible in my footnotes as I wish I had made it. To compensate, here are a few of the most significant moves from the Synopsis:

First, the Synopsis draws heavily on the image of breath in its basic presentation of the Spirit’s subsistence:

9. The particular mode which comprises his subsistence, and whereby He is distinguished from the Father and the Son, is in God’s spiration and in the procession that corresponds to it. For as He is brought forth by spiration, so He has subsistence by emanating—which the word “Spirit” bears out, as He is said to go forth in a proper sense, namely from someone who does the breathing. (89)

This is great biblical-systematic theology. The breath imagery is right there on the page, and anything we can do theologically to focus attention on that is helpful. Teaching Christians to recognize spiration as a doctrinal reality will pay off in actual Bible reading, in more ways than we can predict or control.

Second, the Synopsis is careful to reserve the word “procession” for the Holy Spirit, rather than using it indiscriminately to cover both Son and Spirit:

11. And “procession” also should not be understood in the sense that it can apply commonly to the Son as well, to whom, by reason of his personal existence from the Father, even “exodus”—the going forth from the days of eternity—is attributed, and in reference to his sending and to his coming into the flesh, a “going out,” or issuing, from the Father is attributed (Mic 5:1; John 16:27, 28). But rather it should be understood in the way that “the proceeding,” or going forth, is ascribed in the sacred writings uniquely to the Holy Spirit, as his personal characteristic property (John 15:26).

Again, this is wise craftsmanship. People don’t always know in advance that when they start talking about trinitarian pneumatology they are very soon going to need distinct terms for (a) how the Son stands in relation to the Father, (b) how the Spirit stands in relation to the Father (and the Son), and –the tricky bit– (c) what umbrella term to use for how both Son and Spirit come from the Father. The Synopsis explicitly draws attention to these terminological needs, forestalling much confusion.

Third, the Synopsis uses the Biblical categories of begetting and breathing, but raises our awareness of how to consider these material images:

14. But since these things, being stated figuratively and in an anthropopathic way, must be understood in a way that befits God, many ancient authors as well as more recent ones have posited that just as the Son was born by means of the intellect (for He is called the Wisdom and Word of God, Prov 8 and John 1), so too the Holy Spirit proceeded by means of the will, of love, nay rather, of power. For this reason, the terms “Holy Spirit” and “the power of the most high” are rightly used interchangeably (Luke 1:35; Matt 12:28, compared with Luke 11:20). For us it suffices that somehow by means of these different words and concepts the difference is indicated in the production of the divine persons; and we do not presume to give definitions recklessly to matters that cannot be expressed in words.

Here we see the Synopsis reaching out and making use of the idea that the Son was “born by means of the intellect” and the Spirit “proceeded by means of the will, of love, nay rather, of power.” This is a distinction well developed by Augustine (it’s part of the famous psychological analogy) and perfected by Thomas Aquinas. The Synopsis makes some careful use of it here for explanatory power, but then quietly backs away from pressing it as far as it might be pressed. Thomism lite? Room to move? Some sense of only doing what is strictly necessary, and a judgement that not very much is actually necessary here? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Fourth, here’s how the Synopsis handles the procession of the Holy Spirit:

15. … the Son is only from the Father, but the Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son jointly. Concerning this point a serious and long-lasting debate arose between the eastern and western Church, the former claiming that He proceeds from the Father only, the later from both, namely, from the Father and the Son. 16. In fact, the unity of essence in these two persons—which should be given prior consideration—demands that He proceeds from them both—or else the unity would be destroyed.

It’s a defense of filioquism, the Western view of the procession of the Spirit. The Synopsis takes its stand on “the unity of essence…which should be given prior consideration.” (Mmm, lots in that little phrase. Worth pausing over. Foundational.) And in the next several steps, the Synopsis makes the most of the explanatory power of filioquism, both for understanding the unity of the Trinity and the shape of the economy of salvation. The clear biblical fact that both Father and Son send the Spirit into salvation history looms large for the Synopsis’ deduction that the Spirit proceeds from them both in the divine life. The eternal principle of the Spirit (Father and Son together) is extended into the economic principle.

But the filioquism of the Synopsis, while clear and definite, is cautiously stated throughout, as if laboring not to exaggerate the difference into a necessary division. And sure enough, in section 19, the authors marshal some arguments highlighting what the Greeks are right about, and suggesting “from the Father through the Son” as a way of elaborating how the Spirit comes from both.

19. But in order to put the controversy between the Greeks and Latins in its proper place and settle it, some have conveniently said, in keeping with the phraseology of some ancient authors, that the Father spirates the Holy Spirit through the Son, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. For by that manner of speaking it is shown that He comes from both; and the mode of subsistence is shown, too; that is to say, He proceeds in a mediate and subordinate way from the Father through the Son. Thereby the Greeks’ position is not destroyed, namely that the one and even personal principle of the spiration and procession of the Holy Spirit is the Father—because the Father precedes in origin and order. To be precise: their position of the personal starting point is the Father on account of the Father’s antecedence in origin and rank.

These brief remarks are hardly elaborate enough to “put the controversy… in its proper place and settle it.” But it’s a good effort, it addresses foundational matters, and it deserves recognition as a viable Protestant option.

Fifth, the Synopsis has a terse but lovely statement on how the immanent taxis of the Trinity (“origin, mode of relation, and order”) is expressed in salvation history:

20. Just as the Holy Spirit has everything from the Father and the Son (or from the Father through the Son) and therefore acts and operates in a similar way, so too does He render everything to the Father through the Son.

Here is the downward arc of From-Through-In, matched by the upward arc through the Son to the Father. The Spirit “acts and operates” among us “in a similar way” to his eternal identity in God.

Sixth, after a long series of proofs of the Spirit’s distinct personhood and full deity, the Synopsis summarizes:

28. From all these passages it is obviously clear and we conclude that the Holy Spirit is of the same essence as the Father and the Son. Certainly, He is to such an extent in God, from God, and of God, that He is God.

That’s it: The Spirit is “in God, from God, and of God.” That’s how he’s God. That’s a serious doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

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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