The Holy Spirit: Does What We Know About Him Actually Matter? (Part 2)

In the last post, I argued that the Holy Spirit plays an indispensible role in our understanding of the gospel. We see abundant evidence for this in Scripture. And we see abundant evidence in the history of the Church.

One defining moment in Christian history came in 1054 A.D. in an event known as the Great Schism, when the Church split into Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) branches. The tension between these camps had been building for some time. It was exacerbated by poor communication between leaders from the East who spoke Greek and those from the West who spoke Latin. But the immediate issue that caused these tensions to flare was a seemingly obscure argument about the Holy Spirit known as the filioque controversy.

Filioque is a Latin word meaning “and the Son.” The Nicene Creed, which was written in 325 and expanded in 381, declared:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, and who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified…

Two centuries later, the Latin-speaking churches of western Europe began to recite:

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son

Eastern leaders objected to this addition, calling it a heresy. (Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church later agreed that the implications of this small addition would be heretical in the Greek language version of the Creed, but insists that it is acceptable in the Latin version. But I digress.) The East also objected to the process by which filioque was inserted, saying that the Western bishops broke communion with the East by acting unilaterally. In 1054, leaders from Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other. The dispute erupted into grotesque violence in 1182 when Latin residents of Constantinople were ethnically cleansed. The Roman church returned the favor in 1204 by sacking Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

Some of you are probably thinking, “That is incredibly stupid. Why would Christians kill each other over a single word about the Holy Spirit?” Of course, there were many social and political factors that contributed to these terrible events. But there were also sincere believers who were defendjng what they considered to be essential truths of the Christian faith. In hindsight, it does seem ridiculous and horrible. But before jumping to conclusions, isn’t it worth asking why an issue that seems so trivial to us would be so important to them? Is it possible for us to reject their violence but still learn something from them about the seriousness of how we understand and think about God?

Now let’s jump ahead to the present time. What has been the single most important development in Christianity over the last century? Many would say that it is the Pentecostal/charismatic movement. For the most part, Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals are not killing each other. We generally respect and recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. But the differences in how we talk about and practice our faith are quite profound. Charismatic Christians give prominence to supernatural signs and displays, prophetic utterings, miraculous healings, and spiritual warfare (fighting demons) that to skeptical outsiders seem off-balance and out of control. And non-charismatics may be seen by their charismatic counterparts as dull, repressed, spiritually asleep, or even hostile and disobedient to the Holy Spirit.

My purpose in bringing up these two developments in the history of the Church – the Great Schism and the growth of Pentecostalism – is not to take sides in these disputes. I mention them only to provide evidence that what we think about the Holy Spirit actually matters.

In the next two articles in this series, I will get very practical and give examples of how our understanding of the Holy Spirit impacts our spiritual lives.


  1. david bychkov

    I think that one more fact which should be mentioned here and I do find it very interesting is that Athanasian Creed says about belief of Trinity (in very accurate manner) this: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith….He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity…”.

  2. Joe, thanks for your insightful articles. i absolutely agree with you that what we think about the Holy Spirit really, really matters. i personally have to learn so much more about the Holy Spirit. But most of all, i have to get to know Him more and not just about him. So i’ll be looking forward for the articles to come.

    Just one thought… to me it seems kind of a far stretch to compare the great schism with the development of the pentecostal/charismatic movement. As you mentioned, i think that the great schism involved a great deal of political and power struggles, which i don’t see that much in the pentecostal movement. Furthermore, the schism was just divisive and split Christianity in two, which was never again reversed. As for the pentecostal movement, i think there are hardliners in every Christian camp, such as people who say that one can’t be saved if you don’t speak in tongues and people who say that one can’t be saved if you do speak in tongues (casually spoken). But the overall picture i see tells me that this kind of “split” is much more nuanced and one can find all kinds of flavors between the two extremes.

    • Yes, Henoch, you are correct. I did not intend to compare the Great Schism with the Pentecostal movement. They are very different. The only similarity between them that I wished to draw out was the fact that they ¬†were both concerned with the Holy Spirit, and that over time, teachings about the Spirit have profound impact on individual believers and churches.