The Holy Spirit's Rumored Eclipse in Western Theology

Yves Congar was perturbed. Observers at the Second Vatican Council were critical. The Council, in their assessment, failed to produce a properly pneumatological ecclesiology.[1] Worse, the criticisms did not relent after the Council. So in 1970, Congar issued a response, focusing in particular on the criticisms of Orthodox theologians Nikos A. Nissiotis and Vladimir Lossky.[2]

What were the criticisms? Lossky and Nissiotis spoke openly of the “Christomonism” of the Latin tradition in general, and the Second Vatican Council in particular. Lossky’s genealogy sought to ground Latin “Christomonism” in the filioque. Since the Latin addition to the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Spirit has been threatened by eclipse in the West.[3] Congar’s response avoided the genealogical speculations, and focused instead upon the Orthodox critical theological objection, which was: “The Latins tend to make the Holy Spirit merely one of Christ’s functions . . . in short, (the function) of effecting, in the Church, the work of Christ.” It continues: “This is to misunderstand the fully personal character of the Holy Spirit’s Pentecost mission, that mission’s importance for constituting the Church after and along with the work of Christ, and finally the personal action of the Third Hypostasis in the historical life of the Church.”[4]

It is a notably precise articulation of the theological problems attendant the Greek accusations. Congar’s response is similarly precise, and unflinching.

I believe these criticisms to be exaggerated and insufficiently substantiated. Neither from the biblical point of view nor from the dogmatic can one propose an economy of the Paraclete which would be autonomous with respect to the economy of the incarnate Word. There is a mission of the Spirit; there is no hypostatic incarnation of the Holy Spirit. So, the Spirit is not manifested in a personal way.[5]

But Congar was never one to waste an opportunity presented by robust criticism. The recurring objections to Latin Christomonism provoked, in part, his landmark study, I Believe in the Holy Spirit.[6]

What does Congar mean when he says the Spirit is not manifested in a personal way? After all, Christ promised the disciples that the Father would send “another Advocate (Paraclete)” in John 14:16. Is the subsequent sending not a personal manifestation? Christ goes on to say that the presence of this other Advocate is contingent upon his departure: “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate (Paraclete) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Once sent, the Advocate, who Christ also calls the Spirit of truth, “will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:13-15). This promise is fulfilled, in part, when Christ appears to the disciples after the resurrection[7]:

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-22).

We often refer to this sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son as a missioning. The Latin term for “to send” is mittere, so Christ says of the Paraclete in John 16:7 mittam eum ad vos—I will send him to you. The missions of the Son and the Spirit are the way our God has chosen to save us.

Congar’s point, I take it, is that in those places where Scripture speaks most clearly about the missioning of the Holy Spirit, the activity of the Spirit is always and importantly united to the activity of the Son. This is not only true in the Gospel of John. Romans 8:9 states “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” In verse 10, Paul continues, “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of righteousness, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

Likewise, when Luke gives his account of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Spirit (1) gifts the church with the capacity to interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ and (2) establishes a community marked by its imitation of Christ’s life. Thus, Peter delivers the same teaching as John: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).

The attachment of the work of the Spirit to the work of Christ is consistent with all of Scripture. Western theologians have therefore rightly sought to preserve the tenor of Scripture’s teaching with respect to the Spirit, Son, and Father. The West should make no apologies for its inviolate principle. Opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt (The activity of the Trinity in creation is undivided). As Christ taught us, “the Spirit will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears . . . He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:13-15). So Congar is correct. The Latin tradition does not err in its refusal to speak of the Spirit in any way independent of the Son in the economy of salvation. As he went on to demonstrate in the first volume of I Believe in the Holy Spirit, this is the consistent message of Holy Scripture.

But that is not all Congar thought. He also recognized that, though we rightly refuse to violate this principle of Triune activity, the Latin tradition has not always been explicit about the essential place the Holy Spirit holds in the Christian life and the life of the Church. And he is not afraid to admit that, in some instances, there is an eclipse of the Holy Spirit among particular Western theologians, especially in the Modern period.

Congar sought to demonstrate this historical assessment in I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Volume I. He sought to contribute toward its remedy in the constructive work of Volumes II and III. No doubt much to his satisfaction, he did so by developing “the elements of the true pneumatology that were present at the Second Vatican Council and have since then been active in the Catholic Church.”[8]

What are the elements of a “true pneumatology” such as that present at the Second Vatican Council and subsequently active in the Catholic Church? Congar is not afraid to distinguish “true pneumatology” from other talk about the Spirit. Speaking of Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, he claims “the Spirit was seen, on the one hand, as the principle of holy living in the souls of individuals—this was the “internal mission”—and, on the other, as guaranteeing acts of the institution, especially its infallible teaching. “This,” Congar summarily determines, “certainly does not constitute a pneumatology.”[9] Whether or not Cardinal Manning can be defended, it is worth clarifying what, precisely, would “constitute a (true) pneumatology” for Congar:

By pneumatology, I mean something other than a simple dogmatic theology of the Third Person. I also mean something more than, and in this sense different from, a profound analysis of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in individual souls and his sanctifying activity there. Pneumatology should, I believe, describe the impact, in the context of a vision of the Church, of the fact that the Spirit distributes his gifts as he wills and in this way builds up the Church.[10]

The problem to be remedied according to Congar is incomplete reflection upon the Spirit, and especially the Spirit’s work. That is to say, the problem is not the prospect of misunderstanding the personal character of the Spirit by retaining the economic attachment of the Spirit’s work to Christ’s, but of failing to see the extent to which Christ pours out his Spirit in order to build up the Church. And the Second Vatican Council, Congar wisely observes, provokes substantial progress on this question, in the very dogmatic constitution charged by some observers with a deficient pneumatology: Lumen gentium.

What should we make of Congar’s claims here? First, Congar has offered us a valuable dogmatic diagnosis and direction for ecclesial reflection. He has helpfully isolated a juncture of questions for theologians, one insufficiently considered in some cases. Second, it would however be a mistake to read the pneumatology subsequently developed by Congar, in I Believe in the Holy Spirit and elsewhere, as theologically novum. His method is consistent. At every turn, now armed with some perspicuity as to the particular need for the Church to speak more explicitly, he proceeds by turning, not away from, but back toward the tradition, therein finding resources explicit and implicit for moving toward what might “constitute a pneumatology.”

Much of the historical excursus in Congar’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit is shaped by his two-fold interest in the Spirit’s work in (1) the sacrament of the Eucharist and (2) the gifts of the Spirit. The former is motivated by the retrieval of an explicit epiclesis in the Roman Rite coming out of Vatican II. The latter was a lifelong passion. Congar was cognizant of, and contributed substantial historical and theological reflection upon, the long history of the gifts of the Spirit, often oriented around Isaiah 11:2: “The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD.”

When he reaches the Middle Ages in I Believe in the Holy Spirit I, Congar makes these two topics the focus of his commentary. He attributes the lack of reflection on the Holy Spirit in the schoolmen, in part, to the lack of an explicit epiclesis, “It is certain that the absence of a real epiclesis to the Holy Spirit in the Roman canon deprived any corresponding theology of a chance of developing.”[11]

Nevertheless, he teases out from pre-scholastics like Hugh of Saint-Victor and Honorius Augustodunesis a nascent theology of the Spirit, fecund for developing theologies of the Spirit’s activity in the Eucharist and in the gifts. They did so by drawing upon the work of St. Augustine, thanks to whom “the Church as the body of Christ was almost universally regarded in the West as animated by the Holy Spirit and the distribution of different gifts in the Church to different members for the common good was also attributed to the Holy Spirit.”[12]

Congar suggests that this explicit Augustinian theology of the Spirit became somewhat muted as scholasticism migrated its attention toward Christ’s headship, and the accompanying account of grace which the head shares with its members. But it remains in the fundament of the great texts of the schoolmen. Attentive reading bears this out.

A substantial pneumatology has been demonstrated by several recent attentive readings of St. Thomas Aquinas.[13] Attentive reading of Thomas shows the Spirit’s activity is not restricted to “a simple dogmatic theology of the third person” or “analysis of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in individual souls and his sanctifying activity there.”[14] Certainly Thomas gives such a dogmatic theology. And certainly he thinks the Spirit indwells individual souls and sanctifies them. But neither is this dogmatic theology “simple,” nor this indwelling of the Spirit restrictive. As Bruce Marshall puts it, “for Thomas the Holy Spirit actually has quite a lot to do.”[15]

In the Summa Theologiae (ST) and the Super Evangelium S. Ioannis lectura (Ioan.), Thomas develops an account of the Spirit’s activity which illumines the wisdom attendant scripture’s repeated emphasis upon the Spirit’s dependence upon the Son in the economy. Both parts of the claim are essential. (1) The Spirit’s activity ad extra is always wedded to the Son’s for Thomas, in imitation of scripture, and (2) by so imitating scripture Thomas illumines divine wisdom.

In ST III, q. 23, a. 1, Thomas asks “whether it befits God to adopt sons.”[16] Typically, when Thomas inquires about a divine act’s fittingness (convenientia), he seeks to align some contingent action with attributes of the divine essence. That is, he seeks to observe the way in which a particular divine act in creation reveals what we know about the divine nature. In this case, he reflects upon divine goodness, a topic already treated in ST I, 11. 5-6. “God is infinitely good, from which it follows that he admits his creatures to a participation of good things, and principally rational creatures, who, because they are made according to the image of God, are capable of divine beatitude.”[17]

Thomas goes on to observe this participated beatitude is a sharing in that which is God’s own—his enjoyment of himself. Thomas clearly has in mind the words of St. Paul, who says God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”[18] He likens this sharing in divine beatitude to an inheritance. Divine adoption, then, befits a perfectly good God. “But this divine adoption is greater than human, because God makes the human whom he adopts fit, by a gift of grace, to receive a heavenly inheritance.”[19]

Thomas further clarifies that this adoption is not a natural filiation, which is reserved for the Son alone. He already said as much when he called the adoption participatory. But he helpfully clarifies that, though our adoption is no natural filiation, “by the act of adoption a likeness of natural filiation is communicated to humans.”[20] He cites Romans 8:29 in support: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”

How does the Triune God communicate this likeness of the natural filiation of the Son to humans? Thomas clarifies in a subsequent article. Arguing, on the basis of Romans 8:15-17, that it is not the Father alone who adopts, but the entire Trinity, Thomas clarifies how the Triune God adopts in common. “The human is assimilated to the splendor of the eternal Son by the light of grace, which is attributed to the Holy Spirit. And therefore adoption, while it is common to the entire Trinity, is nevertheless appropriated to the Father as author, to the Son as exemplar, and to the Holy Spirit as impressing upon us the likeness of the exemplar.”[21]

The tutelage of St. Paul and St. John led St. Thomas to these insights. The same Pauline verses are close to hand when St. Thomas comments on the farewell discourse in Ioan. As a result, he weaves together an account of the Spirit’s activity as indivisible with the Son’s and Father’s. He does so by attention to the literal sense (the actual litterae) of John’s Gospel. When Thomas lectures on John 14:26—“But the Advocate (Paraclete), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything”—he observes that Christ teaches “three things concerning the Holy Spirit. First he describes him; second his mission; third his effect.”[22] The Spirit is described “as Paraclete, as Spirit, and as Holy.”[23] The mission is described when Christ says “the Father will send in my name.” Finally, the Spirit’s effect is that he “will teach you everything.”

When he turns to the mission of the Spirit, Thomas pauses to ponder “why is it that (Christ) said, in my name?”[24] Here Thomas clarifies John 14 by appeal to St. John’s Revelation (5:10) and, once again, Romans 8. “Indeed, just as the Son, coming in the name of the Father, subjects the faithful to his Father . . . likewise the Holy Spirit configures us to the Son, in as much as he adopts us as children of God.”[25] Thomas’s attention to the Trinitarian processions revealed in the missions of Son and Spirit are critical for what follows in his discussion of the effect of the Spirit, who Christ says “will teach you everything.” The Spirit’s teaching, it turns out, is far from reductive. It is, rather, saving teaching.

Thomas’s first word about the Spirit’s effect is its orientation to the Son. This is apt, since the Spirit, Son, and Father together bring about our salvation:

Just as the effect of the mission of the Son was to lead to the Father, so the effect of the mission of the Holy Spirit is to lead the faithful to the Son. Now the Son, since he is begotten Wisdom, is Truth itself . . . And therefore the effect of such a mission is to make humans participants in divine wisdom and knowers of the truth. Therefore the Son hands over teaching to us, since He is the Word; but the Holy Spirit makes us able to grasp that teaching.[26]

The Spirit’s effects are united to the Son’s. They are united in a common aim, salvation, and ordered to one another, just as the Son and Spirit are ordered to one another. Moreover, this is not simply true for us recipients of divine teaching. The Spirit is also involved in Christ’s own human teaching. “Thus unless the Spirit comes to the heart of hearers, the words of the teacher will be otiose (Job 32:8); and so much that even the Son himself, speaking by the instrument of humanity (organo humanitatis), does not avail unless he works in the interior by the Holy Spirit.”[27]  St. Thomas’s Trinitarian wisdom is central to his Christology and soteriology. The result is a robust and extensive pneumatology, no doubt worthy of Congar’s description of a “true” pneumatology. But it is also a pneumatology entirely grounded in the doctrine of the Trinity:

The Trinitarian shape of Aquinas’s theology of the incarnation brings into view the key role of the Holy Spirit in Christology and in the whole dispensation of salvation. Aquinas accounts for this without compromising the central place of Christ’s identity as the Word, or of the hypostatic union; the presence of the Holy Spirit in Christ is their necessary counterpart.[28]

Careful attention to Thomas’s theology of the Spirit, including his attention to the union of the mission of the Spirit and Son, reveals profound wisdom as to the saving action of the Triune God. By uniting the work of Father, Son, and Spirit, St. Thomas in no way denigrates the work of the Spirit. He delivers a pneumatology neither simple nor restrictive. To use Congar’s words, St. Thomas’s pneumatology “describe(s) the impact . . . of the fact that the Spirit distributes his gifts as he wills and in this way builds up the Church.”[29] It just turns out that the Spirit wills to operate in this world always in union with the Son, as they both share in the will of the Father. Just as Christ and the Holy Spirit together taught the disciples.

[1] Congar, “Pneumatologie ou ‘christomonisme’ dans la tradition latine ?” in Ecclesia e Spiritu Sancto edocta (Lumen gentium, 53): Mélanges théologiques, hommages à Mgr Gérard Philips; Verzamelde theologishe opstellen aangeboden aan Mgr. Gérard Philips, Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum Lovaniensium 27 (Gembloux: Duculot, 1970), 41-64; ET: The Spirit of God: Short Writings on the Holy Spirit, translated by Susan Mader Brown, Mark E. Ginther, Joseph G. Mueller, SJ and Catherine E. Clifford (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018), 162-196.

[2] Congar, Spirit of God, 162-163.

[3] Vladimir Lossky, Essai sur la Theologie Mystique de l’Église d’Orient, Patromoines-Orthodoxie (Éditions du Cerf: Paris, 2004); ET: The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997).

[4] Congar, Spirit of God, 163.

[5] Ibid., 164.

[6] Congar, Je crois en l’Esprit saint, 3 Vols. (Paris: Cerf, 1979-80); English translation I Believe in the Holy Spirit: The Complete Three Volume Work in One Volume, translated by David Smith (New York: Crossroads, 2000).

[7] Congar notes, helpfully, that the communication of the Spirit in John 20 does not use the language of the Advocate (παράκλητος) as in John 14 and 16, which is consistent with the lack of fulfillment of the condition set out in John 16:7 that the Son depart. Instead, Congar says, “this is, as it were, a beginning of this promised gift of another Paraclete.” I Believe, I: 53.

[8] Congar, I Believe, I: 167.

[9] Ibid., I: 156.

[10] Ibid., I: 156.

[11] Ibid., I: 117.

[12] Ibid., I: 116.

[13] Most notably in Dominic Legge’s The Trinitarian Christology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Legge’s work extends the landmark studies on Thomas’s Trinitarian theology by Gilles Emery, in works such as La théologie trinitaire de saint Thomas d’Aquin (Paris: Cerf, 2004); ET: The Trinitarian Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, trans. Francesca A. Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[14] Congar, op. cit., I: 156.

[15] Bruce D. Marshall, “What Does the Spirit Have to Do?,” in Reading John with St. Thomas Aquinas: Theological Exegesis and Speculative Theology, edited by Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 65. Marshall’s essay has been instructive for the reading which follows.

[16] All translations of St. Thomas are my own.

[17] ST III, q. 23, a. 1, co.

[18] Ephesians 1:5. Interestingly, while Thomas cites Ephesians 1 in the sed contra of the article, his citation only includes the first phrase cited here: predestinavit nos in adoptionem filiorum Dei. Nevertheless, the corpus demonstrates the broader text which St. Thomas has to mind as he formulates his response.

[19] ST III, q. 23, a. 1, co.

[20] Ibid., q. 23, a. 1, ad 2.

[21] Ibid., q. 23, a. 2, ad 3.

[22] Ioan. 14, lect. 6, n. 1954.

[23] Ibid., 14, lect. 6, n. 1955.

[24] Ibid., 14, lect. 6, n. 1957.

[25] Ibid., 14, lect. 6, n. 1957.

[26] Ibid., 14, lect. 6, n. 1958.

[27] Ibid., 14, lect. 6, n. 1958.

[28] Legge, Trinitarian Christology of Thomas Aquinas, 238.

[29] Congar, I Believe, I: 156.

Featured Image: Photo taken by Becks, Bernini's Holy Spirit in the Chair of St. Peter; taken on 18 Feburary 2013; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0AT.


Justus Hunter

Justus Hunter is Assistant Professor of Church History at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH. He is the author of If Adam Had Not Sinned: The Reason for the Incarnation from Anselm to Scotus.

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