“Did God and Jesus exist before the Holy Spirit?”

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by Fr. Edward Looney

Q Dear Father:

In the Nicene Creed we say at Mass it says that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” It seems to me that this indicates he was just kind of an afterthought and is not equal to the Father and Son. Did the Father and Son exist before the Holy Spirit?—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous:

The straightforward answer to your question is no, the Father and Son did not exist before the Holy Spirit. However, the answer to your question is complicated and complex, to say the least — in part because we are dealing with the mystery of God.

If we answer the question with a yes, the spirit was an “afterthought,” we would commit two different heresies, the first being subordinationism, which means professing the primacy of the Father and the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father, and the second being pneumatomachianism,or the denial that the Holy Spirit is God.

To say that the Father and Son existed before the Holy Spirit denies the godhood of the Spirit because God exists eternally, and if the Spirit came into existence after the Father and the Son, then we would be saying the Spirit (who is God) did not exist eternally. To say there was a time when the Spirit was not in existence denies the eternal existence of God.

The phrase in question comes to us from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. In another creed, that of St. Athanasius, the co-equal and co-eternal nature of God is professed:

So there is One Father, not Three Fathers; one Son, not Three Sons; One Holy Ghost, not Three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Co-eternal together, and Co-equal.

Part and parcel of our creedal belief is the fact that the Father, Son, and Spirit existed in perfect unity for all eternity.

St. Augustine offers an understanding of the Trinity that might get at the heart of the eternal existence of the Trinity. Before sharing the analogy, we must remember that, when it comes to theology, all analogies limp and fall short of capturing the essence of the mystery. As we consider St. Augustine’s analogy, we must do so with the mindset of eternity.

St. Augustine speaks about the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love between the two. In the analogy, the Father is the Lover, Jesus is the Beloved, and the shared Love is the Holy Spirit. The analogy might seem to suggest that there was a time the Holy Spirit was not, but that would be incorrect. Love always existed between the Father and the Son, because God is love.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church might help clarify further:

Consubstantial with the Father and the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from them, in both the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world. In adoring the Holy Trinity, life-giving, consubstantial, and indivisible, the Church’s faith also professes the distinction of persons. When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath. In their joint mission, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct but inseparable. (CCC, 689)

The inseparability of the Holy Spirit affirms that the Love between the Lover and Beloved always existed and cannot be separated.

Then what is meant by “proceeds from the Father and Son?” In the elongation of St. Augustine’s analogy, he says when the Father and Son (Lover and Beloved) gazed at each other, the mutual sigh is the Love expressed between the two. The theological term that captures this reality is spiration.

This helps us to understand the breath image of the Holy Spirit found throughout the Scriptures: the breath of the Father in creation hovering over the waters (see Genesis 1:2) and Jesus breathing on his disciples inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit (see John 20:22).

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples that he must go so that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, could come (see Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4). The Father and Son sent the Spirit among us on that first Pentecost. The Spirit of God now dwells within the Church and her members especially through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.

Some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit we have received aid our intellect. As we try to understand this great mystery of the Trinity and the procession of the Holy Spirit, let us ask for the gift of knowledge and understanding so we might know and understand what we profess as a Christian community Sunday after Sunday.


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