Spirit in Christianity – part 1: Early Church to Reformation

Article by

(Ruach HaKodesh, Session 2a)


This session of the Ruach HaKodesh series looks at the history of ideas in Christianity regarding the Holy Spirit. This episode, part 1, focuses on the early church up to the Reformation. We will see various approaches to the subject of the Holy Spirit, and how some of those movements affect us even today.

The following is a condensed version of the audio teaching. You can also subscribe to this podcast here.


Introduction: Why Study History

Look at Yeshua’s prayer in John 17:20-23:

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

There is a stark contrast between this and the historical reality. Church historian K. S. Latourette writes:

Christianity early displayed one of the most striking features of its history, the contrast between the dream of complete unity, the unity of the kind of self-giving love seen in Christ, and division. No other religion has so high an ideal of an inclusive community of love. Yet, as we are to see again and again in the course of our story, no other religion has had as many divisions and as many bitter controversies between its adherents.[1]Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1953), p. 119.

History is important. Understanding the past helps us to better understand the present, and gives us a clearer glimpse into the future. This is true when it comes to our understanding of the Holy Spirit as well. The better that we can grasp the past, the better we will be able to understand some of the modern controversies over the Spirit, and our place within those controversies.

There are five eras of history that we are going to look at:

  1. Patristic era: Church fathers, heretics, and monks
  2. Medieval period: Catholics and mystics
  3. Reformation era: Reformers, Spiritualists and Pietists
  4. 18th and 19th Centuries: Wesleyanism and its offshoots
  5. The modern era: Pentecostal and Charismatic movements


The Patristic Era

For the first believers, the early followers of Yeshua, the Holy Spirit was of central importance. (We will talk more about this as we discuss the Spirit in the Apostolic Scriptures.) After the generation of the apostles, some changes came into the Kehillah:

  1. The overwhelming insurgence of Gentiles. There were still Jewish (and non-Jewish) believers who continued to follow Torah and walked in the example of the apostles. We have records of their existence up until the fourth century when they mysteriously vanish from history.[2]See Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1988). A more thorough treatment of early ...continue But Gentiles quickly outnumbered and gradually displaced Jewish believers, eventually adopting a very anti-Torah and anti-Jewish stance.
  2. The Split between Christianity and Judaism. As the Synagogue and the church drifted apart, they began to develop in reaction to each other, thus deepening the divide. This divide also occurred on the topic of the Holy Spirit, as we will see in the next session when we study the Spirit in Judaism. While many concepts on the Holy Spirit are virtually the same between Christianity and Judaism, we do see some differences.

The early church believed that the eschaton (last days) began with Yeshua and the Apostles, and that believers were now privy to the promises of that eschaton, including the Holy Spirit. For them, the outpouring of the Spirit in the book of Acts marked the inauguration of the end times.

Interestingly, most of the debates about the Holy Spirit in the early church were over the Person as opposed to His works. The Montanist controversy was an important exception, and we will look at that in a moment. Two primary debates in the early church that pertained to the topic of the Holy Spirit were:

  • The Trinitarian debates
  • The Filioque controversy.


Trinitarian Debates

Origen (3rd century) expressed uncertainty as to the theology of the Spirit.[3]Origen, de Principiis Preface, 4. But Origen, along with the other church fathers, gradually saw the Holy Spirit as part of the Godhead as the doctrine of the Trinity developed. Tertullian was the first to clearly define the Trinity as it has been understood ever since: “Three coherent persons, who are yet distinct one from another. These three are one essence, not one person.”[4]Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 25. As quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, ...continue

For those opposed to the idea of the Trinity, there were two primary objections regarding the Holy Spirit:

  1. Denying the deity of the Spirit
  2. Denying the individual personhood of the Spirit (modalism)

Some argued that the Holy Spirit was a created being. E.g. Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople from 341-360, taught that the Holy Spirit was “a minister and a servant” on the level of the angels, subordinate to the Father and the Son.

Two church councils addressed these issues:

  1. Council of Nicaea (325 CE). This was the first Christian council, and was presided over by Emperor Constantine. Among other things, they affirmed belief in the Holy Spirit, but didn’t really define that belief.
  2. Council of Constantinople (381 CE). This council condemned the views of those who rejected the deity of the Holy Spirit. It also revised the Nicene Creed, putting it in the form in which we have it today.

The section of the Nicene Creed on the Holy Spirit reads as follows:

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.[5]Taken from https://www.ccel.org/creeds/nicene.creed.html.

The Council of Constantinople defended the view of Basil the Great, namely that the Holy Spirit is divine, and that He proceeds from the Father (as opposed to being “begotten”). Since Christ is the only-begotten, the Spirit cannot also be begotten.[6]Basil, Letters, 159.2, 125.3. Hence the emphasis was on the Spirit’s procession, as opposed to generation. This may seem like splitting hairs to us, but these men were trying to grapple with what the Scriptures say and analyse it from their philosophical worldview. This idea of the procession of the Spirit led to another controversy.


The Filioque Controversy

Augustine affirmed (like Basil), that the Son is begotten but the Spirit proceeds. But Augustine argued that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, not just from the Father. Augustine was the first to articulate the double procession of the Spirit so clearly.[7]Augustine, On the Trinity, 15.17/29. Also Augustine, Collattio cum Maximino Arianorum episcopo, 2.14.1.

This principle of the double procession of the Holy Spirit was accepted in the Western Church but not in the East. Keep in mind that Basil was from the Eastern Church, while Augustine was from the Western Church. The Western Church integrated the view of double procession into their version of the Nicene Creed, which added the Latin word filioque (“of the Son”) to the statement about the Holy Spirit.

The Eastern Church was enraged by this insertion. This became known as the Filioque Controversy. Eventually it contributed to the division between the Eastern Church (Eastern Orthodox) and the Western Church (Roman Catholic, and even Protestants). This issue divides the church in two to this day.

To us today, this may seem like a silly controversy. What’s the big deal? Well, there was a difference in philosophical outlook that lay behind this controversy. The Eastern Church emphasized the philosophical importance of having only one Cause for all things (the Father). They also relied on the Scriptures (John 15:26) which speak of the Spirit proceeding only from the Father. The Western Church, on the other hand, emphasized the unity of Father and Son. They also looked to Scriptures that speak of the Spirit as “The Spirit of Messiah”.

But mostly, in my opinion, it was just a big miscommunication based on differing philosophical mindsets that were actually quite foreign to the Hebraic mentality of the Scriptures. It was an attempt to answer questions that the Biblical writers would never have thought of. The result was an argument over things that to us seem to have little practical application. There was an early movement, however, that brought some practical issues concerning the Holy Spirit to the forefront.


The Montanists

The Montanist movement was founded by a man named Montanus from Phrygia, in the latter half of the 2nd century. He began “speaking in tongues” and prophesying and claimed that the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) spoke through him. He was joined by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who likewise claimed to be prophetesses. This movement was known by its adherents as “New Prophecy”, while outsiders referred to them as Montanists, or Phrygians.

Montanus proclaimed the towns of Pepuza and Tymion in west-central Phrygia as the site of the New Jerusalem, making the larger — Pepuza — his headquarters. Followers of the New Prophecy called themselves spiritales (“spiritual people”) in contrast to their opponents whom they termed psychici (“carnal, natural people”). They believed themselves to be in a direct line of descent from Agabus and the daughters of Phillip in the book of Acts. Some Montanists apparently even believed that their prophecies superseded the Scriptures.

According to one tradition, Montanus was a pagan priest of the ecstatic cult Cybele prior to his conversion to Christianity. Montanus’ followers would visit the “New Jerusalem” and bring their offerings and gifts, which were used to provide salaries for those who propagated Montanus’ teachings. They believed they were ushering in a new era, the real end-time outpouring of the Spirit.

Eusebius writes:

At the village of Ardabau in Phrygian Mysia, a recent convert named Montanus, whose limetless ambition was tinder for the Adversary, became obsessed and, in his frenzy, fell into a trance. He began raving, chattering, and speaking nosense, prophesying contrary to church tradition and custom from the beginning.[8]Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.16.

The montanists were regarded as false prophets by the church fathers for several reasons:

  1. They acted irrationally and were not in control of their senses.[9]Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 48.3–4.
  2. They predicted events that failed to come true.[10]Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.17ff.
  3. They claimed to usher in a new age of the Spirit, the end time revival, and that Acts 2 was just a foretaste.

One exception of course was Tertullian, the church father who eventually became a Montanist himself. Tertulian was apparently bothered by the sin he saw in professing believers, and he reasoned that there must be a second blessing after initial salvation at which one becomes sanctified.

But overall, the Montanists were rejected because their prophecies proved to be far from truth. One result of the Montanist movement was that the early church became suspicious of any overemphasis of the Holy Spirit.[11]Allison, Historical Theology, 432. See Didymus, On the Trinity, 3.41.1, and Epiphanius, Heresies, 48.11, and 49.1. According to J. S. Whale: “Montanism is the classic example of a sect-type destined to reappear constantly in the history of the Church from that day to this.”[12]J. S. Whale, The Protestant Tradition: An Essay in Interpretation (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1955), p. 209. As quoted in Frederick Dale ...continue And in fact, we will see some of these themes repeated throughout history.



The Monastic movement may not be focused on the Holy Spirit, per se, but it is pertinent to our study because it represents what many believers thought of as the ideal form of spirituality. It raises the question: what does it mean to be spiritual? What does a healthy Yeshua-following spirituality look like?

The term “monk” came from the Greek monachos, meaning solitary. It was originally applied to hermits in the desert. The monastic movement flourished in the fourth century and beyond.

The conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine had a huge effect on Christianity. Suddenly, instead of being a persecuted minority the church (or at least the State Church) was the official religion of the empire. This, however, left the question open about how to walk in imitation of the humble, crucified Christ while enjoying the prestige of Rome’s favour.

Many found the answer in the monastic life: to flee from human society, to leave everything behind, to dominate the body and its passions, which give way to temptation. Thus, at the very time when churches in large cities were flooded by thousands demanding baptism, there was a veritable exodus of other thousands who sought beatitude in solitude.[13]Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1 (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 158.

Anthony and Paul the Hermit were the two earliest famous monks. Some of the church fathers who were monks include: Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Basil the Great, and many others, including many women. We also read of individuals such as Simeon Stylites (388-459), who achieved fame for living 37 years on a small platform on top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria.

These men and women believed the path to spirituality was in denying physical pleasure. This idea came from Platonic thinking and Gnosticism.

Although Gnosticism had been rejected by the church, its influence could still be felt in the widely held notion that there was a fundamental opposition between the body and the life of the spirit, and that therefore in order to live fully in the spirit it was necessary to subdue and to punish the body.[14]Ibid. 158-159.

These were people who wanted to take their faith seriously. Unfortunately, they were misguided as to what that should look like. It is not difficult to see how certain Scriptural passages (such as Luke 9:23; Romans 8:13; and Galatians 5:16-17) could be misinterpreted in a monastic sense.

The focus for these early monks was on contemplation rather than study. Most monks were unlearned, although that changed later in history. They relied on personal subjective revelation and meditation techniques, rather than the Bible. Monks later began to gather themselves into communities called monasteries. These monasteries became integral to the learning and worship of the church. Their spiritual ideas formed the foundation for medieval Catholic mysticism.


The Medieval period

As time went on, the church adopted a sacramental understanding of the Spirit. Catholicism came to link the Spirit’s work “directly and exclusively to the sacraments. That is, the Holy Spirit does not work outside of those channels of God’s grace.”[15]Allison, Historical Theology, 430.

For centuries the church had linked reception of the Spirit with baptism and its accompanying rite of confirmation. This practice became even more pronounced in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was through the Holy Spirit’s work in its midst — and in it alone — that the Roman Catholic Church considered itself to be the sole source of salvation for the world.[16]Ibid. 441.

In this view, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is equivalent to baptism. The sealing and outpouring of the Spirit takes place at confirmation. This viewpoint exists even in modern Catholicism, as can be seen from the Catechism.[17]See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 739, 1213, and 1302-1303.

For most people, this reception of the Holy Spirit is not necessarily a tangible experience. It is theological and symbolic. There were, however, those who sought a deeper form of spirituality. And hence we turn to the mystics.


The Mystics

Throughout history, mystical movements have arisen in reaction to cold, formal religion. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic mystics were a sort of pre-Reformation attempt at reforming the church. In fact, these mystics played a role in the development of Martin Luther’s theology, and helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.[18]Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1, 428.

The mystics were accurate in emphasizing the need for a personal relationship with God. And they also decried the corruption of the church in their day. But where they fell short is in their lack of emphasis on the absolute authority of God’s Word, replacing it with the hope of knowing God accurately through personal intuition.

Looking at the two charts from our introduction, mysticism usually falls on the “man-in-control” side of chart one and the “feeling” side of chart two. The church around them was very hierarchical and corporate-oriented. In reaction, the mystical movement sought something personal and experiential. Mystics often had visions, out-of-body experiences, and personal revelations. These were sometimes the result of fasting, sickness, or altered states of consciousness. Mysticism in its extreme forms was often condemned as heresy by the church.

(We will talk more about mysticism and its effect on our theology of the Holy Spirit in session 9.)


Reformation Era

Martin Luther and the other reformers naturally rejected the idea that the Catholic Church was the source of salvation and of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church’s claim to possess the Holy Spirit was false, and merely an attempt to bolster the “inspiredness” of their unbiblical doctrines. For Luther, the Holy Spirit is that which enables us to understand the Scriptures. The Spirit of God and the Word of God are intrinsically linked.

Calvin added to Luther’s views the concept of the Witness of the Spirit: the idea that the Holy Spirit is necessary to prove to us that the Bible is God’s Word. Calvin emphasized the need for balance between the Word of God and the Spirit of God. This was necessary to counter the mystics and fanatics who claimed to have matured spiritually beyond the need for Scripture.[19]Allison, Historical Theology, 443-444.

Later leaders in the Reform tradition added the concept of the Illumination of the Spirit: The Holy Spirit is necessary to help us understand the Scriptures properly. John Owen, a 17th-century Puritan theologian, appealed to passages such as Psalm 119:18 and Ephesians 1:17-19 to demonstrate that we need the Holy Spirit to illumine our minds to understand the Word. This also served to counter the rampant subjectivism of the Spiritualists by emphasizing that the Spirit speaks to us through the Scriptures, not apart from them.[20]Ibid. 445.

On the whole, however, Protestant views of the Holy Spirit did not differ substantially from Roman Catholic views. “On the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit, and on his procession from both the Father and the Son, Catholics and Protestants were in complete agreement.”[21]Ibid. And for the most part, Protestants rejected Christian mysticism. Mystical experiences were seen as too subjective. There were, however, some Protestant groups that were open to the idea of mystical experiences. Most notable among them were the Spiritualists and Pietists, and the later Methodists, Pentecostals, and Charismatics.


Radical Reformers

Some reformers took a more radical approach, however. One interesting group during the Reformation was the Zwickau Prophets, whom Luther met.These were a group of self-proclaimed prophets who believed the world was about to end. They believed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that they did not need the Bible anymore.

While not one of the Zwickau prophets, Thomas Müntzer had contact with them and held some beliefs in common. He believed that the end of the world was immanent, and that it was the duty of true believers to help God usher in a new era through force. He is known for instigating the German peasant uprising of 1525, as a result of which he was captured, tortured and executed.

There were other movements, especially among the Anabaptists, that had apocalyptic visions and sometimes resorted to violent rebellion. These never lasted long. We often see a correlation between end-time expectations or predictions and radical views associated with the Holy Spirit. These short-lived movements had little long-term impact, and mainstream Reform views dominated the Protestant scene.

References   [ + ]

1. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1953), p. 119.
2. See Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1988). A more thorough treatment of early Yeshua-following Jewish sects can be found in Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik, eds., Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007).
3. Origen, de Principiis Preface, 4.
4. Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 25. As quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 434.
5. Taken from https://www.ccel.org/creeds/nicene.creed.html.
6. Basil, Letters, 159.2, 125.3.
7. Augustine, On the Trinity, 15.17/29. Also Augustine, Collattio cum Maximino Arianorum episcopo, 2.14.1.
8. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.16.
9. Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 48.3–4.
10. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.17ff.
11. Allison, Historical Theology, 432. See Didymus, On the Trinity, 3.41.1, and Epiphanius, Heresies, 48.11, and 49.1.
12. J. S. Whale, The Protestant Tradition: An Essay in Interpretation (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1955), p. 209. As quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), p. 36.
13. Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1 (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 158.
14. Ibid. 158-159.
15. Allison, Historical Theology, 430.
16. Ibid. 441.
17. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 739, 1213, and 1302-1303.
18. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1, 428.
19. Allison, Historical Theology, 443-444.
20. Ibid. 445.
21. Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *