THE HOLY SPIRIT: The Spirit As Creator In Tradition by Raniero Cantalamessa

Meditations on the Veni Creator

The Spirit As Creator In Tradition by Raniero Cantalamessa

From: Come, Creator Spirit

Veni Creator Spiritus.  Come, Creator Spirit!  The title, “Creator,” is new and unusual.  Our hymn is perhaps the only liturgical text in which the Spirit is called by this name instead of by the other “canonical” name, Holy.  It is the strongest word, not only in the first verse but in the whole hymn.  Using “Creator” in this way is like throwing open the window to a view of the Bible and Tradition.  A window is a small opening, but looking through it one can see an immense panorama; the closer one gets to the window, the wider the panorama one can see.  In a similar way, Creator is just a little word, but the deeper we dig into its history, the more it reveals profundities we never would have anticipated.

Toward the end of his life the composer Gustav Mahler set out to write a choral symphony.  He asked himself what words would be able really to express “the unheard.”  He reviewed all the world’s literature, including the Bible.  Ultimately, he decided upon the Veni, and for it he assembled the greatest vocal and instrumental “ensemble” every attempted.  The work has come to be known as the Symphony of a Thousand.  The first line, Veni Creator Spiritus, contains the theme of the whole work; it is a kind of cosmic paean rising wave upon wave as the various voices and instruments take up the cry.  The composer wrote to a friend, “Try to imagine the universe itself beginning to sing and let its own voice resound.  What I want us to hear are not simply human voices, but whirling planets and suns.”


If we analyze the title, “Creator,” we come to understand very quickly that the word was not chosen because it slotted nicely into the meter.  On the contrary, it is the firm, precise footing of a long series of Biblical revelations and church traditions and the one point in which all of them come together.

At the Council of Nicea (325), the concept, “Creator,” played a decisive role in the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  It was the point on which the Arian view diverged from the Orthodox.  The Arians, following Middle-Platonic philosophy, distinguished three levels of being: ungenerated being, which belongs to God; intermediate being, which belongs to the Demiurge or lesser god; and produced or created being, in which all creatures exist.  Against this threefold division the Council of Nicea upheld the new Christian perception that there are only two orders of being: Uncreated Being, and created being.  Whatever exists is either Creator or creature, and there is no possibility of any in-between kind of existence.

The struggle of the Orthodox party all turned on this point, and on the need to show that God the Son was not some kind of creature and that, consequently, he was of the same order of being as the Creator, uncreated, like the Father.  The Nicene Creed formulates a distinction, genitum non factum, “begotten, not made,” and in that way overcomes the Arian dilemma.  The Creed provides the distinction between generating and creating; though generated of the Father, the Son is nevertheless not created but coequal with the Father as Creator.

Once the divinity of Christ had been firmly established, the church could go ahead to resolve the problem of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  It was again Athanasius, the champion of orthodoxy at Nicea, who was first to put forward the force of this argument in support of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  His reasoning is quite straightforward:

The Son, who is in the Father, is not a creature but of the very substance of the Father.  For the same reason it is not permissible to count the Holy Spirit a creature and so do violence to the Trinity, since the Holy Spirit is in the Son and has the Son in him.

This argument rests upon and alludes to a fundamental Christian experience: Christians know that contact with the Spirit transforms and deifies them.

If the Holy Spirit were a creature, we would not have any partaking in God through him.  But if, by partaking in the Spirit, we become sharers in the divine nature, one would be senseless to say that the Holy Spirit belongs to the created nature and not to the uncreated nature of God.

All the Fathers who write in defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit follow Athanasius on this point.  Ambrose brings this discussion to the Latin-speaking world: “The Holy Spirit is therefore not a creature, but Creator!”  The very phrase, Creator Spiritus, is used by Saint Augustine, who writes: “They judge badly who confuse the creature with the Creator, and think that the Creator Spirit of God is one of the creatures.”

The Council of Constantinople in 381 did not explicitly add the title, “Creator,” in the article of its Creed on the Holy Spirit, possibly in order to avoid repetition, as it had already used it for the Father.  Instead, the council used the title, “Lord,” (“I believe in the Holy Spirit, who is Lord…”).  However, the difference between servant and Lord (or king) is simply another way of expressing the distinction between creature and Creator.  Gregory Nazianzen says that those who say that in God there is a Creator (the Father), a collaborator (the Son), and a servant (the Holy Spirit) are wrong.  And Saint Basil writes: “If he is created, the Holy Spirit is clearly servant, but if on the other hand he is above creation, then he must belong to royalty.”

To us today it must appear a little strange that the problem was not once and for all radically resolved by clearly and simply attributing the title “God” to the Holy Spirit.  But up to that time, that was the policy of orthodoxy.  It avoided any direct application of the term “God” to the Holy Spirit in its determination to remain faithful to the scripture that speaks of “one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:6), and to express belief in the absolute divinity of the Spirit by in fact according it the isotimia, that is, the same honor and veneration as accorded to the Father and the Son.  This is why the article of faith defined by the Council of Constantinople in 381 does not say that we believe in the Holy Spirit “who is God,” but “who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.”

Later on the belief in the Holy Spirit as Creator was deepened and anchored theologically in the doctrine of the Trinity.  Whatever God does outside the Trinity is a work of all three Persons together, and hence the Holy Spirit is Creator along with the Father and the Son.  Augustine develops this idea saying that “in God everything is common to the three Persons, except what belongs to a single person in virtue of his relationship to the others.”  Hence, the act of creation is common to all three Persons.

It is in this definite form that the patristic notion of the Holy Spirit as Creator was taken up in the Veni Creator.  In another of his writings Rhabanus Maurus says:

Very fittingly, saying that “God, in the Beginning – which is like saying, ‘the Father, in the Son’ – created Heaven and Earth,” the scripture inserts a mention of the Holy Spirit, adding: “And the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.”  Thus the text shows that the power of the whole Trinity worked together in the creation of the world.

Later, Thomas Aquinas was to say that “The Holy Spirit is the very principle of the creation of things.”  In all of this, we have just begun to take account of what there is behind the word that proclaims the Holy Spirit “Creator.”

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