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Why does the Nicene Creed assign “life” to the Holy Spirit — the Lord and Giver of Life — when it gives creation in general to God the Father? Isn’t “life” a part of “heaven and earth, and all things visible and invisible”? Is there something special about “life” within creation that makes it proper to the Holy Spirit? How much can we read into this? What were the Nicene theologians thinking?

The Nicene Creed is boundary language. Phrases like “God of God, light of light, very God of very God” push meaning beyond our control. Such words are best repeated in an attitude of worship, and the Creeds are first of all liturgical texts. We do not presume to capture the meaning of their words. They are best sung.

When we confess that “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life”— how inclusive may we be? Certainly “the life of the world,” including the finches, ferns, and frogs. The Nicene theologians doubtless reckoned with all the verses in the Old Testament about God’s Spirit bringing life into creation, beginning with Genesis 1:2. But then the Gospel of John claims that Lord Jesus is the source of life for the world. So in assigning “life-giving” to the Holy Spirit, the Nicene theologians seem to display a subtle Trinitarian understanding.

The Holy Spirit is that Person of the three who is also an energy. She is the Person who shows up as a flame instead of a face. And life too has energy, if not the technical energy of E=mc2. Life has the power to reverse entropy and organize molecules teleologically. The Holy Spirit has power to breathe upon the bones to make them live, while life has power to gather the carbon, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and water into networks of very long molecules, and make them replicate themselves to construct the cells and tissues that form the bones, and live.

And yet life is rare in creation. Most of the observable universe is gloriously rich without it—colorful, infinitely variable, unendingly surprising, energetic, majestic, and inspiring. But with no life. We hunt for signs of life out there, we assume we just haven’t found it yet, but we have no scientific proof that there is any life beyond our one small planet. Which is preposterous, but which also relativizes our preposterous belief that the Creator of the universe should be so wrapped up in this one small planet.

It is no assault on nature or denial of science to recognize that life is a miracle and wonder, especially since by our own arts we have never in any laboratory been able to generate de novo a living thing. And we cannot restart a life once it is extinguished, while a simple seed can generate a life even after being inert for centuries.

Yet life does not keep popping up spontaneously. There is not one thing alive today that did not get its life from some prior organism. Spontaneous generation is contrary to nature as we know it. All things now living exist within an unbroken stream of life that goes back uncounted millions of years to its unknown common source. But how did that come alive? Spontaneously (though unnaturally), in the proverbial “primordial soup”? The current version of this is the RNA world hypothesis.

The secular biologists Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, in their landmark book, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014), demonstrate purely from science that the current hypothesis of the origin of life is untenable. Their analysis is worth reading, but, in sum, they demonstrate that, because of the necessities of RNA sequencing, “to have a statistical chance of making RNA by purely random processes you would need at least 10109 of starting molecules in your primordial soup. But 10109 is a far bigger number then even the number of fundamental particles in the entire visible universe, which is about 1080)” (pp. 279-80). McFadden and Al-Khalili conclude that, “Clearly, we cannot rely on pure chance alone.” They admit that there is no alternative as yet.

Despite how much we have learned about life — even that it goes quantum — science is unable to account for its origin on earth. It’s for science to do What and How, but for belief to do Who and Why. We need not descend to a “God of the gaps” strategy and dunk the Holy Spirit into the primordial soup in order joyfully to confess that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life—spiritual, biological, botanical, zoological.

Life, as distinct from E=mc2, comes from the very soul of God. And if that’s so, that has momentous moral implications for how we treat the biosphere around us — either God offending or God-honoring.

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is Pastor Emeritus of the Old First Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn New York. He feeds the finches and drives uber for his grandchildren in New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley.


  • RZ says:

    Thanks for giving me a headache so early in the morning Daniel! I agree with your conclusion ( I think?). Just don’t ask me to prove it from scripture! Are the creeds, and even scripture, capable of TELLING what is or merely DESCRIBING what is? Or, as Henry Stob is reported to have asked so wisely, is something true because it is in the Bible, or is it in the Bible because it is true?

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    This is my favorite phase in the Nicene Creed – which is my favorite creed. Thank you for these challenging and fresh insights!

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Life as energy–the person of God who shows up as a flame, not a face. This is such a powerful essay. Thank you, Daniel.

  • jack roeda says:

    Thank you!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    You are most welcome.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    I have always been more struck by–and have used this as an Oral Comprehensive review question for my students–as to how the Nicene Creed identifies the Spirit as “lord” since that is typically (pace the Apostles’ Creed and the New Testament generally) the key title for the Son, not the Spirit. But there is the line from Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:17 “Now the Lord is the Spirit,” which I take to mean that since Christ Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, the Spirit is our living link to him on earth, the Spirit is the de facto “Lord” in that the Spirit channels the Lord Jesus to us and us to Lord Jesus. Just a thought.

  • Jim Olthuis says:

    And the very soul of God is Love.
    Thanks for a wonderful piece!

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