A Moderate View on the Filioque Controversy
Having been largely responsible for the tragic Great Schism of 1054 between the Latin West and the Greek East, the Filioque clause is behind what is probably the most controversial debate in church history. While it would be irresponsible to downplay their theological significance, the truth is that three plain words from the Nicene Creed have now kept the Body of Christ divided for nearly a millennium: “and the Son.” The critical issue at stake is the economy of the Trinity. As I understand it, what happened is that the Western Church added the phrase to the creed long after it had been finalized at the First Council of Constantinople.11.Apparently they felt this was OK because of their view regarding the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, which the East never affirmed in the same way. It would seem that their motives were pure. They simply wanted to be more theologically accurate to the teachings of Scripture and their tradition. The Eastern Church, however, disagreed with that biblical interpretation, held no such tradition, and was emphatic that, because two ecumenical councils had together formulated the creed’s precise wording, only an ecumenical council should be permitted to alter it. So here we are today, wrestling over these same words some 14 centuries after the controversy erupted. Naturally, I hold to a moderate view on the Filioque controversy that both sides will (probably) simultaneously love and hate.
In my humble opinion, each side a valid points in this long-standing feud.22.Please keep in mind that this is a short blog post, not an academic paper. I’m not offering an extensive exegetical interpretation of the relevant biblical passages nor am I considering the textual contributions made through the Patristic Era. Look at the biblical evidence:
- “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;” – John 14:16
- “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me,” – John 15:26
- “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” – John 16:7
- “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.” – John 16: 13-15
- ‘So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ” – John 20:21-22
- “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Roman 8:9
- “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ “Galatians 4:6
- “for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” – Philippians 1:19
Allow me to point out two facts that are, to my mind, indisputable followed by commentary on each. First, from John 15:26 alone we see that Jesus is, in some way, involved in the sending of the Spirit. Roman Catholics are theologically onto something here. Yet I think gone they’ve beyond the biblical evidence in affirming that the Spirit proceeds from Jesus. The Spirit may derive solely from the Father in some sort of ontological sense, but Jesus is unquestionably somehow a part of the Spirit being sent. To parse delicately, it’s almost like the Son is commissioning the Spirit, which then goes forth from the Father. For lack of a better way to put it, Jesus seems to be the general giving the order while the Father is the military base that actually implements it.33.Forgive me. That analogy is wrought with Trinitarian problems. It’s the best I could come up with. Second, equally clear from the same verse is that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Eastern Orthodox are right to be sticklers on this, for Scripture never says that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. Could it be implied? Sure, I suppose. But that’s speculative.44.Moreover, they’re absolutely right that ecclesiastically his shouldn’t be in the Nicene Creed even if it is doctrinally true. Dear Roman popes: Only the undivided Church can make that call.
I see neither side of this historic divide adequately taking into account those two facts, let alone the full breadth of Scripture’s teachings. That’s why this issue continually causes me to facepalm myself whenever I think about it. Catholics have a logically derived position. Unfortunately, their systematic position goes too far–as is the tendency of that theological sub-discipline. Meanwhile the Orthodox have a literalist interpretation of the Nicene Creed that doesn’t deal with the obvious biblical complexities. Quite honestly, this is why I get annoyed when people want a simplistic answer to the question, “Which side are you on in the Filioque debate?” I’m certain this will be a controversial comment, but whenever I hear (or read) people give simple answers to that I have to assume they a) haven’t seriously considered the biblical evidence, b) are hopelessly brainwashed by their tradition, c) have framed their understanding of this issue upon a logical fallacy,55.See: False Dichotomy or, most alarming of all, d) All the above. Could be wrong, but these are truly the only options I see.66. Thankfully, as an Anglican I have a little more wiggle room to think for myself.
The best way to understand my explain my moderate view is probably in visual contrast to others, so to the right is a diagram for each of the three.77.I’ve made a real effort to accurately represent both the Greek and Latin views on this, but if I’ve skewed their views I would ask for correction and clarification. The first is the view of the Eastern Orthodox Church. They believe that the Father begets the Son and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. “The Orthodox interpretation of the Trinity is that the Holy Spirit originates, has his cause for existence or being (manner of existence) from the Father alone as ‘One God, One Father’. That the Filioque confuses the theology as it was defined at the councils at both Nicene and Constantinople.”88.Yes, I just quoted wikipedia. The second is the view of the Roman Catholic Church. They believe that the Father begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son.” Catholics are quick to refute the Orthodox charge that this formulation creates confusion in suggesting that the Holy Spirit has two origins. The third diagram represents my view. I believe that the Father begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit (having been sent by the Son) proceeds from the Father.99.Please note the color choice. Blue + red = Purple. Not only does this formulation allow me to in good conscience stand beside my Orthodox brothers and sisters in reciting the Nicene Creed in its original form, but it imbues within it the biblical elements of the Son sending the Spirit contained within Catholic theology.
I suspect the only way the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians will ever tangibly reunify is if they hold an eighth ecumenical council and adapt the Nicene Creed. It would have to say something agreeable to all parties. I imagine something like, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who [is sent by the Son and] proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.”1010.Maybe I’m wrong, but I really don’t see this as being theologically incompatible with either side. Personally, I doubt that will ever happen and almost certainly not in my lifetime. Sadly, that sort of extreme ecumenism would probably require nothing short of global persecution of all Christians. In the meantime, I’ll keep on reciting the Nicene Creed as it was agreed upon by the undivided Church while being thankful in my heart that the Son sent the Spirit as well as praying that’s Jesus’ will of a united Church will once more be a physical and spiritual reality.