In Laymen’s Terms, Why on Earth Does the Filioque Controversy Matter?
The first time I heard about the Filioque controversy I remember thinking, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’ My inward response was sheer disgust and I remained mildly pissed off for days.1 My goal here isn’t to convince anyone to feel otherwise–I don’t and I’m quite certain I never will–but to simply help people walk a mile in another person’s shoes.1.To find out that the united church had divided over whether or not the Spirit proceeds jointly from the Father and the Son or the Son exclusively was an immediate confirmation of all the petty doctrinal minutia and oppressive hierarchy that I’d long been told corrupted ancient Christianity. It exemplified what was, to my mind, the tragic institutionalization and idolization of the church. Somehow the Body of Christ had lost sight of its Head. It’s this precise train of thought that causes people to wonder why on earth I’d want to be Anglican, and to dismiss the importance of what was at stake with the Filioque clause. In other words, my goal isn’t to win an argument. I simply want to help people understand why this was so important back in the day, and why some folks think it still is today. My intention is understanding rather than agreement. Fair?
Imagine yourself living in the days of the ancient church. Try to strip away your present-day experience where church unity and doctrinal agreement is what’s foreign. There are no Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Anabaptists, Nazarenes, Vineyard, Covenant, Evangelical Free, Emerging churches, Bible churches, house churches, yada yada yada. There are no separate denominations, traditions or whatever else. Protestantism doesn’t exist and there’s no distinction between between catholic (universal) and Catholic (Roman) nor orthodox (right, essential doctrine) and Orthodox (Eastern). Every local body is part of the catholic, orthodox Church. All the churches you see around are in full communion with one another.22.Try for a moment to put aside what might be your gut reaction against these things, and simply acknowledge that this tangible and spiritual unity is accomplished through apostolic succession, episcopal oversight, ecumenical councils, and creeds. Got it? Don’t get me wrong. It ain’t a Utopia. There always has been and always will be crap whenever two or more are gathered together, but that unity is precious.
OK, now have basically half of those churches (in isolation) change the content of the universally affirmed doctrinal statement.3 Not only that, but the seemingly small issue they tweaked is related to the Trinity, which it took the undivided Church centuries of blood, sweat, and tears to finally reach a consensus on.3.Keep in mind it’s repeated every Sunday morning by virtually all to help maintain the peace long-term. Then they change it. You start to see why this was important. In my humble opinion, we American Christians are so near-sighted and pragmatic that miss the long-term implications of what went down.44.Commentary: In my opinion, we look at this issue through far too much of a modern, American church lens where fragmentation is the tragic norm, then we wonder why these ancient Christians put up such a fuss about this disagreement, all the while chiding them for being so divisive and near-sighted. Paging, Alanis Morissette. The issue is not only the theological consequences–although they’re important–but the precedent it establishes. Specifically, when everyone agrees to something you can’t go around changing it without again consulting everyone.
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution reads,
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Imagine if in 1963 half of Congress had somehow quietly tacked on “and of Canada” there at the end.55.Sorry for the jab, Canadian friends. Nothin’ but love for the homeland of Steve Nash and, uh, snow. Three small words with huge ramifications. Years later the Supreme Court is presiding over a case and four of the nine justices have a different text. There would be problems, right? Eventually it causes another civil war to break out and the country splits in half. To avoid any confusion with the American Civil War, we’ll say that the two sides this time are East and West. The East says Canada is part of the U.S. The West says it isn’t. Now jump forward, say, 500 years. People are telling them that quite enough time has passed and it’s time to reunify, but the East is still claiming “and of Canada” must be included. Neither the doctrinal problem nor the autonomous precedent have gone anywhere. The issue has got to be fixed directly before restoration is possible. No doubt it’s an imperfect analogy, but it’s the same sort of mess here.66.If that analogy doesn’t drive home the problem Mr. Lawyerman Ian Sansot, then I don’t know what will.
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll also check out yesterday’s post: “A Moderate View on the Filioque Controversy.”