The Filioque

Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary, Harvard U. Press, 1988.

If there is a special circle of the inferno described by Dante reserved for historians of theology, the principal homework assigned to that subdivision of hell for at least the first several eons of eternity may well be the thorough study of all the treatises — in Latin, Greek, Church Slavonic, and various modern languages — devoted to the inquiry: Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father only, as Eastern Christendom contends, or from both the Father and the Son (ex Patre Filioque), as the Latin Church teaches?

Futile or even presumptuous though it may seem to pry into such arcane matters within the inscrutable life of the Godhead, the problem of the Filioque or "double procession," in the framework of the total doctrine of the Trinity, manages to touch on many of the most central issues of theology and to display, more effectively than any other of the "questions in dispute" (quæstiones disputatæ), how fundamental and far-reaching are the differences between the Orthodox Christian East and the West, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

To understand what is at stake in the Filioque controversy, it is essential to grasp the basic distinction drawn by the Greek church fathers between the concept of "economy" [economia] and the strict sense of the word "theology": the former refers to the ways of God to the world and to the human race within time and history; the latter to what God, through that "economy," has revealed about the eternal mystery of the divine Being itself.

Although it was the indispensable presupposition for the Christian view of "economy" as the divine dispensation in history, the dogma of the Trinity pertained to "theology" in the narrow meaning. What was taken to be the heretical teaching of Sabellianism — or, as it is usually known in modern histories of dogma, "modalistic Monarchianism" — was the theory that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were merely "economical," terms for the successive manifestations of the one God within history that did not have an eternal and ontological or "theological" status.

When applied to the procession of the Holy Spirit, the distinction meant to the Greeks that the Holy Spirit was indeed "sent" from both the Father and the Son "economically," in its descent upon the church at Pentecost and since, but that within the being of the Godhead only the Father was the one principle and source of being, from which both the Son and the Holy Spirit eternally "proceeded."

The use of both terms in the saying of Jesus in John 15: 26, "When your Advocate has come, whom I will send (Greek: pempso) you from the Father — the Spirit of truth that issues from (Greek: ekporeuetai) the Father," was taken by Eastern theology as proof of that basic distinction between being sent and proceeding.

In the Latin West, it seems safe to say, that distinction, although not absent, did not play so decisive a role as it did in the East. Underlying these and other differences on the doctrine of the Trinity, however, were two quite distinct theological methodologies for safeguarding the doctrine of the unity of God.

Despite some places in the writings of the Cappadocians that seem to incline toward the eventual Western position, the tenor of their trinitarian argumentation and many of their explicit statements make it evident that positing more than one "principle" (arche), as the doctrine of the Filioque seems to do, would threaten that unity: if there were more than one arche, each would have to be called God and the oneness of God would become a Platonic abstraction, "the fact of being God" (auto to einai theon) which the Three had in common.

To Augustine in his treatise On the Trinity, on the other hand, the oneness could be taken for granted; but it was the equality and the distinction among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three "persons" in the Trinity that needed to be preserved against heresy.

In the West during the eighth and ninth centuries, distinction was pitted against equality, by those who argued that, if the Holy Spirit proceeded only from the Father and not from the Son, that made the Son less than the Father.

The response was to assert that, in theology, no less than in economy, the Spirit proceeded ex Patre Filioque.

Unfortunately, the formulators of the Nicene Creed had not foreseen the crisis and had written concerning the Holy Spirit that "with the Father and the Son it is worshipped and glorified," but that it "proceeds from the Father."

First at the local level in those regions of the West where it seemed necessary against the new heresy, but eventually throughout the West and finally with the approval of Rome, the Filioque became a part of the Nicene Creed. That unilateral revision by one part of the church became a doctrinal issue in its own right: Eastern theologians charged that even if the Filioque were Orthodox (which it was not), Rome did not have the authority to insert it into a creed that, unlike many other regional creeds both Latin and Greek, was the common property of all of Christendom, and was the only truly ecumenical creed.

It is important to recognize that the substantive trinitarian question and the procedural jurisdictional question were both doctrinal questions for both sides, all the more so because the dispute came to a head (as could have been anticipated) at the same time as the quarrel of East and West about other questions such as jurisdiction over the Slavs.

Both sides went on citing the same passages of Scripture and quotations from the church fathers in support of their theories of the procession, but by now the question was a part of their deeper alienation over the nature of tradition and the very nature of the church. Whenever East and West, under external threat from Islam or in a domestic crisis because of schism, have moved toward some measure of detente, ingenious compromise formulas on the Filioque have appeared.

The most durable of these, incorporated in the Union of Florence in 1439 and reintroduced during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a result of the ecumenical movement, was the revision of trinitarian language to read: "who proceeds from the Father through the Son." That seemed to satisfy the Eastern insistence on one principle, as well as the Western desire to have the Son participate ontologically in the procession of the Holy Spirit.

Like many other doctrinal differences, the problem of the Filioque may be seen as rooted partly in the theory of Development of Doctrine, of which it represents an especially acute instance.

Recognizing its extremely problematical character, Newman [John Henry Cardinal Newman, nineteenth-century Anglican theologian who converted to Catholicism and is famous for his «Apologia Pro Vita Sua», an eloquent account of his journey from Canterbury to Rome] declared in one of his earliest statements of the theory, in 1843: "The doctrine of the Double Procession was no Catholic dogma in the first ages, though it was more or less clearly stated by individual fathers; yet if it is now to be received, as surely it must be, as part of the Creed, it was really held everywhere from the beginning, and therefore, in a measure, held as a mere religious impression, and perhaps an unconscious one." This puzzling formulation indicates that for historical scholarship no less than for ecumenical theology, the difficulties created by the Filioque on all sides remain formidable.


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