The Filioque Controversy (Alister McGrath)

August 29, 2013

in Filioque

holy-spirit-2-8695612[taken from, Christian Theology : An Introduction]

One of the most significant events in the early history of the church was the achievement of broad agreement throughout the Roman Empire, both east and west, on the text and leading ideas of the Nicene creed (325). This document was intended to bring doctrinal stability to the church in a period of considerable importance in its history. Part of that agreed text referred to the Holy Spirit “proceeding from the Father.” By the ninth century, however, the western church routinely altered this phrase, speaking of the Holy Spirit “proceeding from the Father and the Son.” The Latin term filioque, which literally means “and from the Son,” has since come to refer to this addition, now normative within the western church, and the theology which it expresses. This idea of a “double procession” of the Holy Spirit was a source of intense irritation to Greek writers: not only did it raise serious theological difficulties for them, it also involved tampering with the supposedly inviolable text of the creeds. Many scholars see this bad feeling as contributing to the split between the eastern and western churches, which took place around 1054 (see p. 23).

The filioque debate is of importance, both as a theological issue in itself, and also as a matter of some importance in the contemporary relations between the eastern and western churches. We should therefore explore the issues in some detail. The basic issue at stake is whether the Spirit may be said to proceed from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son. The former position is associated with the eastern church, and is given its most weighty exposition in the writings of the Cappadocian fathers; the latter is associated with the western church, and is developed in Augustine’s treatise On the Trinity.

The Greek patristic writers insisted that there was only one source of being within the Trinity. The Father alone was the sole and supreme cause of all things, including the Son and the Spirit within the Trinity. The Son and the Spirit derive from the Father, but in different manners. In searching for suitable terms to express this relationship, theologians eventually fixed on two quite distinct images: the Son is begotten of the Father, while the Spirit proceeds from the Father.

These two terms are intended to express the idea that both Son and Spirit derive from the Father, but in different ways. The vocabulary is somewhat cumbersome, reflecting the fact that the Greek words involved (gennesis and ekporeusis) are difficult to translate into modern English.

To assist in understanding this complex process, the Greek fathers used the imagery, strongly grounded in the biblical tradition, of the Son as the Word of God, and the Spirit as the breath of God. The Father pronounces his word; at the same time as he utters this word, he breathes out in order to make this word capable of being heard and received. The visual imagery of a spoken word being propelled throughout the world thus helps illuminate both the distinctiveness of Son and Spirit, while at the same time affirming their mutual involvement in the work of the Father.

So why should the Cappadocian fathers, along with other Greek theologians, spend so much time and effort on distinguishing Son and Spirit in this way? The answer is important. A failure to distinguish the ways in which Son and Spirit derive from the one and the same Father would lead to God having two sons, which would have raised insurmountable problems. Identical functions would seem to imply identical essences. Within this context, it is unthinkable that the Holy Spirit should proceed from the Father and the Son. Why? Because it would totally compromise the principle of the Father as the sole origin and source of all divinity. It would amount to affirming that there were two sources of divinity within the one Godhead, with all the internal contradictions and tensions that this would generate. If the Son were to share in the exclusive ability of the Father to be the source of all divinity, this ability would no longer be exclusive. For this reason, the Greek church regarded the western idea of a “double procession” of the Spirit with something approaching stark disbelief.

The Greek tradition, however, was not entirely unanimous on this point. Cyril of Alexandria (c.378–444) had no hesitation in speaking of the Spirit as “belonging to the Son,” and related ideas were not slow to develop within the western church. Early western Christian writers were deliberately vague about the precise role of the Spirit within the Godhead. In his treatise On the Trinity, Hilary of Poitiers (c.300–368) contented himself with a declaration that he would “say nothing about [God’s] Holy Spirit except that he is [God’s] Spirit.” This vagueness led some of his readers to suspect that he was really a binitarian, believing in the full divinity only of Father and Son. However, in other passages from the same treatise, it becomes clear that Hilary regards the New Testament as pointing to the Spirit proceeding from both Father and Son, rather than from the Father alone.

This understanding of the procession of the Spirit from Father and Son was developed and given its classic statement by Augustine. Possibly building upon the position hinted at by Hilary, Augustine argued that the Spirit had to be thought of as proceeding from the Son. One of his main proof texts was John 20: 22, in which the risen Christ is reported as having breathed upon his disciples, and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Augustine explains this as follows in his major treatise On the Trinity:

Nor can we say that the Holy Spirit does not also proceed from the Son. After all, the Spirit is said to be the Spirit of both the Father and the Son. [John 20: 22 is then cited] The Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son.

In making this statement, Augustine thought that he was summarizing a general consensus within both the eastern and western churches. Unfortunately, his knowledge of Greek does not appear to have been good enough to allow him to appreciate that the Greek-speaking Cappadocian writers adopted a rather different position. Nevertheless, there are points at which Augustine is obviously concerned to defend the distinctive role of the Father within the Godhead:

There is good reason why in this Trinity we speak of the Son alone as Word of God, of the Holy Spirit alone as Gift of God, and of God the Father alone as the one of whom the Word is begotten and from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds. I add the word “principally,” because we learn that the Holy Spirit proceeds also from the Son. But this is again something given by the Father to the Son – not that he ever existed without it, for all that the Father gives to his only-begotten Word he gives in the act of begetting him. He is begotten in such a manner that the common gift proceeds  from him as well, and the Holy Spirit is Spirit of both.

So what did Augustine think he was doing in understanding the role of the Spirit in this way? The answer lies in his distinctive understanding of the Spirit as the “bond of love” between Father and Son. Augustine developed the idea of relation within the Godhead, arguing that the persons of the Trinity are defined by their relations to one another. The Spirit is thus to be seen as the relation of love and fellowship between the Father and Son, a relation which Augustine believed to be foundational to the fourth gospel’s presentation of the unity of will and purpose of Father and Son.

We can summarize the root differences between the two approaches as follows.

1. The Greek intention was to safeguard the unique position of the Father as the sole source of divinity. As both the Son and Spirit derive from him, although in different but equally valid manners, their divinity is in turn safeguarded. To the Greeks, the Latin approach seemed to introduce two separate sources of divinity into the Godhead, and to weaken the vital distinction between Son and Spirit. The Son and Spirit are understood to have distinct, yet complementary roles; whereas the western tradition sees the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. Indeed, a number of modern writers from this tradition, such as the Russian writer Vladimir Lossky (1903–58), have criticized the western approach. In his essay “The Procession of the Holy Spirit,” Lossky argues that the western approach inevitably depersonalizes the Spirit, leads to a misplaced emphasis upon the person and work of Christ, and reduces the Godhead to an impersonal principle.

2. The Latin intention was to ensure that the Son and Spirit were adequately distinguished from one another, yet shown to be mutually related to one another. The strongly relational approach to the idea of “person” adopted made it inevitable that the Spirit would be treated in this way. Sensitive to the Greek position, later Latin writers stressed that they did not regard their approach as  presupposing two sources of Divinity in the Godhead. This is made especially clear by the Eleventh Council of Toledo :

We believe that the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Trinity, is God, one and equal with God the Father and God the Son, of one substance and of one nature; not, however, begotten or created, but proceeding from both, and that He is the Spirit of both. We also believe that the Holy Spirit is neither unbegotten nor begotten, for if we called Him “unbegotten” we would assert two Fathers, or if we called him “begotten” we would appear to preach two Sons. Yet He is called the Spirit not of the Father alone, nor of the Son alone, but of both Father and Son. For He does not proceed from the Father to the Son, nor from the Son to sanctify creatures, but He is shown to have proceeded from both at once, because He is known as the love or the holiness of both. Hence we believe that the Holy Spirit is sent by both, as the Son is sent by the Father. But He is not less than the Father and the Son.

Similar ideas were stated by later councils. Thus, the Council of Lyons (1274) stated that

“the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, yet not as from two origins but as from one origin.”

However, despite such clarifications, the doctrine remains a source of contention between eastern and western Christians, which is unlikely to be removed in the foreseeable future.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: