John Frame on the Filioque

June 11, 2014

in Filioque, Issues Involved, Reformed View

82176(Taken from Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief)

The Nicene Creed as formulated at the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 confesses faith “in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father.” John Leith notes:

In the West the original text “who proceeds from the Father” was altered to read “from the Father and the Son” [filioque]. This alteration is rooted in the theology of the Western Church, in particular the theology of Augustine. The procession from the Son was vigorously affirmed by the Council at Toledo in 589 and gradually was added to the creed, though it was not accepted as part of the creed at Rome until a number of centuries had passed. (John Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 32)

The Eastern church did not look with favor upon this change and thought it arrogant of the Western churches to alter an ecumenical statement of faith without consulting their Eastern brothers. This doctrinal issue was one of the main causes of the schism between Eastern and Western churches that began in A.D. 1054 and continues to the present.

I am inclined to agree with the Eastern Christians that the Westerners should not have modified the creed without the consent of the whole church. But in this book I am, of course, concerned with the doctrinal issues rather than the issues of church polity. So I will consider the question whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son.

I will say more later about the relative differences in focus between Eastern and Western theologies in this area. The East, following the lead of the Cappadocian fathers, focuses on the Father as the “fountain of deity” and then asks how the other persons are related to him. The Western thinkers, following Augustine, focus more attention on the whole Godhead, the simple divine nature, and then ask how within that simple nature there can be three persons and how those persons may be related to one another. As we have seen, the Western tradition has been tempted in a Sabellian direction, to reduce the concrete persons to “relations.” But the Westerners have sometimes charged the Easterners with subordinationism (as in Calvin’s critique of the notion of “derived deity”).

So the Western thinkers have wanted to see everything in God in relation to everything else, emphasizing the circumincessio (which, to be sure, is also affirmed in the East). So for them, at least as the Easterners see it, the existence of the Son and the Spirit is due primarily to their necessary existence as God, not to a particular act of the Father, although the Westerners also frequently affirm that the Father is the “fountain of deity.”

So the Eastern theologians tend to see the Western position as compromising the concreteness and integrity of the persons—as if the Spirit’s existence comes not from the Father or Son or both as concrete persons, but from the divine nature generally.

I will have something to say later about the two different Trinitarian models that here confront one another. In general, my view is that both are legitimate and that neither, as a model, resolves the specific question before us. But these models are important to the controversy, for they indicate, I think, why some of the more specific arguments weigh more heavily in the Eastern theology and others in the Western. Let us consider some of those more specific arguments:

1. The Eastern theologians claim that John 15:26 refers the Spirit’s procession (ekporeutai) exclusively to the Father. The Westerners point out that in that very verse it is Jesus who is “sending” the Spirit to the disciples. I have argued that the reference of ekporeutai to eternal procession has not been established. If my understanding is correct, then both the procession and the sending mentioned in the verse take place in history. Now, that understanding does not make the verse irrelevant to the doctrine of eternal procession, for as we have seen it is legitimate to find an analogy between the historical and the eternal relationships among the persons of the Trinity. But if both the procession and the sending of John 15:26 take place in time, that would support, by analogy, the view that the Spirit’s eternal procession is from both Father and Son.

2. Some Western theologians claim that the Eastern view separates the Spirit from Christ. If the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, rather than from Jesus, they say, then we can come to the Father by the Spirit apart from Jesus, leading to a kind of mysticism rather than a cross-centered piety. Some Eastern theologians, in turn, charge that it is the West that encourages mysticism, for Western theology ascribes eternal procession, in the end, to a vague, abstract “Godhead,” rather than to the concrete person of the Father. Yet: (a) Mysticism has arisen in both Eastern and Western churches; I have seen no evidence that views of eternal procession have had much influence in motivating or deterring mysticism. (b) Eastern Christians do make Jesus a central object of devotion. Practically speaking, there is no reason to think that they approach God apart from Christ. (c) Eastern theologians have been willing to say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, or from the Father to rest on Christ (after the model of Jesus’ baptism).723 Both of these models, it seems to me, encourage Christ-centered piety. (d) Western theology, despite its particular concern for the unity of the Godhead, does not teach that the Spirit proceeds from the Godhead, but rather from the Father and Son.

3. Western thinkers have sometimes criticized the Eastern view as subordinationist, for in the procession of the Spirit, Father and Son are not equal. But why? Is it subordinationist to draw any distinction at all between the activities of Father and Son? Surely not. Why, then, does this particular distinction indicate subordinationism? Even on the Western view, the roles of the persons in generation and procession are not identical to one another, hence the theological distinctions between the persons by the “personal properties” of generation, filiation, and passive spiration.

4. I believe that the analogy between the eternal and temporal proceedings of the Spirit favors the Western view. As we have seen, the Son as well as the Father sends the Spirit into the world, and Scripture frequently refers to the Spirit both as the “Spirit of God” and as the “Spirit of Christ.” It refers once to the “Spirit of your Father” (Matt. 10:20). The mission of the Spirit is to testify of Christ (John 15:26).

5. But it is dangerous to develop doctrines based on analogy alone. And even if John 15:26 constitutes a proof text for one position or the other, the church has usually not seen fit to create tests of orthodoxy on the basis of one proof text. Although I somewhat prefer the Western formulation, I think both East and West were unwise to have made this a church-dividing issue. Neither view should have been made a test of orthodoxy.

6. We should remember that (a) Scripture gives us no precise definition of person or substance, (b) it gives us no precise definition of either generation or procession, or of how these two concepts differ, and (c) the best arguments for eternal generation and procession are based on analogy, rather than explicit biblical teachings or strict logical consequences of biblical teachings.

These considerations, like those in point 5, should moderate our advocacy of either position. Again, theological humility is in order. God has given us a glimpse of his inner life, not a map or a treatise.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: