ex Patre Filioque?

July 25, 2006

Jaroslav Pelikan, before his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, remarked:

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?

This controversy mind you, has seen more ink spilled than the various protestant battles over say, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, or Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology, or Open Theism vs. Molinism vs. Calvinism.  Like the few evangelical prostestants who have even bothered to bat an eye toward this oldest of theological battles, I find myself in some sympathy with Rome. Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son?  Well, why not?  Then again, like most evangelicals, I cannot profess to be sufficiently read on the issue.  I shall proceed, nonetheless to pontificate on the matter as if I were.  Let me just take a few of issues that appear to be in serious contention:

1.  Should the west have altered the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed to include the Filioque?

It seems there might be some legitimate points on both sides.  The cannons of the Council of Ephesus in 431 expressly anathematizes anyone who adds to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.  Further, if as the Orthodox maintain, there is no authority save Christ higher than the ecumenical creeds, then the West by inserting the Filioque, appears to have overstepped its authority.  Moreover, why didn’t the West, in the spirit of charity, simply remove the addition after they learned of the strong objections by the eastern patriarchs.

Rome on the other hand argues that the Filioque is most definitely not an addition to the creed.  Rather it is a clarification.  It is not something novel, but something already contained in the faith, consitent with the meaning of the Creed.  Further, the Filioque became a vital tool in the West in the ongoing battle against Arianism, and it simply could not have been casually “removed.”

2.  Is the Filioque a dogma, a heresy, or a theologoumenon?

Well, that depends on who you ask.  In the East, many see the doctrine as heresy.  Other see it as pretty close to it, or at least something that has brought about wholesale decay in Western theology and society.  Rome sees it as dogma.  Protestants have been something of a mixed bag.  Calvin dismissed it as pseudo-controversy.  Anglicans are more than willing to drop the clause to preserve the peace.  Evangelicals…well…evangelicals have never heard of it.

And it seems everyone appeals to the Fathers on this matter: The East to Athanasios, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Palamas, and the West to Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine.

I must say that I find it hard sometimes to understand why this is so grave a matter.  Why must it necessitate the splitting of the Church?  After all, thus far, the Spirit appears content to let the matter lie in controversy rather than hasten his Church to another ecumenical council to decide on the matter (Imagine that!  Another ecumenical council in our time!).  But my misgivings here may be due more to ignorance.  Nevertheless, I am not moved by some Eastern Orthodox polemics that the Filioque somehow “depersonalizes” the Spirit, or that it has led to authoritarianism, institutionalism, clericalism and other vile ‘isms, in the West.

At the same time, if the Filioque is interpreted in a way that denies that the Father is the sole Principle (aρχή) or Source or Fountain-head of deity, then it cannot be right. 

3.  Is there any hope for rapproachment between the East and the West

Well I trust there might be. 

Many have recomended that the West altogether simply remove the clause from the Creed.  After all, it is argued, the threat of Arianism is not as it once was.  As a matter of theology, perhaps both East and West could hold to one of the following:

— the Spirit proceeds from the Father of the Son;
— the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son;
— the Spirit proceeds from the Father and receives from the Son;
— the Spirit proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son;
— the Spirit proceeds from the Father and shines out through the Son.   

Will this one issue heal the divisions between East and West?  Probably not.  But it would help.  I cannot help but read John 17 and long for that day.