The Filioque Clause


Some things are important because of what they say, and some things are important because of what they disturb.

The Filioque Clause refers to the words ‘and the Son’ which appear in most western forms of the Nicene Creed.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The Eastern Churches do not include the Filioque Clause in the Nicene Creed

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father.

This is a major doctrinal issue – and possibly the most important doctrinal issue – separating the Eastern and the Western Church.

The Creed of the Council of Nicaea

At the council of Nicaea (321 AD) the gathered Fathers of the whole Church determined matters of faith and Creed and the Nicene Creed was born. This form of the creed did not include the Filioque Clause.

So from a foundational point the argument of the Eastern Churches looks to hold weight, and authentically the creed does not include it.

The Council of Constantinople

At the Council of Constantinople (382 AD) again the Holy Fathers from around the world discussed the matter of the Creed and again affirmed it without the inclusion of the Filioque Clause.

So the Eastern Church therefore has the weight of two Oecumenical Councils on their side, and indeed two of the most important Councils.

The Western Church was fully represented at both these councils, and clearly where part of the discussions that led to the formation of these creeds.

Indeed for the next 200-600 the Western Church recited the Nicene Creed without the Filioque Clause.

When Augustine went to Canterbury to bring the Celtic Church into line, the creed he took with him was the one they already had, the Nicene Creed, without the Filioque clause.

The Council of Chalcedon

The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) again ratified the the Nicene Creed without the inclusion of the filioque clause.

So therefore the Eastern Church has the weight of three Oecumenical Councils for the argument.

It is possible to argue that the Western Church – and specifically Rome – was a reluctant participant in this council and clearly objected to the recognition given by this Council to Constantinople, however they seem to have been good about the Nicene Creed.

The Western Use

The Filioque Clause was not used in Rome it seems till around 1014. Its origins in western use seems to go back to Spain – the 3rd Council of Toledo (589 AD), when the Church was addressing Arianism (a heresy which denies the divinity of Jesus). The Councils of Toledo do not have the same weight as the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople as they were not councils of the whole church, but rather more localised perhaps having only 19 Bishops present.

In the fight against Arianism, the Filioque Clause has some level of attraction. Nonetheless one must ask if that is a sufficient warrant as to include it into the Nicene Creed without the agreement of a genuinely Oecumenical Council including representatives of the whole church.

The Franks adopted it, and in due course the English, and not without some controversy and ultimately in Rome from around 1014. The Great Schism which came to a head in 1054. In that year the Patriarch of Constantinople ordered the closure of Latin Churches and the Pope denied him the Title of The Oecumenical Patriarch, requiring his acknowledgment of the primacy of Rome. None of that was going to happen and it was all downhill from there.

In Western Theology

The understanding of the procession of the Holy Spirit ‘from the Father and the Son’ is prevalent in writing of many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Many accepted a sense of double procession as a correct understanding of the faith.

There are numbers of Eastern Theologians who would not declare double procession as heresy. The fundamental objection to it, is putting it in without an Oecumenical Council, at which point I imagine they would oppose its inclusion.

The Primacy of Rome

Perhaps this is the point that gets down to the nub of the issue. The Pope, (aka the Patriarch of Rome) asserts a primacy that has never been accepted in the East. The Patriarch of Constantinople holds a primacy as ‘the first among equals’, very much in the way Anglicans understand the role of the ArchBishop of Canterbury.

For the Eastern Church to include the Filioque clause requires them to accept the Primacy of Rome (which sees its authority as ‘the vicar of Christ’ rather than the more conciliar approach of the Eastern Patriarchs) which is unlikely the happen any time soon.

The Reformation Congregations

Interestingly those churches born of the reformation have not in general had an issue with the filioque clause and some of them have indeed been staunch defenders of it, such as Karl Barth. Perhaps that attests to their understanding that Arianism has not died, but is perhaps the preferred heresy of respectable Europe.

In general I suspect most members of the reformed churches don’t even know that there is an issue.

The Uniting Church of Australia has omitted the Filioque Clause from the Nicene Creed since around 1985. I have seen it in brackets in some formats, however I feel it was in an earnest desire for authenticity that led to its omission – though I think the Nicene Creed used by all the original member churches included the Filioque Clause.

The Anglican Church

The English Church seems to have been a relatively early adopter of the Filioque clause. The Council of Hatfield adopted it in 680 AD at inserting it into the Nicene Creed. This was a Council concerned to address the heresy of Monothelitism, (Jesus had two natures but one will). This was further addressed by the 3rd Oecumenical Council of Constantinople the following year, where it seems the question of inserting the phrase in the Nicene Creed was not discussed.

The Thirty Nine Articles affirm the three creeds (article 8) however they do not include the text which leaves an ambiguity of meaning.

The wisdom of Anglicanism has been to accept the Oecumenical Councils and the authority of the Church to convene such assemblies without the permission of princes. Typically Anglicans list the four great Oecumenical Councils, being Nicaea – 325, Constantinople 1 – 381, Ephesus – 431, Chalcedon – 451, as being authoritative.

The Lambeth Council in 1978, 1998, and again in 2008 recommended to its member Churches that as they revised their liturgies they should drop the filioque clause so as to remove hinderance to better relations with the Eastern Churches, understanding that it adds little to the overall meaning of the creed, and indeed the Oecumenical Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople have great weight.

To date the American Church has agreed to drop the filioque clause from their next liturgy, however that has not happened yet. In their most recent decisions they have leant towards retaining it, seemingly so it does not become a big issue. It seems that to some extent in the Episcopal Church the more protestant members are keener to keep it and the more catholic members are keener to let it go.

The conciliar nature of Anglicanism means that this is likely to take some time, and in some sense the Church of England is perhaps best positioned to take the lead on this. The current general prayer-book in use (loosely) in Australia is A Prayer Book for Australia (1995) and the Filioque Clause remains in tact, and I am unaware of any consideration having been given to removing it. I imagine that would take some (great) debate in the particularities of the Australian situation.

The Filioque Clause has not been used in the Creed at the enthronement of the last four Archbishops of Canterbury, Runcie, Carey, Williams and Welby. The reasons why seem confused between it was not used at the enthronement of the first seven ArchBishops of Canterbury, to be gracious to the Orthodox who have been present on these occasions, and in respect to giving a lead to the expressed wishes of the Lambeth Conference of Bishops.

Others

The Old Catholics dropped the filioque clause as soon as they could. The Moravian Church does not use it.  The Mar Thoma Church in India does not include the Filioque Clause.

The World Council of Churches has several documents which recognise the use of the Filioque Clause and the claim for the primacy of Rome as being the primary obstacles to healing the great split in the Church between East and West.

Of course there are a number of Churches within the Roman Catholic wider range, though essentially Eastern in shape and practice. My understanding is that these Churches do not insert the Filioque Clause.

In recent time, meetings between the Roman Pontiff and the Oecumenical Patriarch have included a reciting of the Nicene Creed without the Filioque Clause.

The Lutheran Church allows the use of the Constantinople I version (ie without the filioque clause) of the Nicene Creed – however retains the conviction that the theology it expresses is true. They conclude wisely let us never forget that when we consider and discuss such sublime questions regarding the Holy Trinity, we are, more than at any other time, treading on the holy ground of God’s unfathomable mysteries. We therefore should always do so humbly, circumspectly, and prayerfully.

The Scriptural Issues

Genesis 1 tells us that the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters. Proverbs 8 we read of wisdom being the first of God’s creative acts. This wisdom is often seen as the divine word that God spoke as the universe came into being. The sense of Genesis that God breathed on the waters, and he spoke and called us into being. For most of us the begetting, this proceeding, this absolute unity of purpose is an insight into the author of creation whom we understand in Trinity and Unity.

John 15:26, is where Jesus speaks of “the Advocate* comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father”, is perhaps the champion text for those who will argue for the inclusion of the Filioque Clause, however an understanding of proceeding from the Father, commissioned by the Son would proceeding from the Father would seem a reasonable reading of the text.

In Matthew 3 in the account of the Baptism of Jesus the Spirit comes to Jesus in the form of a dove, (proceeding from the Father and commissioned by the Father) who then declares his Son. In this passage we see the sense of the begotten and the proceeding which is perhaps the sense of the Eastern Position and indeed the position of the whole Church expressed in Council in Nicaea and Constantinople.

The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son because the Father has given all things to the Son, (Matthew 11:27 etc) including the procession of the Holy Spirit. This is largely the Roman Catholic argument against the Greeks -The Council of Florence in 1439 (Western Council post the Great Schism), and fairly much argued to the current day.

I have no desire to rehearse the whole of the scriptural account of the Son and the Spirit, however I feel that in these verses we touch the nub of the matter.

So What should we do?

I think that we should determine what the value of the filioque clause is.

On balance I would conclude that it adds little to the creed. Even the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the Spirit proceeding with the Son.

This is seen by many as a softening of the approach, however the reality is in essence that it misses the point of the problem. The Church Universal in Council hammered out a single creed, a statement of orthodoxy and a declaration of the faith we hold in common. To change this statement really suggests that a new Oecumenical Council is required.

Of course there have been numbers of Councils, and many of them failed to include the whole Church, Rome was not present at the 2nd Council of Constantinople. None of the councils in the 2nd Millennia included the East as they were post the great schism, and the Roman Patriarch assumed that he had control over the whole Church.

Personally I think that the Eastern Churches have a very strong argument, and it is not a matter of finding a better way to say it, but rather to relinquish the addition and return to the creed of Nicaea and Constantinople.

Thence the issue will be the nature of the Church and the question of primacy, and in the end that too will wash away. The Current holder of the keys appears far more conciliar in nature, and more of a Vatican II Pope than we have seen for a while.

Other Creeds

Anglicans delight to receive and profess three Creeds, though in contemporary practice only two. The other creeds are of less interest as they do not have the authority of an Oecumenical Council to give them weight.

The Apostle’s Creed is later than the Nicene Creed and there is a sense in which it is an easier Creed for an Arian to acknowledge, and yes it is briefer, and has never been used in the Eastern Churches.

The Athanasian Creed, which dates some time after the Saint whose name it bears, gives great weight to endeavouring to spell out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, including anathemas for those who don’t accept it. The Atanasian Creed was designed to make it much harder for an Arian to acknowledge. It to has not gained acceptance in the East. On procession it reads:

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

Because of the complexity of the relationship and mutual interdependence that the Athasian Creed rehearses, it is probably valid to read this as an argument for double procession, however that is clearly not the only way to read this specifically.

It is the Nicene Creed alone that has the imprimatur of not just one but two Oecumenical Councils, and as such is pride of place among our credal statements. If the Church was only allowed to have one creed, this would be the one.

That is why it is important, and in my opinion why we should not mess with it, or perhaps in this case should not have messed with it.

So what does the Filioque Clause Do?

  • Arianism teaches that Jesus is not fully God, but only the first and best creature of God. On the contrary, Orthodox teaching that Christ is fully God and fully man.
  • Valentinianism taught that Holy Spirit placed the Christ Child in Mary’s womb and she was a surrogate mother, but not Christ’s genetic mother. Paul refutes this when he writes, “God sent His Son, made of a woman.”
  • Adoptionism taught that Christ was born a man and acquired divinity at the descent of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Adoptionism is a close cousin of Arianism

In a sense the addition of the Filioque clause does tend to counter Adoptionism, Valentinianism, and perhaps to a lesser extent Arianism, Yet it might well be argued that these matters have already been addressed in the Nicene Creed in those clauses addressing the nature of Jesus.

Arianism has indeed been one of the most persistent heresies over the centuries, and is as alive today as it ever was. If the adding of the Filioque clause was to  bring an end to Arianism, and one would have to regard the outcome as an absolute failure.

I suspect that Arianism is more of a problem in the Western Church than it is in the Eastern Church and that point in itself suggests that the addition of the Filioque clause has not kept the west on track, nor has the decision of the east not to adopt it caused the east to go off the rails.

The short answer, apart from to sever the Church, the Filioque Clause adds little of value, in my opinion.

Would this change our beliefs?

Probably not. There is no doubt many in the West and in the East have understood a theology of double procession, without it being part of the creed. This is probably one of the great frustrations of the Filioque Clause, it adds virtually nothing, it does not change the faith of the Church, and ultimately has been fractious beyond belief. Arianism which the well-meaning intended to exclude is alive and well in the Western Church, and it is still a heresy. If you read the Nicene Creed from the beginning, you realise that a true Arian will not get as far as the Holy Spirit.

There are theologians through the centuries, no doubt largely Orthodox, who would argue that a theology of double procession confounds a true understanding of the Trinity, suggesting a subordination of the Spirit. The one thing we do comprehend is, we will never comprehend all that is God, in this life or the next. The offence that double procession seems to imply is a hierarchical understanding of the Holy Trinity, rather than the more conciliar view seen in scripture, most christian teaching – for example in the Athanasian Creed. This is often expressed in Christian Art where some kind of triangulation is a repeated theme.

Though the Athanasian Creed does include “The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding”, which does imply a double procession, in the context however of the un-createdness of God.

The wind blows

John 3:18 tell us “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.”

A friend of mine is want to test questions with this question ‘What Would Jesus Say?’ The moment I ask myself that question the John 3:18 quote came to mind.

Whilst this is probably outside of the context of the passage, it seems apposite to remember the passage in the context. To try to nail down a theology to the procession of the Spirit in an ironclad locked kind of way seems indeed counter intuitive to what we do know and believe about the Spirit.

I think it is time for it to go!

The aggressive rise of the Islamic presence in our world, as the most expansive monotheistic religion in the world today, reminds us of our need to express our unity and support. Firstly as we respond to the call to be the body of Christ in the world, we mock God with our disunity.

The Roman Catholic Church has a more conciliar Pope than it has for some time, and as such, we observe that there is a greater chance to embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ across all communions with integrity respect and love in a more meaningful way.

We have the benefit of insight and the capacity to look at the history, in an objective way that seems to make clear what has happened, and to acknowledge that we are better off without it.

The Bishops of the Anglican Communion have spoken of this three times, and are giving us a lead, that somebody needs to take.

We seem more frightened to remove it, than those who added it should have been.

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