Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Stump the Priest: The Filioque

Question: "I do not think the filioque is necessary to express orthodox theology about the Holy Spirit, nor do I think it must be said in the Creed. However, I find it difficult to believe the phrase heretical when the same or, at least, similar phrases are used by many of the fathers. How does what I've articulated about the filioque sit with Orthodoxy?"

There is much that has been written on the deeper theological problems with the filioque, but let's examine it on a more basic level. In the service for the reception of a convert from a heterodox Christian confession by Chrismation, there is the following renunciation that anyone from a Protestant or Roman Catholic background is expected to make:

The priest or bishop asks: "Dost thou renounce the false doctrine that, for the expression of the dogma touching the Procession of the Holy Spirit the declaration of our Savior Christ himself: 'who proceedeth from the Father': doth not suffice; and that the addition, of man's invention: 'and from the Son': is required?" And the answer is "I do."

The point made here is very significant. If Christ had intended to teach that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, He could easily have said so. The Fathers who wrote the Creed opted to stick with the words of Christ, but then added that the Holy Spirit is, "with the Father and the Son together," "worshipped and glorified". Had the Fathers that composed the Creed wished to teach the double procession of the Holy Spirit, they could easily have done so as well. And yet Christ taught no such thing, and neither did the Fathers who composed the Creed.

The addition of the phrase "and from the Son" (which in Latin is "filioque" appeared first in Spain, without any Ecumenical authority. The Popes of Rome resisted this addition for many centuries. Pope Leo III, went so far as to have the Creed engraved in Latin and Greek on two silver plates on the wall of St. Peter's in Rome, without the filioque..

The filioque increasing became a divisive question between the eastern and western Church, was especially a point of debate during the Photian controversy. However, in the council held at Constantinople in 879-880, which settled that dispute, and was endorsed by Rome, the Nicene Creed was affirmed without the filioque, and any changes to the Creed were anathematized:

"If anyone, however, dares to rewrite and call Rule of Faith some other exposition besides that of the sacred Symbol which has been spread abroad from above by our blessed and holy Fathers even as far as ourselves, and to snatch the authority of the confession of those divine men and impose on it his own invented phrases and put this forth as a common lesson to the faithful or to those who return from some kind of heresy, and display the audacity to falsify completely the antiquity of this sacred and venerable Horos (Rule) with illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions, such a person should, according to the vote of the holy and Ecumenical Synods, which has been already acclaimed before us, be subjected to complete defrocking if he happens to be one of the clergymen, or be sent away with an anathema if he happens to be one of the lay people."

The Orthodox Church has always been reluctant to speak beyond what has been clearly revealed when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. God is unknowable in His essence. We can only know God as He has revealed Himself. We know that there is only one God, but that the God exists in a Trinity of Persons. We know that the Father is the source of the Godhead, and that the Son is eternally begotten by the Father, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. Christ Himself speaks of sending the Holy Spirit in the same verse in which he speaks of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father:

"But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me" (John 15:26).

However, the procession of the Holy Spirit refers to His eternal existence. The sending of the Holy Spirit refers to God's activity in history, for our salvation. As Blessed Theophylact says "the procession of the Holy Spirit is intrinsic to His very nature and existence, and we must interpret proceedeth to mean that the divine nature and existence of the Holy Spirit is from the Father" (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John.  Fr. Christopher Stade, Trans. (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom  Press, 2007), p. 247).

"Filioquism confuses the persons, and destroys the proper balance between unity and diversity in the Godhead. The oneness of the deity is emphasized at the expense of His threeness; God is regarded too much in terms of abstract essence and too little in terms of concrete personality.

But this is not all. Many Orthodox feel that, as a result of the filioque, the Holy Spirit in western thought has become subordinated to the Son — if not in theory, then at any rate in practice. The west pays insufficient attention to the work of the Spirit in the world, in the Church, in the daily life of each man.

Orthodox writers also argue that these two consequences of the filioque — subordination of the Holy Spirit, over-emphasis on the unity of God — have helped to bring about a distortion in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Church. Because the role of the Spirit has been neglected in the west, the Church has come to be regarded too much as an institution of this world, governed in terms of earthly power and jurisdiction. And just as in the western doctrine of God unity was stressed at the expense of diversity, so in the western conception of the Church unity has triumphed over diversity, and the result has been too great a centralization and too great an emphasis on Papal authority"  

This is why in the aforementioned service for the reception of converts, in a series of affirmations, the convert is asked:

"Dost thou believe and confess the Foundation, Head, and Great High Priest and Chief Shepherd of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Church is our Lord Jesus Christ; and that Bishops, Pastors, and Teachers are appointed by him to rule the Church; and that the Guide and Pilot of this Church is the Holy Spirit?"

If you hold a high view of the Holy Spirit, an earthly vicar is not needed. 

And so in short, the filioque may seem like an abstract question, but it is not a small matter, but rather is an extremely significant departure from the Apostolic Tradition of the Church. And it is not a matter about which Orthodox Christians are at liberty to disagree.