Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

Joy of all the Sorrowful - Mays Landing, NJ (f. 1966)

The Filioque: a Church-Dividing Issue?

Table of contents

Share |

III. Theological Reflections

In all discussions about the origin of the Holy Spirit within the Mystery of God, and about the relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with each other, the first habit of mind to be cultivated is doubtless a reverent modesty. Concerning the divine Mystery itself, we can say very little, and our speculations always risk claiming a degree of clarity and certainty that is more than their due. As Pseudo Dionysius reminds us, “No unity or trinity or number or oneness or fruitfulness, or any other thing that either is a creature or can be known to any creature, is able to express the Mystery, beyond all mind and reason, of that transcendent Godhead which in a super essential way surpasses all things” (On the Divine Names 13.3). That we do, as Christians, profess our God, who is radically and indivisibly one, to be the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – three “persons” who can never be confused with or reduced to one another, and who are all fully and literally God, singly and in the harmonious whole of their relationships with each other - is simply a summation of what we have learned from God’s self revelation in human history, a revelation that has reached its climax in our being able, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to confess Jesus as the Eternal Father’s Word and Son. Surely our Christian language about God must always be regulated by the Holy Scriptures, and by the dogmatic tradition of the Church, which interprets the content of Scripture in a normative way. Yet there always remains the difficult hermeneutical problem of applying particular Scriptural terms and texts to the inner life of God, and of knowing when a passage refers simply to God’s action within the “economy” of saving history, or when it should be understood as referring absolutely to God’s being in itself. The division between our Churches on the Filioque question would probably be less acute if both sides, through the centuries, had remained more conscious of the limitations of our knowledge of God.

Secondly, discussion of this difficult subject has often been hampered by polemical distortions, in which each side has caricatured the position of the other for the purposes of argument. It is not true, for instance, that mainstream Orthodox theology conceives of the procession of the Spirit, within God’s eternal being, as simply unaffected by the relationship of the Son to the Father, or thinks of the Spirit as not “belonging” properly to the Son when the Spirit is sent forth in history. It is also not true that mainstream Latin theology has traditionally begun its Trinitarian reflections from an abstract, unscriptural consideration of the divine substance, or affirms two causes of the Spirit’s hypostatic existence, or means to assign the Holy Spirit a role subordinate to the Son, either within the Mystery of God or in God’s saving action in history.

We are convinced from our own study that the Eastern and Western theological traditions have been in substantial agreement, since the patristic period, on a number of fundamental affirmations about the Holy Trinity that bear on the Filioque debate:

  • both traditions clearly affirm that the Holy Spirit is a distinct hypostasis or person within the divine Mystery, equal in status to the Father and the Son, and is not simply a creature or a way of talking about God’s action in creatures;
  • although the Creed of 381 does not state it explicitly, both traditions confess the Holy Spirit to be God, of the same divine substance (homoousios) as Father and Son;
  • both traditions also clearly affirm that the Father is the primordial source (arch‘) and ultimate cause (aitia) of the divine being, and thus of all God’s operations: the “spring” from which both Son and Spirit flow, the “root” of their being and fruitfulness, the “sun” from which their existence and their activity radiates;
  • both traditions affirm that the three hypostases or persons in God are constituted in their hypostatic existence and distinguished from one another solely by their relationships of origin, and not by any other characteristics or activities;
  • accordingly, both traditions affirm that all the operations of God - the activities by which God summons created reality into being, and forms that reality, for its well being, into a unified and ordered cosmos centered on the human creature, who is made in God’s image – are the common work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even though each of them plays a distinctive role within those operations that is determined by their relationships to one another.

Nevertheless, the Eastern and Western traditions of reflection on the Mystery of God have clearly developed categories and conceptions that differ in substantial ways from one another. These differences cannot simply be explained away, or be made to seem equivalent by facile argument. We might summarize our differences as follows:

1. Terminology

The Filioque controversy is first of all a controversy over words. As a number of recent authors have pointed out, part of the theological disagreement between our communions seems to be rooted in subtle but significant differences in the way key terms have been used to refer to the Spirit’s divine origin. The original text of the Creed of 381, in speaking of the Holy Spirit, characterizes him in terms of John 15.26, as the one “who proceeds (ekporeuetai) from the Father”: probably influenced by the usage of Gregory the Theologian (Or. 31.8), the Council chose to restrict itself to the Johannine language, slightly altering the Gospel text (changing to pneuma…ho para tou Patros ekporeuetai to: to pneuma to hagion… to ek tou Patros ekporeuomenon) in order to emphasize that the “coming forth” of the Spirit begins “within” the Father’s own eternal hypo static role as source of the divine Being, and so is best spoken of as a kind of “movement out of (ek)” him. The underlying connotation of ekporeuesthai (“proceed,” “issue forth”) and its related noun, ekporeusis (“procession”), seems to have been that of a “passage outwards” from within some point of origin. Since the time of the Cappadocian Fathers, at least, Greek theology almost always restricts the theological use of this term to the coming forth of the Spirit from the Father, giving it the status of a technical term for the relationship of those two divine persons. In contrast, other Greek words, such as proienai, “go forward,” are frequently used by the Eastern Fathers to refer to the Spirit’s saving “mission” in history from the Father and the risen Lord.

The Latin word procedere, on the other hand, with its related noun processio, suggests simply “movement forwards,” without the added implication of the starting point of that movement; thus it is used to translate a number of other Greek theological terms, including proienai, and is explicitly taken by Thomas Aquinas to be a general term denoting “origin of any kind” (Summa Theologiae I, q. 36, a.2), including – in a Trinitarian context - the Son’s generation as well as the breathingforth of the Spirit and his mission in time. As a result, both the primordial origin of the Spirit in the eternal Father and his “coming forth” from the risen Lord tend to be designated, in Latin, by the same word, procedere, while Greek theology normally uses two different terms. Although the difference between the Greek and the Latin traditions of understanding the eternal origin of the Spirit is more than simply a verbal one, much of the original concern in the Greek Church over the insertion of the word Filioque into the Latin translation of the Creed of 381 may well have been due – as Maximus the Confessor explained (Letter to Marinus: PG 91.133-136) - to a misunderstanding on both sides of the different ranges of meaning implied in the Greek and Latin terms for “procession”.

2. The Substantive Issues

Clearly two main issues separate the Eastern and Western Churches in their history of debating the Filioque: one theological, in the strict sense, and one ecclesiological.

a. Theological:

If “theology” is understood in its Patristic sense, as reflection on God as Trinity, the theological issue behind this dispute is whether the Son is to be thought of as playing any role in the origin of the Spirit, as a hypostasis or divine “person,” from the Father, who is the sole ultimate source of the divine Mystery. The Greek tradition, as we have seen, has generally relied on John 15.26 and the formulation of the Creed of 381 to assert that all we know of the Spirit’s hypostatic origin is that he “proceeds from the Father,” in a way distinct from, but parallel to, the Son’s “generation” from the Father (e.g., John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 1.8). However, this same tradition acknowledges that the “mission” of the Spirit in the world also involves the Son, who receives the Spirit into his own humanity at his baptism, breathes the Spirit forth onto the Twelve on the evening of the resurrection, and sends the Spirit in power into the world, through the charismatic preaching of the Apostles, at Pentecost. On the other hand, the Latin tradition since Tertullian has tended to assume that since the order in which the Church normally names the persons in the Trinity places the Spirit after the Son, he is to be thought of as coming forth “from” the Father “through” the Son. Augustine, who in several passages himself insists that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” because as God he is not inferior to the Son (De Fide et Symbolo 9.19; Enchiridion 9.3), develops, in other texts, his classic understanding that the Spirit also “proceeds” from the Son because he is, in the course of sacred history, the Spirit and the “gift” of both Father and Son (e.g., On the Trinity 4.20.29; Tractate on Gospel of John 99.6-7), the gift that begins in their own eternal exchange of love (On the Trinity 15.17.29). In Augustine’s view, this involvement of the Son in the Spirit’s procession is not understood to contradict the Father’s role as the single ultimate source of both Son and Spirit, but is itself given by the Father in generating the Son: “the Holy Spirit, in turn, has this from the Father himself, that he should also proceed from the Son, just as he proceeds from the Father” (Tractate on Gospel of John 99.8).

Much of the difference between the early Latin and Greek traditions on this point is clearly due to the subtle difference of the Latin procedere from the Greek ekporeuesthai: as we have observed, the Spirit’s “coming forth” is designated in a more general sense by the Latin term, without the connotation of ultimate origin hinted at by the Greek. The Spirit’s “procession” from the Son, however, is conceived of in Latin theology as a somewhat different relationship from his “procession” from the Father, even when – as in the explanations of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas – the relationship of Father and Son to the Holy Spirit is spoken of as constituting “a single principle” of the Spirit’s origin: even in breathing forth the Spirit together, according to these later Latin theologians, the Father retains priority, giving the Son all that he has and making possible all that he does.

Greek theologians, too, have often struggled to find ways of expressing a sense that the Son, who sends forth the Spirit in time, also plays a mediating role of some kind in the Spirit’s eternal being and activity. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, explains that we can only distinguish the hypostases within the Mystery of God by “believing that one is the cause, the other is from the cause; and in that which is from the cause, we recognize yet another distinction: one is immediately from the first one, the other is through him who is immediately from the first one.” It is characteristic of the “mediation” (mesiteia) of the Son in the origin of the Spirit, he adds, that it both preserves his own unique role as Son and allows the Spirit to have a “natural relationship” to the Father. (To Ablabius: GNO III/1, 56.3-10) In the thirteenth century, the Council of Blachernae (1285), under the leadership of Constantinopolitan Patriarch Gregory II, took further steps to interpret Patristic texts that speak of the Spirit’s being “through” the Son in a sense consistent with the Orthodox tradition. The Council proposed in its Tomos that although Christian faith must maintain that the Holy Spirit receives his existence and hypostatic identity solely from the Father, who is the single cause of the divine Being, he “shines from and is manifested eternally through the Son, in the way that light shines forth and is manifest through the intermediary of the sun’s rays.” (trans. A. Papadakis, Crisis in Byzantium [St. Vladimir’s, 1996] 219) In the following century, Gregory Palamas proposed a similar interpretation of this relationship in a number of his works; in his Confession of 1351, for instance, he asserts that the Holy Spirit “has the Father as foundation, source, and cause,” but “reposes in the Son” and “is sent – that is, manifested – through the Son.” (ibid. 194) In terms of the transcendent divine energy, although not in terms of substance or hypostatic being, “the Spirit pours itself out from the Father through the Son, and, if you like, from the Son over all those worthy of it,” a communication which may even be broadly called “procession” (ekporeusis) (Apodeictic Treatise 1: trans. J. Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas [St. Vladimir’s, 1974] 231-232).

The Greek and Latin theological traditions clearly remain in some tension with each other on the fundamental issue of the Spirit’s eternal origin as a distinct divine person. By the Middle Ages, as a result of the influence of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, Western theology almost universally conceives of the identity of each divine person as defined by its “relations of opposition” – in other words, its mutually defining relations of origin - to the other two, and concludes that the Holy Spirit would not be hypostatically distinguishable from the Son if the Spirit “proceeded” from the Father alone. In the Latin understanding of processio as a general term for “origin,” after all, it can also be said that the Son “proceeds from the Father” by being generated from him. Eastern theology, drawing on the language of John 15.26 and the Creed of 381, continues to understand the language of “procession” (ekporeusis) as denoting a unique, exclusive, and distinctive causal relationship between the Spirit and the Father, and generally confines the Son’s role to the “manifestation” and “mission” of the Spirit in the divine activities of creation and redemption. These differences, though subtle, are substantial, and the very weight of theological tradition behind both of them makes them all the more difficult to reconcile theologically with each other.

b. Ecclesiological:

The other issue continually present since the late eighth century in the debate over the Filioque is that of pastoral and teaching authority in the Church – more precisely, the issue of the authority of the bishop of Rome to resolve dogmatic questions in a final way, simply in virtue of his office. Since the Council of Ephesus (431), the dogmatic tradition of both Eastern and Western Churches has repeatedly affirmed that the final norm of orthodoxy in interpreting the Christian Gospel must be “the faith of Nicaea.” The Orthodox tradition sees the normative expression of that faith to be the Creeds and canons formulated by those Councils that are received by the Apostolic Churches as “ecumenical”: as expressing the continuing and universal Apostolic faith. The Catholic tradition also accepts conciliar formulations as dogmatically normative, and attributes a unique importance to the seven Councils that are accepted as ecumenical by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. However, in recognizing the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome in matters of faith and of the service of unity, the Catholic tradition accepts the authority of the Pope to confirm the process of conciliar reception, and to define what does and does not conflict with the “faith of Nicaea” and the Apostolic tradition. So while Orthodox theology has regarded the ultimate approval by the Popes, in the eleventh century, of the use of Filioque in the Latin Creed as a usurpation of the dogmatic authority proper to ecumenical Councils alone, Catholic theology has seen it as a legitimate exercise of his primatial authority to proclaim and clarify the Church’s faith. As our own common study has repeatedly shown, it is precisely at times in which issues of power and control have been of concern to our Churches that the question of the Filioque has emerged as a central concern: held out as a condition for improving relations, or given as a reason for allowing disunity to continue unhealed.

As in the theological question of the origin of the Holy Spirit discussed above, this divergence of understanding of the structure and exercise of authority in the Church is clearly a very serious one: undoubtedly Papal primacy, with all its implications, remains the root issue behind all the questions of theology and practice that continue to divide our communions. In the continuing discussion of the Filioque between our Churches, however, we have found it helpful to keep these two issues methodologically separate from one another, and to recognize that the mystery of the relationships among the persons in God must be approached in a different way from the issue of whether or not it is proper for the Western Churches to profess the faith of Nicaea in terms that diverge from the original text of the Creed of 381.

3. Continuing our Reflections

It has often been remarked that the theology of the Holy Spirit is an underdeveloped region of Christian theological reflection. This seems to hold true even of the issue of the origin of the Holy Spirit. Although a great deal has been written about the reasons for and against the theology of the Filioque since the Carolingian era, most of it has been polemical in nature, aimed at justifying positions assumed by both sides to be nonnegotiable. Little effort has been made, until modern times, to look for new ways of expressing and explaining the Biblical and early Christian understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, which might serve to frame the discussion in a new way and move all the Churches towards a consensus on essential matters that would be in continuity with both traditions. Recently, a number of theologians, from a variety of Churches, have suggested that the time may now be at hand to return to this question together, in a genuinely ecumenical spirit, and to seek for new developments in our articulation of the Apostolic faith that may ultimately win ecumenical Christian reception.

Recognizing its challenges, our Consultation supports such a common theological enterprise. It is our hope that a serious process of reflection on the theology of the Holy Spirit, based on the Scriptures and on the whole tradition of Christian theology, and conducted with an openness to new formulations and conceptual structures consonant with that tradition, might help our Churches to discover new depths of common faith and to grow in respect for the wisdom of our respective forbears. We urge, too, that both our Churches persist in their efforts to reflect – together and separately – on the theology of primacy and synodality within the Church’s structures of teaching and pastoral practice, recognizing that here also a continuing openness to doctrinal and practical development, intimately linked to the Spirit’s work in the community, remains crucially necessary. Gregory Nazianzen reminds us, in his Fifth Theological Oration on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, that the Church’s slow discovery of the Spirit’s true status and identity is simply part of the “order of theology (taxis te¯s theologias),” by which “lights break upon us gradually” in our understanding of the saving Mystery of God. (Or. 31.27) Only if we “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” (Rev 3.22), will we be able to remain faithful to the Good News preached by the Apostles, while growing in the understanding of that faith, which is theology’s task.

Search site

See also other pages on our website:

Articles - Orthodox Church Articles - Saints and Icons Articles - Worship Church History Prayers Readings - Apostolic Readings - Gospel Readings - Old Testament Readings - Psalter Salvation History Terminology Videos
Loading ...