The Filioque Controversy and the ACNA
Last week the ACNA decided to omit the filioque when saying the Creed in ecumenical worship with Orthodox Christians. It is certainly a generous gesture—after all, the west did add the words “and the Son” to the Creed without input from the East which was not very nice. At the same time I think the filioque, as it is understood in the west, is theologically correct and should be retained and I do not like the precedent of dropping it in shared worship. There are many ways to signal cooperation and friendship and a wide variety of subjects on which Christians of different persuasions can bend and compromise and show themselves not to be stubborn. But I don’t think worship is one of those ways or subjects that lends itself to easy compromise. Few things, in fact, matter more than the way we address God and to decide over the course of one week to simply drop a phrase that has been used for over 1500 years in the west seems to me a bit hasty and premature.
During seminary Eucharists at VTS, there was a great deal of social pressure to replace the word “him” with the word “God” at the opening responses of the Great Thanksgiving rite II. So when the priest would say, “Let us give thanks to the Lord.” the seminary congregation would respond, “It is right to give ‘God’ thanks and praise”. Nowadays I’ve heard they omit both “God” and “him” and simply say “It is right to give thanks and praise.” It’s all very ridiculous in my book but at the time, to the discomfort of those standing near me, I refused to say anything other than “him” in that section of the prayer because while I know very well that God is not a “male” in his essential nature, he has most fully revealed himself in and through a human male, Jesus, and in the book he inerrantly inspired and superintended, the bible, the male pronoun is almost exclusively used when he is referenced in the third person. So even though the use of the word “God” in place of “him” is theologically correct and even though it might be friendly to use the word “God” so as not to offend those bent on emasculating our worship, it was important enough, in light of the implications of the omission, not to compromise that one little word.
Below I’ve copied an excerpt from a piece I wrote about three years ago on the 5th Article of Religion, “Of the Holy Ghost”. In it I explain briefly and no doubt incompletely the controversy between east and west and lay out in fairly neutral terms the issues involved. Since that time, my opinion has solidified a bit behind keeping the filioque. With their insufficient view of the extent and effect of the fall on human nature and their resulting soteriological deficiencies, I am not at all interested in a rapprochement with the Orthodox (especially after Metropolitan Jonah’s characterization of Calvinism as heresy at last year’s synod). But even more importantly, I think it crucial in a culture beset by religious pluralism to confess that the Holy Spirit does not come to indwell apart from being sent by Father through the Son. I certainly understand that the word “procession” is problematic (as I explain below) and I think a compromise with regard to that word would be possible, but as I point out below, “the inclusion of the filioque clause affirms the relational role of the Holy Spirit both within the Godhead, within the Church, and between the Church and her Lord and it secures the principle that without the Son one cannot be related to God through the Spirit…” And so I think we must keep it, even in the context of ecumenical worship. Here’s the article:
For centuries Christians in the west and Christians in the east have disagreed over the wording of the Nicene Creed as it relates to the Holy Spirit.
Originally, the Nicene Creed said this about the Holy Spirit:
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
But sometime after the 4th Century, in the West, the words “and the Son” (Latin: filioque) were inserted into the Creed after the words, “who proceedeth from the Father…” so that the western Creed, the Creed with which most westerners were likely raised, reads:
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
To understand the “filioque controversy” aright requires grasping two important principles.
First, the Father is the ground of divinity. During our discussion of Article 2: “The Word, or Son of God, which was made very Man” we noted that the Son is “eternally begotten” of the Father. The Father is the “source” of the Son’s divinity. This does not mean that the Son became divine at a certain point in time. The Son is “eternally” begotten. He has no beginning nor does he have an end. Nor does it mean that the Son is any less divine than the Father. The Father and the Son are of one substance, one nature, one being. It does mean that the Father is “the Father”. Divinity is grounded in his Person. He is the eternal source of divinity. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father. In the same way and by the same reasoning, you will notice above that the Holy Spirit, originally, was described as eternally “proceeding” from the Father alone. The Son is eternally “begotten” of the Father and the Spirit eternally “proceeds” from the Father. Both formulations and this is the point, set apart the Father as the source of divinity.
Second, in the west, the Holy Spirit has been understood primarily in relational terms. This is quite biblical. The Spirit indwells the believer and by virtue of this indwelling the Christian is spiritually bound at once to the Church and to the Lord. The Holy Spirit establishes and, over time and for eternity, deepens the bond of love between you, God, and your fellow Christian. This is why it is often effective to pray about conflicts among believers. Because we share the same Holy Spirit, we can expect that God can work conflicts out spiritually that we cannot resolve naturally. The relating function of the Holy Spirit is not, at least according to St. Augustine of Hippo in his work on the Trinity, limited to human interpersonal relationships nor to human-divine relationships but it reflects the eternal source of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is the eternal bond of love between the Father and the Son. In this “relational” way, the Holy Spirit is described in the west as proceeding from the Father “and the Son.”
Dr. Alister McGrath, in his Introduction to Christian Theology (p.285) points to this passage from St. Augustine ’s De Trinitate (On the Trinity):
“Scripture teaches us that he is the Spirit neither of the Father alone nor of the Son alone, but of both; and this suggests to us the mutual love by which the Father and the Son love one another…Yet Scripture has not said: “the Holy Spirit is love.” If it had, much of our inquiry would have been rendered unnecessary. Scripture does indeed say: “God is love” (1st John 4:8,16); and so leaves us to ask whether it is God the Father or God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit or God the Trinity itself who is love.”
St. Augustine goes on to argue, based primarily on 1st John 4:7 for the identification of divine love with the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Now, perhaps, you can grasp the disagreement. To eastern Christians, the addition of the filioque clause seemed and seems to undermine the Nicene emphasis on the Father as the source of divinity. But in the west the clause seems to be understood as properly descriptive of the function or role of the Holy Spirit but not necessarily indicative of the “source” of his being.
In fact, as Dr. McGrath goes on to point out in his summary of the controversy (pp 313-316), St. Augustine’s argument from 1st John, identifying the Holy Spirit with Love, assumes that the Father is the lone source of divinity. The passage from which he argues reads:
“7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1st John 4:7-12)
St. Augustine argues that the Holy Spirit is the Person in whom divine love is grounded. It is one of the Spirit’s functions to “love” as it is one of the Son’s functions to “Redeem” but it is not simply a function. The Spirit is love. He is the Love between Father and Son and that “proceeds” from or out of this love.
How does St. Augustine come to this conclusion?
1st John 4 teaches that God is love and love is from God. Since the text reveals that God is “love” (v.8) St. Augustine reasons that “love” must be located or grounded within the Trinity and, specifically located in a single Person of the Trinity.
But, and this is important, since love is “of” or “from” God (v.7) the person from whom or out of whom Love flows cannot be the Father.
Because, as Dr. McGrath explains (p.315), St. Augustine believes that the Father is the source of all divinity. Love must proceed from him to the Son. He cannot proceed from love. McGrath points us to the following passage, again from On the Trinity:
“There is good reason why in this Trinity we speak of the Son alone as the Word of God, of the Holy Spirit alone as the Gift of God, and of the Father alone as the one of whom the Word is begotten and from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds. I add the word ‘principally,’ because we learn that the Holy Spirit proceeds also from the Son. But this is again something given by the Father to the Son—not that he ever existed without it, for all that the Father gives to his only begotten Word he gives in the act of begetting him…”
Whether St. Augustine’s exegesis of 1st John 4 is valid and regardless of whether his reasoning above is universally accepted, at the very least we can recognize that St. Augustine affirmed the place of the “Father alone” as the eternal source divinity.
It seems then that in the west the emphasis following Augustine has been to describe the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the love relationship Father and the Son and, flowing out of that, to understand the Holy Spirit relationally as the bond of love between believers and between the Lord and his Bride. But, in so far as the west rightly follows Augustine, this relational emphasis does not imply a denial of the Father’s place as the lone source of divinity.
One final note in defense of the filioque clause this time from Dr. David Scott, former professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. In a lecture given during his last year at the seminary Dr. Scott argued that with regard to the Spirit’s “role” or “function” (as opposed to being) within the Godhead and the created order, the western addition of the filioque clause points to and grounds the biblical principle that the Holy Spirit cannot be known apart from Christ. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot and/or does not act where Christ is unknown. Obviously, he can and does. It is to say that the Spirit only “indwells”, makes his home, within those who have come to a living faith in the Son. Biblically speaking, the Spirit comes to human beings from the Father through the Son. Without the filioque, Dr. Scott suggested, the Church risks a descent into a compromised pluralism wherein the Father might be experienced through the Spirit apart from the Son.
I think it best for Christians at this point not to come down too firmly on either side. I do think the following can be said and affirmed:
1. Ontologically speaking (ontology is the study of “being”), the Creed without the filioque clause secures the principle that God the Father is the source of all things; that the Father is the ground of divinity.
2. Functionally speaking the Creed with the inclusion of the filioque clause affirms the relational role of the Holy Spirit both within the Godhead, within the Church, and between the Church and her Lord and it secures the principle that without the Son one cannot be related to God through the Spirit.
This does not, of course, settle the disagreement. The debate over whether the Spirit, even in a derivative or secondary way, proceeds from the Son as well as the Father remains unresolved.
But at the very least, I believe, the first clause of 5th Article of Religion, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, can be affirmed with regard to his function or role within the Godhead and within the Church.
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