Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why the Filioque Sucks: An Explainer

If you follow Crusty over the years, you may have picked up that he is not fond of the Filioque clause in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: namely, that the Holy Spirit proceeds "From the Father and the Son" (in Latin, "filioque" means "and from the Son") instead of "From the Father."  Crusty listed it as No. 1 on his list of things that annoy him (whole list can be found here).

Apparently people in the twitterblogomyspacesphere have noticed, since several people sent Crusty the following linkAt its most recent meeting, the dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches (those that did not accept the Council of Chalcedon in 451,
Photius had 99 problems but the Filioque wasn't one of them.
including the Armenian, Ethiopian, and Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Churches, as well as Christians in Syria and India, among others) reaffirmed the intentions of Anglican churches to move towards reciting the Creed in its original format.

This has been something Anglicans have been saying in ecumenical partnerships for decades.

--The draft Book of Common Prayer at the 1976 General Convention did not have the Filioque in the Creed.  As part of a whole series of liturgical maneuverings, it was added back in at literally the 11th hour.  Bishop Otis Charles (of blessed memory!), who was on the bishops' legislative committee for the Prayer Book, once told Crusty the whole long, involved story.

--The 1978 Lambeth Conference called for the Filioque to be left out in future Prayer Book revisions

--The World Council of Churches affirmed that the Filioque should be dropped.

--General Convention affirmed that future revisions of the Prayer Book should leave out the Filioque, and that supplemental liturgical materials should leave out the Filioque.

--At Justin Welby's enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury the Creed was recited without the Filioque, leading to some hilarious stumbling from those folks unprepared for it --sadly COD could not find the full service on YouTube, only highlights, but here's a link to the service for the enthronement which contains the Creed without the Filioque.

1.  First, dear reader, you may be asking: "Why do we even have a filioque?"

Quick historical discursus:

--The Creed we call the Nicene Creed isn't really the Nicene Creed.  There was a Creed produced at the Council of Nicaea (though interestingly enough we don't have any extant copies of it for quite
some time, and when Hilary of Poitiers was exiled to the East in the 350s it was the first time he'd
These colors don't run, Westerners.
heard of it), but it did not say anything about the Spirit other than Christians believe in one.  The 325 Creed says, literally,

"And in the Holy Spirit."  Period.  Full stop.

Another church council was held in 381 (and lots and lots of councils in between 325 and 381, BTW) which issued a revised version of the Creed, in part to flesh out and reflect developing Trinitarian theology:

"And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.  Who with the Father and Son is together worshipped and together glorified.  Who spoke through the prophets."

[Crusty's Literal translation from the Greek.  Yes, Crusty uses "who" instead of "he" for the Spirit which, interestingly enough, makes some people apoplectic.  But the Greek for "Spirit" is a neuter noun, not masculine.  The official Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church English translations follow suit and translate "who" with regard to the Spirit as less awkward in English than "it" while also being faithful to the original Greek and more inclusive than the incorrect translation of "he."]

Now you're saying, "Thanks for the Greek lesson, but you didn't answer the question yet.  Is this going to be another thousands of words blog post?"

Feel free to go back to Facebook anytime, COD is just getting warmed up.

As COD mentioned, there had been many, many church councils held between 325-381 which dealt with trying to find the right language to discuss the Trinity and the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  On the one hand, Christianity always had to be careful about being perceived as tritheists: that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate, co-equal entities.  On the other extreme, there's the charge of modalism:  that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not somehow "real" but just external manifestation (or "modes") of a single divine essence.  Christians were not helped by the fact the Greek word for person, prosopon, comes from the same word for "mask" that actors wore in Greek dramatic productions -- thus for Greeks the word had associations of somehow not being real, but something that could be taken on and off.  Latin speakers simply didn't get this, and wondered why "three persons in one substance" wasn't perfectly fine.

These councils held between 325-381 produced all sorts of language and statements.  For lots of reasons, in the end, the Creed of 381 became the normative statement.  But it did leave Christians averse to constantly tinkering with language, since lots of Creeds and formularies circulated in the 300s.  So, at another church council called in 431, they decided: no changes to Creeds.  The prohibition was against "another" or "other" Creed ("heteran" in Greek).  This is, in part, why the Council of Chalcedon in 451 produced a horos, or statement/definition, instead of adding to the Creed or producing another statement saying "We believe."

[BTW, CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife) just said, "Are you blogging about the Filioque?"  Me: "How did you know?"].

So far, so good, right?

Christianity in the East got bogged down in issues other than Trinitarian theology, namely, the relationship between the human and divine natures in Christ.  In the West, however, issues of Trinitarian language persisted, in part because the migrating Teutonic peoples.  Crusty refuses to call them barbarians, which is pejorative term; some of these peoples were quite peaceful, and many had adopted Christianity.  These migrating Teutonic peoples had adopted, by and large, the non-Nicene form of Christianity, commonly called Arianism.  They swept through Western Europe and ended up ruling kingdoms in northern Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and England.  Eventually all of these Teutonic kingdoms adopted the Nicene form of Christianity, but there was lingering concern over the nature of the Father and the Son's relationship because they had been non-Nicene Christians for a couple hundred years in some places.  We don't know exactly when and where, but it is most likely that in Spain in the 6th century words "and the Son" were added to the Creed to make it clear that Jesus was not somehow inferior to God the Father, and had part in the procession of the Spirit.  Gradually, this spread north, and eventually Charlemagne, as ruler of the largest empire in the West, ordered that the words be inserted into the Creed (to the consternation of the Pope, who sent Charlemagne silver plates engraved with the Creed without the Filioque).

This caused consternation in the East, and it became a source of intense controversy, and reflected the ways in which Western and Eastern Christianity drifted apart in the late medieval period.  In the bull of excommunication against the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, the papal legate was so ignorant of the history of the Creed one of his charges was accusing the Eastern Christians of leaving it out -- when, in fact, it had only been added in the West a few hundred years earlier.  At councils held in 1274 and 1438-1439 to try to solve the schism between the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom, the question of the Filioque would be an important one.

2.  Now, dear reader, you may be asking, "Why does this matter?"

Well, for a couple of reasons.

A.  The action to add the words to the Creed was taken without any kind of consultation or discussion.  Before you scoff at this, COD  ask -- So consultation and discussion doesn't matter?  Really?  For Episcopalians who howled at the notion of any kind of centralization of authority in the Anglican Communion because we felt we needed to be in dialogue and conversation about matters instead of having things decided without our input?

Even if consensus cannot be reached, Crusty think at least discussion and consultation are important, even if to explain why a decision is made.  Are we really saying it's OK to impose something as central as a change to the Creed Christians have recited for over 1700 years without any kind of discussion or consultation?  Is that a precedent we want to enshrine going forward?

B.  It relates to the whole question of "common" prayer.  What does it mean for liturgical Christians to recite different versions of the same Creed?  Again, you may roll your eyes and ask, Does it matter?

--Does the baptismal formula matter?  Why can't we use whatever words we want instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
--Does having the word of institution in a eucharistic prayer matter?  Why can't we just say, "Jesus then yadda yadda yadda"?
We have U2Charists, why not Seinfeldcharists?

So clearly at times words do matter; because it's not your ox being gored can be a bit disingenuous.

To profess a common faith we should profess common words.  The West changed the words for reasons which no longer have any kind of meaning.

C.  It matters theologically.  Let's go back to that central dilemma:  Are Christians polytheists, or is the Trinity just an elaborate card trick of some kind, and there's really just one God?

As part of the arduous theological discussions which helped shaped the Creed of 381, the following became crucial:

Theologians began to talk about God as being the beginning, or the source, of the godhead: the "arche" in Greek.  God the Father had to come first, otherwise Christians were polytheists.  So God the Father is the source of the Godhead, but, in a way we cannot understand in our linear, causal, time constraints, the first thing that occurred was the begetting of the Son and the Spirit.

It's kind of like the Big Bang:  overwhelming evidence points to the Big Bang as the way the universe was created.  Yet, in the moments after the Big Bang, it appears that the laws of physics as we know them were not followed.  Thus somehow, in a way we can't understand, the Big Bang happened.  Similarly, somehow, in a way we can't understand, God the Father came first but immediately  the Son and the Spirit were begotten.

The Filioque undoes this by making the Spirit God the Father and God the Son's love child instead of   preserving the notion of God the Father as the source of the Godhead.

D. It matters because much of the shrugging off of the Filioque discounts the witness of our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters.  Eastern Christianity has suffered through 1500 years of consistent persecution.  First there was the Muslim conquest beginning the 6th century.  Then, as if that was not enough,  in the 20th century we witnessed one of the longest and most sustained efforts
Icon of the 21 Coptic Christians martyred by ISIS.
to exterminate Christianity since the Diocletian persecution in the 4th century, namely, Communist occupation of Russian and Eastern Europe, which, coincidentally, contained large numbers of Orthodox Christians (though to be sure many others as well).

Orthodox Christians have died for the faith recited in this Creed.  They died at the hands of their fellow Christians when Constantinople was sacked in 1204, they died by the thousands in Tamerlane's near destruction of Christian communities in Persia and Syria in the 14ht century, died by the millions in the Turkish Armenian genocide, they died in Stalin's Gulags, they are dying at the hands of ISIS and Islamic extremists TODAY.  Twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya earlier this year.

We, in the West, many of whom have been coddled by establishment and cultural hegemony, can shrug more easily at whether words matter or not.  As the Egyptian Coptic Bishop Bishoy put in in the news release that prompted this whole blog post, "As a church that has been persecuted for most of its existence, our faith and faith issues are exceptionally important."

Crusty does not recite the Filioque on Sunday for all these reasons.  When forcing 10-year-old OCOCOD (official child of Crusty Old Dean) to follow along, Crusty puts his thumb over the Filioque.  (Crusty won't ask you what metaphorical thumbs you put over various words.)

The Filioque Sucks because:

Words matter.
How we understand God matters and language is all we have.
Common prayer matters.
The witness of our suffering Christian brothers and sisters matters.
Get rid of the Filioque.


  1. From a former Episcopalian turned Orthodox: you are my hero!

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  3. Disagree. 1400 years of history make this version of the creed ancient and widely accepted.

  4. If I´m not wrong I think that the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil already took it out of their recently published BCP.

    1. Yes, Luis, several provinces have already removed it -- 1978 Lambeth Conference recommended it be left out of future Prayer Book revisions, and a number of provinces have followed suit.

  5. I take it out with every recitation. Have done, for years. Words DO matter, but the vast majority of speakers are tone deaf, I fear, so have never had the joy of understanding word or phrase in that blooming moment of sound that can be heard at great depth of heart and mind, during recitation of creed or psalm or while reading a text aloud--or silently. To prompt attention to words during liturgy, I have begun to lightly strike out the Filioque with a pencil in pew prayer books when no one is looking. I hope no one I know is reading this.

  6. One wonders just what it will take for the Filioque to be removed from liturgies at 7000 TEC congregations. Has even one diocesan bishop in the USA given the priests in that diocese a clear, unconditional, and immediate directive to remove it?

  7. I first encountered this on my J-term trip to Geneva, Switzerland, to study with the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches. Since then, it's been something I've thought about, and I'm not so beholden to the filioque that I would fight for its inclusion. However, knowing how congregations react when even one word of the beloved (outdated) liturgy is changed, I can see this being a fight that nobody in a comfortable position like ours in western European/North American Christianity will want to take. Because you're right, we're more concerned with keeping the church of the 1950's alive than we are with more important matters.

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  9. I really, really love the ikon. Who wrote it?

  10. This is a strikingly persuasive post, but you pulled back from relating the long story this reader was eager to know, namely, Otis Charles's account of how the omitted filioque got back in. My congregation, which adopted the Draft Book of Common Prayer the moment it was published, resisted using the restored filioque until a subsequent rector insisted.

  11. Hi William, didn't go into the weeds of the Otis Charles story since it involves other persons still active in the church and I'm reluctant to speak on behalf of a dead person that may cast aspersions on living persons. But it's a helluva story.

  12. According to St. John Damascene: The Father is the source and cause of the Son alone and producer of the Holy Spirit. The Son is begotten, the Spirit processes from the Father and resteth in the Son.

    Also a symbol of the Holy Trinity is a triangle with three equal sides. If the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, we no longer have a triangle but a straight line. In the triangle, the Father is at the apex and the Son and the Holy Spirit occupy the other two corners.

  13. Just a thought about "who" vs. "he" in the clause about the Holy Spirit. I've long thought it odd that, even though the 1979 BCP moved in the direction of inclusive language in some respects (such as removing "men" from "for us men and for our salvation"), it introduced masculine pronouns in some places where they weren't before: this portion of the Nicene-Whatever Creed, the opening acclamation of the Eucharist ("And blessed be his kingdom"), and the Sursum Corda ("...give him thanks and praise"). As far as the phrases in the Creed, was the idea behind this to break up a longer sentence into a few short sentences? It's not as if the previous wording wasn't clear, or as clear as language about a Great Mystery can be.

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  15. Wow. Who knew? I'm a lifelong Episcopalian, and have never heard of this as an issue, particularly given our focus on the Trinity. My guess is that 99% of Episcopalians haven't either.

  16. Gender is mainly a grammatical term, not a biological term. Masculine means active, not necessarily male. A masculine pronoun is appropriate in the English language for all Three Persons as being the active, living, and only God. (In the example you cited, the relative pronoun may be a better translation for other reasons.)

    1. If you're replying to my comment above, I was asking what the thinking was (if any) among the liturgical reformers in the 1970s. Anyway, I don't buy your assertion that "masculine" = "active, living, and only God."

  17. The Second Person is plainly revealed in the New Testament. The Third Person ("another Comforter" - John 14:16) is plainly revealed in John 14-16. The Spirit is sent by the Father (John 14:16-17,26). He is also sent by the Son (John 15:26; 16:7,13) in what seems to be a different sense or even different sending. The "filioque" clause may be lacking in accounting for this differentiation.
    The biblical source of the creed's "proceeding" would seem to be John 15:26, "which proceedeth from the Father". But the Greek seems to plainly say that the procession is out of a place that is alongside the Father. More importantly, perhaps, the Greek verb is present not aorist.
    In my view, over-enthusiastic support of what is correct about the Trinity appears to have led to error.

  18. As a laywoman (so no bricks, please), I've often thought that the Christian experiences the Spirit FROM the Father THROUGH the Son. Which undoubtedly convicts me of some sort of heresy whose name I can't pronounce. I agree that messing around with the Creed is a bad idea. But if we are trying to be accurate about the relationships among the three Persons of the Trinity, the question should really be, is the Filioque correct or incorrect. Again, I'm a laywoman, so maybe the question I'm asking isn't germane. But I'd like to think that what I say on Sunday morning (without crossing my fingers) is actually true.

  19. But here's what I don't get: if the Spirit doesn't also proceed from the Son, why do we have a triangle and not just a chevron? I always heard the Filioque as being the language that creates the equal sides of the triangle.

    1. It gets back to the notion that unless the Father is somehow the source of the Godhead, we end up with three co-eternal divine entities, which could sound like polytheism. So yeah, there's a way in which classic Patristic theology would be like a chevron.

  20. First off, thanks for discussing this! Absolutely agree with your point here. Two quick points, one correction, one theological suggestion.

    Since Islam didn't begin until 620 CE, no one was undergoing Islamic invasion in the 6th century.

    Second: as to the difficulty of discussing the be getting and processing of the Word and Spirit, I think it can be helpful to stress that the Word and Spirit just are what God the Father does by virtue of being God the Father. That is- - there is no moment of decision in pre- temporality in which God the Father decides to beget and to allow procession; rather, to be God the Father just means to express and act in such a way that Word and Spirit always are, though not, of course, independently of God the Father. Catherine LaCugna has good stuff on this (and oddly enough, I think Derrida's Voice and Phenomena does too, perhaps accidentally.)

    1. Yikes, a typo lifesalap -- sometimes I mix up the way in which you add one when referring to something by century -- so 600s are 7th century. Yes, clearly since Muhammad did not start receiving revelations until 610, there were no Islamic invasions in the 6th century.

      The problem comes back to the issue of tritheism -- if the Son and the Spirit are always there, does that lend itself to a kind of Mormonism, with three pre-existing, co-eternal entities?

  21. As to reason D against Filioque, which as expressed is pure sentimentality, I would suppose that if the Orthodox Church had been persecuted all these years and the Western Church has flourished that that, on the contrary, meant that God was trying to tell the Orthodox something about getting behind filioque.

    I don't understand an argument that church doctrine has to be fixed in 381 just because that's the version you agree with.

    For me filioque is necessary for a Trinitarian view that F S & HG are three co-equal aspects of one God. Leaving it out means you have a F and then he creates a subordinate HG, who (Subclause) is to be worshipped with the Son. I am not personally sure that I am a Trinitarian but I am sure you cant be a Trinitarian without filioque.

    1. I don't think I'd say the witness of the martyrs is pure sentimentality, but fair enough about reading too much into the historical fates of various manifestations of Christianity.

      As to the question of doctrine being fixed at a certain time and daye, one could wonder why we should hold to the rest of the Nicene Creed just because it's old?

      For much of Patristic theology, the issue around "co-equal" often tread dangerously close to "tritheism." Does having three equal, co-eternal entities mean you really have three Gods? This is part of the emphasis on God the Father as the "source" of the Trinity.

      In the end, of course, we can never and will never know; this is a mystery.

  22. As an CofE Ordinand writing his final dissertation on this...totally agree! Do you think the filioque will be removed from Common Worship (rather than just have an alternative in place?)


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