We Believe: The Filioque

Mrs. Tyson Guthrie
"The language of procession “from the Father” is meant to recall the statement on the Son who is “begotten of the Father” and who is therefore “God from God.” Because he is from the Father, though not after the Father, he is of one essence with the Father."
You may remember from Part 3 of this series, the Council of Constantinople was convened as an ecumenical council (a council speaking on behalf of the whole church) to settle the issues raised by the council of Nicaea. It included representatives from the East and the West and produced a creed which reaffirmed the homoousion(“of the same essence”) of the Son claimed in Nicaea. In addition, it sought to further clarify the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Creed produced by the 318 bishops at Nicaea had merely said “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” Constantinople made the full deity of the Holy Spirit explicit by:

1) assigning Him a divine name (i.e. “the Lord”) 

2) ascribing to Him the work of creation (“the Giver of Life”) 

3) affirming His divine origin (“who proceeds from the Father”) 

4) ascribing worship to Him (“together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified”)

5) assigning Him a divine voice (“who spoke by the prophets”)

            The language of procession “from the Father” is meant to recall the statement on the Son who is “begotten of the Father” and who is therefore “God from God.” Because he is from the Father, though not after the Father, he is of one essence with the Father (see Part 5 of this series). All this was implied in the words “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” From the earliest days of Christianity, there was a sense that the Son and the Holy Spirit were somehow parallel. Paul illustrates this parallelism as he describes the mechanics of prayer in Ephesians 2:18, “through [Jesus] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” Grammar nerds will appreciate the subtle but distinguishable difference between agency (through) and agency (by). Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 180) was fond of referring to the Son and the Spirit as the “Hands of God,” or as his Word (Logos) and Wisdom (Sophia).[1]It made perfect sense that however it was that the Son was fully God without being another god, the Spirit was too. But there are not two Sons, so the Spirit cannot be begotten. Then how is the Spirit fromGod? John 15:26 provides the answer: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” Procession is a different way of being “from” and yet it establishes the same sharing of substance. 
It bears reminding that “begotten” does not refer to Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary. The Son is “eternally begotten of the Father,” so he was begotten long before he was born and would still be begotten even if he had never been born as a man. In the same way, the Spirit proceeded from the Father long before he was sent on Pentecost and would still proceed from the Father even if he had 

[1]Most theologians after Irenaeus applied the title of “Wisdom” to the Son, not the Spirit. Of course, they were wrong, as are all who ignore Irenaeus’ sage advice.

never been sent. The Bible never speaks of the Spirit proceeding from the Son, so the original text of the creed only said the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” So why does our version of the Nicene Creed say he “proceeds from the Father and the Son”? In the rest of this article, we will survey the reasons for the inclusion of this phrase, the reasons to exclude it, and how to disagree on a matter of great significance, even if not orthodoxy. 

We would never know anything about Jesus’ “begottenness” if he had not been born in Bethlehem, nor about the Spirit’s procession if he had not been sent. Jesus is the “Image of the invisible God,” (Co. 1:15) he is the Word become flesh in whom we “behold [God’s] glory, glory as of the One and Only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) If the incarnate Word is the revelation of God, then the temporal matters of his earthly life tell us something of the eternal realities of his divine life. There is a logical harmony between his birth in Bethlehem and his eternal generation from the Father. Therefore, if John describes the Son as sending the Spirit on Pentecost, there is decent precedence for assuming this reflects an eternal relationship.
This came in handy in late 6th Century Spain where Arianism was alive and well and threatening the life of the Church. The Council of Toledo in AD 589 sought to solidify the deity of the Son by ascribing one more divine prerogative to him—the procession of the Spirit. This left nothing that the Father did that the Son did not share, and it left the Spanish Arians without a rebuttal.
The addition stuck in the West (Roman Catholic and, eventually, Protestant churches), but was never received in the Eastern (non-Latin speaking) churches. These believers remain unconvinced by these arguments to this day. Even if they bought that temporal actions reflect eternal relationships, they see as many examples of the Spirit “sending” the Son as they do the reverse (“by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,” “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness...” [Mark 1:12]) and yet no one was suggesting that Jesus was “eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, Peter has been robbed to pay Paul. As great a victory as the Filioque(Latin for “and the Son”) had won for the deity of the Son, it did so at the expense of the Holy Spirit. If denying the procession of the Spirit to the Son was denying his deity, then the Spirit cannot be divine in the same way that the Son and the Father are God. 
What may at first appear to be a matter of splitting hairs proves, on further examination, to be of eternal significance. There are godly men and women, committed to the faithful teaching of God’s Word, who disagree on this issue. That is not to say it doesn’t matter what you believe about it. Quite the contrary, the ability to disagree within the beloved family of the faith actually requires us to disagree. To do so with grace, empathy, and understanding is not to concede their convictions. It is not to say that truth is relative, but that our relatives can be in error and yet remain in the family. It is to humbly confess that you may be the one in error. I doubt any of the readers of this article will discuss the Filioqueat Thanksgiving dinner this year, but perhaps the diversities of opinions and personalities around the table of dearly-loved ones will provide you with a model for how to proceed in matters like this one in the Church.

Tyson GuthrieFM Faculty and Theology Department Coordinator
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