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The Filioque Controversy

by Tim Staples


Tim Staples tackles the question, "Does the Holy Spirit "proceed from the Father and the Son" or only "from the Father"?

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Envoy Magazine



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The Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College, January/February/March 2010

As A Latin Rite Catholic, you decide to take your family to visit an Eastern Rite Catholic Church so that your children can appreciate a Byzantine Liturgy. The kids do not exactly take to the length of the Divine Liturgy, but you and your wife are enraptured. Afterward, you strike up a conversation with a couple, Theo and Dora Photius, explaining to them why you decided to attend.

Theo informs you that he and his wife are former Orthodox Christians who recently became Catholic. The conversation becomes so enjoyable that you and your wife, along with Theo and Dora, decide to continue the conversation over lunch at your house.

Your four kids and the Photius's three kids were enjoying this unexpected playdate as much as you and your wife were enjoying the conversation, when Theo began to speak of a very good friend of his who is still Greek Orthodox. Theo and he had recently been disputing various points of theology when the filioque (pronounced feely-OH-kwey) controversy rose to the fore. You explain to your wife that "filioque" is Latin for "and the Son" and refers to the part of the Creed where we say the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son." The Orthodox – along with some Eastern Rites in the Catholic Church – do not recite this part of the Creed. But most importantly, the Orthodox generally reject the theology of the filioque as well. This, of course, is where the problem starts.

Theo confides to you that though he felt like he had the upper hand in their discussions of the papacy, his Orthodox friend had rocked him a bit on two main points when it came to the filioque and it really has him wondering if he did the right thing in becoming Catholic. First, his Orthodox friend claimed the filioque to be an invention of the ninth century that contradicted the original and definitive Nicene Creed as it was defined by the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople I in AD 381. In essence, he said, the filioque denies the Father as the first principle of life in the Godhead and in so doing confuses the persons of the Trinity. And secondly, our Lord himself was very plain on this point when he said, in John 15:26:

But when the Counselor comes ... even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.

Jesus said the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, not from the Father and the Son.


Pulling out your Catechism of the Catholic Church, you explain to Theo that the Catholic Church has always acknowledged the Creed of Constantinople I from AD 381 since Pope Leo I ratified both the Council and the Symbol (the Creed) in AD 451. The addition of the filioque is a development of the Creed that in no way denies the earlier version any more than the development and subsequent change of the Creed between Nicea I and Constantinople I represented a corruption of the Creed then. Moreover, the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Father is the first origin of the Divine Life of the Trinity. As such, the Father is "the principle without principle." We agree with the Orthodox on this point. Together with Theo, you read the CCC 245-248:

The apostolic faith concerning the Spirit was confessed by the second ecumenical council at Constantinople (381): "We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father." By this confession, the Church recognizes the Father as "the source and origin of the whole divinity." But the eternal origin of the Spirit is not unconnected with the Son's origin... he is not called the Spirit of the Father alone. . . but the Spirit of both the Father and the Son....

The Latin tradition of the Creed confesses that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque.)" The Council of Florence in 1438 explains: "The Holy Spirit is eternally from Father and Son; He has His nature and subsistence at once (simul) from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration. . And, since the Father has through generation given to the only-begotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom He is eternally born, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son."

The affirmation of the filioque does not appear in the Creed confessed in 381 at Constantinople. But Pope St. Leo I, following an ancient Latin and Alexandrian tradition, had already confessed it dogmatically in 447 (Quam laudabiliter) even before Rome, in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, came to recognize and receive the Symbol of 381. The use of this formula in the Creed was gradually admitted into the Latin liturgy between the eighth and eleventh centuries.

At the outset the Eastern tradition expresses the Father's character as first origin of the Spirit. By confessing the Spirit as He "who proceeds from the Father," it affirms that he comes from the Father through the Son. The Western tradition expresses first the consubstantial communion between Father and Son, by saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque). It says this, "legitimately and with good reason," for the eternal order of the divine persons in their consubstantial communion implies that the Father, as "the principle without principle," is the first origin of the Spirit, but also that as Father of the only Son, He is, with the Son, the single principle from which the Holy Spirit proceeds. This legitimate complementarity, provided it does not become rigid, does not affect the identity of faith in the reality of the same mystery confessed.


You explain to Theo that the Orthodox who are "rigid" on this point remind you of Protestants who will cling to verses of Scripture that say justification is "by faith" while refusing to acknowledge other texts that just as clearly say justification involves "works" or "obedience," "perseverance," etc. They are right when they say justification is by faith; they are wrong when they insist upon "faith alone." In fact, the Church would allow for a belief in "faith alone" as long as it would not place hope and charity in opposition to faith and as long as it would teach perseverance in that faith, hope, and charity – in good works performed in Christ – as necessary for salvation.

Analogously, the Orthodox are right when they insist the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and the Church has always agreed. They are wrong when they, along with the originators of the schism, create the novelty of ek monou tou Patrou, which is Greek for "from the Father alone." Adding the word "alone" is contrary to the ancient theological understanding of both the Creed and our Trinitarian theology in both the East and the West. Similar to the Protestant controversy concerning Sola Fide, the Church would not even have a problem with ek monou tou Patrou as long as the phrase would not be interpreted as denying the Son's essential role in the procession of the Holy Spirit.

"Perhaps an analogy would be helpful for your friend," you explain. "If you think about the eternal relations within the Godhead that constitute the persons of the Trinity as an eternal and intimate dialogue of love, it begins to make more sense. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is referred to in John 1:1 as the Word of the Father that is generated by the Father in John 1:18, and yet He is also revealed in John 17:5 to have been `with' the Father enjoying this eternal and loving dialogue from all eternity. The Holy Spirit is the bond of love resulting from this eternal dialogue between the Father and Son that is so perfect and infinite that 'if constitutes another person so that 'it' becomes a 'He!' It is the Father who initiates the 'dialogue' as 'first origin' of life and love in the Godhead, but without the Son, there is no dialogue. Thus, without both the Father and the Son there is no Holy Spirit, who proceeds as the fruit of this loving communion between the Father and the Son."


But what about the claim my friend makes that we are not being faithful to the ancient creed that was definitively defined at Constantinople?" Theo asks. "How do we respond to that?"

"The Church has made it very clear," you explain, "as we read from the Catechism, that there is no essential difference between the creeds that would make them mutually exclusive. In fact, since the second Council of Lyons in 1274, and the Council of Florence in 1442, the Eastern churches in union with the Pope have not been required to say the filioque at all, out of respect for the ancient Creed. The Church simply requires all Catholics to accept the theology that underlies it. If, as the Catechism says, one holds to the Creed as it was written in AD 381 and ratified by the Pope in AD 451, there is no problem. The symbol of Constantinople never denies the theology of the filioque any more than Romans 5:1 – 'Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ' – denies works to be involved with our justification in any sense. It simply emphasizes the importance of faith."

You go on to explain to Theo that as our understanding of the Trinity developed in the Church, it became necessary to understand the theology of the filioque, quite frankly, because it is revealed to us in Scripture. But it also aids us in distinguishing the persons of the Blessed Trinity. The Council of Florence taught, and you mentioned before, that it is the opposition of relations that constitute the persons of the Trinity. Without the theology of the filioque, one can easily see the opposition of relation between the Father and the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit, but the opposition of relation between the Son and the Holy Spirit becomes more nebulous; hence, the persons can become difficult to distinguish. The Orthodox (at least some) claim the personal distinctions are incommunicable and that we Catholics define too much when we define these oppositions of relation. You find that odd because these same Orthodox will tell you that you confuse the persons because of the theology of the filioque! Obviously, the mystery of the relations of the persons of the Blessed Trinity is communicable in some sense!


At this point, you go up to your office library and grab your copy of Faith of the Early Fathers, edited by William Jurgens, and go to the index where there is an entire section dedicated to the filioque controversy. You then explain to Theo that while you find no Father of the Church ever denying the filioque, you do clearly have them teaching the filioque quite plainly. First you point out some Western fathers – Tertullian, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine – all teaching the theology of the filioque anywhere from 600 to 800 + years before the final Orthodox schism. These fathers are clearly "Catholic" in their understanding.

Most importantly for our Orthodox friends, you point out this same theology demonstrated among Eastern fathers as well. For example, we have Didymus the Blind (On the Holy Spirit 37 [AD 380]). He is an Eastern father and was head of the famous Catechetical School of Alexandria. He was blind from the age of four, yet absolutely brilliant. He was one of St. Jerome's teachers and, in fact, St. Jerome accused St. Ambrose of plagiarism because he used Didymus's work so extensively in his own work called "On the Holy Spirit," where St. Ambrose teaches the filioque as well. Could this be a case of an ancient Eastern father teaching a Western father the theology of the filioque? Perhaps. But most importantly, listen to the clear words of Didymus:

"Of mine he shall receive." (Quoting John 16:15) Just as we have understood discussions, therefore, about the incorporeal natures, so too it is now to be recognized that the Holy Spirit receives from the Son that which He was of His own nature, and not as one substance giving and another receiving, but as signifying one substance. So too the Son is said to receive from the Father the very things given Him by the Father, nor has the Holy Spirit any other substance than that given Him by the Son. And on that account we do affirm those propositions according to which we believe that in the Trinity the nature of the Holy Spirit is the same as that of the Father and the Son.

We also see St. Epiphanius of Salamis the same thing in The Man Well-Anchored (8:75 [AD 374]). He is another Eastern Father who taught the theology of the filioque. St. Jerome called him "a Pentaglot" because of his thorough knowledge of five languages: Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, and Latin. He was Bishop of modern Salamis, then Cyprus at Constantia.

For the Only-begotten Himself calls [the Holy Spirit] "the Spirit of the Father" and says of Him that "He proceeds from the Father," and "will receive of mine," so that He is reckoned as not being foreign to the Father nor to the Son, but is of their same substance, of the same Godhead; He is Spirit divine... of God, and He is God. For He is Spirit of God, Spirit of the Father, and Spirit of the Son, not by some kind of synthesis, like soul and body in us, but in the midst of Father and Son, of the Father and of the Son, a third by appellation....

The Father always existed and the Son always existed, and the Spirit breathes from the Father and the Son; and neither is the Son created nor is the Spirit created....

St. Cyril of Alexandria (Treasury of the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, thesis 34 [A.D. 425]), another great Eastern Father, says it even more plainly:

Since the Holy Spirit when He is in us effects our being conformed to God, and He actually proceeds from Father and Son, it is abundantly clear that He is of the divine essence, in it of essence and proceeding from it.

Next comes St. Fulgence of Ruspe, writing around the year 525, who said:

Hold most firmly and never doubt in the least that the only God the Son, who is one Person of the Trinity, is the Son of the only God the Father; but the Holy Spirit, Himself also one Person of the Trinity, is Spirit not of Father only, but of Father and of Son together.... Hold most firmly and never doubt in the least that the same Holy Spirit who is Spirit of the Father and of the Son, proceeds from the Father and the Son.

From an historical perspective, the Orthodox position on the filioque (i.e., "and the son") issue would seem untenable. To say that these great Fathers of the Church, representing both East and West, were all wrong would seem arrogant, unless there was overwhelming evidence to do so. However, there is no such evidence to be found.


Putting down Jurgen's three volumes, you then explain to Theo that from a biblical perspective, you find the Orthodox position even weaker. Orthodox believers will often cite the text Theo's friend quoted along with John 14:26:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things....

And to quote John 15:26 again:

But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness to me.

Theo speaks up at this point and says, "See? Scripture does seem to teach the Orthodox position in those texts. The Father 'sends' the Holy Spirit and you even have the very words stating the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father." "Well, yes, you do. But remember, Theo, the Catholic Church agrees that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The point the Church objects to is the alone part! The Holy Spirit is sent by and proceeds from the Father. But notice the text we cited never says 'from the Father alone' as the Orthodox tend to insist. In fact, notice in John 15:26, Jesus says He will 'send' the Holy Spirit just as He also says the Holy Spirit 'proceeds from the Father.' In fact, in John 16:7, Jesus said:

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I go not away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you (emphasis added).

"Moreover, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out in paragraph 1137:

[Revelation 22:1] presents 'the river of the water of life... flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb,' one of the most beautiful symbols of the Holy Spirit.

"The Bible is clear in Revelation 22:1:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb....

"Here we have the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son! The Catechism also references Rev. 21:6 and John 4:10-14, which make very clear that this 'water of life' is a reference to the Holy Spirit." You also add John 7:37-39, recalling that it was St. John who wrote both John's Gospel and the book of Revelation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The key, you explain, is to remember that saying the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father does not contradict the fact that He proceeds from the Father and the Son. These two concepts and these biblical texts are not mutually exclusive.


Theo seems to really be getting excited about all of this new information when you say, "I want to add some more biblical data you may find helpful, Theo. The Bible reveals the origin of the Holy Spirit to be from both the Father and the Son. For example, the Orthodox would agree with us when we say Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit as 'the Spirit of the Father.' Consider Matthew 10:19-20:

When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

"This little phrase 'the Spirit of your Father' uses very common Greek grammar. It is called the 'genitive of origin' or 'genitive of relationship.' Another example of this usage is found in Luke 6 in the listing of the Apostles multiple times in order to identify the father of some of the Apostles. We'll just look at one example here from Luke 6:15. Notice, St. James is referred to as 'James of Alphaeus.' This is the genitive of relation revealing Alphaeus to be James' father. In the same way, and in many places in Scripture, the Holy Spirit is also shown to have His origin not only from the Father, but also from the Son.

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him (Romans 8:9).

The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory (1 Peter 1:10-11).

"Notice, the Spirit of God (the Father) is then referred to as the Spirit of Christ in the same verse! There can hardly be a doubt, biblically speaking, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son."


As you walk Theo and this family out to their car, Theo shakes your hand and thanks you for taking this time to share much-needed information with him and his family. "You have really injected some serious excitement into my faith-life, my friend. I am so thankful to have met you and your family. Man, our Faith is truly wonderful! I can't wait to see my Orthodox friend. I have some surprises for him!"

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