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Filioque is a Latin word meaning "and the Son" which was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by the Church of Rome in the 11th century, one of the major factors leading to the Great Schism between East and West. This inclusion in the Creedal article regarding the Holy Spirit thus states that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son."

Its inclusion in the Creed is a violation of the canons of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431, which forbade and anathematized any additions to the Creed, a prohibition which was reiterated at the Eighth Ecumenical Council in 879-880. This word was not included by the Council of Nicea nor of Constantinople. The term itself has been interpreted in both an Orthodox fashion and a heterodox fashion. It may be read as saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through (dia) the Son. This was the position of St Maximus the Confessor. On this reading, the Son is not an eternal cause (aition) of the Spirit. The heterodox reading sees the Son, along with the Father, as an eternal cause of the Spirit. Most in the Orthodox Church consider this latter reading to be a heresy.

The description of the filioque as a heresy was iterated most clearly and definitively by the great Father and Pillar of the Church, St. Photius the Great, in his On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit. He describes it as a heresy of Triadology, striking at the very heart of what the Church believes about God.

Preliminary Issues: A Summary of Historical Terms

Early Linguistic Uncertainty

It should first be noted that much confusion over this topic historically may be due to philosophical and terminological gaps which had to be filled in order to accurately discuss God--and not misconstrue Him. Over time, within Orthodoxy (especially with the help of Sts. Athanasios and Gregory of Palamas), an ideological framework seems to have emerged.

The Terms in a Physical Context

First, it is perhaps important to contextualize these concepts with a created-world example.

  • When one discusses someone (say, John Doe), one might ask what John Doe is. The answer would be a human being (a creature with a mind/nous, a body, and a life).
  • If, however one asked what John Doe does, that would be a different question. The answer might be running, building, teaching, etc. Note that we may often say John Doe is a runner, builder, or teacher; but such is simply a method of speaking. These attributes (all acquired through time) have no relation to what John Doe actually is by nature (i.e. a human being).[1]
  • Both of those questions, however, are different from who John Doe is. The answer to "who John Doe is," is what makes John Doe different from Jim Doe (or Jane Doe, etc.). This is a specific person who distinctly uses the characteristics he/she shares with others (ex. sharing the same humanity, but also perhaps the same activity, like running).

The Framework & Its Importance: The Three Realities in God

Those (albeit in a different order below) constitute what St. Gregory of Palamas described as the three realities of God.[2] It is within this developed framework that the Orthodox articulate realities that the Orthodox Church has held from the beginning. Below, each reality heads a list of terms which historically have been used in attempts to express each said reality.

Who God Is:

References the Trinity:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • person
  • hypostasis - (lit. “standing~under”); from the preferred Greek term designating the concept of person
  • prosopon (pl. prosopa) - (lit. “face/mask”) An early, but less-preferred, Greek term. It is less-preferred because it lends itself to confusion with Sabellianism.

What God Is:

References God's eternal/unchangeable characteristics (ex. divinity/trinity/immortality/life/love…).  This is what "theology" studies.
  • nature
  • essence
  • substance - (from the preferred Latin term)
  • homoousion - (lit. same + essence/being; from Greek ὁμοούσιος [ὁμός + οὐσία + -ῐος])

What God Does:

References temporal characteristics (As the acts exist within time, they are variable; ex. create/reveal/save…)
  • activities
  • energies
  • attributes
  • economy - (from Greek οἰκονομία [oikonomia]; lit. household + management/activities; presumably referencing what God does to "manage His household")

The confusion/non-recognition of the above concepts in Western (i.e. Roman Catholic and Protestant) theology is integral to the different theologies which developed in "the West"[3] and which underly the filioque.


Early use of the Filioque

It is useful to note that a regional council in Persia in 410 introduced one of the earliest forms of the filioque in the Creed; the council specified that the Spirit proceeds from the Father "and from the Son." Coming from the rich theology of early East Syrian Christianity, this expression in this context is authentically Eastern. Therefore, the filioque cannot be attacked as a solely Western innovation, nor as something created by the Pope.

In the West, St. Augustine of Hippo taught that the Spirit came from the Father and the Son, though subordinate to neither. His theology was dominant in the West until the Middle Ages, including his theology of the Trinity. Other Latin fathers also spoke of the Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son. While familiar in the West, this way of speaking was virtually unknown in the Greek-speaking, Eastern Roman Empire.

Although the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 had expanded and completed the Nicene Creed begun at the First Ecumenical Council, the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431) had forbidden any further changes to it, except for by another Ecumenical Council. By this time, then, the text of the Nicene Creed had acquired a certain definitive authority, of ecumenical value and importance.

Rome received the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which referred to preceding councils, citing the authority of the text of the Creed. However, at this time, central Italy was in a state of collapse. In 410 and 455, Rome was vandalized and sacked by barbarian invasions. In 476, the Western Roman Empire fell, with the exile of Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor. Chaos followed.

The filioque was first used in Toledo, Spain in 587 without the consultation or agreement of the five patriarchs of the Church at that time and in direct violation of canons of the Third Ecumenical Council that prohibited unilateral alteration of the Creed by anything short of another Ecumenical Council. The purpose of its addition in Spain was to counter a heresy that was local to that region, probably some form of Arianism brought there by the Goths (who had been missionized by the Arian bishop Wulfila). The practice spread then to France where it was repudiated at the Gentilly Council in 767.

After generations of social upheaval, strong leadership appeared in the person of Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, and his son, Charlemagne, crowned as emperor in 800. Charlemagne intended to restore the Roman Empire in the West, with himself in charge, to the chagrin of the leaders of the Eastern Roman Empire, whom he referred to as "Greeks" (and thus not Romans), despite the Roman capital being in the East and the continued use by Easterners of Roman to describe themselves. Charlemagne called for a council at Aix-la-Chapelle in 809 at which Pope Leo III forbade the use of the filioque clause and ordered that the original version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed be engraved on silver tablets displayed at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome so that his conclusion would not be overturned in the future.

Some historians have suggested that the Franks in the 9th century pressured the Pope to adopt the filioque in order to drive a wedge between the Roman Church and the other patriarchates. It is true that the filioque had come into wide use in the West and was widely thought to be an integral part of the Creed, while Rome, renowned for its stability in Orthodoxy, resisted. Similarly, unleavened bread had come to be thought of as normative for the Eucharist; diocesan priests were expected to be unmarried. In such cases, in the West, ancient tradition was forgotten. Contemporary usage was thought to be normative and authentic. In these matters of discipline, the influence of the Franks is certain. They intended to exalt Charlemagne, as the new Roman Emperor. The Catholic religion, as they knew it, was to be part of the package. Meanwhile, from ca. 726 to 843, the Eastern Roman Empire, under the thumb of successive emperors, was dominated by the heresy of iconoclasm. Both Franks and Greeks, in their own way, departed from ancient tradition. Unlike the East, however, where iconoclasm was repudiated at the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the use of icons later confirmed by the Empress Theodora, the West to date never recovered from its departure.

The "Photian" Schism

Within a couple of generations, in 858, a new situation came to pass. The Eastern Emperor Michael III removed Ignatius I as patriarch of Constantinople. The emperor replaced him with a layman, St. Photius the Great, who was the first Imperial Secretary and Imperial Ambassador to Baghdad. However, Ignatius refused to abdicate. Michael and Photius invited Pope Nicholas I of Rome to send legates to preside over a synod in Constantinople to settle the matter. With the council, the legates confirmed the patriarchate of Photius, much to Nicholas's chagrin, who then declared that they had "exceeded their authority."

In opposition to this removal of Ignatius, the bishop of Rome supported Ignatius as legitimate patriarch. Moreover, contrary to existing canons, Photius had been ordained to the office of bishop very quickly. Some scholarship (who?) suggests that violation of these canons was the main reason the bishop of Rome rejected the appointment of Photius. J. M. Hussey argues that the pope also wanted to regain ecclesiastic control of Bulgaria, a program in which Ignatius would not interfere, though Photius would (and did) (Hussey The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire Oxford History of the Christian Church 1986). This and other major actions by Nicholas to bolster his position as pope puts his intervention in Eastern ecclesiastical matters more firmly in the context of his general programme of the growth of papal monarchy.

Therefore, after the arrival of an embassy from Ignatius, in 862, Nicholas said that Photius was deposed, as well as the bishop who ordained him and all the clergy Photius had appointed. The sheer temerity of this action did not even generate a response from Constantinople. However, several years later in 867, Photius finally rejected the Pope's assertion, particularly because of the activities of Latin missionaries in Bulgaria, who were, as St. Photius says, turning the Orthodox Christians there away from their pure Orthodox faith and leading them into heresy—most notably, the filioque. Photius' response cited the filioque as proof that Rome had a habit of overstepping its proper limits.

In 867 and 869-70, synods in Rome and Constantinople (the Robber Council of 869-870) restored Ignatius to his position as patriarch and deposed Photius. In 877, after the death of Ignatius, Photius again resumed office, by order of the emperor and by the request of Ignatius himself, to whom Photius had been reconciled. In 879-880, he was officially restored to his see and the filioque effectively condemned by the Eighth Ecumenical Council, a council at which papal legates participated and which the current pope, John VIII, eventually confirmed. He was deposed in 886 when Leo VI took over as emperor, who had had a dispute with his father and turned his animosity for his father toward one of his father's friends, Photius. Photius spent the rest of his life as a monk in exile in Armenia; he is revered by the Orthodox today as a saint, one of the great Pillars of Orthodoxy. He was the first important theologian to accuse Rome of heresy in the matter of the filioque.

Rome capitulates to Filioquist pressure

In the ninth century, Pope Leo III of Rome agreed with the filioque phrase theologically but was opposed to adopting it in Rome, in part because of his loyalty to the received tradition. (He also knew that the Greeks resented the new Roman Empire in the West and Charlemagne in particular; the Pope wanted to preserve Church unity.) In fact, Leo had the traditional text of the Creed, without the filioque, displayed publicly, having the original text engraved on two silver tablets, at the tomb of St. Peter. In any case, during the time of Pope Leo's leadership, 795-816, there was no Creed at all in the Roman Mass.

Later, in 1014, the German Emperor Henry II of the Holy Roman Empire visited Rome for his coronation and found that the Creed was not used during the Mass. At his request, the bishop of Rome added the Creed, as it was known in the West with the filioque, after the Gospel. At this time, the papacy was very weak and very much under the influence of the Germans. For the sake of survival, the Pope needed the military support of the Emperor. This was the first time the phrase was used in the Mass at Rome.

Thus, over nearly six centuries, dispute over the filioque had not divided the Church definitively; for the most part, in spite of cultural and linguistic conflicts, the Eastern and Western Churches remained in full communion.

In 1054, however, the argument contributed to the Great Schism of the East and West, and the West went so far as to accuse the East of heresy for not including the filioque in the Creed. There were many other issues involved, in large part based on misunderstandings between Greek and Latin traditions, as well as the irascible temperament of the antagonists. These were Cardinal Humbert from Rome and Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople. In addition to the actual difference in wording and doctrine in the filioque, a related issue was the right of the Pope to make a change in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed on his own, apart from an Ecumenical Council.

Attempted reunions and the Filioque after the Schism

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas was one of the dominant Scholastic theologians. He dealt explicitly with the processions of the divine Persons in his Summa Theologica. While the theology of Aquinas and other Scholastics was dominant in the Western Middle Ages, for all its apparent clarity and brilliance, it remains theology, not official Roman Catholic Church teaching.

In 1274, the Second Council of Lyons said that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, in accord with the filioque in the contemporary Latin version of the Nicene Creed. Reconciliation with the East, through this council, did not last. Remembering the Crusaders' sack of Constantinople in 1204, Orthodox Christians did not want to be reconciled with the West in terms of capitulation to Latin Triadology and ecclesiology. In 1283, Patriarch John Beccus, who supported reconciliation with the Latin Church, was forced to abdicate; reunion failed.

The Crusaders in question were the Venetians of the Fourth Crusade, who had earlier been excommunicated for attacking other Christians. In 1204, they were getting even for a slaughter of Venetian merchants, in rioting, that took place in 1182. Pope Innocent III had sent them a letter, asking them not to attack Constantinople; after hearing of the sack of the city, he lamented their action and disowned them. Nevertheless, the people of Constantinople had a deep hatred for the people they called the "Latins" or the "Franks," and of course the Western church's major "endowment" from the spoils carried away now still largely rests in the hands of the Vatican.

For much of the 14th century, there were two bishops, each claiming to be Pope, each excommunicating the followers of the other. The Great Western Schism concluded with yet a third individual claiming to be Pope and the Council of Constance. The East could hardly seek reconciliation with a Western Church divided among itself. (In the middle of the century, about a third of Western Europe died of the Black Death. People were more concerned about the plague than about Church unity.)

At the Council of Florence in 1439, Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople, and other bishops from the East travelled to northern Italy in hope of reconciliation with the West, mainly in order to solicit military assistance to fend off the encroaching Turkish invaders. After extensive discussion, in Ferrara, then in Florence, they acknowledged that some Latin Fathers spoke of the procession of the Spirit differently from the Greek Fathers. Since the general consensus of the Fathers was held to be reliable, as a witness to common faith, the Western usage was held not to be a heresy and not a barrier to restoration of full communion. All but one of the Orthodox bishops present agreed and signed a decree of union between East and West, Laetentur Coeli in 1439. The one bishop who refused to sign and was later heralded as a Pillar of Orthodoxy by the Church was St. Mark of Ephesus, who followed in the footsteps of the previous Pillar of Orthodoxy, St. Photius the Great.

Officially and publicly, Rome and the Orthodox Church were back in communion. However, the reconciliation achieved at Florence was soon destroyed, founded as it was on a compromise of faith. Numerous Orthodox faithful and bishops rejected the union. Moreover, after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, they fostered separation from the West, which remained an adversary to Islamic political and military dominance. Furthermore, the patriarch, Gennadius, was also one of the bishops who had repudiated the reunion of Florence on his own initiative.

Finally, the theology of rationalistic Western Scholasticism predominated among the Latin theologians and bishops and so obscured the biblical, patristic perspective long advocated by the East, in which the Spirit is said to proceed "from the Father" (as in John 15:26) or, more rarely, "from the Father through the Son" (as in some of the Fathers). The Eastern bishops had not imbibed the rationalist intellectualism of the West, and so were unconvinced by the highly abstract and convoluted arguments of the Scholastics. Hence, the agreement of Florence, intellectually, represented in many respects an imposition of Scholastic theology.

Undeniably, the filioque controversy was at least officially resolved, for both Orthodox and Catholic. However, because of the historical situation and because of the different ecclesiologies of the East and West—in the East, the whole Church is seen as the guardian of faith, while for the West, the Magisterium maintains the faith—this resolution was neither fully received nor permanently sustained.

Though there had been a reunion liturgy held in December of 1452 at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople at which the Pope's name was commemorated and the filioque used in the Creed, that had been largely boycotted by most of the clergy and laity in the city. On the evening of May 28, 1453, however, another liturgy was held which also commemorated the Pope and used the filioque, but which was not boycotted by the majority of the city. The next day, Constantinople fell to the Muslim invaders.

Recent discussions and statements

Dialogue on this and other subjects is continuing. The filioque clause was the main subject discussed at the 62nd meeting of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, which met at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Brookline, Massachusetts) from June 3 through June 5, 2002, for their spring session. As a result of these modern discussions, it has been suggested that the Orthodox could accept an "economic" filioque that states that the Holy Spirit, who originates in the Father alone, was sent to the Church "through the Son" (as the Paraclete), but this is not official Orthodox doctrine. It is what the Fathers call a theologoumenon, a theological opinion. (Similarly, the late Edward Kilmartin, S.J., proposed as a theologoumenon a "mission" of the Holy Spirit to the Church.)

Recently, an important, agreed statement has been made by the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, on October 25, 2003. This document The Filioque: A Church-Dividing Issue?, provides an extensive review of Scripture, history, and theology. Especially critical are the recommendations of this consultation, for example:

  1. That all involved in such dialogue expressly recognize the limitations of our ability to make definitive assertions about the inner life of God.
  2. That, in the future, because of the progress in mutual understanding that has come about in recent decades, Orthodox and Catholics refrain from labeling as heretical the traditions of the other side on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit.
  3. That Orthodox and Catholic theologians distinguish more clearly between the divinity and hypostatic identity of the Holy Spirit (which is a received dogma of our Churches) and the manner of the Spirit's origin, which still awaits full and final ecumenical resolution.
  4. That those engaged in dialogue on this issue distinguish, as far as possible, the theological issues of the origin of the Holy Spirit from the ecclesiological issues of primacy and doctrinal authority in the Church, even as we pursue both questions seriously, together.
  5. That the theological dialogue between our Churches also give careful consideration to the status of later councils held in both our Churches after those seven generally received as ecumenical.
  6. That the Catholic Church, as a consequence of the normative and irrevocable dogmatic value of the Creed of 381, use the original Greek text alone in making translations of that Creed for catechetical and liturgical use.
  7. That the Catholic Church, following a growing theological consensus, and in particular the statements made by Pope Paul VI, declare that the condemnation made at the Second Council of Lyons (1274) of those "who presume to deny that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son" is no longer applicable.

In the judgment of the consultation, the question of the filioque is no longer a "Church-dividing" issue, one which would impede full reconciliation and full communion, once again. It still stands for the bishops and faithful of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches to review this work and to make whatever decisions would be appropriate.

The Filioque as heresy

There has never been a specific conciliar statement in the Orthodox Church which defined the filioque as heresy. That being said, however, it has been regarded as heretical by multiple Orthodox saints, including Ss. Photius the Great, Mark of Ephesus, and Gregory Palamas (the three Pillars of Orthodoxy). At the Third Ecumenical Council and the "Photian" council of 879-880 (both councils Rome signed onto), all changes to the Creed are anathematized. Further, it is explicitly denounced as heretical by the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs.

There are a number of reasons traditionally cited for the definition of the filioque as heretical, including the following:

Objections on doctrinal grounds

  • It is contrary to Scripture, particularly in John 15:26: "But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me." Thus, Christ never describes the Holy Spirit as proceeding from himself, but only mentions the Spirit's procession in terms of the Father.
  • The justifications for including the filioque in the Creed—bolstering the divinity of the Son and emphasizing the unity of the Trinity—are redundant, given the original wording of the Creed. That is, the Son already is described as "light of light, very God of very God," and so forth. The Spirit also "with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified." Additionally, the Creed itself begins with a statement of belief in "one God."
  • The filioque distorts Orthodox Triadology by making the Spirit a subordinate member of the Trinity. Traditional Triadology consists in the notion that for any given trait, it must be either common to all Persons of the Trinity or unique to one of them. Thus, Fatherhood is unique to the Father, while begottenness is unique to the Son, and procession unique to the Spirit. Godhood, however, is common to all, as is eternality, uncreatedness, and so forth. Positing that something can be shared by two Persons (i.e., being the source of the Spirit's procession) but not the other is to elevate those two Persons at the expense of the other. Thus, the balance of unity and diversity is destroyed.
  • Given the previous objection, the repercussions to the acceptance of the filioque into church life are potentially massive. Because how we relate to God is significantly affected by what we believe about him, false beliefs lead to damaging spirituality. One objection often raised about Filioquist theology is that it undermines the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Thus, with his role being denigrated, his traditional ministries are effaced or replaced. The Church's unity becomes dependent on an office, spirituality becomes adherence to the letter of the law rather than its spirit, sacraments come to be understood in terms of validity, and a spirit of legalism prevails.

Objections on canonical and historical grounds

  • Though not really a question of heresy, a common objection is to the means of inserting the filioque into the Creed. That is, unlike the original adoption of the Creed at Nicea and its subsequent revision at Constantinople, the decision to include the filioque in the Creed was not done by an Ecumenical Council. Rather, it was initially inserted by the Third Synod of Toledo, Spain (589).
  • Rome resisted the inclusion of the filioque for centuries. Leo III, the Pope of Rome at the time the filioque began its history in Western theology, strongly advised against its inclusion, even though he agreed with the soundness and validity of the doctrine contained in filioque. Later, however, Rome contradicted its previous more Orthodox stance by the promulgation of the filioque, thus anathematizing its own spiritual forebears.

External links

  • This distinction was clarified by St. Athanasius, but "was further refined by St. Basil the great and St. Gregory of Palamas among others." Clark Carlton, The Life (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2000), p. 76.
  • The One Hundred and Fifty Chapters 75, tr. by Robert Sinkewicz (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1988), p. 171.
  • "The West" is an over-simplification referencing how the Western Roman Empire fell to the Barbarians, and consequently developed various heterodox beliefs. This, however, obfuscates the fact that some "Westerners" in fallen Rome (and Celtic territories) maintained Orthodox beliefs for a long time. In other words, not all Christians in and around fallen Western Rome accepted heterodox beliefs. Hence the Antiochian Archdiocese, in particular, has within its jurisdiction a canonical Western Rite.
  • Retrieved from ""