On the Filioque

Lecture by Dr Peter Gilbert, of De unione ecclesiarum given to the Youngstown, Ohio chapter of the Society of St John Chrysostom (December 4th, 2009).


I  recognize that this lecture has some serious deficiencies; it really does not accomplish all that it sets out to do. Towards the end, it becomes dense and obscure, and its assertions about the early history of the Filioque doctrine are insufficiently documented; partly this is due to the time constraints under which I operated, but much of it has to do with the fact that I was rushing to finish the thing, and did not sufficiently revise it. To some extent, these deficiencies were made up for by the discussions which followed each reading of the lecture; they were lively, and raised issues like the scriptural basis of the teaching and its ecclesiological implications. But I do think that the lecture, as given, shows at least one thing: that, if one wants to understand why the Filioque question became a church-dividing issue, one needs to become aware of the political matrix in which the controversy was engendered.

In committing myself to speak about the Filioque today, I took on a difficult task. People have been arguing over the Filioque, in one form or another, for well over a millennium and a half; I have something like 45 minutes in which to summarize and assess that debate. Given such time constraints, I must necessarily leave much unsaid that properly ought to be said about this doctrine. Also, even within the limited scope of this one investigation, there is much that I simply don’t know; what I can promise to give you are essentially the reflections of a Church Historian on a subject that has preoccupied him for longer than he likes to admit, and which contains spiritual depths in which he knows that he is swimming well over his head. You perhaps know the apocryphal story about St. Augustine, according to which he went down to the seashore one day and saw a little child scooping up water in a pail. Augustine asked him what he was doing; the child replied that he was scooping up the sea into his pail. Augustine said to him: Child, you can’t scoop up the sea in a little pail. The child (who, according to the story, was Jesus) replied to Augustine: So neither can you comprehend God in the little pail of your mind. I recognize that, in attempting to expound the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s eternal procession, I am in somewhat of the same position as Augustine was when faced with that child. May the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, assist me to speak the truth about him; and if I should say anything about him that requires amendment, may he pardon it.

Filioque is, to begin with, a Latin word. It is the ablative form of Filius, the Latin word for “Son,” combined with the suffix -que, meaning “and.” Its simple meaning is, thus, “and the Son.” But the words “and the Son” do not, by themselves, assert or deny anything; they are not a sentence. They make a claim to truth only by being part of a full, declarative sentence, with a subject and a verb. When one speaks about “the Filioque,” then, one is actually using this single word, Filioque, as a short way of referring to the whole sentence of which it customarily forms a part, that is, the sentence that asserts that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, Spiritus Sanctus … ex Patre Filioque procedit.

The claim that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is a doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is part of the Creed that most Catholics are familiar with from catechism and from the Mass; it is also something that was defined as Catholic dogma at the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence. From the point of view of an orthodox Catholic, therefore, it is not an optional belief, but a truth of the faith. Whether one is Catholic, or Orthodox, or Protestant, or none of the above, that dogmatic position is a reality with which one has to reckon. Similarly, the claim that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father aloneis unquestionably a doctrine of the Orthodox Church. It was the view of St. Photius the Great, it was affirmed at the Second Synod of Blachernae in 1285 that repealed the Union of Lyons, it was the emphatic teaching of St. Gregory Palamas and St. Mark of Ephesus (who, along with St. Photius, are often referred to as the “Pillars of Orthodoxy”), and it has been reaffirmed by countless Orthodox writers and synods since then. That dogmatic position is also a reality with which one has to reckon. On the face of it, it would appear that the two dogmatic positions are contradictory and irreconcilable, that, if one is true, the other is false, if one is orthodoxy, the other is heresy, and the only possible resolution to the problem is for one or the other party to admit that they are wrong and join the other side. That is the premise upon which the debate has been conducted for most of its unhappy history, and it may well be that the premise is a realistic one: like death and taxes, logical contradiction is a fact of life that one must eventually face.

But, from time to time, some people have thought that the opposition between the two sides has been overdrawn. Sometimes logical contradiction is more apparent than real — that is, in cases where there is an ambiguity in the terms, where people use the same words but mean different things by them. That is what a man named John Bekkos, who lived in the thirteenth century and served for a time as Patriarch of Constantinople, thought had happened in the case of the Filioque debate. As had occurred before in the history of the Church, so also, Bekkos thought, in the case of the Filioque, there had been a misunderstanding between Greeks and Latins; the Latin Church, Bekkos said, when it asserts that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, means no more than what some of the fathers of our own Greek Church meant when they said that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father throughthe Son. He collected a great many patristic texts (that is, texts of the Church Fathers) to support this claim, and he took this presumed compatibility of meaning as grounds for supporting the Union of the Churches that had been agreed to at the Council of Lyons in 1274. By the middle of the next decade, though, the Union of Lyons was a dead letter, John Bekkos was in jail, and his teaching had been directly condemned by the Second Synod of Blachernae in 1285. If nothing else, that condemnation makes the ecumenical attempt to understand the teaching of the two Churches, not as contradictory, but as expressing complementary insights into the one divine mystery, much more difficult.

I have a great deal of respect for John Bekkos: I think he was a more subtle and perceptive reader of the fathers than he has generally been given credit for; I also believe he was an exceptionally honest man and a sincere Christian. Nevertheless, I cannot say that I find all of his patristic interpretations equally convincing. Although some scholars have noted that, of all the people who were debating about the Spirit in the thirteenth century, he was the only one who gave the history of the controversy any serious attention, the notion that doctrine itselfhas a history was just as foreign to him as it was to his contemporaries; all of them thought that the position they had identified as the true one must have been the position all the fathers at all times had held to be true, even if some of the texts of the fathers seemed to be asserting something else entirely. This notion that doctrine itself has a history is a characteristically modern notion — indeed, some would claim that it is a characteristically heretical notion. And I would not deny that this notion, that doctrine, in some sense, develops, is fraught with all kinds of intellectual problems and dangers. I bring up the point here only because it seems to me that, if in recent times some genuine progress has been made towards an ecumenical agreement on this issue of the Holy Spirit’s procession, much of that progress has been due to a recognition, by people on both sides, that this doctrine of the procession has a history.

To that history, let us now turn.

An historical account of the Filioque has to try to answer at least two important questions of historical fact, and these two questions, in turn, involve two questions of interpretation. First, there is the question of how this word Filioque got into the text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, when the original text lacked it. (And bound up with this factual question there is a more thorny, juridical question: What right did the Latin-speaking Church have to alter unilaterally the text of an ecumenically approved creed?) Secondly, there is the deeper historical question, how did belief in what is sometimes called the “double procession” arise in the first place, and how did belief arise in the opposite proposition, that the Spirit owes his eternal being to the Father alone? This second historical question raises a theological question, the most important question of all: What is the truth of the doctrine?

I will try to answer the first historical question first, and the second one second. As for the two theoretical questions, I will try in passing to say something about them, too, but please remember that this lecture is meant to be kept short.

When Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida placed a solemn bull of excommunication against Patriarch Michael Cerularius and his followers upon the altar of Hagia Sophia on July 16th, 1054, one of the charges he laid against them was that they had deleted the word Filioquefrom the creed. At least on this basic point, there is now no disagreement: Humbert was wrong, the original version of the creed, as issued by the Council of Constantinople in the year 381, did not contain this word. (The Creed of Constantinople is often referred to as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. That term is at least partially misleading: the creed that derives from the Council of Nicaea, held in the year 325, differs from the later creed in some significant respects, and the Creed of Constantinople is probably not directly based on it. Nor was the Creed of Constantinople immediately accepted everywhere; neither St. Augustine nor St. Cyril of Alexandria ever mention it; probably they had never heard of it. When, in the year 431, the Council of Ephesus prohibited additions to the Nicene Creed, it specifically meant the Creed of Nicaea, not the Creed of Constantinople; and it has often been observed that, if that prohibition were to outlaw any later clarifications of the Nicene creed’s meaning, the Constantinopolitan creed itself would fall under the council’s condemnation.)

The Creed of Constantinople was originally meant to reconcile various dissenting groups to the Church, and, to do that, it uses somewhat conciliatory language; it does not, for instance, apply to the Holy Spirit the much-debated term homoousios, consubstantial, nor does it expressly call the Spirit “God.” It nevertheless asserts the divinity of the Spirit in an indirect way; it does this by ascribing to the Spirit divine attributes, most of them taken directly from scripture: the Spirit is called “Holy,” “Lord,” “life-creating,” he is said to have “spoken through the prophets,” and he is also said, with an allusion to John 15: 26, to “proceed from the Father” (τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον). The primary purpose of this clause in the creed is, like the other predicates applied to the Spirit, to affirm that the Spirit is not a creature; that, at least, is the interpretation given by the Agreed Statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Commission on the subject of the Filioque, published in 2003; it says that “it was not a concern of the Council to specify the manner of the Spirit’s origin, or to elaborate on the Spirit’s particular relationships to the Father and the Son.”[1] All in all, that seems to me a fair assessment.

In any case, by the late fifth century the Creed of Constantinople was becoming widely used in the East, not only as a baptismal profession of faith, but also as a regular part of the eucharistic liturgy: in that way, it came to be accepted as the creed par excellence.

In the Latin-speaking West, other creeds were in use; some of them, indeed, continue to be used to this day. There was, first of all, what is called the Apostles’ Creed; this creed simply states belief in the Holy Spirit, without any further elaboration. There is also the creed, or psalm, called the Athanasian Creed, or the Quicunque vult. It certainly is not by St. Athanasius. The current view is that this creed originated in Southern Gaul, perhaps about the middle of the fifth century; by the mid-sixth century it was being used liturgically through much of Western Europe. It gives a clear and memorable statement of trinitarian doctrine; the Augustinian influence on it is unmistakable. Among the matters of belief it states as necessary for eternal salvation are the following propositions:

The Father is made of none : neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone : not made, nor created, but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son : neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

The existence of this creed, its popularity and the clear, absolute manner in which it states trinitarian doctrine, go a long way towards explaining why, when people in the West did encounter the Constantinopolitan creed, they found the absence of such language in its article on the Holy Spirit anomalous.

The actual insertion of the word Filioque into the text of the Creed of Constantinople almost certainly occurred in Spain, sometime between the Third and the Sixth Councils of Toledo (that is, between the years 589 and 653 A.D.). At the Third Council of Toledo, the Visigothic king, Reccared, who had recently converted from Arianism to Catholicism, caused his bishops to swear publicly to the faith of the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. In doing so, he required them to affirm the Creed of Constantinople. The text of the Creed of Constantinople in the Acts of the Third Council of Toledo, as they have come down to us, contains the word Filioque. Recent scholarship, however, sees the presence of this word in the text of these acts as probably due to a somewhat later hand; that is to say, it may be that someone, in copying down these acts, assumed that the word should be there, because that is how he had always heard the creed recited, and he added the word to the text. But three things are to be noted. First, whether or not the word Filioque was in the creed these Spanish bishops confessed in the year 589, the acts of this council, as well as the acts of the previous councils of Toledo, make it clear that a belief in a procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son was part of the orthodoxy to which these bishops were expected to subscribe. Secondly, at the Third Council of Toledo the Creed of Constantinople was adopted for liturgical use in Spain, and henceforth became a regular part of the Mozarabic liturgy. This liturgical use of the creed certainly helped to popularize the interpolation when it did occur, and perhaps it helps explain how the interpolation occurred in the first place: perhaps, in some quiet, backwater town of seventh-century Spain, some long-forgotten priest, who may have confused this new creed with the Quicunque vult, added the word, little knowing that he was sowing the seeds of a future international conflagration. The third point I would make is that the addition of the word Filioqueto the text of the creed was undoubtedly unintentional; the fathers of the Third Council of Toledo, ironically, added the creed to the liturgy because they wanted to follow the current practice in the East, they had no intention to alter the text and cause a scandal. The overwhelming impression one gets is that the whole thing happened almost unconsciously; given the already-existing conviction that the Holy Spirit in fact proceeds from the Father and the Son, the addition of this word to the creed came about almost by a process of osmosis.

Gradually, the interpolated text found acceptance in other places as well. Gradually, also, there begin to appear negative eastern reactions, first to the doctrine itself, then, when the fact of it became known, to the interpolated creed. The first evidence of an eastern reaction to the characteristic western teaching on the Spirit occurs in a letter, dating from the 640’s, from St. Maximus the Confessor to a priest in Cyprus named Marinus. Maximus wrote this letter at a time when Rome and Constantinople were not in communion; the imperial government at Constantinople was at this time promoting a compromise doctrine called “monotheletism,” that is, the teaching that Christ, although he has two natures, has only one will, a doctrine that the emperors hoped would unite the various religious factions in the East. Rome would have nothing to do with it, and St. Maximus believed that Rome, on this point, as on most points, was right. The imperial court at Constantinople was eager to charge Rome with teaching false doctrine; and, according to St. Maximus, one of the things it objected to was that the reigning pope (Theodore I) had said in a letter that “the Holy Spirit proceeds (ἐκπορεύεσθαι) also from the Son.” St. Maximus defends the pope’s usage; I’ll read what he says:

“With regard to the first matter, they (the Romans) have produced the unanimous documentary evidence of the Latin fathers, and also of Cyril of Alexandria, from the sacred commentary he composed on the gospel of St. John. On the basis of these texts, they have shown that they have not made the Son the cause of the Spirit — they know in fact that the Father is the only cause of the Son and the Spirit, the one by begetting and the other by procession; but [they use this expression] in order to manifest the Spirit’s coming-forth (προϊέναι) through him and, in this way, to make clear the unity and identity of the essence.”

Now, one should note at least two things here. The first is that St. Maximus plainly is defending the Western usage, that is, the Filioque; he thinks that, properly interpreted, it is compatible with traditional Eastern teaching. Secondly, the way he sees the Filioque to be compatible with traditional Eastern teaching later caused some difficulty for supporters of union at the Council of Florence, because Maximus says here that the Son is not the cause of the Spirit. In my own view, what Maximus says here about “cause” has to be taken in conjunction with things he says elsewhere on this subject. Viewed in the light of these other statements, I think it is undeniable that St. Maximus sees the Son as playing a mediating role in the Holy Spirit’s eternal origination from the Father. To give an example: in his work Quaestiones et dubia, there is a chapter in which St. Maximus says the following:

“Just as Mind is the cause of the Word, so also it is [cause] of the Spirit, but by means of the Word [διὰ μέσου δὲ τοῦ λόγου]. And just as we are unable to say that a word is ‘of the voice,’ so also neither can we say that the Word is ‘of the Spirit.’” (Quaestiones et dubia, I, 34)

This passage helps to clarify what St. Maximus means when he says, in his letter to Marinus, that the Father is the “only cause” of the Son and the Spirit. In the passage just cited, he says that the Father causes the Spirit, but that the Father’s causing of the Spirit involves the Son’s mediation. The Father’s being “only cause” does not exclude his causality taking effect through another. There is an order of the persons, and this order is founded upon their internal relationships: the Spirit is “of” the Word, and not vice versa. So, likewise, in his 63rd Question Ad Thalassium, St. Maximus says that “just as the Holy Spirit exists of the Father by nature, according to substance, so also is he, according to substance, of the Son, in that, in an ineffable way, he proceeds from the Father substantially through the Son who is begotten.”[2] The doctrine that St. Maximus teaches in these passages, that the causality of the Father is exercised through the Son, and that the Spirit proceeds through the Son substantially, that is to say, through the Son, from the Father, the Spirit receives his substance, his very being — that doctrine, I would submit, is essentially the doctrine John Bekkos would later teach in the thirteenth century, and on account of which he would be condemned by the Second Synod of Blachernae. As mentioned already, I think Bekkos was a better reader of the fathers than he has been given credit for.

During the course of the eighth century, the Kingdom of the Franks began to play a major role upon the world’s stage. For much of the eighth century, the Byzantine empire, which traditionally had provided military protection to the papacy and to the Italian peninsula, was governed by emperors who pursued a religious policy of Iconoclasm; this resulted in another long period of estrangement between Constantinople and Rome. Furthermore, from the middle of the seventh century onward, the cultural unity of the Mediterranean world was severely disrupted by the rise of Islam, which not only succeeded in capturing the ancient centers of Christian civilization in the Middle East but had rapidly spread across Northern Africa into Iberia and was only prevented from overrunning Gaul by the victory of Charles Martel over the Moors in 732. Increasingly, the popes looked northward to the Franks for protection, rather than eastward to the Byzantine state. On Christmas Day, 800 A.D., Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king, Charlemagne, as Emperor of the Romans, an act that is sometimes said to mark the beginning of modern history and the birth of Europe as a concrete political entity, but an act which, not surprisingly, did not go over well with the Greeks: it was interpreted by them as an act of treason against the legitimate Roman government, which for centuries had had its home on the shores of the Bosporus. For the purposes of this lecture, the point I wish to stress is that this act intensified the growing political rivalry between Franks and Greeks, a rivalry in which both sides claimed to embody the one, true Christian empire, and that, in this rivalry for imperial power, the differing traditional views of Greeks and Latins concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit soon took on a crucial ideological importance for both sides, as sanctioning their conflicting imperial claims. It will be instructive to see how this ideological antagonism developed, and also to see what the position of Rome was with respect to the two sides.

Even before Charlemagne was crowned as Roman emperor, debate had arisen between Greeks and Franks over the doctrine of the procession. Frankish chroniclers report that, in 767 A.D., a council was held at Gentilly at which Greeks and Romans discussed two issues: the question of whether images of the saints should be painted and displayed in churches, and the question of the Trinity, that is, whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son just as he proceeds from the Father. This is the first known occasion on which the issue of the Filioque was raised in formal debate between East and West. In the following year, Charlemagne succeeded his father Pippin as King of the Franks. He soon made sure that the creed, with the Filioque included, was added to the liturgy at his royal chapel at Aachen; from there the practice of singing it liturgically rapidly spread throughout his dominions. In 787, a council at Nicaea overturned Iconoclasm, ratifying the practice of the veneration of icons; and at this council a letter by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasius, was approved. In this letter, the patriarch confessed, among other things, his belief “in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father through the Son, and who is acknowledged to be himself God” (Mansi XII, 1121 D). The Eastern Empire and Church recognized this synod as the Seventh Ecumenical Council; Charlemagne and his court were much less happy with it. Charles complained about the council to Pope Hadrian I; among other points, he charged that Patriarch Tarasius, by teaching that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son and not that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, was teaching something at odds with the Nicene Creed. Hadrian wrote back to him and defended the patriarch’s language, noting that it was traditional and had been used by fathers both Eastern and Western as well as by the Holy See. Soon after this there appeared the Libri Carolini, i.e., the Caroline books, commissioned by Charlemagne and written by various prelates of the Carolingian court. These books further elaborate the criticisms Charlemagne had already made of the Second Nicene Council, that is, both with regard to icon-veneration and with regard to Tarasius’s claim that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. (I might note that the Libri Carolini were read by John Calvin in the sixteenth century, and helped to confirm him in his abhorrence of icon veneration.) In 794, Charlemagne assembled a council of western bishops at Frankfurt, which the Westerners considered ecumenical, and two years later held another at Friuli near Venice; at both of these, the Filioquewas asserted, and at the latter council Paulinus, Patriarch of Aquileia, while acknowledging for the first time that the Latin text of the Creed of Constantinople contained an interpolation, expressly defended the addition on theological grounds, stating that it was necessary to defend against the heresy that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.

While all this conciliar activity was going on in the realm of Charles the Great, and not long after he had had himself declared Emperor of the Romans, an incident occurred in the East that helps to illustrate what the mood was like there. Late in the year 807, a quarrel erupted in Jerusalem. At a Frankish monastery that had been founded on the Mount of Olives, the custom had been established of singing the Creed with the Filioque addition, according to the liturgical practice of the court of Aachen. This practice became known to the Greek clergy in the neighborhood. In a letter sent to Pope Leo, some Frankish pilgrims report of their encounter with an irate Greek monk named John. This monk John, the letter reports, “was puffed up against us, saying that ‘the Franks that are in the Mount of Olives are heretics,’ and he said to us that ‘all you Franks are heretics,’ and he insults our faith, saying that ‘there is no greater heresy.’ And we, for our part, tell him: ‘Brother, mind your language. For, if you call us heretics, you are ascribing heresy to the holy apostolic see.’ And he stirred up trouble for us even to this extent, that, on the day of the Lord’s Nativity, in holy Bethlehem at the holy Manger, where Our Lord, the Redeemer of the human race, deigned to be born for the world’s salvation, he got together laymen who sought to throw us out, while he said, ‘You are heretics, and the books that you have are heretical!’ But, through your holy prayer and faith, the Lord strengthened us. For they were unable to evict us. We all said, ‘Here we choose to die! There’s no way you’re going to kick us out of here!’” The monks go on to note that one of the points on which their liturgical practice differs from that of the Greeks is that their version of the creed is somewhat longer, in that they say that the Spirit proceeds ex Patre Filioque, from the Father and the Son. They mention that this is the way they had heard the creed recited in the royal chapel at Aachen, and that this is stated also in various other books they own; yet the Greeks, in their version of the creed, don’t say this, but say merely “who proceeds from the Father,” and they take deep offense at this Latin wording. The monks ask Pope Leo for clarification on this matter.

We don’t now possess Pope Leo’s reply to the monks. But he wrote also a letter addressed “to all the churches of the East,” in which he gives a statement of faith plainly inculcating the doctrine which the Filioque means to express. Concerning the actual addition to the creed, however, the letter says nothing. Later, in discussions with representatives of Charlemagne, after yet another Frankish council had been held on the matter, Pope Leo made it clear that, while he approved of the doctrine, he was less happy about the addition made to the text of an ecumenically-approved creed; he advised Charlemagne’s bishops to cease singing the creed at the liturgy and gradually to withdraw the word from it. (They did not follow his advice.) To emphasize the point, he had the text of the creed, lacking the Filioque, inscribed in Greek and in Latin on two silver shields which were then hung up in St. Peter’s basilica; Anastasius the Librarian, writing later in the ninth century, says that Leo did this pro amore et cautela orthodoxae fidei, out of love and concern for the orthodox faith. At this time, the Church of Rome still had not adopted the interpolated version of the creed, and it would not in fact do so until early in the eleventh century, at the coronation of a German emperor. Pope Leo’s shields, lacking the word Filioque, were still hanging in St. Peter’s as late as the twelfth century; apparently, no one had thought of taking them down yet.

Now, I recognize that, up to this point, I have said a fair bit about what I described earlier as the first historical question, the question of how the word Filioque came to be added to the Creed; but, as yet, I have said virtually nothing about the second, more important question, where did the doctrine of the Filioque come from. If I have dwelt so much on the first of these questions, it has been partly from a desire to impress upon you the point that this was not merely a theoretical question; it was, indeed, almost from the start, a political one, and, were it not for this political context, the conflict between two rival Christian empires, it is unlikely that the two different interpretations of the procession of the Holy Spirit would have become a Church-dividing issue. I would like to move on to the other historical question, the question of where this doctrine originally comes from; but, before I do so, there is one more issue I need to discuss, a subject matter that anyone who tries to understand this problem of the Filioqueneeds to become acquainted with. The subject matter I refer to could be summed up in a single, proper name: Photius. One might say that, in all the history we have been looking at so far, people were building a very large firecracker; with Photius, it exploded.

Photius was a brilliant man; that is, indeed, the meaning of his name, “brilliant.” He was the greatest Greek scholar of the whole Byzantine era, in a world in which people took pride in their language in a way that it is perhaps difficult for us, as Americans living in an age of instant text-messaging, to comprehend. He lived at a time which saw what one scholar has described as the “first Byzantine humanism,” a time when a new form of Greek handwriting was invented and the ancient classical texts of Greek civilization were being transmitted to posterity, that is, to us, along with texts of the fathers. Photius was right at the center of that intellectual movement. He was professor at the University of Constantinople, a man who attracted to himself a wide network of students, correspondents, and friends. He came from an orthodox family that had produced leaders in the fight against Iconoclasm; Patriarch Tarasius had been a great-uncle. He knew where he stood in society, and was not the sort of man to be pushed around.

It is not possible for me to relate here in detail the whole story of how Photius twice became patriarch and twice was deposed; of how Bardas murdered the adviser to the Empress Theodora and had her confined to a nunnery, and how Patriarch Ignatius was deposed when he complained about this; of the Emperor Michael the Drunkard, and the mock liturgies that he had his courtiers perform in his palace, and how he befriended the Armenian Basil, who murdered his uncle Bardas and eventually murdered Michael himself; of how Basil, now emperor, first deposed Photius and then reinstated him after hiring him as tutor for his children. Nor can I possibly relate in detail the three councils that dealt with Photius’s situation, each one successively revoking the decisions of the previous one. It is, indeed, a very complicated story. What I will say, briefly, is this: when Photius became patriarch, there was a serious dispute over whether or not his ordination was legitimate, given that his predecessor Ignatius was still living and had been made to step down under dubious circumstances. The question was referred to Rome. Pope Nicholas I examined the evidence, and decided that Photius was in the wrong. (Pope Nicholas, it must be said, wanted something that the Byzantines were not willing to give, namely, Western jurisdiction over the newly Christianized Bulgaria, along with the return of Illyria, which had been annexed to the Patriarchate of Constantinople during Iconoclast days.) The eventual response of Photius and the Emperor Michael was to excommunicate and anathematize Pope Nicholas, which they did at a synod in Constantinople in the year 867. The acts of that synod were later destroyed, but one of the main charges was that Pope Nicholas had sent Frankish missionaries into Bulgaria who were teaching this newly baptized people false doctrines and practices, including mandatory priestly celibacy, fasting on Saturdays, the eating of cheese during Lent, and, worst of all, the addition of the word Filioqueto the creed.

In the thirteenth century, John Bekkos, who supported the Union of Lyons, criticized both Photius’s motives and his theology. He pointed out that, in an earlier letter to Pope Nicholas, Photius had referred to things like priestly celibacy, fasting on Saturdays, and the eating of cheese during Lent as examples of cultural differences that the Church had always tolerated for the sake of peace. When Photius did not get his way, Bekkos said, he used these points of difference in order to light a firestorm. Moreover, when Photius and the Roman see were eventually reconciled to each other, at the council that took place in Constantinople in the year 879, no mention was made of the Filioque as a heresy which Rome must abandon; although it must be said that the creed was read without the Filioqueat this council, and the council solemnly forbade any alteration, addition, or suppression to be made to it. It also must be said that Bekkos does not mention the quarrel over the Bulgarian church, which was an important part of what was going on.

For the purposes of this lecture, the most important point to make about Photius is that he was the first person to produce a detailed theological critique of the Filioque, and this critique had a lasting effect upon succeeding generations. He presented this critique at greatest length in a book he wrote during the final years of his life, after his second, forced deposition from the office of patriarch; the title of the book is the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit. “Mystagogy” literally means a leading into the mystery; St. Maximus had written a book with the title “Mystagogy,” which was an exposition of the symbolic meaning of the liturgy. Photius’s Mystagogy, by contrast, is concerned not so much with symbolic interpretation as with logical refutation. Photius is convinced that the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is heretical and blasphemous, and he argues this point with both dialectical agility and endless vituperation.

There are many arguments in this work, so many, in fact, as to be somewhat bewildering; but Bekkos, in the thirteenth century, thought that they depended upon three stated or unstated principles:

1) All that is predicated of the Trinity is said either of one person or of all three;

2) Everything predicated of the divine hypostases is either hypostatic or natural; and

3) The production of the Holy Spirit is the hypostatic characteristic of the Father.

Now, possibly these principles are not, at first glance, very intelligible. But what they are essentially saying is that there is nothing in between person and nature in God, no ontological category that would encompass two persons but not the third. Eventually, some critics of Photius began pointing out that there are, indeed, predicates that apply to two divine persons and not to a third: notably, both the Son and the Holy Spirit are from the Father, and the Holy Spirit is of, that is, belongs to, both the Father and the Son, while he cannot be said to be “of” or “belong to” himself. But Photius’s analysis does raise the question of how such shared attributes are to be accounted for, if, besides person and nature, there are no other ontological differentiations in God.

Photius’s arguments against the Filioque seem to me to boil down to a basic dilemma: If you say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, then you are doing either one or another of two things; either you posit Father and Son as two separate causes for the Holy Spirit, and thereby destroy the Monarchy (the oneness of divine causality) and produce a Spirit who, because he is composite, is less than fully divine, or else you meld Father and Son together into a kind of transpersonal monstrosity, what Photius calls a “semisabellian coalescence.” (Sabellius was a third century heretic who taught that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really only three separate “faces” or masks of a single, unitary agent, worn by him in succession.) If you do that, and make the causing of another person, not the personal attribute of the Father, but a shared attribute, then, because everything in God that is common must be common to all three, the Holy Spirit also must cause another divine person, and so on to infinity. Thus, some modern Orthodox writers read Photius as having correctly diagnosed the Filioqueto be a form of Neoplatonic emanationism in a Christian guise; they see this teaching as implicitly transforming the personal God of biblical faith into the impersonal One of the philosophers; some writers trace everything they dislike about the West to this one, basic error, and, in general, they lay the blame for this error on one person, Augustine of Hippo.

Is that a fair analysis? For my own part, I tend to think that it can only be maintained at the expense of a gross misrepresentation of the history of Christian doctrine.

The claim that St. Augustine “invented the Filioque” has about as much truth to it as the claim one sometimes hears that the Council of Nicaea “invented” the doctrine of the Trinity. Nicaea certainly gave precision and force to that teaching, and applied to it a word, homoousios, that had previously been rather suspect; but anyone who claims that the Council of Nicaea “invented” the doctrine of the Trinity is either ignorant or dishonest; I would advise such a person to consult a standard history of doctrine, like the one by the late J.N.D. Kelly. Similarly, the teaching that the Holy Spirit depends in some way on the Son, not only in his being sent into the world in time, but in his eternal being, was not St. Augustine’s invention; he popularized it, he explored in minute detail its rational foundations and various analogous ways of conceiving of it, and he was a powerful influence in shaping the West’s adherence to it, but he did not invent the doctrine.

What I think needs to be said is that Augustine stands within a particular theological tradition, a particular reading of Christian orthodoxy, and Photius stands within another one, and the roots of their disagreement go back at least to the fourth century, and probably earlier. In technical terms, Augustine is an Old Nicene, Photius is a New Nicene, but they are both theologians committed to Nicene Christianity. Their disagreement on the subject of the Holy Spirit is a reflection and outgrowth of disagreements over how to understand and speak about divine substance, disagreements that preoccupied many sincere Christians during the fourth century.

To give you a better notion of what I am talking about, I have to go back even earlier, to the third century. The two main, paradigmatic figures in Christian theology during the third century were Tertullian in the West and Origen in the East. The way these two men spoke about the Trinity helped to shape the various ways people subsequently thought about the subject. Both of them, in many respects, had a very orthodox understanding; but, in their ideas of divine being or substance, they were strongly influenced by current philosophical views. Tertullian took for granted a Stoic view of substance: he saw divine substance as a kind of very fine, extended, material stuff. Origen considered that idea both crude and false; his own view of divine substance was much closer to that of Middle and Neoplatonism, which spoke of three primordial divine entities or levels of being, three “hypostases.” Both of these ways of seeing divine substance would eventually be viewed as problematic from the standpoint of orthodox Christianity.

Both Origen and Tertullian speak of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, as deriving his being through the second one, the Son. But this derivation is understood by them in radically in different ways. Tertullian, in keeping with his view of substance, conceives of it as a kind of material extension; Origen conceives of it, in Platonistic fashion, as a kind of eternal, ideal creation or emanation. Again, both of these ways of viewing the Spirit’s origination raise theological difficulties. Tertullian’s view arguably leads to the view of Marcellus of Ancyra, who, in the fourth century, taught that the Godhead expands upon entering into history and then contracts again at the end of days, and that Christ’s kingdom would have an end, when God would be “all in all.” This teaching was condemned at the Second Ecumenical Council; that is why the Creed of Constantinople confesses, of Christ, that his “kingdom will have no end.” As for Origen, if too much stress is laid on his notion of distinct levels of being, this results in Arianism; most of the Arianizing bishops who were strong in the East in the fourth century could be called “Conservative Origenists” — they were strongly subordinationist, and they thought that the Nicene word “homoousios” risked a kind of materialist understanding of God. But there were important Christian teachers in the fourth century who thought that Origen could be read in an orthodox sense, in line with the Council of Nicaea. The most influential of these teachers were the Cappadocian fathers; it was they, more than anyone else, who gave to trinitarian theology, in the Christian East, its final, definitive shape. It is also their influence that primarily shaped the revised form of the Nicene Creed that is the Creed of Constantinople.

Of the Cappadocian fathers, two of them, the brothers St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, fairly frequently speak of the Holy Spirit as being “through the Son.” The other Cappadocian father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, often called “the Theologian,” hardly ever speaks in this way. Suffice it to say that Gregory the Theologian was worried that such language could imply an ontological subordination. There were people at this time, sometimes called “Pneumatomachians” or “Spirit-fighters,” who denied that the Holy Spirit is God in anything but an equivocal sense; and many of them held to Origen’s view, that the Spirit is a kind of creature of the Son’s. St. Gregory the Theologian wanted to guard against that error, by emphasizing the Spirit’s direct connection to the source of divine being, the Father. He pointed to the statement in the Gospel of John, that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26). He believed that this text could serve, just like statements about the Son’s being “begotten,” as a characteristic that clearly identifies who the Spirit is. The Spirit is the one who proceeds, just as the Son is the one who is begotten.

St. Gregory the Theologian did not think that the identifying attributes of “proceeding” and “being begotten” could be further analyzed. He thought that the attempt to do so, to define minutely what is meant by the Son’s being begotten and the Spirit’s procession, would only lead people into madness. It is not safe for the impure to approach what is pure, he sometimes remarks; and who among us is pure enough to give an account of the origination of the Holy Spirit himself, of whom Jesus himself says: You cannot tell where it comes from, or whither it goes.

For my own part, I tend to think that Gregory the Theologian’s reticence is wise; I trust it more than I trust Augustine’s speculative urge for certainty and completeness. But I also think it is worth pointing out that Gregory’s unwillingness to speculate and Photius’s speculative negation are two very different things. If Gregory nowhere explicitly affirms that the Son plays an active role in the Holy Spirit’s eternal origination from the Father, neither does he anywhere explicitly deny it.

Nazianzen’s was not the only position on the question of the Son’s role in the origination of the Holy Spirit, even within the Greek-speaking Church, even, indeed, among the three Cappadocian fathers. The position St. Gregory of Nyssa comes to, it seems to me, is a revised statement of Origen’s view, with its ontological subordinationism deleted. Gregory of Nyssa differentiates between an immediate origination from the Father, in the case of the Son, and a mediated origination from the Father, in the case of the Holy Spirit. He compares the three divine persons to three torches, a kind of divine relay, in which the flame of the first torch is the ultimate cause of the flame in the other two, but this flame gets passed down from the first torch to the third via the mediation of the second. There are those who think that this mediation Gregory of Nyssa is talking about is a mediation only on the level of manifestation, not on the level of existence, that Gregory is thus teaching, in effect, the doctrine that his namesake Gregory of Cyprus was going to teach nine hundred years later at the Synod of Blachernae. There are some very distinguished modern patristics scholars who give the thought of Gregory of Nyssa this interpretation, but, so far as I can see, it is wrong: when you talk about one torch lighting another torch, or when you talk about mediate versus immediate origination, you are talking about the being of the thing in question, not just about how the thing externally appears.

This lecture has, I think, come to the end of its allotted time. God is infinite, and much more could be said about this subject, but we are finite, and must at some point cease speaking. Please bear in mind that this was advertised as a very basic introduction, not an exhaustive treatise. And there will be time for you to ask questions afterwards. Perhaps the best way for me to end this lecture would be to cite a favorite passage of mine from one of St. Gregory the Theologian’s autobiographical poems; he is not talking about the Filioque controversy here, not intentionally at least, but his comments could well be taken as applying to that debate:

Others, mutually divided, drive East and West
into confusion, and God has abandoned them to their flesh,
for which they make war, giving their name and their allegiance to others:
my god’s Paul, yours is Peter, his is Apollos.
But Christ is pierced with nails to no purpose.
For it’s not from Christ that we’re called, but from men,
we who possess his honor by hands and by blood.
So much have our eyes been clouded over by a love
of vain glory, or gain, or by bitter envy,
pining away, rejoicing in evil: these have a well-earned misery.
And the pretext is the Trinity, but the reality is faithless hate.
Each is two-faced, a wolf concealed against the sheep,
and a brass pot hiding a nasty food for the children. [3]

In my humble opinion, these lines, written in the fourth century, entitle St. Gregory to be called a prophet.


[1] “The Filioque: A Church-Dividing Issue? An Agreed Statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, Saint Paul’s College, Washington, DC, October 25, 2003,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly48:1 (2004), 93-123; cited p. 97.

[2] Quaestio LXIII ad Thalassium, PG 90, 672.

[3] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, poem 2.1.13, To the Bishops, vv. 151-163; PG 37, 1239-1240.

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