Robert W. Jensen on the Filioque

holy_spirit_fire_by_jpsmsu40The doctrine of the Filioque teaches that the Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son.” That the Western church should not unilaterally have added this phrase to the text of an ecumenically dogmatized creed is now widely agreed, 23 but the problems of order involved in redressing the fault are not here our concern. We are concerned with the phrase’s theological function, in and out of the creed, and with the Eastern church’s more strictly theological objections.

The West’s initial motive for the creedal insertion was not so much to say something about the Spirit as to say something about the Son. Against Christological speculations originating in the Spanish church that were judged to mitigate the Son’s deity, the Western church adopted the Augustinian theologoumenon 24 to guarantee the Son’s originality in deity with the Father: just as the Father breathes the Spirit, so does the Son. Whether this was necessary or effective may well be disputed.

But the filioque has also its own meaning, and this cannot be abandoned. In the biblical narrative, the Spirit indeed comes to us not only from the Father but also from the Son. 25 We need note only one passage, decisive for John’s understanding of the Resurrection: “He breathed on them and said . . ., ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” 26 The filioque reads this giving into God himself, and just therefore must be maintained, however it is to be systematically integrated or whatever may be worked out about the creed. For it is the very function of trinitarian propositions to say that the relations that appear in the biblical narrative between Father, Son, and Spirit are the truth about God himself.

Nevertheless, Orthodox critique does point to a real problem with Western teaching. To see what that is, we may turn to mature forms of both the teaching and the critique, to Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the Spirit’s procession and to the vehement attack on it by a father of the twentieth century’s resurgent Orthodox theology, Vladimir Lossky.

According to Thomas, if the Spirit did not proceed from the Son, “he could not be personally distinguished from him at all.” 27 The identities are distinguished only by their relations, and Thomas argues that the relations can distinguish identities only by “opposition.” If the relations distinguished identities simply by being different, the Father would be two identities, for he has one relation to the Son and a different one to the Spirit. Relations distinguish identities only when they are mutually exclusive, as are “begetting” and “being begotten.” 28 “Being begotten” and “somehow otherwise proceeding” are not thus “opposed.”

Being begotten and otherwise proceeding, with their converses, are, however, the only relations available, unless we are to posit triune relations other than relations of origin. 29 Under these circumstances, if the Son and the Spirit are to be understood as two identities, we cannot think only of the relations between the Father and each of the Son or the Spirit, but must somehow with one of these relations construe an “opposed” relation between the Son and the Spirit themselves. The relations, that is, must make a triangle. Begetting and being begotten are preempted. Only two possibilities remain: that the Son proceeds from the Spirit, “which no one suggests”; or that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. 30

Thus in Western teaching as brought to perfection by Thomas the trinitarian relations’ capacity to distinguish triune identities depends in large part on sheer geometry. Nor is this sort of thinking Thomas’s innovation; looking back at Augustine’s use of the filioque to show how the Spirit can be another identity than the equally spiritual Father and Son, we recognize the same conceptual style. Or we may cite the splendidly aphoristic summary of Peter Lombard: “Thus there are precisely three: one who loves the one who is of him, and one who loves the one from whom he is, and the love, that itself cannot be insubstantial lest God be insubstantial.” 31 It is this whole way of thinking that Lossky, therein a faithful spokesman of the East, disapproved, to set the style of recent Orthodox argument with “the Latins.”

According to Lossky, statements of triune relations are only to display what is sheerly given in the Christian revelation: the ultimate mere facts of God’s “personal diversity” and essential singularity. That the Son is begotten by the Father, and the Spirit proceeds ineffably otherwise from the Father, are irreducible starting points for Christian thinking, and are not to be “deduced by virtue of any other principle, or founded in any sort of concept.. .” 32 But in the Western geometry “the relations of origin … become determinations of the persons by virtue of an impersonal principle.” 33

When an impersonal principle thus becomes determinative, Lossky argues, the triune persons are relativized in an impersonal divine nature. And this, he says, can be seen in the way the Western doctrine must work out on its own terms. In the medieval debates between “Latins” and “Greeks,” the Latins always agreed that there cannot be two archai of deity; therefore, they said, the Spirit must proceed from the Father and the Son as together one source. 34 But what two divine persons are together is the divine nature. Thus in the Western scheme either the Spirit proceeds not from the Father and the Son as identities but from their divine nature, or what proceeds from the Father and the Son is not a person but a sort of manifestation of the other persons’ nature. 35 The argument is surely powerful.

But now Lossky notes the Western counterquestion, which we have already encountered in another connection: If the Father in his identity as Father is thus left as the sole arche in deity, is this not indeed subordinationist? Lossky’s answer shows the disaster also of the Eastern position: the Eastern interpretation of the Father’s “monarchy” is not subordinationist because “terms such as. .. procession and origin [are] but inappropriate expressions for a reality alien to all becoming, all process, all beginning.” 36

This is a vision of God as frozen as any we have encountered, and a new evacuation of trinitarianism. The trinitarian propositions in their Eastern use fail to describe the Father’s subordinating of the Son and the Spirit, we discover, only because they do not describe any action at all; in which case, given their semantic foundation and content, they can mean nothing whatever, also not as items of negative, “apophatic” theology. And trinitarian teaching’s underivable starting point in revelation, on which Lossky so insists, turns out to be not the biblical narrative, but rather some other revelation of God, whatever that may be.

This static vision of God is not Lossky’s personal aberration. He derives it from the representative theologian of Byzantine Orthodoxy, Gregory Palamas. 37 Gregory’s great project, which he brilliantly accomplished and on which the present work will later much depend, was defense of Byzantine monastic teaching that the sanctified 38 truly participate in God; that grace is not a mere matter of God’s effects upon us or of our knowledge of and obedience to him, but is rather his ontological self-sharing with us. 39 The entire project thus moves in the immediate neighborhood of the doctrine of the Spirit, and the position defended by Palamas is analogous to the Augustinian position on the indwelling of the Spirit.

But while defending the possibility of our participation in God, Palamas thought he should also reserve some final reality of God from creaturely participation. To achieve this, he adapted a set of distinctions from the Cappadocians.

According to Gregory of Nyssa, 40 when we speak of God we may think first of the three identities, each of whom is God. Then there is the life among them, the complex of their “energies,” which, according to Nyssa, is the proper referent of phrases such as “the one God.” And, finally, there is the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such, the character by exemplification of which someone is called God; in Gregory’s theology, this character is infinity. The divine ousia is not an infinite something or infinity as a something, but the infinity of the one God, that is, of the identities’ mutual life. 41

For the Cappadocians, these distinctions are flexible, and their use of them does not suggest that the ousia is a something other than the divine life. In Palamas, things are more bluntly sorted out: “There are then three in God: ousia, energy, and the triune hypostases….” Palamas posits the distinction to differentiate God as he can be participated in from God as he remains immune to this: “Since . . . according to his ousia God cannot be participated in at all, and since union according to hypostasis is reserved to the divine-human Word, it remains that others . . . united with God are united according to energy.” 42

In Palamas’ use, the ousia is not the deity of the identities and their mutual energies but has become “God himself,” the chief referent of discourse about “the one God.” 43 This entity “cannot be participated in at all” because it “neither becomes nor suffers.. .” 44 —theology has here concocted yet a new lump for the familiar old leaven to hide and work in. This entity is immune even to the life of the creature who is hypostatically one with the Son; also the events told by the gospel narrative do not touch it. 45 Here is disaster: it is one thing to say that abstract deity is itself always the same quality, as the Cappadocians did; it is quite another to say that deity taken as God himself ‘is a static essence. Ironically enough, [Eastern] Orthodoxy is here driven to a bluntly modalist doctrine: God himself is above the biblical narrative, which applies only to his activities.


23. E.g., Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue, ed. K. Ware and C. Davey (London: SPCK, 1977), “Faith in the Trinity,” 44: “Further discussions on the Filioque led to the reaffirmation by both Anglicans and Orthodox of the agreement reached in Moscow in 1976 that this phrase should not be included in the Nicene-Constanlinopolitan Creed. . . .”

24. The process was extremely slow, stretching through the Carolingian theological renais-
sance and into the eleventh century, when the creedal insertion was finally approved by the

25. So Augustine, De Trinitate, 4.29. Orthodox theology sometimes acknowledges a relative right of Western doctrine at this point; e.g., Boris Bobrinsky, “La Filioque hier et aujourd’hui,” La théologie du Saint-Esprit, ed. Lukas Vischer, 148-164.

26. John 20:22.

27. Summa theologiae, I.q36.a2.

28. Ibid.: “Relationes autem personas distinguere non possunt, nisi secundum quod sunt
oppositae. Quod ex hoc patet, quia Pater habet duas relationes, quarum una refcrtur ad Filium, et alia ad Spiritum Sanctum; quae tarnen quia non sunt oppositae, non constituunt duas pcrsonas. …”

29. Ibid.: “There cannot be any other opposed relations in God but relations of origin.. . .”

30. Ibid.

31. Sententiarum  libri quatuor, l.d.x.7.

32. Lossky, A l’image, 76.

33. Ibid., 84.

34. Second Council of Lyon (1274), “De summa Trinitate et fide catholica,” 1: “The Spirit proceeds . . . from the Father and the Son [filioque], nevertheless not as from two sources [principiis] but as from one source. . . .”

35. Lossky, A l’image, 73.

36. Ibid., 78.

37. It comes into Palamas from the Dionysian tradition, which, despite having been Christianized by Maximus, continued—and continues—to suggest its bluntly pre-Christian understanding of God. Palamas quotes Dionysius with entire appropriation, Triads, III. 1.8: “The great Dionysius calls . .. [the glory of God] ‘principle of God’ [thearchian] and ‘principle of Good’ and ‘deity,’ as it is the principle \archen\ of deification; but God, he says, is ‘beyond all that as he is beyond God [hypertheon] and beyond all principles [hyperarchion].”

38. The saints Palamas had paradigmatically in mind were the “hesychasts,” monastic devotees of a particular discipline of prayer. But he is usually careful to say that what he says of them is in principle—or rather, eschatologically—true of all believers; e.g., Triads, 2.3.66.

39. E.g., Triads 1.3.17: “Thus contemplation [ he theoria] is … a union [with God] and a derivation of deity from deity ]ektheosis], that follows the putting off of everything that determines the mind from below and that occurs mysteriously and indescribably, by the grace of God.. . .”

40. To the immediately following, Robert VV. Jenson, The Triune Identity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 111-114, 161-168.

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