In Christian theology the filioque clause ("and the Son") is a disputed part of the Nicene Creed.
Following John 15:26b, the Nicene Creed states that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father." This creed was first promulgated at the First Council of Nicea in 325 and modified at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Hence, it is also called "Nicene-Constantinopolitan" or "Niceno-Constantinopolitan."
In thinking about God as Father, Son, and Spirit, the Trinity, following Jesus (Matt 2:19), Christians from early times have made some important distinctions. The Son and the Spirit are said to have their eternal origin from the Father; they "proceed" from the Father. This statement is made in reference to the being of God, from all eternity. With regard to creation, God is said to "send" his Son and his Spirit. In this case, "procession" in English would not be used; "mission" is a more common term. In Greek, however, there are two words for "procession." One of these words would be used in reference to God's relationship to creation; although there is only the single word processio in Latin, such an idiom could also be used in that language, thereby giving rise to some confusion.
On the one hand, the Nicene Creed and the Bible do not say explicitly that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, that is, that the Spirit has his eternal origin from the Son as well as the Father. To be sure, Christians found evidence for a connection between the Son and the Spirit. For example, the New Testament teaches that the Spirit testifies to the Son (1 Jn 5:6) and is called the "Spirit of Christ" (Rom 8:9;15:5; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:1) and "Spirit of [the] Son" (Gal 4:6). The Church Fathers further explained that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "of one essence" (substantia/ousia) and have one common will and activity, with regard to their external actions (actiones ad extra). This tradition continued to be reaffirmed in both East and West, unanimously in medieval times by the Scholastic theologians. (See Scholastic Philosophy). In this second sense, God is said to send us the Spirit through the Son (Acts 2:33; Titus 3:6).
On the other hand, while the New Testament teaches that there is a connection between the Son and the Spirit, the divinity of the Son and the Spirit is not clear from Scripture alone. Otherwise, those who denied the Trinity, for example, would have been convinced by the sacred text alone. (Instead, they readily quoted the Scripture in defense of their positions.) For this reason, over the years, creeds, decrees, hymns, and prayers have been formulated, in order to clarify, defend, and make explicit the faith passed on from the apostles, the faith which is both Catholic and Orthodox. The filioque is but one such attempt.
As Johannes Grohe has pointed out, 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.
In the Latin-speaking Church, the phrase and the Son (in Latin filioque) was first added to the Nicene Creed at the Synod of Toledo in Spain in 447. The formula was used in a letter from Pope Leo I to the members of that synod, responding to heresies they were confronting. (Primarily, it was added to the Creed in order to oppose the Arian heresy, which taught that the Son was a creature and not God. This heresy began with Arius, a priest of Alexandria.) At the third synod of Toledo in 589, the ruling Visigoths, who had been Arian Christians, submitted to the Catholic Church. They were obliged to accept the Nicene Creed with the filioque.
(In the East, Arianism was opposed, not with the filioque but rather with an orientation of many of the prayers of the Divine Liturgy to "Christ Our God." This development in the East, with a comparable, dogmatic concern, occurred much earlier, in the fourth century, when Arianism in the East was widespread and greatly controverted.)
Although the second Ecumenical Council (381) had expanded and completed the Nicene Creed begun at the first Ecumenical Council (325), the third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431, had forbidden any further changes to it, except for another such 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 Council of Chalcedon (451), 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. In 476, the Western Roman Empire fell, with the exile of Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor. In the West, chaos followed.
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.
Some historians have suggested that the Franks in the ninth 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. Similarly, unleavened bread had come to be thought of as the normal kind of bread 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 c. 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.)
Within a couple of generations, in 858, a new situation came to pass. The Byzantine Emperor Michael III removed Bishop Ignatius as Patriarch of Constantinople. The emperor replaced him with a layman, Photius, who was the first Imperial Secretary and Imperial Ambassador to Baghdad. However, Ignatius refused to abdicate. Michael and Photius asked Pope Nicholas I of Rome to settle the matter. His legates, exceeding their authority, probably under pressure from Byzantine leadership, took part in a synod in 861 that deposed Ignatius.
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. (Recent scholarship has shown that violation of these church laws was the main reason the Bishop of Rome rejected the appointment of Photius.)
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. As would be expected, this did not go over well in Constantinople. In 867, Photius rejected the Pope's assertion and objected to Latin missionaries in Bulgaria. Photius' response cited the filioque as proof that Rome had a habit of overstepping its proper limits. His Encyclical to the Eastern Patriarchs is neither gentle nor irenic.
However, the other Patriarchs (of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) concurred with the Pope's choice and cast the decision as conciliar. In 867 and 869–870, synods in Rome and Constantinople restored Ignatius to his position as Patriarch. In 877, after the death of Ignatius, Photius again resumed office, by order of the emperor. He resigned in 886 when Leo VI took over as emperor. Photius spent the rest of his life as a monk, in exile in Armenia; he is revered by the Orthodox today as a saint. He was the first important theologian to accuse Rome of innovation in the matter of the filioque.
In the ninth century, Pope Leo III 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 III had the traditional text of the Creed, without the filioque, displayed publicly. He had 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.
So, over a 600 year period, dispute over the filioque had not divided the Church definitively; for the most part, in spite of cultural and linguistic conflicts, the Roman and the Byzantine Churches remained in full communion.
In 1054, however, the argument contributed to the Great Schism of the East and West. There were many 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 Humbertus 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 Creed, on his own, apart from an Ecumenical Council.
One must acknowlege, however, that the filioque was introduced in the West first of all in Spain, then in Gaul, not in Rome, and not by the Pope's initiative. Centuries later, the phrase became something to argue about; for a long time, as mentioned, it was in no way justification for breaking communion.
By the same token, it is not accurate to say, as some historians do, that the "Catholic Church" introduced the filioque into the Mass. Eastern Churches, for example, the Maronites, fully part of the Catholic Church, never used the filioque. Moreover, the phrase was in wide use in the West, following the language of many Latin fathers, outside the Mass, especially in Spain and Gaul. Instead, it is more accurate to speak of the filioque as a Latin expression or as an expression found in the Latin Church. In the first millennium, as John Romanides points out, the "Catholic Church" is the "Roman Church" of both East and West.
For many years after the condemnations of 1054, many Orthodox and Catholics did not think of themselves as being in schism; neither Church, in fact, had excommunicated the other. Many Slavic Christians saw the whole episode as a dispute among individuals.
In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, O.P., 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 Middle Ages, for all its clarity and brilliance, it remains theology, not 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 crusader's sack of Constantinople in 1204, the Byzantine Christians did not want to be reconciled with the West. In 1283, Patriarch John Beccus, who supported reconciliation with the Latin Church, was forced to abdicate; reunion failed.
(These crusaders 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.")
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 the 15th century, Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, Bishop Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople, and other bishops from the East travelled to northern Italy, in hope of reconciliation with the West.
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, Mark of Ephesus, agreed and signed a decree of union between East and West, Laetentur Coeli in 1439. Mark refused to sign on the grounds that Rome was in both heresy and schism as a result of its acceptance of the Filioque and the papal claims of universal jurisdiction over the Church.
Now, officially and publicly, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches were in communion. So, the Council of Florence helped establish a fundamental principle: The Church must be one in its faith, its essential beliefs, but diverse in its culture, customs, rites, and theology.
However, the reconciliation achieved at Florence was soon destroyed. Some 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. The Patriarch of Constantinople now had to carry out the will of his Muslim overlord; the Church was no longer free. (The patriarch was also one of the bishops who had repudiated the reunion of Florence, on his own initiative.) Finally, the theology of 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 the Gospel of John) or, more often, "from the Father through the Son" (as in many of the Fathers). Many of the Eastern bishops were not well trained intellectually; they were overwhelmed by the highly abstract and convoluted arguments of the Scholastics. Hence, the agreement of Florence, intellectually, represented in some respects an imposition of Scholastic theology.
Undeniably, the filioque controversy was officially resolved, for both Orthodox and Catholic. However, because of the historical situation, this resolution was neither fully received nor permanently sustained.
To this day, the Orthodox Church uses the Nicene Creed of 381 without the filioque. Many times, the Eastern Churches have rejected the phrase as an unauthorized interpolation. Even more, they objected to the teaching it expressed, as conflicting with biblical and accepted doctrine. They said that for the Holy Spirit to proceed from the Father and the Son there would have to be two sources in the deity, whereas in the one God there can only be one source of divinity or deity.
Later, Western theologians replied to this objection by saying the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son "as from one principle." The East, however, again objected that this formulation would merge and confuse the persons of the Father and the Son. It was also pointed out that if Father and Son are sources of deity (and only the Holy Spirit is not), it follows that the status of the Spirit is diminished, relative to the Father and the Son, by excluding the Spirit alone as a source of divinity, while making him rather a recipient of it. Finally, if one says that the divine essence itself is the source of deity in God, then (as the Eastern theologians pointed out) another problem is created, a suggestion that the Holy Spirit proceeds from himself, since he is certainly not separate from the divine essence.
Both Patriarch Photius in 862 and Patriarch Cerularius in 1054 accused the West of heresy for introducing the filioque in the Creed. In general, except for reconciliatory pauses in 1274 and 1439, at the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence, many Orthodox have repeated the charge of heresy, up to the present day. On the other hand, from the 13th century, other Orthodox have pointed out that no ecumenical council ever condemned the entire Western Church and excommunicated its members. Hence, they argued, Latins should not be denied Communion because of the filioque in their Creed.
An Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory II, of Cyprus (1241–1290), proposed a different formula which has also been considered as an Orthodox "answer" to the filioque, though it does not have the status of official Orthodox doctrine. Gregory spoke of an eternal manifestation of the Spirit by the Son. In other words, he held that the Son eternally manifests (shows forth) the Holy Spirit.
In general, even up to the time of the Council of Florence, the writings of Latin fathers were not widely read in the East; the language was not understood. Hence, the formulation of the filioque, let alone its meaning, was not readily understood in the East. Up to the present, some Western practices are still condemned as heresy by some in the East, disciplinary customs such as mandatory celibacy for priests or the use of pouring water for baptism, rather than triple immersion. There is even a schismatic (noncanonical) Greek group which avoids the use of electric lights in church. When the Pope of Rome visited Greece, some clergy refused to pray with him; others protested publicly against his visit. In Ukraine, when he visited, one Orthodox community held a ceremony of "cursing" for a bishop they considered a heretic. Some Orthodox, too, speak of what they call the "heresy of ecumenism." The Patriarch of Constantinople has accused some monks of Mount Athos, Greece, as being schismatic in spirit, because they consider the entire West to be enmired in heresy. Again and again, the filioque is brought up as the first example of heresy.
In the recent past, however, several Orthodox theologians have considered the filioque anew, with a view to reconciliation of East and West. Theodore Stylianopoulos, for one, provides an extensive, scholarly overview of the contemporary discussion. A "Father Chrysostom", following Jean-Miguel Garrigues, appeals for common prayer, instead of polemicism. Twenty years after first writing The Orthodox Church, Bishop Timothy [Kallistos] Ware says that he has changed his mind; now, he considers the filioque dispute to be primarily semantic.
The Moscow patriarchate has said that it does not rebaptize or even chrismate Catholics who become Orthodox; they simply repent and are welcomed. Should the conflict over Eastern Rite Catholics in Russia be resolved, the filioque dispute would perhaps not be an obstacle to full reconciliation. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has said that all that is necessary is resolution of what he calls the "Uniate" problem. For many Orthodox, then, the filioque, while still a matter of conflict, would not impede full communion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
In 1274, at the Second Council of Lyons, the Catholic Church condemned those who "presume to deny" that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. One reasonable interpretation of this teaching is that those who accused the West of heresy were being condemned. It is inconceivable that the universal usage of the East or that the broad testimony of the Greek Fathers was condemned. While authoritative, this condemnation need not be considered as a teaching that would be irreversible for all time.
In the recent past, many Catholic theologians have written on the filioque, with an ecumenical intention. Yves Congar, O.P., argues that varying formulations may be seen not as contradictory but as complementary. Irenee Dalmais, O.P. points out that East and West have different, yet complementary, pneumatologies, theologies of the Holy Spirit. Avery Dulles, S.J., traces the history of the filioque controversy and weighs pros and cons of several possibilities for reconciliation. Eugene Webb makes use of the pneumatology of Bernard Lonergan, S.J. No Catholic theologian for centuries has supported the previously mentioned condemnation of 1274, at the Council of Lyons.
From an official standpoint, the Roman Catholic Church has not imposed the filioque on the East. The Eastern-rite Churches of the Catholic Church include, for example, the Maronites, the Melkites, and the Ruthenians. Those who returned to union with the Papacy at various dates were not required to say the "and the Son" formula in their recitation of the Creed. The Maronites, who were never out of communion with Rome, have also never used the filioque. These Eastern Christians do not consider the Western usage heretical; nor do they think in terms of medieval Scholasticism, in syllogisms, as did the theologians of Florence.
In many liturgies, when celebrating with bishops from the East, the Bishop of Rome has recited the Nicene Creed without the filioque. It is certain that Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II do not consider the filioque to be integral to the text of the Creed and that in Eastern liturgies it would not even be appropriate.
Of special importance is a recent clarification of the filioque by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This document was prepared at the specific request of the Bishop of Rome. It is entitled The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit.
See also the reply by Bishop Ioannis Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon, a first-rate theologian, especially in ecclesiology: "One Single Source: An Orthodox response to the Clarification on the Filioque." Another well researched response to this clarification is that of Jean-Claude Larchet.
Should the Latin Church come to omit the filioque from its version of the Nicene Creed, precedent can be claimed from Pope Leo III. Tradition can be invoked from the Council of Ephesus, which, as mentioned, intended that the Creed remain unchanged, as a common profession of faith for the whole Church, East and West.
In part, the filioque was originally proposed in order to stress more clearly the connection between the Son and the Spirit, amid circumstances in which the writings of the Greek Fathers of the Church were not available. In other words, when the filioque came into use in Spain and Gaul in the West, people there were not familiar with the more biblical idiom that predominated among the Greek Fathers. Conversely, from Photius to the Council of Florence, the Latin Fathers were not widely read in the East.
To be more specific, the origins of the filioque in the West are to be found in the writings of certain Church Fathers in the West and especially in the anti-Arian situation of 7th-century Spain. In this context, the filioque was a means to affirm the full divinity of both the Spirit and the Son. It is not just a question of establishing a connection with the Father and his divinity; it is a question of reinforcing the profession of Catholic faith in the fact that both the Son and Spirit share the fullness of God's nature.
It is ironic that a similar anti-Arian emphasis also strongly influenced the development of the liturgy in the East, for example, in promoting prayer to "Christ Our God," an expression which also came to find a place in the West. (As Joseph Jungmann, S.J., has shown, this shift in mentality caused a loss in appreciation of the mediating role of Christ in the liturgy, as well as other changes in piety.)
In this case, a common adversary, namely, Arianism, had profound, far-reaching effects, in the orthodox reaction in both East and West. It should be noted that the Nicene Creed was not introduced into the celebration of the Mass in Rome until the eleventh century; in this respect, in terms of the Roman liturgy, filioque is a relatively late addition.
As noted, Church politics, authority conflicts, ethnic hostility, linguistic misunderstanding, personal rivalry, and secular motives all combined in various ways to divide East and West. More than once, the filioque dispute was used to reinforce such division. Now, with a growing spirit of charity, in accord with the will of Christ, that there be one flock (Jn 10:16; 17:22), perhaps the filioque dispute will be resolved, so that the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches may be reconciled.
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 the Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston 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 Greeks call a theologumenon, a theological idea. (Similarly, the late Edward Kilmartin, S.J., proposed as a theologumenon, 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:
- That all involved in such dialogue expressly recognize the limitations of our ability to make definitive assertions about the inner life of God.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 is for the bishops of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to review this work and to make whatever decisions would be appropriate.