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The ‘Filioque’ and Christian unity

Ultimately, we must ask if we are prepared to review our traditions in light of Scripture as our ultimate authority and be willing to change accordingly.

VATICAN FILES AUTOR 9/Leonardo_De_Chirico 03 DE MAYO DE 2024 09:35 h
Foto: [link]Gabriella Clare Marino[/link], Unsplash CC0.

On a recent symposium addressing the old controversy in the hope of breaking new ground



Filioque (“and from the Son”) is the Latin expression that the Western church added to the article of the Nicene Creed concerning the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Filioque).



The point that was intended to be made by the insertion was two fold. On the one hand, it wanted to honor what Jesus himself had affirmed when He said: “I will send you the Helper … the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26; see also 14:26), thus indicating an active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit.



On the other hand, the Filioque wanted to reinforce the recognition of the full deity of Jesus Christ, which had been challenged by the heresy of Arianism, according to which Jesus was a divine creature but not God himself.



The Eastern Church rejected the Filioque because it was introduced without prior consultation and because the Church feared that it could infringe on the Father’s unique role in the procession of the Spirit.[1] 



Of course, there are better places to review the millennium-old controversy which has complex theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural overtones. However, the reference to the Filioque is nonetheless necessary to introduce a conference that took place in Rome on the topic.



On April 9th, I participated in a theological symposium on the Filioque at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the flagship academic institution of the powerful Catholic organization, Opus Dei.



Professor Giulio Maspero’s book Rethinking the Filioque with the Greek Fathers (Eerdmans, 2023) was at the center of the discussion, and the symposium was the opportunity to test the book’s ecumenical proposal.



In a nutshell, Maspero suggests to re-signify the Filioque in a way that is acceptable to the West and the East, and to do so, he goes back to the lesson of Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocian Fathers who used relational and non-essentialist categories in thinking about the procession of the Spirit.



“In the fourth century, when Pneumatomachians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Cappadocian Fathers came to a relational understanding” of the Holy Spirit, i.e., He “was conceived of as the glory and power eternally exchanged between the Father and the Son.”



According to Maspero, the Cappadocians help us to overcome the misunderstanding of the procession of the Spirit. They taught that the Son has an “active role” in it, not a “causative” one which only the Father has.



At the symposium, prominent scholars took part and debated the proposal. Among them were Khaled Anatolios, dean of the School of Theology of the University of Notre Dame and a leading authority on Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea; Edward Siecienski, author of The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (OUP, 2013), the definitive book on the topic; and Msgr. Andrea Palmieri, of the Pontifical Dicastery for Christian Unity.



I was invited to the table to represent an evangelical voice. In my remarks, I underlined that Maspero’s distinction between the essentialist approach (with its emphasis on cause/causation) and the personalist one that was apparently favored by Gregory of Nyssa strikes as very promising.



On the one hand, the Reformers arguably abandoned essentialism and theories of causation, which are not biblical and almost inevitably must lead to some form of subordinationist heresy, whether it is linear or triangular.



On the other hand, a personalist approach allows for the full equality of the Persons of the Trinity and emphasizes their mutual relations.



It is into those relations that believers are drawn by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, making it vitally important for us that he should communicate an equal relationship with the Father and the Son.



If that is what Gregory of Nyssa was saying (as Maspero seems to think it was), then evangelical theology has much in common with him.



In short, the rediscovery of the Cappadocians’ personalist and relational categories that challenge the essentialist categories of Greek metaphysics introduced into much Christian theology is laudable.



The appreciation of the active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit from the Father helps to break out of the impasse of thinking of the procession as “caused” by the Father and the Son, with the risk of having two sources of divinity and not one.



While locating itself on the Western side of the Filioque, Evangelical theology has always shown at least implicit appreciation of the Cappadocians (e.g., John Calvin), thought that the East was not heretical for not subscribing to the Filioque (e.g., Francis Turretin), and more recently maintained an open-minded attitude toward the issue (e.g., Gerald Bray, Robert Letham, John Frame).



After appreciating Maspero’s proposal, I took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions to contribute to further the discussion, especially regarding the ecumenical proposal.



First, if it is right to move beyond the “causative” categories to recover the biblical ones that are relational, should we not also do so for the sacraments and thus move out of the causative sacramental mechanisms of Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology to appreciate the action of the Spirit in communicating grace by faith alone in Christ alone?



In other words, we cannot limit the recovery of relationality to the Filioque issue alone but must extend it to all theology, as Scripture invites us to do and as the Reformation did.



Evangelicals do not believe that the Holy Spirit comes down into the sacramental elements by an act of invocation or epiclesis.



That idea fits in very well with the mystical notion of the resting of the Spirit on the Son and is explained in terms of “causation,” but the Bible does not teach that the Spirit works in that way.



It is not through the ministry or sacraments in causative terms but by a direct conviction of sin in our hearts that the Spirit builds up the church.



While it is good to move away from causative categories in addressing the Filioque, should we not do the same in the area of the sacraments to re-discover the relational import of how God bestows his grace in his Son by the Spirit?



Second, since Maspero’s proposal is ecumenical, the question is: Are we sure that by smoothing the corners on the Filioque there is a genuine rapprochement? Historic divisions in Christianity are made of layers and levels that have affected the deep structures of the different confessions.



The Catholic “system” differs from the Orthodox and Protestant systems. What lies at the heart of the respective faiths is a complex combination of theology, history, politics, culture, etc.



The Filioque may have some weight, but other issues have a much greater impact on the real differences and divisions.



One indicative example in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue is the acclaimed 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed 25 years ago between Lutherans and Catholics.



Ecumenical theologians and leaders considered it a watershed in ecumenical relationships and overcoming the issues that had caused the Reformation. These initial enthusiastic expectations have proved to be wishful thinking.



JDDJ is so ambiguous and inconclusive that it has left both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran “systems” untouched. Not unsurprisingly, very little has changed since JDDJ.



This is a sober reminder even for the conversations around the Filioque. We may come to a more common appreciation of the issue across the Christian spectrum, but will this new awareness touch on the foundational commitments of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical faiths?



Ultimately, we must ask if we are prepared to review and revise our traditions in light of Scripture as our ultimate authority and be willing to change accordingly.



This is the real benefit and promise of the “Scripture Alone” principle, whether for Trinitarian discussions or the cause of Christian unity.



Far from being reductionist or one-sided, the Scriptural principle goes deeper into the heart of issues and is the reliable entry point into divine truth to be confessed and lived out.



Leonardo De Chirico, theologian and evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy).



[1] On the whole issue see Gerald Bray, The Filioque Clause in History and Theology, Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983) pp. 91-144, and Id., “The Double Procession of the Holy Spirit in Evangelical Theology Today: Do We Still Need It?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (1998) pp. 415-426



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