In praise of the Filioque


For all our fighting within the Episcopal Church, the one thing that has not changed since the mid-seventies (almost 40 years now) is the text of our worship and our insistence on the recitation of the creeds. Except for one little phrase…

Back in the day, when we had real hopes of closer ties with the Orthodox churches, the Episcopal Church voted in General Convention to remove one disputed clause in the Nicene Creed. It’s in the last section of the Creed where we list the truths we hold regarding the third person of the Holy Trinity: “Who proceeds from the Father and from the Son.” It’s that last bit “From the Son” that’s the issue.

In latin that phrase is “Filioque“. It was added in the Western churches but not in the Eastern in part because it was a request of the Pope of that day that was perceived as an overreaching of papal authority by those in the East. It was ultimately declared a heretical idea in the East and it contributed in part to the great Schism between East and West.

General Convention decided to remove the phrase back in voting 1985 that it will be stricken. I’ve always pointed to our decision to do that as a signal example of how democratic processes are inadequate when it comes to subtle theological points. I’m not convinced at all that the majority of people voting had any idea what the controversy entailed, or what the implications might be.

But at any rate, it’s rare these days to come across someone in academia who defends the inclusion of the clause. Orthodoxy has become quite the fashion theologically. But Ben Myers, arguing in part from his reading of Karl Barth writes to retain the clause:

“In one of my recent pneumatology classes, I tried to argue for the contemporary importance of the filioque. My argument was roughly as follows: In the preaching and worship of liberal Protestant churches, there is a good deal of emphasis on the autonomy of the Spirit. The Spirit is often invoked without reference to Christ, or to the biblical narrative, or to the events of salvation-history. We have hymns and prayers that celebrate ‘the Spirit’ as a kind of generic Spirit of creation, a benevolent life-force that is universally active and available. The role of this Spirit, presumably, is to grant unmediated religious access to God – a kind of second saviour, an alternative to Christ. I once attended a particularly ghastly eucharist service, where the bread and wine were not once related to Christ, but simply to ‘the Spirit’ who is at work in all the gifts of creation. Such a Spirit clearly could not be said to proceed ‘from the Son’!

It’s precisely here that the filioque could function to safeguard the church’s confession of the gospel. The role of the filioque is to tie the Spirit’s work indissolubly to God’s act in Christ; to confess that the action of the Spirit is part of the story of salvation-history, and not some independent avenue of God’s presence in the world. A Spirit who proceeds simply ‘from the Father’ can very easily be understood as a second way of salvation, operating remoto Christo and floating free of the events of salvation-history.”

Karl Barth’s defence of the filioque was partly motivated by this kind of concern. He wondered whether the Eastern church’s refusal of the filioque is “a reflection of the very mystically oriented piety of the East, which, bypassing the revelation in the Son, would relate human beings directly to the original Revealer, the principium or fount of deity” (Göttingen Dogmatics, 1:129-30). (I look forward to learning much more about this when Ashgate releases David Guretzki’s new book on Karl Barth and the Filioque – due out next month.)

Treat yourself this Sunday and read the full article here.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Bob McCloskey says

    One further item of innovation beyond the Episcopal Church. It was either at the enthronement of Robert Runcie or Michael Ramsey as ABC that the filioque clause was omitted from the creed, based on sensitivity to the Orthodox and to the new archbishop’s own theology. I believe that it was Runcie. Since that time I have gone silent on the filioque every time it is recited.

  2. Christopher says

    The point however is that the Creeds were only to be changed in council, not by a pope following innovations of the Iberian Church staving off Arianism. Because of the strong doctrine of perichoresis in Greek Patristic thinking, it would not occur to suggest the will of the Logos and the Spirit were somehow different. I would also warn that we have generations of Anglican scholarship arguing that the Orthodox threw out the filioque when quite the opposite was the case. The creeds are conciliar in nature as we claim for ourselves. No matter the value of the doctrine, and I think there is danger in not respecting this one thing, the Creed, we Christians can agree upon. I would add that I don’t think the Orthodox have ever been in danger of not being greatly adoring of Jesus Christ. The theory in this final paragraph does not hold on liturgy and practice alone, muchless the riches of theology in the Orthodox tradition, not just in the past but today: Staniloae comes to mind.

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