ABC Extra – Filioque: Funny Word, Serious Debate

August 30, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


It’s called the filioque. It is a Latin word meaning, “and the Son.”  As it turns out, this one little word actually split the Christian Church.

The year was 381.  The Church was meeting together in an ecumenical council at Constantinople to finish a job they had begun some years earlier in 325 in Nicaea.  At Nicaea, the Church had formulated a Creed to refute Arianism, which claimed that though Jesus was divine in some sense, He was not the one, true God.  In response, the Council of Nicaea formulated the Nicene Creed, confessing Christ to be “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”  In other words, the Council of Nicaea confessed Jesus to be the true God along with the Father!

But now in Constantinople, it was time to confess the same about the third person of the Godhead:  the Holy Spirit.  And so the Council confessed:  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified.”

Now, if you’ve ever said the Nicene Creed in any church that is not Eastern Orthodox, then you perhaps noticed that a phrase went missing:  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”  Or, in Latin, filioque.  But this word was not part of the original Creed as it was drafted as Constantinople.  Instead, it was added later in 589 at the Third Council of Toledo.  And when it was added, those in the Eastern Church and those in the Western Church began down a path of controversy and schism that remains to this day.

According to the Eastern Church, the filioque distorts Eastern Orthodox triadology by making the Spirit a subordinate member of the Trinity. Traditional triadology insists that any trait of the Godhead must be either common to all the Persons of the Trinity or unique to one of them. Thus, Fatherhood is unique to the Father, while begottenness is unique to the Son, and procession is unique to the Spirit.  Thus, the Spirit cannot proceed from the Father and the Son, for that would mean that the Father and Son would share a trait not also shared by the Spirit.

The addition of the filioque so upset the East that the great Eastern Patriarch Photius I declared the filioque heresy and excommunicated the pope at this time, Pope Nicholas I.   Indeed, this debate was one of the precipitating causes of the Great Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Church and the Western Church mutually excommunicated each other.  For the first time in history, the Christian Church had split in two.

For the most part, the posturing and lofty rhetoric over the filioque has faded, yet the fissure between the East and the West remains.  Eastern Christians still do not include “and the Son” in their recitation of the Nicene Creed.

Finally, one must ask, “What does Scripture say about the filioque?”  Our reading in both worship and ABC this past weekend from John 21 recounted two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus – the first being on Easter evening to ten of His apostles minus the now late Judas and the absent Thomas with the second being a week later to all of the living apostles including Thomas.  In His first appearance, Jesus recommissions His disciples to carry out the Office of the Keys, which I discussed at length in my ABC.  Jesus explains the Office thusly: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23).  Such is a weighty responsibility – to proclaim forgiveness to the repentant and warn the unrepentant of impending Divine judgment!  But Jesus does not leave the exercise of this Office ad hominem.  Instead, right before He commissions His apostles to the Office of the Keys, He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to His disciples as they go about ministry in His name.  The Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father.  The filioque is correct.

It is a shame that such an acerbic debate over the filioque had to split the Church, especially in light of Jesus’ clarion call to unity (cf. John 17:11).  And yet, the Church is called always to Holy Scripture, listening carefully to its voice and deriving – and in some cases correcting –doctrine according to its pages.  The Church can do no less than this.  Thus, the filioque was a debate worth debating and it is a word worth keeping.  For it is a word which describes a promise and the power of our Savior:  “I tell you the truth…Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:6).  Jesus has sent us His Spirit!  May we praise the Father for His precious gift to us ex Filius – from the Son.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!

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