The Holy Spirit: The Filioque Controversy, Part I

One of the more arcane controversies in the history of the Church has to be touched on here. It is a matter that tends to make the eyes of most ordinary people glaze over, and on those rare occasions it is discussed outside of extremely specialized theological circles, it is perceived by virtually every non-Christian (and by millions of Christians) as the dictionary definition of a theological quibble of no interest or consequence. But it is important for understanding one of the great ongoing tragedies in the history of the Church: the split between the Catholic Church and the various Eastern Orthodox Churches that occurred in 1054. 

For many in those Eastern communions, it is still very much a live issue.  And no small part of the difficulty of discussing it is that Eastern Christians still keenly feel old historical wounds associated with it while millions of other people (Christian and non-Christian) are completely oblivious to any controversy at all.  It is a living illustration of another way doctrine develops, as well as showing that such developments are not always received with unanimity by the Body of Christ.  It is part of the messiness inherent in the prospect of the Word becoming flesh in a world of fallen human quarrelsomeness, politics, and cultural differences.

“Filioque” is the Latin referring to the words “and the Son” in this line of the Creed.  As we have already seen, the original Nicene Creed of 325 was expanded upon at the subsequent First Council of Constantinople in 381.  The occasion of that Council was yet another heresy by a group known as the Pneumatomachi or “Spirit-Fighters”.  Just as Arius had denied that the Son is God, so the Pneumatomachi denied that the Holy Spirit is God.  They held him to be something like an angel or other created spirit.  This necessitated the expansion of the article of the Creed regarding the Holy Spirit in order to underscore the apostolic teaching of his deity, just as Nicaea had underscored the deity of the Son. Accordingly, the Council described the Spirit as “proceeding” from the Father, a reference to the words of Jesus himself (cf. John 15:26).

There is no evidence at all that the Council intended to deny that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well, particularly given the fact that Jesus plainly states in the same verse that he sends the Spirit from the Father.  All the Council Fathers were aiming to do was defeat the claim that the Holy Spirit is not God.  They were not trying to work out every detail of the complexities of all Trinitarian theology for all time.  This is actually typical of the Church.  Loving liberty, the Catholic intellectual habit of mind is to not define her Tradition unless it is absolutely necessary. That is why the Church has so little dogma to show for two thousand years’ worth of conciliar and papal teaching.  It is also why the Catholic tradition is full of arguments, some of which have gone on for centuries, in which both sides can disagree and still be good Christians.

Unfortunately, however, sometimes Christians have disagreed so sharply that they have broken communion with one another over something that was actually patient of multiple understandings.  Often enough, both sides are to blame for the split, as in many family break-ups.  This is one of those times, and it led to the Great Schism of 1054, when the Catholic Church in union with the Pope and the Eastern Orthodox Churches broke away from one another–one of the greatest wounds to ever afflict the Church’s unity, and a wound she still suffers today.

The break was a long time coming and had multiple causes far greater than the Filioque.  The arrogance of the Western Church in general and of the bishop of Rome in particular became a raw sore point for the Eastern Churches.  Some of the very worst popes who ever unworthily sat upon the Chair of Peter in Rome lived during the seventh to the tenth centuries.  Corruption was rampant and the papacy became a political football for various rich and powerful families in Rome.  Decisions that had once been taken in union with the other great Churches of antiquity (Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Antioch) were sometimes made by Rome unilaterally.  The pope did not define any false teaching as doctrine, but that only shows that you can be theologically correct and still be a hugely corrupt sinner. 

The Eastern Churches, for a variety of political, social, cultural, and economic reasons, increasingly felt alienated from the western Churches and vice versa. The West spoke Latin and the East spoke Greek.  The Imperial Court (long ago moved to Constantinople from Rome as the surviving eastern half of the Roman Empire became known as Byzantium) had its own issues with corruption too.  (Not for nothing has the word “byzantine” come to refer to complex and elaborate schemes of intrigue.) Increasingly both sides saw each other, not merely as different, but as foreigners and enemies. Eventually, as happens in divorces, the two spouses started not only to dislike each other, but to exaggerate each other’s worst qualities and to imagine faults where none existed, the better to maintain their hostility.

This is where the Filioque comes into the story.  Of which more tomorrow.


One Response

  1. That’s a very nice summation of the split between Eastern and Western Christianity. The Big Players in Rome were awful in some respects and Catholics don’t always point that out. The Imperial Court in Constantinople was awful, and the Orthodox don’t always point that out. It’s a good way to set the scene. Thank you.

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