Who Proceeds from the Father… and the Son?

In reading further in Congar Vol 1 on the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, I found myself becoming distressed at the focus on the Western understanding that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. It seems simply taken for granted, and there is no discussion at all of the fact that this dual procession is almost entirely a Western invention that has never been accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches.

(I know a discussion of this issue is coming in Volume 3, but that’s not helping me now…)

The original wording of this portion of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed is:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father,
Who with the Father and Son is worshiped and glorified,
Who has spoken through the prophets

This text (in Greek and Latin) was accepted at the ecumenical council of Constantinople of 381, and affirmed again at Chalcedon in 451.

In the Western church, possibly beginning in Spain to counter a strong Arian presence there, the Latin phrase filioque, meaning “and from the Son”, was added. This usage spread through the Western church, and was eventually declared to be normative at a council at which there were no Eastern bishops in attendance. This raised theological issues, of the nature of the Holy Spirit and the related issue of the nature of the Trinity; ecclesiological issues concerning the processes around doctrinal development, ecumenical councils, and authority; and almost certainly was affected by purely worldly issues of power and authority. The filioque “grew into a symbol of difference” at the heart of the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches.

It is one of the great blessings of our time that Catholic and Orthodox theologians have been able to come together to study this issue. From 1999 to 2003, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Consultation focussed on the filioque, “in much shared research, prayerful reflection and intense discussion.” Their report, The Filioque: a Church-Dividing Issue? An Agreed statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, carefully teases out the related issues so that they can be examined separately, and highlights the areas in which mistranslations and nuances in terminology have contributed to the difference.

I care a lot about this issue, and have read whatever I could find about it through the years. One of the central issues is that two distinct Greek terms in New Testament were translated into the same Latin term, and this is why the Western patristic writers could state that it was clear from scripture that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. The Eastern patristics would say something more like, the Spirit originated from the Father and was sent by the Son. (But do read the actual report to get the subtleties.)

As far as the ecclesiological issues go, from what I’ve read, it really looks to me as if the Western Church was in the wrong on this one: whether deliberately or by mistake, whether influenced by purely secular issues or not. And as the Consultation points out, centuries of polemic on both sides really haven’t helped matters any.

The Conculstation closes their report with a number of “theological and practical recommendations” to the bishops, and closes with the following:

We offer these recommendations to our Churches in the conviction, based on our own intense study and discussion, that our traditions’ different ways of understanding the procession of the Holy Spirit need no longer divide us. We believe, rather, that our profession of the ancient Creed of Constantinople must be allowed to become, by our uniform practice and our new attempts at mutual understanding, the basis for a more conscious unity in the one faith that all theology simply seeks to clarify and to deepen. Although our expression of the truth God reveals about his own Being must always remain limited by the boundaries of human understanding and human words, we believe that it is the very “Spirit of truth,” whom Jesus breathes upon his Church, who remains with us still, to “guide us into all truth” (John 16.13). We pray that our Churches’ understanding of this Spirit may no longer be a scandal to us, or an obstacle to unity in Christ, but that the one truth towards which he guides us may truly be “a bond of peace” (Eph 4.3), for us and for all Christians.

And let the people say, Amen!

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