This past Sunday, my pastor preached an excellent message on the Holy Spirit. Obviously, it is impossible to cover this subject in a lifetime, so he was able to merely touch on the subject. In describing our understanding of the third person of the Godhead, he used the Latin term “filioque” and explained it and the history behind it. Later, on a post in Facebook, one of my friends, an Orthodox friend of ours, made a reply to the post and a lengthy debate ensued between my pastor and him. I “laid low” for two reasons: first, I was busy with other items and, second, I made up my mind to write a blog response rather than do “battle” on Facebook. What follows are my humble thoughts on the matter as I read the Scripture.
What is the Filioque?
The Latin phrase simply means “and the Son”. To see why it plays a role in theology, one must briefly review church history.
During the early centuries of the church, differences arose in the church’s understanding of the person of Christ. Attempting to resolve these differences, several church leaders met at the Council of Nicea in 325. Eusebius of Caesarea proposed the adoption of a creed, the final sentence reading, “We believe also in one Spirit.” The Council used Eusebius’ creed as a foundation and developed an official creed which contained one sentence relative to the Spirit: ““(We believe …) And in the Holy Spirit.”
In 381, a Council met at Constantinople to affirm Nicea as well as address other disputes within Christianity. The creed adopted at Nicea was updated, especially relative to the Holy Spirit. This modified creed (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed) expanded the description of the Spirit. This expansion read,
“And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father, who with Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:”
It is this creed which is known today as The Nicene Creed. It was officially approved at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
A regional council (not an ecumenical one) meeting in Toledo in Spain in 589 inserted a phrase into this Nicene Creed, modifying the sentence above. The statement on the Holy Spirit now read:
“And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:”
This phrase was adopted by the Church in the western part of the Empire but not in the east. Divisions continued to grow between the western and eastern Churches, especially when it came to papal authority. The two bodies divided in 1054 and the “filioque” in the creed was never adopted by the Eastern Church. It remains one of the dividing points between the two groups even today.
So, What Are We Talking About Anyway?
This subject has to do with the nature of our God and the internal relationships of the Trinity. Clearly, this is a deep subject for we will never fully comprehend the nature of our Creator. From our study of Scripture, we do know:
1. Our God is ONE being.
2. Our God eternally exists in THREE persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
3. Each person is fully God, but each person is distinct (i.e., the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, etc.).
But why is the Father known as the Father and the Son as the Son if both are equal in essence and eternal in existence? Scripture often refers to the Son as the “only begotten of the Father”, a phrase which has been misunderstood at times in church history. Some believed this phrase meant Christ was created by the Father, that there was a time when He did not exist. But, that is not what is intended. In some way we will never comprehend, the person of God the Father eternally begets the Son. Theologians speak of the Father “generating” the Son who is, therefore, “begotten”. Again, this is a timeless act. Father and Son have eternally existed in this manner. The Father actively generates the second person of the Godhead and the result is eternal filiation.
But, what about the Spirit? Ah, here is where the filioque phrase enters the discussion. Again, Scripture never refers to the Spirit as “begotten”. He is “the Spirit”, not another “Son”. So, there is a different action involved with the “eternal formation” of the Spirit than with the “eternal generation” of the Son. Theologians usually refer to the action as “spiration” and the result as “procession”. God actively and eternally “spirates” the Spirit and the result is “eternal procession”.
Originally, the Nicene Creed indicated this procession was from the Father and the Father only. God the Father spirates the Spirit, hence, the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. But, the Western Church (including Protestants), have adopted the modified creed which has the filioque phrase. We understand Scripture to teach that the Spirit proceeds not just from the Father but also from the Son.
Remember, these acts (generation and spiration) are NOT creative acts. They are not temporal and transient but eternal and unceasing.
Where is This Stuff in the Bible?
When one does theology (as you do when you open the Word), one must attempt to gather all relevant passages on a given subject before formulating a belief on that subject. There is some Scripture dealing with the issue of “eternal procession”.
John 15:26 – But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.
This is the only verse which claims the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father. Clearly, that’s what it teaches! This verse is the reason the phrase appears in the Creed. But, note also, there is no mention here that the Spirit also proceeds from the Son. So, is the “filioque” incorrect? Does the Spirit only proceed from the Father?
Despite being charged of having adopted the theology of Rome (never been a Roman Catholic), I believe the Scripture supports the filioque phrase. I believe the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Here are some of my reasons for this position.
1. The words rendered “proceedeth from” above are two simple Greek words, one a preposition and the other a compound verb. “From” is the preposition “para” meaning “alongside” or “away from”. “Proceedeth” is the verb “ekporeuomai”, which consists of the preposition “ek” meaning “out of” and “poreuomai” meaning “to go”. So, you could translate the clause as “which goes out of away from the Father”.
I should also note the verb employed implies a continuous action. The Spirit is going out away from the Father. It is an on-going, not one-time action.
2. In that same verse (and the one below), Jesus teaches He (the Son) will send the Spirit. When you send someone, they “go away from” you.
John 16:7 – It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.
3. The Bible also teaches us the Father sends the Spirit.
John 14:26 – But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you.
Someone will point out that “send” in these verses is not a continuous action and they are correct. Both the Father and the Son “will” (future at the time spoken) send the Spirit.
4. Jesus also says the Spirit receives from Him.
John 16:14,15 – He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you.
In each verse, the phrase “of mine” is literally “out (ek) of me”.
5. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. Logically to my mind, how can He be the Spirit of both the first and second persons of the Godhead unless both are involved in some way with His Being? How is the preposition “of” (“Spirit of God”, “Spirit of His Son”) in these phrases to be understood?
Rom. 8:9 -But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
Ga. 4:6 – And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your heats, crying, Abba, Father
Phil. 1:19 – For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
6. Finally, simple terminology seems to dictate the necessity of the filioque. The second Person is the Son because He is eternally generated (begotten) by the first person, the Father. But, if the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, why would He not also be called a Son? Furthermore, the Son does not generate the Spirit, or the Spirit could be called a “Grandson” to the Father. I realize this all seems a bit silly (and perhaps it is), but I believe the fact the third person is known as the Spirit (“breath”) gives some support for the idea He is the “breath” of both Father and Son. Therefore, He proceeds from both.
Does It Really Matter?
Well, yes and no. Since there is some revelation in the Word on the subject, we are bound as followers of Christ and servants of God to try to understand all we can about the nature and being of our Creator. But, we must also remember that the internal “makeup” of the Godhead is a mystery we will never fully comprehend.
The Eastern Church (and my Orthodox friend) do have a couple of points in their favor for NOT including the filioque phrase.
1. As I noted above, the only verse in the Bible which talks about the Spirit procession is John 15:26 and it only mentions the Father. And, of course, the procession is described as a continuous activity.
2. NO ECUMENICAL CHURCH COUNCIL ever decided on the addition of the phrase. Personally, I do not care what such councils adopt if they are not in alignment with God’s Word.
Nevertheless, I believe the Western Church has the correct understanding. The Father eternally generates the Son. And the Father and the Son eternally spirate the Spirit. He proceeds from both. As noted in paragraph 3 of the London Baptist Confession of 1689 affirms the filioque.
“In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him.”
In conclusion, I believe the Spirit indeed eternally proceeds from both Father and Son. Yet, in the end, I can worship with any believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether they accept the filioque or not.