Reuniting East and West

The Filioque Controversy has divided the Eastern Orthodox and Western Churches for over a thousand years, but seems to be on the cusp of being resolved. Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew have jointly called for an ecumenical gathering in Nicaea in 2025. I suppose ten years notice of a meeting to resolve over a thousand years of separation is not long!

Last Thursday I was invited to an ecumenical study evening by the British Orthodox Church at St George in the East. These invites have arrived every year and I’ve always regretted not been able to attend, but this time the invite was for a series of studies and I could make this one on The Filioque Controversy:

The general understanding (well mine anyway) has been that the Churches of the East and West fell out about a thousand years ago because the Western Church insisted on changing words in the Nicene Creed from “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father” to add the words “and the Son” (filioque in Latin).

However, I was astonished to learn that the filioque clause had been used by theologians of both East and West since the fourth century.  Members of the Orthodox Church present were just as surprised.

The Father is the Begetter, the Son the Begotten from the bosom of the Father, the Holy Spirit He that proceeds from the Father and the Son.

St Ephrem the Syrian, d.373

We acknowledge the living and Holy Spirit, the living Paraclete, who is from the Father and the Son.

Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, 410 in Persia

The Spirit proceeds from the  Father and the Son, clearly, he is of the divine substance, proceeding substantially in it and from it.

St Cyril of Alexandria, d.444

The Holy Spirit is not made, nor created, not generated, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Athanasian Creed, c.5th century

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father as principle and, through the latter’s timeless gift to the Son, from the Father and the Son in communion.

 Augustine of Hippo

Great and incomprehensible is the mystery of the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, an undivided Trinity, and yet it is known because it is characteristic of the Father to generate the Son, characteristic of the Son of God to be born of the Father equal to the Father, characteristic of the Spirit to proceed from the Father and Son in one substance of deity.

Pope Hormisdas of Rome, 571

With regard to the first matter, they (the Romans) have produced the unanimous documentary evidence of the Latin fathers, and also of Cyril of Alexandria, from the sacred commentary he composed on the gospel of St John. On the basis of these texts, they have shown that they have not made the Son the cause of the Spirit – they know in fact that the Father is the only cause of the Son and the Spirit, the one by begetting and the other by procession, but [they use this expression] in order to manifest the Spirit’s coming-forth through him and, in this way, to make clear the unity and identity of the essence….

Maximus the Confessor, 7th Century

All these eminent theologians of the Early Church, from both West and East, use the same language of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; the Son is the same as the Father, therefore the Spirit must come from both otherwise the Son is not equal to the Father.

However in Greek there are two terms for the word that’s translated ‘proceed’ in English (‘procedere’ in Latin):

  • ekporeuesthai denoting the Spirit’s derivation from the Father alone or hypostasis
  • proeinai used to denote the Holy Spirit’s dependence on the Son owing to the common substance or ousia of Father and Son

Thus Metropolitan John Zizoulas, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Pergamon concludes:

One might argue there is a kind of filioque on the level of ousia but not of hypostasis. However the distinction was not made in Latin theology, which used the same term, procedere, to denote both realities. Is this enough to explain the insistence of the Latin tradition on the filioque? St Maximus the Confessor seems to think so. For him the filioque was not heretical because its intention was to denote not the ekporeuesthai but the proeinai of the Spirit.

Metropolitan John Zizoulas

It is clear that the ecumenical dialogues between Orthodox and Catholic, and between Anglican and Orthodox are not only bearing fruit, but are showing that being partners in the Gospel means we need to understand each other’s language sufficiently well to understand why we each use the language we do – then we might just discover a deeper unity in a bigger God than we thought possible, rather than inventing a shallow heresy in one of the small differences that will always be with us.