Don’t Take Away My Filioque

In this post I show in a slightly wonky and self-deprecating way how fickle we can be about religious beliefs.  We tend to count questions of faith, as well as church rituals and practices, among the few things in life that are enduring and unchanging, built upon unshakable tenets of well established provenance. Well, think again.

It makes me mad

Because I grew up in the Catholic Church, the creed was one of the first things I ever memorized. The creed is the “profession of faith,” the “I believe” or” We believe” statement. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if you believe in something, then you should know what it is you believe and be able to express it in words. That is one of the reasons that early Christian religious leaders developed a statement of beliefs. Eventually it became something that all (most) Christians were expected to learn and recite. The American Pledge of Allegiance operates like that too – We Americans follow leaders (now long dead) in reciting their affirmation of commitment to a set of principles for the ordering of society. So, I recited the creed, took it to heart, and stored it in memory. But recently I’ve begun to wonder….

The creed begins with an explanation of belief in God, then a part about the nature of Jesus the man and the Christ, and then a section about the Holy Spirit. It is the part about the Holy Spirit that, in recent years, has made me mad – but only during the summer! Now that the summer is over and we have returned to the “normal” autumn liturgy, I can speak my mind.

Here is the problem: In recent years the Catholic and Episcopal churches have debated, waffled, and then compromised about including in their liturgies the phrase “and the son,” known in Latin as the filioque. At the Episcopal church I sometimes attend nowadays, often with less devotion than desire, the compromise adopted by parishioners in recent years is to ignore the phrase “and the Son” during the summer months. For most of the year, we say that we “believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” But during the summer months the liturgy omits the part about proceeding from the Son; the Holy Spirit only proceeds from the Father in the summertime. In the first few weeks after switching from one to another way of saying the creed, people like me stutter during the recitation, not sure to recall the list of beliefs in this way or that.

For most people, whether to say or omit the filioque is an idle question, one of very little importance in our secular age. I mostly agree. Big deal. There is no cost to me whether I say it one way or the other. Is there? Still, there are a couple of super-important points about our relationship to history wrapped up in this idle controversy.

A filioque history lesson

This is not the place for a comprehensive history of the filioque. Too bad, though, since it is a remarkable story. If you have room on your reading list for weighty tomes on theological controversies, you might add this one:

Edward Siecienski, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford University Press, 2010)

What I should say is that Catholic leaders produced the first creedal statement in 325 C.E., at a church council in the city of Nicaea, in what is now Turkey. The Nicene Creed was a way of confirming and consolidating Christian belief. But it was more than a mere statement of religious dogma. The Nicene Council was a political assembly and its concluding document advanced an institutionally significant political position about life on earth.

The Roman emperor Constantine had recently come around to giving his support to Christianity, only to find out as he learned more that Christian leaders, bishops, constantly argued with each other about Christological questions, mainly having to do with the nature of Jesus in his relation to God the Father. As the leader of the empire and the de facto leader of the church, he called the bishops together to put an end to their bickering. A church that lacked unity would be of little value to him as a new source of imperial power. The Nicene creed spelled out the relationship of God in its Father and Son aspects in some detail in order to prevent an alternate view, Arianism, from taking root. The council approved the use of the term homoousios (meaning “of the same substance”) in contrast to Arius, who believed that Jesus was less than wholly divine and thus God and Jesus were not of the same substance. Arianism became a heresy; and so it remains. The council excommunicated the bishop Arius and his followers. [Permit me to interject here that, in truth, most of my students, when tested about it, concur with the Arian rather than with the orthodox position. It turns out that no small number of moderns, even the descendants of upright, earnest, self-defining Christians like most of my readers, like you, are heretics.]

This is one version of a very typical “icon” depicting the emperor Constantine and the bishops at the Council of Nicaea displaying the creedal statement that was the fruit of their theological labors

In two especially important respects, what we in the West say in churches on Sundays is not the original Nicene Creed. One has to do with the filioque phrase. The other, has to do with the statement of anathema issued against Arianism. The anathema, God’s curse upon disbelievers, is so interesting that I will need to say something about it in a later post. But the filioque is our subject at the moment.

The Nicene version of the creed got changed between 325 and 589 owing to continued debates. Disagreements often ensued at councils about the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the other two parts of the Godhead, but the language in the changed editions of the creed were mostly weak, cosmetic, wishy-washy compromises meant to keep everyone happy. But at the Third Council of Toledo, in what is now Spain, in 589, a small change was made, more-or-less accidentally, that had very big consequences. The bishops in attendance at Toledo approved the insertion of the filioque. But Greeks and other eastern Christians were not in attendance. They cried foul, and then cried heresy.

In the centuries after Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, a range of theological, political, and cultural developments drove the western church and the eastern church to the point of rupture. In politics, the theocratic role given to the Roman emperor, referred to as caesaropapism, differed from the breakdown in the west associated with the carving up of political and administrative tasks by kings, bishops, abbots, and others. The east and west also parted company on the subject of what kind and how many images a church might display to the people who entered in. The cultural divide had to do with the meaning of imagery and the uses to which images might be put. Thus, to think “Byzantine” is to think “icons,” whereas to think “Catholic” is to imagine all manner of sacred heart Mary’s, bloodied bodies hanging from crosses, dressed up saints in see through boxes and relics in all manner of reliquary displays. After 589, the filioque became one of those things that drove the Catholic Church to divide into the western “Catholic” Church and the eastern “Orthodox” Church. An effort to sew the two churches back together ended in disaster the Great Schism in 1054. In an attempt to kiss and make up, ambassadors of the eastern Roman emperor met ambassadors of the bishop of Rome. They ended up excommunicating each other.

Summer-time Ecumenical

Since the Great Schism of 1054, some members among the leadership of the eastern and western churches have occasionally tried to reconcile. With little success. The removal of the filioque in Episcopalian and Catholic churches in the summer months is part of that effort, called ecumenism, to bring the vast number of disagreeing Christian denominations back to a recognition of unity; perhaps, even of unicity – a point of theological singularity.

The ecumenical quest raises some tricky questions. We could set such questions up as a series of parallels or polarities: unity and diversity; institutional order and disorder; leaders and followers; hierarchical and vertical decision structures. Ultimately the filioque controversy takes us beyond the mundane divisiveness implicit in that kind of construction of the problem. It strikes even to our most basic understandings of the very nature of the divine and our conceptions about why we see value in belief. We have a strong desire to consume the most delicious notions of the divine. But our tastes change over time.

Any believer, in any faith tradition, should want to learn, to grow, and to know; but that takes work, and doing faith work raises doubts that only open to resolutions with patience and persistence and, according to a particular lexicography, prayer.

So, although we are leaving incomplete our work of understanding the historical burden of the filioque, let’s take a break. We’ll return to do more work in another post.

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