Everybody believes what they do about God, salvation, heaven and hell on the basis of testimony. This is not to discount our experience of God, or our perception of God as seen through nature. But it recognizes that our experience of God is highly subjective and everyone can see that nature’s witness to God is not uniform. Star-gazers may see immense beauty and order in nature, but Earth-gazers see floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and cancers.
So, we rely on witness outside of ourselves to direct our faith — preeminently the witness of those who have seen God at work in the past and whose written testimony has about it the ring of truth. Most Christians believe that witness is found in the Sacred Scriptures.
That’s not to discount those who have helped us understand the Scriptures and who have codified its truth through the ages into doctrines that to us make sense.
But although those who’ve helped us understand Scripture are vitally important, the primary witness is always going to be Scripture itself. Why? Because the Scripture writers were closest to the events they describe. The Old Testament prophets wrote of what they had seen and heard; and the writers of the New Testament, the apostles, did the same. Their writings have about them the ring of truth.
So, vital though they are, the theologians, preachers, poets and storytellers who have helped us understand that primary revelation have a derivative authority. That’s easy to see in the fact that they invariably quote the Scriptures as their primary authority.
So, when we say the Creeds in church, as many Christians do on a regular basis, we are assenting to them not because they bring to us new truth, but because they “may be proved by most certain warrants of Scripture,” as the 39 Articles of Religion written in the 16th century put it. (Article VIII)
Some Christian churches, notably the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox give Tradition (that is the words of those who have helped us understand Scripture) such a high place, that to many it looks like Tradition is equal with Scripture. They of course have their reasons. But Protestants, including Anglicans and Episcopalians, have always seen Scripture as the main witness with all other authorities as subsidiary.
This is why I was surprised when I read recently that a group of noted Anglican theologians met with Eastern Orthodox theologians in Hawarden, Wales and decided that a little-noted phrase in the Nicene Creed could be conveniently dropped in the interests of ecumenical unity.
The Nicene Creed
The offending phrase is known as the Filioque, a Latin phrase meaning “and through the Son.” When Western Christians (Catholic and Protestant) say the Nicene Creed (and technically it is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) we repeat the words that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
This is the part that the Eastern Orthodox find so objectionable. They want it taken out. But the reasons given, to my way of thinking, leave a lot to be desired. They have more to do with tradition than with Scripture.
Neither side, it seems, really questions whether this is a “biblically accurate” statement. Why? Because while it is true that the Spirit existed before God became man in Jesus — for example, in Creation, in the words of the Old Testament Prophets and in the overshadowing of the Virgin Mary – it was Jesus who said that he would “send” the Holy Spirit to be with his disciples after his Resurrection and Ascension.
The witness of the Bible
Moreover, in the Gospel of John, the Father gives the Spirit at Jesus’ request, the Spirit comes in Jesus’ name, Jesus sends the Spirit and the Spirit’s purpose is to glorify Jesus. (See John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7,14) To biblical Christians through the ages, it is clear that Holy Spirit is mediated to us through the Son. Therefore, when the Nicene Creed says that he “proceeds from the Father and the Son” it is on solid Scriptural ground. At least that is the way Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians have seen it for over a millennium.
Even the Eastern Orthodox have “Fathers” in their own tradition, that is early Christian theologians, who have been comfortable with the idea that the Spirit comes if not from the Son then at least through the Son — which is virtually the same. (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Alexandria)
So, why all the fuss? The Filioque, the phrase through the Son was not in the original Nicene Creed. It began to be used sometime in the late fifth century and was officially added to the Creed in the eighth century. The primary reason for its addition was that Christians in the West worried that since the Creed did not state that the Spirit was “of the same substance” as the Father, as is explicitly stated of the Son, then the Spirit might come to be seen as not fully divine.
An ancient heresy, Arianism, had for years asserted that the Son was not divine in the same way that the Father was. The same diminution of the Spirit, some feared, might happen as it had to the Son. So, since the Nicene Creed clearly stated that the Son was “of the same substance as the Father and therefore fully divine, a phrase might be added to make it clear that the Spirit comes through the Son. This would be a sufficient witness to the Holy Spirit’s full divinity.
No one thought that they were going outside of the biblical witness, because given John’s teaching that the Spirit comes through Jesus and at Jesus’ bequest and St. Paul’s teaching that the Spirit is “the Spirit of Jesus” (Gal. 4:6) the close association of the Spirit with Jesus was firmly grounded in the Bible.
So, why are we revisiting this ancient issue? For ecumenical reasons. Now that we have all become more conscious of our Eastern Orthodox brethren, especially since we have seen how much they have suffered through the ages and never more than today, there is a new desire to look at this “offending” addition to the Creed and try to see it through their eyes. Since the Eastern Orthodox have adamantly insisted for centuries that it has to go for there to be a closer communion between them and other Christians, the theologians meeting in Wales have determined that the Filioque is negotiable.
As one Anglican theologian, I am not persuaded. It is clear to me that no serious doctrinal issue is at stake by keeping it in. True, Eastern Christians have feared that Western Christians tend to over-emphasize the oneness of the Trinity. And Western Christians have feared that Eastern Christians have over emphasized the three-ness of the Trinity. But neither group seriously believed that the other denied the Trinity. The Nicene Creed, as both traditions say it (with or without the Filioque) affirms the Trinity in no uncertain terms.
My concerns are do not stem from the arcane traditional disagreements between Eastern and Western Christians. Just because the phrase was not added by a Council representing the totality of Christendom, doesn’t mean it should be suspect. My concerns are grounded on a more contemporary issue. What tends to happen to the Holy Spirit when he is separated too much from Jesus Christ?
Why keep the filioque?
As the (Western version of the) Nicene Creed stands, the Spirit by proceeding from the Father and the Son holds together the Son and the Spirit in just the ways that John and Paul do. The Creed, following them, throws light on the entire biblical record and draws our attention to what is often called the Christo-centric nature of the whole biblical record. That is, the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and he directs our minds to understand Christ as the central figure in the Bible. While Jesus is concealed in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament, he sends the Spirit to open our eyes to understand the whole Scriptural record. (John 16:13-15) And by understanding it and believing it, we encounter the Spirit that Jesus sent and we come to know the Father who stands behind it all. (Gal. 4:6)
But, move the Spirit off into a realm where he no longer is primarily pointing us to Jesus and what happens?
In the malleable hands of progressive Christian thinkers, the Spirit can now be used to justify pretty much any cause that is deemed worthy. So, for example, every “rights” movement that has come down the pike is seen as Spirit-led. Any “new truth” that is passionately believed in can be said to have been revealed to us by “the Spirit” regardless of whether it has any relationship to Jesus Christ. I think of a recent church leader who has argued that abortion is a gift of the Spirit and should be celebrated as such.
So, if you have followed my logic so far, my question to you is: What witness is the ground on which you rest your faith? Is your final authority Creeds or Scripture? Creeds do a vital job of summarizing what is in Scripture. But they point us to Scripture. It is Scripture that claims to be “God-breathed” and it is Scripture that the early church Fathers themselves acknowledged, in the words of St. Augustine, to be “The Word of God written.”
I’m happy for theologians to hassle it out in Hawarden, Wales. But I’m very wary of jettisoning something like the Filioque that has firm Scriptural warrant and that may safeguard an important truth.
The Rev. Peter C. Moore is an associate priest at St. Michael’s Church.