‘Filioque’ a Real Issue? Surely You Jest! Evangelical Issues With Orthodoxy

By Joseph Black

Most Likely one of those Pesky Orthodox Protesters During Benedict XVI's Recent Visit to the UK

I studied Medieval and Renaissance Intellectual History for my undergraduate degree.  Back then nobody bothered to denote it as ‘Western’.  There really wasn’t any other intellectual history worth troubling oneself over.  My first exposure to the ‘filioque’ controversy between the Byzantine and Roman churches was in the medieval history textbook (again that would be Western medieval history) for my freshman year medieval history (um, Western) class.  The book did a reasonable job explaining the history of the controversy and the role that it played in the eventual rupture between Eastern and Western churches, but I got the feeling that the author was not impressed with how the Eastern churches kept harping on the Western Church’s inclusion of ‘filioque’ [‘and the Son] in its version of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.  If one was going to have a church fight, it would seem that one could come up with a better issue to split up over.

Of course, living in the West, and being a Westerner myself, this is not a topic of conversation that comes up very often.  No we didn’t sit around and discuss the various theological angles of the ‘filioque’ intrusion at dorm keg parties, nor when later my wife Stephanie and I would have guests over for dinner would we discuss over our coffee and cake the merits of the Eastern churches’ concerns or arguments when it came to ‘filioque’.  No, we were Westerners.  It wasn’t even on our radar.  We cheerfully talked about other things.

Later in seminary/theological college, where we majored in discussing theological minutiae to frightening degrees, not once did the ‘filioque’ come up.  That the ‘filioque’ controversy did not even get a mention amongst me and my colleagues indicates just how low on our ‘issues to fight about’ list it was, and especially so when compared to some of the things we did waste our time arguing about.

Essentially my perspective (which seemed to mirror the Protestant perspective, which agreed entirely with the Roman Catholic perspective) was that those Byzantines were just doing what Byzantines were notoriously good at, and that the ‘filioque’ controversy was just another example of Greeks being over much subtle for their own good with their theology.

I didn’t have a clue.  Neither did my Protestant colleagues.  I’m guessing the Roman Catholics in a position to know did have a clue but found it in their interest to keep quiet about it.

Patriarch and St Photios

Where ‘we’ got it wrong was in uncritically buying ‘our’ side’s version of the story, which has made much of how miniscule an issue this really is (theologically speaking) and why are you Easterners so overwrought about a single word – just get over it!  Well, the Easterners understood as well as the Westerners that this was just a word.  And although Orthodox leaders (the Patriarch Photios, among many, for example) have also put forward theological reasons why adding ‘filioque’ to the creed damages one’s understanding of God, Easterners have agreed that the real reason the ‘filioque’ is noxious to the East because of what it says about the Western church’s understanding of authority in the church in general, and the authority of the Roman Church and its pope in particular.

There are many reasons behind the eventual schism between Eastern and Western churches.  They had annoyed, irritated, insulted and outraged each other for generations before the final break in the 12th century.  The Eastern and Western halves of the old Roman empire had been drifting apart linguistically and culturally for centuries.  There were fewer and fewer Westerners who could speak Greek, and the same in the East with respect to those who could speak Latin.  I like the way Kallistos Ware puts it in his The Orthodox Church (48-49):

From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian mystery in their own way.  At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in light of the Holy Liturgy.  When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification…  These two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory, each served to supplement the other , and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition.  But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another—with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language—there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value of the other point of view.

Pope Benedict VIII's Sarcophagus in Rome

The filioque is an example of the increasingly unilateral stance taken by the Roman Church.  Inserted originally into the Niceno-Contantinopolitan Creed (I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father AND THE SON…) by a regional church council in Spain (3rd Council of Toledo, 589), ostensibly to help in the fight of persistent local Arianism, it was immediately rejected by Eastern Patriarchs when they heard about it.  The concern by the Eastern bishops had to do with the fact that no one had ever added to a creed without first gaining the consent of the whole church in council.  The Eastern arguments fell on deaf ears and the creed was allowed to stand.  This creed, with the filioque, became the statement of faith for the new rising power in Europe, the dynasty that would eventually produce Charlemagne.  And whereas successive popes agreed with the Eastern bishops that changes to the church’s creeds must be made by the whole church in council, they also continued to protect the Frankish churches from the Eastern insistence that they abandon the filioque.  It came as a shock to the leaders of the churches in the East when in 1014 Pope Benedict VIII, under pressure from his patron and guest king Henry II, who had come to Rome to be crowned emperor, included the filioque in the creed during the celebration of the mass.  And from there, successive bishops of Rome have never looked back.

For the Western Church, Benedict VIII’s action is justified because, as Peter’s successor, he has the juridical authority to act for the whole church.  For the Eastern Church, Rome’s claim to juridical authority over the whole church is the whole problem.  The whole church never had a ruling bishop, but rather met in council to work through difficult issues.  Essentially Rome changed the rules and did so by its own authority.

Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

The Great Division between East and West is ultimately over authority.  And for that matter, the Great Divisions within the West are all about authority as well.  We Westerners would do well to remember that half a millennium before our (Western!) reformations, the Eastern Church saw it all coming.

H/T: Onesimus Online (Please leave any comments at original article site. Thanks!)


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