On the what? OK, I understand that many of you – probably most – may not know what is being referred to here. Students of theology and church history however should be familiar with the term. It is a Latin word and I will explain it in a moment. But first let me offer a few familiar passages.
The gospel of John offers what may seem to be confusing or contradictory data concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit. Consider what we find in these two verses:
John 14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—
John 14:26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
But then consider what is stated in these two passages:
John 15:26 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me.
John 16:7-8 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:
See the difference? The first two texts speak of the Father sending the Spirit. But the second two passages speak of the Son sending the Spirit. So which is it? And does it matter? All this has to do with the filioque clause controversy. The Latin term means “and the Son,” or more fully in this context, “and from the Son”.
Usually it is put in terms of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (as Augustine and the Western, or Catholic, church believed) or from the Father alone (as Irenaeus, the Cappadocian Fathers, and the Eastern, or Orthodox, church believed).
The earlier Nicene Creed had said: ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ and the Constantinople Creed of 381 spoke of the Holy Spirit ‘proceeding from the Father.’ But the phrase “and the Son” was over time added to it by medieval theologians. It seems that a regional council, the Third Council of Toledo (589) codified the filioque clause into Western Christianity, and in 1014 Pope Benedict VIII ratified the addition.
It is the formulation that Catholics and Protestants now adhere to. All this may not seem like much, but the debate was enough to help split the church in two back in 1054! So severe was this that both sides excommunicated and hurled anathemas (divine curses) at each other. They obviously thought this was a big deal back then. The discussion can get quite complex indeed, and it cannot be fully detailed here.
The importance of all this has to do with how we understand the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and related issues. There is no question that the Spirit proceeds from the Father (see also Matthew 10:20 and Romans 8:9) but debate remains as to whether the Son is also involved (see also Galatians 4:6 and Philippians 1:19).
This is another example of how words matter, and how theology requires precision and care in how it defines and understands things. The example of the Greek term homoousios as debated in 325 at Nicea offered a pretty clear-cut line of demarcation between heresy and orthodoxy. I will soon be posting an article on that debate as well.
The line here however is a bit more blurred. There may well be biblical truth to be found in both positions. But it is still a weighty theological matter, and worth spending a few more moments on. Very briefly – and at the risk of skewing things with such a quick overview – both sides thought that Christian orthodoxy was at stake.
The eastern church did not like the idea of a double procession of the Spirit for various reasons. In his excellent 900-page study of God, No One like Him, John Feinberg lays out the differences this way:
Theologians in the Western church reasoned that if the divine nature was equally shared by all members of the Godhead, and if the Son was truly related to the Spirit, it made no sense to say that the Spirit proceeded from the Father alone. Theologians in the Eastern church strongly disagreed. Their concern was upholding the Father as the sole origin and source of divinity.
Alistair McGrath spends some time discussing this in his Historical Theology, and offers these summary statements:
The Greek intention was to safeguard the unique position of the Father as the sole source of divinity. In that both the Son and Spirit derive from him, although in different but equally valid manners, their divinity is in turn safeguarded….
The Latin intention was to ensure that the Son and Spirit were adequately distinguished from one another, yet shown to be mutually related to one another. The strongly relational approach adopted to the idea of “person” made it inevitable that the Spirit would be treated in this way….
In his 550-page book The Holy Trinity, Robert Letham spends 20 pages on this debate. He argues that there are problems to be found in both positions. He then says that if a resolution is to be found, both sides need to see why the other side emphasised what they did:
The East will need to recognize that the filioque was used in the West in support of teaching that the East fully accepts – the consubstantial unity of the Trinity, the deity of the Son, and the intimacy between the Son and the Holy Spirit. For its part, the West must recognize that Augustine’s teaching that the Father and the Son are the common cause of the eternal being of the Holy Spirit unintentionally compromises the monarchy of the father in the eyes of advocates of the Cappadocian paradigm.
Gerald Bray, in his systematic theology, God is Love, says this about a possible way forward:
Given this intractable situation, it is perhaps worth summarizing the many points of agreement between the East and West, so that the relatively small area of disagreement, important though it is, can be seen in its proper perspective. All Christians agree on the following:
1. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, fully God in every respect, and he proceeds from the Father.
2. He dwells in the hearts of Christians, where he acts as the Spirit of adoption, making us children of God. In this context he can be (and is) called the Spirit of the Son.
3. The Holy Spirit expresses the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son’s love for the Father is of the same degree as the Father’s love for him.
4. The Father’s love for the Son differs in some way from the Son’s love for the Father because they are different persons, though both are equally perfect and divine.
Where we disagree is the issue of whether the differences of the two loves in God are sufficient to make it impossible (or at least very unwise) to use the term “procession” to describe the Holy Spirit’s relationship to each of them indiscriminately.
Again, many Christians may find all this going over their heads, and/or see it as all rather unnecessary. The truth is, theology matters, and sometimes the complex truths of God and about God need to be hammered out as best we can. And at times disagreements will arise.
The matters here are very significant indeed, yet nonetheless one can differ on these matters, or even choose to concentrate on other matters. Thus one’s salvation is not directly impacted on which way we run with this issue. But it is always worth trying to get our heads around the glorious truths concerning our Triune God and his nature.
Oh, and it is worth noting that various attempts at rapprochement have taken place over the years. In 1965 for example Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I withdrew the anathemas of 1054! And in 1991 there was a somewhat limited agreement between some Reformed churches, spearheaded by Thomas F. Torrance, and Orthodox churches.
For further reading, all decent systematic theologies should cover this matter at least somewhat, as well as detailed books on the Trinity, God, the Son, and the Spirit. Start with some of the volumes I mention above. See also this article for more on the general matter of the Trinity, and the bibliography I include therein: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/04/23/thinking-about-the-trinity/