I’m using a comment by Eugene in a previous thread to inaugurate a new regular series here that I’m calling Ask an Anglican. I get a lot of questions about what Anglicans believe about various things, especially coming from those who are investigating the Anglican tradition, and I figure that this will give me a chance to answer these questions in a way that will hopefully be beneficial to more than just one person. (At some point, if I can figure out how to swing it through WordPress, I may even try to do this through a podcast or through YouTube. If anyone out there is a tech geek and would like to help me, please hit me up in the comments box or at conciliaranglican[at]gmail.com).
So, with no further ado, Eugene wrote…
I’m a potential convert to Episcopalianism. Question: I hear a lot about how the Episcopal Church is the Church in its primitive form. How does that claim “stack up against” the fact that the Nicene Creed contains the filioque, which is not the primitive form? I could just never get around that…
This is a great question, and one that is of huge concern to people who come from an Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox background. For those who might be confused by the lingo, the “filioque” is a phrase used in the west in the Nicene Creed. When we proclaim that “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,” we also say that He “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Those last three words, and the Son, were not in the Nicene Creed originally and they present a huge roadblock in relations between Eastern Christians and Western Christians, Anglicans included.
History of the Filioque
The Nicene Creed was the product of two Ecumenical Councils, two gatherings of all the bishops of the world, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, which pronounced authoritatively on the Christian faith by the Spirit’s guidance. The Creed was first put together in Nicaea in 325 AD (which is why we call it Nicene), but it was expanded into the form we know today at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. That doesn’t mean that the faith articulated in that creed was made up by those councils. Rather, the Fathers who gathered at those councils were simply trying to accurately articulate the faith that they had received down the ages, the faith that was delivered to the apostles by the Lord Jesus.
The phrase and the Son was formally added to the creed for the first time in 587 at the Council of Toledo. This council was not an Ecumenical Council but a local council in which the bishops in the region of what is now Spain were looking for a way to combat the heresy of Arianism which teaches that Jesus is just a creation and not the eternal Son of God. The addition of the filioque by Toledo was not necessarily intended to be a permanent change to the creed, but it spread anyway as the faithful carried the addition from Spain into the Franc world, where it was eventually championed by the Emperor Charlemagne. It began to be used officially in Rome some time around the turn of the eleventh century. All churches in the west today, Catholic or Protestant, that continue to recognize the authority of the Nicene Creed also continue to recite it with the filioque clause included.
Eastern Objections to the Filioque
The Orthodox objection to the filioque falls along two lines. First, Orthodox argue that the filioque distorts the nature of the Trinity. By saying that the Holy Spirit processes from both the Father and the Son, the role of the Father is denigrated as the creator and source of the divine life, the one who begets and sends. If the Spirit comes from both the Father and the Son, then either there is no real difference between the Father and the Son, or else the Spirit is not one Spirit but two. In either case, the whole Trinity collapses. Secondly, because the filioque was inserted into the creed by a local council and not by an Ecumenical Council, its continued use is an affront to conciliarity and cannot be tolerated if the Church is to remain truly Catholic.
What Anglicans Believe
So what do Anglicans think about all of this? Well, basically, the first objection is wrong, being based on some incorrect assumptions, but the second objection has some merit to it.
Article V of the 39 Articles says, “The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.” And so here we have, right in one of the classic Anglican formularies, an affirmation of the filioque. But what do Anglicans mean when we say the filioque?
In short, what we mean is that the Holy Spirit comes to us by way of both the Father and the Son. The scriptures tell us that the Spirit is sent by the Father to abide in the Son (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, and Luke 3:22). The Father sends the Spirit upon us at the request of the Son (John 14:16-26). Nevertheless, Jesus also tells us that He Himself will send the Spirit (John 15:26 and John 16:7). How can these things both be true? How can both the Father and the Son send the Spirit? Is it because there are two Spirits? No, it is because the Spirit has come to dwell in the Son, and thus it is given through Him or by Him, even though it does not originate in Him. Thus, the Holy Spirit is given to the Apostles when the Risen Christ breathes on them (John 20:19-23). Nevertheless, even as Jesus does this, he reaffirms that the Spirit comes from the Father first and foremost, just as He Himself has come from the Father. “As the Father has sent me,” says Jesus, “so I send you.”
So Anglicans and other western Christians who affirm the filioque are not distorting the place of the Father but rather affirming the place of the Son. We are not suggesting that there are two Spirits, one coming from the Father and one from the Son, nor are we saying that the Spirit originates in both the Father and the Son. The Father is the source, begetting the Son and sending forth the Spirit. Nevertheless, as scripture says, the Spirit is also the Spirit of Christ (Philippians 1:17, for example). Scripture is clear that the Spirit comes to us by way of the Son, which was affirmed by many of the early Church Fathers, including Jerome, Hillary, Ambrose, Athanasius, and even the Cappadocian Fathers. Maximus the Confessor actually chided Eastern Christians who attacked Pope Martin for his teaching on the filioque. So it is hardly fair to say that this something western Christians just made up on the fly.
Where the Division Really Lies
The problem, I believe, is not that one side is right and the other wrong. I don’t think that Orthodox Christians mean to deny the place of the Son in sending the Spirit any more than I think western Christians intend to deny the unique role of the Father. The problem is rather one of misunderstanding the perspective that each party shares. Some early Anglican divines publicly derided the Eastern Churches for not saying the filioque, but those divines who actually looked into the matter came to believe that the difference between east and west on this point is not theological but linguistic. Hence, in 1690 William Sherlock wrote:
The Son is united and subordinate to the Father, as begotten by Him; the Holy Ghost is united and subordinate to the Father and the Son, as proceeding both from the Father and from the Son. But if the Holy Spirit proceeded only from the Father, not from the Son, there would be no union and subordination between the Son and the Spirit, and yet the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son, as well as of the Father, and that these Three Persons be one God, it is necessary that there should be a union of persons, as well as One Nature. But then the Greek Church confesses, that the Spirit proceedeth from the Father by the Son. though not from the Son; and by and from are such niceties when we confess we understand not the manner of this Procession of the Holy Spirit, as ought to have made no dispute, much less a schism, between the two Churches. The Greek Church acknowledges the Distinction of Persons, and their Unity and Subordination… which is all the Creed requires as necessary to salvation. (From A Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity)
Still, we have to contend with the second objection that the Orthodox make, namely that it is a grievous offense for a single bishop or even a single local council to amend the creed outside the context of an Ecumenical Council. In the last century, as dialogue between the Orthodox and Anglicans has emerged, Anglicans have repeatedly conceded that the lack of conciliarity in adding the filioque to the creed was entirely inappropriate. The Lambeth Conference called on the churches of the Anglican Communion to shed the filioque from future copies of the Book of Common Prayer, first in 1978 and then again in 1988 and 1998. The Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council have also reiterated the Lambeth Conference’s request. Change has been slow, however, to materialize.
Some churches, such as the Scottish Episcopal Church, have made the filioque optional or removed it in their recently revised liturgies. Others, however, like the Church of Ireland, seem to have ignored the request entirely. In my own church, the American Episcopal Church, we have been on record since 1994 as saying that we will remove the filioque from the creed in any future revisions of the Book of Common prayer, and in fact we have already done so in some of our supplemental liturgies, such as “Enriching Our Worship” (one of the few good things about EOW, in my opinion). Hopefully, this is an issue that can be more definitively settled in the Anglican Communion in the event that we come to agree upon a covenantal, more conciliar model of ecclesiology at the Communion level.
It’s a slow process, but Anglicanism is trying to make a corrective in the way that we use the creed, recognizing and accepting that no bishop or local council of bishops (even and including the Lambeth Conference and the synods of the Anglican Churches) has the authority to augment creedal language. Still, it is not wrong to say the filioque in the mean time, at least when we’re not in an ecumenical setting where the Orthodox are present. The filioque is biblical and faithful to the Fathers, and I believe that if we ever are able to come together in an Ecumenical Council again that the filioque would be affirmed.