Three Simple Words Revisited

Today I wish to revisit a post from a few weeks back on the Filioque controversy which is key to the division between Eastern Orthodoxy and the rest of Christianity.

Long before Luther and the Protestant Reformation (like, centuries before), there was the Great Schism which birthed Eastern Orthodoxy as a separate branch of Christianity.  This was not a theological development, though theology did play a part.  This was an event driven by a complex series of historical, cultural, political, social, and economic causes.  It was the final outcome of a long and complex process which played out over three centuries plus.

But as noted, there was a theological component to the Great Schism.  It rests on three words which were added to the Nicene Creed at a church council around that time.  The words are bracketed and bolded:

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified ; Who spake by the Prophets.

These three words, and the controversy surrounding their addition to the creed, are called the filioque, because that is how they are in Latin.

As I noted then, people MUCH MUCH smarter than yours truly have been wrestling this thing to the ground for centuries, and have yet to reach anything remotely resembling a resolution.  It is strongly recommended that you at least read the writings on the Trinity by the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, just to reach an understanding of the issues involved in this controversy that would be appropriate for an educated layperson.  I haven’t done this.  I work for a living; I don’t have that kind of time on my hands.  So the best I can possibly do is give you a 30,000-foot-high view of the issues involved, according to my own limited understanding.

Now then:  The Trinity is one of the crucial doctrines in all of the Christian faith.  As Christians we believe that:

–The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  (Deuteronomy 6:4)

–The Lord our God exists as three completely separate and distinct persons, whom we know as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

–Both of the above are true at all times, in all places, in all possible ways.

–There is no contradiction here.

Don’t even bother trying to wrap your mind around all this.  It will only cause your brain to rise up out of your skull, lower itself directly in front of your face, and then explode.

Anytime we talk about the Trinity, we begin from a huge disadvantage in that we are attempting to discuss something we can’t even begin to wrap our minds around. Yet there it is, right smack at the center of the Christian faith.

Many attempts have been made to represent the idea of the Trinity in terms we can understand.  You may be familiar with some of these.  For instance, you may have heard the Trinity likened to water.  Water exists in three distinct states:  solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam), but all three are water.

Such attempts to represent the Trinity are helpful, but only up to a point.  Each has a heresy waiting at the end of it, which you will run right smack into if you push it too hard.  For example, the water thing.  Push it too hard and it will lead you into a heresy called modalism.  Modalism says that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three different “modes”, or aspects of God as perceived by the believer.  God can take on any of these at any given time as it suits His purposes.  Modalism errs because it denies that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are coeternal members of the Godhead–that is, that they have existed together for all of eternity.

Last time I noted that the prevailing conception of the Trinity at the time of the Great Schism (which the Orthodox still hold) is that the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.  The new language added to the Nicene Creed adds a whole new wrinkle to our conception of the Trinity because now the Holy Spirit proceeds from not just the Father but the Father and the Son.  This puts the Holy Spirit in a subordinate position to the Father and the Son, and in a position of missing out on some quality of “God-ness” which the Father and the Son share.

I noted the problems which this creates, namely the disappearance of the Holy Spirit, where much of our spirituality becomes a search for the missing Holy Spirit, and the problem of abstraction.  If the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, then he really proceeds from neither; instead he proceeds from some quality of “God-ness” which the Father and the Son share.

But now go back to my point about how no conception of the Trinity is perfect and every representation of the Trinity has a heresy waiting for you if you push it too far.  The Creeds were written mainly to combat heresy, to state orthodox Christian belief in the face of heresies which have plagued the Church down through the ages.  If this is true, then why would the Nicene Creed have been altered to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son?

The answer lies in the idea that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.  We see this in places where Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit:  “The Counselor, 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.”  (John 14:26) “He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”  (John 16:13-14) The Orthodox view is limited in that it does not fully account for this, and the filioque was an attempt (albeit a flawed one, as we have already seen) to address this.

To sum up:  The filioque controversy isn’t going away anytime soon.  People MUCH MUCH smarter than yours truly have been wrestling this to the ground for centuries, and will continue to do so for at least the foreseeable future.

Anytime we speak of the Trinity we begin from a huge disadvantage in that we speak of something we do not and cannot fully understand.  All our conceptions of the Trinity are helpful up to a point in that they highlight certain essential truths about the Trinity, yet all are flawed and imperfect and all will lead us into heresy if we push any of them too hard.