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JAROSLAV PELIKAN: THE FILIOQUE

An essay written by this ex-Lutheran scholar before his recent conversion to Orthodoxy.
From his book THE MELODY OF THEOLOGY: A PHILOSOPHICAL DICTIONARY (Harvard U. Press)1988


"If there is a special circle of the inferno described by Dante reserved for historians of theology, the principal homework assigned to that subdivision of hell for at least the first several eons of eternity may well be the thorough study of all the treatises--in Latin, Greek, Church Slavonic, and various modern languages--devoted to the inquiry: Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father only, as Eastern Christendom contends, or from both the Father and the Son (ex Patre Filioque), as the Latin Church teaches? Futile or even presumptuous though it may seem to pry into such arcane matters within the  inscrutable life of the Godhead, the problem of the Filioque or "double procession," in the framework of the total doctrine of the Trinity, manages to touch on many of the most central issues of theology and to display, more effectively than any other of the "questions in dispute" (quaestiones disputatae), how fundamental and far-reaching are the differences between the Orthodox Christian East and the West, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

Unfortunately, the formulators of the Nicene Creed had not foreseen the crisis and had written concerning the Holy Spirit that "with the Father and the Son it is worshipped and glorified," but that it" proceeds from the Father." First at the local level in those regions of the West where it seemed necessary against the new heresy, but eventually throughout the West and finally with the approval of Rome, the Filioque became a part of the Nicene Creed. That unilateral revision by one part of the church became a doctrinal issue in its own right: Eastern theologians charged that even if the Filioque were orthodox (which it was not), Rome did not have the authority to inserted it into a creed that, unlike many other regional creeds both Latin and Greek, was the common property of all of Christendom, and was the only truly ecumenical creed. It is important to recognize that the substantive trinitarian question and the procedural jurisdictional question were both doctrinal questions for both sides, all the more so because the dispute came to a head (as could have been anticipated) at the same time as the quarrel of East and West about other questions such as jurisdiction over the Slavs. Both sides went on citing the same passages of Scripture and quotations from the church fathers in support of their theories of the procession, but by now the question was a part of their deeper alienation over the nature of tradition and the very nature of the church.

Whenever East and West, under external threat from Islam or in a domestic crisis because of schism, have moved toward some measure of detente, ingenious compromise formulas on the Filioque have appeared.The most durable of these, incorporated in the Union of Florence in 1439 and reintroduced during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a result of the ecumenical movement, was the revision of trinitarian language to read: "who proceeds from the Father through the Son." That seemed to satisfy the Eastern insistence on one principle, as well as the Western desire to have the Son participate ontologically in the procession of the Holy Spirit. Like many other doctrinal differences, the problem of the Filioque may be seen as rooted partly in the theory of Development of Doctrine, of which it represents an especially acute instance. Recognizing its extremely problematical character, Newman [John Henry Cardinal Newman, nineteenth-century Anglican theologian who converted to Catholicism and is famous for his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an eloquent account of his journey from Canterbury to Rome] declared in one of his earliest statements of the theory, in 1843: "The doctrine of the Double Procession was no Catholic dogma in the first ages, though it was more or less clearly stated by individual fathers; yet if it is now to be received as surely it must be, as part of the Creed, it was really held everywhere from the beginning, and therefore, in a measure, held as a mere religious impression, and perhaps an unconscious one." This puzzling formulation indicates that for historical scholarship no less than for ecumenical theology, the difficulties created by the Filioque on all sides remain formidable."

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