St Gall, Stiftsbibliothek MS 382, p. 10 – Nicene Creed in Greek and Latin (mid-tenth or early eleventh century)
My position on the filioque, a clause that a number of Latin churches added to the Nicene Creed over the course of five centuries and which many Latin writers and saints had professed in other genres of writing for many centuries prior to its insertion anywhere, is that I do not think it is unorthodox, because precisely what the filioque expresses, unlike the Nicene Creed in its original Greek, is not a matter of God the Father being the ultimate cause of the Trinity. I am going to be very precise and narrow in my treatment of this issue here, because after all to treat such a massive issue in a single blog post would be too great a task for me and demand too much time – time which I do not have. For those who desire a more expansive overview of the subject with more history than I offer here, I suggest reading Michael Lofton’s blog post on some of the major divisions between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism or A. Edward Siecienski’s The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy. The parameters of this brief address will pertain solely to what Saint Augustine of Hippo said concerning the matter.
In his De Trinitate, Augustine said the following about the Holy Trinity:
Principium quomodo in Trinitate relative dicatur. Dicitur ergo relative Pater, idemque relative dicitur principium, et si quid forte aliud: sed Pater ad Filium dicitur, principium vero ad omnia quae ab ipso sunt. Item dicitur relative Filius, relative dicitur et Verbum et Imago; et in omnibus his vocabulis ad Patrem refertur: nihil autem horum Pater dicitur. Et principium dicitur Filius: cum enim diceretur ei, Tu quis es? respondit, Principium, qui et loquor vobis (Joan. VIII, 25). Sed numquid Patris principium? Creatorem se quippe ostendere voluit, cum se dixit esse principium; sicut et Pater principium est creaturae, eo quod ab ipso sunt omnia. Nam et creator relative dicitur ad creaturam, sicut dominus ad servum. Et ideo cum dicimus, et Patrem principium, et Filium principium, non duo principia creaturae dicimus; quia et Pater et Filius simul ad creaturam unum principium est, sicut unus creator, sicut unus Deus.
The Father is called so, therefore, relatively, and He is also relatively said to be the Principle, and whatever else there may be of the kind; but He is called the Father in relation to the Son, the Principle in relation to all things, which are from Him. So the Son is relatively so called; He is called also relatively the Word and the Image. And in all these appellations He is referred to the Father, but the Father is called by none of them. And the Son is also called the Principle; for when it was said to Him, “Who are You?” He replied, “Even the Principle, who also speak to you.” (John 8:25) But is He, pray, the Principle of the Father? For He intended to show Himself to be the Creator when He said that He was the Principle, as the Father also is the Principle of the creature in that all things are from Him. For creator, too, is spoken relatively to creature, as master to servant. And so when we say, both that the Father is the Principle, and that the Son is the Principle, we do not speak of two principles of the creature; since both the Father and the Son together is one principle in respect to the creature, as one Creator, as one God.
Note: This translation is borrowed from New Advent and I have slightly revised its translation.
Now, the main point to highlight here is that Augustine is speaking of principle in relative terms. That is to say, God the Father and God the Son are both the same principle relative to creation, for as John says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. And the word was God. This Word was in the beginning with God. Everything was made through Him and without Him there was nothing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3) It is in this relative sense then, that God the Father and God the Son are both, relative to creation, one principle.
Now elsewhere Augustine speaks of principle in an absolute sense, not a relative sense, as he does in the segment above. It is in this absolute sense that Augustine identifies the Father as the sole and ultimate cause of both the Son and the Holy Spirit. He says:
Et tamen non frustra in hac Trinitate non dicitur Verbum Dei nisi Filius, nec Donum Dei nisi Spiritus sanctus, nec de quo genitum est Verbum et de quo procedit principaliter Spiritus sanctus nisi Deus Pater. Ideo autem addidi, Principaliter, quia et de Filio Spiritus sanctus procedere reperitur. Sed hoc quoque illi Pater dedit, non jam existenti et nondum habenti: sed quidquid unigenito Verbo dedit, gignendo dedit.
And yet it is not to no purpose that in this Trinity that none except the Son is called the Word of God, and that none except the Holy Spirit is called the Gift of God, and that none except God the Father is He from whom the Word is begotten as well as from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds. And therefore I have added the word principally, because we find that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also. But the Father gave Him this too, not as to one already existing, and not yet having it; but whatever He gave to the only-begotten Word, He gave by begetting Him. (John 16:15)
Note: This translation is borrowed from New Advent and I have slightly modified its translation.
Augustine here argues that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, but it is only from the Father that the Holy Spirit proceeds principally. In short, the Holy Spirit has its ultimate cause from the Father alone, whereas it proceeds from the Son relatively because the Son was begotten of the Father and has what the Father has. This idea, at least in this passage, is implicitly based upon John 16:15, where Christ says, “All things that the Father has are mine.” Augustine, perhaps more clearly, argues this relative procession from both the Father and the Son later again:
Filius autem de Patre natus est: et Spiritus sanctus de Patre principaliter, et ipso sine ullo temporis intervallo dante, communiter de utroque procedit.
But the Son is begotten from the Father: and the Holy Spirit proceeds principally from the Father, and without any intervening rendering of time itself, the Holy Spirit proceeds communitively from both.
To be clear, Augustine here is not claiming the Son to be the absolute sole cause or even a secondary cause to the Trinity. When he speaks of the Holy Spirit as proceeding principally from the Father, he is speaking in an absolute sense in that the Father is the ultimate and sole cause of the Holy Spirit. But when he turns to the communitive/relative procession (communiter), he is not speaking of an ultimate or sole cause whatsoever. Rather, he is saying that the Holy Spirit has its hypostatic origin most perfectly from the Father alone, but that the Holy Spirit also proceeds in a communitive/relative sense from both, because what the Father has the Son has and thus there is by necessity an eternal joint progression from the Father and the Son – a progression that is quite distinct in its intent and meaning from a procession of ultimate and sole cause. It is only in this communitive/relative sense that the Father and the Son can be understood to be one principle. In an absolute sense, however, they cannot be understood to be one principle. Only the Father is the principle in the absolute sense. To misunderstand this point is to commit a linguistic error, a tragedy of poor Latin skills.
Now there are a multitude of remaining issues with Augustine’s formulation. First, there is the issue of Latin theology’s use of procedere, that is the verb for procession. Procedere has a much wider range in meaning in Latin than any of the near equivalent verbs in Greek, as A. Siecienski well argues in his book (Note: My arguments here depend heavily upon Siecienski’s verbal distinctions, as I have no knowledge of Greek). The Greek verb ἐκπόρευσις used in the Nicene Creed came to denote solely the ultimate hypostatic origin of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, procedere can mean either what ἐκπόρευσις means or denote a relative relationship or a mere sending (mittere). So when Latin Christians began to speak of ex Patre et Filio procedentem or, as they later add to the Nicene Creed, ex Patre Filioque procedit, they necessarily changed the original intent of the Nicene Creed. They changed this passage of the Nicene Creed from the intent of defining the sole hypostatic cause of the Holy Spirit to the intent of showing the relative divine and personal relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, this shift is strange indeed, especially since just a few lines prior in the Nicene Creed, the Son’s begotteness, that is Filium Dei unigenitum, remains concerned with the original intent of establishing God the Father as the ultimate and sole cause of the Son. Nonetheless, the Latins made this change to suit their own theological and liturgical concerns, namely against various forms of lingering Arianism.
Now it bears worth mentioning that many Latin Orthodox Christians, just as how many of their fellow Greek Orthodox Christians, probably did not fully realize this change in intent, as the manuscript image from St. Gall above containing both the Latin and Greek versions of the Nicene Creed indicates. In this particular manuscript, the Latin scribe translated the Latin filioque formula into the Greek but he kept the Greek verb ἐκπόρευσις for the procession. This usage is clearly unorthodox, as it technically describes a double procession from both the Father and the Son as the ultimate causes of the Holy Spirit. I do not think the scribe intended this meaning. It is more probable that his Greek was not up to snuff to grasp what the original intent of the Nicene Creed was in Greek. As the work of Bernice M. Kaczynski demonstrates, the degree of Greek knowledge that the monks at St. Gall had did not go beyond mere vocabulary lists. They rarely had intimate knowledge of basic Greek grammar (Kaczynski, 115-116). The scribe probably thought ἐκπόρευσις had the same variation of meanings as procedere, which by this time it most certainly did not. I am being charitable here for a reason. After all, centuries prior, Saint Maximus the Confessor defended Pope Saint Theodore I of Rome, a native Greek no less, from accusers for making a similar mistranslation in his creedal statement (Siecienski, 78-84).
Second, there is the issue of whether the Son’s relationship with the Holy Spirit defined as proceeding/sending (procedere/mittere) relates to the economy of salvation only, that is within time, or if it relates to the eternal and timeless dynamic between the divine persons. In the former case, the Holy Spirit can only be said to be sent by the Son just before his ascension in John 20:22, where he says, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” Many Eastern Orthodox have traditionally interpreted this verse as having only pertained to the economic/temporal sending of the Holy Spirit and have been reluctant to read an economic description of the Trinity into an eternal/theological description of the Trinity. I myself do not share these concerns, primarily for the same reasons that the Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart does not share them. Many other Orthodox writers have argued that there is indeed an eternal relationship between the Son and the Holy Spirit, although perhaps not using John 20:22 as their basis. One such example is Patriarch Gregory II of Constantinople, who in his writings and through the Synod of Blachernae (1285) argued that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (ἐκπόρευσις) and is manifested eternally through the Son (Siecienski, 140-143). This formulation is substantially the same as Saint Augustine’s, although it might be argued it is more clear and less prone to confusion.
Third, there remains the question that even if Augustine’s Trinitarian formula is Orthodox, whether if all of the other Latin theologians and council’s understandings of the filioque are orthodox. To this question, I will not comment any further, other than the fact that I think it is incumbent upon Orthodox to be charitable and presume at first glance that any proclamation of filioque in a Latin author’s work should be read in a precise Augustinian sense. Only when there is language that seems to indicate otherwise, should suspicion begin to arise.
Lastly, there is the problem that the Latin churches added the filioque unilaterally. No one denies this fact. The Church of Rome adding it in the eleventh century by far had the most significant impact upon the relationship between the Latin and Eastern churches. Ostensibly, Rome added it because of its developing self-understanding of papal supremacy. In the papal supremacist view, the pope of Rome could add it unilaterally without consulting an ecumenical council. However, the Visigothic and Frankish churches had long added the filioque many centuries prior, regardless of the objections of the Eastern churches and the Church of Rome. This much is certain, as exhibited in the plethora of baptismal formulas found in the early ninth century (see Keefe) – whether it be professed in a modified Nicene Creed or the so-called Athanasian Creed. Those additions and professions were not the result of papal supremacy, and often ran against papal wishes. Therefore, in the event of a reunion between the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, Eastern Orthodox face a tough question pertaining to the filioque. If the Orthodox were demand that it be removed from the Latin version of the Nicene Creed, then it would certainly be a rebuttal of papal unilateralism, but it would also be a rejection of a Latin liturgical tradition that long predates 1054 and the gradual schism. As argued above, I do not think the content of the filioque is heretical, but rather orthodox. So to alter a long-held liturgical and theological tradition on the basis of technical violations of canon law, which had occurred for centuries prior to the beginnings of the schism, seems to me to be against the spirit of Orthodoxy’s liturgical and theological conservatism, and possibly even an implicit proclamation that only the Greek tradition of Orthodoxy is Orthodox. There are no good answers to this dilemma. If anything, it might be possible to remove the filioque from the Latin version of the Nicene Creed and to add to both creeds the ex Patre per Filium procedentem formula to both the Latin and Greek versions of the Nicene Creed. Patriarch Tarasius of Consantinople used the per Filium formula at the Second Council of Nicaea (787) to describe his own faith. In that sense, the Orthodox find the exactitude and precision that that would have prevented this mess to begin with, while the Catholics get to keep their liturgical and theological tradition. This measure would mean changing the language of both traditions, but at the same time it would keep the spirit of the two traditions under the umbrella of Orthodoxy.
Bibliography & Further Reading
David Bentley Hart, “The Myth of Schism,” Clarion Journal, June 13, 2014, https://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2014/06/the-myth-of-schism-david-bentley-hart.html
Bernice M. Kaczynski, Greek in the Carolingian Age: The St. Gall Manuscripts (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1988)
Susan A. Keefe, Water and the Word: Baptism and the Education of the Clergy in the Carolingian Empire, vol. 2 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002)
Michael Lofton, “The Road to Unity: The Obstacles to Full Unity between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians,” Reason and Theology, February 14, 2019, https://reasonandtheology.com/2019/02/14/the-road-to-unity-the-obstacles-to-full-unity-between-roman-catholics-and-eastern-orthodox-christians/
A. Edward Siecienski, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)