The Filioque: A Response to Critics

Augustine_Lateran

St. Augustine of Hippo, The Lateran, 6th century CE

In my previous blog post, I argued that the filioque as initially formulated by Saint Augustine of Hippo was perfectly orthodox. While I expected a great deal of criticism for making this case, I thought most critics would attack both the verbal distinctions I made as well as my lack of Greek knowledge. My lack of Greek, after all, is why I rarely tackle issues that deal with subjects that have their primary sources written in Greek (the Nicene Creed in this case). Nonetheless, I decided to write about the filioque in both a limited fashion and as someone who depends heavily on secondary scholarship for my discussion of the Greek language. Therefore, it was to my surprise that virtually none of the criticisms waged against me were on these fronts. Rather, the criticisms were pertained to Augustine’s exegesis and the scope of my initial post.

The first major criticism that I received was against Augustine’s exegesis of John 16:15, which says, “All things that the Father has are mine.” This critic argues that if this verse is used to argue that the Son must have a causal role in the procession, because such is a property of the Father, then so too the argument runs that the Son must have a role in his own begetting, because that too is a property of the Father. Such a conclusion, however, no Christian would endorse. It is too ridiculous on its face.

What this first critic has failed to realize, as I argued at length, is that Augustine does not understand this verse as pertaining to hypostatic causal origin. Augustine used this verse to justify the claim that there is an eternal relationship between the Son and the Holy Spirit. Now Augustine framed this relationship by saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds principally from the Father and communitively from both the Father and the Son. To briefly recapitulate what I explained in much more detail in my previous post (see here), when Augustine says that the Holy Spirit proceeds principally from the Father, he is using the Latin verb for procession (procedere) to denote the ultimate and sole cause of the Holy Spirit – in this case the Father alone. Meanwhile, when he says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son communitively, he is using the Latin verb procedere to denote an eternal sending or manifestation of the Holy Spirit that carries no ultimate causal sense whatsoever. This point becomes evermore clear in another passage of the De Trinitate:

Si enim quidquid habet, de Patre habet Filius; de Patre habet utique ut et de illo procedat Spiritus sanctus…. Pater enim solus non est de alio, ideo solus appellatur ingenitus, non quidem in Scipturis, sed in consuetudine disputantium, et de re tanta sermonem qualem valuerint proferentium. Filius autem de Patre natus est: et Spiritus sanctus de Patre principaliter, et ipso sine ullo temporis intervallo dante, communiter de utroque procedit.

Indeed, if whatever the Son has he has from the Father (John 16:15), then certainly the Son has from the Father that the Holy Spirit proceeds from he the Son himself…. Indeed, the Father alone is not from another, and therefore He alone is called unbegotten, not indeed in the Scriptures, but in the usage of disputants, who employ such language as they can on so great a subject. And the Son is begotten of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father principally (principaliter), and without giving any interval of time, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both communitively (communiter).

Note: This translation is borrowed from New Advent and I have slightly modified its translation.

Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate, Book XV, Chapter 26, Section 47 PL 42: 1094-1095

Here Augustine distinguishes the Father as the sole cause of the Holy Spirit by using the adverb principaliter. The procession from both the Father and the Son is a separate matter because this procession occurs communitively (communiter). One must remember that the Latin verb procedere has a wide variation of meanings, whereas the original Greek verb of ἐκπόρευσις has one specific meaning denoting ultimate causal origin. For this reason, Augustine used the two adverbs – principaliter and communiter – to specify his intended meanings. What Augustine means by this communitive procession is that in a relative perspective, not an absolute causal perspective, the Holy Spirit progresses forth from both. It is this communitive procession that the filioque formula specifically denotes and none other. The filioque does not specifically denote the causal origin of the divine person of the Holy Spirit (see my handy-dandy filioque chart below). To briefly stray from St. Augustine, this distinction, which I ask that my Orthodox readers strain in charity to understand, is all the more clear in the personal commentary of Christian Stavelot on the Gospel of John, in which he says:

A patre procedit, et ego mittam. Unum est, quia procedit a Patre et Filio.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and I will send the Holy Spirit.” (John 15:16) The Holy Spirit is one because the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Christian Stavelot, Expositiuncula in Joannem evangelistam PL 106: 1519A-1519B

Here Christian quotes John 15:16, which details the causal origin (procedere) of the Holy Spirit and then the sending (mittere) of Holy Spirit by Jesus. Now, keep in mind that in Latin, the verb procedere has multiple definitions. It can denote cause (procedere) or it can simply denote a progression or a sending forth (procedere) just like the verb mittere means specifically and only. The point that both Christian and Augustine are trying to highlight is that there is an eternal relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Son, hence a relationship between all three divine persons beyond just their essence, and therefore further highlighting the unity of the Godhead.

With this brief summary and clarification of Augustine’s position in mind, the first critic’s argument does not carry weight. The first critic’s argument relies on the assumption that Augustine is reading John 16:15 as pertaining to the causal origin of the divine persons. But Augustine is not reading it in the causal sense, he is reading it in a relational sense. So the argument – that Augustine is arguing that the Son is a second cause and therefore by such logic the Son must also be a second cause in his own begetting – holds no water whatsoever, because John 16:15 is not speaking about causes. This point is further demonstrated elsewhere in Augustine’s writings, as I detail in my previous post on the matter (see here), where Augustine clearly denotes the Father as the sole cause of the divine persons of the Holy Spirit and the Son. Now I realize that this point is difficult to follow because most people tend to lack basic Latin comprehension and reading skills. It is because of this lack of Latin comprehension on the part of so many, Catholics and Orthodox included, that I firmly believe in using the per Filium formula endorsed by Patriarch Tarasius of Constantinople at the Second Council of Nicaea (787) or using the formula endorsed by the Orthodox Synod of Blachernae (1285) under Patriarch Gregory II of Constantinople, which said that the Holy Spirit proceeds (ἐκπόρευσις) from the Father and is eternally manifested through the Son (ἀΐδιον ἔκφανσιν) (Siecienski, 140-143). By using either of these formulas, both the eternal relationship between the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is what the filioque was solely denoting in Augustine’s framework (and having nothing to do with cause), and the Father as the ultimate sole cause of the Holy Spirit, which is what the Nicene Creed was denoting originally before the Latin churches modified it, are both clearly articulated without making anymore confusion.

To repeat: What the Son has, according to Augustine, is not the Father’s ability to cause the divine person of the Holy Spirit. That property belongs to the Father alone, hence Augustine uses the adverb principaliter in conjunction with the verb procedere. What the Son actually has, according to John 16:15 is an eternal relationship with the Holy Spirit – a pouring forth if you will, which the Father also has (hence the adverb communiter in conjunction with the verb procedere). To use an analogy, as imperfect as they may be, like a spring with a stream, water can be said to flow forth from both the spring and the stream (communiter). However, water cannot be said to have its cause from both the the spring and the stream. Rather, only the spring can be said to be the cause of the water (principaliter).

As the eminent Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart notes, the core idea here is the exact same as that articulated by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote:

… while confessing the immutability of the [divine] nature, we do not deny difference in regard to cause and that which is caused, by which alone we discern the difference of each Person from the other, in that we believe one to be the cause and another to be from the cause; and again we conceive of another difference within that which is from the cause: between the one who, on the one hand, comes directly from the principle and the one who, on the other, comes from the principle through the one who arises directly; thus it unquestionably remains peculiar to the Son to be the Only Begotten, while at the same time it is not to be doubted that the Spirit is of the Father, by virtue of the mediation of the Son that safeguards the Son’s character as Only Begotten, and thus the Spirit is not excluded from his natural relation to the Father.

Note: This excerpt is taken from David Bentley Hart’s article, “The Myth of Schism.”

– Gregory of Nyssa, Ad Ablabium, 55-56

Hart goes on to say, “This is the very argument—made by Augustine in De Trinitate—that scores of Orthodox theologians in recent decades have denounced as entirely alien to Eastern tradition.”  This opinion I entirely agree with.

Now, a second critic has argued that I was remarkably selective with my sources – that is I only really discussed St. Augustine’s articulation of the filioque and not the countless other Latin articulations of it. I believe I addressed this concern in my initial post. To quote what I said:

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.

This second critic then went on to add the following, saying:

And yet regardless of Augustine or Aquinas, this is the dogma of the Roman Church as per the 6th session of Florence, 6 July 1439 AD: “that the holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, and has his essence and his subsistent being from the Father together with the Son, and proceeds from both eternally as from one principle and a single spiration. We declare that when holy doctors and fathers say that the holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, this bears the sense that thereby also the Son should be signified, according to the Greeks indeed as cause, and according to the Latins as principle of the subsistence of the holy Spirit, just like the Father. And since the Father gave to his only-begotten Son in begetting him everything the Father has, except to be the Father, so the Son has eternally from the Father, by whom he was eternally begotten, this also, namely that the holy Spirit proceeds from the Son.”

I am not going to comment on the problems I have with the Council of Florence (1439), which are numerous. Why? Because, as I said before, I do not have that much time. But again, I anticipated this general point and wrote: 

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.

A Quick Handy-Dandy Filioque Formula Chart

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father principally (principaliter), and without giving any interval of time, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both communitively (communiter). What it denotes: In two separate thoughts, it denotes the causal origin of the Holy Spirit, then it denotes the relationship between the divine persons of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit between one another without referring specifically to cause.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. What it denotes: In a single thought, it denotes both the cause of the Holy Spirit as well as the Holy Spirit’s non-causal relationship with the Son.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. (ie: traditional filioque clause later inserted into the Nicene Creed). What it denotes: In a single thought, it refers to the eternal relationship between the divine persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – specifically showing that there is an eternal relationship between the Son and the Holy Spirit. It emphatically does not refer to any cause, because that is not the intention whatsoever of this formula. It carries the same weight and meaning as St. Augustine’s communitive procession (communiter).

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

A. Edward Siecienski, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

About Alura

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4 Responses to The Filioque: A Response to Critics

  1. On the interpretation of Florence, I think we ought to interpret Florence in terms of the Dominican theology which drove the Council and shot the initially hopeful prospects for union, as Fr. Christiaan Kappes points out in his many excellent comments on this subject. The Dominicans followed Aquinas on the matter of the procession, and Aquinas cannot be reconciled with the great tradition on this subject, despite his obvious brilliance and sanctity as well as my own personal devotion to him as an Orthodox Christian. The reason I say this is because for the tradition- Gregory the Great, Athanasius, Basil, Nyssa, John Damascene, and most importantly, Maximus the Confessor- the Son and Spirit are distinguished by their particular mode of origin from the Father. The Son is produced from the Father’s person by generation. The Spirit is produced from the Father’s person by procession. These qualities are what constitute them as irreducibly themselves, and generation and procession are distinguished only in the manner of their coming-forth. I say Maximus is especially key because of his role as something of a bridge between East and West, an Eastern saint who lived and worked in Rome, who knew the languages of both East and West and was acquainted with both sets of Fathers. The character of this distinction, as they all say, is ineffable. This does not mean that the only relation between Son and Spirit is economic- this makes nonsense of the Fathers. I would say that the Spirit is produced from the Father for the Son in order to manifest and thus actualize the unity of the Father and Son to Father and Son.

    But for Aquinas, this isn’t true. Rather, the difference in the character of procession and generation is in the number of persons involved. In commenting on John Damascene’s discussion of the theology of the Spirit, he simply states that Damascene made a mistake- one of the only times in the Summa that he states a Father of the Church was wrong. It’s important to note that not all Latin theologians agreed with this. The Franciscans had an issue with this, and Bonaventure may provide a more helpful Western way of speaking of the Spirit. But the issue here is that Aquinas’ teaching in this respect appears to be dogma through Florence.

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    • Alura says:

      What you say concerning Aquinas reminds me a lot about what Boethius wrote in his own De Trinitate. He wrote that God the Son proceeds from God the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both. For him, it seems that there was no distinction between procession and generation. What only mattered was the number of persons involved. This line of thought I find quite troubling, especially since it just casually discards any sort of distinction that procession and generation imply.

      I am not too familiar with the work of Bonaventure. Could you perhaps expand somewhat in brief as to how he conceived of the issue?

      As for Florence, I am a bit rusty on it. However, the wording of the declaration – “that the holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, and has his essence and his subsistent being from the Father together with the Son” – seems to imply that the Son has a causal role in the Holy Spirit’s procession. To my mind, that cannot be accepted as Orthodox whatsoever. St. Photius wrote about such an argument as implying that God the Father is neither perfect nor sufficient, which would then entirely gut the Christian notion of God. He further pointed out that such an argument would mean that the Holy Spirit is composite as well.

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      • scooter says:

        You actually did great work. I hope more Orthodox people will see this and there will be further admiration for the great St Augustine. You’re correct in your determination that Florence is incompatible with Orthodoxy. This is really the crux of the issue. Most latin and Orthodox theologians, even those ecumenically minded, recognize there are dogmatic differences between our two formulas.

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      • Sounds like we’re in agreement. Your view that Augustine’s view is compatible with ours but not with Florence might help elucidate why Palamas saw no issue in drawing on Augustine.

        As to Bonaventure, I can’t give much detail- I only made that note because I know there is some work out there making that argument. Kappes (whose work is, I think, the best on the schism) may have made some useful comments on this somewhere, and there’s a dissertation by Wilfred Royer “The Trinity in the Thought of St. Bonaventure: An Eastern Orthodox Perspective” which should give insight as well, though I haven’t read it.

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