The Filioque Controversy


The Western Fathers and three of the Greeks taught the Filioque; the whole Latin patristic tradition does, starting with Tertullian (in his Catholic period), down to Isidore of Seville, the last Father in the West, and three Eastern Fathers: Cyril of Alexandria, Didymus of Alexandria, and Epiphanius). The Greek Fathers taught "from the Father," and many of them "through the Son"; none of the Greeks taught "from the Father alone" which was the invention (and distortion) of Photius, Saint that he became not withstanding. Maximus the Confessor defended Pope Martin and the Latins from the charge of teaching that there were two causes of the Holy Spirit.

All these assertions, which are true historically, are made in response to the false generalization made by many Orthodox that only Augustine and none of the other Fathers taught the Filioque. There was no consensus of the Greek Fathers against the Filioque.

Tertullian (who gives the West its terminology), Ambrose, who knew Greek and the Cappadocians, and Hilary, the Western Athanasius, all preceded Augustine, and of the ones who followed, such names as Leo the Great, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, taught the doctrine. Moreover, Maximus the Confessor defends Pope Martin's teaching on the Filioque and answers the very objections of the Greeks, objections which the Orthodox still hold on to. Maximus's response:

"Those of the Queen of cities (Constantinople) have attacked the synodic letter of the present very holy Pope, not in the case of all the chapters that he has written in it, but only in the case of two of them. One relates to the theology (of the Trinity) and, according to them, says: 'The Holy Spirit also has his ekporeusis (ekporeuesthai) from the Son'. The other deals with the divine incarnation. "With regard to the first matter, they (the Romans) have produced unanimous evidence of the Latin Fathers, and also of Cyril of Alexandria, from the study he made of the gospel of St. John. On the basis of these texts, they have shown that they have not made the Son the cause (aitian) of the Spirit - they know in fact that the Father is the only cause of the Son and the Spirit, the one by begetting and the other by ekporeusis (procession) - but that they have manifested the procession through him (to dia autou proienai) and have thus shown the unity and identity of the essence... "They (the Romans) have therefore been accused of precisely those things which it would be wrong to accuse them, whereas the former (the Byzantines) have been accused of those things of which it has been quite correct to accuse them (Monothelitism). They have up till now produced no defence, although they have not yet rejected the things that they have themselves so wrongly introduced. "In accordance with your request, I have asked the Romans to translate what is peculiar to them [the 'also from the son'] in such a way that any obscurities that may result from it will be avoided. But since the practice of writing and sending [the synodic letter] has been observed, I wonder whether they will possibly agree to do this. It is true, of course, that they cannot reproduce their idea in a language and in words that are foreign to them as they can in their mother-tongue, just as we too cannot. In any case, having been accused, they will certainly take some care about this."

Maximus, himself, believed that the Spirit proceeded from the Father 'dia mesou tou Logou', (by means of the Logos). The Spirit proceeded, in his view ineffably from the Father and consubstantially through the Son.

Orthodox have to understand first the Latin Fathers' teaching on their own terms -- Something they are not often willing to do. Photius tried to understand the Filioque on his own terms, which, of course, will not work. One has to understand the other person first before one can evaluate another's position.

The Greek Fathers' start with the individual Divine Person as an absolute; the Unity of the Persons as One God then becomes the issue which they solve by reference to an Absolute Origin (the First Person). From that point of view (borrowed from Origen) there is no need to consider the differentiation of the Spirit from the Son in order to understand the Spirit as "individualized" right away; and when pressed to do so they come up with the formula "through the Son" which is not exactly the same notion as the Westerners, though it is equivalent.

Now, along in the 9th century comes this man Photius, who contradicts all that. So guess who's wrong? He misreads the Eastern Fathers as a whole and contradicts all the Western ones; and of those he only knew that Augustine and Gregory the Great taught the Filioque. Instead of stopping and backing up at that discovery, he just plows ahead recklessly. His work, Mystagogia, smacks of the very logic-chopping for which Orthodox often criticize Western Scholastics: an either/or mentality that completely misses the point of the Western teaching.

Gregory the Great taught the Filioque and Photius was aware of this and tried to excuse him (in his Mystagogia); Leo the Great taught the Filioque and wrote to the Spanish Church about the teaching a few years before he wrote his definitive Tome on Christology to the East. (Letter: Quam laudabiliter in 447: DS284).

When we look at the Photius's career we see him as a layman, advanced to the Patriarchate for political reasons, who manages to be deposed twice and be in schism with the West for a while, as well as writing viciously against the legitimate diversity of Western customs. Requiring the same uniformity in non-essentials with which the Orthodox often charge Catholics. It certainly was not from spirituality that Photius wrote the Mystagogia, as anyone who reads this polemic work full of name-calling can see; it was from his superior sense of his Byzantine intellectualism carried over from his layman's life that this work arises.

Now, it may very well be that by the time he dies in exile he becomes a saint, but it is also obvious to the knowledgeable and objective observer that this saint was in error in his adding the concept of alone to the Procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father in his formulations, something he did not notice the Greek Fathers never do.

The thorough work in English on the council of Florence is The Council of Florence by Gill, which uses all the sources and has a back-up for every one of its assertions.

In that work we discover that the Byzantine scholars, among whose party was Mark of Ephesus, were surprised to discover that all the Latin Fathers and three of the Greeks taught the Filioque; and when Mark of Ephesus challenged the texts which prove this the Latin theologians compared texts and proved they had the correct ones (which is backed up by modern scholarship), and this reduced Mark to silence and he withdrew from the discussions. (He was several times asked for by his Latin interlocutors, but to no avail.)

We return to the fact that the entire Latin patristic tradition taught the Filioque while the Church was undivided. Therefore it cannot be wrong. The fact is the first time the Greeks contradict the Latin teaching by a formula of their own is Photius' text, wherein he adds the word "alone" to the Greek formularies departing from the Greek Fathers and contradicting all the Latin ones. The conclusion is inevitable: Photius made an error in judgment, not the Latin Fathers; and all who follow Photius and not the Greek Fathers are likewise in error on the point.

A simple example illustrates this: it is like saying (a) "the color blue is beautiful"; and another saying (b) "yellow and green (constituents of blue) are also beautiful"; to which a third person says (c) "only blue is beautiful." The third statement contradicts the second and narrows the first in an unacceptable way. That is not to say that statements (a) and (b) are the same; they are not, and both of them are true, but they mean slightly different things, since blue is not the same as yellow and green unmixed.

Photius' error was to completely miss the premise of the Latin tradition and to suppose the premise of the Greeks in understanding the Latins. The latter start with the insight into the unity of the Three, that each Person is all of the Divine Nature, so that there is no real distinction in fact between Person and Nature in God, but only between Person and Person in God. But distinction of Person to Person can only be by the opposition of their relations, when you consider the unity of Nature, and that means the Holy Spirit must be from both the Father and the Son or He wouldn't be distinct from either.

The Greeks start from the absolute distinction of Persons first and must account for Their unity in terms of origin (which approach they received from Origen, the first genius of the Church who was definitely subordinationist in his own thinking). Thus for the Greeks the Holy Spirit must proceed from the Father or the Father wouldn't be the absolute source, and if the Holy Spirit proceeded also from the Son, that would mean the Father ceased being the absolute source. Thus they use two different Greek words for "proceed from the Father" : one word for the Son, and another for the Holy Spirit.

Latin has only one verb for "to proceed from" but gets the second idea of procession in Greek of the Holy Spirit (in order to safeguard the Father being absolute source) by adding the words: "as from one principle" and "principally from the Father." Thus there is no contradiction between the Latin and Greek Fathers' teaching as Maximus understood, but neither are the concepts exactly the same. There is no doubt that the Greeks saw themselves more individualistically and so started with the individual Person with his own absolute personal characteristics as the starting point, while the Latins saw themselves more socially (rationally) and so start from relational concept of person. Thus the Person in the Trinity for the latter is a subsistent relation, while for the East it is an absolute with personal characteristics.

When the Orthodox take the time to listen to the Western understanding, they usually see that it is valid, though it is not their preference. The Orthodox have now two ways of thinking: the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (a la the Fathers), and Photius' formula of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father alone. Perhaps that is the origin of the divergent reactions to the Western thought.

An appreciation of the Western Fathers destroys another mistaken generalization of the Orthodox antagonists to Rome: the conclusion that the Filioque teaching results in a downplaying of the Holy Spirit in Catholic life. If that were the case, then, during the patristic period one should have seen this. But the contrary is true. This misdiagnosis by some Orthodox neglects the sociological factors of the non-dogmatic causes of non-Mediterranean Europe culture at play in the development of Western Christianity after the Byzantine period. It may also result from an absolutizing of its own very particular Byzantine cultural development, such that anything non-Byzantine is suspect as non-Orthodox.

The conclusion of all the above is obvious: the doctrine of the Filioque ought not to divide the Churches from one another, as it is a different but equally valid emphasis in understanding the Trinity and is not harmful to spirituality as such. (This was the conclusion of the Council of Florence.) This conclusion has already been reached by eminent Orthodox scholars and theologians.

by Padro

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