Archives For Filioque

Holy-Spirit-1024x682This weekend Christians celebrated Pentecost, a climactic Christian holy day rendered bland and uninteresting by the propensity to refer to it as the ‘Church’s Birthday.’

Pentecost marks the promised arrival outpouring of the Holy Spirit who in fact has been active throughout the disciples’ time with Jesus.



Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word, filioque, means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.



Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.


I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).


That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.


As Karl Barth wrote when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.

imagesWord to remember for later: filioque.

Someone the other day emailed me a question asking why we never talk about the Holy Spirit in a way that doesn’t make the Spirit seem like- and I quote- “unnecessary leftovers.”

Bam. Gotcha.

And it’s true. For the most part, in Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Pentecostalism) the Holy Spirit is the vaguest, least defined and, due to the two former, the most abused Person of the Trinity.

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

Speaking of the Spirit in this way has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father. Moreover, speaking of the Spirit has the ‘fellowship between the Father and the Son’ makes the Spirit not a full person of the Trinity but a function of the Father and the Son.

This creates an intratrinitarian problem because, as Eugene Rogers puts it- and think on this because it’s an insightful statement, “the Spirit has no gift to give the creature (us), which is not Christ, because the Spirit has no gift to give Christ.’

So for Catholics and Protestants the Spirit is often vague and nonsensical. We speak of the Spirit in such a way its not really distinguishable from what non-Christians might call the individual conscience.

Pentecostals meanwhile rediscovered the role and vitality of the Holy Spirit, but (probably because their Protestant forebears were so vague on the Spirit) often make the Spirit the projection of their own wants and needs.

The result is that, on the one hand, Catholics and Protestants make the Spirit so irrelevant it allows us to be our own gods while, on the other hand, Pentecostals often use the Spirit to create God in their own image.

Now, back to that word at the top: filioque. It’s Latin for ‘and from the Son’ and it’s served as a bone of contention between Eastern and Western Christianity for over 1,000 years.

Western Christianity, wanting to avoid confusion that Christians worshipped three deities, changed the creedal statement to what we know today: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

That was a change from ancient Christianity.

Prior to that, the Christian confession was always that the Holy Spirit was a full, distinct person of the Trinity, as much God as the Son, with its own role and relationship within the Trinity. Originally, the church confessed what the Orthodox Church does today:

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, uncreated and perfect, who spoke in the Law, and in the prophets, and in the Gospels, who came down upon the Jordan, proclaimed the One sent, and dwelt in the saints.”

I think the Orthodox get it right and did from the get-go.

After all, the Spirit has to be more than the Spirit of Christ or the bond between Father and Spirit. Scripture speaks of the Spirit in such ways all over the place.

At the annunciation, the Spirit overshadows Mary.

At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus.

At the Transfiguration, the Spirit overshadows Jesus.

Paul credits the Spirit with raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 8).

The Spirit descends upon the disciples and creates Church and all through Acts is moving in the world out in front of the Church (For example: Philip and the Eunuch, Peter and Cornelius).

And this bit from Acts is what I think is so important. The Holy Spirit is God. Plain and simple. As much God as the Father or the Son. The Holy Spirit is God alive and at work in the world. Today.

Where we tend to speak of the Holy Spirit being ‘within us’ or ‘anointing us’ as individuals, the Orthodox view recognizes that God the Holy Spirit isn’t satisfied to work only in us or on us. God the Spirit is at work in the world with or without us.

This has two important implications:

  1. If God the Spirit is at work in the world, then the work of the Kingdom isn’t past-tense in the pages of scripture. It’s ongoing. Our now is as important as Paul’s present was.
  2. If God the Spirit is at work in the world, then it’s not so much about listening to God as the conscience within us. It’s about looking for where and what God is doing and joining. If the Holy Spirit is God fully and without subordination, there’s no way for us to avoid being missional.