Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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2. The transferal of the terms “essence”, “energy” and “person” into Theology. (The problem of freedom)

D. The theological problem of the “Filioque”


So far, we have examined the historical side of the Filioque (how it came into being), which involved its canonical aspect; in other words, how the Westerners had unilaterally introduced the Filioque into the Symbol of Faith (the Creed), without asking the Eastern Church, or asking for it to be accepted.

This is the canonical side of the issue, which Westerners today are beginning to acknowledge and they appear to be somewhat predisposed towards rectifying what they had done, by officially removing the Filioque from the Symbol of Faith. Perhaps some day soon, this will finally happen.

For us, in Dogmatics, the problem is not the canonical one.  There is the theological aspect that is related to the Filioque, and that is what we shall now focus on.

We shall examine the theological side of the problem, by separating the whole issue into two parts. On the one part, we shall examine the arguments that the Westerners presented in favor of the Filioque, and then we shall see what the Orthodox arguments were, against the Filioque. We shall see how serious these problems were, and if they could be solved.

The theological justification of the Filioque in the West began basically with the Franks, who had relied on Augustine’s theology to support the Filioque. This is the theology that we analyzed, which contained the following elements that were implemented, in favor of the Filioque.

The first element is Augustine’s position that in the Holy Trinity, the Son is also named the Logos of God, therefore, He represents the Knowledge of God, while the Spirit represents the Love of God. On the basis of this assumption, Augustine gave precedence to the Son and not to the Spirit, thus making the Son a Source of the Spirit also, adjacent to the Father.  And this was the concept of the Filioque.

This was justified by the argument that, since the Son is Knowledge and the Spirit is Love, Knowledge supposedly precedes Love, so the Son must therefore precede the Spirit. Given that Love is supposedly dependent on Knowledge in order to exist, so the Spirit is dependent on the Father and the Son.

A second Augustinian position that was used to theologically justify the Filioque was that –according to Augustinian theology- in God, the Essence has precedence. The “one God” equals the one Essence of God. The Persons are pursuant to the Essence. Thus, for Augustine, the Persons are merely relationships that stem from -and reside in- the one Essence. In other words, God is a Being, He is an Essence, He is the one God, in Whom three relationships exist: the Father (Who is also Memory), the Son (Who is Knowledge) and the Spirit (Who is Love). Thus, the Spirit is also a form of relationship.

But, in order to have a proper and complete form of relationship, we must necessarily have pairs of relationships. This idea was developed by the scholastics, mainly Thomas Aquinas. Pairs of relationships are what the scholastics called “relationships between contrasts” or “contrasting relationships”. In other words, in order to have something that originates from a relationship –like the Spirit- it must originate from a relationship of two others, and not one. That is precisely why we need a pair.

The Spirit must originate, not from one person (because one person is like no person); it must come from a relationship between others. So, it does come from a relationship. Given that there is no other Person -except for the Son- from which the Spirit can originate, we can thus appreciate the need for the Filioque, inasmuch as the Spirit has to originate from a relationship, and not from one single person.

With the Reform, Protestants inaugurated an entirely different approach. They cast out all this theology that speaks of the Essence of God, or of God as a metaphysical Being. In their place, they introduced the principle that we recognize God through His works in Providence, in History. In this way, we always commence from History, i.e., what God did throughout History.  That is our basis; We cannot have a metaphysical theology on God.

The interesting thing is that, with this approach, the Protestants supported the Filioque in another way.  They claimed that since the Holy Trinity appears in Providence, in History, in this manner, i.e., that the Father sends forth the Son, and the Son gives the Spirit, the Spirit is therefore given to us by the Son. Given that everything we know and can say about God is dependent on what we see in Providence, in History, we must therefore say that the Spirit is dependent on the Son, and not just the Father.

In this way, Protestants returned to the confusion that the Westerners had introduced, back in the 4th century, between the two meanings that are expressed by two different verbs in the Holy Bible: the verb «åêðïñåýåôáé» (travelling/proceeding out of) and «ðÝìðåôáé» (sent by).  The Spirit proceeds from the Father, but it is sent -or is given to Providence- by the Son or through the Son.  Therefore, the Son apparently has something to do with the appearance of the Holy Spirit.

In the West, both these two verbs had been translated into Latin -from the very beginning- with the one verb: “to proceed”.  This caused confusion.  When saying that the Spirit originates from the Father and the Son, what are we referring to? Are we referring to the eternal existence of God, or of Providence, where the Spirit is given through the Son?

For the Protestants, there can be no talk of an eternal Trinity, except only with regard to Providence. Consequently, “procedure” expressed both the “travelling out of” and the “sent by”; in other words, both the eternal relationship of God in His eternal existence, and His eternal Providence.

This was the situation in the West, and these were the arguments used, to theologically found the Filioque. Now let’s see what the arguments against the Filioque were in the East, when the politics on this problem became more exacerbated between the East and the West.

First: The East found it difficult to give precedence to the Essence and not the Persons; i.e., that primarily, the one God is the Essence; that God is expressed by an essence and that the three Persons are relationships within that one Essence. It was difficult for the East, because for Eastern Theology – the Theology of the Cappadocian Fathers – the one God is the Father; the one God is not a faceless Essence. It is the Person of the Father.

Now let’s see how this made things difficult for the East.  If the one God is the Father, then, by making the Son equally the Source of the Holy Spirit, it would be like acknowledging two Gods, two ontological principalities in the Holy Trinity. Monotheism would be at risk.

In the West, this problem does not exist, because for them, monotheism is secure, with the essence. The essence expresses the one God.  Thus we have here a discontinuation in the discussion, because the argument posed by the one side was not a valid argument for the other side

For the East, this was a very powerful point, i.e., that with the Filioque, ditheism is being introduced. Because for the East, that which secures the one God, the unity of God, is that the Person of the Father is the Source, the only Source, the only Causer. That which secures monotheism in Patristic thought is monarchy (sovereignty). In God there is monarchy, from which stems God’s entire Life. This one principality is not the one Essence, which the Persons spring from; the one principality is the one Person –the Father- Who gives birth to the Son, and sends forth the Spirit.

If we try to parallel monotheism to monarchy, the following question is posed: Where do we place monarchy?  If we place it inside the Essence, we don’t have a problem with the Filioque – monarchy is preserved. But if we place monarchy inside the Person of the Father, then we cannot have the Filioque, because that would signify an acknowledgement of two principalities in God; in other words, we would be annulling monarchy (sovereignty). The Father would no longer express monarchy.  And if monarchy is annulled, so is monotheism, because here is the sensitive point in the Holy Trinity.

How can we have three Persons, without having three separate Gods?  That which allows us to escape this danger of not having three Gods, is that in these three Gods, the two of the three come from the one Source. The one God is now understood from the aspect of principality, since it is One, who provides existence to the whole Holy Trinity; God is one.  Given that these three Gods are Uncreated and are naturally in perpetual Communion between each other, we do not have a case of three separate Gods.

So, that which secures the one God is the monarchy (sovereignty) of the Father. Consequently, if we annul the monarchy of the Father and introduce the Son as a new principality, then we are annulling the monarchy and we no longer have any means of supporting monotheism; not unless we support monarchy in the essence, as they did in the West.

This was one of the serious arguments, one of the greater difficulties that the East had to confront opposite the West.

The second difficulty lies in the similes used by Augustine, when resorting to psychological characteristics to describe the Holy Trinity.  He asserted that the Father is Memory, the Son is Knowledge, and the Spirit is Love.  For the Eastern Greek Fathers, these created a serious problem of anthropomorphism in God, because it was the projection of human experiences onto God. The Greek Fathers’ view is that we cannot resort to such arguments (that the Son is Knowledge and the Spirit is Love) and use them to support the Filioque. According to the Greek Fathers, the only thing we can say about the Father, the Son and the Spirit is that: the Father is Unborn and that He is the Father; the Son is Born and that He is the Son; and the Spirit “proceeds from” and that He is the Spirit. All of these characteristics are what we call hypostatic characteristics, which have to do with their “being”; with the how these three Persons came into being.  

We cannot say what psychological characteristics each of the three Persons might have, because that would inevitably entail anthropomorphism.

So, we have here a kind of negation, which however is not agnosticism; i.e., we aren’t saying that we don’t know anything; we are simply saying that what we do know about God, about the Father, are not things that we have taken from human experience; they merely denote God’s manner of existence – they denote how God exists.

We have a similar problem, when giving precedence to Knowledge instead of Love. To the Easterners, Knowledge does not precede Love. We need to remember what we said about the cognizance of persons and the cognizance of things. In order to recognize something as a person,  I need to simultaneously love it. I cannot firstly attain cognizance and then love. Therefore, if the Spirit is Love, it cannot be something that is pursuant to the Son, if we uphold that the Son is Knowledge.  For the Easterners, Augustine’s argument that Knowledge precedes Love is unfounded.  Love is linked to Knowledge; we “know” persons, only to the degree that we love them.

Under what conditions can Orthodoxy therefore accept the Filioque?

The Filioque can be understood Orthodoxically, and it can become accepted by Orthodoxy, under certain conditions.

The first condition is to uphold the discernment between the eternal and the providential Trinity. Confusion however exists in the West, between “proceeding from” and “sent forth”. The “proceeding from” pertains to the eternal existence of God, while the “sent forth” pertains to providence. These two terms are clearly distinguished in the East, because it is one thing to say that the Spirit is equally dependent on the Son with regard to Providence; in other words, that the Spirit is given to us in History because Providence is chiefly the Son’s; that the Son is incarnated, and that the He gives us the Spirit, through Providence. And it is another thing, to say that this dependency between the Son and the Spirit somehow also pertains to the “proceeding from”, i.e., to the eternal, never-ending existence of God.  In Eastern tradition, these two must be clearly discerned.

As far as the eternal Trinity is concerned:  The Eternal Existence of God does not allow us to speak of the Filioque, because the Causer is only one – the Father.  We cannot have the Son as the co-Causer.

Despite all the above, the Greek Fathers do make a certain distinction. They allow a particular role to the Son, during the “procession” of the Holy Spirit. In one of the passages by Saint Gregory of Nyssa, which is a key passage for this subject, he says:  “We do not deny the difference between Him (the Father), who exists as the Causer, and Him, Who is of the Causer”.  In this way, we can comprehend how the one Person is distinguished from the other Person; i.e., by realizing that “the cause” is one thing, and that “of the cause” is another thing.  In other words, if we ask what the difference is between the Father and the Son (or the Father and the Spirit), then, according to the above passage, the difference is that the Father is “the Cause”, while the Son and the Spirit are “of the Cause”.  Therefore, the distinction between “the Causer” and “of the Causer” is extremely significant.

Gregory continues his “key passage”, by saying: “as for that which is of the causer (=the Son), we acknowledge a further difference (that for both the Son and the Spirit, “the Causer” is the Father, while the Son and the Spirit are both “of the Causer”). One difference is that the Son originates immediately, directly from the First, from the Cause, whereas the other, the Spirit, originates via the One who originates directly from the First; through the intervention, the mediation of the Son.”

And why is this? Because, in this way, the mediation of the Son in divine life preserves His characteristic as the Only-born, while the natural, the essential relationship of the Spirit towards the Father is not annulled. In other words, the problem is that we must somehow move away from the notion of two Sons; to concede that the Son is the only-born son, and that there is no second Son.

According to Gregory, this compels us to “attribute” to the Son a characteristic, an intermediary role –a mediation– in the “procedure” of the Spirit. This mediation preserves the essential relationship of the Spirit with the Father. This is what led many to the idea that there is an “orthodox Filioque” and that the Filioque is admissible, provided it doesn’t refer to the Persons; in other words, that the Spirit does not proceed from the (Person of the) Son also, but that it proceeds from the Essence of the Father, which is common between Father and Son..

As for the status of the Essence, well, it could be considered a “dependency” by the Son…This is in a certain way correct, but it also creates various difficulties, because neither the Son nor the Spirit proceeds from the Essence directly; because the Son is born of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds out of the Father, i.e., out of the Person of the Father.  It is difficult for one to discern these two statuses –of essence and hypostasis- given that it is the hypostasis that provides existence.

In the passage we just mentioned, there is a certain truth in the fact that the Filioque can somehow become acceptable, except in the way it discerns between Providence and eternal Godhood, where the issue is very clear.

But even here, it can become acceptable.  In what way?  If we don’t accept the discerning of those two statuses between essence and person.   What matters in the Cappadocian Fathers’ Theology is that we are not allowed to attribute the role of Causer to the Son.

Since we do not recognize the role of Causer in the Son, one could say that any other role of the Son in the procedure of the Spirit is permissible.

In conclusion, the Filioque would be acceptable, under the condition that the Son does not become the Causer of the Spirit, and that the Cause is only one: the Father.  That is where Maximus the Confessor –and Photios the Great later on- rested their entire line of arguments against the Filioque.  Because according to them, the Westerners were bestowing the role of Causer on the Son also.

The reason why it is so important not to attribute such a role to the Son is because it is only in that way, that we preserve monotheism, monarchy.

Because the question was posed in recent years, and because it had also been posed during the 15th century at the synod of Florence, whether the Filioque can be theologized or if it is a heresy, the answer is that it depends on one thing only, and that is:  if –with the Filioque- we acknowledge the Son as ontologically the co-Causer of the Existence of the Spirit, together with the Father. If we interpret the Filioque in a way that does not make the Son the Cause, but reserves the role of Causer exclusively for the Father, then the Filioque can be taken into consideration for theologizing and become accepted.




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Transcript by B. T.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 21-2-2006.

Last update: 1-3-2006.