The Filioque and 1800 Years of History in 800 Words

Dear Friends,

Since this coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday, it seems to me a good time to lean into a point of some confusion regarding the Nicene Creed.

You may have noticed that when we say together the words of the Nicene Creed during liturgy, most often in the 9:00 service, there is one phrase that is usually not written in the bulletin (but occasionally makes an inadvertent appearance). You may also have noticed that occasionally one or two voices will steam forward to say the three unwritten words, even when it is not spoken by most others. Always makes me chuckle.

But what is happening?

First, we should say something about those words: “and the Son.” This phrase is usually known by its Latin: “filioque.” The filioque was not part of the Nicene Creed hashed out in the 4th century Council of Nicaea. Bishops then were called together by Constantine to negotiate terms of a theological metanarrative that might bind the Christian church together in a new orthodoxy, across a broad and diverse empire.

Those then, as always, used language and images readily familiar in their conceptions of cosmology, of nature, of power, and of the nascent stories of Christ and Christianity to attempt to describe mysteries that are not entirely accessible to us in language. Here we are, ~1800 years later, still leaning into the language of Father-Son-Holy Spirit to articulate Christian faith in a Triune God. (And—we might add—contending, critiquing, and quarreling with such theology and language, as thoughtful and faithful people do.)

The earliest Nicene Creed contained no filioque, no articulation that, within the unity of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father AND THE SON. The patriarchal lens of naming Trinity sought to elevate the person of the Father in such a way to remain over or central to the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So that the Son AND the Holy Spirit proceed directly from the Father, and not each one proceeding successively in a descending line of subordination.

(Whew that’s a lot!)

What I haven’t said yet is that over the next 600 years, regional and local church councils throughout Europe debated a possible need to clarify the language of Trinity. Folks sought revisions to refute new ideas and so-called heresies that were challenging the historic unity and understanding. While the ongoing debate caused tension, it didn’t come to a head until 1014 when the Pope formally adopted the filioque into the Creed, for the churches under his authority in the West. This change to the Creed—and the Pope’s assertion of authority to make such a unilateral change—represented the formal break often known as the Great Schism. This is when the world really began to see a rise of two churches – the West and the East (in common vernacular, the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox).

Now – since our own Episcopal Church/Anglican tradition emerges from the Church of England’s break with Rome in the 15th century, we inherit the Roman variation of the Creed that includes the filioque. This is the version of the Creed that is printed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and it is most familiar to folks who grew up using the BCP or saying the Creed in another Protestant or Roman tradition). “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

Just in the last few decades, The Episcopal Church has revisited the record and slowly begun a return to the more historic Nicene Creed in pursuit of ecumenism across the wider Church. Thanks to Sherman Hesselgrave for reminding me that in 1994 General Convention approved a resolution to remove “and the Son” from the next revision of the Book of Common Prayer (whenever that may happen), and to allow for its exclusion in liturgies using supplemental materials. And this is why our practice in the last few years has been to say the Nicene Creed without the filioque—“and the Son”—unless it gets accidentally slipped into a bulletin! It is a more historic choice. It is an ecumenically motivated choice. And it’s just different enough to fit the St. Michael’s vibe! Ha!

We shouldn’t gloss over the Creed’s origins in a 4th century project of Empire, and the language of patriarchy that undermines an understanding of God as pure Love. It is important to name those problems with language rooted in a different time. My approach has been to turn up the heat around it, rather than excise it altogether. As with so many aspects of an old religion, we can name the limits and troubles inherent in problematic language and allow that light and heat to motivate us toward new understanding and more generative language for our own time.

And now that I’ve gotten this history lesson out of the way, I’ll seek to do just that in my sermon for Trinity Sunday. Let’s see if we can find Love, revealed in Jesus Christ, to inspire us and lead us on.

With you,

The Rev. R. Scott Painter, Rector