Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Will The Real Trinity Please Stand Up!


The uncontroversial third article of the creed of 381 became highly controversial some centuries later and led to the Great Shcism between east and west. Where the creed had originally affirmed that the Spirit proceeded from the Father, the west, in an excess anti-Arian zeal, began to confess that the Spirit preceded from the Father and the Son (The Council of Toledo 589 AD). This addition however, was violently rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Churches. (Nicene Christianity, Seitz, 2001).


Many western Christians have no idea why it is that the eastern church gets so frazzled about the “Filioque” clause that was added to the Nicene Creed. The fact is however that for most western reformation Christians, the Trinity is not central to daily life. Yes, reformation Christians know that the Father is credited for bringing about the creation, the Son for redemption of that creation, and the Spirit for the giving life, but beyond that the doctrine looses its centrality. Not so for the first millennium churches. Each of the two communions, the Latin and the Greek, developed a different way of looking at the Trinity and therefore at looking at God.

The Trinity can only be approached from two perspectives, either from the oneness of the godhead (the west), or from the three-ness of the godhead (east). Since Augustine, the west saw the oneness as the place to begin, pure essence, thus in the godhead they concluded was a hierarchy. The Father is first, & He begets the Son, the Son is second, and from the two together proceeds the Spirit. The east however, saw no hierarchy in the godhead, only a circle of mutual self- emptying love. Hence, the Father begets the Son, and from the Father proceeds the Spirit. The Spirit proceeds to the Son & back to the Father, through the Spirit the Father begets the Son, who in turn gives himself to the Father. In this view God is a concilliar Godhead living in perfect wholeness and love, rather than a hierarchical godhead that flows from the top down.

These two differing views produce two different Gods, two different kinds of churches, and two different views of salvation. One sees a monarch that needs to be satisfied for the wrongs done to him, the other sees a co-equal God, each person serving the other. One sees salvation as keeping the hierarch happy by satisfying his legal requirements thru payment, the other sees salvation as on entering into the concilliar life of the godhead by the destruction of death. One sees the church as hierarchical, the lower serving the greater (papal), the other sees the church as concilliar, all serving one another with order.

Thus it is easy to see that unilaterally altering the creed was not only destructive to unity, but also injured the church, and salvation itself, and we in the west now bear its injuries.


  1. Dear Father Carlos,

    I am not sure whether the "filioque" objection from "my" side of the fence is all that genuine. It would seem - for example - that anti-filioque thought first stirs up from the Nestorianizing party (Theodoret of Cyrus comes to mind) against St. Cyril of Alexandria who taught the dreaded filioque. Somehow, I forget exactly how and why, the filioque argument was a minor point of distinction between "orthodox" and Nestorian. Interestingly orthodoxy was defined by adhering to filioque. Other Greek Fathers have adhered to filioque and among the most prominent is perhaps the staunch "Old Nicene" St. Epiphanius of Salamis undoubtedly the greatest heresy-hunter of his day and age.

    Iow the Eastern Orthodox objection to filioque as heresy is really kind of bogus and it si about time we owned up to it. In fact a modern Orthodox Church Father - Metropolitan Kalistos Ware has already done so: "The filioque controversy which has separated us for so many centuries is more than a mere technicality, but it is not insoluble. Qualifying the firm position taken when I wrote [my book] The Orthodox Church twenty years ago, I now believe, after further study, that the problem is more in the area of semantics and different emphases than in any basic doctrinal differences" (Diakonia, quoted from Elias Zoghby’s A Voice from the Byzantine East, 43). I applaud His Beautitude's bravery!

    Often in Orthodox spin concerning the filioque the blame of the Western Trinity is placed on St. Augustine - the greatest among Church Fathers of East AND West. I am not so sure it is fair to St. Augustine to state that his view of the Trinity starts with the "godhead" or "essence" - as has been the custom since it was first posited by the (Western) theologian Theodore de Regnon. In Letter 210 St. Augustine states the following:

    "... the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are a Trinity..."

    and he continues to say that:

    "... there is nonetheless one God, not that the divinity is common to these as if it were a fourth, but that it is itself the ineffable inseparable Trinity ..."

    "... the essence is nothing other than the Trinity itself (from "Orthodox Readings of Augustine, SVS Press 2008, p. 136)."

    It seems to me that for St. Augustine the unity of the Trinity is personal not essential as has been suggested since de Regnon. There is only Father, Son and Spirit in the Trinity and it is simply not possible for Augustine to start with a "godhead" he says isn't even there to begin with. For to separate what-it-is that makes Father, Son and Spirit God from the persons would to posit such an "essence" or "godhead" as a "fourth" which he (just like the Eastern theologians and Fathers) denies is possble.

    It is also interesting to note that "alone" (as in "from the Father ALONE") is also not in the Creed. It is an interpretation ADDED by the Orthodox to the reading of the Creed. Neither Scripture nor the Creed teach the Photinian "alone" clause and we the Orthodox - by merit of our own argument - do not have the authority to unilaterally force our interpretation as the only one. Filioque has clearly been received in the Western tradition despite the East opposing it. It seems to me that V. V. Bolotov, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, Metr. Kalistos Ware (and others) are correct in treating the filioque as a Western theological opinion and NOT a heresy.

  2. The addition of filioque to the Creed seems to me to be the ONLY real issue with the whole thing. The clause itself is perfectly orthodox and can be found as a doctrine among the greatest and earliest of Orthodox Church Fathers. It seems to me that the clause is invoked today in Orthodox circles, as an instrument of rationalizing our continued separation from other Christians - particularly Roman Christians. If we can say they are heretics to the point of even disagreeing on the Trinity - it is obvious we cannot have communion with them. To me this is no longer credible. I admit to having used the clause that way, and have repented. There really is no problem with the doctrine as such, there is a problem in adding it to the Creed because this begs the question of authority in the Church ...

    Who can add to the Creed? The Pope or the Church in Council?

    Fr. Gregory Wassen +

  3. Fr Gregory,

    I truly appreciate your comments; it's not often that an Eastern Orthodox priest defends the west in any way. I have often thought that Easterners who love the west and Westerners who love the east should be the ones who would sort out the break between the two. I guess that this puts us in a good spot.

    I should start by saying that I am familiar with the Orthodox who have been sympathetic to double procession in the past, not least is Met. Ware who I respect greatly. However, as you most probably know, there have been westerners who have rejected the filioque, not least of which was a Pope in the 9th century. In spite of those who cross over their party lines, it is beyond argument that as a whole the east rejects the filioque outright, & most westerners reject removing it even though it was inserted unilaterally. So you are absolutely correct when you say that the debate is primarily about who gets to decide doctrine, the pope, or a council. More specifically, who gets to decide the doctrine of who God is. I believe that the Orthodox answer is right on target: it should be a church council, so long as it is accepted as ecumenical, and that has already happened.

    I also agree with the second point that you make when you state that the debate is primarily one of Semantics & emphasis. Yet, to that I say, semantics & emphasis matter; the doctrine of double procession affects other doctrines also. My main argument against it is that in the west double procession has painted Trinity negatively, & it has done so by emphasizing the hierarchical nature of God above the concilliar nature of God. Surely there is a kind of hierarchy within the God-head, yet, we should ask where should the emphasis go, on hierarchy or conciliarity? How one answers that will have huge ramifications. The west has chosen hierarchy, & that emphasis has given the west a God who is in many ways different from the God of the east. Salvation in the mind of the west is based on legal satisfaction of the heirarch, & not life within the God-head. In my mind, this is precisely where the conversation needs to be.

  4. Dear Father Carlos,

    Thank you. I am after all a "Western" Christian myself and I have a strong preference to my "native spiritual culture" which is neither Byzantine nor Russian. So I am greatly concerned with the Catholic Anglicans and our reconciliation - which ought to be precisely that and not a conversion/absorption things such as is now the case. Had Catholic Anglicanism been around where I lived an x-number of years ago I might not have been where I am today.

    I am aware of the rejection of filioque in the early Western Church. Yet a the same time I am aware of the Scriptural precedent of filioque insofar as the Spirit is called the "Spirit of Christ" (and similar such formulas). Also the hierarchical view of the Trinity is stronger in the non-filioque thought based on the Cappadocians as it is in Western filioquist thinking. After all the Orthodox objection concerns the 'monarchia' of the Father as denied to the Son and the Spirit - which is why (I believe) the Cappadocian trinitarian 'grammar' is ultimately unsuccesfull in warding off tr-theist accusations. It is with St. Augustine's emphasis on the "unity of trinitarian operation" (which is to be understood personally and not essentially) that these accusations are finally (and decisively) put to rest. The filioque as the 'bond of love' tying the Trinity together as Trinity is less 'hierarchical' and more 'conciliar' (I would argue) as is the view found among Orthodox scholars such as Metr. John of Pergamum (Zizioulas). Or at the very least fits their 'conciliar' and 'personalist' theology better as does 'mere' Cappadocian theology ('mere' of course being a relative term here! ).

    Fr. Gregory+

  5. Fr Gregory,

    I would love to read Zizioulas take on Augustine, I'm sure that he has much to contribute to a balanced understanding of his position. Please understand that I don't mean to belittle Augustine; he was, whether folks like it or not, one of the greatest of the fathers. What I am arguing against, is interpreting Augustine in such a way that patristic support is found for the emphasis on the hierarchical nature of the Trinity over the concilliar nature of the Trinity. My charge against the west is that this is precisely what has occurred, & whether it has been done by rightly or wrongly interpreting Augustine, he has been their patristic launching pad. Perhaps its time to set the record straight on Augustine, I’m all for that.

    There is also an excellent treatment on the reconciliation of eastern and western views on the filioque found in the book “Nicene Christianity,” edited by Christopher Seitz. I will address my next blog to the subject of reconciling the two views. Again, thank you for coming to the defense of the west, I appreciate your comments.

  6. Dear Fr. Carlos,

    I'm sorry for phrasing things rather clumsily. I meant to say that Augustine's views are more conciliar in comparison to Metr. Zizioulas' views. His Beautitude Zizioulas is very critical of Augustine. A better source would "The Legacy of Nicea" and more recent work by Lewis Ayres. I sat with Fr. John Behr for a few courses in trinitarian theology/patristics and was always bothered by the treatment Augustine received - especially when Fr. John admitted not having read Augustine. THAT - I believe - is typical of Orthodoxy.

    Btw as much as I agree with the observation of Karl Rahner back in the day that Christians are practically modalists not Trinitarians, it was Rahner (again a Western theologian) at the forefront of the renewal of trinitarian theology. The Orthodox followed his in his wake. For Orthodoxy may not be tempted to modalism so much as it is tempted to tri-theism. "Three in Communion" is not necessarily "one" and it was Fr. Bulgakov who solved that problem in his "sophianic" approach to trinitarian theology where he borrowed heavily from Augustine!

    Again I am in agreement with your assessment of western theology and its onesidedness, but having spent enough time on the Eastern side of the fence I am equally critical of some Eastern onesidedness. It is one reason I believe East and West are in need of the other to be whole.

    Fr. Gregory+