Today’s bit of helpful Latin was one small word that played a big role in splitting the church: Filioque — that’s pronounced “Fili-o-kway.” In English it translates to “and the Son.” “Filioque” was a word added to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church at the Third Council of Toledo in 589. In the original form of the Nicene Creed, adopted in 381, the Holy Spirit was confessed only to proceed from the Father. However, in 589, the Western Church decided to insert “Filioque,” meaning that the Holy Spirit is confessed to proceed from both the Father and the Son.
This change was never accepted by the Eastern Church. To this day, Eastern Orthodoxy continues to hold the original Nicene Creed with a single procession, while in the West confessional Protestantism and Roman Catholicism maintain a double procession. The Third Council of Toledo was not an ecumenical council and therefore the Eastern Church did not participate. They were later astounded to discover that the Western Church went ahead and unilaterally changed an ecumenical creed at a non-ecumenical council. Adding further fuel to their ire was the fact that there was an explicit Nicean canon that the wording of the creed was not to be altered. Of course, beyond procedure there was also the question of whether the Filioque clause was theologically correct — the East insisted it was not.
As mentioned, the West made this change in 589, but the Great Schism between West and East didn’t happen until 1054. The Filioque was a major thorn in the East’s side for nearly five centuries. But there were other irritations contributing to gradual estrangement. Finally, in 1054, things boiled over with leaders from each side excommunicating one another. While these excommunications were undone in 1965, the rift between East and West remains, as does the Filioque in Western editions of the Nicene Creed.
The history is interesting, but the more important question is whether the Filioque is biblical. I believe it is. Let me just mention two places where I see this truth revealed in Scripture. In Acts 2, we read about Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the church. In Acts 2:33, Peter says that Christ “has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” The Holy Spirit was poured out by Christ. No, it does not say “proceeds,” but the thought is the same. The Holy Spirit has come from Christ to be poured out on the church. There is also John 15:26 where Jesus says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” In this instance, there is a clear reference to the Spirit’s procession from the Father. Yet it should not be overlooked that Christ also speaks of his own sending of the Holy Spirit.
But what does it mean exactly to confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son? What exactly is “procession”? There is mystery here. We can safely say what it is not. It is not the same as the begetting that we confess of the Son in relation to the Father. But beyond that, I find myself sympathizing with Donald Macleod in Behold Your God: “What this ontological procession actually is or what is meant by the Father and the Son spirating or breathing the Spirit, we simply do not know” (p.198).
Finally, does it really matter? For the sake of recovering unity with the East, could we not shelve the Filioque? In response, the East has far more problems than this that would stand in the way of rapprochement with biblical Christians. And it does matter, because despite the procedural issues which led to its acceptance in the West, the Filioque is biblical. Theologically speaking, it matters because it’s a matter of honour for our Lord Christ. As Donald Macleod notes, “To deny that the Son participates in the procession of the Holy Spirit is to reduce His status” (p.202).
In theology, words matter supremely. Just one word can make a huge difference. So, the next time you confess the Nicene Creed in public worship, don’t gloss over “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Think about that and then honour and adore also the Son for his role in blessing us with the Holy Spirit.