Would everyone who’s familiar with the Nicene Creed please raise your hand. Excellent! I see everybody has their hand up! Now anyone who can explain filioque please keep your hand up. Well, I still see a couple hands. So, can any of you guys justify the Filioque Controversy? <pregnant pause> You there in the back with your hand still up – I don’t think you’re paying attention!
When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312AD he soon discovered that there were quarreling factions in his adopted religion. In 325 he convened a council in the city of Nicaea (in northeast Turkey) with instructions to hammer out agreements on several vexing problems, such as resolving the date of Easter. But the most critical issue by far was dealing with the Arian Controversy. A priest named Arius and his followers had been arguing that only the Father was eternal God, and the Son (as well as the Holy Spirit) were created by Him. Over months of debate the council ultimately worked out the Nicene Creed, which only Arius and two of his followers refused to sign onto (and were then expelled as heretics).
The first two articles of that Nicene Creed of 325 (which deal with the Father and the Son) were essentially the same as what we today recite (except in Greek). But the third article, about the Holy Spirit, was brief in the extreme: it simply said “And [I believe] in the Holy Ghost.” That makes a kind of sense in view of the fact that the assignment was only to clarify the divine nature of Christ, which this first version of the Nicene Creed did address quite effectively. But as the Creed gained wider use as the primary statement of belief among Christians, that minimalist attention to the Third Person of the Trinity became a glaring weakness.
Thus, it was at the Second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 381 that the present third article was created – ALMOST identical to what we say today. It used the exact same phrase to express the Spirit’s relation to the Father as the second article uses for the Son, that is: “proceeds from the Father.” Now that phrase describes a relationship that is, by any measure, exceedingly mysterious. In fact, it’s doubtful that any human theologian could tell you precisely what ‘proceeds’ means, other than that it implies an eternal ‘emanating-from-the-Father’ relationship, and not ‘creation.’
But some theologians began to think that saying that both Son and Spirit separately proceed from the Father implied that the Spirit is independent from the Son, which contradicts the many passages that speak of “the Spirit of Christ” (e.g., Romans 8:9). Thus, some Latin-speaking churches began saying the Third Article as: “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” That little clause “and (from) the Son” is expressed by the Latin term filioque (‘fill-ee-OH-kway’) which became (and remains) a major bone of contention.
Though there are legitimate theological issues here, the filioque became such a hot-button issue largely because it was also at this time that tensions between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity were building towards the Great Schism that split apart the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The latter opposed the inclusion of the filioque clause and when Pope Benedict VIII adopted it as part of the Roman Mass in 1014, that was seen as usurping an authority that had heretofore been exercised by Ecumenical Councils. And so, to this day, Western Christians include the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and Eastern Christians don’t.
In modern times, some theologians on both sides of the issue have suggested that this is really a matter of semantics more than a bona-fide theological difference (“through the Son” has been suggested as a compromise). But so far, efforts to agree on a truly ecumenical wording have been unsuccessful and this remains a basic issue dividing the world’s Christians.
So there you have it. We’ve told the story of HOW the filioque controversy came to be. But it’s nearly impossible to explain WHY Christians remain so divided by a nuance of wording when we all agree that the eternal relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit in One Triune God transcends human understanding. Though this may be an important issue of academic importance for theologians, it’s hard to justify why worshipping Christians should be divided in our witness by an obscure thing like this.