228. The Filioque and Christian Unity

On a recent symposium addressing the old controversy in the hope of breaking new ground
Filioque (“and from the Son”) is the Latin expression that the Western church added to the article of the Nicene Creed concerning the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Filioque).
The point that was intended to be made by the insertion was twofold. On the one hand, it wanted to honor what Jesus himself had affirmed when He said: “I will send you the Helper … the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26; see also 14:26), thus indicating an active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit. On the other hand, the Filioque wanted to reinforce the recognition of the full deity of Jesus Christ, which had been challenged by the heresy of Arianism, according to which Jesus was a divine creature but not God himself.
The Eastern Church rejected the Filioque because it was introduced without prior consultation and because the Church feared that it could infringe on the Father’s unique role in the procession of the Spirit.[1] Of course, there are better places to review the millennium-old controversy which has complex theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural overtones. However, the reference to the Filioque is nonetheless necessary to introduce a conference that took place in Rome on the topic.
On April 9th, I participated in a theological symposium on the Filioque at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the flagship academic institution of the powerful Catholic organization, Opus Dei. Professor Giulio Maspero’s book Rethinking the Filioque with the Greek Fathers (Eerdmans, 2023) was at the center of the discussion, and the symposium was the opportunity to test the book’s ecumenical proposal. In a nutshell, Maspero suggests to re-signify the Filioque in a way that is acceptable to the West and the East, and to do so, he goes back to the lesson of Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocian Fathers who used relational and non-essentialist categories in thinking about the procession of the Spirit.
“In the fourth century, when Pneumatomachians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Cappadocian Fathers came to a relational understanding” of the Holy Spirit, i.e., He “was conceived of as the glory and power eternally exchanged between the Father and the Son.”
According to Maspero, the Cappadocians help us to overcome the misunderstanding of the procession of the Spirit. They taught that the Son has an “active role” in it, not a “causative” one which only the Father has.
At the symposium, prominent scholars took part and debated the proposal. Among them were Khaled Anatolios, dean of the School of Theology of the University of Notre Dame and a leading authority on Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea; Edward Siecienski, author of The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (OUP, 2013), the definitive book on the topic; and Msgr. Andrea Palmieri, of the Pontifical Dicastery for Christian Unity. I was invited to the table to represent an evangelical voice.
In my remarks, I underlined that Maspero’s distinction between the essentialist approach (with its emphasis on cause/causation) and the personalist one that was apparently favored by Gregory of Nyssa strikes as very promising. On the one hand, the Reformers arguably abandoned essentialism and theories of causation, which are not biblical and almost inevitably must lead to some form of subordinationist heresy, whether it is linear or triangular. On the other hand, a personalist approach allows for the full equality of the Persons of the Trinity and emphasizes their mutual relations. It is into those relations that believers are drawn by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, making it vitally important for us that he should communicate an equal relationship with the Father and the Son. If that is what Gregory of Nyssa was saying (as Maspero seems to think it was), then evangelical theology has much in common with him.
In short, the rediscovery of the Cappadocians’ personalist and relational categories that challenge the essentialist categories of Greek metaphysics introduced into much Christian theology is laudable. The appreciation of the active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit from the Father helps to break out of the impasse of thinking of the procession as “caused” by the Father and the Son, with the risk of having two sources of divinity and not one.
While locating itself on the Western side of the Filioque, Evangelical theology has always shown at least implicit appreciation of the Cappadocians (e.g., John Calvin), thought that the East was not heretical for not subscribing to the Filioque (e.g., Francis Turretin), and more recently maintained an open-minded attitude toward the issue (e.g., Gerald Bray, Robert Letham, John Frame).
After appreciating Maspero’s proposal, I took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions to contribute to further the discussion, especially regarding the ecumenical proposal.
First, if it is right to move beyond the “causative” categories to recover the biblical ones that are relational, should we not also do so for the sacraments and thus move out of the causative sacramental mechanisms of Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology to appreciate the action of the Spirit in communicating grace by faith alone in Christ alone? In other words, we cannot limit the recovery of relationality to the Filioque issue alone but must extend it to all theology, as Scripture invites us to do and as the Reformation did.
Evangelicals do not believe that the Holy Spirit comes down into the sacramental elements by an act of invocation or epiclesis. That idea fits in very well with the mystical notion of the resting of the Spirit on the Son and is explained in terms of “causation,” but the Bible does not teach that the Spirit works in that way. It is not through the ministry or sacraments in causative terms but by a direct conviction of sin in our hearts that the Spirit builds up the church. While it is good to move away from causative categories in addressing the Filioque, should we not do the same in the area of the sacraments to re-discover the relational import of how God bestows his grace in his Son by the Spirit?
Second, since Maspero’s proposal is ecumenical, the question is: Are we sure that by smoothing the corners on the Filioque there is a genuine rapprochement? Historic divisions in Christianity are made of layers and levels that have affected the deep structures of the different confessions. The Catholic “system” differs from the Orthodox and Protestant systems. What lies at the heart of the respective faiths is a complex combination of theology, history, politics, culture, etc. The Filioque may have some weight, but other issues have a much greater impact on the real differences and divisions.
One indicative example in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue is the acclaimed 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed 25 years ago between Lutherans and Catholics. Ecumenical theologians and leaders considered it a watershed in ecumenical relationships and overcoming the issues that had caused the Reformation. These initial enthusiastic expectations have proved to be wishful thinking. JDDJ is so ambiguous and inconclusive that it has left both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran “systems” untouched. Not unsurprisingly, very little has changed since JDDJ. This is a sober reminder even for the conversations around the Filioque. We may come to a more common appreciation of the issue across the Christian spectrum, but will this new awareness touch on the foundational commitments of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical faiths?
Ultimately, we must ask if we are prepared to review and revise our traditions in light of Scripture as our ultimate authority and be willing to change accordingly. This is the real benefit and promise of the “Scripture Alone” principle, whether for Trinitarian discussions or the cause of Christian unity. Far from being reductionist or one-sided, the Scriptural principle goes deeper into the heart of issues and is the reliable entry point into divine truth to be confessed and lived out.

[1] On the whole issue see Gerald Bray, “The Filioque Clause in History and Theology”Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983) pp. 91-144, and Id., “The Double Procession of the Holy Spirit in Evangelical Theology Today: Do We Still Need It?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (1998) pp. 415-426

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227. Thomas Aquinas, a test case for evangelical discernment

Thomas Aquinas died on March 7, 1274, exactly 750 years ago. This year and next (the eighth centenary of his birth) will be special occasions to reckon with his legacy. Indeed, there will be conferences, publications, and various initiatives worldwide.
To approach Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is to encounter one of the all-time giants of theology. Thomas is second only to Augustine in his influence on Western Christianity. More specifically, for centuries, Roman Catholicism has regarded Thomas as its champion, the highest, most resounding, most complete voice of Roman Catholic thinking and believing. Canonized by John XXII as early as 1323 only forty-nine years after his death, he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pius V in 1567 as the quintessential Catholic theologian whose thinking would defeat the Reformation. During the Council of Trent, the Summa theologiae was symbolically placed next to the Bible as evidence of its primary importance in formulating the Tridentine decrees and canons against justification by faith alone. In the seventeenth century, Thomas was considered the defender of the Catholic theological system by Robert Bellarmine, the greatest anti-Protestant controversialist who influenced entire generations of Roman Catholic apologists.
In 1879, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, where he pointed to Thomas as the highest expression of philosophical and theological science in a climate marked by bitter confrontation with modern thought. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stipulated that the formation of priests should have Thomas as the supreme guide in their studies (Optatam Totius, no. 17).
In more recent years, Paul VI (Lumen ecclesiae, 1974) and John Paul II (Fides et ratio, 1998) expressed deferential appreciation by pointing to Thomas as a “master of thought and model of the right way of doing theology” (FR, no. 43). This is to say that the Church of Rome has appropriated Thomas persistently and convincedly, elevating him to the Roman Catholic theologian par excellence. Moreover, Thomas is the recognized authority behind many unbiblical developments in medieval and modern Roman Catholicism, from Trent to Vatican I and II. One cannot fail to see the distorting elements at the heart of his system that have generated departures, rather than approaches, to biblical faith.
In recent decades and with increasing intensification, Thomas has instead been brought closer to a Protestant theological sensibility. Today, there seems to be a widespread perception that Thomas is no longer a heritage for Roman Catholics and that evangelicals can and should learn much from Thomas. Protestant theologians (from Peter Martyr Vermigli to Herman Bavinck via Francis Turrettini) generally exercised theological discernment that enabled them to appreciate the aspects of his theology that fell within the groove of biblical and orthodox faith and to reject his teaching where it conflicted with Scripture. In other words, they did not espouse the Thomist system as such (including its metaphysics and epistemology). Still, they broke it down into its parts as far as possible to do so with integrity and used it “eclectically.” Their attention to Thomas was more methodological than substantive. They merely borrowed some of his ideas but did not assign them architectural importance.
While certain sectors of evangelical theology know a genuine flirtation with the thought of Thomas, it may be useful to recall the lesson of a great Reformed theologian like Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). As with other ancient and medieval church fathers, Bavinck adopts an approach to Thomas that has been described as “eclectic,” that is, free to pick up insights and theses from him in awareness of his being on the other side (the Roman Catholic side) from the foundations of evangelical theology. Within a theology anchored in Scripture, Bavinck reads Thomas with intelligence and spiritual acumen, using various elements without espousing his system. For Bavinck, grace does not elevate or perfect nature but redeems it from sin. This eclecticism is also how the Reformers and Reformed and Lutheran scholastics read Thomas, sometimes endorsing his positions and arguments but being clear that the framework of Thomas’ theology built on the nature-grace motif was distinct and distant from the evangelical faith.
This is not to reject Thomas as a quintessentially toxic theologian to be avoided at all costs, nor to elevate him as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, but to regard him as an indispensable interlocutor in the history of Christian thought to be read critically and generously in light of the principle of “sola Scriptura” that the Reformation called to the attention of the whole church.
P.S. Let me point out my upcoming book (May 2024) that can help evangelical discernment related to Thomas: Engaging with Thomas Aquinas. An Evangelical Approach (London, Apollos, 2024).

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