Some thoughts on the Filioque

In the Western version of the Nicene Creed (or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), a change was made in the article on the Holy Spirit. In Greek, it says (translated into English) that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” In later Western or Latin editions, which is the basis for most of the Western churches, including (most) Anglican and Lutheran ones, this was altered to say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This is known as the Filioque controversy. Some Greeks have said that this means that these traditions teach that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from two different principles. That, however, is not the case. In this post, I will try to explain why I think the Filioque is not just acceptable but central.

The interpretation of the Filioque in Western Christianity has always been (and remains) that the Spirit comes from the Father through the Son. Latin Christianity – whether Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, etc. – holds that the Spirit proceeds from one principle; the Father. So does the East. I do not think there are any definite theological differences between the two positions.

The traditional western approach does not state that the Father and the Son are two distinct principles but that the Father is the one principle from whom the Spirit proceeds, but that He does so through the Son. This principle was also held by Tarasius I, who was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 784. In a profession sent to pope Hadrian I, prior to the seventh ecumenical council (and read at said council), he stated that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father through (Gk. diá) the Son.” He did not change the text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed but he did acknowledge that when we say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, this implies that He does so through the Son.[1] And the reason why that is important is that if He did not proceed through the Son, there would be no relation between the Spirit and the Son. And since the relations are what constitutes personhood in the godhead, the Son would either be ontologically subordinate to the Father and the Spirit or we would have to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is polytheistic, not monotheistic.[2]

Some have noted that since Latin has more words for ‘and,’ it allows for more distinctions than Greek. Saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father kaí the Son (kaí being ‘and’ in Greek) would seem to entail that the Father and the Son were two different principles, which would make the Spirit subordinate to both and his relation to them would be identical, and thus you could not distinguish properly between the persons. In Latin, however, you can use the word et (which is basically kaí) or the word que (as in Filioque) which allows for more distinctions.

The traditional western teaching is that the Spirit does indeed proceed from the Father and the Son, but from one principle, from the Father, through the Son. But that does not mean that you should include the Filioque in the Greek version of the Creed (which the Roman Catholic Church does not do, by the way). And maybe we should not have it in the Western version of the Creed either.[3] But I think that it being there is good, as it helps us understand the relations in the Godhead. The Filioque is important in that it shows us that the Spirit is not subordinate to either the Father or the Son but also that the Son is not subordinate to the Father (or the Holy Spirit).

Notes:

[1] See Joannes Metaxas-Mariatos, The Filioque Controversy: Chapters from the eastern orthodox reaction: An historical-theological perspective (Master’s thesis, Durham University, 1988), 8-9.

[2] I also think that without the Filioque, it would be hard to argue for divine simplicity, but that is a discussion for another day.

[3] Some Eastern theologians argue that it is improper because it was introduced without conferring with Eastern theologians. I find that argument unpersuasive, for one very important reason. At Nicea, in 325, the Creed had this much to say about the Spirit: “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.” This, however was changed at the second ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381: “And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” See here. And guess what, there were no Western theologians present at the second ecumenical council.

Edit: I see no principled difference here. If the argument is that it needs to be affirmed to become an ecumenical council, I wonder why the same logic is not applied to the fourth ecumenical council in 451. Large portions of the oriental Church did not approve. Yet the Greeks did not claim that it was not an ecumenical council. The argument, then, boils down to ‘rules for thee but not for me.’ The West, of course, does not approve that. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Is Confession a sacrament in Lutheran theology?

It is often said that Lutheran churches only have two sacraments; Baptism and the Eucharist. The fact is that they have, at least,[1] three; Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confession, or more accurately confession and absolution, emphasis on the latter. And this can be shows by reference to what is arguably the most central of the specifically Lutheran confessions; Confessio Augustana (CA) or the Augsburg Confession. Although confession is never explicitly called a sacrament (but neither is Baptism),[2] we can conclude from both the historical context of the confession and its structure that it is indeed a sacrament.

The confession was presented at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg in 1530, primarily to show how Catholic and ecumentical the Lutheran congregations were and not how unique they were. Art. I-XXI presents the foundational Lutheran theology, before concluding: “This is nearly a complete summary of the teaching among us. As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”[3] We should, therefore, suppose that confession is a sacrament, since that was indeed the belief of the Roman Church at the time. The difference was not so much in the principle but in the fact that they opposed the fact that you need to remember and enumerate all the sins: “For this is impossible according to the psalm [19:12*]: “But who can detect their errors?”” (CA XI, cf. XXV).

The most compelling argument, however, in my opinion, is the structural one. CA VII concerns the Church (defined as the assembly of saints wherein “the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly”), CA VIII concerns the validity of the means of grace and the nature of the Church, CA IX concerns Baptism, CA X concerns the Eucharist, CA XI concerns confession, CA XII concerns repentance, penance, and absolution, CA XIII concerns the use of the sacraments, and CA XIV concerns Church order and the public exercise of the priestly office. Structurally speaking, then, it is quite obvious that confession (or or more accurately confession and absolution) is a sacrament. After two articles concerning the Church, the Word, and the sacraments (VII-VIII) we get four articles on the specific sacraments (IX-XII) before we find an article on the use of the sacraments (XIII). They could have put the articles on confession and repentance after the one on church order but they did not. It is, then, obvious that Confessio Augustana teaches that the sacrament of confession, is, well, a sacrament. So yes, confession is a sacrament in Lutheran theology.

Notes:

[1] As the Lutheran equivalent of an Anglo-Catholic, I firmly hold to that we have (at least) seven sacraments but I’ll try to argue for that some other time.

[2] The word ‘sacrament’ is used numerous times in during the confession but never directly about Baptism, though no one seriously doubts that Baptism is considered a sacrament in the confession. The Eucharist is called a sacrament in CA XXIV, though not in CA X.

[3] I make use of the translation found in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, trans., Charles P. Arand et al. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000), 27-105 (using the translation of the Latin text). For the Latin and German originals, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed. Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).

Creatio ex nihilo, Hebrew, and Greek

In my PhD one of the themes that reoccurs is that God creates from nothing, ex nihilo. Scripture gives witness to this but one thing that keeps bothering me is when people say that this is proven by the fact that the word used in Genesis 1:1 is the Hebrew word bârâ. This, it is claimed, means ‘create from nothing,’ and it is distinguished from the more ‘Greek’ notion of forming or making. This is often, it seems to me, invoked to create a distinction between ‘Hebrew thought’ and ‘Greek thought.’

The problem, though, is that baráh does not mean ‘create from nothing.’ It can mean many things: create, form, do, make. I do agree that in Genesis 1 it means ‘create from nothin,’ but that it not because the word is special. The word occurs 54 times in the Old Testament and not all of them include creation from nothing. An example is Joshua 17:15, where Joshua speaks to the tribe of Joseph: “If you are a numerous people, go up to the forest, and clear ground there for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and the Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.”

The fact is, we do not do theology purely through textual analysis. We do so through philosophy, metaphysics, tradition. And if you want a direct expression of creatio ex nihilo in the Old Testament, you (perhaps ironically) have to go to the Greek 2. Maccabees 7:28: “I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being.”

The word uses for ‘make’ is poiéō, ‘to make, do, form.’ It has the exact same function as the bârâ does in Genesis 1. Furthermore, we need to go to the New Testament (again, a Greek text), where St. Paul teaches us that God is the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).

So no, there is no ‘magic’ distinction between Hebrew and Greek here. Both are perfectly capable of putting into words one of the central themes of the Christian faith; that God creates everything from nothing, ex nihilo, and that He keeps it in existence ex nihilo.

Christ is risen!

This is a slightly edited translated version of a sermon I held at the Paschal Vigil in 2014.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

That is the Paschal Gospel, as formulated by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 1:8-10. But what does he mean when he says that Christ has “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”? What does that mean for us here and now? What, exactly, is the Gospel?

For us the word has become a Christian one, something only understood by those on the inside. But for the recipients of the letters of St. Paul, this was very real and very common. The word, which basically means ‘good news,’ was used by kings, princes, and emperors to mark important occasions and particularly their accession to the throne.[1] After the ‘chaos’ that followed the death of his predecessor, the new ruler would come and promise to introduce peace and stability. That, at least, was the rhetoric used. Life, however, remained the same for most people. And by the same, I mean equally bad. We have probably all heard the saying of Tacitus: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” But with Christ we see something different, something new.

He made the claim to be Christ, the Messiah, the representative of Israel. But he did not claim to be one of many ‘messiahs’ – just another political figure, just another man to free us from physical captivity; from Romans, corrupt Jewish rulers, etc. To use a descriptor someone used of Neo from the Matrix series, he was not a Messiah with a machine gun.

No, he made the claim to be the Lord of lords, the King of kings. He claimed to be God Himself. And that made Him, and his followers, a dangerous threat. For the kingship of Christ relativises the rule of all earthy kings, princes, and emperors. So threatening was this that Herod the Great ordered the death of all male children in Bethlehem up to the age of two just so he might get rid of Christ.[2] And later his grandson, Herod Agrippa, had James killed and Peter imprisoned.[3] He attacked Christians because they proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because they dared to say “Jesus is Lord.” By using this word, ‘Gospel,’ St. Paul, and all Christians, are saying that the true Lord, the true King, is Christ. It is not Herod, not Caesar, not Augustus, not Napoleon, not Elizabeth, not Harold. And He is not only the king of Israel, of Rome, France, the United Kingdom, or Norway. No, he is the Lord and King over the entire creation, over the entire universe (or multiverse if that exists). He is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. The Paschal Gospel is this; that this King of kings and the Lord of lords accepted death on our behalf to save us and that he rose again for our justification. The crucified and risen saviour is Lord and King.

But what does this mean for us here and now? To understand how fantastic the resurrection is, not only for Christ but for us, we also need to understand the seriousness of our own sin. Sin is more than just bad behaviour. Sin is to choose sides, againt God. As humans we have a central purpose: to give thanks and praise to God for who He is and for what he has done for us and to love and serve our neighbour. But we have not lived up to this. I know I haven’t. What we need to hear tonight is that there is a deep connection between the Eucharistic celebration of Maundy Thursday, the darkness and despair of Good Friday, and the light of Easter Sunday, represented in many churches by the easter candle. What the disciples thought was the end was lifted up as a sacrifice to God.

In 2003, while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, pope (em.) Benedict wrote masterfully about how Christ, through the institution of the Eucharist, offered Himself to God and thereby transformed what was about to happen. He does not say that the offering was to appease an angry God out for his pound of flesh but that Christ offered what we could not and would not. Through a life of obedience and love He gave Himself fully to God, in thanksgiving, in praise, in adoration.

Christ ‘interpreted’ His death through the prayers and actions of the Last Supper, particularly through the institution of the Eucharist. To quote Ratzinger, “in these words [Christ] undergoes a spiritual death, or, to put it more accurately, in these words Jesus transforms death into the spiritual act of affirmation, into the act of self-sharing love; into the act of adoration, which is offered to God, then from God is made available to men.”[4] What was the biggest sin of history, the murder of God Himself, became “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We need both the Upper Room and the Cross, as Ratzinger reminds us:[5]

Both are essentially interdependent: the words at the Last Supper without the death would be, so to speak, an issue of unsecured currency; and again, the death without these words would be a mere execution without any discernible point to it. Yet the two together constitute this new event, in which the senselessness of death is given meaning; in which what is irrational is transformed and made rational and articulate; in which the destruction of love, which is what death means in itself, becomes in fact the means of verifying and establishing it, of its enduring constancy.

Christ gave Himself for us. A mortal sin became a loving act of adoration. And this act was perfect and complete. This act was strong enough to atone for all of our sins. The sacrifice of Christ is not about an angry God that needs appeasement but about how Christ lives the perfect life of love, on our behalf. And this way he abolished the sin of Adam. Where Adam was disobedient, Christ was obedient. He “became obedient to the point of death,” writes St. Paul, “even death on a cross.” And God answered Him by raising Him from death to life: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”[6]

We can also have a share in this if we are joined to Christ. We need, as St. Paul says, to be ‘in Christ.’ For, he says, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[7] Through Christ we may be renewed and restored. Through Him we are enabled to stand before God in thanks and praise. We have died with Christ in Baptism, we have had our sins washed away and we have been risen from baptism to new life.[8]

This is the night that Christ offered humanity back to God. Our thanksgiving and praise will never be enough to express the magnitude of this act but we will still continue, hoping that death is not the end and that if we remain ‘in Christ’ we will one day rise up to a new heaven and a new earth.

Christ is risen! He is Risen Indeed!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Notes:

[1] Read this interview with N.T. Wright and watch this video where Wright elaborates on the word ‘Gospel.’

[2] Matthew 2:1-18.

[3] Cf. Acts 12.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence (Collected Works, vol. XI. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2014), 251-252.

[5] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, 252.

[6] Philippians 2:8-9 (cf. Romans 5).

[7] Romans 8:1, cf. 3:24; 6:11; 6:23; 8:1; 12:5; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:17-20; 3:26-28; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6-7, etc.

[8] Cf. Romans 6:1-11.