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The Spirit and the Filioque Debate

General Audience — November 7, 1990

When we profess our faith "in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life," we add: "who proceeds from the Father and the Son." As you know, these words were inserted into the Nicene Creed which had read simply: "We believe in the Holy Spirit" (cf. DS 125). Already during the Council of Constantinople (381) the explanation that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" (cf. DS 150) was added, and so we refer to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The conciliar formula of 381 reads: "We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son." The more complete formula: "who proceeds from the Father and the Son" ( qui a Patre Filioque procedit ), was already present in the ancient texts. It was put forth once again by the Synod of Aachen in 809. It was finally introduced in Rome as well in 1014 during the coronation of the Emperor Henry II.

It spread from there throughout the entire West, and was adopted by the Greeks and the Latins at the ecumenical councils of Lyons (II, 1274) and Florence (1439) [1] . It was a clarification that changed nothing in terms of the substance of the ancient faith. The Roman Pontiffs were insistent on adopting it out of respect for the ancient formula which had by then spread to all areas, and was used in St. Peter's Basilica as well. The introduction of the addition, which was accepted without difficulties in the West, gave rise to reservations and debate among our Eastern brethren who said that the West had made a substantial change in a matter of faith. Today we can thank the Lord that even on this point the true meaning of the formula is being clarified in the West and in the East, as well as the relative importance of the question itself. In our present context, however, we must now take a look at the "origin" of the Holy Spirit, taking into consideration as well the matter of the Filioque .

In the first place, Sacred Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit's procession from the Father. In Matthew's Gospel, for example, as Jesus sent the Twelve on their first mission, he reassured them in this fashion: "Do not be worried over how you are to speak or what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Mt 10:19-20). In John's Gospel, Jesus states: "When the Advocate comes whom I will send, the Spirit of Truth who comes from the Father, he will testify to me" (Jn 15:26). According to many exegetes, these words of Jesus refer directly to the temporal mission of the Spirit given by the Father. One can legitimately see reflected in them the eternal procession, and therefore the Holy Spirit's origin from the Father.

Clearly since we are referring to God we must free the word "origin" from all reference to created and temporal origin. That is, the communication of existence to someone in an active sense must be excluded, and therefore the prior existence and the superiority of the one over the other, and likewise post-existence and dependence on the other. In God all is eternal, beyond time. The origin of the Holy Spirit is therefore eternal, as is that of the Son within the Trinitarian mystery in which the three divine Persons are consubstantial. It is precisely a procession with spiritual origins, as occurs (to use an analogy which is always very imperfect) in the "production" of thought or of love which remain in the soul united to the mind from which they originated. "It is in this sense," St. Thomas writes, "that the Catholic faith admits processions in God" [2] .

Regarding the procession and the origin of the Holy Spirit from the Son, the New Testament texts, while not openly speaking of them, still stress the very close relationship between the Spirit and the Son. The sending of the Holy Spirit upon the believers is not just the work of the Father, but of the Son too. In the upper room, after Jesus spoke of "the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name" (Jn 14:26), he adds: "If I go, I will send him to you" (16:7).

Other Gospel passages express the relationship between the Spirit and the revelation given by the Son, as in the passage where Jesus says: "He will glorify me because he will take from me what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn 16:14-15).

The Gospel clearly says that the Son, not only the Father, "sends" the Holy Spirit. It further states that the Spirit "takes" from the Son what he reveals, since all that the Father has also belongs to the Son (cf. Jn 16:15).

After the resurrection, these words were fulfilled when Jesus, entering through "closed doors" into the place where the apostles were hiding for fear of the Jews, "breathed on" them and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22).

These Gospel passages are the basic ones for our discussion. Along with them there are others in the New Testament which show that the Holy Spirit is not only the Spirit of the Father, but also the Spirit of the Son, Christ's Spirit. Thus we read in the letter to the Galatians that "God has sent the Spirit of the Son into our hearts, crying out: 'Abba, Father!'" (4:6). In other texts the Apostle speaks of "the Spirit of Christ Jesus" (Phil 1:19) and the "Spirit of Christ" (Rom 8:9). He states that what Christ does through him (the Apostle) he does "by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom 15:19). There is no dearth of other texts like this one (cf. Rom 8:2; 2 Cor 3:17 ff.; 1 Pet 1:11).

Truly the question about the "origin" of the Holy Spirit within the trinitarian life of the one God has been the object of long and complex theological reflection based on Scripture. In the West St. Ambrose in his De Spiritu Sancto and also St. Augustine in his work De Trinitate made a great contribution to the clarification of this problem. The attempt to more deeply penetrate the mystery of the intimate life of God the Trinity, made by these and other Latin and Greek Fathers and Doctors (beginning with St. Hilary, St. Basil, Diogenus, St. John Damascene), certainly prepared the way for the introduction into the creed of that formula referring to the Holy Spirit as one who "proceeds from the Father and the Son." The Eastern brethren, however, held to the pure and simple formula of the Council of Constantinople (381), even more so since the Council of Chalcedon (451) confirmed that council's "ecumenical" character (even though almost all its participants were Oriental bishops). Thus the Filioque of the Latin West became in subsequent centuries an occasion for a schism which had already been actuated by Photius (882), but which was consummated and extended to almost all the Christian East in 1054. In the creed the Oriental Churches separated from Rome still today profess their faith "in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father," without mentioning the Filioque . In the West we expressly say that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son."

Specific reference to this doctrine is not lacking in the great Fathers and Doctors of the East (Ephraim, Athanasius, Basil, Epiphanius, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus, John Damascene) and of the West (Tertullian, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine). Following the Fathers, St. Thomas gave an insightful explanation of the formula on the basis of the principle of the unity and equality of the divine Persons in the trinitarian relationship (cf. Summa Theol., I, q. 36, aa. 2-4).

After the schism various Councils during the second millennium tried to reconstruct the unity between Rome and Constantinople. The issue of the Holy Spirit's procession from the Father and from the Son was the object of clarification especially at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and finally at the Council of Florence (1439). At this last Council we find a statement which has the value of a historical clarification and at the same time of a doctrinal declaration: "The Latins state that by saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son they do not mean to exclude that the Father is the source and the principle of all divinity, that is, of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Nor do they wish to deny that the Son learned from the Father that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son; nor do they hold that there are two principles or two spirations. Rather they assert that one only is the principle and one only the spiration of the Holy Spirit, as they have asserted up to now" (cf. Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, Bologna 1973, p. 526).

That was an echo of the Latin tradition which St. Thomas had well defined theologically [3] by referring to a text of St. Augustine, according to which " Pater et Filius sunt unum principium Spiritus Sancti " [4] .

The problems on the order of terminology seem thus to be resolved and the intentions clarified, to the extent that each party, the Greeks and the Latins, during the sixth session (July 6, 1439) were able to sign this common definition: "In the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with the approval of this sacred and universal Council of Florence, we establish that this truth of faith must be believed and accepted by all Christians: and thus all must profess that the Holy Spirit is eternally of the Father and the Son, that he has his existence and his subsistent being from the Father and the Son together, and that he proceeds eternally from the one and from the other as from a single principle and from a single spiration" (DS 1300).

There is an additional clarification to which St. Thomas had devoted an article of the Summa (" Utrum Spiritus Sanctus procedat a Patre per Filium ," I, q. 36, a. 3): "We declare," said the Council, "what the holy Doctors and Fathers stated—that is, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son—tends to make understandable and means that the Son too, like the Father, is the cause, as the Greeks say, and the principle, as the Latins say, of the subsistence of the Holy Spirit. And since all that the Father has he has given to the Son in his generation, with the exception of being Father, this very procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son the Son himself has eternally from the Father, from whom he has been eternally generated" (DS 1301).

Today as well this conciliar text is still a useful basis for dialogue and agreement between the Eastern and Western brethren, even more so since the agreed-upon definition ended with the following declaration: "We establish...that the explanation given of the expression Filioque has been added to the creed licitly and with reason, in order to render that truth clearer and because of the incumbent needs of those times" (DS 1302).

After the Council of Florence the West continued to profess that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son," while the East continued to hold to the original formula of the Council of Constantinople. But since the time of the Second Vatican Council a fruitful ecumenical dialogue has been developing. It seems to have led to the conclusion that the formula Filioque does not constitute an essential obstacle to the dialogue itself and to its development, which all hope for and pray for to the Holy Spirit.

[1]   cf. DS 150 Nota Introductoria

[2]   Summa Theol., I, q. 27, a. 1; aa. 3-4

[3]   cf. Summa Theol., I, q. 36, a. 3

[4]   De Trinitate, V, 14: PL 42, 921