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Christianity 101 The Theology of the Ancient Creeds Part 6: The Procession of the Spirit

  • Greg Uttinger,
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The Western form of the Nicene Creed differs from the Eastern in what it says about the Holy Spirit. The Eastern form, following that adopted at Constantinople, says that the Holy Ghost "proceedeth from the Father." The Western form of the Creed adds the words, "and the Son" — in Latin, the single word Filioque. The Western Church confesses a double procession of the Holy Spirit, a procession from the Father and the Son.1 The Eastern Church regards this as heresy.

The Filioque clause originated in Spain in the 6th Century. The Council of Toledo (589), in denouncing Arianism, issued twenty-three anathemas and, at the same time, inserted the Filioque into the Latin text of the Nicene Creed.2 From Spain, use of the Filioque passed into Gaul. Charlemagne asked Pope Leo III to sanction the Filioque. Leo judged the doctrine orthodox, but objected to altering the ecumenical Creed. Nonetheless, use of the Filioque continued to spread in the West and eventually won approval in Rome.

In the middle of the 11th Century, the Filioque became a major point of contention between the East and West. The Eastern Church complained that the West had added the Filioque illegally — that is, without an ecumenical council3 — and that the doctrine itself was fundamentally wrong and dangerous. This remains the position of the Eastern Church to this day.

The Testimony of the Fathers

The doctrine of the double procession was no novelty when the Council of Toledo used it in its attack on Arianism. Consider the testimony of these ancient writers, two of whom actually hailed from the East:4

St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) wrote in his Ankyrotos:

The Father always existed and the Son always existed, and the Spirit breathes from the Father and the Son; and neither is the Son created nor is the Spirit created.

St. Cyril of Alexandria, the enemy of Nestorianism, wrote in his Thesaurus (c. 424):

Since the Holy Spirit when He is in us effects our being conformed to God, and He actually proceeds from Father and Son, it is abundantly clear that He is of the divine essence, in it in essence and proceeding from it.

St. Hilary of Potiers (356-359) in his De Trinitate said the Holy Spirit "is of the Father and the Son, His Sources." Pope St. Damasus I in the Acts of the Council of Rome (382) declared:

The Holy Spirit is not of the Father only, or the Spirit of the Son only, but He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. For it is written, "If anyone loves the world, the Spirit of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15); and again it is written: "If anyone, however, does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His" (Romans 8:9).

And Pope St. Leo I (d. 461) said (Sermon 75:30):

The Son is the Only-begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, not as any creature, which also is of the Father and of the Son, but as living and having power with both, and eternally subsisting of that which is the Father and the Son.

But it was St. Augustine of Hippo who did the most to develop the doctrine of the double procession. "St. Augustine taught that the Holy Spirit is the bond of love that exists between the Father and the Son."5 In On the Trinity (400-416) he wrote:

[With the Father and the Son] the Holy Spirit, too, exists in this same unit of substance and equality. For whether He be the unity of the Father and the Son, or Their holiness, or Their love, or Their unity because He is Their love, or Their love because He is Their holiness, it is clear that He is not one of the Two, since it is by Him that the Two are joined, by Him that the Begotten is loved by the Begetter, and in turn loves Him who begot Him (XI, 5:7).
And yet it is not without reason that in this Trinity only the Word of God is called Son, only the Gift of God the Holy Spirit, and only He of whom the Word is begotten and from Whom principally the Holy Spirit proceeds is called God the Father. I have added the term "principally" because the Holy Spirit is found to proceed also from the Son. But this too the Father gave the Son, not as if the Son did not already exist and have it, but because whatever the Father gives the Son, He gives by begetting. He so begot Him, then, that the Gift might proceed jointly from Him, and so that the Holy Spirit would be the Spirit of both (XV, 17:29).

According to Scripture

The central verse in this whole debate is John 15:26:

But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.

The Council of Constantinople lifted the phrase "proceedeth from the Father" directly from Scripture and placed it in the Creed. The Spirit's precise relationship to the Son was not a pressing question at the time, and the Council did not speak to it one way or the other. Yet the Eastern Church argues from the silence of the text and of the Creed: since both say "from the Father" and no more, it is wrong, the East insists, to add more. This is not necessarily true, however. "From the Father" need not exclude "and from the Son" if there is other Scriptural evidence to support the clause.

We read in Matthew of one angel at the tomb on Easter Day, and this does not contradict Luke's statement that there were two angels. We read in Mark 10 and Luke 18 of a blind beggar healed by Jesus on the outskirts of Jericho, and this does not contradict the statement in Matthew that there were two blind beggars healed. Similarly, it is clear that the saying of Jesus, that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, does not contradict the statement that the Spirit proceeds also from the Son.6

Though Scripture does not say explicitly that the Spirit proceeds from the Son, it does say what amounts to the same thing.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you (John 17:7).
And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost (John 20:22).

Jesus promised that He Himself would send the Spirit. After His resurrection, He bestowed the Spirit upon His disciples with a breath, His own breath. The Eastern Church argues that this was merely a sign or sacrament; yet God reveals Himself in His works as He is in truth. The sending or breathing or procession in time presupposes and reveals the procession from eternity.7

And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying Abba, Father (Gal. 4:6).

If the Holy Spirit is the Spirit (or Breath) of the Son, then He must be breathed (spirated) by the Son. And the word is Son, not Christ or Jesus: the reference is to the ontological Trinity, to something within the Godhead, and not to the Mediator's sending the Spirit at Pentecost. The Son breathes the Spirit from eternity, and therefore He has breathed or sent Him in time.

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shew it unto you (John 16:13-15).

That which the Spirit has, He has "from the Son no less than from the Father."

…and as the Son is said to be from the Father because he does not speak of himself, but of the Father (from whom he receives all things), so the Spirit ought to be said to be and to proceed from the Son because he hears and speaks from him.8

There is more. If the Spirit does not proceed from the Son, we have some serious theological problems. First, we lose intimate fellowship that is the Trinity. For the Holy Spirit has no immediate relationship to the Son. The Father's Breath has no destination, nor is that Breath ever returned to Him. "It is only if the Spirit proceeds from both that the inter-communion of the persons of the Trinity is eternally complete."9

Second, we have no way to distinguish the Son and the Spirit within the Godhead. We cannot even say that the Son is the second Person of the Trinity and the Holy Spirit is the third. After all, isn't it true that a man's spirit is closer to that man than is his son? And yet the normal language of Scripture and the order of historical revelation give us Father, then Son, and then Spirit.

If We Abandon the Filioque

Ideas have consequences. Ideas about God have profound consequences, especially given enough time. The Filioque is not a minor matter, and whether the Church accepts or rejects it will have extensive and long-term cultural effects. The Dutch theologians and those influenced by their writings seem to have clearer understanding of this than, say, those in the Presbyterian tradition. For example, Herman Bavinck writes:

The three persons [in the Eastern perspective] are not viewed as three relations within the one essence, the self-unfoldment of the Godhead, but the Father is viewed as the One who imparts his being to the Son and to the Spirit. As a result, the Son and the Spirit are so coördinated that both in the same manner have their "originating cause" in the Father. In both the Father reveals himself. The Son causes us to know God: the Spirit causes us to delight in him. The Son does not reveal the Father in and through the Spirit, neither does the Spirit lead us to the Father through the Son. The two are more or less independent of each other; each leads to the Father in his own peculiar way. Thus, orthodoxy and mysticism, mind and will, are placed in antithetic relation to one another. And this peculiar relation between orthodoxy and mysticism characterizes the religious attitude prevailing in the Eastern Church. Doctrine and life are separated: doctrine is for the mind only: it is a fit object of theological speculation. Next to it and apart from it there is another fountain of life, namely the mysticism of the Spirit. This fountain does not have knowledge as its source but has its own distinct origin and nourishes the heart. Thus a false relation is established between mind and heart: ideas and emotions are separated, and the link that should bind the two in ethical union is lacking.10

Edwin Palmer summarizes Kuyper's analysis:

Moreover, as Abraham Kuyper has incisively pointed out, a denial of the filioque leads to an unhealthy mysticism. It tends to isolate the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives from the work of Jesus. Redemption by Christ is put in the background, while the sanctifying work of the Spirit is brought to the fore. The emphasis is more and more on the work of the Spirit in our lives, which tends to lead to an independence from Christ, the church, and the Bible. Sanctification can loom larger than justification, the subjective communion with the Spirit larger than the objective church life, and illumination by the Spirit larger than the Word. Kuyper believes that this has actually been the case to some extent in the Eastern church, as a result of the denial that the Spirit proceeds form the Son as well as from the Father.11

The Spirit comes to glorify the Son (John 16:14). If we detach the work of the Spirit from the blood of Christ and the word of God, we distort Christianity in a most frightful manner, and any mysticism we create will be more akin to Eastern pantheism than to anything in the Bible — excepting, perhaps, the idolatry of ancient Israel.12

Jim Jordan, writing on the Second Commandment, has connected Eastern Orthodoxy's rejection of the Filioque with its use of icons.

God meets man in language, in personal discourse. Music may glorify that conversation — and it should do so in worship — but God does not meet man in music. Nor does He meet man in visual art of any sort. He meets man in the Word of God, in language; and because God in incorporeal, He meets man in language alone.
Another way to put this is that God meets man only through the Son of God, the Word. The Spirit is the glory, the music, the visual display of God; but God does not meet man through the Spirit. By insisting that icons are a separate channel of non-verbal communication with God and the saints, the Orthodox separate the Spirit from the Son. Understandably, they deny that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. Biblical religion, however, insists that the work of the Spirit is to enable us to understand the Word of the Son, not to be a separate way of approaching God. God's "No!" [in the 2nd Commandment] is a rejection of any attempt on the part of man to approach God apart from His Son.13

There are other implications we need to consider. For if the Spirit comes to do the work of the Father, we must expect to find Him most clearly revealed, not in the Church, but in creation. "If the Spirit is understood as proceeding from the Father alone, it is then natural to think that Spirit reflects the spiritual energy of the created world." Grace then takes a back seat to Nature.

Subordinationism gave primacy to nature, and hence to the natural ability of man. As a result, man becomes in effect his own savior, and grace is cooperating grace, not prevenient. If the Holy Ghost proceeds only from the Father, then the Holy Ghost, in a system which accords primacy to nature, becomes absorbed into nature.15

Theologically, rejection of the Filioque opens the door to Pelagianism, man's ability to save himself; politically, it leads directly to statism. "The sure voice of God was therefore the natural voice, the state."16 Eastern Orthodox nations are no strangers to totalitarianism and imperialism.

The filioque is vitally connected with the advance of the Western church towards a strong anthropology (in connection with the doctrine of sin and grace), while the Eastern stopped in a weak Pelagian and synergistic view, crude and undeveloped. The procession only de Patre per Filium would put the church at arm's length, so to speak, from God; that is, beyond Christ, off at an extreme, or at one side of the kingdom of divine life, rather than in the centre and bosom of that kingdom, where all things are hers. The filioque put the church, which is the temple and organ of the Holy Ghost in the work of redemption, rather between the Father and the Son, partaking of their own fellowship, according to the great intercessory prayer of Christ Himself. It places the church in the meeting point, or the living circuit of the interplay, of grace and nature, of the divine and the human; thus giving scope for s strong doctrine of both nature and grace, and to a strong doctrine also of the church itself.17

The Filioque means that the work of the Father and the work of the Son coincide in the operation of the Holy Spirit. Grace is not deification, but the redemption and restoration of God's creation. The Church, as the temple of the Holy Ghost, lies at the very heart of this process and in the center of the covenant love that exists within the Triune God.

Summary and Conclusion

In 1984 ABC correspondent George Bailey, writing for a secular audience, traced the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, the modern incarnations of East and West, to the Filioque. He pointed to "the mystagogical, or spiritual, turning inward of the Greek Orthodox faith," which he connected with "the withdrawn spirituality of the Russian orthodox tradition." This he contrasted with "the dynamic involvement in worldly affairs characteristic of Catholicism and, to an even greater extent, of Protestantism (the lay minister in a business suit)."18 Bailey may have exaggerated cause and effect, but at least he saw something of the theological and creedal roots of the greatest political conflict of the 20th Century. Not many Western theologians were as astute.

The mysticism, cultural stagnation, and imperialism typical of Eastern Orthodox nations are logical consequences of rejecting the Filioque. Sovereign grace and political liberty are logical consequences of embracing it. And yet few Western writers have devoted more than a page or two to the Filioque. This is sad. Eastern Orthodox theologians at least understand that the issue is important, and they are quick to contend for the sanctity of their position.19 It is time for Western theologians to show a like zeal in defending their own theological inheritance.


1. William G. T. Shedd, one of the few American theologians to write at length on this issue, summarizes the doctrine with these words:

Again, the Spirit, though spirated by the Father and the Son, yet proceeds not from the Father and Son as persons but from the Divine essence. His procession is from one, namely, the essence; while his spiration is by two, namely, two persons. The Father and the Son are not two essences, and therefore do not spirate the Spirit from two essences. Yet they are two persons, and as two persons having one numerical essence spirate from it the third form or mode of the essence — the Holy Spirit: their two personal acts of spiration concurring in one single procession of the Spirit. There are two spirations, because the Father and the Son are two persons; but there is only one resulting procession.—Dogmatic Theology, 2nd ed., vol. I (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980), 290.

2. An earlier council at Toledo (447) had already declared: "If anyone does not believe that the Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and is coeternal with and like unto the Father and the Son, let him be anathema." The 3rd Anathema, in Rousas J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (N. p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1972), 120.

3. Protestants have not worried much about this point, and I will leave the argument to others. Whether the Filioque is biblical or not is logically a distinct issue.

4. The quotations that follow have been collected by James Kiefer in Creeds, "The Filioque," 5-7, available at ( This is a remarkable web site, the more so since it is sponsored by the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.

5. Ibid., 8. Keifer writes: "From all eternity, independently of any created being, God is the Lover, the Loved, and the Love itself. And the bond of unity and love that exists between the Father and the Son proceeds from the Father and the Son."

6. Ibid., 2.

7. Turretin, III, xxxi, v, 309. Cf. Palmer, The Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit, The Traditional Calvinistic Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), 16.

8. Turretin, 309.

9. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (N. p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), 226.

10. Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 317.

11. Palmer, 18.

12. The golden calves, both Aaron's and Jeroboam's, were supposed to represent and serve as means of contact to Jehovah (cf. Ex. 32:4; 1 Kings 12:28).

13. James Jordan, Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 59, September 1998.

14. Robert J. Sanders, "Violence and the Filioque" (, April 1995.

15. Rushdoony, 125.

16. Ibid., 123.

17. Yeoman, quoted by Rushdoony, 123. Unfortunately, Rushdoony mistakenly traces this quote through Schaff. If anyone knows where the quote actually comes from, please e-mail me the reference.

18. George Bailey, Armageddon in Prime Time (New York: Avon Books, 1984), 37-38.

19. Most web articles on the Filioque are Eastern Orthodox.

  • Greg Uttinger

Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.

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