Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy

This book not only traced the Filioque controversy, it also embodied the spirit of it. This reader felt not only the logical force of both sides’ arguments, but sometimes the emotional turmoil that went with them. For example, if the Council of Ferrara-Florence was the most painful moment in Church history, it was also the most painful chapter in this book. Siecienski has done what few thought possible: present a fair, balanced account of a subject that probably defies human though and has started several wars.

Siecienski’s method is to read the fathers’ and theologians’ arguments per the internal relationships of the Trinity and avoid any type of simple reduction into a “pro-Western” or “pro-Eastern” model, except where the case is obvious like in Photios, Aquinas, and Anselm. This is an important move. When Western fathers like Hilary and Ambrose say that the Spirit proceeds et filii or even Filioque, Siecienski denies they are saying what later Filioquist polemics say they are saying. What Siecienski implies but does not say is important: these fathers do not teach the development of the filioque , and if they do not teach the development of the filioque, they are actually witnesses to the normativity of the Eastern model.

The hero of this story is St Maximus the Confessor. He demonstrates a way to interpret Western fathers who spoke in language similar to the filioque as a way of expressing the eternal relationship between the Son and the Spirit—which he thinks is what the Filioque was trying to do. The text under consideration is his Letter to Marinus, and the reception of that text at varying points in European history says a lot about the presuppositions of either side. The Latins originally championed the text and saw Maximus as a good Roman Catholic. Did not Maximus say the Filioque was orthodox and did he not appeal to the Pope? The Orthodox then responded that Maximus specifically denied causality to the Son. Whatever else Maximus may have meant by Filioque—and it’s not clear he understood precisely what Filioque would later mean—he is not using the term in the sense it would later be used. The Latins realized this and at other points in history they denied the authenticity of Marinus.

Maximus is reading the Filioque to say (if not accurately) that the Spirit proceeds through the Son from the Father alone. For him this is the superior understanding for it maintains both an eternal relationship between Spirit and Son yet maintains the causality of the Father alone. He says while the Spirit does not derive from the Son, his procession from the Father always presupposes the Son (Siecienski, 77). What this eternal relationship entails exactly is not clear, and it would be the work of Gregory II of Cyprus and St. Gregory Palamas to expand upon it.

As is the case with many polemical controversies, after a while there is not anything new being said. One notices a common theme, a charge and a counter, running behind the numerous florigela and Scripture references. The East charges the West with introducing two causes into the Godhead, the Father and the Son. Since the time of St Gregory of Nazianzus all admitted the monarchia of the Father. The Father is the principle of unity as he causes the other two persons of the Trinity. When the West began positing the Son as part of that cause, which they had to do if they were to uphold filioquist logic, the East responded that the West is introducing two causes in the Godhead. The West responded that it was positing the two persons as one cause of unity. To the East, that was a distinction without a difference.

So, who is correct? It would help to consider Anselm of Canterbury’s logic. He said one can posit two persons as one cause because one can also posit three persons with one essence (118). Obviously, Anselm is locating the property of causation within the one essence of God. He might not say essence, but that is what his analogy assumes. From that he says since the Son is one essence with the Father then when the Creed says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, it also implies from the Son.

I think Anselm’s logic is inadequate. While he stops at saying that somebody must also proceed from the Holy Spirit as well, the logic demands it. If causation is a property, not only of the Father’s hypostasis, but also of the essence, and the Holy Spirit is part of that essence, then absurdities follow: The Holy Spirit must proceed from himself, and another person of the Godhead must proceed from the Son and the Holy Spirit. Men may mock St. Photios’ rebuttal, but they have yet to face the logical force of it.

Conclusions and Response

This book will likely be the standard in Filioquist studies for the near future. It is published by Oxford, which means all must defer to its teachings, and the author writes with a spirit of peace and a hope for the unity of the Church. While the weight of the argument leans to the East, he avoids simple reductions.

Because of his charitable spirit, which is to be praised, Siecienski does not always follow through with his arguments. He does not note the interconnection between a strong Filioquist theology and a strong view of papal supremacy. To note this, however, one must also discuss absolute divine simplicity and the Latins’ different interpretation of “one” and “unity.” (The “many” are reduced to “the one.”) Thomas Aquinas is very clear on this point—the filioque and papal rule stand or fall together. For this reason I disagree with his suggestion that the Church could have been unified at the Council of Florence had the Emperor allowed Mark of Ephesus to expound Gregory II of Cyprus’ teaching on eternal manifestation (158). Yes, if he had been allowed to expound upon these teachings, the anti-unionists would have clearly won the debate at Florence. But given the framework upholding the Filioque and Papal universal jurisdiction (see the Pope wanting the Patriarch to kiss his boots in public and in obedience), it is hard to imagine the Pope simply capitulating to these arguments.

At the end of the book he traces different attempts at unity by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox throughout the twentieth century.   Of particular interest was Sergii Bulgakov’s comment that the “relations of opposition” position was absurd.  Relations are predicates, not subjects.  In order for a relation to exist, there must be a person–not vice-versa.

On a similar note, and in good modern academic fashion, Siecienski simply dismisses the logical force of Photios’s arguments. He never says where Photios is wrong. To be fair to Siecienski, though, if he had engaged what Photios implied, he would have to broaden the scope of his project. Photios is giving a genealogy of the Filioque. One suspects the reason modern academicians do not seriously engage Photios is because his arguments resist the trend of microhistory.

The book is worth the $50. Given the dearth of accessible, yet balanced literature on this topic, Siecienski’s project will likely be a landmark for the next decade