The Spirit and the Big Beast
or why I argue as a Lutheran for dropping the filioque from the creed, excerpted from an essay written two years ago
And for all this nature is never spent
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things
And thoughtthe last light off the black west went
All morning at the brown brink eastward, springs
Because the Hoy Ghost over the bent
world broods with warm breathe and oh! bright wings.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins certainly ranks amongst those who wrestled with the relation between Church and Spirit. He initially experienced a breathing of life into him through poetry. Then renounced that impulse and burnt all his poems when he entered the Jesuit order. Then rediscovered the life and breath of the Spirit in poetic utterances via the encouragement of an elder. Thus, the poems we have received from him today are written both through the free poetic impulse of the poet, and the constrained, careful direction of an institutional structure. The portion of the poem quoted above is the result of that interrelation between his subjection to the order of the church, and his freedom to speak new words. His “sprung rhythms” now constitute a unique and Spirit-breated contribution to British poetry.
That Hopkin’s Spirit “broods” provides both solace and sobriety for me, for it means that the Spirit is verging on something new, but that this new thing is full of life, hope, vitality, and protection. When we look at the current church scene, and seek to discern what the Spirit is doing, we could do worse than to imagine the Spirit as brooding. Although some churches would avoid giving the Spirit this much latitude and freedom of thought, while others would ascribe much more than a brooding function to It, nevertheless, in the complexity of it all, and our inability to discern exactly what the Spirit is and does, for the Spirit to brood over its brood is no small thing, and no empty promise.
Given this brooding state, it’s time to bite off one of the big “beasts”, to wade in on an issue that divides not simply one small church from the other, but on an even higher order of magnitude, East from West.
I begin with this statement: Moltmann’s argument that the filioque is superfluous and can be removed from the Nicene Creed are convincing. The reasons are manifold. To say that the Spirit proceeds from the Son is apparently contrary to the Synoptic witness, and diminishes the Spirit trinitarianally. Moltmann notes, “If instead we note the experience of the Spirit out of which Christ himself comes and acts, and ask about the trinitarian structure which can be detected in that, we discover that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and determines the Son.. we might say that Christ comes patre spirituque, from the Father and the Spirit” (71). He of course suggests avoiding this formulation as well, not wanting to leave the members of the Trinity undifferentiated.
The filioque also places the Spirit chronologically after the other two members of the Trinity, resulting in some real or aparent confusions about the millenia, and “eras” of salvation history. “The Holy Spirit is sent to third place in the primordial relationships of the Trinity,” and this applies temporally as well, at least in the theological developments of some parts of the church (Moltmann, 306). Stated in a reverse manner, to remove the filioque does not diminish the iimportance and centrality of Christ (the Protestant fear), nor does it divorce the Spirit from the church (the Roman Catholic fear), but rather, places the Spirit and Christ in a more reciprocal relationship (Moltmann, 59). Just as the emphasis on the Lordship of Christ provides an adequate check for ecclesial and political theology, the processional Lordship of the Father provides freedom of interaction in the trinitarian relationships.
To remove the filioque does not give free license for seeing the work of the Holy Spirit apart from Christ, because the Father is always the Father of the Son; thus the close relationship is maintained even without the insistence on the Spirit proceeding from the Son & the Father. To state that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son actually maintains this subordination of the Spirit at a double level, thus placing the Spirit hierarchically beneath the two other members of the Trinity. As such, although at first glance it may seem that this at least avoids the Orthodox primacy of the Father, it in actuality develops a pseudo-unitarian theology, for it is the Father from whom the Son proceeds, and then only subsequently the Spirit. When an implicit subordination of this nature is introduced, it is inherent in the logic of trinitarian theology that the result is a unitarian formulation with subordinated manifestations of the one God. As such, I am coming closer and closer to the position that the filioque is maintained out of stubbornness, or lack of theological examination, and not out of any truly adequate theological presuppositions.
From an ecumenical perspective, to remove the filioque would be worthwhile from both the Orthodox and pentecostal sides, for different reasons, and would make more clear the missional activity of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox church has long sought reconciliation through the removal of the filioque, because they have seen it as a corruption of the teaching of the early church Fathers. In addition, as the pneumatological context of the divine liturgy is important for their life of faith, they see the filioque as an imposition that weakens the presence of the Spirit here and now. The pentecostal movement, conversely, cares little for the tradition qua tradition, and thus creeds as such; yet in practice, they maintain such an independence of the Spirit’s activity, that they care little for creeds, and instead focus on the experience of the Spirit. From this side of the ecumenical conversation, this would mean us freeing up, in our own theological discussions, what is already free at a practical level in the life of the Pentecostal movement (here, I have been unable to find a pentecostal or evangelical discussion of the filioque, and thus am left at the level of hypothetical conjecture; would love any suggestions for reading more on the topic).
Although in practical terms we can observe some “errors” of Orthodox & pentecostal practices that “result” from the absence of the filioque, or the dis-regarding of the creeds (a statement loaded with questionable assumptions to begin with; can we draw conclusions like this in the first place, by taking a look at current churchly practices and saying that they result or derive from creedal decisions in the first few centuries of the church?), we still need to examine the filioque and its theological import as such, regardless of the apparent results in other traditions. Then, subsequently, reflect on the dangers and gifts that the particular creedal formulation lends to the church. In my opinion, taken at face value, it seems that the removal of the filioque from the Western creed should be a goal of the Western church.
These conclusions lead to the next question: Can this discussion be reconciled with the confessions, their acceptance of the creeds, as well as their interpretation of the function of the Holy Spirit? This is an important question for anyone considering ordination in the Lutheran tradition, indeed anyone considering themselves a confessional Lutheran.
The three “Chief Symbols” are located at the very beginning of the Book of Concord, expressing unity with the teaching of the ancient church, and are thus central in the confession of the Lutheran church. They are the creeds as they were currently used in the Western church, and as such, they do not seek to work at reconciliation between already divided Christian traditions. Rather, they are here to express unity with a tradition from which many said they had divided themselves. Their presence therefore does not constitute a concerted and pointed expression of how the creeds should be formulated over against Orthodox theology, but are present rather to show unity and continuity.
This distinction is important, for it is certainly the case that the pneumatological questions raised today, especially in ecumenical conversations, are different from those raised by the Reformers. Although the Lutheran church is still bound today to the central principal of the Reformation, justification by faith, and thus remains focused specifically on Christ’s work, this does not preclude new understandings of how the Holy Spirit is related to this justifying and redemptive work of Christ. Moltmann’s discussion certainly shows this, especially in his attempts at formulating a pneumatologia crucis (70). Without dividing the presence of the creeds in the confessions from the text of the confession themselves, it is certainly fruitful to maintain a distinction from the creeds-in-themselves, and the confessional witness that arises out of a “reading” of the creedal and biblical witnesses.
When we proceed to the confessional text as such, the question before us becomes, instead: To what extent can Lutherans concur with Moltmann’s later formulation that “being-in-Christ” and “life-from-the-Spirit” mean the same thing from different sides (153)?
1) The confessions tie the Spirit’s action very closely to the church. Indeed, the activity of the Holy Spirit is usually mentioned in light of churchly functions, such as baptism (348:4), absolution (351:28), and the sacraments (262.70), and is in fact that which makes sacraments sacramental (482.5). . The Spirit is received through the preaching of the Gospel (565.11), leads to Christ (125.132, 345.6, 415.38), is given through the Word (39.3). Indeed, the Spirit thus works in and through the congregation (415.37).
2) The confessions also tie the Spirit’s actions very closely to Christ. The Spirit is that which mediates the exchange of properties in Christ (605.72), and leads to Christ (419.65).
3) It is furthermore true that the confessions usually emphasize this procession of the Spirit from the Father and Christ. A good example is Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, where he states, “”God has caused the Word to be published and proclaimed, in which he has given the Holy Spirit to offer and apply to us this treasure of salvation” (415. 38). This statement, if it stood alone, would be convincing evidence for keeping the filioque, if it were not immediately preceded by this statement of Luther’s, “In other words, [the Holy Spirit] first leads us into his holy community, placing us upon the bosom of the church, where he preaches to us and brings us to Christ” (415.37). Now, if we are to reconcile these two statements, it seems apparent that there is more independence going on in the Godhead than would be admitted by a strict and careful application of the filioque. Here, the Spirit is seen operating outside of the church inasmuch as it (subjectively?) draws believers to the church that they might hear and believe the Gospel. Is this the Spirit that proceeds from the Son, or is this the Spirit that leads to the Son, rests on the Son, dwells in the Son and lives and breathes in and around the presence of the Word?
4) Another ambiguous example can be found in the Solid Declaration: “We believe, teach, and confess that God the Father gave his Spirit to Christ, his beloved Son, according to the assumed human nature [where is the procession from the Son here?]... in such a manner that as a man he therefore knows and can do only certain things in the way in which other saints known and can do things through the Holy Spirit... Rather, since Christ according to the Godhead is the second person in the holy Trinity and the Holy Spirit proceeds from him as well as from the Father (and therefore he is and remains to all eternity his and the Father’s own Spirit, who is never separated from the Son), it follows that through personal union the entire fullness of the Spirit is communicated to Christ according to the flesh that is personally united with the Son... the Father poured out upon him without measure the Spirit of wisdom and power (605-606). Here, as in Moltmann, a complex relationship is described between the Son and the Spirit. The Spirit is poured out on the Son, but the Spirit proceeds from the Son. The Spirit and the Son are differentiated and yet united. In all these statements, it seems clear that the pure procession of the Spirit from the Son is too constricting when we examine the biblical witness. The confessions hint at this without stating it explicitly. The tension they are experiencing is the differing witnesses of the creed & the Johannine texts, over against the pneumatic formulations of the synoptic witnesses.
Given this ambiguity, Lutherans can approach this topic from a both/and perspective, seeing the removal of the filioque not as a breach of the confessional witness, but as an opening up of the reciprocal relationship of the Son & the Spirit, a relationship already described in multiple forms in the biblical witness, reconfirmed through statements of the confessional witness, and further witnessed to in the theological and spiritual life of the church up until the present day. The Spirit preaches the Word that God has spoken, but the Spirit also broods over this Word, leading believers to the hearing of it. The Spirit will only preach that which it has heard; yet it also appears and confirms that which has been spoken. The Spirit points us back through Word & Sacrament to that which has been and is now for us; the Spirit also draws us forward into the promises of God.
Filioque thushas impact in at least two areas:
1) experiencing the fulness of life
Johannine conception, is it necessary that the Spirit proceed from the Son in order for this to be?
Tillichian, liberal perspective.
2) Missiology, the ek-static church, the church outside of itself