Filēˈōkwē – What the heck is the Filioque?

Editor’s Note: Last summer the General Convention approved for trial use Eucharistic prayers using expansive language.  Included in those liturgies was a version of the Nicene Creed which omitted the filioque clause. In the post below, the Rev. Shawn Strout explains the controversy surrounding the filioque clause.

The Nicene Creed, or more accurately the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed as the current creed was composed at the First Council of Nicea and then amended at the First Council of Constantinopole, has been a central part of the Christian faith since the fourth century. Initially, the Nicene Creed was not used in the Eucharistic liturgy of the West. We do have evidence of it being used, in whole or in part, in baptismal liturgies in the West. However, at the third council of Toledo in Spain (589 C.E.), it was introduced into the Eucharistic liturgy for the first time in the West. This council also introduced something else – the filioque clause.

The word “filioque” is Latin for “and the Son.” This clause refers to that part of the Nicene Creed when we say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” That small phrase “and the Son” was not part of the original creed composed and amended in the fourth century. It was added in 589 C.E. at the council of Toledo. Eventually by 1014, the filioque clause entered the liturgy at Rome as well.

Why would this council, and subsequently the rest of the Western church, add the filioque clause to the creed? Well, the Catholic Church in Spain at that time was having great difficulty with a group of people called Arians.  Arianism was the belief that Jesus Christ is not coequal with God but rather was the first created being of God, as the Son. The church deemed this belief to be a heresy back at the First Council of Nicea, but the teaching persisted. The council of Toledo believed that by inserting this clause into the Creed, it would strengthen the anti-Arianism of the creed.

However, while the intention of the council of Toledo was honorable, it caused great controversy, particularly between the church in the East and the church in the West. By 1054, the Great Schism occurred between these two parts of the church. It would be far too simplistic to say that this schism occurred due to this change in the creed. Many theological and socio-political issues were involved in that schism. Nonetheless, the filioque clause did feature as one of the theological issues in that controversy. The church of the East claimed that the church of the West had violated Canon VII of the third ecumenical council, which states that no church may change the faith of the creed. The church of the West argued that it had not changed the faith of the creed with this addition. The dispute was not resolved at that time. Since then, many theological arguments have developed both in favor of and in opposition to the filioque clause. Discussing those arguments lies well outside the scope of this brief article.

The Ecumencial Movement of the twentieth century has helped the church in gaining greater understanding about many such theological arguments, which have been the source of division over the years. The filique clause is no exception. One of the many ecumenical discussions occurring during the twentieth century was the Anglican Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Discussions, which began in 1973. In 1976, this group issued the Moscow Statement in which they agreed that the filioque clause should not be included in the Nicene Creed. 

However, ecumenical groups have no authority to change doctrine in any member church of the Anglican Communion. Therefore, several steps had to occur before it would affect Episcopalians. First, the Lambeth Council of Anglican bishops from around the Communion made a statement urging member churches to remove the filioque from the creed at its 1978 meeting. Then the Anglican Consultative Council, which includes bishops, priests, and lay people, made the same request at its 1979 meeting.  Following suit, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1979 passed a resolution asking the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations to make materials available to the church regarding the issue. The General Convention would pass another resolution in 1982 requesting further study. Then in 1985, a resolution was passed expressing the intention to remove the filioque clause. Finally, in 1994, the General Convention directed that the clause be removed from all supplemental liturgical materials and reaffirmed the intention to remove the clause in the next prayer book revision.

However, prayer book revision has not yet occurred. While it is being discussed, it could be years before it occurs. Thus, the average Episcopalian could experience a liturgy in which the filioque clause is still present and a liturgy in which it is absent. Technically, both occasions are permitted because the prayer book has not yet aligned with the intentions of General Convention.

Without minimizing the theological issues surrounding the filioque clause in any way, this controversy does show the importance of a simple Latin word and English phrase. As a central statement of belief held by the great host of Christians around the world for centuries, the Nicene Creed is very important and remains a central feature of the Christian church.