The Semantics of the Filioque

The Semantics of the Filioque July 30, 2007

Liturgy and culture, grace and nature.

For the on-going discussion of the more liberal (and ideal) access to the so-called “Tridentine Liturgy,” I’d like to offer a brief reflection on the wording of what is perhaps the most controversial clause of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, ecumenically speaking. The clause runs in Latin thus: Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem, qui ex Patre Filioque procedit” (And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son).

Those familiar with the historical, and at times contemporary, terms of the debate know that the various Eastern Orthodox churches reject the addition of the term filioque (and the Son), preserving the original wording of Creed which read “…qui ex Patre procedit” (who proceeds from the Father). The Latin churches, which later composed the predominant identity of the Catholic Church, uniformly adopted the filioque into the Creed during the 9th century in order to address neo-Arian trends in the Spanish churches, though the origin of the expression is found not in the West but in Eastern Syrian theology dating from the early 5th century.

I do not want to rehash the tired debate over the incorporation of the filioque within the Catholic Church, nor do I wish to discuss whether the filioque ought to be suppressed in the West. Rather, I would like to point to the semantic traits of the term in order to show that the Catholic Church does not–and did not–ever intend to suggest that the Holy Spirit proceeds in an equal or even similar fashion from both the Father and the Son. Rather, the term filioque itself indicates a substantive difference in the manner of procession from the two Persons.

In Latin, there are four ways in which to convey the conjunction “and” (unfortunately, English only has one): ac, atque, et and que. The first two of these are emphatic, pointing to a close and proportional relationship between two entities: Sonny atque Cher; pater atque mater (father and mother).

The third of these conjunctions, et, expresses association but is less emphatic than atque or ac. We use et for anything from association, such as in civitas et patria (state and country) and stellae et caelum (stars and sky), to dependent clauses: Et in Spiritum Sanctum… .

The fourth of these conjunctions, -que, is even less emphatic than et and simply indicates a connection or relation between two entities or clauses. When connecting nouns, -que is tagged onto the end of the second term, which immediately follows the first term: ex Patre Filioque (Filio + -que). This indicates a mere connection between the Father and the Son in the procession of the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son do not have an equal or proportional function according to this clause.

If the Latin churches wanted to emphasis the Son’s role in the procession of the Holy Spirit, or even to point toward the Son playing a major role in this procession comparable to that of the Father, then the Latin Creed most certainly would have read: ex Patre et Filio. And if the Catholic Church wanted to point to the Son’s equal role in the procession of the Holy Spirit, the Latin Creed would have read: ex Patre atque Filio.

Why is this important? Well, minimally speaking, we grasp that the Catholic Church does not imagine that the Father and Son have a logical or even real equality in the procession of the Holy Spirit. The logical priority of the Father is preserved even with the filioque in place. Because of the poverty of English in light of Latin (and Greek!), the four Latin conjunctions I mentioned are all translated “and”. Thus, the impression that the Son challenges or topples the Father’s headship is easily conveyed in the English translation. However, when we look to the actual disputed term in its original linguistic expression, we see that the Catholic Church teaches no such thing. This is why the Catholic faith is comfortable confessing that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father through the Son. This latter phrase, to my knowledge, has been at times reluctantly approved by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

In any case, the semantics of the filioque controversy are worth careful consideration among pneumatological and trinitarian discussions between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians.

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