A Tiny Footnote to a Big Debate

Just to be clear: I am no fan of the Filioque—i.e. I believe that the insertion of the words “and from the Son” into the Latin version of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 325/ 381 was a mistake and that the insertion should be excised wherever it is found. The original of the Creed proclaimed the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against those who denied it. Though it stopped just short of describing the Holy Spirit as “God” or as saying that He, like the Son, was homoousios with the Father, it did make its point clearly enough. It said that the Spirit was “the Lord”, that He was “the Giver of Life”, that “with the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified”, and that He was the One “who spoke through the prophets” of the Old Testament. It also described Him as the One “who proceeds [Greek εκπορευομαι/ ekporeuomai] from the Father”.

By this term the creators of the Creed meant to differentiate the origin of the Spirit’s existence from that of creation, and affirm that the Spirit was not created by the Father as everything else in the world was created, but came directly from the being of the Father Himself—i.e. that He was fully God, and not a part of the created order. Later certain people in the western parts of the Church, believing that the Spirit came to exist from both the Father and the Son, expressed this in their Latin form of the Creed by adding the tiny little word “filioque”, so that the interpolated Creed now said that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”. By doing this they intended to emphasize the full divinity of the Son in the face of Arians who denied it. As said above, though the addition was well-intentioned, I think both the theological opinion and the creedal insertion were wrong and ultimately ill-considered.

The history of that debate over the filioque clause is a long and bitter one, and I will not rehearse it here. That work has already been done much more competently than I ever could by A. Edward Siecienski, in his large and definitive work The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy. Here I will only say that Siecienski’s handling of the question and the history is so fair, even-handed, and happily devoid of the polemics which often poison the debate that one cannot tell from the book which side of the debate he is on, and whether he is a Roman Catholic or an Orthodox. Anyone wanting clarity about the Filioque dispute should read Siecienski’s book.

My tiny contribution to the debate consists of an exegetical suggestion. Throughout the debate about whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from both the Father and the Son, the verse John 15:26 (“the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father”) was interpreted as referring to this eternal procession of the Spirit, and as expressing the eternal origin of the Person of the Holy Spirit before time and creation began—not the “economic Trinity” (the Trinity as at work in the world). Both parties interpreted the verse as a reference to the Trinity ad intra, not ad extra. The only disagreement was between those who said that the words “who proceeds from the Father” necessarily meant “from the Father alone” (the historic stance of the East) and those who felt these words did not preclude a further elaboration that the Spirit of truth also proceeded from the Son as well (the historic stance of the West). I suggest that the words do not refer to the Trinity ad intra at all, but something else entirely.

I am not the first one to suggest something like this. Siecienski quotes such authors as Raymond Brown who opined that John 15:26 “is not speculating about the interior life of God, he is concerned with the disciples in the world”. It is not used to describe the hypostatic origin of the Spirit but should be seen as paralleling such verses as John 14:26 about the Father sending the Spirit in Jesus’ Name. In other words, the Spirit proceeding from the Father refers to the sending of the Spirit from the Father at Pentecost.

Though I appreciate this line of thought, I cannot agree entirely. Its strength lies in the fact that this interpretation grounds the Lord’s discussion with His disciples in what would have concerned them. As Jews, the disciples had little concern and would have little understanding about such things as the eternal origins of Spirit of God. Such nuanced and analytic reasoning was characteristic of the Hellenistic mind, not the Hebrew. The advanced discussions of later Christians debating the filioque revolved around such things as the distinction between εκπορευεσθαι/ ekporeuesthai and προιεναι/ proienai (i.e. “to proceed” versus “to advance”), and the eternal procession of the Spirit from the Son versus the eternal manifestation or shining forth of the Spirit through the Son. These are not unimportant distinctions, but they represent a stage of the argument far in advance of what the apostles as first century Jews could have understood—or been interested in. We must first place the apostles within their cultural context and ask what they would have understood by the phrase “the Spirit who proceeds from the Father” before we can make any exegetical headway.

As said, it doubtful that the Lord referred to such intricacies of the Godhead, since they were beyond the apostles’ understanding and their immediate concern. Even His words about His own deity did not concern such philosophical ad intra distinctions. We know that He claimed to be divine because He claimed the divine authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:7-11), because He claimed to share His Father’s exemption from working on the Sabbath (John 5:16-18), because He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and because He said that before Abraham was even born, “I am” [Greek ego eimi], thus claiming oneness with the I AM who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (John 8:58, Exodus 3:14). He spoke of His pre-existent glory with the Father, talking to God about “My glory which You gave Me in Your love for Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Regarding this pre- existence, Jesus spoke about being “sanctified and sent into the world” (John 10:36). He spoke about “coming forth from God” (John 8:42, 13:3, 16:27, 17:8), and this “coming forth” [Greek εξερχομαι/ exerchomai] clearly referred to Christ’s earthly incarnation, not His eternal generation from the Father before the world was made. What concerned the disciples was not any such eternal generation, but the claim that Jesus of Nazareth had pre-existed as God and was therefore the Word made flesh (John 1:14) and could therefore be worshipped by them as Lord and God (John 20:28).

I suggest that Christ’s words in John 15:26 about the Spirit proceeding from the Father also must be interpreted along such lines—as referring to earthly realities experienced by the disciples and Israel generally and not to any prior eternal divine origin. I dissent however from a view which simply equates the procession of the Spirit with the Pentecostal sending of the Spirit, if only because Christ speaks of the Spirit who “proceeds” (present tense) and not “will proceed” (future tense). If He had meant to refer to the Pentecostal sending of the Spirit (referred to in the future tense in every other Johannine passage; see John 7:39, 14:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7, 16:13-15), He would have used the future tense: “the Spirit of truth who will proceed from the Father”. But Christ does not here use the future tense, but the present tense, indicating that the Spirit even now proceeds from the Father. To what therefore does this present procession refer? What would the Jewish disciples have understood by this phrase?

A hint may be provided by Isaiah 57:16. In this passage God says, “I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry; for from Me proceeds the spirit and I have made the breath of life” (RSV). In Hebrew the word here rendered “spirit” is the word ruach, and the word rendered “breath” is the Hebrew neshamah. These clearly refer to the spirits and the breath of mortal men, so that the spirit proceeding from God is that which gives life and breath to mortals. God is saying that if He judged mortal men to the fullest, they would not survive. Therefore He is patient, knowing the frailty of the creatures He has made. Though of course Christ did not utter John 15:26 in Greek but in Aramaic, the wording of the Greek Septuagint of Isaiah 57:16 is striking: “My Spirit shall go forth from Me [pneuma par’ emou exeleusetai], and I created all breath”.

This “going forth” of the Spirit [Greek εξερχομαι/ exerchomai] seems to be a reference to God’s sending forth His Spirit to create life in every generation. We read about this same earthly reality in Psalm 104:29-30: “When You hide Your face, they are dismayed; when You take away their breath [Hebrew ruach; Greek pneuma], they die and return to their dust. When You send forth [Hebrew shalach; Greek exapostello] Your Spirit [Hebrew ruach; Greek pneuma] they are created, and You renew the face of the ground.” This verse in the Psalter refers to God’s continuing acts of creation, and it affirms that all life comes from Him and depends upon Him. The Hebrew ruach of course can mean both spirit and breath, and this verse means that just as God once breathed into Adam, putting life into his body of dust (Genesis 2:7), so He continues to send forth His Spirit to create life in all the world.

It was to this meaning that I suggest Christ alluded when He spoke of the Spirit as proceeding from the Father. The Father sent forth His Spirit in all the world, creating life and renewing the face of the ground. The same Spirit which gave physical life to all creatures was the Spirit of truth who would soon come at Pentecost to bear witness to the truth of Christ and give spiritual life to all. The Spirit was the life-giver, the One through whom God bestowed life, breath, and vitality to all His creation. Now a new creation was at hand, one dependent upon the work and words of Christ. The Spirit of truth would witness to the truth of Christ, and enable the apostles to do the same.

None of this means that the Fathers were wrong. Their application of this verse to the eternal Personhood of the Spirit was not erroneous, for the Spirit that God sent out to renew the face of the ground and give life and breath to all was His own Spirit. The Greek way of expressing this Hebrew truth uses the nuanced, analytic, and technical language of procession, shining forth, hypostatic causality, essence and energies. But this later technical vocabulary and concerns, however legitimate, should not be anachronistically read back into the text. Patristic application is one thing; exegesis of the text in its cultural context is another. To ignore this Jewish context and read the text as if it were written addressing the Trinitarian controversies of the later centuries is to miss the richness present in that Jewish context.

In saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, Christ was building upon a long and rich series of truths about God’s creative presence in the world, and placing His words about the imminent coming of the Pentecostal Spirit on that foundation. His word also builds a bridge between creation and redemption, between the cosmos and the Kingdom, between God’s presence in all the world and in His Church, and between life in this age and in the age to come. It is a bridge much needed now as we proclaim the Gospel to all the world. It tells the story of how God was at work in His world even before Pentecost, and how He who gives to each man and woman the breath in their lungs now also offers to give life in His Kingdom. It is small footnote, but perhaps an important one.

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