September 1st marks the launch of a new site: Dropthefilioque.com. This web site was created by a group of Orthodox Christians who want to respond to overtures by Roman Catholics seeking the reunification of Roman Catholicism with Eastern Orthodoxy.
One major impediment to reunification is the Filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. The original version of the Nicene Creed confessed:
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of Life,
Who proceeds from the Father . . . .
The Church of Rome unfortunately added the Filioque clause (and the Son), changing the sentence from “Who proceeds from the Father” to “Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
The Site’s Petition
The site is primarily for Roman Catholics who seek to end the schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. It is basically an online petition in which the petitioner makes the following request of the church’s hierarchy:
As a Roman Catholic Christian committed to future Christian unity between both east and west, I urge that the Filioque clause (“and the Son”) be removed from the Nicene Creed as used in both liturgical services and texts.
There is also an online petition that Protestants can sign.
Tradition and Creed
Many people ask: “What’s the big deal about the Filioque? Can’t we all just get along?” One thing I’ve noticed about Western Christians, both Roman Catholics and Protestants, is that they try to show how the Filioque is a reasonable doctrine. But there is a hidden assumption at work here. It is that if a doctrine can be shown to be reasonable then it is permissible for us to alter the Nicene Creed. But do we have the authority to revise the Creed? The Orthodox answer is that only an Ecumenical Council has that authority.
Modern theology is reason driven. Theologians will put forward theological propositions and debate the matter attempting to show that their propositions or theological systems possess a superior logic to the others. The sources for theological propositions vary according to theological traditions. They can be Scripture, early church fathers, papal decrees, modern science, modern theological scholarship, etc. Creeds are viewed as expressions of our beliefs, the end result of theologizing.
Classical Christian theology assumes an Apostolic Tradition that is passed on from one generation to the next. Theology debates are attempts to explore the implications of Tradition. Tradition is the foundation for theology, not the other way around. In this context the Nicene Creed expresses Apostolic Tradition. Within the oral Tradition received from the Apostles was an implicit sense of what the Scriptures taught regarding Christ. When this implicit understanding of Jesus as the Son of God came under attack by heresy the Church was forced to define this teaching explicitly and formally.
In the early fourth century the Christian Church was faced with the deadly heresy of Arianism which denied the divinity of Christ. The bishops assembled at Nicea in 325 examined Scripture in light of the Tradition they received. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they repudiated the Arian heresy and issued the Nicene Creed. That was the First Ecumenical Council. In 381 the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I) expanded the section pertaining to the Holy Spirit. Then in 431 the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus) ruled that no further alteration to the Nicene Creed was allowed.
The significance of an ecumenical council is that it states the consensus of the Church Catholic guided by the Holy Spirit on a particular matter. It is not so much an option or an opinion as it is an authoritative teaching binding on all Christians.
Prescriptive or Descriptive?
Orthodoxy understands the Nicene Creed to be prescriptive. It does not so much describe what all Christians might believe about God as it states authoritatively what Christians must believe about God, Christ, and the Church. One could say that the Nicene Creed has an authority similar to that of a Supreme Court ruling on the US Constitution. For Orthodox Christians the Church through her bishops has the authority to teach and define doctrine. The teaching authority of the bishops trace back to Christ’s sending the Apostles to teach all the world (Matthew 28:19-20). The Church relied historically more on the bishops, the successors to the Apostles, than on theologians with academic degrees.
For Protestants the Nicene Creed is primarily descriptive. They believe that the Nicene Creed does not have authority in itself but is derived from the Bible. In other words, the authority of the Creed is derivative, not substantive. So long as the Nicene Creed is in agreement with Scripture then it is to be accepted. This is consistent with sola Scriptura. However, if a better interpretation of Scripture emerges then it is allowable to amend the Nicene Creed or make an altogether new creedal formula, hence Anglicanism’s 39 Articles, Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession, the Reformed tradition’s Westminster Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Second Helvetic Confession, etc.
For Roman Catholics the Nicene Creed is under the Pope, not over the Pope. When the Pope inserted the Filioque into the Nicene Creed a major realignment of ecclesial authority took place. The Pope without the assent of the other historic patriarchates: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and without convening an ecumenical council of bishops, unilaterally altered the Nicene Creed. This was done even though the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus 431, Canon VII) forbade the creation of a new creed. In essence, the Bishop of Rome was claiming a magisterium (teaching authority) equal to or superior to the Ecumenical Councils. In exerting authority over the first three Ecumenical Councils the Pope was claiming authority over all Seven Ecumenical Councils. Simply put, the Bishop of Rome, once first among equals, now claimed supremacy over all Christians, a startling departure from Tradition. The emergence of a papal model of authority would in time clash with Orthodoxy’s conciliar model of authority. Here we see how the Filioque lies at the root of the West-East Schism.
A First Step to Reunification
The online petition is to be viewed as a first step to reunification. Unless the Filioque is officially dropped by the Roman Catholic Church any talk about reuniting with Eastern Orthodoxy will be premature. We urge the Church of Rome and other Western Christians to return to the Creed confessed by the Church of the first one thousand years of church history.
We recognize that there are other important issues that need to be addressed, e.g., papal infallibility, the Marian dogmas, the Novus Ordo Mass, the Uniate churches, etc. But let the restoration of the original authoritative version of the Nicene Creed be considered a sign that a new period of dialogue between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy is around the corner.