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Home : Faith/Spirituality : The Question Box
Proceeds from the Father and the Son?

Deacon Owen Cummings

Q — As used in the Nicene Creed, what is meant by “proceeds from the Father and from the Son?”

A — The last three words here, “and from the Son,” are usually referred to by the Latin expression “Filioque.” The late Orthodox theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, with tongue-in-cheek made the following comments about this creedal clause: “If there is a special circle of the inferno described by Dante reserved for historians of theology, the principal homework assigned to that subdivision for at least the first several eons of eternity may well be the thorough study of all the treatises — in Latin, Greek, Church Slavonic, and various modern languages — devoted to the enquiry: Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father only, as Eastern Christendom contends, or from both the Father and the Son, as the Latin Church teaches?”

He was not, of course, being dismissive of the Filioque, but rather he was recognizing that it was not the be-all and end-all of relationships between the Greek East and the Latin West.
In the Latin West and largely as a result of the influence of St. Augustine the Holy Spirit was understood as the love proceeding from the Father and the Son, and therefore the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both. In the Greek East a different way of thinking was privileged: the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. A case can be made in Holy Scripture for both the Latin and Greek interpretations. They ought to be seen as complementary ways of understanding something of the Holy Spirit. Neither needs to be understood as exclusive. The somewhat tortuous history of the clause making its way into the Creed in the West is overlaid with tissues of polemics and politics.

The great Latin (and Dominican) theologian Cardinal Yves Congar once wrote these very helpful words about the Filioque: “The tragedy of the Filioque is that, while not intended as a denial of the Catholic faith, and while yielding an Orthodox interpretation, it nonetheless gained a controversial significance… Finally, (the western theologians) must consider the removal of the Filioque from the Creed both for the sake of the Catholic bond of love and with the anticipation that a future ecumenical council could very well incorporate the Filioque into the Creed in mutually acceptable terms.” (Yves Congar, OP Diversity and Communion, London: SCM Press, 1984, p. 104.)

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