The Double Procession of the Spirit
A reader asks, “Why is the ‘Filioque clause’ essential doctrine? What clear texts do we use for this and what bearing does this have relating to the gospel? Is this a gospel issue in that, when the eastern church rejected it, they were departing from Christ?”
First, some explanation: the word “Filioque” means “and from the Son.” This Latin word or English clause was added to the Nicene or Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed by the western church in AD 1014 and led to the schism between the western and eastern (later the Eastern Orthodox) churches in AD 1054. The Eastern Orthodox Church still rejects this addition to the creed and its doctrine.
The Nicene Creed, as written at the (first) Council of Nicea in AD 325, ended, “And in the Holy Ghost.” At the (first) Council of Constantinople in AD 381, this article of the creed was enlarged to read, “And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets” (an article concerning the church, baptism, the resurrection and the world to come was also added to the end of the creed at that time).
In AD 1014, the Latin-speaking or western church added the word “Filioque,” so that the article reads in English translation, “And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.”
The phrase “and the Son” establishes the double procession of the Holy Spirit, the truth that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, and so by implication the Filioque also establishes the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. It is the confession of most of Protestantism. “The Father is the cause, origin, and beginning of all things visible and invisible; the Son is the word, wisdom, and image of the Father; the Holy Ghost is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son” (Belgic Confession 8). “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son” (Westminster Confession 2:3).
The word “procession,” then, is used to describe the relationship between the Father and the Spirit, and the relationship between the Son and the Spirit, and the unique character of the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity.
The relationship of the Father to the Son is that He generates or begets the Son (He is the Father in relation to the Son). The relationship of the Son to the Father is that He is generated or begotten by the Father (He is the Son in relation to the Father).
The relationship of the Father to the Spirit is that He sends out or breathes out (spirates) the Spirit (the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father; Matt. 10:20). The relationship of the Spirit to the Father is that He proceeds from or is sent by or is breathed out by the Father (He is the Spirit in relationship to the Father).
And the relationship of the Son to the Spirit is that He sends out or breathes out (spirates) the Spirit (the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son; Gal. 4:6). The relationship of the Spirit to the Son is that He proceeds from or is sent by or is breathed out by the Son (He is the Spirit in relation to the Son).
It must be understood that words like “begotten” and “proceeding” do not mean that the Son or Spirit have a beginning or are in any way less than the Father. They describe the eternal relationship between the Persons of the Trinity and their unique personalities. In other words, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son.
These relationships are reflected in the revelation of the three Persons in time, that, is, the Father is also the Father of Christ in His human nature and Christ is the only begotten Son incarnate. The Spirit, as the Spirit of Pentecost and the Spirit of Christ who lives in the church, is also sent by and proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is only to say, of course, that God, in time, reveals who and what He is eternally and as the blessed Trinity. This is an important point for, if the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son in time, then the same must be true in eternity.
The last two points in the above list are what the Filioque controversy is all about. Protestants believe that there must be perfect symmetry, harmony and equality in the Trinity, and that the Spirit does proceed, eternally and in equality, from the Father and the Son. This is denied by Eastern Orthodoxy. Do the Eastern Orthodox Churches, therefore, deny the full divinity of the Spirit or the full equality of the Spirit to the Father and Son (the old heresy of Arianism)? Church history shows a tendency in Eastern Orthodoxy towards Arianism, a tendency to make the Spirit in some sense subordinate to the Father and the Son. If this is true it would make the matter a gospel issue indeed.
Is this matter of double procession biblical? Yes. John 15:26, a passage where the English word “proceeds” is found, teaches the double procession of the Spirit: “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.” This sending or proceeding of the Spirit in time to the church reflects the eternal Trinity. Both in eternity and in time, therefore, the Spirit proceeds from, and is sent by, the Father and the Son.
The references in Scripture to the Spirit as the Spirit of the Father (Matt. 10:20) and of the Son (Gal. 4:6) also teach the double procession of the Spirit. The Son declared that the Spirit “shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (John 16:14). We have no doubt, therefore, that the double procession of the Spirit (from the Father and the Son) is not only Reformed doctrine but biblical teaching.
How glorious is the Triune God: three in Persons and one in Being! How inscrutable is the holy Trinity: the Father is of none, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from both the Father and the Son! “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9). We must worship Him alone for “his greatness is unsearchable” (Ps. 145:3)! Rev. Ron Hanko