The Filioque Debate

Gary DeSha:


What is the question behind the filioque debate? The answer is to define what the filioque is. What is the filioque? It is an addition to the Nicene Creed about the Holy Spirit. The term comes from the Latin word “filioque,” which means and the Son. What is the theological and historical debate related to the filioque? The answer to this question is two-fold. First, the debate centers on the addition of the clause and the Son without convening the whole church in an ecumenical council to make a decision regarding the clause. Secondly, the debate questions whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or does He proceed from the Father and the Son, or does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father, but was sent by the Father and the Son after His ascension? I contest that the Protestant understanding of the nature of the Trinity is lacking. As Wayne Grudem says in his textbook, “Is there a correct position on this question? The weight of evidence (slim though it is) seems clearly to favor the western church. In spite of the fact that John 15:26 says that the Spirit of truth “proceeds from the Father…” (Gudem, pp. 246-247). He admits that the evidence the western church has (to include Protestant and Roman Catholic churches) is slim. The evidence is not slim at all. It is very incorrect. The exegesis on this matter only goes so far.

It was in the shadow of Arianism and the fear of it that was a major factor in the inclusion of the filioque clause more than we have realized. The western church theologized to the extreme the opposite of Arianism. Doing this, they hoped the issue would be settled and the church could move on without this fear any longer. It is said that the clause was added to counter the 6th century Spanish (Germanic) Arians. They were denying this essential and orthodox truth, which was that the Son’s eternal existence in the Godhead and the Holy Spirit’s deity and procession. However, it is thought that the Arians only issue at that time was Jesus Christ’s uncreated nature and eternality of the Logos (Word – John 1:1) They did in fact deny that the Holy Spirit is God, and Lord or Master. In the fourth century, from the writings relating Arius and his missionary Ulfilas he says that the Holy Spirit is “Neither God nor Lord/Master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.” Therefore, Arianism denied the deity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in AD 589, a provincial church council in Toledo, Spain, modified the Nicene Creed so it would state that the Holy Spirit would proceed from the Father and the Son. This was done without the knowledge or consultation of the Eastern Church or even the rest of the Western Church body. Some have said there may not have been any particular motive for this change, because it looks like something a scribe would do to mend the text. Again, we see the possible intention to the change was to strengthen the defense of the Trinity. The defense was actually an overreaction to Arianism that ultimately led to be one of the key reasons for the Great Schism. The filioque clause spread through the western part of the church. In 796, Paulinus of Aquileia defended the filioque clause at the Synod of Friuli, which indicates that it was opposed, and after about 800, it crept into the liturgy in the Frankish (Germanic) Empire. Some Frankish monks used the filioque clause in their monastery in Jerusalem in 807, but eastern monks disputed it as improper. (Gonzalez, p. 312) Because the Frankish monks were from the west, the matter was escalated to the bishop of Rome (Pope Leo III). He approved of the sentiment, but he opposed the change in the wording. Leo arranged for the creed in its original form (without the filioque clause) to be engraved on silver tablets and he had them placed at St. Peter’s tomb. After the split between Rome and Constantinople in 1054, the filioque clause became part of the Nicene Creed in the Roman Catholic Church. This happened at the Council of Lyons, in France, in 1274.

In 1439, at the Roman Catholic Council of Florence, the Roman Catholic Church invited the Eastern Orthodox Churches and attempted a reunion. There were many issues, some of which seem trivial today, but the most important ones were the papacy and the filioque clause in the Creed.

At the time, Islam was spreading by warfare, and Orthodox lands were under attack. (Gonzalez, pp. 289-293) The Eastern Orthodox delegates to the council agreed to everything the Roman Catholics wanted, but they were under pressure. All attempts to make peace had failed. The Orthodox wanted military aid from the west, and the pope agreed to help them, but only if they signed the agreement. Therefore, they all did, except for Markos Eugenikos, the titular bishop of Ephesus. He did not sign the agreement because he thought it was a sell-out. The pope announced that without Markos’ signature the deal was off. When the Orthodox delegation returned home, only Markos was hailed as a hero, because he was the only one who did not compromise his integrity—the others regretted their actions. In the west, Markos is viewed as the man who prevented the unity of the church. In the east, he is St. Mark of Ephesus, “the conscience of Orthodoxy.”

I contend that the filioque clause be removed from the Nicene Creed for the following scriptural, theological, and procedural reasons:

Scriptural Reasons

I argue from Scripture that the Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name (John 14:26).  However, Jesus declares that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father (John 15:26). There is a purely exegetical reason for this. There is a difference in the biblical words used for “send” and “proceed.” This makes a distinction between send and proceed. I will explain further this distinction in my conclusion. The Greek word πεμψω “send” in the Gospel of John 14:26, 15:26, and 16:7 means “to bid a thing to be carried to one or to send a thing into another.” The only other word Jesus used for “send” in Luke 24:49 is αποστελλω “apostello” which means, “to order one to go to a place appointed.” The Greek word εκπορευεται used in John 15:26 “proceeds” means, “to go forth from, go out of, depart out of, to issue from, to flow forth, and to proceed from.” The filioque and the Son add to the revelation of Holy Scripture. To say that Scriptural references to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ validate the filioque clause does not render the correct understanding. It comes down to the understanding of the nature of God. The phrase Who proceeds from the Father uses εκπορευεται in the present tense. This indicates the proceeding of the Holy Spirit is not a future event, but a present reality having begun in eternity and is still in progress. The Holy Spirit is God, Who IS from all eternity. The combination of these facts makes it clear that the proceeding of the Holy Spirit is something quite different from the sending of the Holy Spirit. This why most of our English translations of the Bible make the distinction quite clear between the Son’s promise that He will send the Holy Spirit from the Father and that the Holy Spirit is proceeding from the Father.

Theological Reasons

Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is God, the Divine uncreated, hypostasis (person), power and mind that manifests what is true and existing. Everyone at the Second Ecumenical Synod knew well that this question was settled once and for all by the use of the word “proceeds” as meaning the manner of existence of the Holy Spirit from the Father, which constitutes His special individuality. Thus, the Father is unbegotten, i.e., derives His existence from nothing and no one. The Son is from the Father by generation. Jesus the Messiah is the Only Begotten of the Father. The Holy Spirit is from the Father, not by generation, but by procession (John 15:26). The Father is Cause; the Son and the Holy Spirit are caused. The difference between the one caused is the one is caused by generation and the other by procession, and not by generation. The Holy Spirit is an individual hypostasis with individual characteristics or properties not shared by other hypostases (persons), but He does share fully everything the Father and Son have in common, which is the Divine essence and all uncreated energies and powers (Romanides, 1975). The Holy Spirit is an individuality Who is not what is common between the Father and the Son, but has in common everything the Father and the Son have in common. The Holy Spirit’s mission is not to impose His hypostasis (person/individuality) but to reveal the Savior and glorify Him, while bringing to glorification those whom He indwells.

This, in relation to Jesus Christ, the Word (Logos), the Son of God, is united to His humanity by nature or hypostatically (in His Person), and the Father generates His Son not by will only, but by nature primarily, the will not being in contradiction to what belongs to God by nature. Thus, God generates the Logos (Word) by nature and by will. The Holy Trinity creates and is related to creatures with the exception of the Logos (Word) Who by nature unites Himself to His own humanity. Therefore, the Logos (Jesus Christ, the Son of God), is uncreated and unchangeable, having always existed from the Father, Who by nature generates the Logos (Word) before the ages. Therefore, generation and procession are what distinguish the Son from the Holy Spirit. Since the Son is the only generation begotten Son of God, the distinction is that procession is different from generation. To send is different from proceeds from. The Church Fathers at the Second Ecumenical Synod spoke clearly leaving out a clause like the filioque neither because of ignorance nor by omission, but by Divine inspiration.

Procedural Reasons

The Church operates upon the authority of Jesus Christ. With this in mind, the Church met together in Council, with her leadership considering one another as first amongst equals. Therefore, the Eastern Orthodox maintains that western part of the Church did not have the authority to change what is the property of the whole Church. Since Canon VII of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in AD 431 is still in effect, a true Ecumenical Council can only change the Nicene Creed. Roman Catholics believe that the Council of Lyons in 1274 was that ecumenical council. Whether or not it was ecumenical depends on your view of the jurisdiction of the Pope, so that goes back to the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox issue of the papacy.

The Importance of the Nicene Creed Today

NiceneCreedThe major issue regarding the Nicene Creed and the filioque debate is that the Synod of Toledo made an addition to the Symbol of Faith of the whole Church without consulting or discussing it with the whole Church. It is important because it changes the understanding about the doctrine of God and the Holy Trinity. The Church formulated the Nicene Creed before it established the canon of Scripture, calling them the New Testament, and declaring them Holy Scripture. Another way of looking at it is that God chose the people who were bound by the Nicene Creed to affirm the contents of the New Testament, thereby endorsing the theology of the Creed as apostolic orthodoxy. This is the issue; the Nicene Creed is therefore a reliable test of our interpretation of the New Testament. If we are at variance with the Nicene Creed, we are in error. Therefore, whoever denies the theology of the Nicene Creed must also deny the theology of the New Testament, and whoever upholds the New Testament, as Holy Scripture must also affirm the theology of the Nicene Creed. It can be related to what the Apostle John prophesied, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” Revelation 22:18-19 (ESV) To add to the Nicene Creed is likened unto adding to the words of Holy Scripture. The testimony of the New Testament is encapsulated within the Nicene Creed. Adding to the Nicene Creed caused serious misunderstanding theologically, and was a primary cause of the Great Schism of the Church.

For many years, Christians read the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles. However, the Church did not have a formal creed, nor did it have an official list of the books of what is now the New Testament until 397 AD at the Council of Carthage. The Church held its Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381 AD to finalize the Creed first written in Nicaea to express its doctrines from the apostolic writings and to serve as a test of orthodox teaching. Therefore, for a while, there was a Church with the Nicene Creed, even though it used the books of the New Testament as Holy Scripture, it had no official statement saying that they were. This did not occur until the Church accepted the Nicene Creed, and in 419 AD, during another Council of Carthage under the authority of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, declared the accepted list of the 27 apostolic writings as the completed canon. (Metzger, pp. 237-38) This became the formal canon of the books in the New Testament.

It must be noted that whoever attempts to reconstruct the ancient Church with an official list of New Testament books but without the Nicene Creed is reconstructing an imaginary church that never existed. This means that it is not a historic reconstruction, because in any part of Church history in which there was an official list of New Testament books, the Nicene Creed was the official expression of faith and the final test of orthodoxy from those God-breathed apostolic writings. That is why the Nicene Creed is called the symbol of faith.

The Nicene Creed in Worship

Traditional liturgical and non-liturgical worship should always include the Nicene Creed whenever there is the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. It is a corporate proclamation of faith that corresponds to the Schema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one”) in the synagogue liturgy.


The Word (the Logos), the Son of God and the Holy Spirit are intertwined, woven together in their truth and understanding. The Holy Spirit has manifested the anointed Word (Logos) and at the same time, the Word (Logos) pours out the Holy Spirit. The font of the Godhead is the Father from which all things flow. (Cleenewerck, p. 325) “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” John 14:26 (ESV) Jesus Himself exalted the Father above all else. The Father was supreme in the mind of His Son. This supremacy is established as well as the co-inherence or the mutual indwelling of the Word (Logos) and Holy Spirit, One God in Three Persons.

Just as our God, the Lord Jesus Christ said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you. And when He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.” John 16:7-15 (ESV) Jesus the Messiah, the Only Begotten Son of God, was sent by the Father as the Savior of humanity. He would usher in God’s rule and reign upon the earth (the Kingdom of God). Therefore, when the Messiah’s work was completed, He ascended into heaven. Then, upon taking His place at the right hand of the Father, and from the Father, the Son sent the Holy Spirit to be in us and with us as Jesus was when He tabernacled here on earth. (TOSB, p. 1456) The Holy Spirit Who proceeds from the Father is sent by Jesus as another Comforter.

Therefore, what does the inclusion of the filioque communicate? The filioque says that the Holy Spirit is subordinate to the Father and the Son. Alister McGrath, “There is no question of the Holy Spirit being subordinate to the Son,” reiterates this error. (McGrath, p. 105) Why does it really matter? Because it must be understood that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share a common Divinity with each other. The Holy Spirit is only subordinate to the Father and the Son in terms of His function with Creation, His dignity and office, not regarding His essence, substance (οὐσία / ousia), or hypostasis in His relationship to the Father and the Son. (Schaff, loc., 57460) Why is it so important that it be removed? It is important from the understanding that the font of the Godhead resides in the Father’s Person, therefore the Holy Spirit clearly must proceed from the Father alone, since the Son of God, the Word (Logos) does not possess the Father’s Person. Each Person or Hypostasis of the Most Holy Trinity shares the same essence with One another as One God, and in this reality, we understand that the Father is the Cause or Originator both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Holy Spirit.


Cleenewerck, L. (2008). His Broken Body: Understanding and Healing the Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Euclid University Consortium Press.

Gonzalez, J. (2010). The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. HarperOne.

Green Sr., J. (Ed.). (1996). Interlinear Greek – English New Testament, Third Edition. Baker Books.

Grudem, W. (2000). Systematic Theology: An introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Zondervan.

Maximos, M., Eugen, P., Michel, N., Sparks, J. (Eds.). (2008) The Orthodox Study Bible (TOSB), St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. New King James Version. Thomas Nelson.

Metzger, B. (1987). The Canon of the New Testament: Its origin, development, and significance. Oxford University Press.

McGrath, A. (2012). Theology: The Basics. 3rd Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.

Romanides, J. (1975) The Filioque, orthodox position paper, part three. Retrieved from:

Schaff, P. (2013). History of the Christian Church: From the First to the 19th Century (all 8 volumes). Revised and Amended. Kindle Edition. Delmarva Publications.

Sproul, R. Mathison, K. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible, English Standard Version. Ligonier Ministries.

Thayer, J., Green, J. (Ed.). (1981). The new Thayer’s Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament. Hendrickson Publishers.

Image top, right: “Trinity.” Andrei Rublev. c. 1411.


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