The Procession of the Holy Spirit – Approaching with the right Spirit

Posted on May 21, 2012


In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

In our class ‘Survey of the Eastern Tradition’ in a program devoted to Ecumenical studies, it is inevitable that the wearying question of the Filioque would need to be addressed. I dreaded this, not because of its divisive nature per se, but especially because I feel extremely uncomfortable speaking about the inner workings and eternal identity of our Holy God, the Blessed Trinity. As St. Gregory the Theologian wrote

What, then, is “proceeding?” You explain the ingeneracy of the Father and I will give you a biological account of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding–and let us go mad the pair of us for prying into God’s secrets. What competence have we here? We cannot understand what lies under our feet, cannot count the sand in the sea, “the drops of rain or the days of this world,” much less enter into the “depths of God” and render a verbal account of a nature so mysterious, so much beyond words.[1]

And again St. Athanasios writes:

Human knowledge goes [just so far]. Here the cherubim spread the covering of their wings. He who seeks and would inquire into what lies beyond these things disobeys him who said: “Be not wise in many things, lest thou be confounded.” For the things that have been hand down by faith ought not be measured by human wisdom, but by the hearing of faith.[2]

It is absolutely foundational that all discussions concerning the Procession of the All-Holy Spirit be permeated with Him—the spirit of humility and the fear of the Lord. In this Spirit the North American dialogue speaks when it recommends

that all involved in such dialogue expressly recognize the limitations of our ability to make definitive assertions about the inner life of God.[3]

And if it is truly about the Spirit, it will show forth His fruits—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All too often, however, Christians have shamefully blasphemed the Holy Spirit by stirring up dissension among brothers[4] on the pretext of worshipping and glorifying the All-Holy Spirit. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness…my brothers, this should not be.[5] Let us, then, fall before God in repentance, beseeching Him to have mercy upon us sinners who viciously persecute His Son, and beg Him to still send His All-Holy Spirit to cleanse us from every stain, and heal our souls.[6]

Thy light to every sense impart
And shed Thy love in every heart
Thine own unfailing might supply
To strengthen our infirmity[7]

The Procession of the Holy Spirit – A Preliminary Question, a Bit Troubling 

When His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes concerning these difficult issues, I believe he is able to take a far more objective view than many Orthodox. He speaks of how Orthodox themselves are in fact divided on the question of the Filioque. Some firmly believe it to be a heresy, citing figures such as St. Photios, while others consider it to be a misunderstanding, citing saints such as St. Maximos.[8] Moreover, does not His Eminence embrace the humility of the Holy Spirit which we have quoted above when he writes

The term used to denote the Spirit’s eternal relation to the Father, “procession”… conveys no clear and distinct idea. It is like a sacred hieroglyph, pointing to a mystery not yet plainly disclosed. The term indicates that the relationship between the Spirit and the Father is not the same as that between the Son and the Father; what the exact nature of the different may be, we are not told. This is inevitable, for the action of the Holy Spirit cannot be defined verbally. It has to be lived and experienced directly.[9]

Therefore, it is only appropriate in these ineffable questions to hearken to the voice of the Holy Fathers who were filled with the Holy Spirit and so rightly given a place amid those great men considered teachers of our faith.

It is undeniable that the Latin Fathers used the term procession to denote not only the relationship of the Spirit to the Father, but also the Son. Thus Visigothic Spain held no scruples to bringing their Latin Nicene Creed into alignment with this theological terminology, and adding another interpolation to the Creed.[10] It is also undeniable that the Frankish Roman Empire used their Latin Creed as a pretense to discredit the Eastern Roman Empire in the midst of political ambitions, slandering the East Romans by saying they had removed the Filioque. These considerations of culture and politics should never be ignored, and we should never pretend that this controversy arose from a purely theological basis. Theology cannot be divorced from the worldly politics and societal changes. To do so challenges the very Incarnation itself.

But the two saintly witnesses that I mentioned above—St. Maximos and St. Photios—were both active in the Eastern Roman Capital: New Rome. But when St. Maximos argued in the 7th century that the Filioque was Orthodox, he did so in the backdrop of a struggle for Orthodoxy in the face of a heretical emperor. The emperor cut out his tongue because he upheld the authority of the Pope over the Emperor. But St. Maximos also had taken refuge in the West, and knew enough Latin to write

The Romans have therefore been accused of things of which it is wrong to accuse them… One should…keep in mind that they cannot express their meaning in a language and idiom that are foreign to them as precisely as they can in their own mother-tongue, any more than we can do.[11]

He points out that a letter of Pope St. Martin containing the filioque translates the verb processio into ἐκπορεύεσθαι (“to come out of”) when in fact St. Maximos would rather translate it as προιέναι (“to send forth”) in order to keep the correct sense to align with Greek theology, since, as he says, “they know in fact that the Father is the only cause of the Son and the Spirit.” Moreover, “they [the Romans] have produced the unanimous documentary evidence of the Latin fathers, and also of Cyril of Alexandria.” Thus it is not unreasonable to take St. Maximos as a defender of the more moderate view of the Filioque—that its theology is Orthodox, but its handling is troublesome.

On the other side we have St. Photios. First, we know that Photios knew no Latin.[12] Even further, Photios seems to regard the Latin language itself as “impoverished” which “often renders false notions” of doctrine.[13] Besides this, Photios was the unlawfully-elevated patriarch of the Imperial city which was attempting to annex the lands of Bulgaria for the Eastern Roman realm—a claim which was being contested by Germans who used the Latin Creed. When Rome’s legates supported his cause in 861, Photios wrote a letter to the Pope which affirmed Roman practices such as the Saturday Fast and priestly celibacy as being non-divisive.[14] Later, however, when the Pope firmly opposed Photios, Photios responded by excommunicating the Pope and writing an encyclical which condemned the Western practices such as the Saturday Fast and priestly celibacy as “forerunners of apostasy, common pests and servants of the enemy[.] [W]e, by divine and synodal decree, condemn them as impostors and enemies of God.”[15] And then he further elaborated on the more egregious dogma of the Filioque.

Years later, he elaborated heavily on his arguments against this Latin terminology and wrote a long treatise which argued rather forcefully against it. I will only make one quotation from this work in order to compare the thought to the above Patristic spirit and bring this essay full circle. One of the striking ways in which St. Photios argues against the Filioque is by trying to show that when a certain logic is applied it leads to absurdity:

If the Son is begotten from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Son, according to their own opinion, then how is it that this godless doctrine does not make the Spirit a grandson and thus drive away the tremendous mysteries of theology with protracted nonsense?[16]

Now compare this reasoned argument to what St. Athanasios says of the heretics in his day:

But they, persevering in their antagonism to the truth…speak again, no longer out of the Scriptures–they find nothing there–but proclaiming out of the abundance of their heart: [he then lists a number of absurd questions resulting from an application of human reason] …but if the Spirit is of the Son, then the Father is the Spirit’s grandfather.” Thus the wretches make mock, like busybodies desiring to “search the deep things of God” which “no one knows but the Spirit of God,” against whom they speak evil… they ought not to be so bold as to ask doubting, how these things could be; lest, even if he whom they question be at a loss for words, of their own accord they think out false notions for themselves.[17]

The arguments proposed by St. Photios are indeed troubling. They are troubling at first because at face value they seem to mimic the line of reasoning done by heretics of old. They are troubling also because of the narrowness placed on Scriptural exegesis and circular logic (which I do not have the space to address here). They are troubling to because of Photios’ willingness to dismiss the Latin Fathers—Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome—as perhaps “fallen into something unseemly”[18] which Photios calls elsewhere a “quibbling sophism,” “insane,” “blasphemous.”[19] They are troubling, perhaps most of all, because of the political ambitions which were supporting Photios’ claim to the Patriarchate—ambitions which no one can deny had no Christian charity behind them, being stained with blood.

I do not have answers, I only have questions. My question is this:

In the ineffable manner of the Procession of the Holy Spirit, who is better suited to speak about the Latin terminology? One who knows the language, has travelled among them, and one who is willing to suffer torture for his beliefs? Or one who does not know Latin, has never traveled in the West, and is the unlawful Patriarch of the Imperial Capital?

I will conclude with only this wise saying:

It is a dangerous presumption to claim to understand the nature of anything hastily, before the matter has been thoroughly discussed and its characteristics have been analyzed, and to make a guess grounded on one’s own inexpertise rather than to offer an opinion based on the condition an qualities of the practice itself or on the experience of other people.[20]

I believe that what the controversy of the Filioque desperately needs is simply this: that we listen to each other, and understand ourselves only as the other understands himself, and not on our own presumption. Is St. Photios guilty of this? Let the reader judge, and let our bishops decide. I will simply pray to the Holy Spirit for mercy.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.

[1] Gregory Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration, 8

[2] Athanasios, Letter to Serapion, 17

[3] North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, Filioque: A Church-Diving Issue?, 4

[4] Prov. 6:19

[5] Ja. 3:9-10

[6] Invocation of the Holy Spirit, Byzantine Rite

[7] Fourth stanza of Veni Creator Spiritus, Vesperal Hymn for Pentecost in the Benedictine Office.

[8] See Ware’s discussion of this in The Orthodox Church,210ff.

[9] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 91

[10] We mentioned this in our last essay _______

[11] St. Maximus the Confessor, Ad Domnum Marinum Cypri presbyterum (Letter to the priest Marinus of Cyprus), PG 91, 134D-136C, ed., Peter Gilbert; and accessed at

[12] Ware, The Orthodox Church, 46

[13] St. Photios, Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, 87

[15] Photios, Encyclical to the Eastern Patriarchs, 866

[16] Photios, Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, 61

[17] Athanasios to Serapion, 15, 17

[18] Mystagogy, 70; it is true that Photios seems to try to deny that the Latin Fathers taught the Filioque

[19] Ibid., 73, 64

[20] Abba Severus to St. John Cassian in The Conferences, 7.4.1 trans. Boniface Ramsey (Paulist Press: 1997), 249