The Gospel Coalition

We Protestantsóheirs of the Reformationóare sadly accustomed to church splits. So it's hard for us to fathom the significance of the massive schism of 1054 when the Eastern Church broke from the West. The division between the Western Church (which now includes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) and Eastern Orthodoxy wasnít caused by debates over the deity of Christ or, even, justification by faith. It was over something much more subtle; something we call the filioque clause.

You may be familiar with this debate and find it trivial. Still more of you probably have little idea what Iím talking about. But I am convinced this debate does matter, especially for Protestant pastors. So let me give a very brief summary, just in case youíre a little fuzzy or completely unaware of the details, and then argue a case for why it matters for pastors. While there are lots of juicy political details and ecclesiological baggage in the story, Iíll stick mainly with the theological bits.

The Filioque and the Authority of Scripture

From the early Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds, the confession of the Holy Spirit read like this: ďthe Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.Ē The Spirit proceeded only from the Father, not the Son. Now, weíre not certain exactly when, but eventually the West added a phrase: ďthe Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.Ē (The Latin word, filioque, means ďand the Son.Ē) This confessional move to add ďand the SonĒ was condemned in the East by Patriarch Photius I of Constantinople (right) in 864.

This variance became a way in which the East and West distinguished themselves on the missionary front, also bringing with it much political tension. The West officially adopted the amended creed in 1014, leading the East to officially split in 1054.

This debate might not feel so consequential as the debate over justification by faith alone, for example. But it carries great historical import, because in the filioque controversy we can cite an example when the authority of Scripture trumped the authority of councils. Some may push back and say that it was all a political game. Roman Catholics can argue that nothing was official until the pope stepped in, so really the authority of the church triumphed. But in the end, it was pastors and theologians grappling with their Bibles to explain, not only Godís self-revelation, but also how God is involved in redeeming and sustaining his people.

I donít mean to undermine the importance of creeds or the work of the church councils. The first seven councils are a good judge of Christian orthodoxy, and we can hold them up as a standard for biblical Christianity that we should be very slow to challenge. But their conclusions are accountable to Godís Word. And itís here, in the filioque controversy, where Protestant pastorsóindeed, every Christian who takes seriously the final authority of the Bibleócan find a good example, political struggles aside, of the church laboring to be true to Godís Word.

Evidence for the Filioque Clause

Just because a historical event gives credence to the Protestant cause doesnít mean itís legitimate. Still, I think the Bible gives us every reason to believe that the filioque clause accurately reflects God's work and Word.

The Upper Room Discourse in Johnís Gospel is the most obvious place to start, where Jesus spends a good bit of time talking about the ďsending of the Spirit.Ē In John 15:26, the Son sends the Spirit, ďwho proceeds from the Father.Ē Also, in John 16, Jesus comforts his disciples saying, ďit 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 youĒ (John 16:7, emphasis mine). Several other passages (John 16:13-15; 15:26; 14:26; Mt. 3:16; cf. Mk. 1:10; Lk. 3:22) give us a more complex picture of the relationship of the Father, the Son, and of the Spirit than the Eastern Church offers. Robert Letham comments on this complexity:

The Holy Spirit hears the Father, receives from the Father, takes from the Son and makes it known to the church, proceeds from the Father, is sent by the Father in the name of the Son, is sent by the Son from the Father, rests on the Son, speaks of the Son, and glorifies the Son.

Some have responded in saying that how God reveals himself in human history is not necessarily a true picture of his eternal reality. But if Godís self-revelation does not indicate who he is in reality, then we are left to speculate in our search for true knowledge of God and the authority of Scripture is undermined. Itís here, again, where the authority of Scripture comes to the forefront. If the Bible canít give us true knowledge about God, then we have a bigger problem than a church schism.

But the Bible is a reliable source of our knowledge of God, and the language it uses about God gives us insight into who he is. And when the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, not just the Spirit of God, it is telling us something important about how the Person of the Spirit relates to the Person of the Son (Rom. 8:9; 1 Pet. 1:11). It is Christ who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16). It is Christ who promises and sends the Spirit as the One who now mediates Christís active presence in the world. This becomes evidentially clear in the book of Acts, where the Spirit empowers the early Christians to be witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), and it is through the Spirit that Christ is with them to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).

The Filioque for Preaching and Discipleship

At this point we can begin to recognize the importance of the filioque clause for preaching and discipleship. Church leaders not only pray that their people will be more holy, but that they will be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 3:18, 15:49). So Paul can say that if you have the Spirit of Christ in you, then you have Christ himself in you (Rom. 8:9-10). And if we have the Spirit of Christ, then we will be conformed to his image, since the Spirit is the power of the Father, who raised Christ from the dead. And this resurrecting Spirit not only gives us new life and makes us holy like Christ, but he is also the hope of our physical resurrection when Christ returns in power (Rom. 8:10-11). For Christians who desire to make Christ the center of Godís redeeming activity, the filioque clause does a nice job of emphasizing that point from Scripture.

When I say that this issue is important for preaching and discipleship, I donít mean that it needs to be the subject of our preaching and discipleship. That, I think, would be foolish. But what I do mean to say is that we should labor to understand God by how he reveals himself in Scripture. It should inform our prayers and inform how we talk about Godís active presence in the life of his children. It bears on how we talk about holiness and how pastors and leaders should call people to godliness. When we hear the words, ďBe holy as I am holyĒ (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16; see also Matt. 5:48), it takes on a richer meaning when it is the Spirit of Christ who dwells in us and empowers us to do so.

Without this view of the filioque clause, I donít think we have as clear of an understanding of the Spiritís work and role in the life of believers; nor do I think we have as much certainty about the being of God.

My fear is that the reason pastors and theologians donít talk much about the filioque clause is because they donít talk much about the Trinity at all. As Carl Trueman has often put it, our churches may believe in the Trinity, but they donít often look much different from the Unitarian churches down the road. To talk about God in a way that is uniquely Christian, our language must be filled with trinitarian language.

The filioque clause is not so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good. It is useful for Christians who must preach, sing, and think hard about God who is Three-in-One and has saved us and is keeping us until the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, comes again.


Glen Davidson

July 8, 2013 at 10:34 AM

i think that has been written by modern historians that are afraid of fights over theology. It is, in my opinion, and oversimplification to say the two factions simply did not understand each other. They were fighting over more than theology, and that friction played into the split, of course.

Glen Davidson

July 8, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Great article: Accurate and readable. Would be interested on your opinion of my book:The Development of the Trinity. I challenge certain premises on the basis of history, accurage theology, and first of all Scripture. Let me know if I can send it to you, or you can dowload it at
(Also you may receive a free sample of it there, and a different sampe of it a Barnes and

Rev. Glen Davidson

Jonathan Tomes

April 8, 2011 at 12:04 AM

Hey Steve,

Eastern theology made a distinction between God's Essence (being) and his energies (work). That's a helpful distinction. I don't see a problem saying that you know something about God's essence (i.e. God's God-ness and intra-trinitarian relations) as long as you clarify that it is known analogically and through his energies (i.e. revelation in history, economic activities). The connection between the energy and the essence would be analogical (not univocal or equivocal). The energies do not belong to the essence but they also are not created. That seems to be an important distinction as well.

When I hear eternal reality I think you mean something equivalent to "divine essence", ontology or God-in-himself but that may not be what you mean.

Beneath all of the politics and ecclesioulogy I think it is this issue that made the eastern Church uncomfortable. I may be wrong but wasn't the trend in the western church at the time of this debate to understand being as univocally related? Even though there is some remnants of that thinking around for the most part we don't think like that...

So, the knowledge is truthful and accurate but doesn't blaspheme and set up a false idol. That also means that our knowledge of God will always be analogical because as images of God we will never be God. We move from pilgrim theology to the theology of the saints in heaven.

If its true of the economic Trinity then it must have an analogical relation to the ontological Trinity. I'm not sure on this but to say that something is true of the economic Trinity but has no relationship to the divine essence sounds like modalism.

(Michael Horton's The Christian Faith has a helpful discussion on some of these issues)

Truth Unites... and Divides

April 8, 2011 at 11:13 AM

Jonathan, Nathan,

I'm not EO so I don't want to mischaracterize or misrepresent the EO objection to the Filioque. With that said, here's something that you both might find helpful:

Filioque Clarification with Commentary.


April 8, 2011 at 11:04 AM

Thanks for this. The Pastoral focus of this article is especially intriguing for me as a theology student. I suppose I hadn't even thought about it!

In my church history course, one of the things we discussed was that this difference was partly linguistic. That is to say, the Eastern and Western churches misunderstood one another. I wonder if anyone else has heard this?

Steve Galt

April 8, 2011 at 09:36 AM

Oops! I just realized that Jonathan (the responder to my post) was not John Starke (the author of the post). So if my post seems muddled, that's probably the reason. (actually, that's probably only a small part of the reason, the greater part being my general ineptitude). Please forgive the confusion.

Steve Galt

April 8, 2011 at 09:28 AM

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, John. It has helped me to think about this issue in a way I had not previously done, although I'm not sure it fully resolves the tension in my mind.

It sounds like when you originally used the phrase "eternal reality," that you were speaking of ontology/divine essence. That's the way I originally understood you.

I concure regarding the nature of our language about God (analogical, not univocal or equivocal).

My question is related to your sentence above: "If its true of the economic Trinity, then it must have an analogical relation to the ontological Trinity." I agree with this sentence. If we understand that essence preceeds energies, then we must conclude that the economic Trinity is grounded in God's essence. And since God is Triune, we must understand that these characteristics of God's essence necessarily relate to the members of the Trinity. But does, for example, the fact that the Father sends the Son enable us to say something like that the Son's being is eternal generated by the Father (analogically speaking, of course)? If so, then it seems that there must be something more which enables us to describe not only that there is an analogical relationship between the two, but which also enables us to describe the KIND or TYPE of analogy which exists. The specific analogical correspondance of sending to generating, it seems, must be grounded in some criterion or other. What is it?

Thanks again for your post, John. I'll let this be my last word.

Jonathan Tomes

April 8, 2011 at 07:59 PM

That's interesting (and long!). It sounds like they have no issues applying the ideas above to the Trinity in the economic sense. At first glance there concern appears to be that the filioque clause confuses the distinctions between the economic and ontological Trinity. The problem for them isn't in saying that the Son sends the Spirit in history but in saying that this happens in eternity (eternal procession and subordination).

Jonathan Tomes

April 8, 2011 at 02:45 PM

Computer glitch. I wasn't nearly finished with the reply.

I've never understood what "eternally proceeding from the Father" means. There is some debate about subordination in the ontological trinity and I'm nowhere near capable of contributing to that discussion at this point.

Taking creation as an example, the Father sends the Son but it is the Spirit that effects creation. From the begining it seems that the Father sends, the Son is sent and the Spirit is the Person in which the Trinity effects creation. The Father is locutionary, the Son is illocutionary, and the Spirit is perlocutionary in creation. That's been a helpful perspective for me when considering this issue.

We are only capable of knowing God through is work. If this is the way that he works then it also must be in-some-way true of the relations within the ontological trinity.

Referring to that way of knowing as analogical affirms that what we know is true but that it is a truth that is known by images and not the archetype of that image. What we perceive in revelation is the analogy. This is also part of what it means to be made in the image of God. We are analogues and learn analogically. I hope that helps.

So I don't think that you are looking for a type or kind of analogy. I'm still exploring this subject.

Jonathan Tomes

April 8, 2011 at 02:13 PM

That's fine.


April 8, 2011 at 01:27 AM

Yes, that would be helpful. I felt like I only got one side of the biblical argument.

Truth Unites... and Divides

April 7, 2011 at 12:40 PM

Hi John,

I have read some material by EO apologists and they are adamant that the Filioque is aberrant teaching. It's a significant point of contention with them.

I have also read that some Catholics (speaking without authority from the Magisterium, of course) are willing to drop or downplay the Filioque in order to obtain closer ecumenical ties with the Eastern Orthodox Church. I have never understood how the RCC could do that given that the Magisterium's teaching is infallible, and the teaching on the Filioque is in the RCC Catechism. If they drop the Filioque, it's like they're saying that the Catechism was wrong for teaching it.

Thanks for writing about this matter. It doesn't come up very often.

Elsewhere (04.07.11) | Near Emmaus

April 7, 2011 at 12:04 PM

[...] - John Starke provides a “pastoral case” for adopting the filioque clause here. [...]

Jonathan Tomes

April 7, 2011 at 12:03 PM

Hey John,

Thank you for the response.

The very idea of God speaking truly and accurately of himself to his images and still being God the same high and majestic God of scripture is awesome...

Steve Galt

April 7, 2011 at 11:28 PM

Thanks, John, for this helpful post. One question it raised in my mind relates to the economic VS ontological Trinity. You said, "Some have responded in saying that how God reveals himself in human history is not necessarily a true picture of his eternal reality. But if Godís self-revelation does not indicate who he is in reality, then we are left to speculate in our search for true knowledge of God and the authority of Scripture is undermined." Am I reading you correctly in understanding (1) your reference to the way "God reveals himself in human history" as a reference to the economic Trinity and (2) your reference to God's "eternal reality" as a reference to the ontological Trinity?

If so, I don't necessarily disagree with you, but here's my question. Isn't it possible that God might reveal something about his ontology--his eternal reality--through the distinct roles each Divine person of the Trinity fulfills in human history without revealing anything about the ontological Trinity? Might God reveal something about His character (think ontology), for example, through the different roles the members of the Trinity fulfill? He thus reveals something about about his eternal reality in the economic Trinity without revealing something about the ontological Trinity.

Is that possible? Thanks again!


April 7, 2011 at 09:57 AM

@John -- Thanks for this insight into the issue (and the explanation as I've never heard of it before). I love reading about Church History because it shows me two things: how people have contended to submit to Biblical authority, and how easily and subtly we stray from Biblical accuracy.

@scotbotmosh -- Were this Facebook, I would definitely have "Liked" that comment, lol.


April 7, 2011 at 09:22 AM

Do you ever think that God gave us the cults to show us how stupid some of the things we divide over are?

Andrew Shaver

April 7, 2011 at 09:20 AM

Thanks for your insights. You did a good job making a practical connection to a historical/biblical controversy. I am continually amazed when I study, think, or sing about the Trinity as you suggested.

I wonder sometimes if we have become so Jesus centered (trying to tread lightly here), that we neglect the Trinity. There are a few preachers who I genuinely respect who talk about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, but never the Spirit or the Father. Are we somehow seeing Jesus differently, more approachable, or more intimately knowable than the Trinune God?

I agree with John Owen that when we speak of one member of the Trinity, or direct worship to one member, etc. - we are acknowledging, worshipping, calling on the Trinity as a whole. I am curious though, if we are shifting away from a Trinitarian pespective, to a 'Jesus only' view.

John Starke

April 7, 2011 at 09:15 AM

Hi Jonathan,
Thanks for the comment. I wouldn't read too much of the analogical/univocal predication debate into this post. And, yes, the Creator-creature distinction is important for this discussion. I don't mean to imply that we can know God fully, but that what God does reveal about himself, we can know truly. I would side with Calvin who argues for divine accommodation; that God talks to us in a lisp, or baby-talk. God does not leave us to speculate about who he is, but gives us language to make sense of him. So, while our knowledge of him is "creaturely", it is still true.

Jonathan Tomes

April 7, 2011 at 08:55 AM

It sounds like your arguing that if God's self-revelations do not tell us who he is in reality (as he is in himself) then the revelation is not true knowledge. This sounds like a univocal understanding of epistemology and ontology. Could you please clarify this point? Does the authority of scripture require that we be able to look at God naked?

I've always wondered about this controversy and appreciate the reflection. I'm concerned about equating univocal knowledge of God as he is in his eternal reality with the reliability and authority of scriptures revelation of God in history. It may be that that wasn't intended. The creator-creature, analogical, archetypal-ectypal distintions are vital...

I wonder if the Eastern Orthodox Church believed that they were maintaining this distinction when they rejected this clause.

[...] A Pastoral Case for the Filioque Clause Ė The Gospel Coalition Blog [...]

Jonathan Tomes

April 7, 2011 at 02:35 PM

Since you are familiar with the EO apologists on this issue would you mind sharing your conclusions as to why they consider this position aberrant? Not so much the political and ecclesiological reasons but the philosophical and exegetical reasons. The relationship between the Neo-Orthodox RC theologians to the magisterium is a curious one on this and so many other issues. Thanks for your insights.


April 7, 2011 at 01:49 PM

So helpful! Every year this comes up as I'm teaching through the Creeds, and I'm grateful for another good resource to aid in the discussion. Blessings! :)


April 16, 2012 at 06:24 PM

"Now, weíre not certain exactly when, but eventually the West added a phrase: 'the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.'"

The Visigoth king Reccared called the Third Council of Toledo in 589 with the intent of eliminating Arianism in Spain. The theologians there added the Filioque clause to the Nicaean Creed to affirm the Son's equality with the Father. I'm not sure how quickly the movement spread to other parts of the West, other than that the Filioque clause was mandated in Spain and reaffirmed by the Fourth Toledan Council in 633.