Catholicity and Culture

Why The Filioque Doesn’t Suck, A Respectful Response.

I’m about to do something that may be highly inadvisable, and pick a fight with the Crusty Old Dean.

But like folks at my Alma Mater will most likely tell you, pushing back on Seminary faculty was a bit of a pastime, and I’m glad to get back into the swing of things.

I fully recognize that I’ve already lost this argument within the wider Anglican Communion, and when the BCP gets revised I’ll say whatever’s put in front of me to say. For the moment, however, I felt called to go to bat for what I feel is an important part of the Western Church’s life and doctrine.

On my wedding day a friend of the family gave me a cross-stitch from his time growing up in an Episcopal Church in the 50’s. It was triumphalist and imperialist and mostly wrong, but it was a keepsake and had been dear to him for years.

Now, this man is the most quintessentially Greek man I know. Growing up in Central Georgia wasn’t enough to take that sense of cultural and religious heritage away from him or his parents. Despite all this he was raised in an Episcopal Church because, at the time, Orthodox Christians who lived away from Orthodox communities were actively encouraged to attend Episcopal Parishes. Our polity bears a striking similarity. Our sense of Catholicity tends to jive well remarkably well together. Our Eucharistic theology is closer to the East than it is to Rome… all of this was enough for the leaders of the Orthodox Church to tell its members in the Diaspora that they could feel at ease among us.

We were the next best thing. Filioque and all.

And then we started ordaining women, and the Orthodox had a problem with that. (The Orthodox have also been expanding their presence in the U.S, making the lack of parishes increasingly less of an issue.)

If the Filioque is a stumbling block to our Eastern Brothers and sisters, it is one among so very many, and pretending like we’re going to get past 1976 (much less 2003) based on christological goodwill alone requires an optimism I don’t have. (The writers at Anglican News seem to have it in spades.)

It’s important to remember that since 1976 we’re no longer talking about full communion. The conversation we’re now having is one centered around “theological understanding and common witness.” It’s noble. It’s necessary. But the degree to which it places claims on our respective traditions is negligible.

All that isn’t to say that I’m against the dialogue, I’m simply against us thinking that its more than it is. So many times I feel like Anglicans in ecumenical dialogues are like the nerdy kid who freaks out after being acknowledged by the head cheerleader. We’re so excited that they talked to us that we lose sight of the fact that we don’t have a chance in hell of taking them out.

There’s another thread to this that concerns me a bit more than our preoccupation with ecumenical concerns, and it comes in two forms; Anti-Medievalism, and a misplaced trust in the state of our current Trinitarian theology.

The heart of the argument against the Filioque is that it was an early Medieval interpolation into the fruit of an ecumenical council, and that point itself can’t really be contested. The historical foundations of the Filioque aren’t up for debate. What we make of those foundations, however, needs to stay alive in our theological consciousness.

What we see in the life of the Filioque, is the persistence of context in the formation of liturgy. It was a good-faith attempt at keeping the Catholic faith alive in a region and at a time where Arians were in the majority, and in positions of power. Place that in tandem with the fact that Augustinian theology was the sine qua non for doctrinal development in the Western world (and largely ignored in the East) and you have the makings of a well-reasoned liturgical change rooted in the clear pastoral needs of the people. And lets be clear, the Creed has always been a principally liturgical document. It was born in the Councils, yes, but its life has been lived in the Mass.

The Filioque received its doctrinal place largely by acclamation. It was contested, suppressed, and contested again, over a period of well over two hundred years. Anselm’s defense of the Filioque pretty well put any theological concerns about the clause itself to bed. It is a product of Western circumstance that, while unorthodox in its implementation, was completely orthodox in its sentiment.

This is the same period of time, and the same general region that gave us the Creed of St. Athanasius which has avoided controversy while retaining a place as one of the 3 Ecumenical Creeds approved by the 39 Articles. It comes out swinging in favor of the Filioque, and is frequently lauded as one of the best articulations of Trinitarian theology we have at our disposal. (See: Saint Patrick’s Bad Analogies.) While it is in no way Athanasian, (It comes just shy of quoting De Trinitate verbatum) I fear that its Patristic namesake has kept it safe.

We are so slow to escape from the overwhelming cultural construct that nothing good happened between 500 and 1300CE. The fact is that Trinitarian heavy lifting that took place in the Middle Ages set the stage for the most formative period of Theological development in the Western Church since Augustine, who a decent cohort are more than willing to lump in with the “nothing good happened” lot. What the Filioque controversy shows, however, is a group of devoutly Orthodox Christians who were devoted to raising their people up in the Catholic faith, and were willing to do the theological heavy lifting that made the change possible.

We are doing precisely the same thing today in so many ways. To be Episcopalian and take a hard stand against pastoral need driving doctrinal development is to speak out of both sides of our mouths.

Which leads me to my second point. The usefulness of the Filioque in formation today can’t be understated. Yesterday Derek Olsen wrote a remarkably poignant description of the theological climate in which we currently live and move. His insight around the tenets of Therapeutic Monotheistic Deism are right on the mark, and the fact that TMD is a remarkably Arian movement needs to be pinned to the wall of every catechist in the Church.

My own Barthian predilections notwithstanding, we are at a juncture where the creative aspects of the eternal Logos need to be taught and preached with abandon. The Filioque and the Athanasian Creed are two tools that can’t stand to live without. Derek was right to note that any Prayer Book Revision has to take TMD into account, and if we’re serious about what that means it follows that we should be serious about retaining the Filioque.

Liturgy is formation. Its the heart of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The Filioque was produced at a time where that was felt more acutely than ever, and the Western Church, Catholic and Protestant alike, has affirmed repeatedly until the Ecumenical wave of the last 50 years.

It seems to be that my lot as a young priest is to scream into the wind of movements I wasn’t around to play a part in, and this feels a lot like screaming into the wind. But with a Prayer Book Revision looming on the horizion, I reckon its something I’m going to need to get used to.

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