Contra Filioque

The doctrine of the “filioque”, a settled notion in Western theology, is the idea that in the economy of the Holy Trinity the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  This understanding of the Godhead  is found chiefly in the writings of St. Augustine, but is also present in other Patristic writers…notably Hilary of Poitiers.  Much of the reasoning behind the filioque was the preservation of the divinity of the Son against the Arian heresy. For, if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, then it can’t be the case that the Son is finite (i.e. created). The Son must likewise be eternal, and therefore Divine. 

This is but a bare sketch of the doctrine.  The filioque, however well intentioned, is also mistaken.  It is mistaken because it only confuses our understanding of the Godhead.  What’s more, it’s not necessary for the refutation of Arianism.  The Eastern understanding that the Son proceeds from the Father alone is a sufficient reason for rejecting the teachings of Arius.

The Eastern view is that the Father, alone, is the Source of the Godhead.  In other words, the Father is the One who secures the deity of the Son and Holy Spirit by virtue of His own paternity.  He is the Father because He begets the Son and sends the Holy Spirit.  Those are His paternal prerogatives.  They are why He is the fountainhead of Deity.  But let’s take these two propositions in turn:

“He is Father because He begets the Son”

Because the Father–qua father–is eternal, there could never be a time in which He wasn’t “Father”.  But what is He father of?  It can’t be the case that He is Father by virtue of creation, since creation is finite.  If it were the case that the Father is rightly known to be “father” by virtue of finite creation, then there was a time in which He wasn’t actually a father.  That can’t be right because, as we said, the Father–qua father–is eternal.  Therefore, His paternity is assured because something else is eternal– namely the Son.  The Son is also God because without Him the Father is not a father.  Or, as scripture says

“Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23) 

So we see that the Father is the Father because He eternally “begets” the Son.  However, we must also treat of our second proposition:

“He is the Father because He sends the Holy Spirit”

The Divine Paternity also rests on the Father having “sent” the Holy Spirit alone.  To say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is to blur the distinction between the Father and the Son by ascribing the Paternity of God to both.  How else are we to distinguish Father from Son otherwise?  Moreover, the filioque introduces an imbalance in the Holy Trinity because it leaves little reason for affirming the deity of the Holy Spirit.  If the Father is God because He begets the Son……and the Son is God because He participates with the Father in sending the Holy Spirit……whence the divinity of the Holy Spirit?  The Spirit neither “sends” nor “begets”.  So what distinguishes Him as Divine?  If it’s simply because He is sent by the Father and the Son, then the establishment of Divinity does not require active participation in either “sending” nor “begetting”.  Why should it then be required that the Son “send” in order for Him to be recognized as Divine?  In other words, the filioque’s attempt to rescue the Son from the Arians leaves the Holy Spirit without the same commendation as the Son.  Therefore, the Divinity of the Holy Spirit becomes doubtful.  But if being “sent” is good enough to secure the Divinity of the Holy Spirit, isn’t being “begotten” by the Father enough to secure the Divinity of the Son?  What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

The Son is Divine because He was begotten of the Father from eternity.  The Holy Spirit is Divine because He was sent by the Father from eternity.  The Father is Divine because He, in His Paternal prerogatives, begets the Son and sends the Holy Spirit from eternity.  By allowing the Father to be the Source of the Holy Trinity, the Divinity of all the Persons of the Godhead is established. 



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Who is he that condemns?

When reflecting on our own lives, we ought never to estimate ourselves as being worthy to receive Divine grace; as if grace were something that could be earned.  If this were so, then grace would no longer be grace.  And, certainly, Grace cannot abide in a heart that’s too puffed up with self-worth to provide any accommodation for the Divine.  And as the Scripture says “God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble”.

On the other hand, we ought never to think that we, or anyone else, is beyond the grace of God.  For there is only one Judge.  And as Scripture also says, “For God so loved the world…”.  But man’s heart, often being deceived by sin, reckons himself and others as so utterly “unworthy” of Divine grace that it is believed that each, in turn, has fallen beyond hope of remedy.  Consequently, this sort of person inevitably lapses into despair.  Yet, humility without hope is no more salvific than is hope without humility.

Christians must maintain a paradox within themselves.  On the one hand, we must recognize that we are not worthy to receive blessings from God….for God dispenses them as He wills.  On the other hand, we must understand that we are never so pitiful that we have precluded the possibility of assistance and charity from Him, either.

In other words, we must allow God to be God.  If our heart condemns us, then we must turn to God in prayer believing that–in spite of what we are thinking or feeling to the contrary—God still hears us.  But, if we grow conceited–putting more stock in ourselves than in God—then we shouldn’t think that God hears us at all.  Again, we must pray.  But in this case, we ought to pray for a softening of our own heart so that it will become a fitting habitation for God.

Who is he that condemns?  Is it not God, alone?  Yes, truly it is.  However, we are also taught that the Lord “does not delight in the death of the sinner” and “desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”.  Therefore, we must not put faith in ourselves but, rather, in the God who “judges all the earth” in righteousness.

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St. Gregory of Nyssa “On Perfection”

“The perfection of the Christian life—and I mean that life which is the only one the name of Christ is used to designate—is that in which we participate not only by our mind and soul but in all the actions of our lives, so that our holiness may be complete, in accordance with the blessing pronounced by Paul, in our whole body and soul and spirit (1 Thess. 5:23), constantly guarded from all admixture with evil.

Now it may be objected that such a good is hard to achieve, seeing that only the Lord of creation is constant and that human nature is mutable and prone to change.  How then is it possible to establish in our changeable nature this permanence and immutability in good?  To this we then answer: there can be no crown unless the contest is fair, and the contest is fair only if there in an adversary to fight with.  Thus, if there is no adversary, there is no crown.  There is no victory unless there is conquest.  Let us then struggle against this very mutability of our nature, coming to grips as it were with our adversary in spirit; and we become victors not by holding our adversary down but rather by not allowing him to fall.  For man does not merely have an inclination to evil; were this so, it would be impossible for him to grow in good, if his nature possessed only an inclination towards the contrary.  But in truth the finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in good; and this capacity for improvement transforms the soul, as it changes, more and more into the divine.

And so my discourse has shown that what appears so terrifying (I mean the mutability of our nature) can really be as a pinion in our flight towards higher things, and indeed it would be a hardship if we were not susceptible of the sort of change which is towards the better.  One ought not then to be distressed when one considers this tendency in our nature; rather let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18), and thus always improving and ever becoming more perfect by daily growth, and arriving at any limit of perfection.  For that perfection consists in our never stopping in our growth in good, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation.”

–Taken from “From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings” (SVS Press)

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On Apostasy

Much has been written regarding “salvation” and the means whereby we become “saved”.  And though much of this material highlights the positive aspects of our life in God, few treat of the sobering issue of the abandonment of faith commitments.  And perhaps that is a good thing, since they can arouse unnecessary fears and futile speculations that do not promote the life of virtue.  However, I hope this brief treatment will help clarify the subject.

Some have held the position that apostasy is a once-and-for-all-act of abandoning salvation. Many point to Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26,27, 2 Peter 2:15-22 and Matthew 12:31,32 as examples of the finality of having rejected the faith.  And if we were to take these verses by themselves at face value, then it would seem that this would be case.  However, I think these verses have a meaning that should be seen in a broader context.

When a person sins, he/she has already committed “apostasy” by rejecting the teachings and commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:18-32).  But does that mean that someone is beyond the pale of reconciliation with God?  Of course not.  If that were the case, then nobody could ever be saved.  So how shall we understand the aforementioned verses?

Let me point out 3 particular parables from Scripture that will help us to better understand the issue of apostasy mentioned above.  The first is the story of the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).  In this story we see 2 sons who are benefactors of their fathers estate.  The one son decides to leave home and squander his inheritance on loose living.  Once his funds have run out, he finds himself feeding pigs in a field while he, himself, starves.  Then we see that he “comes to his senses” and decides to humbly return to his father.  And, of course, the story goes on to say that his father could see him coming back “from a distance”, rejoiced and prepared a feast to celebrate his son’s return.

The story of the Prodigal son is really our story.  And it’s a story that we often repeat (see 2 Peter 2:18-22).  However, we must remember the question which Peter raised to Jesus about the limits on forgiving somebody (Matt. 18:21,22).  Peter suggested seven; but Jesus replied with “seventy times seven”.  Meaning: there is no such limit!!  We forgive a person as many times as they are willing to come to us and ask of it.  How much more, then, is God willing to forgive the penitent?  And who is able to repent?  All people, regardless of the state or condition they happen to be in (Acts 17:30).

The next parable we will look at is the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9,18-23).  The parable tells of a man who went to a field to sow seeds.  One seed landed on the wayside and was quickly devoured by birds.  Another fell on stony ground and because there was no depth of root, the sun burned it up.  Another seed fell among thorns and was choked out by them.  The last seed fell on good ground and actually produced fruit.  While many have taken the “soil” as indicative of different kinds of people, the parable is really about our own spiritual journey.  The different soils are stages in our spiritual birth and growth.  They represent the condition of our own hearts.  At first, we don’t bother receiving the Gospel because of the extreme hardness of our hearts.  But then we arrive at a condition where the Gospel is accepted superficially and, due to immaturity, we easily fall away.  In other words, the soil around our heart is a little better.  The third stage is where the Gospel takes root but the temptations of the world choke it out.  The soil is better still.  And the last stage is where the Gospel is fully implanted in our hearts so that we can bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.  This stage marks the utter softening of our hearts so that we are profitable Christians.

So, the heart of the parable has nothing to do with the spiritual condition of others.  It has to do with our own.  And we should never forget that a good farmer continues to work the soil so that his seeds will grow.  So it is with God.

The final parable concerns the “lost sheep” (Matt. 18:10-14).  One of the sheep in the pack goes astray.  Instead of abandoning the stray sheep, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go looking for the stray.  And it concludes that God’s desire is for no one to perish.

Now, if we keep these in mind, then we can see that “apostasy” is not final.  So, why did God inspire these men to write things that appear to indicate a point-of-no-return?  I think these verses are meant to sober us up to the fact that we can be lost.  But it’s not because there is an irrevocable seal to our fate.  Instead, these verses are warnings to those who have not repented….and, perhaps, who will not repent on accord of their own free choice.  At best, these “apostasy” verses are speaking of individuals who will not repent, not individuals that can not repent.  Of course, as we’ve seen, any one at any time can turn back to God.  And God is more than willing to show mercy (Romans 11:32).  That is what these Scriptures are meant to do: to turn us back to God!!!

What is regrettable is that many, including myself, have despaired of salvation because of immaturity and lack of understanding.  Hopefully, the reader will benefit from knowing that we all fall, daily.  It is up to us to get back up and press onward.  That is the actual meaning of “Israel”: one who struggles with man and God (Gen. 32:28, Gal. 6:16).

“Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.  Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended, but one thing I do: forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.  I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

–Philippians 3:12-14

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Divine Sovereignty and the Humbleness of God

Much has been said, written and debated in theological circles over the issue of God’s “sovereignty”.  Typically, Divine sovereignty is taken to mean that God is the absolute ruler of all things He has made and is able to do whatsoever He wills to His creation.  This can be construed in one of two ways: 1) God is able to do anything He wills but does not override human freedom  2) God absolutely directs the course of all things so that He is believed to be sovereign by virtue of such absolute control.  Taking this second option, Calvinists defend the position that any notion of human freedom (qua autonomy) necessarily vitiates and destroys any and all notions of Divine sovereignty.  Or, as one trite phrase has put it:

“If God is not sovereign over all, then He is not sovereign at all”

In other words, if God is not exercising total control over all things, including human decisions, then how can He be said to be “sovereign”?

I do not propose at this time to entrench myself in a lengthy rebuttal of the many nuances in Calvinism’s approach to this issue.  Not that there isn’t plenty to be said.  There are many things that will likely be written here sometime in the future, God permitting.  But I want to point out a corrective to any so-called theological model that wishes to vie for our allegiance.

I have little doubt that God is able to do whatever He wants to do with His creation, including dominion over the will of man.  But Orthodox Christianity—from the Scriptures, the Nicene Creed, the content of the Liturgy, and the nearly unanimous testimony of the Church Fathers and Saints—has affirmed two important things about God:

1) God is love (1 John 4:7,8)

2) God is humble (Phil. 2:5-11)

In fact, they both go hand in hand.  It is precisely because He is love that He willingly “humbled” Himself before the whole of creation; even to the point of death.  What we see in Christ is a God who doesn’t parade His divinity around like some insecure monarch that absolutely refuses to indulge the radical freedom of man.  What we do see is a God who purposely sets aside His own power to live, suffer and die for all of us.  He did this not merely as an act of propitiation, but also as a testimony of His true authority; namely, that He is willing to lay aside all the power and authority He possesses.  In Christ, God was willing to suffer in this world to bring us back to Him, rather than to sit aloft in the spiritual heaven’s mandating the entire course of the world.  He freely walked amidst others who were likewise free.

God’s glory is not really in His power over all things.  Instead, his glory is to be found in His humble introduction to humanity as a human!!  Or as St. Paul says of Christ:

“Who being the very form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be attained, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and coming in the likeness of man.”

He would rather come and wash your feet Himself, rather than decreeing others to do so. Or as Christ Himself has said regarding “sovereignty”:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desire to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many”

–Matthew 20:25-28

God is truly sovereign precisely because He can, and did, humble Himself.  However, God has such exalted authority, power and rule that it is a very small thing for Him to allow the crowning jewel of creation (i.e. mankind) to be genuinely free.

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