The Long View

I've been following with some interest the discussion at Sacramentum Vitae regarding the Filioque controversy. Much of it is familiar ground, but the dialectic is still fascinating. (I've posted on this controversy myself a few times; just use the blog search to find it all.)

It's tempting, sometimes, to look upon debates of this kind as threatening, somehow, to our Christian identity. The reason for this, I suppose, is that we all tend to prefer concord to discord, harmony to cacophony. The temptation to worry about such things should be resisted, however. When the philosophical writings of Aristotle were rediscovered in the West during the thirteenth century, they became extremely popular subjects for discussion among certain teachers at the universities of Paris and Oxford. In some ways, Aristotelian philosophical perspectives could be viewed as threatening to Christian doctrine, provided that one antecedently adopts certain philosophical starting points that are incompatible with Aristotelianism. In 1210 the provincial synod of Sens attempted to put a stop to whatever pernicious influence Aristotelianism might have upon the nascent clerics at Paris by forbidding the Masters of that institution from reading any texts by Aristotle, either in public or in private, thus forbidding also the teaching of said texts. The ban was repeated in 1215, and in 1231 Pope Gregory IX promulgated a bull that extended the ban, in a modified form, to other universities. (For some reason the university at Toulouse was immune from the ban, until Pope Innocent IV extended it to include all of Christendom in 1245.)

Papal pronouncements in the thirteenth century appear to have been viewed with the same care and respect that they are accorded these days in institutions of higher learning: by the 1250s the ban was being ignored everywhere, especially in Paris and Oxford. Bonaventure, in his capacity as minister general to the Franciscan order, called upon Etienne Tempier, bishop of Paris, to issue a condemnation of certain Aristotelian theses. In 1270 and again in 1277 he issued the famous condemnations that had the effect, in the end, of putting Saint Thomas Aquinas, a thoroughgoing Aristotelian (and a, ahem, Dominican), on the index of forbidden teachers. This situation was not changed until Thomas's canonization in 1325.

For roughly a century, then, some of the most fundamentally important philosophical perspectives in history were banned from institutions of Christian education, in spite of the fact that many of these perspectives were not merely consistent with Christian teaching, but were actually quite effectively deployed, by Aquinas and others, in the defense of Christian belief. Looking back on this situation from a distance of over 700 years, one can simply scratch one's head in wonderment over the thoughtlessness of certain kinds of partisanship, but at the time, to those who found Aristotle's texts brimming with stimulating and fertile ideas, the ban must have seemed not merely frustrating but positively maddening. In the midst of the controversy itself the disparate sides must have experienced varying degrees of fear and loathing for one another, and yet, in the end, the whole thing was settled amicably and has remained relatively irenic for seven centuries, a sevenfold increase over the amount of time spent squabbling about things.

Some may wish to suggest that the controversy over the Filioque is of an entirely different order than disagreements over curricula that are largely internal to institutions of higher learning and, hence, is not about to go away any time soon. On the one hand, there is some truth to this: after a millennium of argument, there are still some folks who regard the controversy as a point of schism between East and West. On the other hand, the relative importance of the issue with respect to division-making power can be seen in the fact that the version of the Creed used in Uniate liturgies omits the Filioque with the Vatican's blessing. One thing that is about as clear as anything from the posts and comments at Sacramentum Vitae is the fact that the issue turns on various philosophical notions, including cause, unity, identity, and other inheritances from the Neoplatonic and Peripatetic philosophical traditions. As the condemnations of 1270 and 1277 illustrated so nicely, philosophical conventions come and go, sometimes with alarming frequency, sometimes only very slowly. The long view seeks to go beyond theological analysis, which is always metaphorical and analogical at best, and hit upon the deposit of faith which is the same for everyone at all times and places. This task, of course, can be extremely difficult, and it goes without saying that it cannot be accomplished in a conceptual vacuum: philosophical machinery will necessarily be deployed, whether intentionally or not. What ought to be of interest is not the machinery deployed, however, but the faith displayed. If the dialog between opposing parties is a cooperative search for the truth, then charity demands that we wait until both sides have had their say. In this there is, perhaps, some small difference between the words being exchanged at Sacramentum Vitae and the condemnations of 1270 and 1277.

C. S. Lewis, famously, tried to do an end-run around problems such as the Filioque controversy by searching what he thought of as "the tradition" for those elements of belief that, in his judgment, stood the test of the so-called "Vincentian Canon". The result was his Mere Christianity, drawn from a series of radio addresses and constituting a kind of curious attempt at a non-denominational Credo. While such palliatives are sometimes attractive to certain sorts of minds, they are rarely as satisfying as the quest for deeper understanding that animates the differences of theological opinion that they mask. (In this respect it is rather surprising that Lewis, one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, adopted such an approach.) Indeed, in the absence of difference and variation it is not clear whether our understanding could advance at all beyond the truths that we are spoon-fed from the Gospels themselves. Everyone, Greek as well as Latin, knows that the Gospel of St John tells us that the Son "sends" the Holy Spirit; the dispute is not over that fact, but over the meaning and interpretation of that fact and how it is to be interpolated among the other facts handed us by the Gospels. To say with the "mere Christian" that all we need know is that the Son "sends" the Spirit and no more, is to sow the seeds of heterodoxy, since it leaves to individual judgment what, precisely, the upshot of "sending the Holy Spirit" is to be taken to be. It will not do to say, "Just don't think about what the 'upshot' of our faith is to be taken to be, just endorse the facts as we have them." That is like telling a teenage boy "Our cable package came with the Playboy channel, but don't you dare turn it on, even when I'm not at home!" The Filioque controversy arose in the first place as a consequence of localized attempts to put a stop to Spanish monarchianism (a heretical version that denied the subsistence of the Son, not the orthodox version that says that the Father is the only arkhê, "principle" or "source"). In localized liturgies where there was a danger of the heterodoxy, the Filioque was inserted into the Creed to make the Son's subsistence clear (lex orandi, after all, is lex credendi). This local change was later endorsed by Rome, even though the threat of heterodoxy was not a universal one, but that Rome permitted the change in the liturgy at all was part of what angered the Greeks. Or at least some of them: Theophylact of Ochrid noted that the Latins did not have the rich theological vocabulary available to the Greeks, and in particular they had only one word for "procession" whereas in Greek there were four different verbs to indicate four different ways in which it was possible for one thing to "be from" another (ekporeuesthai, khorêgeisthai, metadidosthai, and pempesthai).

Theophylact was extremely patient about the inability of the Latin language to do justice to the finial theological nuances of the doctrine of the Trinity, far more so than most Greek theologians of his day, who took advantage of theological excuses to promote their own anti-Latin Church polity. In his view it was important to allow for the particularities of local practices in the various Churches, especially in the East (he appealed to the case of the Bulgarian Church to illustrate how even in the East it is essential to insure the understanding of theological terms by the lay members of the community) but also, of course, in the Latin West, and many of the differences between East and West he ascribed to cultural differences that were due ultimately to differences in language and custom. Such things were quite permissible, in his view. He drew the line, however, when it came to matters that had been settled by the decision of an Ecumenical Council, and the text of the Creed fell under this rubric. With the insertion of the Filioque clause the Latin West had gone too far, in his view.

And there, for the most part, is where things stand to this day. By now, of course, Western theologians have had plenty of time to absorb the nuances of meaning present in the verbs ekporeuesthai, khorêgeisthai, metadidosthai, and pempesthai, yet they continue to maintain the validity of the insertion of the Filioque clause into the Creed, and the Greeks continue to object. The dispute over the Filioque has been called trivial by Kallistos Ware, but others are quick to point out that it is but the tip of the iceberg separating East from West. Even if this is true, however, it must be admitted that even a thousand years is not very long in comparison with eternity, and I suspect that the long view will see even this dispute in much the same way that we now see the condemnations of the thirteenth century.


Anonymous said…
"The dispute over the Filioque has been called trivial by Kallistos Ware, but others are quick to point out that it is but the tip of the iceberg separating East from West."

Kinda depends on who you talk to. Some of the more popular (and probably by now outdated) theologians of last century, Lossky, Yannaras, Zizoulas, and many others would have said that the Filioque is the fons et origo of all of the other errors of the West. The reason that we have a flawed sense of ecclesiology, sacramentology, etc., is because we got the whole "God" part wrong. It got to the point that Yannaras in one book says that the Gothic cathedral is the Filioque in architectural form, and therefore a reflection of our Latin heresies.

I personally am of the opinion that this issue is more of an excuse than a real cause of the real problems that Western Christianity has. Even though I think the Orthodox underestimate the problems in their own church, that does not mean that I underestimate them in our own. At this point in the game in many parts of the world, the experiences, look, feel, and attitude of the Orthodox Church compared to the Catholic Church are radically different. We Catholics, to take the most obvious example, have a very unhealthy attitude towards our own liturgy and ascetical laws: we equate liturgical practice with legality (what is permitted) and we treat the content, gestures, and ethos of our liturgy as being empty in themselves, as long as they meet a minimum of some vague form of doctrinal orthodoxy. This reduces the life of the Church to good feelings loosely regulated by ecclesiastical laws that hierarchs can manipulate if put under enough pressure (as what happened with the abuse of Communion in the hand).

Thus, I think that doctrinal conversations on very important issues are much easier for the Byzantine Orthodox when they are done with Christians who "look like them" (the Oriental Orthodox and others) rather than with ecclesiatics who worship like conservative Presbyterians. Indeed, I remember one case of an Orthodox delegation attending a Byzantine Catholic episcopal consecration where there was a buffet table in the vesting area: hey, Divine Liturgy takes more than an hour, so why not get a quick bite before "suiting up for it".

Unless the ecclesiastical lives of both churches become more similar at some time in the near future, then I think these issues will continue to be a matter of mere words. Unless the Christian West can take its own liturgical, ascetical, artistic, and devotional life more seriously, we may be "in dialogue", but I don't know if we are speaking the same language.
Lee Faber said…
re: condemnations of 1277. You must pardon a nitpicky medievalist, but it seems to me that the whole issue was on the interpretation of Aristotle, not just that Aristotle can be seen as threatening "provided one antecedently adopts certain philosophical starting points that are incompatible with Aristotelianism". Aristotle is unclear on such things as the immortality of the soul, and seems to hold to the eternity of matter or at least of species which are incompatible with Christianty. Thomas was given his say (he wrote numerous treatises against the averroists before his death), and the bishop decided against him. no one seems to agree how many propositions were actually censured, I've heard that it was from 4-8; these had to be lifted prior to the canonization, though the condemnations were only decreed by the bishop of Paris and confirmed by the archbishop of canterbury, not the pope or a council. but they did have lasting effect, are probably of more than historical interest; Bazan wrote an article showing that Duns Scotus entire epistlemology was developed in the context of the condemnations, and if we accept the crazed lunacies of radical orthodoxy, these doctrines of Scotus could be responsible for contemporary politics and nihilism, and probably the holocaust. all becuase of those 1277 condemnations.
John Farrell said…
Interesting. Somehow, though, I don't think "No Duns Scotus, No Hitler" will have quite the same appeal to rad trads as the "No Darwin, No Hitler" mantra.
diane said…
When we lived in deepest darkest Louisiana, some friends of ours succinctly characterized the POV of those Deep Southerners still wrapped up in the Confederate Cause: "They still fightin' the Wah."

That's how I view those die-hard Orthodox who regard the Filioque as an insuperable obstacle to reunion: "They still fightin' the Wah." And meanwhile the Christian world has moved far beyond their tunnel-vision.

This does not mean the doctrine of God is not crucially important. It is. But, when there are clearly ways that both sides can agree--and there are, when both sides make the honest attempt to understand each other--then the die-hard hold-outs begin to look increasingly silly and irrelevant.

Popular Posts