A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Filioque According to Me

Jerome Van Kuiken of Okalahoma Wesleyan University presented a paper at ETS 2021 in November on “Wesleyans and the Filioque.” His survey featured some recent evangelical Wesleyan theological treatments of the doctrine, and considered my work under the general heading of being “fidgety about filioque.” I didn’t get to attend Jerome’s paper, but he sent me a copy. So, with his permission, I’m going to interact with it here.

I’ll only be looking at the three pages Dr. Van Kuiken devoted to my work; the whole paper is eighteen pages long and builds toward a constructive proposal worth considering elsewhere. What I want to do here is just confirm that he’s read me correctly, reply to him on a few points, and generally take the opportunity to revise and extend my remarks on the filioque. I’ll follow the sequence of Van Kuiken’s paper and then speak a little more freely after that, in particular about the pedagogical goals and communicative strategies that have shaped how I’ve talked about, and avoided talking about, the doctrine. I admit this blog post is a bit rambling and autobiographical, so feel free to ask for your money back on it.

First of all, I’m just honored that an estimable theologian like Jerome Van Kuiken has given careful attention to my work in this way. He has combed through my published work (all the way back to the comic books in the late ’90s, I am not joking!) and tracked down everything I’ve said on the filioque. And I made this especially hard for him because, as he rightly says,” for all Sanders’ stress on divine processions, the filioque is conspicuous by its near-total absence from his writings.” (There’s an excellent footnote at this point in the paper that follows my meandering path across twenty years of text; nice work.)

“The trinitarianism Sanders commends is functionally Eastern, even though he writes for evangelicals whose heritage is Western filioquism,” says Van Kuiken. I accept that characterization in part, though I’d prefer to say that I habitually present a trinitarianism acceptable to both East and West. Unless you define “acceptable to the West” as “must include filioque explicitly;” but in that case you’d have to similarly escalate the Eastern condition to “must include monopatrism explicitly.” What I usually aim for, in my phrasing and in my diagramming, is a representation of the Nicene Creed of 381 without an explicit “and from the Son” or an implicit “and only from the Father.” Eastern-friendly, but not exclusively so.

But Van Kuiken rightly picks up on something else going on in my “coyness about the filioque” in my first book, The Image of the Immanent Trinity: Rahner’s Rule and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. In that book, I was pressing the question of how trinitarian theology arises from Scripture and then circles back to guiding interpretation of Scripture, and I was especially focused on how modern theologians interpreted the events in the economy of salvation. Van Kuiken summarizes my moves:

Once we see the Son’s outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost as reflecting an eternal relation of origin, then the same hermeneutic dictates a spirituque behind the Spirit’s activity in Christ’s conception. But logically the filioque and spirituque contradict one another: either the Spirit originates from the Son or the Son from the Spirit; both cannot be true. Furthermore, the diversity of economic relations among trinitarian persons does not stop with the Father-Spirit-Son pattern of the Synoptics (the basis for positing a spirituque) or the Father-Son-Spirit model of John, Acts, and Paul (the template for the filioque). There is also “a strange near-collapse of the persons into each other in the eschaton, when the Son returns the kingdom to the Father (I Cor 15).” Sanders sums up his argument thusly: “Father, Son, and Spirit interact in so many ways in the economy of salvation that we are actually confronted with the material for multiple models that resist harmonizing.” Biblical hermeneutics, not Byzantine dogmatics, renders the filioque suspect to Sanders.

Though I didn’t quite put it this way at the time, the line of thought I was pursuing in this “spirituque” section was an attempt to show that the modern research project of deriving the immanent Trinity from nothing but an analysis of the economic Trinity was a project without adequate rules to govern it. In my later work (especially Triune God), I went on to draw a stronger contrast between Trinitarianism that includes verbal-propositional revelation, and the kind of modern Trinitarianism that rejects in advance any such verbal-propositional transmission of Trinitarian information (as do Rahner and several people following his lead). I mention this revelation issue a bit in connection with Walter Kasper’s reservations about Rahner’s Rule (Image, pp 127-132), but it wouldn’t be until I read Dennis Jowers’ dissertation (reviewed here in its published form) that I would begin to see just how much the modern Trinitarian project was committed to working on economic actions in isolation from inspired Scripture.

In fact, for all the good things there are to say about the passionate vigor of the self-styled revival of economic Trinitarianism in modern theology, it always suffered from an “anything goes” tendency resulting from a lack of guidelines. The two guiding forces that it most needed were Scripture (again, in the sense of actual verbal formulations like say Matthew 28:19) and the main lines of the classic Trinitarian tradition. Those main lines, I have come to see with increasing clarity, are the lines of the missions of the Son and the Spirit as extensions of their eternal processions from the Father. Those processions-to-missions movements are the crucial guidelines for all solid Trinitarian theology.

And of course those processions are relations of origin. Van Kuiken doesn’t miss my early interest in the possibility that there may be more to talk about in Trinitarian theology than relations of origin:

Intriguingly, however, the early Sanders leaves the door cracked for other immanent trinitarian relations besides those of origin: “There are economic relations among Father, Son, and Spirit . . . which have been underused in developing the doctrine of the immanent Trinity.” Attempts to develop these other relations have included the Palamite doctrine of divine energies, Reformed speculation about an intratrinitarian pactum salutis, and contemporary social trinitarianism. The value in these attempts, however flawed their execution, lies in their recognition that the variety of economic relations among the divine persons reflects a greater, richer reality in the immanent Trinity. Sanders describes this richer reality in Augustinian tones as “the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.”

I was considerably under the influence of Pannenberg in these early writings, and that shows up especially in the way I hoped that his theology of history might open up some richer ways of reading Scripture. At his best, Pannenberg casts a vision of the three persons interacting in multiple, complex ways that all emerge into the events of the economy from their perichoretic life together. As late as 2014 I still held onto some hopes that the “richly structured nexus” of interactions between the Trinitarian persons in the economy might yield some further insights into the character of the divine relations in themselves; things into which the church fathers had desired to look but were unable to discern.

But somewhere around that time (2012 to 2014), about five things came together in my thinking that had the cumulative effect of slamming the door on that phantom of Pannenbergian promise. First, I read Steve Holmes’ clarifying 2012 overview of just how counter-traditional the entire Trinitarian revival was; it confirmed and clarified what I had been gradually coming to see for myself, and allowed me to draw the conclusion that certain research agendas stemming from the revival were in fact dead ends (mainly, for me, this “rich nexus” one). Second, I revisited John’s Gospel with much greater confidence that it was more than just a resource from which Trinitarian theology could be constructed: it is in fact delivering judgments about Trinitarian theology that should be received and replicated. I don’t want to be glib about this. It’s not that I finally read the Bible and that all the other smarty-pants theologians oughta try that someday. But I had by this time matured and deepened in my understanding of Scripture, in a way that made a material difference in my theology. Third, the theologies of Augustine and Aquinas (not excluding their John commentaries!) took on a more definite shape for me, helping me get my bearings on earlier (Athanasius and Nazianzus) and later (Protestant Scholastic) work. Fourth, having decided in 2010 that I would teach the doctrine of the Trinity to evangelicals at the popular level in a way that emphasized eternal generation, I had published Deep Things of God and was beginning to see some concrete results in terms of students eagerly accepting this method: it was working! And fifth, even while a number of contemporary theologians continued to downplay or deny eternal generation, I had begun working with a group of likeminded theologians at ETS who had begun to push back strategically against that trend, and we were busy setting forth the persuasive case that would eventually be represented by the book Retrieving Eternal Generation in 2017. As all of this came together, it seemed less likely to me that the way forward would be in finding new resources to supplement or relativize the role of eternal processions in Trinitarianism; the way forward for my theological work would be giving these eternal processions a real workout. And so I turned a corner somewhere in here: nothing very dramatic, but a growing confidence about the path I needed to take in order to be an effective teacher of this doctrine.

The connection to the filioque is a bit oblique here. I would say that as I focused my energy on teaching the kind of Trinitarianism that drew its doctrinal and spiritual life from the eternal processions as extended into the temporal missions, it became increasingly important to me to avoid squandering that energy on disputed details. And I view the filioque as a detail rather than as central. (I recognize that that is a judgment that requires more justification: one of the main things Christians disagree about is what it’s okay to disagree about. So I’ll justify it a bit more, below.) The other way it relates to the filioque is this: If you think there’s a lot more to say about the Trinitarian relations than what can be confessed about relations of origin, then you’re apt to think that a lot of the most important questions about the relation of the Son and Spirit to each other can be resolved in those other areas. But the more you restrict yourself to relations of origin (begetting and spirating) as the fundamental issue in Trinitarian relations, the more you’ll need to take care of everything right there. The eternal relation between the Son and the Spirit will need to be sorted out in terms of their relations of origin. So I would say that in my earlier work, I was more inclined to think Son-Spirit relations could probably be sorted out satisfactorily elsewhere. In my later work I become more convinced that there’s no such elsewhere. That does mean that sooner or later I’ll need to go ahead and declare a few things about the Spirit’s relation of origin, and how the Son is implicated in it. I still think you can speak meaningfully, and at greaaaaat length, about these matters without having to get into filioquistic or monopatristic detail, but my increased focus on relations of origin means I can no longer put off the conversation in the same way I used to.

None of this is lost on Van Kuiken, who spots the turn in my thinking and notes how I assimilate it to my overall view of what is revealed in the economy of salvation. To follow this next bit, it helps to have the diagram from page 23 of Fountain of Salvation in front of you:

Advancing to Sanders’ mature works, however, we find the suggestion of additional relations in the immanent Trinity cast in a fairly unfavorable light. Sanders situates relations of origin as the golden mean between more minimal and more maximal answers to the question of how much the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity. At the extremes of this spectrum lie the minimalism of unitarianisms in which the economy reveals no ontological Trinity (e.g. Arianism, Sabellianism) and the opposite maximalism of Hegel’s equation of universal history with God’s dialectically triune being (which Sanders sees as another flavor of Sabellianism). One step inward on each end of the spectrum from these radical “all or nothing” positions are, on the minimal side, the revelation of three co-eternal but nameless persons (as we saw above, this is Craig’s view) and, on the maximal side, Jürgen Moltmann’s model of a suffering Trinity constituted by the Cross. Furthest in and flanking the midpoint of relations of origin are the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) teaching of some evangelicals on the minimalist side and, on the maximalist side, the proposal of a rich variety of relations in which “economic destinations (‘I go to the Father’) reveal eternal terminations, and temporal glorifications reveal eternal effusions” such as at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. Amid the motley company of the other options on Sanders’ spectrum, however, the thought that the eternal Trinity may enjoy more relations than just those of origin seems tainted by association. It stands on the spectrum as the mirror image of EFS, which has drawn charges of heresy, and as a step along the slippery slope towards Moltmannian and Hegelian scrapping of classical theism. Tantalizingly, though, both Sanders’ more recent, more melancholic treatment and his earlier, more sanguine handling of the relational variety view lie side by side in creative tension as the first two chapters of his latest book.

That’s just great exposition on a subject that matters a lot. The only thing I’d add is that I arranged those two chapters of Fountain of Salvation (chapters 1 and 2) so that readers would first encounter the chart above, to see how I consider the “network of many relations” view to be an inordinate claim. Then, in the next chapter, they meet the view again and get some more detail about who believes it (Pannenberg, Jenson, etc.), why, and what it would entail for Trinitarian theology overall. I don’t expect most readers of Fountain of Salvation to be tracking the development of my views over the years! So I edited the chapters into an order that unfolds conceptually.

The last thing Van Kuiken notes about my reticence on the filioque is that it is connected to my position on how we know what we know about the Trinity, especially on how to read the economy of salvation as Trinitarian revelation:

Lastly, the mature Sanders offers general principles to mind when working from the economy to the eternal Godhead. First, divine self-revelation is always a self-humbling accommodation by the uncreated Lord to created, human thoughts, words, and (in the incarnation) nature. Secondly, condescension to the creaturely includes “conditions of temporality and multiplicity, whereby the God who does one continuous eternal act of faithful love must act out that same act repeatedly, in a temporally extended way, to continually manifest who he is in the schema of successive moments.” Thirdly, divine revelation addresses creatures who are not only finite but also fallen, and so takes a posture of redemption. And fourthly, revelation is never exhaustive. Always God is more than he tells.

Thanks again to Jerome Van Kuiken for this careful and accurate account of what I’ve said on this doctrine. His report on my work is just part of his larger account of Wesleyan statements on the filioque, which in turn is part of his own theological proposal within Trinitarian theology. If this part of his project makes its way into print, I’ll help spread the word that it’s available.

I’m fine being listed under the section heading “fidgety about the filioque” because, as you can see, I find the subject so fraught that I either want to pass over it in silence or else talk a great deal about it. But I can say that I affirm the theology of the filioque clause. I believe that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and also from the Son as from one common source. I prefer to teach directly from the Creed of 381 without the addition of the phrase “and from the Son,” because I believe that’s a solid enough foundation for pneumatology (and I think I’m in agreement with the fathers of Constantinople I in saying that). It seems to me that the original confession, in saying that the Spirit proceeds from “the Father,” is not just quoting John 15:26 but is thereby recognizing that the personal principle of the Spirit’s procession is one who is constituted and identified in relation to the second person: the Father of the Son. To say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father “of the Son” is of course not the same as saying that the Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the Son.” But it anchors the procession in the full Trinitarian reality. Further, it already hints at the eternal relation of the Spirit and the Son: there is no Sonless Spirit, even at the principle of his procession. Recognizing this also lets me acknowledge the Spirit’s economic sending as a Trinitarian mission in the most proper sense. When the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit’s eternal procession from them is being extended into the history of salvation to make the third person distinctly present.

Nevertheless, though that’s more than enough filioquism to annoy Eastern Orthodox readers, I go out of my way to avoid annoying them. My reasons are largely historical. It’s been a long time since 381, and things have happened. Most recently (I mean like 100 years ago) controversialists have exaggerated the doctrinal difference between filioquism and monopatrism by treating it as an axiom from which two utterly distinct systems of Trinitarianism can be logically derived. Eastern agitators claim that everything hateful about the West can be traced to its unequal yoking of the Spirit to the Son: papalism, fundamentalism, legalism, extrinsicist ontologies, whatever you hate. Westerners return the systematic charge, finding in monopatrism the root of eccentric mysticisms, caesaropapism, universalism, and all things exotically execrable. Some of this material seems more like conspiracy theory lit than theological reasoning. There’s some wonderfully clarifying controversy to be found in the doctrinal argumentation from about 800 to 1300, but even that literature is marked by an excess of “gotcha” arguments having the form, “Thou foul blasphemers, thou makest the Spirit to be the grandson of the father, yet also the twin uncle twice removed and yea verily also in a mystery his own grandpa!” There are serious issues at stake here, but de-escalation is necessary. And the idea that there are two different regional Trinitarianisms is a pernicious optical illusion of recent vintage.

I work in the territory between antifilioquism and antimonopatrism, and it seems to me extremely broad. Come on in, and feel free to affirm that the Spirit is from the Father of the Son, one God forever. Their consubstantial perfection of fellowship is the ground of their gracious presence to us. I understand if you want to make some more detailed distinctions and take more specific positions on them. I’ve got some convictions on those counts. But the field remains broad; no need to worry about falling off the cliff on either side.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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