A response to Meg Warner ‘Does the Bible really say … that sex outside marriage is wrong?’

Dr Warner’s argument

In her article ‘Does the Bible really say… that sex outside marriage is wrong?’ posted on the Via Media. News website on 23 May 2019[1] Dr Meg Warner acknowledges that:

‘…. the overwhelming impression of the various biblical references and allusions to sex outside marriage is negative. Extra-marital sex tends to be viewed in biblical texts as ‘A Very Bad Thing’. One thinks, for example, of the professed view of Paul ‘that it is better to be married than to burn’ (1 Cor 7:9).’

However she then goes on to argue that:

‘In order to know whether, or how, the Bible’s references and allusions to extra marital sex ought to shape our conduct today, however, we need to look more closely.’

In order to take a closer look at the Bible’s teaching she turns to the laws on sexual conduct in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 which she says are the ‘foundation for biblical views on this subject.’ She summarises the contents of these verses as follows:

‘…. a single woman, living in the home of her father, should not have sex (so that she can present herself to her husband as a virgin – Deut 22:13-21), an engaged woman should not engage in consensual sex (Deut 22:23-29), and a married woman who has sex with someone other than her husband should die (Deut 22:22). Meanwhile, a man who has forced sex with a single woman will be required to pay a fee to her father, marry the girl and never divorce her (Deut 22:28-29), a man who has sex with an engaged woman should be put to death (Deut 22:23-27), and a man who has sex with another man’s wife should be put to death (Deut 22:22).’

While accepting that these provisions in Deuteronomy 22 ‘could be viewed as a code that forbids sex outside of marriage,’ Dr Warner cautions against the simple assumption that what is said in these verses ‘represents God’s will for us today.’

This is because underlying what is said in these verses is the idea of women as property. In Dr Warner’s words:

‘Women were, in a very real sense, regarded as the property of the men to whom they ‘belonged’ – usually their fathers or husbands. In general, a woman was valuable to the man to whom she belonged, unless she failed to marry, in which case she became a burden. Marriage was in part a financial transaction, in which a girl’s father looked to receive a ‘marriage gift’ or mohar from her suitor. A father owned not only his daughter, but also her sexuality, and virginity was considered essential to what a woman brought to her marriage.’

This fact, contends Dr Warner, should lead the Church to re-consider whether it should reject sex outside marriage for two reasons.

First, the ideas reflected in Deuteronomy 22 are now outdated:

‘We no longer, in the West, consider women to be the property of men, and while marriage may still be a family concern, it is no longer essentially a financial transaction. The principles set out in Deuteronomy 22 are no longer needed to ensure protection from shame and financial loss. Further, if we were all familiar with Deuteronomy 22, and understood the social values that it upheld, we would likely be appalled, and perhaps choose to boycott behavioural patterns based upon those social values, rather than to compel people to follow them.’

Secondly, these ideas:

‘…. are not clearly of themselves inherently biblical. The code in Deuteronomy adopts prevalent community standards and attitudes, and makes special rules and provisions for Israelites. Today’s prevalent community standards and attitudes are vastly different. The special rules and provisions put in place for ancient Israelites may not be helpful, and may even be harmful, in our context.’

Assessing this argument

What should we make of this argument? The answer is that we should reject it for two reasons.

First, there is nothing to suggest that what underlies the laws about sexual conduct in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 is a belief that a woman is the property of her father or her husband.

This is something that is not said anywhere in Deuteronomy 22 which means that the evidence for it has to lie somewhere else in the Old Testament. However, no such evidence exists. As Richard Davidson notes, the Old Testament nowhere suggests that women were regarded as property.

Elsewhere in the Ancient New East, because wives and daughters were regarded as a man’s property in the same way as his slaves or oxen, a ‘vicarious punishment’ could be imposed in which ‘a man was punished for a crime by having to give up his wife or daughter.’ In the Old Testament, by contrast, where women were not regarded as property ‘no such vicarious punishment is prescribed.’ In similar fashion, he says, because a wife was regarded as property, other Ancient Near Eastern law codes permit a husband to ‘whip his wife, pluck out her hair, mutilate her ears, or strike her, with impunity,’ whereas ‘no such permission is given to the husband in biblical law to punish his wife in any way.’[2]

As Davidson goes on to say:

‘Far from being regarded as ‘chattel,’ according to the fifth commandment of the Decalogue and repeated commands throughout the Pentateuchal code, the wife/mother was to be given equal honour within the family circle (Exod 20:12; 21:15, 17, Lev 20:9; Deut 21:18-21; 27:16).’[3]

If we ask why a wife or mother is to be given equal honour the answer given in the Old Testament in the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is that it is because both women and men share the same humanity (Genesis 2:23) and as such have equal status as those created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Eve is the equal human partner of Adam.

It is sometimes suggested that the tenth commandment of the Decalogue sees a wife as property alongside ‘his manservant, his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbour’s’ (Exodus 20:17). However, as John Otwell has pointed out, in fact the wife is not listed here as property, but simply as the first-named member of a household. This point is made clear in the parallel version of the commandment in Deuteronomy 5:21 where the wife is the subject of an entirely separate clause. [4]

As we have seen, Dr Warner argues that the Old Testament concept of the mohar paid by the bridegroom to the bride’s father (Genesis 34:12, Exodus 22:17, 1 Samuel 18:25) indicates that marriage was viewed as a ‘financial transaction’ in which the husband purchased his wife from her father. However, as Roland De Vaux explains, this is not the case:

‘This obligation to pay a sum of money, or its equivalent, to the girl’s family obviously gives the Israelite marriage the outward appearance of a purchase. But the mohar seems not to be so much the price paid for the woman as a compensation given to the family, and, in spite of the apparent resemblance, in law this is a different consideration. The future husband thereby acquires a right over the woman, but the woman herself is not bought and sold.’[5]

The reason compensation would be payable would be that a woman’s labour would have economic value for her family and the loss of this would need to be made good. It would be paid to her father as the representative of her family and not because he owned her.

It should also be noted that it appears that the mohar was held in trust with any added value belonging to the father and the family he represented, but with the capital reverting to the daughter on his death, or if she was reduced to poverty by the death of her husband. This explains the complaint by Rachel and Leah in Genesis 31:15 that Laban ‘has been using up the money given for us.’ [6] This too makes it clear that the mohar was not a payment to his father for his property.

Secondly, Dr Warner is mistaken when she declares that the case law in Deuteronomy 22 is ‘the foundation for biblical views on this subject.’

If what she means by this is that historically this was the first piece of biblical writing on the subject of sexual misconduct that then led to all the others then there appears to be no evidence that this the case (and none is offered by Dr Warner).

If what she means that within the Canon of Scripture this chapter is the definitive explanation of why sex outside marriage is to be rejected then she is equally wrong. In the biblical Canon the laws in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 are an amplification of the seventh commandment (‘You shall not commit adultery’) as recorded in Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18) which in turn reflects God’s creation of marriage as a sexually exclusive relationship between one man and one woman in Genesis 2:24. Furthermore, if we move to the New Testament St Paul tells us that the marital relationship established in Genesis 2:24 is itself based on something more fundamental, namely the eternal relationship between Christ and his Church to which human marriage points (Ephesians 5:32).

Why are the various forms of sexual conduct described in Deuteronomy 22:13-29 wrong? Because they are all forms of sex outside marriage which are all covered by the general prohibition of adultery in the Decalogue. Why does the Decalogue prohibit adultery? Because God established marriage as an exclusive sexual relationship pointing to the exclusive and permanent relationship between Christ and his people.

What all this in turn means is that the biblical rejection of all forms of sex outside marriage, like the biblical insistence on the equal dignity of men and women, is not, as Dr Warner suggests, simply a reflection of cultural attitudes commonly held across the ancient world. Instead it is based on a view of God’s creation of the world and of God’s relationship with his people that is unique to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

A final point made by Dr Warner that we need to consider is her claim that:

‘… both Exodus and Deuteronomy make provision for the family of a single woman who is sexually assaulted to be married off to her assailant. At the time of writing these provisions functioned pastorally. Today, in the West at least, they would be considered abusive.’

The texts she is referring to are Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and the problem with her reading of them is twofold. First, Exodus 22:16 talks about ‘seduction’ not assault and the specific Hebrew word tapas used to describe the sexual activity in Deuteronomy 22:28 plus its statement that ‘they’ (and not just ‘he’) are caught in the act likewise seem to indicate ‘that the woman had acquiesced and was a willing partner in the sexual encounter.’ [7] Secondly, it is not a case of the woman alone being ‘married off.’ Both the man and the woman have to marry. What the texts imply is that if an unmarried couple decide to have sex then they have to accept the consequences of their action (except in the case where the man is completely unsuitable for some reason in which case the girl’s father has the right to forbid the marriage –Exodus 22:17).


What we have seen is that Dr Warner’s argument is misleading in several respects.

  • It is not the case that Deuteronomy 22:13-29 is the foundation for the biblical rejection of sex outside marriage:
  • It is not the case that what is said in depends on the idea that a woman ids the property of her father or her husband;
  • It is not the case that these verses simply echo the ideas of the surrounding culture;
  • It is not the case that Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 are about a woman being married off to someone who has sexually assaulted her.

In addition Dr Warner has failed to acknowledge the way in which the actual foundation for biblical thinking about sexual ethics is the creation narrative in Geneses 1 and 2 and what St Paul says in Ephesians 5:32 about marriage being a reflection of Christ’s relationship with his Church.

For all these reasons her article does not make out a persuasive case for the Church to reconsider its traditional view that faithful Christian discipleship requires sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual fidelity within it.

This does not mean that Christians today need to adopt the specific laws laid down in Deuteronomy 22. As Article VI says, is it not the case that the ‘civil precepts’ contained in the Old Testament ‘ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.’ What it does means, as Oliver O’Donovan writes, is that as Christians we need to learn to see within this law (as within the Old Testament law as a whole) ‘a revelation of created order and the good to which all men are called, a ‘moral law’ by which every human being is claimed and which belongs fundamentally to men’s welfare.’ [8]

[1] Dr Meg Warner, ‘Does the Bible really say… that sex outside marriage is wrong?’ athttps://viamedia.news/2019/05/23/does-the-bible-really-say-that-sex-outside-marriage-is-wrong/

[2] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), p.250.

[3] Davidson, p. 250.

[4] John Otwell, And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Women in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), p.76.

[5] Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel – Its life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988), p.27.

[6] De Vaux, p.27.

[7] Davidson, p. 359, Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1992) p.286, and Katie McCoy, ‘Did Old Testament Law Force a Woman to Marry Her Rapist?’ at https://cbmw.org/topics/sex/did-old-testament-law-force-a-woman-to-marry-her-rapist/.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty Nine Articles (Exeter: Paternoster, 1986). p.64.

What should Anglicans make of the new Methodist report on marriage and relationships?

The report of the Methodist Church’s Marriage and Relationships Task Group.

On February 26 the United Methodist Church, the world’s largest Methodist denomination, with approximately 12.5 million members, voted to continue to uphold the belief that ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,’ and to continue to prohibit both same-sex marriage and the ordination of those in sexually active same-sex relationships.[1]

By contrast, the comparatively tiny Methodist Church of Great Britain (c.188, 000 members) seems to be moving towards a very radical departure from the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality and in favour of a total acceptance of both same-sex relationships and other extra-marital sexual relationships as well.

As the outcome of a process which started back in 2014, the church’s ‘Marriage and Relationships Task Group’ is presenting a report entitled God in Love Unites Us to the Methodist Conference in July. The recommendations of this report are as follows (the bold is in the original):

‘That the Conference receives the Report and commends it to the Connexion for study and prayerful discussion.

The Conference adopts the recommendation that it affirm the following summary understanding of the principles or qualities of good relating:

All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved.

  • It is through that self-giving, rather than through self-seeking, that the self flourishes and begins to experience life in all its fullness (though it needs to be recognised that the universal Church’s historic emphasis on self-sacrifice has often been misunderstood and misused [eg by abusive partners] in a way that is destructive of the wellbeing of the ones abused [often women]).

The Conference adopts the recommendation that it affirm the following summary understanding of cohabitation:

  • The Church recognises that the love of God is present within the love of human beings who are drawn to each other, and who enter freely into some form of life-enhancing committed relationship with each other, whether that be through informal cohabitation or a more formal commitment entered into publicly.
  • As a Church we wish to celebrate that the love of God is present in these circumstances, even if that grace is not responded to or even discerned by the people concerned.
  • The Church has an important calling, therefore, to point to the presence of God’s love within such relationships, and to encourage people to respond to it in the renewing and deepening (by whatever means) of their commitment.

The Conference directs that the Methodist Council, in consultation with the Faith and Order Committee, ensure resources be produced for the celebration of civil partnerships.

The Conference directs the Faith and Order Committee to explore producing liturgical resources and relevant guidance for use at the ending of a marriage.

The Conference adopts the recommendation that the Methodist Church offer more support for marriage, alongside other committed relationships; and directs that the Methodist Council ensure resources be produced to help provide this support drawing on the theological insights of the purposes, qualities and patterns for good relating set out in the report.

The Conference adopts the Guidance on the Understanding of Marriage and directs that it be included in the Guidance section of CPD.

G1       The Methodist Church welcomes everyone, whether or not a member, who enquires about an intended marriage in any of its places of worship. It looks for an openness to God in them, not necessarily a developed understanding of the Christian faith.

G2       Legally, marriage is a contractual relationship entered into by two people who make solemn vows and commitments to each other, without either the nature of the marriage or the nature of the commitments being further defined under the law of the land. In the understanding of the Methodist Church, marriage encompasses that but is also deeper and richer. The Methodist Church believes that marriage is a covenant relationship between two people, within God’s covenant of love with them. Through it, they may experience, explore and express God’s gracious love.

G3       The Methodist Church believes that marriage is an exclusive relationship, freely entered into with a life-long intention of uniting two people in body, heart, mind and soul in ways that are appropriate to each partner. In it, God’s Spirit enables both partners to know the security of love and care, bringing to each other comfort and companionship, enrichment and encouragement, tenderness and trust. Through such marriage children may be nurtured, family life strengthened, and human society enriched.

G4       The Methodist Church recognises that amongst its members different views are held about the interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition as to whether those being married may be any two people, or may only be a woman and a man. The Methodist Church has decided to respect and make practical provisions for both positions.

G5 A marriage service or a service of blessing of a marriage that has been previously solemnised may only be conducted in a Methodist place of worship when it can be shown that the requirements of the legislation in the appropriate jurisdiction have been met.

G6 Where there is a desire to use places of worship for marriage services or for services of blessing for a marriage previously solemnised, the managing trustees of those premises should actively consider whether they wish to do so solely for marriages of mixed-sex couples, or for marriages of same-sex couples as well as mixed-sex couples. The managing trustees should re-consider the question of the use of the place of worship for such services every five years or sooner.

G7   Where the managing trustees wish to use a place of worship for marriage services, and the legislation of the relevant jurisdiction requires church buildings or personnel to be registered or authorised for the solemnisation of marriages, the managing trustees should take the relevant steps to comply.

For the purposes of section 26A of the Marriage Act 1949 (as inserted by section 4(1) of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013) the Conference consents to the marriage of same sex couples and accordingly authorises the managing trustees or, if none, the trustees, of any Methodist building in England and Wales capable of registration under section 43A of the Marriage Act 1949 (as amended by paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013) to register that building under that section. ‘[2]

The report also recommends that Methodist ministers and churches who are conscientiously unwilling to marry same-sex couples should have a duty to refer them to the minister of a Methodist Church (preferably within the same Methodist circuit) that is registered for same-sex marriages. [3]

The theology underlying the report.

The three main points in these recommendations are:

  1. That all forms of sexual relationship can have equal value regardless of whether they take place within marriage or not.
  2. That sexual relationships have no necessary relationship to procreation.
  3. That marriage should be open to both opposite sex and same-sex couples.

The theological underpinning for these three points are set out in three key paragraphs in the Task Group’s report.

Paragraph 2.4.7, which is concerned with relationships and sexuality in general, states that what matters is the quality of a relationship rather than the form of sexual activity involved and whether or not it leads to procreation:

‘To bring together and summarise some of the points we have been making, sexuality and sexual intimacy are part of God’s gracious ordering of things, and are also capable of being affected by our sinfulness. What matters is whether we use them for God, and for God’s purposes, or for our own selfish ends. This moves the emphasis, from a Christian perspective, from a narrow concern with particular sexual acts or focus on the outcome of sex in procreation, to a wider recognition that sexual intimacy is an important element in the way that couples relate to each other; that the ways in which that intimacy is expressed can vary greatly (and may or may not include sexual intercourse); and that sexual expression is best directed towards enhancing the relationship between a committed couple and thus enabling their good relating to one another. Then in turn the couple can offer a stronger contribution to community and the care of creation, thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for relating.’

Paragraphs 4.3.19-20 then go on to argue that because Methodism has developed a ‘companionate’ view of marriage in which what matters is the loving support a couple can give to one another rather than having children it should now go on to permit same-sex marriages.

‘The Task Group believes that the ‘companionship’ model of marriage that the Methodist Church has developed over the years in terms of mixed-sex relationships, applies, theologically and practically, just as well to the same-sex marriages that are now permitted by the law of the land in most parts of the United Kingdom. The purposes, qualities and practices of marriage relationships that we have identified in this report as enabling those relationships to flourish can be applied to same-sex committed loving relationships as well as to mixed-sex relationships.

Consequently, we believe that, in awe and humility, the Methodist Church needs to recognise that it is being called by God to take the next steps in the development of its understanding of relationships and marriage. Those steps include enabling people of the same sex to commit themselves to each other in Christian marriage services. There is a strong case that, if marriage is what the Methodist Church says it is, and is as wonderful as it says it is, this Church cannot remain true to the God of justice and love by continuing to deny it to those same-sex couples who desire it so deeply.’

What will happen to the report?

According to the Methodist media briefing, the report will come to Conference this year. If it is approved it will go out for consultation to the Methodist district Synods in Spring next year before returning for a final vote at the 2020 Conference.

What should Anglicans make of this report?

First, they should acknowledge that there are things said in the report which are correct:

  • All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved.
  • Human beings flourish best through self-giving rather than self-seeking;
  • Sexuality and sexual intimacy are part of God’s gracious ordering of things, but are capable of being affected by our sinfulness;
  • Sexual intimacy can take various forms;
  • Sexual intimacy should be used to strengthen the relationship between a committed couple;
  • Procreation is not the sole end of marriage and each individual act of sexual intimacy does not need to have procreation as its purpose.

Secondly, however, they should also note that there are a number of central parts of the teaching of the Bible and the orthodox Christian tradition concerning sexuality and marriage that the report rejects or underplays:

  • God has created his human creatures as male and female and given them a command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28, Matthew 19:4).
  • God has ordained marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, as the sole legitimate context for sexual intercourse, and as the appointed means for the procreation of children (Genesis 2:24, Genesis 4:1).
  • It is the form of marriage that God has ordained that bears witness to the love between God and his people in this world and to the eternal relationship between God and his people in the world to come (Hosea, Ephesians 5:21-32, Revelation 19:7).
  • All forms of sexual activity outside of marriage, including same-sex relationships, are types of sexual activity that are contrary to God’s will for his people and exclude people from his kingdom (Leviticus 18:1-30, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
  • A sexual ethic involving sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual faithfulness within it is an integral part of Christian discipleship (Matthew 5:27-30, Ephesians 5:3-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
  • Furthermore, because marriage is something created by God and not be human beings it is not something that human beings can change. What marriage is, is what God has ordained it to be. Consequently, the act of the British parliament in establishing same-sex marriage in 2013 has no validity from a Christian perspective.
  • God is a God of justice and love, but we reflect his justice and embody his love by living according to his will ourselves and encouraging others to the same. To love God is to obey his just commands (John 14:15, 15:9-10). [4]

Overall, there are three big issues that lie behind the specific weaknesses in the Methodist report.

First, the report takes a generic, ‘one size fits all,’ view of human relationships that fails to recognize, as the Bible and Christian tradition  do, that there are many different forms  of relationship that call for different kinds of behaviour, including different kinds of sexual conduct.

Secondly, the report fails to take seriously the huge amount of scholarship undertaken over the past sixty years that shows that the traditional pattern of Christian sexual ethics is the one that best reflects the teaching of Scripture.

Thirdly, report fails to recognize that what God has laid down is for our good and that the abandonment of traditional Christian patterns of marriage and family life from the 1960s onwards has caused enormous damage, particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. This last point means that the report fails to reflect the traditional Methodist concern for social justice and the welfare of the poor.

Because these things are so, the claim in the Methodist report that God is calling the Methodist Church to affirm sexual relationships outside marriage and marriage between two people of the same sex must be wrong. It also has no support from the teaching of John Wesley who held an entirely biblical and orthodox view of sexual ethics.

What the report is actually calling for is for Methodists to turn away from God’s truth in their theology and to act in a way that is not in accordance with God’s will in their practice.

How should Anglicans respond to this report?

Anglicans should respond to this report in there ways.

First, they should pray for their Methodist brothers and sisters who are being so misled.

Secondly, they should provide any assistance they can to faithful Methodists (such as those in the Methodist Evangelicals Together group)[5] to prevent this report being approved by the Methodist Conference either this year or next.

Thirdly, the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity, and its representative at the Methodist Conference, should make it clear to the Methodists that the report contravenes the Anglican-Methodist Covenant of 2001 (I say this as someone who helped to draw up the Covenant). The Covenant is based on the two churches having ‘full agreement in the apostolic faith’[6] and if this report is accepted by the Methodist Conference this will no longer be the case.

If the report is accepted and implemented:

The Church of England should formally announce that the Anglican-Methodist Covenant has ceased to be in effect and withdraw from all activity related to the implementation of the Covenant.

Only those Methodist ministers who are prepared to disassociate themselves from the Methodist decision should be allowed to minister in Church of England churches under the terms of the ecumenical Canons B43 and 44.

Ways should be sought to sever the links between Anglican-Methodist Local Ecumenical Partnerships and the Methodist Conference. Such LEPs could not be registered to celebrate same-sex weddings because this would be against Church of England policy, but differentiation would still be required as a form of public witness against the Methodist decision.

M B Davie 15.5.19

[1] ‘2019 General Conference Passes Traditional Plan’ at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2019-daily-feb 26.

[2] ‘Marriage and Relationship 2019 – media briefing’ at https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/the-methodist-church/marriage-and-relationships-2019/marriage-and-relationships-2019-media-briefing/.

[3] God in love unites us, para 5.3.8. at conf-2019-10-marriage-and-relationships-task-group-2019.pff.

[4] For a more detailed explanation of these points see Martin Davie, Glorify God in your body (London: CEEC, 2019) and S Donald Fortson III and Rollin G Grams, Unchanging Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic 2016).

[5] Methodist Evangelicals Together at https://www.methodistevangelicals.org.uk/.

[6] An Anglican Methodist Covenant, (Peterborough and London: Methodist Publishing House/Church HousePublishing, 2001), p.60.


Anglicans and the double procession of the Holy Spirit.

The traditional Anglican acceptance of the double procession

There can be no doubt that the Anglican tradition has historically affirmed what is known as the ‘double procession’ of the Holy Spirit. That it is to say, it has held that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only ‘from the Father,’ but ‘from the Father and the Son.’

The second Council of the English church, the Council of Hatfield held in 680, produced a confession of faith which affirmed the double procession. This confession declares:

‘…we glorify God the Father, who is without beginning, and His only-begotten Son, begotten of the Father before all worlds, and the Holy Spirit ineffably proceeding from the Father and the Son, as proclaimed by all the holy Apostles, prophets, and teachers whom we have already mentioned.’ [1]

The language of this confession of faith echoes the Western version of the Nicene Creed which declares that the Holy Spirit ‘proeedeth from the Father and the Son’ and it is this version of the Nicene Creed which the Church of England has traditionally used.

In addition, the Church of England has traditionally also used the Athanasian Creed, verse 23 of which declares that the Holy Spirit ‘is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.’ In this verse ‘of’ and ‘proceeding’ have the same meaning. What the Athanasian Creed is saying, in line with the Western version of the Nicene Creed, is that the Holy Spirit proceeds ‘of’ (i.e. from) both the Father and the Son.

At the Reformation, the Church of England continued to use the Western version of the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. It also re-affirmed its belief in the double procession in Article V of the Thirty Nine Articles, which talks about ‘The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son’ and in the Homily ‘Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost and the manifold gifts of the same’ in the Second Book of Homilies, which states that ‘The Holy Ghost is a spiritual and divine substance, distinct from the Father and the Son, and yet proceeding from them both.’[2]

When the churches of what was to become the Anglican Communion began to come into existence from the sixteenth century onwards as a result of a combination of colonisation and missionary endeavour they followed the lead of the Church of England by accepting the double procession of the Holy Spirit. The Church of Ireland and the Scottish Episcopal Church stand outside this historical pattern of colonisation and missionary endeavour, but as part of the Western Christian tradition they too have historically accepted the double procession.

Proposals to change this tradition

While the Western Christian tradition has affirmed the double procession of the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox churches of the East have adhered to the position set forth in the original text of the Nicene Creed which says that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’ without mentioning procession from the Son.

In the second half of the twentieth century Anglicans have begun to move away from an acceptance of the double procession towards an acceptance of the Orthodox position instead.

For example, in the Moscow Agreed Statement produced by the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission in 1976 the Anglican members of the Commission agreed that the words ‘and the Son’ should not be included in the Nicene Creed. [3]

Following on from this statement, the 1978 Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council in 1979 both passed resolutions recommending that Anglican churches should consider omitting ‘and the Son’ from the Nicene Creed.[4]

The 1988 Lambeth Conference also passed a resolution asking that further thought be given to the matter and recommending that in future Anglican liturgical revision the words ‘and the Son’ should be omitted from the text of the Nicene Creed.[5]

Most recently, in the agreed statement The Procession and work of the Holy Spirit issued by the Anglican – Oriental Orthodox International Commission in 2017 the Anglican members once again took the Orthodox position, agreeing that the words ‘and the Son’ were ‘an interpolation, irregularly put in the text of the Creed and devoid of any canonical authorization.’ [6]

What are to make of this change of position?

The proper Anglican starting point for considering what we should say about the procession of the Holy Spirit has to be the teaching of Holy Scripture for the simple reason that in Holy Scripture we have God’s own account, given through the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21) of what He is like. This account has to take priority over any purely human formulation.

If we therefore turn to Scripture we find that doctrine of the double procession has a solid biblical foundation. This point is very well made by the nineteenth century Church of England theologian Harold Browne in his comments on Article V of the Thirty Nine Articles.

Browne notes that apart from the explicit statement in John 15:26 that ‘the Spirit of truth… proceeds from the Father’:

‘…our principal reasons for concluding that the Spirit of God proceeds from the Father are these: viz: that He is called the Spirit of the Father; that as the Father sends the Son, who is begotten of Him, so he sends the Spirit; and that He sends him especially in that manner, which in Scripture is called inspiring or breathing forth. From all this we conclude that, like as the Son is begotten, so the Spirit proceedeth of the Father.’ [7]

However, he says, ‘the Scriptures set forth the relation of the Spirit to the Son, in all these respects, in the very same language, in which they set forth the relation of the Spirit to the Father.’[8] He puts forward the evidence for this claim in two parts:

  1. ‘Is He [the Spirit] called ‘the Spirit of God, ‘the Spirit of the Father,’ ‘The Spirit of Him who raised up Jesus? ’ In like manner He is called ‘the Spirit of Christ,’ ‘the Spirit of the Son,’ ‘the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ Thus we read, Romans 8:9, ‘If any man hath not the Spirit of Christ;’ where it is evident the Apostle means the Holy Spirit of God spoken in the previous sentence. Galatians 4:6, ‘God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son.’ Philippians 1:19, ‘The supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.’ 1 Peter 1:1, ‘The Spirit of Christ,’ which was in the prophets.’[9]
  2. ‘But again, do we infer, that the Spirit proceedeth from the Father, because He is sent by the Father, and is breathed forth into the prophets by the Father? Still, in like manner, we read that the same Spirit is sent by the Son, and was by Him breathed upon His Apostles. Thus he says himself, John 15:26, ‘The Comforter, whom I will send you from the Father.’ John 16:7, ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.’ And in John 10:22, after He had risen from the dead, ‘He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.’’ [10]

The fact that exactly the same language is used to describe the relation of the Spirit to the Son as is used to describe his relation to the Father means, concludes Browne, ‘that as the Spirit proceedeth from the Father, so He proceeds from the Son.’[11] He quotes the words of St. Augustine:

‘Neither can we say that the Holy Spirit does not also proceed from the Son, for the same Spirit is not without reason said to be the Spirit both of the Father and of the Son. Nor do I see what else He intended to signify, when He breathed on the face of the disciples and said ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost’ For that bodily breathing, proceeding from the body with the feeling of bodily touching, was not the substance of the Holy Spirit, but a declaration by a fitting sign, that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Son.’[12]

The traditional Orthodox response to this biblical evidence for the double procession is that it refers to the sending of the Spirit by the Son in this world and does not tell us anything about the eternal relationship between the Son and the Spirit within the life of the Trinity. As the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox statement puts it:

‘We distinguish between the two levels: Theologia (θεολογία) which refers to the essence (οὐσία) of God and the intra-trinitarian relationships, and Economia (οἰκονομία), which refers tothe activities (ἐνέργεια) of God and his relation to the world. Consequently, we distinguish the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, from the Father, through the Son.’ [13]

There are two problems with this Orthodox response.

First, from an Orthodox standpoint it either proves too much or too little. This is because the Orthodox still want to say that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father within the life of God, but the very biblical passages that can be used to support this idea (such as John 15:26) also refer to God’s activity in this world. If we cannot read back from God’s activity in the world into the eternal life of God then we cannot rightly say with the Orthodox that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. On the other hand, if we can read back from God’s activity in the world into the life of God then why do we rule out the biblical evidence that says that the Spirit also proceeds from the Son?

Secondly, as Karl Barth argues in the Church Dogmatics, it is in any case illegitimate to make a separation from how God reveals himself in the world and how he is in himself. In Barth’s words:

‘The reality of God in His revelation cannot be bracketed by an ‘only’ as though somewhere behind His revelation there stood another reality of God: the reality of God which encounters us in His revelation is His reality in all the depths of eternity. This is why we have to take it so seriously precisely in His revelation. In connexion with the specific doctrine of the Holy Spirit this means that He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son not just in his work ad extra and upon us, but that to all eternity – no limit or reservation is possible here – He is none other than the Spirit of the Father and the Son. ‘And the Son’ means that not only for us, but in God Himself, there is no possibility of an opening and readiness and capacity for God in man – for this is the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation – unless it comes from Him, the Father, who has revealed Himself in His Word, in Jesus Christ, and also, and no less necessarily from Him who is His Word, from Jesus Christ who reveals the Father. Jesus Christ as the Giver of the Holy Spirit is not without the Father from whom He, Jesus Christ, is. But the Father as the Giver of the Holy Spirit is also not without Jesus Christ to whom He Himself is the Father, The Eastern doctrine does not contest the fact that it is so in revelation. But is does not read off from revelation its statement about the being of God ‘antecedently in Himself.’ It does not stand by the order of the divine modes of being which by its own admission is valid in the sphere of revelation.’ [14]

As Barth goes on to ask:

‘What gives us the right to take passages like John 15:26, which speak of the procession of the Father, and isolate them from many others which equally plainly call Him the Spirit of the Son? Is it not much more natural to understand opposing statements like this as mutually complementary, as is freely done in the reality of revelation, and then to acknowledge the reality disclosed thereby as valid to all eternity, as the way it is in the essence of God Himself?‘ [15]

A further Orthodox objection, which is reflected in the words of the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox Statement about the words ‘and the Son’ being ‘an interpolation, irregularly put in the text of the Creed and devoid of any canonical authorization’ is to say that it is wrong in principle to add to the original text of the Nicene Creed.

How should we respond to this objection?

First, it is true that the original form of the Nicene Creed did not contain the words ‘and the Son.’ However, the original Creed of Nicaea of 325 did not contain most of the material about the Holy Spirit that is contained in the Nicene Creed itself and yet this material is accepted and recited by churches in both East and West along with the other additions to the Creed of Nicaea contained in the Nicene Creed. It follows that it is difficult to consistently maintain that additions to existing creedal material are wrong in principle.

Secondly, although it is true that the words ‘and the Son’ were introduced into the Creed: ‘without the authority of an Ecumenical Council and without due regard for Catholic consent,’[16] this is also true of the additions made to the original Creed of Nicaea by the Nicene Creed. Research on the origins of the Nicene Creed indicates that it was a local adaptation of the Creed of Nicaea that was adopted by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and then formally endorsed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It follows that if the local adaptations of the Creed of Nicaea contained in the Nicene Creed could be granted retrospective endorsement there is no reason in principle why the same should not be true of the addition of the words ‘and the Son.’

Thirdly, as Article VIII of Thirty Nine Articles says, the important thing about the Creeds is that they are accurate summaries of the teaching of Scripture and this means that if an addition to the Creed makes it a better summary of Scripture (as is the case with the addition of the words ‘and the Son’ then there is a good case for adopting it whatever its provenance might be.

For all the reasons given in this section, it follows that Anglicans have been wrong to change their traditional position with regard to the double procession. Scripture clearly teaches the double procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son and Anglicans have therefore been right to say so and to recite the Nicene Creed in its expanded Western form.

Because they have been wrong to change their position they should seek to change it back by revoking the relevant resolutions of the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council. They should also reject the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox agreed statement on the matter. This statement is now before the churches of both traditions ‘for study, response and reception’[17] and for the reasons set out in this study the Anglican response needs to be that it should not be received.

Is there a better way forward for Anglicans and the Orthodox on this issue?

What has been said so far might seem to suggest that there is no way forward between Anglicans and the Orthodox on the issue of the double procession of the Spirit. However, this not the case.

One helpful way forward, that was proposed as far back as the Council of Florence in 1439, and which has been gaining ground again in recent years, is to say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.

The idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son is one that has ancient roots. It can be found, for example, in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. In his work On the Holy Spirit he compares the procession of the Spirit to the lighting of three torches:

‘It is as if a man were to see a separate flame burning on three torches (and we will suppose that the third flame is caused by the first being transmitted to the middle, and then kindling the end torch)…’[18]

As Tom Smail notes, what St. Gregory is saying in this quotation is that: ‘The Spirit has his being from the Father, although he receives that being not directly and immediately but through the Son.’[19] This is also the basic point that is made by St. Augustine in what he says about the double procession in Book XV of this work Of the Trinity.

Augustine writes

‘… as the Father has in Himself that the Holy Spirit should proceed from Him, so has He given to the Son that the same Holy Spirit should proceed from Him, and be both apart from time: and that the Holy Spirit is so said to proceed from the Father as that it be understood that His proceeding also from the Son, is a property derived by the Son from the Father. For if the Son has of the Father whatever He has, then certainly he has of the Father, that the Holy Spirit proceeds also from Him.’ [20]

and again:

‘…the Son is born of the Father; and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father principally, the Father giving the procession without any interval of time, yet in common from both [Father and Son]. ‘[21]

Both St. Augustine and St. Gregory hold that the principal source of the Holy Spirit is the Father, but that He also has His being from the Son to whom the deity possessed by the Father has also been given. Given that, the teaching of St. Augustine lies at the root of the Western doctrine of the double procession, the agreement between his teaching and that of St. Gregory is highly significant. What it means is that in Fathers from both East (Gregory) and West (Augustine) we can find an agreement that takes us beyond the apparent impasse between the doctrines of the single and double processions of the Spirit.

What it means is that we can say with both Scripture, and the Eastern tradition in which Orthodoxy stands, that the Father is the fount of deity, the one from whom the Son and the Spirit eternally have their being. Therefore we have to say that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father who proceeds from the Father.

It also means that we can say with both Scripture, and the Western tradition of which Anglicanism is a part, that the Spirit does not have His being apart from the Son, but eternally has his being from the Father through the Son. Therefore we have to say that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son who proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father.

In terms of the Nicene Creed what this means is that Western churches need to recognise that it is legitimate to say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father’ providing this is understood to mean that the Father is the ultimate source of the Spirit and does not preclude the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father but through the Son. It also means that Orthodox churches need to correspondingly recognise that it is legitimate to say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ as long as it is recognised that ‘from’ has to be understood in the sense of ‘from the Father through the Son’ and not as meaning that the Son is a separate and distinct source of the Spirit’s being alongside the Father.

In his commentary on Article V, Edgar Gibson draws attention to the fact that at the Council of Alexandria in the fourth Century it was accepted that the different terminologies used by Eastern and Western Christians to describe the persons of the Trinity were both legitimate. He suggests that given the kind of basic theological agreement about the procession of the Holy Spirit described above this provides a model for handling the differences over the inclusion or exclusion of the words ‘and the Son’ in the Nicene Creed.

‘There was a difference of phraseology between different portions of the Church as regards an important matter of faith. But so soon as it was discovered that, in spite of varying language, the meaning of both parties was identical, it was felt that a difference of phraseology was, after all, but a minor inconvenience, which might well be endured without causing any schism in the Church, and it was agreed that both parties might keep to their own traditional mode of expressing the doctrine which they held in common. So also, if Greeks and Latins are really at one in the doctrine, it is possible to look forward to the day when similar wise counsels may prevail, and the acceptance of the [Nicene] Constantinoplian Creed, either with or without the Filioque,[22] may be admitted as a basis for intercommunion between the long estranged branches of the Church in the East and West.’ [23]

What Anglicans need to be working for is this kind of ecumenical agreement.

M B Davie 7.5.19

[1] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, Bk IV.17, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), p. 236.

[2] Ian Robinson (ed), The Homilies, (Bishopstone: Brynmill/Preservation Press, 2006), p.330).

[3] Anglican Orthodox Dialogue – The Moscow Agreed Statement (London: SPCK 1977). p.88.

[4] Lambeth Conference 1978, Resolution 35, in Roger Coleman (ed), Resolutions of the twelve Lambeth Conferences 1867-1988 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1992), p.192. Anglican Consultative Council 1979,

Resolution 3, at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/structures/instruments-of-communion/acc/acc-4/resolutions.aspx#s3.

[5] Lambeth Conference 1988, Resolution 6, in Coleman p.201.

[6] Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission, The Procession and Work of the Holy Spirit, 2017, p.5,at https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/312561/the-procession-and-work-of-the-holy-spirit-dublin- agreed-statement.pdf.

[7] E. Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: John Parker:1860), p.119.

[8] Browne, p.119.

[9] Browne, p.118.

[10] Browne, p.119

[11] Browne, p.119

[12] Browne, p.119 quoting St. Augustine, Of the Trinity, Bk.IV:20.

[13] The Procession and Work of the Holy Spirit, p.5.

[14] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/I (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.479-480.

[15] Barth, p.480.

[16] The Moscow Agreed Statement, p.88.

[17] ‘The Procession and work of the Holy Spirit’ at  https://www.anglicancommunion.org/ecumenism/ecumenical-dialogues/oriental-orthodox.aspx

[18] Gregory of Nyssa On the Holy Spirit in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers 2nd series vol. V (Edinburgh & Grand Rapids: T&T Clark / Eerdmans 1994), p.317.

[19] Tom Smail The Giving Gift (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988), p.128.

[20] Augustine On The Trinity XV:47 in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers vol. III (Edinburgh & Grand Rapids: T&T Clark/Eerdmans), p.225.

[21] Augustine, p.225.

[22] The words ‘and the Son’ in Latin ‘filioque.’

[23] Edgar Gibson, The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: Methuen, 1902), pp.228-229