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

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