The “Filioque” Clause: Cause of the Great Schism Weapon of Power and Politics? Or Theological Heresy?

Most faithful Orthodox Church members can rattle off 1054 as the date, and “the insertion of the Filioque (and the Son) clause to the Nicene Creed by Rome” as the reason for the Great Schism. The problem is usually understood – reasonably accurately but somewhat simplistically – as the Pope of Rome tampering with something he had no right to change, and attempting to usurp authority that was never granted to him by the rest of the Church. Considerably less common is a historical understanding of what led to this act, and what attempts were made to reconcile this tragic split between the two apostolic bodies of the Church. Was this event actually the cause of the Great Schism? This brief paper will attempt to assess whether the insertion of the Filioque was largely about power and politics, or if the theological implications are really the main issue; and if it warrants the reputation often accorded it as the cause of the Great Schism.

The earliest known use of the Filioque was in a regional Persian council in 410. The earliest commonly cited inclusion of the Filioque was in Spain at the 3rd Council of Toledo in 589, where it was used ill-advisedly but for good intentions, to combat Arianism, by attempting to highlight Christ’s Divinity. It would be another 200 years before it again surfaced as a political weapon, used in the hands of Charlemagne, the powerful ruler of the Frankish Kingdom (Germany, France, Italy) against his political adversaries in the Byzantine world. As early as 808, Pope Leo III had written a letter to Charlemagne, who was vigorously promoting the use of the Filioque. Pope Leo’s letter suggested that he had no theological issue with its use, but thought it unwise to change the wording of the ancient and universally accepted Creed. Leo even went so far as to have the original creed without the Filioque inscribed upon silver plaques and mounted on the walls of St. Peter’s in Rome.  In the middle of the 9th century, Rome had allowed the use of the Filioque in confrontations between Germanic missionaries under Rome and missionaries under Constantinople, when both were attempting to establish the Church in Bulgaria and competing to have the ruler, Khan Boris, side with them. This fuelled the divisive Photius Schism where St. Photius attacked the Roman Pope Nicolas for allowing the Filioque to be used in Bulgaria and exceeding his Bishop of Rome authority. Pope Nicolas tried to depose Photius, and Photius excommunicated Pope Nicolas in 867. The Emperor removed St. Photius as the Patriarch in the same year although he was later reinstated and canonized in the Eastern Church. However, the Fillioque clause had never been used in Rome itself before the coronation of the new German emperor Henry II in 1014. It is obvious that the events up to the fateful 1054 confrontation in Constantinople were highly charged with political intrigue.

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