Some More Thoughts on the Filioque


A deeper issue behind the Filioque debate is the question of divine simplicity. Latin Catholics who follow the Thomist school assert that there is not only a lack of composition in God – that is, He cannot be divided into parts – but in His being there is really no distinction among discrete qualities we attribute to Him. So, for example, in this view there would ultimately be nothing different between God’s wisdom and power in His own nature, only in our understanding of Him. Because He is infinite and we are not, our limited minds must tease out various aspects to try and grasp what is (in this view) actually a uniform whole.

Eastern Christians, Catholic and Orthodox, do not object to the first point about composition – it is just a more philosophical way of saying God is one, a unity. The difference appears regarding the second point, for Eastern Christians who follow the Palamite school do assert a distinction in God; between His essence, which is utterly transcendent, and the energies by which He manifests Himself. In other words, this view holds that there exist “external” aspects of God which are just as divine as the hidden Godhead, but flow outward, so to speak, into His creation, resulting in actions and revelations (economy) that are sensible to us. This is the “glory” and “uncreated Light” so esteemed in the hesychast tradition.

As with the more general question of the Filioque, much ink has been spilt by Eastern Orthodox apologists and theologians who try to magnify this difference between Latin and Greek theological traditions into a fatal obstacle to reunion. But the matter is not half so big a deal as these individuals would have us think. The main fact lost in this debate is that Catholicism does not equal Thomism. Yes, one cannot be faulted for seeing a contradiction between the Thomist view of divine simplicity and the Palamite view of the essence/energies distinction. But Rome has never dogmatized any particular theological opinion of exactly in what way our shared belief in the unity of the divine nature is to be conceived. In fact, even within the Latin Church, the Scotist school affirms the distinction of attributes in God (against the Thomists), and Eastern Catholics have our own opinions, including the same Palamite perspective as our Orthodox brethren.

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