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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Trinity: One God in Three Persons

Don Stewart :: Does It Matter Whether the Holy Spirit Proceeded from the Father Rather than the Son?

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Does It Matter Whether the Holy Spirit Proceeded from the Father Rather than the Son? (Filioque Controversy)

The Trinity: One God in Three Persons – Question 29

There is an ancient controversy in the history of the church that is still being felt today. This had to do with how the Holy Spirit is eternally related to God the Father and God the Son. Does He proceed from the Father only, or does He proceed from both God the Father and God the Son? We must understand the background of this issue as well as the importance of understanding the nature of Trinity. In addition, the salvation of lost sinners also comes into play with this question. We can present the issue as follows:

The Nicene Creed

The background to this controversy can be found in the Nicene Creed. When the Nicene Creed was formulated in A.D. 325, it stated that the Holy Spirit “proceeded from the Father.” In the second version of the Creed, formulated in A.D. 381, the statement was not changed. However, in A.D. 589, at a regional church council in Toledo, in what is in present-day Spain, a word was added to the description; “and the Son.” The word in Latin is “filioque” which means, “and the Son.” Thus, the Creed then read the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

This phrase seems to be in line with what Jesus taught. He said that He Himself would send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete or Helper, into the world. We read in John’s gospel,

“But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” (John 15:26 NKJV)

Jesus said that He would send the Holy Spirit.

Later, Jesus restated this promise. We also read in the Gospel of John,

“However, I am telling you the truth: It’s good for you that I’m going away. If I don’t go away, the helper won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7 God’s Word)

Since, on two occasions, Jesus Himself said that He will send the Spirit, into the world, it seemed there would be no objection in adding this statement to the Creed.

However, the statement of Jesus was referring to a definite point in time, the Day of Pentecost, when He would send the Holy Spirit into the world to take the place of His ministry after He ascended into heaven. Yet, this was not the issue. The issue was the eternal ordering of the Holy Spirit with respect to God the Father and God the Son. The statement in the Creed was reflecting their eternal relationship. How did the Holy Spirit eternally relate to God the Father and God the Son? Was He eternally proceeding from the Father alone or from both the Father and the Son? This was the real issue.

The Split between the East and the West over the Filioque Clause

In the year A.D. 1054, the church split between the East and the West because of this added clause to the Creed. While there were political reasons for the split, the given reason was this difference in the understanding of the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit.

Eastern Christianity believed that the Holy Spirit was eternally sent by the Father while Western Christianity held that He was sent by both God the Father and God the Son. To this day, there is disagreement between Eastern and Western Christianity as to whom the Spirit eternally proceeds.

What Does the Bible Say?

While the Bible says that the Holy Spirit does proceed from God the Father, it does not deny that it also proceeds from God the Son. It has been argued that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son in an eternal relationship, they are eternally ordered that way. Though the Scripture does not explicitly say this, this is consistent with what the Bible reveals about the eternal relationships between the members.

Why It Matters: Inclusivism and Exclusivism

What may seem like an obscure theological issue has important ramifications. If the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, without proceeding from the Son, then, it is argued, people can have a genuine relationship with God without coming through Jesus Christ. Those who believe that people can come to the knowledge of the true God, apart from Jesus Christ, are called inclusivists. Those who deny that a person can know the true God apart from Christ are called exclusivists. This is no small issue.

Exclusivists contend that it is only through Jesus Christ that a person can be saved. Inclusivists believe Jesus is the only basis of salvation but it is not necessary to believe in Jesus to be saved. A person can actually be saved by Jesus Christ without ever hearing His name or knowing anything of the Christian gospel.

How One Is Saved without Jesus According to Inclusivists

As far as inclusivists are concerned, one may know God and trust Him through general revelation, or through some non-Christian religion. Humble, honest people will find the Lord even though they lack knowledge of Jesus. They need no specific knowledge of Christ to be saved. If the Holy Spirit is not subordinate to Jesus Christ, then the Spirit can testify of God the Father.

This universal presence of the Holy Spirit allows those to be believers without ever hearing the name of Christ. God’s truth in non-Christian religions is experienced in the hearts of those without Jesus. They can receive a certain amount of grace apart from Jesus Christ.

Thus there is no need for Christ; because the Spirit of the Father reaches these people. They would be in the same situation as those living in the Old Testament period before Christ came.


The idea that the Holy Spirit somehow works apart from Jesus Christ is contrary to everything that is taught about Him in the New Testament. There are a number of important points to make:

The Evidence from the Great Commission

The Great Commission is the last commandment which Christ left with His disciples. Luke records the following words from Jesus before He ascended into heaven:

...and He [Jesus] said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:46-49 NASB)

Note the following truths from this passage:

1. Believers Are to Go to All Nations to Preach Jesus

The disciples were to go to all nations to preach the message of Jesus Christ. This includes everyone on the face of the earth. Indeed, nobody is excluded.

2. People in All Nations Must Repent

The people were to repent of their sinful ways. This means they were not following the truths of God, whether it was knowingly or unknowingly.

3. The Message Preached Is Jesus

The message to be preached is the Person of Jesus Christ. It is very specific in its content. Apart from Jesus Christ, they have no other message.

4. They Need Empowering of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to preach this message. They cannot do it in their own strength.

According to the Great Commission, believers are required to go the entire world. The message is salvation through Jesus Christ. Nowhere does the Bible remotely suggest that salvation is somehow independent of Christ. People are without hope apart from Christ.

5. The Spirit Honors the Father and the Son

The Bible says that the Holy Spirit honors both the Father and the Son. Jesus said the following to His disciples on the night of His betrayal:

“I have a lot more to tell you, but that would be too much for you now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into the full truth. He won’t speak on his own. He will speak what he hears and will tell you about things to come. He will give me glory, because he will tell you what I say. Everything the Father says is also what I say. That is why I said, ‘He will take what I say and tell it to you.’” (John 16:12-15 God’s Word)

The Holy Spirit does not speak on His own behalf. He only witnesses to Jesus. We do not honor the Holy Spirit when we separate Him from God the Son, Jesus Christ. His job is to lift up the Person of Christ.

In sum, we conclude that nowhere is there the slightest suggestion in Scripture that salvation can come apart from Christ. The power of the Holy Spirit to save people from their sins is always linked to Christ.

Summary – Question 29
Does It Matter Whether the Holy Spirit Proceeded from the Father Rather than the Son? (Filioque Controversy)

The Holy Spirit is said to proceed from the God the Father and God the Son in an historical context. This is not debated. However, there is a question as to whether there was an eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father only or from both the Father and the Son. This point is debated.

In Eastern Christianity, it is believed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. Western Christianity says the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. This is not merely an obscure point of doctrine.

Some of those who hold the Eastern perspective use it to argue Inclusivism. This is the belief that a person can become saved from their sins by Jesus Christ apart from their knowledge of Him. The Spirit from God the Father works with them without the Person of Jesus Christ being ever known.

The Bible, however, does not allow any work of the Holy Spirit apart from Christ. He has been given to glorify both the Father and the Son. He presently glorifies the Son by showing them their need for Him in order to be saved from their sins. There is not the slightest hint in the Bible that a person can be saved apart from Jesus Christ. Thus, the view of the inclusivists, while popular has no biblical support.

Why Do Some People Argue There Are Two Trinities? ← Prior Section
Does It Really Matter Whether or Not One Believes in the Trinity? Next Section →
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