Does the Filioque Undermine Theosis? An Augustinian Perspective

Published on: October 25, 2017
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Over the course of the past century, Augustine’s theology has been generally regarded by Orthodox as problematic at best and disastrous at worst. This is perhaps most obviously true where Augustine’s trinitarian thought is concerned, for it was in his treatise On the Trinity that Augustine so influentially advanced what one might call an early formulation of the filioque (i.e., the claim the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father). By doing so, John Romanides and other Orthodox have argued, Augustine infected the Western tradition to follow him with the disease of “filioquism,” a disease whose theological repercussions extend far beyond the narrow domain of pneumatology. Indeed, for Romanides and his ilk, the filioque is not so much an isolated doctrinal error as it is a corrosive agent whose effect is to erode the trinitarian foundations upon which Christianity stands.

While not all Orthodox have been as extreme in their pronouncements as Romanides, Eastern theologians as noteworthy and influential as Vladimir Lossky have nevertheless shared Romanides’ overarching conviction that the broadly Augustinian pneumatology of the West poses a grave threat to Orthodoxy. In particular, according to both Lossky and Romanides, the filioque is fundamentally incompatible with theosis (“deification,”or divine-human communion), the doctrine at the very heart of Orthodox thought and practice. The verdict is therefore clear: a choice must be made between the (mutually exclusive) doctrines of filioque and theosis.

This is a claim, however, which has been called sharply into question by recent scholarship on Augustine. (One thinks here not only of the Western “New Canon” Augustine scholarship that has risen to prominence in the past two decades, but also of the Orthodox Readings of Augustine volume published by Fordham in 2008.) For in Augustine’s own writings, as David Meconi and others have demonstrated, we find precisely what Romanides and Lossky thought impossible: namely, a robust account of theosis coinciding with a “filioquist” pneumatology. Still more remarkably, for Augustine these commitments are neither in tension with nor ultimately separable from one another. On the contrary, I will suggest in this essay, Augustine’s “filioquism” plays a crucial role in informing and even motivating his account of theosis.


To properly assess the relationship between filioque and theosis in Augustine’s thought, it is necessary to understand why he embraces the former (broadly defined) in the first place. Why, in other words, does Augustine feel compelled to defend the Spirit’s procession from not only the Father but also the Son?

The answer to this question has to do with Augustine’s broader understanding of God’s work in salvation history. From Augustine’s perspective, there is an intimate link between the missions carried out by the trinitarian persons in history and the relations enjoyed by Father, Son, and Spirit in eternity. Which is to say, in more contemporary theological terms, that Augustine regards the economic Trinity as a revelation of the immanent Trinity, such that we can infer truths about the latter on the basis of the former.

This being the case, Augustine considers it of great theological significance that the Spirit was both sent into the world by the Father and imparted to the Church by the Son (Jn 20:22). This is to be taken as an indication that the Spirit’s procession is something in which both the Father and the Son are “involved”—albeit in distinct senses. Just as the Spirit was sent into the world primarily by the Father and secondarily by the Son, so too can we say that the Spirit proceeds principally from the Father but also—in a derivative but crucial sense—from the Son.

Such a claim has important implications for how Augustine understands the Spirit’s distinctive role in the life of the Trinity. As the person whose distinctive trait it is to proceed from the Father and Son, the Spirit should be understood as a “bond of love” mutually given and received by those from whom it proceeds. Thus, while remaining one in essence with the Father and the Son, the Spirit functions uniquely in the Trinity as an agent of interpersonal union, i.e., as a person whose very “personality” consists in uniting Father to Son and Son to Father.

It is against the backdrop of these trinitarian reflections that the importance of the Spirit for Augustine’s account of theosis can at last be appreciated. For if it is the case that the Spirit’s work in history mirrors its activity in the Trinity, it would seem natural for the Spirit to function as an agent of union between human persons as well as divine ones. Augustine embraces this implication wholeheartedly: being by nature an agent of interpersonal union, the Spirit’s unique mission in salvation history is to establish union between human beings and the Trinity.

Such union amounts, for Augustine, to nothing less than theosis. For the love which God pours into the hearts of the redeemed is the very same love which unites Father and Son—that is, the unitive love which simply is the Holy Spirit. Through the indwelling of the Spirit, humans are thus joined both to the Spirit and to the divinity which it shares with the Father and Son. The Spirit is therefore not only the bond of love uniting Father and Son, but also the deifying love whose indwelling renders human beings “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

Augustine goes on to attach a robust ecclesiological dimension to this account of theosis. For while he considers it wholly legitimate to speak of individual humans being united to the Trinity, he sees fit also to stress that such union can only ever be realized in the life of the Church. The reason for this is simple: the Spirit that is poured into the hearts of the redeemed is the very same Spirit that unites human beings to one another and glues them together as the one body of Christ. Upon unifying the body in this fashion, moreover, the Spirit draws it into union with its divine Head—that is, with Christ Himself. In this way the Church is joined collectively to God the Son while its members are enabled to partake individually of the divine nature He shares with the Father and Spirit. Theosis is thus a reality accomplished by the Spirit at both individual and ecclesial levels: by uniting human beings to one another, the Spirit unites them also to God.

What is crucial to note in all this is that the doctrines of filioque and theosis at no point compete with one another in Augustine’s theology. On the contrary, it is precisely because Augustine understands the Spirit to function as an eternal agent of union between persons that he is led to advance a robust account of salvation as divine-human communion, i.e., as theosis. Far from precluding the doctrine of theosis, in other words, Augustine’s “filioquism” leads him to affirm it in the strongest possible trinitarian and ecclesiological terms.

This should give us pause, I think, before we pronounce too sweepingly on the theological consequences of filioquism—or on the allegedly insurmountable differences between Eastern and Western theology more broadly. And perhaps even more importantly, it should remind us of just how indispensable and enduringly relevant Augustine remains as a guide for Orthodox theologians in the present. For not only is his formulation of theosis considerably more robust and sophisticated than those of his contemporaries, it also addresses in advance many of the ecclesiological and trinitarian questions with which Orthodox theologians have themselves been preoccupied in the past two centuries. Whatever his shortcomings and limitations, Augustine was a saint and teacher of the highest order. His theological witness is one that Orthodoxy cannot afford to ignore.

A longer version of this essay has been published in Modern Theology.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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