A New Twist to an Old Hymn

Among my favorite hymns is “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” by Joachim Neander. I grew up singing it to the hymn tune Lobe Den Herren, which is a nice martial tune that works with either organ or piano (God forbid) accompaniment.

As is typical with German hymns, it has a multitude of verses (I think Neander wrote seven stanzas in the original hymn), and so when I run across one that is unfamiliar, I am not surprised. Yesterday it was the appointed hymn for Evening Prayers in the Breviary, and it had a Trinitarian doxology as the last stanza that I had never seen. Hymns in the Breviary almost always end with such a doxology and many of them are written by the Breviary editors when the original hymn doesn’t finish with such a doxology

I was quite surprised when I saw this final doxological stanza in the Breviary’s version:

Praise to the Father most gracious, the Lord of creation! / Praise to his Son, the Redeemer who wrought our salvation! / O heav’nly Dove, / Praise to thee, fruit of their love, / Giver of all consolation.

Suddenly I found myself singing an -in-your-face example of the filioque and I was taken aback. Let me explain. During the great Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, an Ecumenical Council (with representatives from Rome) hammered out what we call The Nicene Creed. In Greek the Creed says, following a direct quote from John 15:26, that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” When the Roman Bishop and theologians translated it into Latin, they added the Latin word filioque to the phrase, making it say that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The Eastern Church was not amused by this non-biblical addition that reflected bad theology, and the event was a significant part of the split between the Greek eastern church and Latin western church several hundred years later.

The idea that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son led to some very weird theological conundrums that are still with us today. Certain ancient Greek philosophies (that were decidedly outside the Christian tradition) said that dualities were always at odds with one another. Latin theologians used this idea to explain the Holy Spirit. The Father and Son were never at odds with one another; they loved one another, and the product of that love was the Holy Spirit proceeding from both of them.

This always sounds weird. too cute by half, and just plain contrived to me when I hear it, so rather than have you take my word for it, I will quote C.S. Lewis from ch 26 of Mere Christianity,

 All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love. Of course, what these people mean when they say that God is love is often something quite different: they really mean ‘Love is God.’ They really mean that our feelings of love, however and wherever they arise, and whatever results they produce, are to be treated with great respect. Perhaps they are: but that is something quite different from what Christians mean by the statement ‘God is love.’ They believe that the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God forever and has created everything else. …

I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

Parallel to this conception of the Holy Spirit, the seeds of an idea that later came to be known as “Dialectical thinking” developed. The question of which came first is a chicken and egg question, but both ideas were adopted from Greek philosophy. Today we know this best in terms of Hegel’s dialectic of “Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.” This is essentially what is going on in the Latin and Protestant doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Father is the “thesis,” the Son the “antithesis” and the Spirit, the “synthesis” of the Trinity. It is one of those items that is so patently foreign to scripture that it gives the Eastern Church a great deal of heartburn whenever there are talks between the Greeks and the Romans.

There are a host of reasons why Protestantism followed the Roman Catholic Church in adding the filioque to the Creed. It is surprising since the sine qua non of Protestantism is faithfulness to the Biblical text and this is one of those spots where the Latin Creed clearly veers away from scripture. But Protestants held the same Trinitarian conceptions that the Roman Church did, so it is no great surprise that the whole Western Church has adopted the filioque. It is beyond the scope of this essay to get into a detailed study of that history.

Rather, this explanation is evidence to why I was so taken aback when I was singing the Joachim Neander hymn. “O heav’nly Dove, praise to thee, fruit of their love, giver of all consolation.”  This sentence is a very precise summary of the filoque. When I stumbled upon it, I stumbled over it. Suddenly, rather than being in a prayerful mood, the spectre of an ancient theological battle came to the forefront of my mind and the moment of prayer was lost.

Ultimately the additional hymn stanza is neither here nor there. I am simply confessing my own weakness for a preference of ideas over prayer. No doubt my Protestant friends will tell me to just get over it and my Orthodox friends will tell me to quit using the Breviary. In the end I’ll ignore them both. I relish living in the gap between East and West and exploring all the rough terrain that I find there.


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