A message from Father Nick 37

Do words matter…?

            Byzantium…New Rome…Constantinople…Istanbul – names for a single city. It was Emperor Constantine of course who took the strategic decision to move Rome’s capital to the east. A thousand year old city already existed on the Bosphorus, but Constantine made a new one of it. Old Rome had retained many traces of its pagan past; by contrast, Constantine’s new capital was consecrated as a Christian city on Monday, 11th May, 330 AD.

From the beginning, Constantinople was a place of wonder and beauty, surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by impregnable land-walls. Its people were sophisticated, highly educated, Greek in culture, and deeply committed to their Christian faith. Their readiness to engage in theological debate was quite astonishing.

One of the great Greek theologians, St Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – c 395), comments wryly on the problems of daily life in such a town: “If you ask a man for change, he will give you a piece of philosophy concerning the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you enquire the price of a loaf, he replies: ‘The Father is greater and the Son inferior’; or if you ask whether the bath is ready, the answer you receive is that the Son was made out of nothing.”

This was nothing like the situation in Western Europe, where Christianized Barbarian communities were beginning to take root. Indeed, the very complexity of Greek theology caused something of a problem for other peoples. It is believed that one reason Islam spread so powerfully in the east was the relative simplicity of its creed: “There is one God, and Muhammad is his prophet”.  These are words that can be easily remembered. 

But the word that concerns me today is not that Muslim statement of faith or the name of Constantine’s new city. It is a Latin word and it came to symbolize the divergence of East and West. We have seen how the Creed we say on Sunday was produced by the world’s bishops meeting first at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. They defined the divinity of God’s Son, who was “begotten not made”. Then they affirmed the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who “proceeds from the Father” – that is how it stands in the original text.

But many in the West insisted that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father “and the Son” (in Latin rendered by a single word: “filioque”). This word was eventually added to the western Creed, and Greek Christians were outraged. For them it was bad theology, betrayal of the solemnly defined text, and an insult to fellow believers. More than that, when the final split between East and West came in 1054 and the papal nuncio left a bill of excommunication on the high altar of Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople, it wrongly alleged that the Greeks had “dropped” the filioque from their Creed! Sadly, the wounds left by all this have never been healed.

All this might seem abstruse to us, but the people of the Eastern church still care deeply about such matters. We can’t change history, but we can remember our fellow believers and pray for them as we say our Creed this Sunday.

St Gregory of Nyssa