Three Words in One

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem which was first published in 1889… entitled The Ballad of East and West. Although I don’t remember it ever being read to me, I do remember from childhood the first line… it goes “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” I wonder if I heard it in an arrogant western attitude of superiority, because it seemed to say that the ways and cultures of the east and the west were somehow so different and incompatible as to be totally irreconcilable.

The poem has been greatly collected and anthologized since. And its first line is often [mis]used as an example of Kipling’s attitude to race and to the British Empire; but those who quote it often completely miss the third and fourth lines; so it’s worth quoting all these lines (which seems to me to reflect Galatians 3:28) in full:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Without the full context, we lose Kipling’s intended meaning. He seems to be saying that although separate locations on earth can never meet, when two strong men (or equals) meet, no matter where they’re from, the accidents of birth (whether of nationality, race, or family) don’t matter at all. Asians and Europeans are equal.

In Christianity… we have not yet gained this east / west perspective. The eastern churches of Greece, Russia, and Ethiopia (and others) remain at odds with the western churches of Rome, England, and the Protestant Reformation. And most of the reason comes from “three little words contained in one.”

One of the earlier church heresies… attributed to Arius (AD 250 – 336)… asserted that the Son was not co-equal to the Father, but was subordinate (possibly based on John 14:28:  “If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.”). And this idea of subordination directly challenged the co-equal nature of the three persons of the Trinity.

The limited procession of the Holy Spirit was reflected in the original wording of the Nicene Creed, which was agreed on at the fourth-century Ecumenical (not regional) Council of Constantinople, and which said:  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” It did not say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son.

But later on… in the region of Toledo, Spain… there were many Christians who had originally been Arians and who denied the full divinity of the Son. And so at a sixth-century regional synod meeting in Toledo, those in attendance unilaterally added the word filioque (which means and the Son) to the Creed. The synod apparently believed that the constant liturgical repetition of the filioque clause would aid in teaching the faithful that the Son was fully God.

Although its inclusion had never been authorized by an Ecumenical Council or adopted by the Eastern churches, the phrase gradually spread until, by the eleventh century, it was in general use in the Latin Church. The Church of England asserted that it taught only what Scripture and tradition taught––and not knowing the full history of the filioque addition and mistakenly assuming that it had always been part of the Creed, Anglicans retained the phrase, and some theologians even went to great lengths to explain why the Greeks deleted it!

But the continued use of the filioque phrase by churches in the West remains a source of great irritation between East and West. The unilateral altering of a Creed originally authorized by an Ecumenical Council strikes Eastern Orthodox Christians as ecclesiologically high-handed and canonically indefensible.

In response, the 1994 General Convention affirmed the intention of the Episcopal Church to remove the filioque clause at the next revision of the Book of Common Prayer; and in 1998 the ELCA published “A Lutheran – Orthodox Common Statement on Faith in the Holy Trinity” and has taken steps to restore the original wording of the Nicene Creed in worship.

Perhaps then… some time soon… East and West shall meet, and we’ll all move closer to being the One Church [that] God intended.

(article reprised from August 2013)

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family. He relishes his role as the Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Officer for two dioceses and affirms all faith traditions (he has this idea that diversity was never intended to be divisive). He serves on several diocesan and synod committees, including the ELCA N/W Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity; and in July 2020, he finished a two-year practicum to become a Spiritual Director.