"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Authorial Interview: A. E. Siecienski on The Filioque

Continuing with our interviews of authors of recent books, today we present A. Edward Siecienski, author of The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology) (OUP, 2010), 368pp. ), a book that our expert reviewer, the Orthodox historian Robert Haddad of Smith College, in his review in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 52 (Spring 2011), called a "tour de force."

About this book, the publisher tells us:
The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy is the first complete English language history of the filioque written in over a century. Beginning with the biblical texts and ending with recent agreements on the place and meaning of the filioque, this book traces the history of the doctrine and the controversy that has surrounded it. From the Greek and Latin fathers, the ninth-century debates, the Councils of Lyons and Ferrara-Florence, to the twentieth- and twenty-first century-theologians and dialogues that have come closer than ever to solving this thorny problem, Edward Siecienski explores the strange and fascinating history behind one of the greatest ecumenical rifts in Christendom.
I interviewed the author about his book and here are his thoughts.

Please tell us about your biography and background:

AES: I am a native of New Jersey, and attended Georgetown University in Washington DC where I doubled-majored in theology and government.  After graduation in 1990 I attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University, where I received a STB and MDiv in 1995.  After several years teaching at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA I started doctoral studies, earning my PhD in historical theology from Fordham University in 2005.  I worked for 2 years at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania before accepting my current position at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where I am assistant professor of religion.  Although most of my family (including my wife) is Roman Catholic, my 2 children and I are Orthodox.

Tell us why you wrote this book:

AES: When I was writing my doctoral dissertation on Maximus the Confessor’s theology of the filioque and the Council of Florence, I found lots of material about the history of the filioque debates, but not a single one that attempted to put it all together.  There were books about Photius and the Carolingians, the medieval and reunion councils, and even the modern period, but nothing that tried to tell the story from beginning to end.  I said to myself: “That’s my book.”

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

AES: I did. While I wanted the book to be of use to theologians and those familiar with the issues, my aim was to allow even the non-specialist to grasp what was at stake.  Over the years Catholic and Orthodox Christians have asked me about the filioque and the East-West schism, and perhaps the book was my attempt at giving an answer that was both intellectually satisfying but still interesting. 

What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

AES: For me, like many Orthodox who were raised as Western Christians (Catholic or Protestant) the schism between East and West is not simply a theological dispute – it is an existential problem.  We have families we love, but with whom we don’t have full ecclesial communion.  This is the pain that schism brings, and while some might choose to gloss over differences or ignore them altogether, true communion is only possible when we can profess together the same faith.  My book is merely one scholar’s effort to move that process along.

Were there any surprises you discovered in the writing?

AES: Lots.  The more research I did the more I discovered about the history of the debate and the various participants who, at one time or another, spoke about the filioque.  I’m not just talking about “the big names” like Photius or Aquinas.  I discovered a host of individuals whose contributions to the debate have received scant attention despite their importance.  While some were simply polemicists, most were people genuinely concerned about orthodoxy and believed themselves to be fighting in its defense.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

AES: As I mentioned, there wasn’t a complete history of the debate available in English, which was why OUP thought it should be written.  The other thing about the book was the genuine attempt to be objective.  Whether it’s possible or not is itself another debate, but I did try very hard to give a balanced treatment of all the figures involved, East and West.  I must admit a bit of a guilty pleasure as I watched reviewers on-line try to guess my denominational identity.  The fact that it was not apparent made me think that, on some level, I had succeeded.

Sum up briefly the main themes/ideas/insights of the book:

AES: Truth matters, and in the debate about the filioque we are dealing with an important theological truth.  At some point East and West could no longer recognize the true faith in the other’s theology of the procession and a schism resulted.  As time went on that schism hardened and the gap separating them became a chasm.  However, in the seventh century there was an individual who offered a genuinely ecumenical way of expressing the faith in a way that both parties could/should accept – Maximus the Confessor.  Maybe now, as relations between Christians have improved, we can utilize his contributions and bring this centuries old debate to a conclusion.  In this sense the book is not offering a “new” solution to the controversy, but rather an old one still capable of working.


  1. I take the liberty of copying here two comments from Facebook, where notice of this interview was advertised.

    1) Fr. Joseph Bittle: I very much enjoyed this book, and do not feel the least bit guilty about paying full price! Interesting to learn that Siecienski is Orthodox; he did a wonderful job maintaining a detached scholarly narrative in the text which did not give away his own ecclesial commitments.

    2) Deacon Randolph Brown: It is difficult to find honest scholarship divorced from polemic with this subject. Bravo.

  2. Very helpful interview, thanks. I just finished the book and found it a competent summary of the history from which I learned a great deal. It is nice to have something in English that is not full of fulmination as Vladimir Lossky.

    I do not understand, however, how anyone could read the book without at least suspecting that the author was Eastern Orthodox. My question was how someone with a Polish name would so clearly favor the orthodox. His point of view, not to say prejudice, is evident in three characteristics of the book. First, he continually explains away and casts doubt on any interpretation of the Greek Fathers that might indicate their belief in the Son's involvement in the Spirit's procession. He may be correct, but the approach seems to say that the Greek Fathers cannot be seen as favoring the filioque because it would a-historical to read later concepts into their texts. This contextualization is never applied to the traditional Orthodox position. That is, the possibility that, say Gregory of Nazianzen might have understood something different by procession than Photius or Mark of Ephesus is not clearly pursued. This makes me wonder a bit about the accuracy of the summaries of the Roman Catholic position. Secondly, the whole structure of the book always starts from Eastern Orthodox presuppositions and point of view. A book on the same topic by a Roman Catholic who was trying to do justice to the other side as Mr. Siencienski does would simply look and be structured differently. Not better, just different; we all see things from where we stand. A final point is that we hear much, much more about the sins and arrogance of the Western Roman Church than those of the Orthodox East. My reading of the history is that obstinate unwillingness to make any attempt to understand the other party was something that both sides participated in with gusto.

    Maybe the formula "through the Son" will be something that the parties can come together on, but I am not holding my breath.


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