Nicene Creed's "consubstantial":What does this mean?

Nicene Creed's "consubstantial":What does this mean?

Bishop Arthur Serratelli

Last year alone, 150 new words and definitions were added to one of America's best-selling dictionaries. As our social life and culture change and the sciences advance our knowledge, we adapt with new words to express the changes.

But, this is not a modern phenomenon. When translating the Bible from Latin into German, Martin Luther created neologisms such as Morgenland (the land where the morning sun rises) for the Orient. Centuries before him, the rhetorician Cicero, who thought that coining new words was barbaric, did it anyway. In introducing the Romans to Greek philosophy, he created a Latin philosophical vocabulary, coining new words such as  humanitas,  qualitas,  quantitas and  essentia.

Early on, Christians began to develop a new theological language to express their faith in Jesus. Tertullian (c.200 AD), the first of the great Patristic authors to write in Latin, coined the word  Trinitas (Trinity) to describe the relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (cf.  Adv. Praxeam, ix).  He was not introducing a new doctrine, only a new word to explain the faith of the Church from the time of the apostles. With the term "Trinity," he set the standard for speaking about the three divine persons while holding to belief in one God. 

The first followers of Jesus, who were strict monotheists, believed in Jesus as the Son of God. They accepted him as the Crucified One whom God raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rm 1:4). 

But it took them time to find the right words to articulate their faith. What is the best way to explain the relationship of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to the one God? There have been many attempts to come to an answer. Not all of them were successful.

The first attempts by the Docetists and the Gnostics took so seriously the divinity of Jesus that they denied his humanity. They believed that Jesus was not subject to all the things that make us human. They taught that Christ merely assumed the appearance of a human body.

The later attempts by the Arians and Nestorians took so seriously the humanity of Jesus that they denied his divinity. In one way or another, they taught that Jesus was a creature less than God.

For those who had difficulty understanding how Jesus could be truly divine and human, Arius, a fourth century priest from Alexandria, Egypt, offered an easy solution. Arius taught that the Father and the Son did not exist together eternally. Rather, the Father created the Son. So there was a time when the Son did not exist. He is the most exalted creature who resembles God most, but he is not God.

Arius' false teaching ignited the greatest theological debate and political conflict that the Church faced after Constantine's legalisation of Christianity. Arius' teaching emptied the redemptive work of Jesus on the Cross of its value. If Christ were a mere creature, as he taught, how could he have accomplished our salvation? Only God can redeem fallen humanity. Arius' teaching further reduced the reality of the Incarnation to a poetic way of speaking. It no longer meant that God became man in Jesus.

The teaching of Arius spread like wildfire throughout the Church. In 325 AD, the bishops met at Nicaea, present day Iznik, Turkey, to deal with this heresy. They wanted to explain, as best they could, who Jesus truly is. Is he the Incarnate Son of God? Is he identical with the Father?

The Council of Nicea did not invent a new doctrine. Rather, the Council handed on faithfully the teaching of the apostles. They could not add to it or change it (Irenaeus,  Against Heresies III:2:2). The Council taught that the Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary, is not merely "like the Father," but is God as the Father is God. From all eternity, the Son, fully possesses the Godhead as does the Father.

To express this teaching, the Council brought into the official language of the Church a newly coined word. It used the Greek word  homoousios, which is translated into English as "consubstantial". This word is found in the Nicene Creed which we as Catholics recite to this day.

Everything that exists shares in being and, in some sense, can be said to be one in being with God. But Jesus is different. He is not simply one in being with the Father he is consubstantial with the Father. He is truly God. So we profess in the Creed: "I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father."

Consubstantial! "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" ( Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 1-2). In naming Jesus consubstantial with the Father, there is a wealth of meaning, a history of struggle and a fidelity to the apostolic faith. Consubstantial is a hallmark of the true faith.

Many Catholics have noticed in the Creed this word coined so long ago in antiquity. This is good. For the word is an ever-present invitation to reflect on the mystery of Jesus. He is not simply a teacher, but the eternal Son of God made man for our salvation.

What's in this word consubstantial? A safeguard for the teaching of faith! A reminder that, through his Incarnation, his suffering, death and resurrection, the Son of God elevates our human nature and makes us partakers in the divine life of God himself. As St Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy at Nicea, taught, "The Word was made man so that we might be made God" ( De Incarnatione, 54.3).

The above article is published with  the permission of The Beacon , newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson.

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