The Creed: Part II: God From God...
Alison Deighan takes up her series again looking at the Nicene Creed and its implications for our lives as Catholics today.
In this series Alison Deighan will look at the Christological statements of the Nicene Creed, the Creed which we confess each Sunday at Mass.
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.
In this second part looking at the Christological statements of the Nicene Creed which we profess at Mass each Sunday, we’ll focus on the phrase that Jesus Christ is “begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” This will involve looking at what the Church means by teaching that Christ is consubstantial with the Father, and looking at how that truth came to be professed in the Creed. The Church uses the term “substance” (or essence, or nature) to refer to the divine unity of the Trinity, and the term “Person” to refer to the real distinction of the Father, Son and Spirit (Catechism of the Catholic Church 252). This statement of the Creed therefore is a profession of the central mystery that God is unity and Trinity.
The Nicene Creed was promulgated at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The proclamation of Christ’s consubstantiality with the Father was the central proclamation of the Council and was intended to address a controversy about the divinity of Jesus which had arisen in the Church in Alexandria. The development of the doctrines about the nature of God, and the relations of the Persons of the Trinity which are set forth in the Creeds of 325 and 381 A.D. became necessary as a means of preserving the Church’s faith, in the face of misunderstandings and errors about the content of revelation, which struck to its very heart.
The theological background to the Nicene Creed consists essentially in the efforts of the Early Church to understand and express its belief in God in unity and in faithfulness to revelation. The difficulty, particularly as relates to the theological background to the homoousios formula, was in reconciling aspects of this revelation which appeared to stand in some tension with one another. In continuity with the Old Testament revelation, early Christianity shared the Jewish faith in the oneness of God, the unique and transcendent Creator, summed up in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD” (Deut 6:4). The early Church was understandably beset by controversies in attempting to find ways of comprehending and communicating its faith in a way which adhered to monotheism, but at the same time avoided denial of the co-divinity of Father, Son and Spirit.
The immediate background to the Council of Nicea was the teaching of Arius (c. 250-336), an Alexandrian priest who taught that Jesus was created by the will of the Father, and so denied his co-divinity with the Father. As he wrote in 320 AD:
“For He is not eternal, or co-eternal, or co-originate with the Father; nor does he have being together with the Father, as they would have it who introduce two unoriginated principles;.. but God is indeed before all things, being the Monad and beginning of all.”
Arius’ ideas were based on the view that, as the divine nature is indivisible and incommunicable, all else that is other than God must be created. He considered that to maintain the co-divinity of the Son was tantamount to maintaining that there was more than one God. Both premises are of course correct; the divine nature is indivisible and all things other than God are created. Arius’ error was to place the Son and the Spirit in the realm of the created order. It is interesting that Arius’ difficulty with affirming that the Son is God appears to have arisen in part as a result of his approach to the Greek word “agennetos”, (in English “ingenerate”) which Arius and his followers equated with “unoriginated”, and from there, went on to conclude that the Son, being begotten of the Father, lacked the divine quality of self-existence.
Arius’ error furnishes a striking example of the dangers of semantic, logic-based approaches to doctrine, or indeed any approaches to doctrine based on any form of reasoning, but which are divorced from the revelation and from the Church’s practice of the faith. The extraordinary spread of Christianity during its first three hundred years had by the fourth century resulted in a situation where the great majority of Christians were not of Jewish descent. The Church’s mission was predominantly in regions where all educated people read and spoke Greek or Latin, and the Church’s encounter with Greek philosophy, particularly Neo-Platonism and to a lesser extent with Stoicism, contributed to the Arian controversy. During the preceding century a degree of synthesis had been attempted between Christianity and Neo-Platonism; or at least a Neo-Platonic view of reality influenced the thought of some theologians. However, those theologians, such as St Justin Martyr and Origen affirmed the divinity of Jesus. Arius took the tendency to an extreme, privileging philosophy over revelation and expressly denying the co-divinity of the Son, threatening the fundamental tenet of Christian faith in the Incarnation.
St Athanasius was amongst the leading opponents of Arianism. His arguments found their roots in the tradition of the Church, especially in teaching about creation and redemption. He argued that, if through Christ man is redeemed and made divine, then Christ must himself be divine:
“...what was to be done save the renewing of that which was in God’s image, so that by it men might once more be able to know him? But how could this have come to pass save by the presence of the very image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ?... Whence the Word of God came in his own person, that, as he was the image of the Father, he might be able to create afresh the man after the image.” (De Incarnatione, 13.14)
St Athanasius also used the Scriptural doctrine of creation as the free, loving act of the Creator to refute Arius’ ideas about the Son acting as a subordinate intermediary in creation; Athanasius taught on the contrary that the divine work of creation is the work of the Father and the Son: “He it is Who through His Word made all things small and great, and we may not divide the creation and say this is the Father’s and this the Son’s.” (De Incarnatione 13-14).
Arianism was the crisis which occasioned the need for the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Although Arius had some supporters amongst the Church’s Bishops, of those present at the Council, all save two gave their agreement to the Creed which was promulgated. The Nicene Creed includes what was intended as a clear statement of the co-divinity of the Father and the Son, proclaiming the Son to be: “ the only begotten, generated from the Father, that is from the being (ousia) of the Father ... one in being (homoousios) with the Father.” The Creed of Nicea thus provided an explicit doctrinal statement of the Church’s faith in the divinity of Jesus.
The Creed of Nicea uses the Greek term homoousious (currently translated in the English liturgy as “consubstantial”). The use of this term marks an interesting contrast with Creeds of more ancient origin in the Church. The earlier professions of faith contain formulas which relate in a direct manner to concepts found in Scripture. Whilst the Nicene Creed retains the same Trinitarian structure and the same Christological content as the earlier Western Creeds, it also employs the philosophically derived concepts of being and substance in order to refute Arianism. Some of the Bishops at Nicea were unhappy about use of the non-Scriptural term homoousios, but the formula was intended to preserve the very core of the profession of faith, in circumstances where philosophically derived concepts of being and substance had by that time been widely used, particularly in the Church in the East, in attempting to explain and talk about the Church’s understanding of the nature of Christ. Discontent with the use of philosophical concepts such as substance in theology has been a recurring theme in the modern Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church at 351 quotes Pope Paul VI in his defence of the Church’s traditional use of philosophy in Trinitarian theology:
“In order to articulate the dogma of the Trinity, the Church had to develop her own terminology with the help of certain notions of philosophical origin: ‘substance’, ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis’, ‘relation’ and so on. In doing this, she did not submit the faith to human wisdom, but gave a new and unprecedented meaning to these terms, which from then on would be used to signify an ineffable mystery...”
Some of the controversy around the homoousios clause, both at the Council of Nicea and afterwards, derived from substantive disputes about the nature of Christ. The controversy was however further complicated by disagreement and genuine misunderstandings over the terminology used. The Greek terms hupostasis and ousia both had the same meaning, “existence” or “essence.” As the terms were employed in Christian thought, some theologians used them to convey differing concepts. For example, Origen used hupostasis to refer to the three Persons of the Trinity, considered in distinction from one another, and ousia to refer to the divine unity (the usage which the Church ultimately adopted). St Athanasius on the other hand used the two terms interchangeably, denoting by both the oneness, the undivided substance of God. Terminological confusion, and mutual incomprehension between the Churches of the East and West, was further compounded by problems arising from translation from Greek to Latin and vice versa.
The Council of Nicea did not bring an end to Arianism. As well as those who continued to hold to Arianism proper, there were those who opposed the Nicean formulation “consubstantial with the Father” for a “semi-Arian” solution, describing the Son as “like in substance (homoeousios)” to the Father – a compromise which was unacceptable to orthodoxy as “like in substance” still involved a denial of Jesus’ true divinity. St Athanasius, due to his firm adherence to the truth of the divinity of Christ, was persecuted ceaselessly by the Arian party - he was subjected to false allegations and condemnations by Arian Councils and was repeatedly exiled from Alexandria where he was Bishop. Finally, with the support of the Emperor Constantius, who supported the Arian party, at the first Council of Constantinople in 360, the “like in substance to the Father” formula was adopted. St Athanasius was one of a small number of Bishops and theologians who, at great personal cost, continued to profess the orthodox faith in the oneness in divinity of the Father and the Son. Interestingly, during this time of disruption and doubt, there was a strong commitment to Athanasius’ teaching and to true doctrine amongst the lay faithful. St John Henry Newman in an 1859 article “On Consulting the Lay Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” used the Arian crisis as an example of the operation of the sensus fidei or sense of faith given to the Christian people, enabling them to remain in a faithful consensus even in the face of the unfaithfulness or confusion of many of the bishops of the time.
Although St Athanasius did not live to see it, the “consubstantial with the Father” clause was reaffirmed in the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. By that time, the Church had considered further about the meaning of the oneness in substance of the Father and the Son, and St Athanasius and St Basil the Great among others had come to see that as well as the divinity of Christ, the profession of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son is also a profession of the divine unity of the Trinity, who share one substance or one being. It was at this Council that the version of this clause of the Creed which we profess today was affirmed, that Jesus Christ is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.
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