CONSUBSTANTIAL WITH THE FATHER
by Jeff Miller
One of the most remarked about changes in the English translation of the Creed that was introduced at the start of Advent in 2011 was the use of “consubstantial” over “one in being.” Multiple arguments were made against this change as the word is unfamiliar for many.
The question was and continues to be what is the big deal and why is using consubstantial considered to be more accurate? Living in a time when such theological distinctions regarding Christology have been settled ages ago it is easy to forget why it was so important. If there was a way to view Christ other than fully God and fully man there is going to be a heresy covering that. Arianism, Adoptionism, Modalism, are just some of the heresies that denied one aspect while affirming another. Although during the creation of the Creed by the Council Fathers it was Arianism that was most in mind. Arianism denied the divinity of Christ and had wide support.
Since the Nicene Creed was originally composed in Greek the term they ended up being used was homoousios. This was a compound word that used two words homo (same) and ousia (essence, being). This philosophical term was created for precision and to state that indeed Jesus was of the same essence of the Father. You can’t define the depths of a mystery by a philosophical term, but you can help to provide fruitful definitions that give fruitful pathways to an increased understanding while defining what are dead ends or wrong turns. The Greek word of homoousios when used in the Latin version of the Creed was translated as consubstantialem.
Again we get into the weeds of definitions and how we are to understand what is again is a compound word. The root word “substance”, another technical philosophical term, refers to the most real part of a being. A being whose essence requires that it exist in itself. Catholics are more use to the philosophical understanding of the term substance because of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Combined with the Latin “con” meaning “together with” we come to understand that Christ was of one substance with the Father.
What is interesting is that there is also an implication of Christ also being one in substance with our humanity. He is co-substantial. The Council of Chaledon in 451 went on to explicitly bring this out:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
Consubstantial is so densely packed with meaning that it is not surprising the use of the term was resisted. Creeds though are made for precision and they are responses to not only suppress error, but to provide a jumping off points in sound doctrine. Plus there was the problem with using “being” to mean the same as “substance” when in fact it doesn’t and I would refer you to an article by Russell Shaw on this.
The awesome thing is that once you start to reflect on this it is quite amazing that so few words can mean so much. We have both Trinitarian mystery along with mystery of the dual-natures of Christ. It is so easy to balk at what we could never have come to understand via natural theology, but which had to be revealed to us from God. Our efforts to simplify a mystery have often led to distorting that mystery. The legend of St. Augustine and the sea shell is illustrative of our attempts to wrap our heads around a mystery. Yet reflecting on these same mysteries is to follow the Blessed Virgin by pondering them in our heart. I find it such a pity the times I when I have thought “I’m bored” when there are mysteries such as the Trinity and the Incarnation to explore and reflect upon. We will never exhaust these mysteries and yet we let trivial things exhaust us.
The Prologue of the Gospel of John is a guide into understanding this mystery and I leave you with what the Holy Father wrote in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini that also reflects the multi-valence meaning of consubstantial.
As the Prologue of John clearly shows us, the Logos refers in the first place to the eternal Word, the only Son, begotten of the Father before all ages and consubstantial with him: the word was with God, and the word was God. But this same Word, Saint John tells us, ”became flesh“ ( Jn 1:14); hence Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, is truly the Word of God who has become consubstantial with us. Thus the expression ”word of God“ here refers to the person of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, made man.
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “Consubstantial with the Father”?
Jeff Miller is a former atheist who after spending forty years in the wilderness finds himself with both astonishment and joy a member of the Catholic Church. His blog, The Curt Jester presents his hopefully humorous and sometimes serious take on things religious, political, and whatever else crosses his mind.
Read all the entries in the Blog Series: Credo: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith.