Friday, January 20, 2012



At every Christmas get-together I attended this year people wanted to talk about the new translation of the mass. Of all the changes in the new English translation of the mass, none seems to have raised more criticism than the word “consubstantial” in the Nicene Creed. It used to be translated “one in being with the Father,” but now reads (following the technical Latin vocabulary) “consubstantial with the Father.”

Since we’ll be living with this seemingly incomprehensible word for the foreseeable future, I suggest that we try to make friends with it by learning something about its background, its meaning and it's practical implications for our spiritual journey. This long post is a short step in that direction.


Have you ever asked yourself a question such as “Exactly what do I believe about Jesus? Is Jesus God? If so, doesn’t that make two Gods? If he’s God’s Son doesn’t that make him inferior to the Father? Or is he the same as God, or equal to God but not the same as the Father? What’s the deal here?”

If you have ever asked such questions, you should know that these were also the central questions for the church in the third and fourth centuries, and it took two hundred years of painful struggle and division to come up with a satisfactory way of dealing with them.

During its first 200 years or so, the early church accepted Jesus as a man and confessed and worshipped him as God. It placed him on the same level as the Father and the Holy Spirit. It did this naturally and without any feeling of contradiction. The church recognized, of course, that the person of Christ was a deep mystery that we would never fully understand, but rather than debating the mystery it simply adored and revered it.

By the fourth century, however, the Church had spread into Greece and Asia Minor, the land of Greek philosophy, where people loved to intellectually dissect difficult problems in philosophy and theology. So it was probably inevitable that the mysterious nature of the person of Jesus would eventually come under intellectual scrutiny, and questions would be raised to which there were no answers in the New Testament. For example, what was the relationship between Jesus and God the Father? How was Jesus both human and divine? Exactly what is the Holy Trinity about? The various attempts to invent an appropriate vocabulary for answering these questions fill the history of the church in the fourth century.

The mystery of Jesus is set out clearly at the beginning of John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)

So people began to ask analytical questions about this passage: How are we to understand that the Son of God (whom John calls “the Word”) and who became a human being in Jesus the Messiah, is both with God and is God? How can God be at the same time one and more than one? Just how is the Son related to the Father?

These questions, which are all interrelated, led to tremendous controversy. At issue was the very identity of Christ himself. The church considered several competing answers to the questions, often with bitterness and bloodshed, before arriving at an “answer” that most could agree on. The dispute led eventually to the church’s formulating the doctrine of the Trinity.


The heresy of Arianism that eventually engulfed the church in a firestorm, began as an abstruse disagreement between the bishop of Alexandria and one of his priests, a man named Arius. Although it started as a local quarrel about exactly the questions mentioned above, Arius went outside Egypt to enlist the support of bishops and scholars around the near east, so that before long the entire Greek church was bitterly divided over these issues.

Here are some of the beliefs that Arius was teaching. See how they compare with what you've been taught. Being concerned about the unity of God he taught that the Father alone is without a beginning. The Son, the “Word” (in Greek Logos) had a beginning; God created the Logos in order that he might create the world. Since the Logos was the first and highest of all created beings, Arius was willing to call the Logos God. But this was only a manner of speaking. The Logos was a creature.

In Arius’ view, Jesus had a human body but not a human soul. The Logos took the place of the soul in Jesus. He was therefore a creature who was neither God nor man. He was not God because the Logos that was in him was created; he was not a man because did not have a soul. Moreover, the Logos was subject to change: He could become a sinner.


This Jesus of Arius doesn’t sound very much like the Jesus you and I know and pray to. We'll look at the practical implications of this heresy in the last section of this post. You can skip to that part now if you want, but first I want to finish the story with the church's response to Arius and his heresy.


Arius began teaching his errors in the year 311. Despite being condemned by various local councils of bishops his doctrines kept spreading until the controversy reached into every part of the East. The common people, although they did not understand the issues, nevertheless aligned themselves with one side or the other.

At this point the emperor Constantine realized that he had one empire and two churches – Arian and non-Arian. So for reasons more political than theological he moved to restore unity in the Catholic church by calling for a council of bishops to settle the dispute. The Council of Nicea (325), soon to be reckoned the first “ecumenical” or world council because of the range of representation there, included about 220 bishops, most of them Greek. At the solemn opening of the council Constantine urged the bishops to achieve unity and peace.

Skipping over the political and theological details, we can say that the bishops at Nicea ended the controversy over the questions concerning Christ and the Trinity by formulating a document that we now know as the “Nicene Creed” that is recited by Catholics at mass every Sunday and on important feasts. It is sharply anti-Arian.

Arius had claimed that the Son of God "came to be from things that were not" and that he was "from another substance" than that of the Father. So the Council condemned these beliefs by stating in the Creed that the Son of God is "begotten, not made, of the same substance as the Father." The Latin word for “of the same substance” is “consubstanialis.” The recent translators of the Creed have chosen to translate this with a single English word, “consubstantial” to refer to our belief that Jesus and the father are distinct but equal, which is precisely what Arius had denied. If the translators had given us the equally accurate phrase "of the same substance as the Father," they might perhaps have created less of a stir. But we now have "consubstantial," so let's just deal with it.

Well, so what? Whether we say "consubstantial" or "of the same substance" what does it have to do with you and me as we try to live the gospel every day? Here are a couple of thoughts.


“Consubstantial” tries to capture the beautiful fact that Jesus is both completely human and fully divine. We believe that long ago God decided to set things right with our broken world, and could surely have done so from a distance, like changing the channel with a TV remote control. But instead God chose to come into the world in person, to become one of us in an incredible, totally unforeseen supreme act of self-giving love. And so “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God came and shared everything human except sin.

Another implication of the doctrine of “consubstantial” is a famous quotation (which doesn’t sound sexist in the original Greek or Latin) variously attributed to St. Athanasius and Saint Augustine and others. It states “God became man so that man might become God.” Doesn’t that seem pretty bold, even arrogant? But it’s true nonetheless. But it could never be true if Arius is correct. That’s why we need to believe that Jesus is truly human and truly divine – consubstantial with the father.

Celebrating Christmas each year has gotten us so used to the idea that God became a human being that we forget that this incarnation business is incredible, unfathomable, and way beyond our ability to understand – which is why it’s called the “mystery of the incarnation.” In theology, a “mystery” refers not to a belief that is totally incomprehensible to us, but rather to one that we will never come to understand fully: There will always be more to understand about a mystery. So, when we reflect on the mystery of the incarnation we need to remember that we are on very sacred and mysterious ground. It is a time to be humble in the presence of an awesome and beautiful aspect of God’s love that we cannot ever fully understand.

Several people have objected to me that the new translation “consubstantial with the Father” is incomprehensible, and that the translators should have used a simpler word that everybody could understand. At least when we used to say that Jesus is “one in being with the Father” we understood what the words meant. The problem was that the latter expression didn’t really say very much about Jesus: everything in creation somehow participates in God’s being, so you could argue that plants and animals and rocks are all “one in being with the Father.” But the Council fathers at Nicea were trying to get at something much deeper and mysterious: that somehow God and Jesus are not completely different but "of the same substance" while being at the same time distinct entities. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives more information about this in parag. 465

Let me offer a homely example that might help you understand a little bit more about “consubstantial.” If you take a handkerchief and tear it in half, the two pieces are of the same “substance” but are distinct entities. This rough and ready comparison is, of course, inadequate, but it gives us at least a glimpse of the truth that Arius denied when he insisted that God and Jesus were of two different substances, and thus Jesus was not divine.

So if “consubstantial” sounds like gibberish at least it doesn’t give anyone the false impression that we thoroughly understand what we’re talking about in the incarnation! It reminds us rather that the incarnation is a mystery that is ultimately incomprehensible, and that if we think we understand the incarnation completely, well, sorry, we don’t. Because we can’t.

I hope that this post has helped you to understand “consubstantial” a little better. If not, I hope that it will at least remind you to be grateful to those bishops at the Council of Nicea whose courage and determination preserved for us our belief in the ineffable mystery that Jesus who walked among us, sharing our sorrows and our joys, our desires and out dreams, our sufferings and our limitations was also God, the Divine Word made flesh.

To Him be glory and everlasting power! Amen.

1 comment:

  1. I pray for the members of Newark Abbey and SBP in the loss of Fr. Matthew. Any chance you can write something on him next week?