We are starting to get comfortable with the Mass’s new wording, begun last Nov. 27 with Advent. Priest and people have to be patient with each other. Force of habit keeps many saying, “And also with you,” while altar missals printed by optically challenged publishers have celebrants tripping over texts. How do you feel about the word “consubstantial” in the Nicene creed, that tightly worded formula that presents the nucleus of our ancient faith? It replaced “one in being with the Father,” which was somewhat clearer since we seldom use “consubstantial” in our ordinary vocabulary.
“Consubstantial” was the most controversial church word of the fourth century. A priest named Arius of Alexandria thought he was doing justice to the New Testament when it speaks of Jesus’s relationship the Father: he claimed that Jesus was subordinate. Certainly Jesus was a wonderworker who taught great and liberating doctrine. His disciples accepted martyrdom, so convinced that he was of God. But to Arius it was blasphemous to put Father and Son on the same level.
It sounded plausible. Jesus was born in time, a human person subject to all it means to be human, praying devoutly to the Father, even admitting there were some things the Father knew that he, Jesus, did not. Despite being excommunicated by his bishop, Arius insisted the Father and Son do not have the same substance or nature, even though he called Jesus the noblest of all God’s creatures.
People back then took their religion seriously. Much of society there in the Roman Empire’s capital, Constantinople, was in upheaval about this demotion of the Lord. Constantine, who had built this new city where Istanbul is today, was the second Christian emperor, even if he delayed to his deathbed — as did many people then — his baptismal entrance into church membership (so as not to forfeit the once-only baptismal absolution of all sins, important since we did not yet have the sacrament of reconciliation). He was a pragmatic ruler, not a theologian. It did not matter to him whether the Father and Son share the same nature. He wanted his empire calmed and free of all the strife. So in 325 he ordered Christianity’s bishops to meet in Nicea, a suburb of Constantinople, and settle it. Over 300 bishops came.
A young deacon, Athanasius of Alexandria, attended this ecumenical council. He took an important part in the defense of the position opposite Arius. With debates sometimes being so rancorous, Constantine had to intervene and call the brother bishops to order. With only two dissenting votes, the council fathers decreed that the Son of God was consubstantial, one in being or substance or nature (homoousios) with the Father. Arius had said he was homoiousios, like the Father. Greek was the language spoken by the participants. One small iota changed everything.
But a council decree, solemnly issued with anathemas and excommunications of non-confessing bishops and others, was not enough to choke the weed of Arianism. This is the usual case with heresies. Modern conciliar teachings against the evils of excessive capitalism today get the same response. The appeal of heresies hangs on, attracting new devotees. Five times Athanasius, elevated to the position of bishop, was driven from his see by Arians.
Interestingly, the very idea of an ecumenical council was a new method of solving church disputes. Some could argue that it copied the Council of Jerusalem in 49, called to settle what some thinkers say was the church’s greatest wrangle in two millennia: whether to let Gentiles into the originally Jewish movement we call Christianity.
We have averaged since Nicea about a council a century, with Vatican II being our era’s entry. But nothing so Catholic, so universal, so large had been done before, showing that the church can and should adapt when historic and social conditions change. Some then argued that because there had never been a worldwide council before, Nicea was invalid. Today traditionalists invoke councils as authoritative sources of teaching, such as the 16th century Council of Trent. Some are unaware of the truly radical changes made there in response to the Protestant Reformation, since we all tend to see the church of our childhood as unchangeable in how it does its mission.
BTW, why didn’t they use the chance to correct “He descended into hell. . . .” to "into sheol, the realm of the dead,” not Dante’s inferno?
|< Prev||Next >|