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Early on, Catholic parents teach their children to bless themselves: "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The spoken words and bodily movement express Catholic belief in both the Holy Trinity, the three-Person God, and the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. This familiar gesture introduces the child into the central Christian mysteries that will sustain his or her Catholic life. Significantly, it remains the last sign that the priest makes over the body of a departed Christian soul.
As important as the sign of the cross is, no one should take this basic initiation into Christian doctrine and practice for granted. During the first centuries of the Church's history, not a few -- in some instances, even well-meaning -- persons got things wrong when they tried to explain the status of the Eternal Son, the Second Divine Person. It required an enormous effort on the part of holy popes and wise bishops both to expound and defend orthodox Catholic belief about the full divinity of the Eternal Son of God, the one and the same who "by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary."
Still, various errors spread throughout the Church, first in the East and then in the West. The most widespread of these heresies takes its name from a North African priest named Arius. Arianism offered an easy solution to those who found it difficult to envisage Three Persons in One God. The heresy also suited those who found it hard to accept that God could become man and still retain the fullness of divinity. Arians instead opted to revere Christ as a creature of God, albeit a very exalted creature. They wanted to speak of Christ as "like" the Father, one who resembled God. We still reject this Arian error when at Mass on Sunday the Church confesses of the Eternal Son that he is "God from God, / Light from Light, / true God from true God, / begotten, not made..." In other words, the Church rejects the suggestion that the Eternal Son is made or created in the way that all other creatures, including human beings, are made or created.
These words, "begotten, not made," come from the Nicene Creed. This ancient profession of Catholic faith ordinarily is prayed each Sunday after the reading of the Gospel and the priest's homily. It is called the Nicene Creed because of its initial formulation at the Council of Nicaea, an early ecumenical council (325) celebrated by the Church in what is today Iznik, Turkey. At the Council of Nicaea, the Magisterium of the Church had to confront controversy about the status of the Incarnate Son of God. Is the Second in God identical with the Father? Catholics know that the authoritative teachers of Catholic faith defined that the Eternal Son born of the Virgin Mary is fully God. As central as this belief remains to the Christian faith, the word chosen to express the sameness of the Son and the Father is a technical one that requires explanation.
"Consubstantial with the Father"
For the last 40 years or so, Catholics have become accustomed to express their belief in the sameness of the Father and the Son by the expression, "one in Being with the Father." This translation came about because certain experts had opined that a literal translation of the Latin term "consubstanialem," that is, consubstanital, would be too unfamiliar to the everyday churchgoer.
However, the expression "one in Being with the Father" does not translate "consubstantialem." The expression is too vague. Since God creates and sustains all that exists, everything in some sense can be said to be one in being with God. Not that everything is the divine nature but that everything outside of God remains dependent on the divine nature for its borrowed existence. The sameness that the Eternal Son enjoys with the Father is not like that. Instead, this sameness arises from the specific substance or nature of the Godhead. Catholic faith holds that each of the three Divine Persons share one and the same divine nature or substance. Just as the mystery of the Blessed Trinity stands at the heart of our belief, so also it grounds our salvation.
The Greek expression adopted at the Council of Nicaea is "homoousious," which is translated into English as "con-substantial." The Eternal Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary, is neither "like" the Father nor "practically the same substance" as the Father. The Eternal Son enjoys the very same substance as the Father. The Son possesses fully the Godhead of the Father. So today, the Church again confesses in the English rendition of the Creed that Jesus Christ is "consubstantial with the Father."
Significance for Christian Life
Discussions of translation of official texts may seem to interest only theologians and semantic experts. The fact of the matter is that we are dependent upon certain words in order to embrace the truth about the Catholic religion. The effort to learn words like "consubstantial" pays off huge dividends for the spiritual life. Why? The more we know the Truth about God the more we love him. This axiom applies especially to the Trinity, whose indwelling in the souls of the just is the reason that Catholics first teach their children to bless themselves. And as the Church confirmed at Nicaea, only God can save us.
Father Romanus Cessario, o.p., serves as senior editor for Magnificat and teaches theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston.
Reprinted from Magnificat, February 2011, Vol.12, No. 12, pp. 5-8, With permission of Magnificat USA, LLC. To order call 1-866-273-5215 Web site: www.magnificat.com.