Let’s continue our reflections on the nature of Jesus Christ. As before, quotes from the Nicene Creed are in bold.
“Begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”
The word we translate as “consubstantial” was at the heart of the Arian crisis in the latter part of the fourth century. “Consubstantial” is the English translation of homoousios in Greek. The word is a dense one, indicating that the Persons in the Trinity are “of the same substance,” which philosophically means they are the same thing, that they share the same nature. For the purposes of Arian crisis, homoousios means that the Father and the Son are, in fact, both entirely God. They are the same “substance.”
You would think that such clear teaching from the Church would solve the problem of Arianism. Yet, as with most heresies, just because a teaching is rejected does not mean that the teaching goes extinct. More often than not, a heresy with little public support goes underground. Usually, over time, such heresies die out. However, may reemerge, having slightly adjusted their teachings to maintain the heresy but seem orthodox.
This is exactly what happened with Arianism.
Nobody wanted to be caught teaching pure Arianism. Instead, what we now call semi-Arians began teaching Arianism lite. They centered their twisting of Church teaching on the very word taught by the Council of Nicaea: homoousios. Homoousios was too strong of a word, they held. The Son couldn’t be the exact same substance of the Father. So they proposed a different word, nearly identical in Greek: homoiousios. The difference was one letter, but that one letter changed the entire meaning of the word. Rather than speaking of the Father and the Son as the “same substance,” the semi-Arians taught that they were “of a similar substance.” Close, but very different. Something similar to another does not mean they are the same.
Many in the Church recognized this distinction, and they rejected the semi-Arian position. However, in the intervening years since the Council, the semi-Arians had risen to ranks of influence in the Roman Empire, even into the court of Constantine (who was not yet baptized, and was receiving instruction in the Faith from semi-Arian catechists). The result was a persecution of the Christians by the semi-Arians. Bishops throughout the Church gave in to the heretics, some after severe torture. The pope at the time, Pope Liberius, the first pope not recognized as a saint, was coerced into signing an ambiguous document which could be interpreted along the lines of Nicaea’s decrees, but could also be interpreted as a support of the semi-Arians. Despite Liberius including a note saying he intended the statement to be interpreted according to the Church, the semi-Arians proceeded to use the statement as papal support for their position.
The whole matter finally ended not with another council, but with the rise of an ant-Christian Roman emperor. Julian was baptized as a Christian in his youth, but because of the murderous actions of Constantine’s family after Constantine’s death, Julian vowed to reject Christianity and bring back paganism. In an effort to expediate the demise of Christianity, he removed any official government protection for the semi-Arians. Without that protection, the orthodox began preaching more vigorously to the semi-Arians, with orthodox bishops publicly speaking against the heresy. Soon semi-Arianism was officially gone, thought it would crop up throughout Church history (some quasi-Christian groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, hold views similar to the Arians and semi-Arians).
That is why this line in the Nicene Creed is so important. It is a reminder of not just the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation, but also the heroic strength of those who defended this truth.
“Through him all things were made.”
This line from the Creed encapsulates the opening, rather bold, statement from the Gospel According to John, which begins, “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 to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (John 1:1-3). Central to the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Creation is the providence of God. We are not blindly made, started by some distant god who sets us on our merry, or miserable, way without guide or directions. Rather, God carefully guides us to our destination. That’s the ultimate meaning behind the book of Job, the answer to why God allows suffering. Following the thought of Job, St. Paul echoes, regarding God, that “from him and through him and for him are all things” (Romans 11:36).
God made the world, and became incarnate as Jesus. This flies in the face of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which I examined in some detail in a blog post long ago. For our purposes, we’ll look at Gnosticism’s hatred of creation. For the Gnostic, the physical world is evil, and it was made by an evil god, who trapped our poor spiritual souls in evil physical bodies. Our spiritual salvation comes not at that creator god’s hand, but at the hands of the spiritual god, who taught us the secret of how to escape our evil physical bodies. However, the Judeo-Christian view of creation encapsulated in the Creed is that the God who created is the source of our redemption. By calling the Son the source of all of creation, we reaffirm that the Son is God, just as much as the Father is God.
The Gnostics had an issue with the Incarnation. How could a good god take on a physical body if bodies are evil? This led to a version of Gnosticism called Docetism, which taught that Jesus’ body wasn’t a real body, more of a pretend one. You see references to this in some of the Gnostic gospels, where the Apostles try to touch Jesus, and their hands pass through his body. The Church’s response to these appears in the the center of the Creed, where we as Church affirm the great mystery of the Incarnation.
And that will be the topic of our next reflection.