The Nicene Creed, New Catholic Wording, and What’s Really Important

First of all, I mean no disrespect to an an excellent article by Dr. Edward Sri. I’m just using it as a push off to complain about how we avoid important issues.

There’s a lot of interesting points in Dr. Sri’s article, and I don’t disagree with any of them. His article is reverent and focused on practical spirituality. If there’s anything I support, it’s practical spirituality. He’s taking the Nicene Creed and talking about how it practically relates to Christians, in this case Roman Catholic Christians in particular.

Good for him. This post is not directed at him.

When are we going to tell people the more shocking news about the Council of Nicea? I cannot possibly be the only one who knows it!

No, I’m not talking about the nonsense Dan Brown put in The Da Vinci Code, which he got from the discredited books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Passover Plot.

What I am talking about is the wording "consubstantial," a translation of the Greek word homoousios. According to Dr. Sri, the Roman Catholics are changing the translation in the Nicene Creed from the previous "one in being."

It makes no difference to me which way they translate it. Either way, the reason that the Nicene bishops used the term homoousios is because they did not believe, as Dr. Sri put it, that the son was "a distinct divine person who has existed from all eternity." Well, at least not in the way we understand the phrase.

Christians of the second, third, and early fourth centuries universally applied Proverbs 8:22 to apply to the Son of God in the beginning. They read it in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and so they read it this way:

The Lord made me the beginning of his ways for his works.

To those early Christians, Jesus was "made" by the Father. They did not understand this to be "made" in the same sense that everything else was made. The difference between the Son and everything else is that all of creation was created from nothing. Not the Son. He was "made" from the substance of God, a process normally referred to by the church as being born or generated, not made.

To those early Christians, Jesus was quite literally the "Word" of God. To them, however, the Greek word Logos was a much bigger word than "Word." It could be translated reason, mind, or thought to them as well. In fact, here’s a very interesting description of logos by Tertullian, who wrote very early in the third century:

Observe, then, that when you are silently conversing with yourself, this very process is carried on within you by your reason, which meets you with a word at every movement of your thought … Whatever you think, there is a word … You must speak it in your mind …
     Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second person within you, through which in thinking you utter speech … The word is itself a different thing from yourself. Now how much more fully is all this transacted in God, whose image and likeness you are? (Against Praxeas 5)

To those early Christians, the Son of God was originally only the Logos of God, that "voice" inside of God. He was not the Son until, sometime before he created everything, God "made me the beginning of his ways for his works."

Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, the apostle Paul’s home church wrote the following just a century after Paul died:

What else is this voice but the Logos of God, who is also his Son? (To Autolycus II:22)

Theophilus adds:

This is what the holy Scriptures teach us … John says, "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God," showing that at first God was alone, and the Logos was in him. (ibid.)

There was a time—though before time was created—according to the early Christians, that the Son was inside the father, not yet begotten or generated or made. What word you used for what happened didn’t matter because the generation of the Son was beyond anything that man can understand.

Arius changed all that. He made terminology important. When Arius came along, he argued that the Son had not existed prior to his creation by God, and thus the Council banned the terminology "made," even though it’s used in Proverbs 8:22.

This we all know, but what we aren’t told is that the Council of Nicea did not argue in return that the Son had always existed as a distinct person. They argued that the beginning of his existence as a distinct person was not a creation from nothing but the generation of the Logos from inside of the Father. He was, literally, a Son—"begotten, not made."

Do not let anyone think it is ridiculous that God should have a Son … The Son of God is the Word of the Father. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 10; A.D. 177)

Just to drive the point home, let me point out that Athenagoras also said:

He is the first product of the Father, not as though he was being brought into existence, for from the beginning God … had the Logos in himself. (ibid.)

We can change the translation of homoousios from "one in being" to "consubstantial," and, as Dr. Sri suggests, it may be a good thing. I really think, however, that someone needs to tell modern Christians what ancient Christians meant by homoousios, which is that the Son was birthed, before the beginning, from out of God, and that he was not always a distinct person. There was a time when God was alone, and the Logos was still inside of him.

Note: Starting with the training school at Alexandria, a teaching began to arise that anything that happened before the beginning must have happened before time was created. Since time was not yet created, then whatever happened before the beginning had always happened. Thus, there had never been, according to the school at Alexandria, a "time" when the Son was not yet generated. The school at Alexandria was highly influential in the fourth century. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that a number of the bishops at Nicea would have concurred that there wasn’t actually ever a time when the Son was still inside the Father. That does not, however, change the meaning of the Greek word homoousios in the Nicene Creed.

There’s more information and more quotes at Christian History for Everyman, and there’s even more in my book, In the Beginning Was the Logos.

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2 Responses to The Nicene Creed, New Catholic Wording, and What’s Really Important

  1. Bob Duggan says:

    I like the point at the end about the Alexandrian school too. Thanks

  2. Bob Duggan says:

    Thanks Shammah, really good stuff.

    Would you say that would seem to explain a bit more of the reasoning behind the theological debate over the “Filioque” too?

    Being familiar with the eastern churches I am used to a creed without the filioque (“And the Son”) and saying “consubstantial (Homoousios) with the Father” instead of “One in being with the Father” but I agree that neither one of those phrases (at least in English) captures what you have described above. Do you know enough about the Greek to say that “Homoousios” adequately expresses the understanding of the fathers you’ve quoted above?

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