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On the word Consubstantial, the Trinity and Infinity.
June 20, 2012
On the word Consubstantial.
Well, it’s been six months since we started using the new translation of the Roman Missal. What do you think? Okay, some of these prayers are a real mouthful to try to say, but for the most part I find the new translation quite beautiful and expressive, and mostly an improvement. I especially like one word in particular, in the Creed, a word that raised howls of protest: “People don’t talk that way! No one will know what it means!” The word? – “Consubstantial” – as in, speaking of the Son, that He is “consubstantial with the Father”.
It’s true that we don’t talk this way in everyday conversation. In fact, the word was coined by the Church for this specific use in the creed. But after six months of time it’s starting to sound pretty natural. It fairly rolls off the tongue as we profess our faith together, about the Almighty Father Who created all things, and His eternally begotten Son through Whom He created and Who became incarnate to save that creation, and their Holy Spirit Who fills and sustains and moves that creation.
So it is no longer true that nobody talks that way. We all talk that way when we profess our faith in the triune God. But do we know what it means – “consubstantial” – ? “Of the same substance”. The Son is of the same substance as the Father, and likewise the Holy Spirit.
What is “substance”? That which something is, in its essential reality; the true being of a thing. So, since God is by definition infinite Being, and since there can only be one infinite Being (two or more beings could not each be everything), therefore there can only be one God, one divine being or substance. But does this mean that there can only be one divine person? Well, is “person” the same thing as “substance”? If substance is the essential reality of a thing, its true being, what is a person?
Maybe “what is a person?” is the wrong question. A person is a “who”, not a “what”. For instance, if I ask “what are you?”, you would answer something like “I’m a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens; arms, legs, heart and lungs, a mind more or less tethered to a physical brain.” But if I ask “who are you?”, you would answer differently, wouldn’t you? You would not talk about those physical characteristics of being human that you have in common with all other human beings, you would talk about what makes you … you! This would involve who you are related to, where you’ve been and what you’ve done, your likes and dislikes, your abilities and disabilities.
What am I? A human being. Who am I? A human person.
So, if “person” doesn’t mean the same thing as “being”, could the one divine being exist as three diving persons? Theoretically, sure. Why not?
… I accept the Scriptures, and the Church’s understanding of those Scriptures as spelled out in the doctrinal definitions of Ecumenical Councils such as the one that met at Nicaea in the year 325 AD. The bishops of the universal Church convened to consider the teaching of Arius, an Egyptian priest who was saying that the Son of God is not God, and that that therefore the one God is not a Trinity of Persons. The bishops consulted the Scriptures, they consulted all the evidence of what the Christian faith had been going back to the Apostles – sermons and letters of the Church Fathers and theologians, declarations of local councils, catechisms, rituals used for baptism – aand they debated with Arius and his followers who were present for the deliberations. The final decision? Arius was teaching a an erroneous novelty, not the faith of the Church. And just to be clear about what the faith of the Church was, they wrote up a statement known since as the Nicene Creed. Let’s say it now together, confident that the Holy Spirit promised by the Lord Jesus to lead us into all truth led the Fathers of Nicaea to this statement of faith.
I believe in one God,
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