What Consubstantial Means

Author: Father Edward McNamara


What Consubstantial Means

ROME, 28 SEPT. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My question is about the meaning of the word "consubstantial," which we are now told we must use in the Creed. I am asking you to give an explanation of its meaning in ordinary English which parishioners can understand. I have tried to give the theological meaning to people, but without success. The problem seems to lie in the ordinary meaning of the English word "substance," which usually refers to the material substance of an object. If I ask people, "What would you say is the substance of this table?" they inevitably answer that the table is made of wood. Similarly if the chair in front of the table is made of wood, they will say that it has the same substance. In other words the chair and the table are "consubstantial" with each other. I know that the ancient Greek philosophical meaning is different, but I am looking for words that can explain the liturgical term in simple English. Most of my parishioners are people for whom English is a second language, and they don't know any Greek philosophy. — J.F., Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

A: I don't think this difficulty is confined to those who have English as a second language. Quite a few English speakers, not to mention a few theologians, struggle with "substance."

Before addressing the question directly I think we need to recall that the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, although based on a baptismal profession of faith, was not originally composed with liturgical recitation in mind. It was not introduced into the Mass until several centuries later.

The conciliar fathers responded to heresies denying Christ's divinity with precise expressions that left no room for doubt or equivocation regarding what Christians believed. At times this required coining new, non-biblical terms such as consubstantial to assure technical precision. As the Catechism explains:

"464. The unique and altogether singular event of the Incarnation of the Son of God does not mean that Jesus Christ is part God and part man, nor does it imply that he is the result of a confused mixture of the divine and the human. He became truly man while remaining truly God. Jesus Christ is true God and true man. During the first centuries, the Church had to defend and clarify this truth of faith against the heresies that falsified it.

"465. The first heresies denied not so much Christ's divinity as his true humanity (Gnostic Docetism). From apostolic times the Christian faith has insisted on the true incarnation of God's Son 'come in the flesh.' But already in the third century, the Church in a council at Antioch had to affirm against Paul of Samosata that Jesus Christ is Son of God by nature and not by adoption. The first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 confessed in its Creed that the Son of God is 'begotten, not made, of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father,' and condemned Arius, who had affirmed that the Son of God 'came to be from things that were not' and that he was 'from another substance' than that of the Father."

Other complex concepts, such as the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, are likewise conundrums for catechists and scholars alike. In short, the creed was never meant to be simple and will always require explaining its doctrinal and historical context.

While consubstantial is an obscure word, its current rendering as "one in Being" also requires some elementary metaphysics and is perhaps not entirely accurate. As Russell Shaw recently pointed out: "For one thing, the supposed clarity of 'Being' is delusory. Being as we understand it — the being of ourselves and other created things — is only an analogical participation in the subsistent being of God. Yet the translation's non-specific and undifferentiated application of the word 'being' to God sweeps this huge difference aside. We get the appearance of clarity at the expense of accuracy, and in a creed that won't do.

"For another thing, the current translation to the contrary notwithstanding, 'being' and 'substance' aren't the same thing. Being means 'existence.' And while one trembles at the challenge of trying to say in a few words what 'substance' means as a term in metaphysics, it signifies something like the unique, singular identity of a thing."

There seems, therefore, to be no way of avoiding the need to delve into philosophy, history and theology when explaining the creed.

One text that might help clarify the concept is that of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In this text the word consubstantial refers to Christ in two ways:

"We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us."

Chalcedon's double use of consubstantial, with God and us, could help clarify its meaning in the Nicene Creed. It is perhaps easier for people to overcome the limited idea of substance mentioned by our reader by starting from Our Lord as consubstantial with us. That is, he shares with us that unique singular identity which makes us human beings. From here one could go back to the divinity. Since the creed affirms that "We believe in one God, the Father," and later that Christ is consubstantial with the Father, then "consubstantial" means that both Father and Son possess the unique singular divine identity.

The fact that the Holy Spirit also possesses this unique singular divine identity leads us into Trinitarian theology of three Persons in one God, but that would require a treatise way beyond the scope of the present article.

The creed does not use consubstantial in referring to the Holy Spirit. This is probably due to the particular historical development of the creed, which responded directly to Christological heresies and did not initially develop the theology of the Holy Spirit.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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