The Nicene Creed - Part 2
by Msgr. David Lasieur
... [God’s] utmost power with adverse power opposed, in dubious battle on the plains of Heaven... (John Milton,
The Creed that we say on Sundays and holy days is the result of two church councils, one held in AD 325 (Nicaea) and the other in AD 381 (Constantinople). In our last article we gave some of the history of the Nicene Creed and the heresy that necessitated it.
The Egyptian priest Arius from Alexandria taught that the Son of God is not coeternal with the Father, that there was a time when the Son did not exist; rather, he is only like the Father.
When we say the Creed, we use the term “consubstantial” referring to the Son, meaning “one in being” or “of one substance” with the Father. This is the correct theological understanding handed down to us from Nicaea. Arius, however, saw it differently: for him certain passages from the gospels were proof enough that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father – for example,
• My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (Matthew 27:46);
• Why do you call me good? God is the only one who is good (Luke 18:19);
• If you truly loved me, you would rejoice that I go to the Father, because the Father is greater than I (John 14:28).
The Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek and the word for consubstantial in that language is homoousios (of the same [homo]; substance [ousios]). Arius, however placed one small letter, an iota, in the middle of that word, homoiousios (of similar substance). This change, called “soft Arianism” by author Rod Bennet, became “the ‘moderate’ position, the sweetly reasonable compromise between real Christianity and straight-up heresy”.
At the Council of Nicaea, orthodox Christianity hung by a thread. The emperor Constantine, whose Greek was not good, could have settled for this “sweetly reasonable compromise” and considered Arius’ teaching as “close enough” for him to retain peace in his empire. He was even of the mind to allow Arius to be welcomed back into the fold of the Church.
But Athanasius and the great majority of the bishops at Nicaea held firm and allowed no compromises to the Faith. If Arius had won the debate and convinced the gathered bishops at the council that the Son of God was not God’s equal, what then could we say about salvation?
The sin of Adam and Eve was an offence against an infinite God and thus an infinite offense. No mere human could atone for such an imbalance in our relationship with God; only God’s equal could. If the Son of God were merely “similar” to God, our salvation would be in doubt.
If the Son’s death was simply that of a good person, even a person of a higher stature than others, our salvation would not be assured. Only God’s co-equal Son – himself fully divine and fully human – could effect the redemption needed by a sinful humanity.
So, when we recite the Creed, we are recounting the basic elements of our redemption, but we are also stepping into the history of a “dubious battle” that could have gone either way but for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the fortitude of a young deacon named Athanasius, who would become the patron saint of theologians.
Msgr. David Lasieur