Saturday, August 21, 2010

'Consubstantial' in the Creed

This is a post for Sarah, who asked a really good question about what "consubstantial" means in the Creed.

A disclaimer--I'm writing this fast, so please don't mistake this post for a heavily researched or edited article. Such things can be found on the Internet with a few clicks. I would love to write something like that, but time won't allow it. I do feel confident I won't give you anything false or misleading, but it's not necessarily scholarly.

OK--what's up with the term "consubstantial"? Why, in translating the Creed into English, did the translators settle on that word as opposed to any other expression--including what was there before: "one in being"?

The short answer, I think, is that the Creed--because of the sort of document it is--absolutely must be both exact in what it says, and also brief. And, because it is a statement about some very sublime truths about God, that ends up meaning that the Creed is also a very "compact" and thus "dense" theological statement. So, given that, the translators opted for "consubstantial" because they judged no other term would do.

To recall, the phrase we're looking at--in the original Latin--is:

Génitum, non factum, consubstantiálem Patri: Per quem ómnia facta sunt.

In the outgoing English translation, this is rendered:

"Begotten, not made, one in being with the Father: through him all things were made."

And in the new, improved translation:

"Begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.

In other words, that means they found "in one being" wanting. Why wanting? Is it false? No, it's not false. But it isn't very precise. While it can be understood as correctly conveying the right meaning about how the Father and Son are "one"--it can also be understood incorrectly. Remember, the Creed--by its nature--is supposed to be a very precise, very exacting, and very compact, statement of what we believe.

The Creed is more than merely one of our prayers at Mass. Outside the Bible, I would dare to say that it is the single most important statement in the Christian Faith. It is an infallible statement of Faith. I repeat--infallible--as it was the painstaking result of the first Ecumenical Council, and it was very carefully revised, somewhat, at subsequent councils. The less familiar term for the Creed is "Symbol of Faith"--a "symbolon" (in Greek) being a token that was broken in half, given to two people, and then when they met, they put the pieces together and recognized each other by the matching pieces. I.e., for the early Church, the Creed unites us; it is what we believe together.

So, the leadership of the Latin Rite--or "wing"--of the Catholic Church (which includes Greek and other sorts of Catholics) must not--and in a true sense, cannot--tamper or tinker with this statement. While the leadership of the Church can, to some degree at least, revise the prayers of the Mass--this one prayer the leadership of the Church must treat with great respect. (Let us set aside for another day the theological question of whether a pope "can" change the Creed. The important point here is that the pope, and his predecessors, are not going to do any such thing cavalierly.)

So all this is important to explain, or else we might wonder why the translators didn't take a different approach to translating the Creed.

Now, my guess is that a lot of folks, who are puzzled by, or don't like, the choice of "consubstantial," would say, "why can't they translate the Latin word (consubstantialem) into something more familiar?" And the answer, I think, is that they would if they could.

Their choices are:

a) easier terms that are not precise and careful--thus open to erroneous interpretation
b) harder terms that are precise and careful--which the Creed must be.

And they chose "b."

Of course, you might ask, wait--what about "c": easier terms that are still precise and careful--which the Creed must be?

And--if I may speak for the translators--they would answer, there is no option c. That's the point.

Now, folks are saying, "consubstantial is too hard a word." Well, it's not that it's so "hard"--it's unfamiliar. We use other words such as immaterial and consequential without folks saying those are "too hard"--because they are familiar.

The challenge isn't the word--is the reality that the word is attempting to convey. Once again, it's important to know how the Council of Nicea, in AD 325, came to choose consubstantialem for the Latin text of the Creed--to correspond to the Greek term, homoousios. The bishops of the whole Church had gathered, beckoned by the Emperor, to settle a dispute that threatened to shipwreck the Faith: who is Jesus? Is he truly God? Sort-of God? Semi-divine? Merely human?

The answer, of course, is that Jesus is "true God from true God...consubstantial with the Father"--"consubstantial" being chosen, from all alternatives, to express the fullest and most intimate unity with the Father--yet without denying the Three Persons of the Trinity are--in some sense--really distinct. If the point is stressed too much: the reality of the Trinity collapses, and we're saying that "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" are merely different "names" or "masks" of the one Person of God; go the other way, and we are tending toward not one God, but two or three. Tricky, tricky!

(All of this, by the way, arising from what our Lord told us about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. So the notion that we might have avoided this sort of difficulty is incorrect. Jesus revealed the Trinity; the Church ultimately had to resolve questions arising from what he told us.)

We often say, loosely, that we are "one" with other people; we believe that a couple becomes "one" in marriage. We say that as Christians, we are "one in Christ." These are all true statements. But the sense in which the Father and Son are "one" is unique; this is a key reason why "one in being" is slippery--it just isn't nearly precise enough.

But we say, "one in being"--yes, that's better; but what do we mean by "being"? In terms of the Trinity, we mean that being, or self-existence, which is unique to God alone, and which they possess fully and completely together in the inner life of the Trinity. We mean not a union of two into one, but a oneness that is utterly, absolutely and eternally, and in every other way, one.

So what do you think? Would you prefer that something like the last paragraph--refined by theologians--be inserted into the Creed to translate consubstantialem? Would that be better?

I don't see that as any more helpful--and it may be, that after the theologians worked on my paragraph, it got quite a bit longer. Again, the Creed is meant to be exact--but also brief. It presupposes that it will also be explained and taught, with many more words to draw out its meaning. Look at the Catechism--the section that draws out the meaning of the Creed is pretty long! Who wants to recite all that at Mass?

I said in my other post that using this less familiar word actually does us a service. In the Orthodox Christian liturgy, there are times when the deacon or priest (I believe) will address the people with the words, "Wisdom! Be attentive!" I.e., something special is happening next, don't miss it.

When the Creed uses such compact--and albeit less familiar words--such as "incarnate" or "consubstantial," that has the same effect: we are reminded that something profound is being referred to, not something we might mistakenly think is routine or easy to understand. We never claimed everything in our Faith is "easy to understand." God is way beyond us in his true, inner reality! That's not to say we can understand nothing about him--but that we should not be troubled that some of what we believe about him takes work and leaves us wondering. Rather, we should be troubled if we never found it a hard subject.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A year or two ago I attended a mass in Portuguese at another parish in my town. I don't speak Portuguese, but they helpfully projected the order of the mass (in Portuguese) on the wall behind the altar. During the Creed I noticed that Portuguese translators had clearly just stuck a Portuguese ending onto consubtantialis, just as the English translators are now doing for us. If the word isn't too hard for them, it shouldn't be too hard for us either. [I had heard about the controversy then and my son was in the process of memorizing the Creed in Latin]