On Giants' Shoulders

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

That's a Fighting Word

This morning I finished reading a slightly fictionalized biography of St. Athanasius on my Kindle. Towards the end of the book there was a conversation between St. Basil and a man named Modestus. Modestus says to St. Basil "Would you not like to have the emperor in your congregation. It would be so easy. You have only to strike that word "consubstantial" out of your creed."

St. Basil's reply is not harsh, but it is courageous: "Gladly would I see the Emperor in my church; it is a great thing to save a soul; but as for changing my creed, I would not alter a letter for the whole world."

St. Basil and St. Athanasius lived in a time when the Arian heresy was popular in many parts of the empire. As a matter of fact the emperor himself, at that time, was an Arian. St. Basil and St. Athanasius understood how important to the faith a correct understanding of the nature of Our Lord is.

Recently the English version of the Mass has been retranslated to more closely reflect the Latin text. One of the changes in the translation occurs in the creed. Previously we said "one in being with the Father." Now we say consubstantial with the Father. Some people are most upset about this. They aren't familiar with the word. Perhaps they don't understand the concept. What they don't appear to know is that this was a word that Christians in the years following the Council of Nicea fought over. Blood was shed, Catholic Christians were martyred because they insisted that the Son was eternal, just as the Father was eternal.

Today there are lots of sects where the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son is either denied (as in the Mormon religion, or the Unitarian religion) or in many cases merely glossed over. There are lots of members of the United Church of Christ (some of them pastors)for example who don't view Jesus as much more than a great teacher (the followers of Islam see Him as the last of the great prophets, second only to Mohammed). Orthodox Christian believers, however, are still creedal and they still proclaim Jesus consubstantial with the Father. I don't want to pick on the UCC, it just happens that I know some of those parishoners, and I've met some of those pastors. So I can speak from personal knowledge there.

I think that it's an extremely good thing that people are now being forced to have their tongues stumble over consubstantial. I hope that some of them will actually decide to look it up and see what it means. I hope that people will actually become better catechized as a result.

We don't belong to an individualistic faith. We don't belong to a Church where everyone gets to write their own definition of what it means to be a Christian. Yet we live in a world where that very practice is not only common, but popular. "Mega churches" feed into that very practice. In attempting to be "seeker friendly" they water down the message of the Gospel in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. They think of things like communion as times where people can declare a commitment not as sources of grace. Now since they don't have a valid Eucharist, that truly is pretty much all they can offer, but unfortunately there are those even within the Catholic Church for whom individualistic approaches to faith really has an appeal. They don't like the priests who discuss doctrine in their homilies, much less the ones who are tough on sin. What they prefer are the ones who tell nice stories with a Hallmark greeting card, or Helen Steiner Rice soothing message. The Christians of St. Athanasius's day weren't like that. They knew what was at stake if you watered down the truth of the Gospel. That's why for them consubstantial was a fighting word. Today when it's a fighting word it's merely because people don't understand it, or perhaps it's because when they do come to understand it they realize that it wasn't exactly what they'd been believing all this time.

There are no new heresies, there are only old heresies with new names. Let's embrace the new translation and be happy that people may actually become acquainted with both the fighting word and the doctrine it makes clear. Oh, in case you'd like to read that book about St. Athanasius the title is Saint Athanasius: The Father of Orthodoxy, the author is Francis Alice Forbes and it's available for a click of a button on your Kindle.


At 9:44 PM, Blogger ElizabethK said...

You make a great point here. I'm not really sure why "consubstantial" has gotten people into such a lather in the first place, but I hadn't thought it about it this deeply either--so thank you. I wonder what you think about the change from "We believe" to "I believe" in the creeds; at first I was concerned because I felt it erased the communal aspect of the faith too much, and emphasized individuality in the way you describe above. Having said it loud a few times now, though, I like it: to say "I believe" is profoundly more unsettling and thought-provoking than saying "we," where the "we" doesn't necessarily have to be "me," if that makes any sense,

At 9:45 PM, Blogger ElizabethK said...

I meant to say "out loud"--I'm not sure that I'm all that loud!


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