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Jules van Schaijik

The creed as a devotional act

Dec. 12 at 10:09am

Over the weekend I expressed to a friend how much I love the re-introduction of "consubstantial" in the creed. Not that I had any difficulties with the previous translation. "One in being with" seems to me about as clear and direct as can be. Still, I like the change, and I think my liking has a lot to do with some passages from Newman's Grammar of Assent that I read and pondered many times while writing my master's thesis.

In the first of these, Newman deals with the charge, also heard today, that the term "consubstantial" is needlessly abstruse and likely to result only in unending, fruitless controversy. Newman shows how this objection has a long history in the Church and also how it was rejected from the start:

It is a familiar charge against the Catholic Church in the mouths of her opponents, that she imposes on her children as matters of faith, not only such dogmas as have an intimate bearing on moral conduct and character, but a great number of doctrines which none but professed theologians can understand, and which in consequence do but oppress the mind, and are the perpetual fuel of controversy. The first who made this complaint was no less a man than the great Constantine, and on no less an occasion than the rise of the Arian heresy, which he, as yet a catechumen, was pleased to consider a trifling and tolerable error. So deciding the matter, he wrote at once a letter to Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and to Arius, who was a presbyter in the same city, exhorting them to drop the matter in dispute, and to live in peace with one another. He was answered by the meeting of the Council of Nicæa, and by the insertion of the word "Consubstantial" into the Creed of the Church.

What the Emperor thought of the controversy itself, that Bishop Jeremy Taylor thought of the insertion of the "Consubstantial," viz. that it was a mischievous affair, and ought never to have taken place. He thus quotes and comments on the Emperor's letter: "The Epistle of Constantine to Alexander and Arius tells the truth, and chides them both for commencing the question, Alexander for broaching it, Arius for taking it up. And although this be true, that it had been better for the Church it had never begun, yet, being begun, what is to be done with it? Of this also, in that admirable epistle, we have the Emperor's judgment (I suppose not without the advice and privity of Hosius), ... for first he calls it a certain vain piece of a question, ill begun and more unadvisedly published,—a question which no law or ecclesiastical canon defineth; a fruitless contention; the product of idle brains; a matter so nice, so obscure, so intricate, that it was neither to be explicated by the clergy nor understood by the people; a dispute of words, a doctrine inexplicable, but most dangerous when taught, lest it introduce discord or blasphemy; and, therefore, the objector was rash, and the answer unadvised, for it concerned not the substance of faith or the worship of God, nor the chief commandment of Scripture; and, therefore, why should it be the matter of discord? for though the matter be grave, yet, because neither necessary nor explicable, the contention is trifling and toyish ... So that the matter being of no great importance, but vain and a toy in respect of the excellent blessings of peace and charity it were good that Alexander and Arius should leave contending, keep their opinions to themselves, ask each other forgiveness, and give mutual toleration."

This historical context of the term "consubstantial" then, and all the lessons connected with it, is one reason why I love it so. It expresses 1) an absolutely central tenet of our faith, 2) the seriousness of the Church when it comes to protecting and handing on that faith, 3) the priority of truth over peace (or forgiveness and mutual toleration), and 4) the Church's confident independence from the powers that be.

Newman's answer to the objection that the word "consubstantial" is too abstruse to be forced upon the faithful, is, in part, a simple denial of it. "the word in question," he writes, "has a plain meaning...easily stated and intelligible to all; for 'consubstantial with the Father,' means nothing more than 'really one with the Father'." It is true that much of the theological controversy surrounding the term is unintelligible to the majority of the faithful. But both the issue at stake, and the way in which it was settled can be understood by all.

The Creed...remains now what it was in the beginning, a popular form of faith, suited to every age, class, and condition. Its declarations are categorical, brief, clear, elementary, of the first importance, expressive of the concrete, the objects of real apprehension, and the basis and rule of devotion.

This brings me to the second thought of Newman's, associated in my mind with the term "consubstantial". It is that formal creeds and other doctrinal formulations are not just dry and theoretical statements to which we must give our intellectual assent. They are meant to be devotional acts, heartfelt expressions of a deep and living faith. Newman illustrates the point in a beautiful passage on the Athanasian creed:

[T]he Creeds have a place in the Ritual; they are devotional acts, and of the nature of prayers, addressed to God; and, in such addresses, to speak of intellectual difficulties would be out of place. It must be recollected especially that the Athanasian Creed has sometimes been called the "Psalmus Quicunque." It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self-prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect. It is the war-song of faith, with which we warn, first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe, and yet believe not. It is

    "The Psalm that gathers in one glorious lay
    All chants that e'er from heaven to earth found way;
    Creed of the Saints, and Anthem of the Blest,
    And calm-breathed warning of the kindliest love
    That ever heaved a wakeful mother's breast,"

For myself, I have ever felt it as the most simple and sublime, the most devotional formulary to which Christianity has given birth, more so even than the Veni Creator and the Te Deum. Even the antithetical form of its sentences, which is a stumbling-block to so many, as seeming to force, and to exult in forcing a mystery upon recalcitrating minds, has to my apprehension, even notionally considered, a very different drift. It is intended as a check upon our reasonings, lest they rush on in one direction beyond the limits of the truth, and it turns them back into the opposite direction.


 

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