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Nicene Creed: St. Athanasius (Part III)

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Feb. 08, 2012

While the Church Fathers meant the additions to the Creed to combat Arianism,  they no sooner defused one problem with what they said than they began another with what they said.  Use of the term homoousia was meant to seal Arius’ fate by affirming the divine and eternal substance of Jesus.  However, as many began thinking about Christ sharing the substance of the Father, some found no distinction between the two.  The new problem was not so much showing they were the same in substance, but that the two were different in person.  The final chapter of the Nicene Creed articulates a systematic theology of the Trinity.

The age-old problem with the Trinity is that it demands faith in unity at the same time that it demands faith in distinction, also.  Nobody said being a Christian was intellectually easy.  In the ensuing decades after 325 A.D. Arians and orthodox Catholics continued to use the term homoousia to further their particular understandings, delivering the Church into a still-confused position.  It was St. Athanasius who would be the orthodox thinker whose theology brought a full understanding of the meaning of homoousia.  It is said that no other theologian that left Nicaea in 325 was more staunchly supportive of the orthodox homoousia position.  In fact, his unrelenting adherence to the Creed earned him five banishments from Alexandria. 

Nonetheless, St. Athanasius’ thinking shed new light on the meaning of homoousia.  While the Council in 325 was thinking exclusively of substance, St.  Athanasius believed the word was not meant to create an identity of person, as Unitarians were beginning to claim, but, rather, of unity of substance.  He is able to use the word to describe the divinity of the Father as the same divinity as the Son, while still maintaining distinct Persons.  “They are one, not as one thing divided into two parts…nor as one thing twice named…but they are [also] two, because the Father is Father and is not also Son, and the Son is Son and not also Father; but the nature is one…”  Still, while strides were being made, this seems as clear as mud.

However, another noticeable problem with the Creed of 325 is its terse mention of the Holy Spirit.  While St. Athanasius is thinking, the Cappadocian brothers are considering this Third Person of the Trinity.  Convinced that if the Son is consubstantial with the Father, then the Spirit must be, as well.  They, too, were then forced to reconcile how there can be One God and Three Persons.  Their solution rested in precise terminology.  Substance and nature, while seemingly similar and often interchanged in usage, are not identical, however.  Substance refers to a common essence, while nature refers to special forms that substance could assume.  Thus, one substance could theoretically remain where three natures exist.  Further,  the Cappadocians provided the insight that the natures of the one substance are distinguishable only in their relationships to one another.  Thus, the distinction while real, is nevertheless unsubstantial.  

As such, the Second Ecumenical Council was convened in 381 to define the confession made only decades earlier in 325.  Further, they elaborated on the third article, to better define the Holy Spirit.  The result was the Creed we have today, except for one minor (or major) detail…