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‘Consubstantial’ Explained

Q. What exactly does consubstantial mean, and by what authority was it inserted into the Nicene Creed? From long ago, I had thought that, except for filioque (which I once knew how it got into that Creed but have forgotten), we were using an authentic English translation from the Latin, which was literally the same as has been professed since the fourth century.

Has there been other editing along the way? With regard to the latest insertion, what role, if any, did our Orthodox brothers play? They, after all, are the lineal descendants of the Church Fathers who composed the creed. What do Protestants and other Christian denominations think about the filioque insertion?

A. Consubstantial is simply one possible translation of the Latin equivalent of the Greek term homoousios (literally, “the same substance”). This term was not added to the Nicene Creed; rather, it makes this the Nicene Creed. In AD 325, the bishops of the Catholic Church were invited by Emperor Constantine to gather at Nicaea in modern-day Turkey to address an extremely controversial issue raised by Arius, an Egyptian priest. The bishops took an existing creed used at Baptism and inserted the term homoousios.

Arius and his followers claimed that Jesus did not share the same substance as God the Father; the vast majority of bishops at Nicaea said that Jesus did. For many years, English-speaking Catholics used a translation that included the phrase “of one substance with the Father.” Since 2012, the official text reads “consubstantial with the Father.”

The filioque issue is a bit more complicated. First of all, it’s a Latin term that came centuries after the Council of Nicaea, whose official language was Greek. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, this Latin term was added at the suggestion of the Western Church to the Nicene Creed at the Council of Nicaea-Constantinople (553). Charlemagne, who ruled from 774 until 814, promoted this addition; so did Emperor Henry in 1013. Only in the 11th century was this decision ratified in Rome. This term attempted to affirm the equality of the Trinity’s three persons.

The Catholic Church in the East used slightly different language to explain the relationship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The East particularly objected to the fact that the Church in the West made this change on its own authority. The filioque controversy was one among many factors in the Church’s East/West split in 1054. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV “ruled that the

Greeks were under no obligation to recite it, and such has since that time been the accepted position in the Eastern Catholic Churches.”

To the best of my knowledge, no mainline Protestant denomination denies the filioque teaching. What Western Christians commonly call the Nicene Creed is, in fact, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. In AD 381, the Council of Constantinople added text to clarify the Church’s teaching about the Holy Spirit.


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