Part of the goal of the English Translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal is to impart a clearer understanding of our theology. Therefore, words are chosen carefully. They are chosen to accurately express our theology, reflect the truths traditionally held by the Church, and raise our awareness to divine realities.
Consider the present translation of the Nicene Creed. In citing the relationship between God and Jesus we say, “begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.” The new text may challenge us at first by stating, “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father. Consubstantial is definitely not a colloquial, or every day vocabulary word. But then, the essence of the divinity is not an everyday thing either. To explain how both God the Father and God the Son exist in one substance requires something other than common vocabulary.
To fully appreciate the use of the word consubstantial we need to go back to the Council of Nicea (325) when the leaders of the Church argued against a heretic about the theology of the Trinity and the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. A heretic named Arius argued that Jesus was not eternal and therefore not of the divine essence. Arius taught that Jesus was a creature brought into being by God’s choice. The Council of Nicea saw the need to clarify our Christology in a statement of creed. The language of that council’s work was Greek. They used the Greek word, “homoousios” to indicate the relationship of Jesus and God. Homoousios means, “of one substance,” not ,”one in being.” The closest word we have in English is , “consubstantial.” In the Latin text the word is “consubstantialis,” from con, meaning with, and substantialis, meaning essential nature, or substance.
The prologue to the Gospel according to John gives a scriptural explanation to the indivisible, divine essence. That prologue states that the Word was in the beginning and without him nothing came to be (Jn 1:1-3). The Word is the Eternal Creator, God the Father. Later the prologue states that this Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Now the Word is Jesus, God Incarnate, the Son and Savior. Basic logic tells us that if the Word is God, and the Word is Jesus, then God and Jesus are the same, divine essence or substance: consubstantial. This theological idea is reiterated in John’s Gospel when Jesus states that he and the Father are one.” (Jn 10:30).
The word consubstantial is chosen carefully to accurately express the union of God the Father and God the Son.
By the way, later in that same creed, where we are used to reciting, “he was born of the Virgin Mary,” the revised text says, “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” Again, a carefully chosen word is used to present clear theology. Incarnate means “to become flesh.” Jesus was not born as flesh as we are. The divinity took on flesh and this incarnate form we call him, “Jesus,” the same Jesus who is consubstantial with the Father.
Karen L. Podd is chair of the Buffalo Diocesan Liturgical Commission (BDLC)