The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Jesus Son of God. Development of belief in the divinity of Christ/

John 16:12-13 has Jesus tell his disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak of his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come”. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus had asked his followers: “Who do people say that I am?”, and “Who do you say that I am?” Early Christian belief was that at the resurrection and ascension the Father had exalted Christ and given him a name that is above every name, that is “Lord”, which name means the exalted Jesus, seated at the right hand of the Father, and sending his Spirit on the Church. Reflection on the relationship of Christ to God the Father, and within strict Jewish monotheism, went on in the early Church. By the later first century Jesus was worshipped as God, a belief clearly expressed in John’s Gospel, for instance John 10:20: “I and the Father are one”. John’s gospel begins and ends with profession of faith in the divinity of Christ: “The Word was God” (John 1:1). Thomas professes the same to Christ: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). John goes further, with profession of faith in the eternal existence of Christ as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The Epistle to the Hebrews (a text read on Christmas Day Mass) also stresses the special relation of Christ to God. He is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (Greek: hypostasis, substantia, substance)” (Heb 1:3). The Epistle even refers to Christ as “God” (Heb 1:8-9). A question still awaiting clarification was the nature of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father: was it ontological, metaphysical, or metaphorical? Questions on the matter led to a crisis with the heresy of Arianism (named from it author Arius (c. 250-c. 336) which denied the true divinity of Christ, maintaining that the Son of God was not eternal but was created by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world, and that therefore he was not God by nature, but that his dignity as Son of God was given to him by the Father on account of his foreseen righteousness. This doctrine continued to spread and agitate the Church (especially in the East). Anxious to bring peace, the first Ecumenical Council defined Church belief on the issue (in the Nicene Creed), in 325 (further refined and developed by the First Council of Constantinople in 381): “I (We) believe in God … and in Jesus Christ … God of God, … begotten not made, consubstantial (=of the same substance) with the Father through whom all things were made”. Breaking with tradition, the Council made use of a philosophical term “consubstantial” to make its teaching clear.

            Already in the fourth century objections were raised at the use of philosophical language to express religious truths. There have been similar objections in our own day, with regard to the literal translation of the Latin consubstantialis of the Nicene Creed. The main objection was that “consubstantial” is not a word in current use; people do not understand it. With regard to this one may note that the same holds for the Latin and Greek words in question. They were never in current use, but chosen by reason of the truth being asserted.

            The doctrine expressed by this word “consubstantial “is a deep mystery, to be accepted in faith. There have been recurrent returns of Arianism in various forms throughout history, particularly where there is no strong central religious authority. This was true at the Reformation period in the sixteenth century and among some learned scientists and literary persons in the eighteenth. In cases of such crisis it is good to recall the formulation of Nicaea and Constantinople


(For reflections on the Sunday readings see Martin McNamara, Sunday Readings with Matthew: Interpretations and Reflections, Dublin, Veritas, 2016)

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