As I was reading some of the bitter disputes that arose among some devout religious people about the formulation of the Nicene Creed, it occurred to me that some of the disputes in our time are about as unnecessary. There was such a furor over whether the term "homoousios" or the term "homoiousios" or either was appropriate to use with reference to the nature of the relationship of Jesus to the Father that armed conflict seemed probable. It may make a great deal of difference what the nature of that relationship was, but it may not make any practical difference in our lives if we do not understand the exact nature of that relationship, or what word that men use best describes it.
Let me illustrate the importance of that statement before we proceed. A person may not know whether it is the vitamins, minerals or something else in his food that helps his bones grow strong. Their functions and the similarities and differences between them may be important, but we do not have to know about all the scientific, nutritional or linguistic differences in them in order to benefit from them, function or survive. It is possible that a greater knowledge would be very beneficial in many cases, but it is also possible that we could get so concerned with analyzing the values of minerals and vitamins that we would neglect to eat.
To grasp the significance of the controversy and to apply any lessons we may learn to our own situation, we need to understand some of the historical context, as well as the meaning of the words used. It will help some to be aware that the church leaders of that time were wanting to establish the idea that the church, with its traditions and assumptions, was the sole authority in religious matters, and that the simple statements of the Bible were not sufficient.
Second, there were all sorts of false teachers whose doctrines needed to be refuted. However, there was a tendency, then as now, to think of any different view than that held by the leading bishops as heresy, when in some cases it was merely an emphasis on another aspect of truth.
Third, there was a tendency, then as now, to use the theological definitions or man-made expressions to try to define a Bible word or thought, then assume that the man-made definition was identical with or exhausted the meaning of the Biblical terms. To overcome that fault, we need to try, insofar as possible, to define Bible terms by Bible usage and not assume that the meaning we attach to a term is the only correct usage and all who disagree are false teachers or heretics.
Let us now illustrate the problem with the two words we have mentioned, and see if we can find some lessons in it for us. The word, "homoousios" comes from "homo" meaning "one" and "ousia" meaning "being." To most of the framers of the Nicene Creed it meant that Jesus was what they called "consubstantial" with the father, or of the same substance or essence. However, five of the bishops reasoned like this: Since the meaning of "consubstantial" is that which is from another either by partition, derivation or germination, and since the Son is not from the Father by any of those modes, the Creed is defective in the use of the term. That is, they did not think of Jesus as being a part of God, as if God was divided into smaller parts. Nor did they think of Jesus as being derived from God as if he did not exist until he was born of Mary. They did not think He was germinated, as a shoot comes from a root or seed, so they rejected the idea they thought was expressed by "homoousios."
So they discussed such questions as whether "ousias" (being of the essence or substance) meant that the Son is actually of the Father, but does not subsist as merely a part of His substance. Then, in the Creed when it says, "begotten not made" some felt they needed to determine whether "begotten" should apply to Christ from eternity, or whether "begotten" should only apply to Him after he was conceived in the womb of Mary. They discussed at length whether it was appropriate to speak of the Son as being "the same substance" with the Father, or whether "of like substance" would be better. The discussion went on and on about whether the term "homoousios" (consubstantial) properly belongs only to corporeal beings and the term "homoiousios" refers to incorporeal beings, such as God and angels and what difference this concept would have on understanding the nature of Christ. In some cases they calumniated each other and accused the other party of heresy even while demonstrating that they neither knew what the Bible reveals about the matter, nor what other theologians meant by the terms they used. How simple it would have been to just leave the matter where God left it with such expressions as "Being in the form of God, counted not being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phil. 2:6) and admit that they did not know what form God had, but that the Bible affirmed that the one who became Jesus was in that form. Since the Bible does not say anything about being "eternally begotten" and no one knew what it meant, they should have ceased discussing it.
T. Pierce Brown
Published in The Old Paths Archive