Word for word

At one point in its Creed, as is well known, the Council of Nicaea clearly went beyond the language of Scripture, in describing Jesus as “of one substance with the Father.” Both in ancient and modern times the presence in the Creed of this philosphical term, “of one substance,” has given rise to major disputes. Again and again it has been suggested that it indicates a serious departure not only from the language but also from the thought of the Bible. We can only answer this charge if we ascertain precisely what it actually says. What does “of one substance” really mean? The answer is this: the term is used solely as a translation of the word “Son” into philosophical language. And why is it necessary to translate it? Well, whenever faith begins to reflect, the question arises as to what, in reality, the word “Son” might mean as applied to Jesus. The word is very familiar in the language of the religions, and so people cannot avoid asking what it means in this particular case. Is it a metaphor, as is commonly found in the history of religion, or does it mean more? The Council of Nicaea, in interpreting the word “Son” philosophically by means of the concept “of one substance,” is saying that “Son” is to be understood here, not in the sense of religious metaphor, but in the most real and concrete sense of the word. The central word of the New Testament, the word “Son,” is to be understood literally.

So this philosophical phrase, “of one substance,” adds nothing to the New Testament; on the contrary, at the crucial point of its testimony, it defends its literal meaning so that it cannot be allegorized. Thus it signifies that God’s word does not deceive us. Jesus is not only described as the Son of God, he is the Son of God. God does not remain hidden for all eternity beneath the clouds of imagery which obscure more than they reveal. He actually touches man, and allows himself to be touched by man, in the person of him who is the Son. In speaking of the Son, the New Testament breaks through the wall of imagery found in the history of religions and shows us the reality — the truth on which we can stand, by which we can live and die.

A little more from then-Archbishop Ratzinger’s Behold The Pierced One, 1984.

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