When it comes to theological discussion and writing, like everything else in human life, the terminology is essential to understand. Disagreements over theology often, but not always, come down to meanings associated with the words we use to articulate what we believe. So then, I put it forth as true that, essentially, all theological conversation and writing involves a question of terminology.
In the early centuries, when the teaching of Arius was spreading and demanding the attention of everyone—Christians and pagans alike—the question of terminology came to the forefront. For Arius, and those supported him, were basically asserting that they were presenting a valid reformulation of doctrine that should be tolerated. Those who opposed him and worked to get his teaching formally condemned as heresy identified the terms and theological articulation of his views on the Person of the Lord Christ as a fundamental deviation from the “rule of faith” the Church had long upheld. Athanasius, in his writings, when to great lengths to make this critique of Arius and his supporters and to counter their theological perspective with a vigorous exposition of Scripture.
The language which was agreed upon by the Bishops at Nicaea (325), and then added to at Constantinople (381) when the third section of the Creed was written, was specifically designed to resolve the controversy over theological terms which Arius introduced and to categorically answer his teaching. Thus while formally rebuking and condemning his theological propositions they were also settling what had become a debate over a question of terminology. Specifically, the debate over the use of the term homousion in the Creed.
Arius forced the discussion over the question of what the Son of God is (to awkwardly but accurately state the matter). The Scriptures do address this matter but not in the kind of straightforward manner that we would like. And in fact, many of the Bishops were very hesitant to consider employing terms that were not explicitly found in Scripture to articulate the doctrinal affirmations in the Creed. However, this became necessary because Arius and those who echoed his teaching were very adept at utilizing biblical terminology to describe and advocate their theological views about the Person of Christ.
John Courtney Murray has adeptly summarized the primary purpose the Bishops had in mind in choosing the terminology employed in the Nicene Creed.
“The intention of the Nicene Fathers was simply to state the sense of the Scriptures against the Arian dialectical distortion. . . . The difficulty was that the sense of the Scriptures with regard to what the Son is was scattered in a multiplicity of affirmations about him. It was contained in all the titles given him, in all the symbols and images used of him, in all the predicates that describe his role and function concerning our salvation. All that Nicaea did was to reduce the multiplicity of the scriptural affirmations to the unity of a single affirmation. The Son, begotten from the Father, not made by him, is consubstantial with the Father—this was the sense of everything that the Scriptures had to say about the Son. Therefore it was nothing new. It had already been said.” (John Courtney Murray, S.J., The Problem of God [Yale University:1964], p.45; italics added.)
Murray’s statement here, and his general summary of the history of thought that led up to and which undergirds the theology of the Creed, has been enormously helpful for me. I assert this not merely because it has helped me to intellectually understand what these theological controversies were about (the content) but also how they directly impact Christian doctrine (and thus spirituality). What was at stake here was the core of the identity of the Person of Jesus Christ—so far as God has decided to make that known to us in Scripture. So on the one hand, it was a question of terminology, but much more than that! For the theological terms and affirmations the Church adopts must accurately conform to what Scripture teaches about God and his Messiah, the Lord Jesus. And to do that, they found it necessary to employ a Greek term that was not used in Scripture.
There is another way in which the Creed is a necessary counter for me. The Creed, with the carefully chosen and crafted wording, aids me in answering the questions of intellect while also demanding that I exercise faith. For to affirm the Creed is an act of faith and requires me to embrace the mystery of the One in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20, RSV)
To assert that the Lord Jesus Christ is homousion (of the same essence) as God and simultaneously homoousion (of the same essence) with us humans teaches me that the power of intellectual comprehension “has reached its limit. The [theological] problem is solved, to the limits of solution. The mystery remains intact, adorable.” (Murray, The Problem of God, p.50.) Considering that the subject is the nature of God and of how he chose to redeem and reconcile us rebel creatures the only proper response is awe and intelligent worship. What began for me as an investigation of a question of terminology has led me into a deeper understanding of the truth of God as revealed in the Person of Christ.