Consubstantial… what?

Ever since the beginning of Advent last November, Roman Catholics have been using a new English translation of the liturgy. It’s taking some getting used to, though I have to admit to feeling just a little bit of schadenfreude because, since I have not been Catholic all my life, having to re-memorize everything kind of levels the playing field between the cradle Catholics and us converts. In any case, I think it’s good to change things up and get a new translation to keep it fresh, to keep us thinking about what we’re saying, and to keep it from becoming rote.

However, I was surprised to find out that not everyone thought this way. Some people don’t like change (go figure), and some people even criticized the translation itself, though the critics were generally not people who know Latin. And some of the loudest critics were not even Catholics.

Before we made the switch I was at a conference, standing near a publisher’s booth, talking with an editor. I happened to make the comment that we were getting a new translation of the liturgy, and that the new translation of the Nicene Creed was going to include the word, “consubstantial.” At that point, a woman I did not know, who was not Roman Catholic (I could tell by the clerical collar she was wearing), actually had the nerve to say, “Shame on you” – as if I had anything to do with the change. Her declaration of shame was meant to imply that the hierarchy of the Church should be ashamed of itself for imposing such a difficult word on the poor laity. My response was that, No, this is a good thing, because it will give us an opportunity to talk about (and teach) the meaning of “consubstantial.” I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first a couple more examples.

Recently I was at another gathering, and I overheard a couple of people talking about the new translation. They seemed to agree that it was “a shame” that the Catholic Church was “going backwards.” The comment reflects the perception that the new translation of the liturgy is somehow more archaic than the previous one. It is true that the new translation is more faithful to the original Latin, and more faithful to the texts of Scripture that it quotes, and in some ways it is also more poetic (“And with your spirit” instead of “And also with you”). But that’s hardly a step backwards. I suspect that the people who were making these comments think that the Roman Catholic Church is generally backwards, for other reasons, and this became in their minds just another example of that.

Finally, I was talking to a good friend, a fellow Catholic, who was bemoaning the change. I dutifully launched into my “This is a good thing” speech, when he brought up the dreaded, “consubstantial.” He said he preferred the old translation, which said that in the Trinity, the Father and Son are “one in being.” Surely this, he was convinced, was easier to understand. I asked him what he thought “one in being” means. He said he thought it means that the Father and Son are one and the same. My response: If it does mean that, then it’s heresy. And herein lies the problem. People think they know what “one in being” means, but do they really? I will stick with my conviction that the new translation is a good thing because it gives us the chance (or forces us) to teach people what it means that the Father and Son are consubstantial.

So what does it mean? It’s actually pretty simple. It means two things: 1) That the Father and Son share the same divine essence – that there is one and only one divinity in the Trinity, and 2) This means that the Father and Son are equally eternal – both eternal in the past with no time when the Son did not exist. But it does not mean that the Father and Son are “one and the same.” They are one, but not one and the same. They are distinct, but not separate.

If you’d like to read more about the debates of the early Church that led to the Nicene Creed, check out my new book, Reading the Early Church Fathers, just out and hot off the press. But if you want to remember the shorthand meaning of consubstantial, here it is:

Same divinity, same eternity.

That’s it. It’s not too hard to understand, and it’s not something to be ashamed of.

Here’s the link to my new book:

And here’s the teaser video:


Jim Papandrea


About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at:
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Consubstantial… what?

  1. Suzanne Ross says:

    Jim, you have helped me no end with a way to talk about differences in our non-divine existence. I have been wanting to write about the political rhetoric in which the candidates are focusing on tiny insubstantial differences in their positions when the more relevant point is just how alike they are. The more they shout about their differences, concealing their similarities to create wedge issues, the more they mirror one another’s behavior, like two kids shouting on a playground. Who cares what they are shouting about, the shouting is all that anyone looking at them from the outside sees. They cling to false differences and become mirror images of each other. But the Divine Trinity shows us another way to be authentically different yet intimately connected. Distinct, but not separate is how you put it. Political rhetoric aims to divide and separate by creating false distinctions. The Trinity offers us a way to authentic difference and paradoxically it is through recognizing our shared being. Rather than deny what we share in common, the Trinity invites us to celebrate and live into it fully, without shame or fear. I hope this is making sense — I will flesh it out in a blog today and send it to you! Thanks a ton!

  2. Thanks, Suzanne! As always, you give me new things to think about, too. For me, it’s really all about balance – respecting the distinction without ignoring the unity, and appreciating the unity without ignoring the differences. This is why I’m such a big fan of the middle way, in virtually all situations – politically, I’m a card-carrying Goldiloxian.

  3. Kim B says:

    Love it. I wish people were more upset about the HHS mandate than the GIRM. I do take issue with multis, because english translates it as Many which implies ‘not all’ which would be heretical. I love the attention and the concentration that it begs from all of us. Thanks again for your brain!

    • Thanks, Kim. As you know, I’m not really concerned about the “many” vs. “all” language. Most Christians (Catholics included) would say that Christ died for all, and that his death is sufficient to save all, but that the invitation of the cross requires a faith response – so this means that while his death is sufficient for all, it will not be effective for those who reject him. The word “many” can actually include all (it’s not the same as saying “some” or even “most”), yet it also reflects the reality that in the end not all will be saved. I personally want to believe that hell will not be as densely populated as a lot of people think, but I cannot be a universalist, primarily because Jesus wasn’t a universalist.
      – JP

  4. Barbara says:

    Hah! I found you!! And picked up the conversation we started at the Writers Institute in Madison, well, one of the threads.

    I appreciate this piece and agree with you. It DOES level the playing field because EVERYBODY needs the book, and there are some real gems recovered in this translation.

    I’m going to bookmark your blog and copy this link for my Catholic friends.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s