Saturday, January 17, 2015

Homo's and Ousia: The Church Council of Nicea (325AD)

This incident has probably been described a few million times on the internet already.  From my readings, the early Christians accepted the teachings of the church and things were going along merrily with the various persecutions being done at just the right intervals to maximize the growth of the church.  Yet they really hadn't spent a lot of time pondering the nature of God the Father and the relationship with Jesus as God's son.  Then Arius came along and tried to insist that God the Father and Jesus were not coequal, but instead that Jesus was less than God, but more than man.  This seems to have been accepted for a time, and was at least compatible with the various classical superstitions that were already in place.  For example, Hercules would have been somewhere between the gods and men, so that Jesus could readily have been viewed in a similar light.
Most of Christianity hadn't given this much consideration, but Athanasius of Alexandria determined that a clear distinction was needed between a classical Pagan Philosophical view of Christ on the one hand, and the Judeo/Christian view on the other.  A council was called by the Roman emperor Constantine to settle the matter.  Going into the council, most seem to have been in favor of some sort of compromise, but as the group of theologians studied and discussed the matter of a period of months with great care, while studying the scriptures, the large majority of them settled against the classical philosophical forms of Arius and chose the Trinitarian formula instead.

Where confusion sets in for our day is that, the manner in which the trinitarians chose to make the distinction employs the language of classical philosophy, in particular the word οὐσία, (ousia).  οὐσία is usually translated as "substance" or "essence" in its philosophical usage, and "property" when used to speak of someone's wealth.  In the Bible, only the latter usage is found.  The former usage of οὐσία is primarily found in Aristotle's works On Categories and Meta-Physics, thus, intimidating the masses and offering a temptation to the mystics.

Now that I have had some Greek, however, it is best just to go to the basics.  οὐσία is simply the participle form of εἰμι, which is the Greek verb, "to be".  In other words, οὐσία simply means "being", and it is the something that constitutes the most significant aspect of its existence.  The prefix "homo" just means "one", thus, ὁμοούσιος, (homoousios) means "one being".  In Greek it comes off as much cleaner in meaning than when we translate this into English as "one substance".
This usage of language, however, resulted in a separate dispute, since the distinguishing of Christian theology from classical philosophical theology was accomplished by adapting classical philosophical terminology.  Perhaps they could have started with a Hebrew framework.  For example, the Hebrew name for God is "I am", YHVH, and Jesus picks up on this at a number of points, such as in John 8:58-59, "Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.' So they picked up stones to throw at him ...".  Thus, the Jews understood that Jesus was claiming that he is the same, "I am" as God, and were trying to kill him for blasphemy.  All the trinitarian formulation is really saying is that Jesus and God the Father are the same "I am", or that their "being" is the same.  This is incomprehensible to classical philosophy, but as they used the terminology of classical philosophy to express it, some have argued that the trinitarian formula is based in classical philosophy.  That is my takeaway from the latest review.

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