Formulation of the Faith in Christ: Conciliar Definitions (I)

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 9 March 1988, the Holy Father reflected on the meaning of the Creeds, beginning with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, while addressing some early heresies.

1. "We believe... in one Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, born only begotten (μονογενή) of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father. God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, consubstantial with the Father (όμοούσιον τώ πατρί) by whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and became incarnate, became man , suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into heaven, and will come to judge the living and the dead..." (cf. DS 125).

This is the text of the definition with which the Council of Nicaea (year 325) enunciated the faith of the Church in Jesus Christ: true God and true man; God-Son, consubstantial with the Eternal Father and true man, with a nature like ours. This conciliar text entered almost verbatim in the profession of faith that the Church repeats in the liturgy and in other solemn moments, in the version of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (year 381; cf. DS 150), around which revolves the entire cycle of our catechesis.

2. The text of the conciliar dogmatic definition reproduces the essential elements of biblical Christology , which we have been analyzing throughout the preceding catecheses of this cycle. These elements constituted, from the beginning, the content of the living faith of the Church of apostolic times, as we have already seen in the last catechesis. Following the testimony of the Apostles, the Church believed and professed , from the beginning, that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, and therefore true man, crucified and risen, is the Son of God, is the Lord ( Kyrios ), he is the only Savior of the world, given to humanity at the end of the "fullness of time" (cf. Gal 4, 4).

3. The Church has guarded , from the beginning, this faith and has transmitted it to successive Christian generations. She has taught it and defended it, trying —under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth— to delve into it and explain its essential content, contained in the data of the Revelation . The Council of Nicaea (year 325) has been, in this itinerary of knowledge and formulation of the dogma, a true milestone. It has been an important and solemn event, which has since pointed out the path of true faith to all the followers of Christ., long before the divisions of Christianity in successive times. Particularly significant is the fact that this Council met shortly after the Church (year 313) had acquired freedom of action in public life over the entire territory of the Roman Empire, as if to signify the will to remain in the Church. a fides of the Apostles, when new avenues of expansion were opening up for Christianity.

4. At that time, the conciliar definition reflected not only the truth about Jesus Christ, inherited from the Apostles and fixed in the books of the New Testament, but also reflected, in the same way, the teaching of the Fathers of the post-apostolic period, that — as is known—it was also the period of persecution and catacombs. It is a duty, albeit a pleasant one, for us to name here at least the first two Fathers who, with their teaching and holiness of life, decisively contributed to transmitting the tradition and the permanent patrimony of the Church: Saint Ignatius of Antioch , thrown into the beasts in Rome, in the year 107 or 106, and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who suffered martyrdom probably in the year 202. They were both Bishops and Pastors of their Churches. Of Saint Irenaeus we want to recall here that, teaching that Christ is "true man and true God", he wrote: " How could men achieve salvation, if God had not worked his salvation on earth? Or how would the man to God, if God had not come to man? ( Adv. haer . IV, 33. 4). Argument —as can be seen— soteriological , which, in turn, also found expression in the definition of the Council of Nicaea.

5. The text of Saint Irenaeus that we have just quoted is taken from the work "Adversus haereses" , that is, from a book that defended Christian truth against the errors of heretics, which, in this case, were the ebionites . The Apostolic Fathers, in their teaching, very often had to assume the defense of the authentic revealed truth against the errors that were continually heard in different ways. At the beginning of the fourth century, Arius was famous , who gave rise to a heresy that took the name of Arianism. According to Arius, Jesus Christ is not God: although he pre-exists the birth from Mary's womb, he was created in time. The Council of Nicaea rejectedthis error of Arius and, in doing so, explained and formulated the true doctrine of the faith of the Church with the words that we quoted at the beginning of this catechesis. In affirming that Christ, as the only begotten Son of God, is consubstantial with the Father (όμοούσιον τώ πατρί), the Council expressed, in a formula adapted to the (Greek) culture of the time, the truth that we find throughout the New Testament. Indeed, we know that Jesus says of himself that he is "one" with the Father ("I and the Father are one": Jn 10, 30), and affirms it in the presence of an audience that, for this reason, wants to stone him. as blasphemous (cf. Jn 10, 31). He affirms it later during the trial, before the Sanhedrin, a fact that will cost him the death sentence. A more detailed account of the biblical places on this subject can be found in the preceding catecheses. Taken as a whole, it is clear that the Council of Nicaea , speaking of Christ as Son of God, "of the same substance as the Father" (έκ τής ούσίας τού πατρός ), "God of God", eternally "born, not made ", does nothing but confirm a precise truth, contained in divine Revelation , made truth of faith of the Church, central truth of all Christianity.

6. When the Council defined it, it can be said that everything was already mature in the thought and in the conscience of the Church to arrive at a definition like this. It can also be said that the definition continues to be current also for our times, in which old and new tendencies to recognize Christ only as a man, even if it is as an extraordinary man, and not as God, are manifested in many ways. . To admit or second them would be to destroy Christological dogma, but it would mean, at the same time, the annihilation of all Christian soteriology . If Christ is not true God, then he does not transmit divine life to humanity. He is not, therefore, the Savior of man in the sense emphasized by Revelation and the Tradition . By violating this truth of faith of the Church, the entire construction of Christian dogma collapses, the integral logic of faith and Christian life is annulled. because the cornerstone of the entire building is removed.

7. But we must immediately add that, by solemnly and definitively confirming this truth, at the Council of Nicaea the Church, at the same time, upheld, taught and defended the truth about the true humanity of Christ . This other truth, too, had become the object of erroneous opinions and heretical theories. In particular, Docetism (from the Greek expression "δοκείν" = seem) must be remembered at this point . This conception nullified the human nature of Christ, maintaining that He did not possess a true body , but only an appearance of human flesh.. The Docetists considered that God could not have been truly born of a woman, that he could not have truly died on the cross. From this position it followed that in the whole sphere of the incarnation and redemption we had only an illusion of the flesh , in open contrast to the Revelation contained in the different texts of the New Testament, among which is Saint John: " ... Jesus Christ, come in the flesh" (1 Jn 4, 2); "The Word became flesh" (Jn 1, 14), and that other of St. Paul, according to whom, in this flesh, Christ became "obedient unto death and a death on the cross" (cf. Phil 2, 8 ).

8. According to the faith of the Church, drawn from Revelation, Jesus Christ was truly man. Precisely because of this, his human body was animated by a truly human soul. To the testimony of the Apostles and Evangelists, unequivocal on this point, corresponded the teaching of the early Church, as well as that of the first ecclesiastical writers, for example, Tertullian ( De carne Christi )., 13, 4), who wrote: "In Christ... we find soul and flesh, that is, a soul (human) soul and a flesh flesh". However, there were contrary opinions on this point as well, in particular those of Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea (born about 310 in Laodicea in Syria and died about 390), and his followers (called Apollinarianists), according to whom they did not there would have been in Christ a true human soul, because it would have been replaced by the Word of God. But it is clear that in this case too the true humanity of Christ was denied.

9. In fact, Pope Damasus I (366-384), in a letter addressed to the Eastern bishops (a. 374), pointed out and rejected at the same time the errors of both Arius and Apollinaris: "Those (that is, the Arians ) put in the Son of God an imperfect divinity: these (i.e., the Apollinarians) falsely affirm an incomplete humanity in the Son of man, But if truly an incomplete man has been assumed, imperfect is the work of God, imperfect ours. salvation, because not all men have been saved... And we, who know that we have been saved in the fullness of the human being, according to the faith of the Catholic Church, profess that God, in the fullness of his being, has assumed man in the fullness of his being. The Damasian document, drawn up fifty years after Nicaea,SD 146). A few years later, the First Council of Constantinople (year 381) condemned all the heresies of the time, including Arianism and Apollinarianism, confirming what Pope Damasus I had stated about the humanity of Christ, to which a true human soul (and therefore a true human intellect, a free will) (cf. DS 146, 149, 151).

10. The soteriological argument with which the Council of Nicaea explained the incarnation, teaching that the Son, consubstantial with the Father, became man " for us men and for our salvation" , found new expression in the defense of the integral truth on Christ, both against Arianism and against Apollinarianism, by Pope Damasus and the Council of Constantinople. In particular, with regard to those who denied the true humanity of the Son of God, the soteriological argument was presented in a new way: in order for the whole man to be saved, the whole (perfect) humanity had to be assumed in the unity of the Son: "quod non est assumptum, non est sanatum" (cf. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Ep. 101 ad Cledon.).

11. The Council of Chalcedon (year 451), by once again condemning Apollinarianism, in a sense completed the Nicene Symbol of Faith, proclaiming Christ "perfectum in deitate, eundem perfectum in humanitate ": "our Lord Jesus Christ, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, true God and true man (composed) of rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father through divinity, and consubstantial with us through humanity (όμοούσιον ήμίν ... χατά τήν άνδρωπότητα") ' like us in everything except sin' (cf Heb 4. 15), begotten by the Father before the ages according to divinity, and in these last times, for us and for our salvation,of Mary Virgin and Mother of God, according to humanity, one and the same Christ Lord only begotten..." ( Symbolum Chalcedonense DS 301).

As can be seen, the tiresome elaboration of the Christological dogma carried out by the Fathers and Councils always refers us to the mystery of the one Christ, the Word incarnate for our salvation, as Revelation has made it known to us, so that by believing in Him and loving Him, we may be saved and have life (cf. Jn 20, 31).

Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Libreria Editrice Vaticana