We had an extraordinary discussion last night at adult education, even if our ranks were diminished by a handful of absences. We began a two-week look at the Creed and I immediately realized that it should have been a two-month offering.
After I got through historical comments about the seven Ecumenical Councils and a short intro to the Arian controversy involved at Nicaea I, we launched into discussion of the text itself. It was spirited from the get-go. People jumped on questions about the terms, like “begotten” and “proceeds” and “very God” and why “maker of heaven and earth” had been substituted at Constantinople for the original “maker of all things.”
I realized again, and I am sure everyone in the room realized, that the Fathers of the Council(s) were confronted with an impossible situation: to define that which is essentially and ultimately indefinable. Recall that each week we hear the words “for you are God: ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible” at the beginning of the Anaphora. I find this one of the delicious ironies of the faith, that in the Liturgy of St John (or St Basil) we speak volumes about God, and yet nestled inside the holiest prayer of the liturgy, right at its beginning, is this flat testimony to the truth in four words; namely, that all our words about God fail to encompass the meaning of God.
Yet we continue speaking and writing about God! That is because – in the case of Nicaea I – there was an internal testimony that sounded in the hearts and minds of the bishops (and we might see this as the particular inspiration of the Holy Spirit) that said, “What Arius has claimed cannot be right.” Furthermore I like to think that they, led by Athanasius, were humble enough to add, “we cannot adequately describe or define what we believe, but we must try because we think that he is dead wrong.” So, for example, we spent a lot of time talking about how the same word for birth among humans could have been made to serve the relationship between God the Father and the Son without falling into the same trap that Arius had fashioned. We have to be satisfied with the decision of the Fathers that “begotten of the Father before all worlds” (that is, from eternity, which is outside time) does the job, even if we today suspect that it, too, remains inadequate.
Of course! ALL our words about God are inadequate, unable to fully describe either God or the relationship we have with God. And so, particularly in the Orthodox Tradition, we have a counterpoint in the mystical approach we call “apophatic,” whereby we say “God is not this,” “God is not that,” to define by ruling out limits thither and yon. It’s really the only way and, together with the dogmatic tradition, this creates a unity which remains forever in tension between affirmation and negation.