Dear Parish Faithful,
"Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded." ~ St. Athanasius the Great (+373)
Last Sunday, we found ourselves in between the two great Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. However, on that Seventh Sunday of Pascha, we also commemorated the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 A.D. It is virtually impossible to over-exaggerate the importance of this Council in the life of the Church.
The Council had not only to reject the Arian heresy that claimed that the Son of God is a "creature" and thus subordinate in essence to God the Father; but the Council had to find the right terminology to demonstrate that the Faith of the Church from the beginning believed and claimed that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God equal in essence to God the Father (as is the Holy Spirit). Arianism and Orthodox Christianity are essentially two different faiths which is why the Church was at a crossroads in the fourth century: either become just one more "synthetic/syncretistic religion" of the ancient world, or proclaim the uniqueness of Christ as the eternal Son of God and the Savior of the world.
The dramatic story of the Council of Nicea has been told and retold throughout the centuries. Not wanting to repeat that story here, I will simply include a link to a good summary found on the OCA website.
Yet, I would like to add a few words about the manner in which we honor the great Fathers of the Church in our liturgical tradition. To do so, I would like to bring to mind the Kontakion of the Fathers that we sang on Sunday:
The apostles' preaching and the fathers' doctrines
have established the one faith for the Church. Adorned
with the robe of truth, woven from heavenly theology;
great is the mystery of piety which it defines and glorifies.
This kontakion is very close in meaning to what we read from St. Athanasius the Great (+373) - one of the leading lights of Nicene Orthodoxy - as quoted above. There is a direct continuity between what the Apostles "preached" and what the Fathers later formulated as doctrines.
This continuity is not simply chronological - it is theological. It was the same Gospel - the same "robe of truth" - without illegitimate subtractions or additions. The Fathers did not change the content of the Faith that they were expressing through their doctrine. They were developing and expanding upon the apostolic preaching for their own times. But the content of the "one faith for the Church" remained identical with itself in this ongoing transmission of the Tradition. (Tradition means that which is "handed down" or "handed over").
The Nicene Creed does not add anything new to what the apostles preached. It rather witnesses to what they preached so as to preserve the Truth in the face of its possible distortion. To do so they had to come up with new formulations of that unchanging Truth. Thus, their bold introduction of the term homoousios to describe how the Son is "consubstantial" with the Father was not something innovative or "creative." It was a necessary development to again preserve that which was proclaimed from the beginning: God became incarnate in order to save us for only God can save.
In one of his classic articles "The Authority of the Ancient Councils," Fr. George Florovsky brilliantly described the relationship between the apostles and fathers and their respective roles in transmitting the Tradition:
Apostles and Fathers - these two terms were generally and commonly coupled together in the argument from Tradition, as it was used in the Third and Fourth centuries. It was this double reference, both to the origin and to the unfailing and continuous preservation, that warranted the authenticity of belief.
On the other hand, Scripture was formally acknowledged and recognized as the ground and foundation of faith, as the Word of God and the Writ of the Spirit. Yet, there was still the problem of right and adequate interpretation. Scripture and the Fathers were usually quoted together, that is, kerygma (proclamation) and exegesis (interpretation).
This is a "heavenly theology" because its ultimate Source is Christ Himself, Who reveals the will of the Father for the world and its salvation. And this is that "mystery of piety which it defines and glorifies," precisely as the apostles preached:
Great indeed is the mystery of our religion:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world, taken up in glory. (I TIM. 3:16)
We venerate and honor the Fathers within the ongoing life of the Church. To again turn to the same article of Fr. George Florovsky, he further writes:
"Fathers" were those who transmitted and propagated the right doctrine, the teaching of the Apostles, who were guides and masters of Christian instruction and catechesis... They were spokesmen for the Church, expositors of her faith, keepers of her Tradition, witnesses of truth and faith. And in that was their "authority" grounded.
Most glorious art Thou, O Christ our God!
Thou hast established the Holy Fathers as
lights on the earth! Through them Thou hast
guided us to the true faith! O greatly
Compassionate One, glory to Thee!
(Troparion of the Holy Fathers)