Ousia and Hypostasis in the Nicene Creed

Purpose

Trinity Doctrine

R.P.C. Hanson defines the basics of the Trinity doctrine as one ousia (substance or Being) existing as three hypostases (Persons):

“The champions of the Nicene faith … developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson Lecture)

Hanson says that the term ‘Person’, in this context, is ‘misleading’:

In normal English usage, each person has his or her own mind and will. Each person is a distinct center of consciousness.

In contrast, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one Being with one single mind and will.

The term ‘Person’, therefore, does not accurately describe what a hypostasis in the traditional Trinity doctrine is. Nevertheless, Hanson himself often uses the term and this article also uses the term because most people are familiar with it.

In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose that the Trinity is “three Centres of Consciousness” (RH, 737), but that view is not considered in this article.

Nicene Creed AD 325

“One of the most striking aspects of Nicaea in comparison to surviving baptismal creeds from the period, and even in comparison to the creed which survives from the council of Antioch in early 325, is its use of the technical terminology of ousia and hypostasis.” (LA, 92)

While the Trinity doctrine uses the terms ousia and hypostases for very different concepts, the Nicene Creed seems to use these terms as synonyms when it anathematizes those who say that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia than the “one God Father Almighty:”

“But as for those … who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.” (Early Church Texts)

Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (LA, 88) R.P.C. Hanson says that the Nicene Creed “apparently (but not quite certainly) identifies hypostasis and ousia.” (RH, 188)

If the Creed does use these terms as synonyms, it does not teach the Trinity doctrine in which God is one ousia existing as three hypostases.

An even more serious problem is that the anathema seems to say that the Son is the same hypostasis (Person) as the Father. That would be Sabellianism, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis:

“By the standard of later orthodoxy, as achieved in the Creed of Constantinople of 381, it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition, because the Son must be of a different hypostasis (i.e. ‘Person’) from the Father.” (RH, 167)

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (Hanson’s Lecture)

Purpose

The first purpose of this article, therefore, is to determine whether the Creed does use those terms as synonyms. For that purpose, it discusses how those terms were used during the centuries before Nicaea and when the Arian Controversy began.

The article also attempts to determine, if these terms are used as synonyms, whether they mean ‘Person’ or ‘substance’. In other words, whether that anathema teaches Sabellianism.

The Holy Spirit

That anathema does not mention the Holy Spirit, just as the Creed does not say that the Holy Spirit is “God” or that the Spirit is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father.” The Nicene Creed, in its AD 325-form, focused on the Son. For that reason, this article does likewise.

Authors

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

Hanson – A lecture by R.P.C. Hanson in 1981 on the Arian Controversy.

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Before Nicaea

How were these terms used in the centuries before Nicaea?

Etymology

Etymologically (i.e., relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings), hypostasis and ousia are direct cognates (See – Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils). That means that these two words have the same linguistic derivation, just like the English father, the German Vater and the Latin pater are cognates. In other words, originally, therefore, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Greek Philosophy

The authors of the Nicene Creed derived these terms from Greek philosophy:

Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (RH, 182) 

Hanson refers to hypostasis and ousia as “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (RH, 846)

In Greek Philosophy:

Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else” (Hypostasis – Wikipedia)

Note that both the words hypostasis and ousia (substance) appear in this definition. Basically, a hypostasis is a substance. Ancient Greek philosophers used these terms as synonyms for “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” namely, the primary, fundamental kind of being, in contrast to the objects in the sensible world which are mere shadows. In other words, in a Christian context, we perhaps might refer to this concept as the Ultimate Reality or God.

In the Bible

Ousia

The Bible never refers to God’s ousia. (For a definition of the term, see – The Free Dictionary or Liddell & Scott.)

Hypostasis

“The word occurs five times in the New Testament” (RH, 182):

In the four instances, it does NOT refer to God and is translated as ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ (2 Cor 9:4; 11:17; Heb 3:14; 11:1); consistent with the concept of ‘fundamental reality’ in Greek philosophy.

The only place where the term hypostasis is used to describe God is Hebrews 1:3. (RH, 182) There “the Son is described as the impression [exact image] of the Father’s hypostasis.” (RH, 187, 182)

Although hypostasis, today, is commonly understood to mean “Person,” in this verse, it is translated as “substance” (ASV) or as “nature” (NASB). “It denotes God’s being or nature.” (RH, 182) This shows again that these terms were used as synonyms.

Furthermore, in this verse, similar to ancient Greek philosophy, hypostasis refers to the Ultimate Reality, of which His Son is “the exact representation.”

“The word also occurs twenty times in the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), but only one of them can be regarded as theologically significant.” “At Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God’s hypostasis, meaning his nature; and no doubt this is why Hebrews uses the term ‘impression of his nature’.” (RH, 182)

Conclusion

The Bible cannot be used to justify the terms ousia and hypostasis in the Nicene Creed:

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (RH, 846)

Tertullian

Tertullian at the turn of the second to the third centuries had already used the Latin word substantia (substance) of God … God therefore had a body and indeed was located at the outer boundaries of space. … It was possible for Tertullian to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing this substance, so that the relationship of the Three is, in a highly refined sense, corporeal. … He can use the expression Unius substantiae (‘of one substance’). This has led some scholars to see Tertullian as an exponent of Nicene orthodoxy before Nicaea … But this is a far from plausible theory. Tertullian’s materialism is … a totally different thing from any ideas of ousia or homoousios canvassed during the fourth century.” (RH, 184)

Elsewhere, Tertullian states:

“For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

In other words, for Tertullian, the Son is part of the Father, which is the definition of Sabellianism.

Origen

Origen wrote at the beginning of the third century. He was the most influential writer of the first three centuries. “The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen.” (Bible.ca, quoting W.H.C. Frend)

Synonyms for ‘Person’

Origen used these terms as synonyms. While ousia is understood today as “substance,” Origen used both terms for the Persons of the Trinity. For example:

He “used hypostasis and ousia freely as interchangeable terms to describe the Son’s distinct reality within the Godhead.” (RH, 185)

“For Origen the words hypostasis … and ousia are … synonyms for … distinct individual entity.” (RH, 66-67)

“He can say … that the Son is ‘different in ousia’ from the Father, meaning that he is a distinct entity from the Father.” (RH, 66-67)

“He taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (RH, 184)

Contradicts the Nicene Creed.

While Origen wrote that the Son is “separate in hypostasis or ousia from the Father” (RH, 66-67), the Nicene Creed states the exact opposite and condemns those who say that He “is of a different hypostasis or substance.”

Conclusion

In the time before the Arian Controversy:

    • The two terms were used as synonyms.
    • Both terms were used for the Persons of the Trinity.

Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance.” (RW, 164)

In other words, ousia was NOT used for the substance of God, as the Nicene Creed seems to do when it says that the Son was begotten from the ousia of God.

When the Controversy began

Confusion

After discussing several examples, our authors conclude:

“Considerable confusion existed about the use of the terms hypostasis and ousia at the period when the Arian Controversy broke out.” (RH, 181)

“Several alternative ways of treating these terms were prevalent.” (RH, 184)

“The ambiguous anathema in N (the Nicene Creed) against those who believe that the Son is ‘from another hypostasis or ousia than the Father’ … (is one example) of this unfortunate semantic misunderstanding.” (RH, 181)

“That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis.” (LA, 98)

Synonyms

Nevertheless, for most people, the terms were synonyms:

“For many people at the beginning of the fourth century the word hypostasis and the word ousia had pretty well the same meaning.” (RH, 181)

“For at least the first half of the period 318-381, and in some cases considerably later, ousia and hypostasis are used as virtual synonyms.” (RH, 183)

“It is only much later in the century that the two are more clearly distinguished by some.” (LA, 98)

Even for Athanasius, some decades after the Controversy began, “hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (RH, 440)

Therefore, when dealing with documents from or before the beginning of the Arian Controversy, including the Nicene Creed:

These two terms “did not mean, and should not be translated, ‘person’ and ‘substance’, as they were used when at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words.” (RH, 181)

One vs Three Hypostasis Views

Although theologians, generally, regarded the two terms as synonyms, they were divided into ‘one hypostasis’ and ‘three hypostasis’ views:

Three Hypostases

Following Origen, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Realities), each with his own ousia.

One Hypostasis

The Sabellians, on the other hand, said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis and one single ousia, meaning that they are one single Being:

Among the pre-Nicene church fathers, Bishop Dionysius of Rome (in the middle of the third century) “said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy ‘into three … separated hypostases and three Godheads’; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (RH, 185)

In the fourth century, the Sabellians Eustathian and Marcellus were famous for this teaching.

The “’one hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (RH, 213)

“One point about Marcellus which is unequivocally clear is that he believed that God constituted only one hypostasis.” (RH, 229-230)

As discussed in another article, Athanasius also fell into this category. The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (LA, 48)

Nicene Creed

The Wikipedia page on the Nicene Creed translates ‘hypostasis or ousia’ with two words that are more or less synonyms: “substance’ or ‘essence.” That seems like an acknowledgment that the two terms were synonyms.

But why did those translators choose ‘substance’ rather than ‘Person’? As discussed above, during the centuries before Nicaea, these terms were synonyms for ‘Person’; rather than for ‘substance’:

To translate these two terms with ‘Person’ would imply Sabellianism. So, perhaps the translators attempted to avoid that impression.

Alternatively, the anathema says that the Son is not of a different hypostasis or substance. With the double negatives removed, it says that the Son is of the same hypostasis or substance as the Father. It is possible, therefore, that the translators assumed that the anathema is another way of saying homoousios (same substance) and, for that reason, translated these terms with “substance’ or ‘essence.”

Conclusions

Before Nicaea

During the centuries before Nicaea and when the Nicene Creed was formulated, hypostasis and ousia were indeed used as synonyms. Ousia did not mean ‘substance’, as we use the term today. Rather, both hypostasis and ousia meant “person.”

No Trinity Doctrine

The Nicene Creed indeed seems to use the two terms as synonyms. Therefore, since the distinction between ousia and hypostases is foundational in the Trinity doctrine, the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine. Hanson concludes, at the time of Nicaea:

“The concept of what each Person of the Trinity is in his existence and proper form distinct from the others had not yet been distinguished from the concept of what all of them were as full and equal (or even as partial and unequal) sharers of the Godhead.” (RH, 190)

“The concept of what we would now call the ‘Persons’ of the Trinity … had barely dawned on the consciousness of theologians.” (RH, 190)

As confirmation that the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine, Lewis Ayres makes a distinction between ‘pro-Nicene’ theology and ‘Nicene theology’:

“By ‘pro-Nicene’ I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … These theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (LA, 6)

Sabellian

Whether the Creed teaches Sabellianism is perhaps impossible to say. The people at the council were divided into different factions and the minority faction of Alexander was able to dominate because the emperor had taken their side. Alexander, as argued in another article, was a Sabellian. So, perhaps he intended the Creed to reflect Sabellianism.

The majority, on the other hand, glossed the technical terms to fit their views. They, certainly, did not explain the Creed as Sabellian.

Who made the distinction?

“When at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words,” hypostasis and ousia respectively meant “’person’ and ‘substance’.” (RH, 181)

When and by whom were these changes made? 

The Cappadocians

It is often said that it was the Cappadocian fathers – particularly Basil of Caesarea – who, more than 40 years after Nicaea, for the first time made a distinction between person and substance. For example:

“The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and for using hypostasis as synonym of Person, was Basil of Caesarea.”1Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”

“Basil’s most distinguished contribution towards the resolving of the dispute about the Christian doctrine of God was in his clarification of the vocabulary.” (RH, 690)

Basil “is often identified” with the “distinction between a unitary shared nature at one level, and the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit at another.” (LA, 190-191)

Basil’s Innovation

What was Basil’s innovation? Compare his views with those before him:

Athanasius taught that Father and Son are one single substance (one single Person).

As mentioned above, the anti-Nicene taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct substances (three Persons), with three different types or grades of substance.

Basil did not yet understand God as one undivided ousia (substance), as in the Trinity doctrine. Basil’s innovation was to propose three distinct substances that are the same type of substance in all respects. He proposed, just like Peter, Paul, and John were three instances of humanity, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three instances of divinity. In his view, there is only one substance in the sense that the Son does not have a lower form of divinity or substance, but that all three Persons have the same type of substance.

The Eusebians were first.

The ancient philosophers used ‘substance’ for the Ultimate Reality. The previous section shows that Basil, in contrast, used ‘substance’ in the sense of the material a Being consists of. But he was not the first to use ‘substance’ in that sense. The Eusebians; some decades before the Cappadocians, already made a distinction between hypostasis and ousia and used ousia in that sense:

Arius

Arius used hypostasis for a “distinct individual reality’:

He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” For example, he said that the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “were different in kind and in rank.” (RH, 187)

And he used ousia for “substance.“ He wrote, for example:

“The Father is alien in ousia to the Son” (RH, 186), and “The Logos is alien and unlike in all respects to the Father’s ousia.” (RH, 186)

Hanson concludes:

“It seems likely that he was one of the few during this period who did not confuse the two.” (RH, 187)

Asterius

Another leading “Arian” “who clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis” was Asterius. (RH, 187) He used hypostasis for ‘Person’:

He “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” (RH, 187)

He used ousia for ‘substance’:

“He also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” (RH, 187)

Who made what change?

So, when and by whom was the change made? In my view, the meanings of the terms did not change. The terms still are synonyms. To explain:

When the Arian Controversy began, theologians were divided into ‘one hypostasis’ and ‘three hypostases’ camps.

In contrast, the Trinity Doctrine, as it was developed later, describes God BOTH as One and as Three and it uses synonyms for what God is as one and for what God is as three.

For example, the Trinity doctrine does not use the term ousia (substance) to refer to the material substance of a Being (as the Eusebians and Basil did) but to refer to the entire Being. The Trinity doctrine still uses ousia for what it always meant; “the fundamental reality that supports all else;” the Being that we know as the Ultimate Reality. When the Creed says that the Son is of the same substance as the Father (homoousios), the Trinity doctrine interprets this as saying that Father and Son are one single Being; not that they are two Beings with the same substance.

Hypostasis also did not change in meaning. “For Origen the words hypostasis … and ousia are … synonyms for … distinct individual entity.” (RH, 66-67) The Eusebians followed the practice. So, to say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, as the traditional Trinity doctrine does, is not a change in meaning.

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”

Why did the (Western) Roman Empire Fall?

Previous empires, such as Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Greece were conquered by the armies of the next ‘world’ empire, but the mighty Roman Empire declined and fell over a period of hundreds of years. Historians, therefore, are very interested in the causes of its decline. 

EDWARD GIBBON

In his 1776 book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historian Edward Gibbon was the first to do in-depth research on this subject. The purpose of this article is to reflect on the causes of the Fall. Much of this section is a summary of the Wikipedia article, Historiography of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. References are omitted from this section but can be found in that and related articles.

This article follows on from the previous article; Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire, which provides a summary description of the Fall. The current article provides an understanding of the underlying currents that gave rise to the major events described in the previous article.

Underfunding of the Imperial Forces

Underfunding of the army may have contributed significantly to the Fall. The rich aristocrats of Rome sought protection within the strong walls of the city of Rome. In theory, they supported the armed forces but did not wish to pay for it.

For example, Stilicho, like all other generals, was desperately short of recruits and supplies. Though devoted to the Roman Empire, he was very active in confiscating assets, for the administrative machine was not producing enough support for the army (Wikipedia).

Christianity

The rich aristocrats did, however, pass large amounts of money to the Christian Church. Edward Gibbon attributed a significant role to Christianity in the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He remarked that “the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes … who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

Reliance on Barbarian Mercenaries

Edward Gibbon blamed the empire itself, for it gradually entrusted the role of defending the Empire to barbarian mercenaries who eventually turned on them. 

ROMAN SOLDIER

The historian Arther Ferrill, in The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, has also suggested that the Roman Empire declined largely as a result of an influx of Germanic mercenaries into the ranks of the legions. They were more loyal to their Germanic commanders than to the Roman government. He added that the chief cause of the agricultural decline was high taxation. This taxation was spurred by the huge military budget and was thus ‘indirectly’ the result of the barbarian invasions.

Many causes in Combination

JB Bury held that several crises, that arose simultaneously, were the cause of the fall: Due to the depopulation of the empire, it had come to depend on the enrollment of barbarians in the army.  It was furthermore necessary to pay them well as a consequence of the decline in military spirit.

Plunder Economy of the Roman Empire

Some historians argue that the Roman Empire itself was a rotten system from its inception. In their view, the Empire had a plunder economy based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new. It relied on riches from conquered territories, but this source of revenue dried up with the end of Roman territorial expansion in the second century. Meanwhile, the costs of military defense and the pomp of Emperors and wealthy aristocrats continued. Therefore, the Empire looted its own people through exorbitant taxation, from which the élite was exempted. This taxation drove small-scale farmers out of business, and into dependency upon the élite.

Weakening Central Authority

In The Complete Roman Army (2003) Adrian Goldsworthy, a British military historian, identified the main cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire as weakening central authority, resulting in endless civil wars between factions of the Roman Army fighting for control of the Empire. These civil wars weakened the army, making it less able to defend itself against its enemies.

Sassanid Persians

According to Peter Heather, in his The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005), the Fall was caused by a series of sequential events:

First was the emergence of the Sassanid Persian Empire (also known as the Empire of Iranians or Neo-Persian Empire) in the east. They were powerful enough to push the Romans back. Many modern readers tend to think of the “Huns” as the nemesis of the Roman Empire, but it was the Persians who held the attention and concern of the Emperors. 

To cope with the Sassanid threat, the Roman Empire stripped the Western Roman Empire of resources, weakening it.

At the same time, Hunnic incursions in Germania forced peoples on the Empire’s borders to migrate elsewhere. Due to the weakened military capacity of the Western Roman Empire, the Germanic peoples were able to force their way into the Empire.

Conclusion

This article will not select from these causes, for the interest of this website is not WHY the Empire fell, but HOW it fell, namely that the empire did not really fall, but continued. The goal of these articles is to show that the prophecies of Daniel accurately predicted HOW the Roman Empire will fall.

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