The doctrine of the Trinity deviates from the Nicene Creed.

PURPOSE

Hypostasis and ousia in the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed of 325 uses the terms hypostasis and ousia to describe the Son of God. These terms were not used in any previous Christian creed. A pro-Alexander pre-meeting was held in Antioch just a few months before Nicaea and not even the draft creed produced by this meeting used these terms. (Ayres, p. 92)

This article aims to explain the meanings of these terms as they were understood at the Council of Nicaea. The Creed uses these terms in three statements:

      • The Son is begotten “of the ousia of the Father.”
      • Father and Son are homoousios,” meaning ‘same ousia’ (same substance). 
      • The Son is not “of another hypostasis or ousia.” (Ayres, p. 93) This is one of the anathemas in the Creed. With the double negative removed, it says that the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father.

Homoousios was not important.

Today, many regard homoousios as the key term in the Creed. In the decade after Nicaea, there was a dispute between the Eusebians and Sabellians about this term. After that, however, nobody mentioned the term, not even Athanasius, until he began to use the term to defend his theology. But that was only in the mid-350s. So, at Nicaea, the term did not have the importance we often assign to it today. It was only inserted in the Creed to compel the true Arians to renounce it so that the emperor could exile them. For a further discussion, see:

The Trinity doctrine deviates from the Creed.

This article is not about the term homoousios. Rather, it analyzes the statement that the Son is not “of another hypostasis or ousia,” meaning, the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father. This seems to contradict the Trinity doctrine because it uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms and because it seems to say that Father and Son are one hypostasis. To explain:

Trinity doctrine: Three hypostases in one ousia

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, God is one ousia (one substance or Being) existing in three hypostases; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For example:

“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 word “Person” is misleading. The reason is that, in normal English, each person has his or her own mind. In contrast, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one Being with one single mind.1In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose that the Trinity is “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but that view is not considered here. Rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson prefers to explain hypostasis in the Trinity doctrine as “realities or entities.”

Creed: Uses ousia and hypostases as synonyms.

Contrary to the Trinity doctrine, the statement in the Creed that the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father seems to use the terms ousia and hypostases as synonyms:

“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. (Ayres, p. 88)
        • R.P.C. Hanson says the Nicene Creed “apparently (but not quite certainly) identifies hypostasis and ousia.” (Hanson, p. 188)

Creed: Claims Father and Son are one hypostasis.

Furthermore, that anathema seems to say that Father and Son are one single ousia (substance) and one hypostasis (‘Person’). It is consistent with the Trinity doctrine to say that they are one ousia but would contradict the Trinity doctrine to say that they are one single hypostasis. In fact, to say that Father and Son are one single hypostasis is Sabellianism, which was already rejected in the third century. The Creed, therefore, seems to teach Sabllianism:

“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.” (Hanson, p. 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)

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. In its AD 325 form, the Nicene Creed focused on the Son. This article does likewise.

Purpose of this article

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to determine:

      • Whether the Creed uses those terms as synonyms.
      • If used as synonyms, whether they mean ‘Person’ (a distinct individual) or ‘substance’ (the material an entity consists of). If both mean ‘substance’, then the Creed agrees with the doctrine of the Trinity. However, if both mean ‘Person,’ this would contradict the doctrine of the Trinity.
      • Whether the Creed describes Father and Son as one single hypostasis (Person).

For this purpose, this article first discusses how those terms were used during the centuries before Nicaea and when the Arian Controversy began.

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

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

BEFORE NICAEA

Etymologically, they are synonyms.

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 they have the same linguistic derivation, just like the English father, the German Vater and the Latin pater are cognates. In other words, originally, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Philosophy: Synonyms for Fundamental Reality

The authors of the Nicene Creed derived these terms from Greek philosophy. Hanson refers to “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (Hanson, p. 846)2Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (Hanson, p. 182) In Greek Philosophy:

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

Note that both hypostasis and ousia (substance) appear in this definition. In philosophy, one hypostasis was one 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 a Christian context, we might refer to “the fundamental reality” as the Ultimate Reality or ‘God’.

The Bible: Only used once.

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

The word hypostasis “occurs five times in the New Testament.” (Hanson, p. 182) Four instances do NOT refer to God and is translated as ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ (2 Cor 9:4; 11:17; Heb 3:14; 11:1). The only place where the term hypostasis describes God is Hebrews 1:3. (Hanson, p. 182) In it, “the Son is described as the impression [exact image] of the Father’s hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187, 182) The following are some of the translations (BibleHub):

      • The exact representation of his being (NIV);
      • The exact imprint of his nature (ESV);
      • The express image of his person (King James & New King James);
      • The exact representation of His nature (NASB);
      • The very image of his substance (ASV);
      • The exact likeness of God’s own being (Good News)
      • The exact likeness of his being (ISV)
      • The very imprint of his being (New American)
      • The exact imprint of God’s very being (NRSV)

The three instances in red translate hypostasis as a characteristic or aspect of God but most translate it as referring to God as a distinct Individual or Person, meaning, the Son is the exact image of God, rather than of an aspect of God.

Hypostasis also occurs twenty times in the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), but only one instance uses this term to describe God. “At Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God’s hypostasis … and no doubt this is why Hebrews uses the term ‘impression of his nature’.” (Hanson, p. 182)

Since the Bible never refers to God’s ousia and only once refers to His hypostasis, the use of the terms ousia and hypostasis in the Nicene Creed was not based on the Bible:

“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.” (Hanson, p. 846)

Tertullian did not use these terms.

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.” (Hanson, p. 184)

Elsewhere, Tertullian wrote:

“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, similar to Sabellianism. See – Was Tertullian a Sabellian?

Origen: Synonyms for distinct Individual

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)

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

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

He “used hypostasis and ousia freely as interchangeable terms to describe the Son’s distinct reality within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 185)3“He can say … that the Son is ‘different in ousia’ from the Father, meaning that he is a distinct entity from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 66-67)

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

The phrases in blue bold give Hanson’s understanding of how Origen used the terms hypostasis and ousia. ‘Person’ is often used as shorthand for such phrases.

While Origen wrote that the Son is “separate in hypostasis or ousia from the Father” (Hanson, p. 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 synonyms for the Persons of the Trinity as individual Entities.4Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance.” (Williams, p. 164) If that is also how the Nicene Creed uses the term, and not for the substance of God, then ‘begotten from the ousia of God’ simply means ‘begotten from the being of God’, a statement with which the Eusebians could agree. Arius would have disagreed because he maintained that the Son was begotten out of nothing (from non-existence).

WHEN THE CONTROVERSY BEGAN

Different people used these terms differently.

Hanson discusses the use of these terms by several ancient theologians. The question is, did they use these terms for the Father and Son as Individuals (Persons) or for their substance?5“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’.” (Hanson, p. 181)

      • “Eusebius of Nicomedia” used ousia to mean Person. He said, “there are two ousiai and two facts.” (Hanson, p. 185)
      • “Eusebius of Caesarea … uses ousia to mean substance.” (Hanson, p. 185)
      • “Alexander of Alexandria … does not use the word ousia, but instead uses hypostasis for both ‘Person’ and ‘substance’.” (Hanson, p. 186)
      • Arius used hypostasis for Person. He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 186)
      • Asterius, a leading anti-Nicene, “said that there were three hypostases. But he also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father. Once again we find a writer who clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis.” (187)

Hanson concludes that “considerable confusion existed about the use of the terms hypostasis and ousia at the period when the Arian Controversy broke out.” (Hanson, p. 181)6“Several alternative ways of treating these terms were prevalent.” (Hanson, p. 184)7“That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis.” (Ayres, p. 98)

For most, the terms were synonyms.

Although different people used these terms differently, most used these terms as synonyms:

“For many people at the beginning of the fourth century the word hypostasis and the word ousia had pretty well the same meaning.” (Hanson, p. 181) Athanasius also used them as synonyms.8“Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)

“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.” (Hanson, p. 183)

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

This implies that the Nicene Creed also uses these terms as synonyms. Therefore, our first conclusion is that the Nicene Creed, by using these terms as synonyms, does contradict the Trinity doctrine, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases but one ousia.

In the Nicene Creed, these two terms “did not mean, and should not be translated, ‘person’ and ‘substance’, as they were used when at last … these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words.” (Hanson, p. 181)

The Creed teaches only one hypostasis.

The second question was whether the Nicene Creed contradicts the Trinity doctrine by claiming that Father and Son are one single hypostasis. Since it says, with the double negatives removed, that the Son is of the same hypostasis or substance as the Father, Hanson concludes that it does:

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235)

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but could not believe that God had only one hypostasis, as the creed apparently professed.” (Hanson, p. 274)

Sabellians dominated at Nicaea.

During the Arian Controversy, theologians were divided into ‘one hypostasis’ and ‘three hypostasis’ camps. Following Origen, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Persons), each with his distinct ousia. On the other hand, Sabellians said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (Person). The fourth-century 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.” (Hanson, p. 213)

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

Sabellianism originated in the second century as Monarchianism, was refined in the third by Sabellius, and had many followers. For example, 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.” (Hanson, p. 185)

As discussed in another article, Alexander and Athanasius also maintained that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis. For example:

The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (Ayres, p. 48)

“The fragments of Eustathius that survive present a doctrine that is close to Marcellus, and to Alexander and Athanasius. Eustathius insists there is only one hypostasis.“ (Ayres, p. 69)

What Alexander and Athanasius believed might be slightly different from the Sabellians but they were able to join forces at Nicaea with the Sabellians because they all maintained one hypostasis. And, as discussed, since Emperor Constantine took Alexander’s side in the controversy, the Sabellians had the upper hand at Nicaea. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Nicene Creed presents Father and Son as one single hypostasis.

CONCLUSIONS

Different people used these terms differently but, generally, most used hypostasis and ousia as synonyms. Ousia did not mean ‘substance’, as we use the term today. Rather, for many theologians, both hypostasis and ousia meant “person.”

The Nicene Creed indeed uses the two terms as synonyms. Therefore, since the distinction between ousia and hypostases is foundational in the Trinity doctrine, the Trinity doctrine deviates from the Nicene Creed. As confirmation that the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine, Lewis Ayres distinguishes between ‘pro-Nicene’ 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.” (Ayres, p. 6)

The Creed seems to teach that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis, which was the hallmark of Sabellianism. “It is going too far to say that N is a clearly Sabellian document. … It is exceeding the evidence to represent the Council as a total victory for the anti-Origenist opponents of the doctrine of three hypostases. It was more like a drawn battle.” (Hanson, p. 172)

This is a technical analysis of the Creed. Different people, however, preferred to read it differently. The Eusebians glossed the technical terms to fit their views. See – Eusebius’ explanation. They signed the Creed but certainly did not explain the Creed as Sabellian.

THE CHANGE

Who changed the meaning?

“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’.” (Hanson, p. 181)

When and by whom were these changes made? 

Arians were the first.

The Eusebians, the so-called Arians, taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases. Some of them, right at the beginning of the Controversy, already made a distinction between hypostasis and ousia and used ousia for ‘substance’; the material a Being consists of:

Arius used hypostasis for ‘Person’.9He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Hanson, p. 187)” For example, he said that the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “were different in kind and in rank.” (Hanson, p. 187) And he used ousia for “substance.“ He wrote, for example: “The Logos is alien and unlike in all respects to the Father’s ousia.” (Hanson, p. 186) “It seems likely that he was one of the few during this period who did not confuse the two.” (Hanson, p. 187)

Asterius, another leading ‘Arian’, “clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187) He used hypostasis for ‘Person’10He “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 187) and ousia for ‘substance’.11“He also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 187)

The Cappadocians were the first pro-Nicenes.

The pro-Nicenes were one-hypostasis theologians (See Athanasius), meaning that they thought of Father, Son, and Spirit as one hypostasis (one Person) and one ousia (substance). They had no reason to distinguish between hypostasis and ousia.

However, more than 40 years after Nicaea, the Cappadocians were (the first?) three-hypostasis pro-Nicenes (See – Basil). For that reason, they were in dispute with Athanasius and his followers (Damasus of Rome, Peter of Alexandria) in what is known as the Meletian Schism. But since they were three-hypostases theologians, the Cappadocians distinguished between hypostasis meaning Person, and ousia meaning substance. They are therefore traditionally credited for being the first to make that distinction:

“The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía … was Basil of Caesarea.”12Johannes, “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.” (Hanson, p. 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.” (Ayres, p. 190-191)

Basil taught three Beings.

However, Basil did not understand God as one undivided ousia (substance or Being), as in the Trinity doctrine. As another article explains, 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 type of substance. The Son does not have a lower form of divinity or substance, but all three Persons have the same type of substance.

The Trinity doctrine does not use ousia for substance

Another difference between Basil and the traditional Trinity doctrine is that that doctrine does not use ousia for substance. In reality, it still uses, similar to Athanasius and the earlier pro-Nicenes, ousia and hypostasis as synonyms meaning ‘Person’. To explain:

The core distinction between the pro-Nicene and the ‘Arians’ was that, while the ‘Arians’ said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three Persons with three distinct minds), the pro-Nicenes maintained that they are one hypostasis with one single mind. (See – Athanasius)

In contrast, the later developed Trinity doctrine describes God BOTH as One and Three. It says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (Persons) but one ousia (Being). The key point is that it does not employ ‘ousia’ to mean substance (the material that constitutes a Being) as Basil did. Rather, it uses ‘ousia’ to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God with one single mind. So, effectively, the Trinity doctrine still uses ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostasis’ as synonyms for Person. It uses different words for what God is as one and what He is as three but looking beyond the words to the essence of the matter, it suggests that God is simultaneously a single individual entity (Being or Person) and three distinct individual entities.

So, despite considerable discussion regarding the evolution of the terms ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostasis,’ the doctrine of the Trinity continues to employ their original meanings.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose that the Trinity is “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but that view is not considered here.
  • 2
    Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 3
    “He can say … that the Son is ‘different in ousia’ from the Father, meaning that he is a distinct entity from the Father.” (Hanson, p. 66-67)
  • 4
    Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance.” (Williams, p. 164)
  • 5
    “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’.” (Hanson, p. 181)
  • 6
    “Several alternative ways of treating these terms were prevalent.” (Hanson, p. 184)
  • 7
    “That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis.” (Ayres, p. 98)
  • 8
    “Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)
  • 9
    He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Hanson, p. 187)”
  • 10
    He “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” (Hanson, p. 187)
  • 11
    “He also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 187)
  • 12
    Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”
  • 13
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

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