Prosopon and Hypostasis in the Arian Controversy

Overview

Originally, the term prosopon (pl. prosopa) meant ‘face’. A hypostasis is a ‘distinct existence’; something that exists distinctly from other things.

In the second century, after the church became Gentile-dominated, Logos-theologians claimed that the Logos is a hypostasis, meaning that He exists distinctly from the Father. The Monarchians opposed them, claiming that Father and Son are two faces (prosopa, understood as two roles) of the same hypostasis.

In the third century, Sabellius refined Monarchianism but still taught that the Trinity are three faces (prosopa) of the same hypostasis. Origen opposed him, arguing that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct existences).

This theological war continued in the fourth century. While Alexander, Athanasius, the Sabellians, and other pro-Nicenes defended the ‘one hypostasis’ view of God, the ‘Arians’ defended Origen’s ‘three hypostases’ view.

Later in the fourth century, the pro-Nicenes divided between:

      • ‘One hypostasis’ theologians (Athanasius, Damasus of Rome, Peter of Alexandria, Paulinus of Antioch, etc.), and
      • ‘Three hypostasis’ theologians (the Cappadocians, Meletius of Antioch, etc.)

Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian Father, rejected the idea that the Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three prosopa (faces) of one hypostasis. He insisted they are three hypostases.  

 Purpose

Some church fathers described the Father, Son, and Spirit as three hypostases (plural of hypostasis) but others as three prosōpa (plural of prosōpon). Both terms are sometimes translated as ‘Persons’ but this article shows that these two terms had very different meanings that are critical for understanding the Controversy.

Original meaning

Originally, the term prosōpon meant “face” or “mask”.

Almost all instances in the New Testament are translated as ‘face’ or as figurative applications of ‘face’, such as ‘appearance’ or ‘presence’. For example, “they spat in His face” (Mt 26:67). (see here)

Pre-Nicene Fathers

Sabellius

Sabellius described the Father, Son, and Spirit as three prosōpa (three roles or faces) of the same one hypostasis.1“The mirage of persons (prosōpa) without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.” (Basil of Caesarea, Epistle 210.5.36–41)

Sabellius, the father of Sabellianism, and Origen wrote at the beginning of the third century. During that century, church councils denounced Sabellianism as heresy and Origen’s view dominanted. He declared that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three faces of three hypostases. See here for a discussion of Sabellius’ theology, here for Origen’s, and here for fourth-century Sabellians.

Tertullian

Tertullian, writing in Latin, like Sabellius, described the Father, Son, and Spirit as three personae (Latin for prosōpa). However, for him, the Son is part of the Father. Consequently, his personae are not ‘Persons’ in the normal sense of that English term but rather two faces of the same Person.

In Tertullian’s schema, Father and Son are a single hypostasis or ‘Person’. In the following quote, Bryan Litfin revealingly explains what Tertullian believed but uses the misleading term ‘Persons’ for the Father and Son:

“Tertullian believed … (that) God,
while not ceasing to be what he always was,
nonetheless extended himself or projected himself forward,
so that the three Persons (‘roles’ might be better)
became more clearly distinguished.
By means of these now-more-distinct Persons,
the one God creates the world, rules over it,
and enters into it for salvation.” (Litfin)

In other words, the Son did not become a distinct Person. He always was and still is a part of “the one God,” the Father, but became “more clearly distinguished.” There are not two Beings or two minds; it is still “the one God” who creates and saves “by means of” the Son, as a man would work with his hands. For example, Tertullian wrote:

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

Therefore, in Tertullian’s materialistic schema, the English term ‘Persons’, which implies a distinct mind, is not appropriate for the Son.

Fourth Century

Basil of Caesarea

Basil understood prosōpon to mean ‘roles’. He rejected that term and argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases.

Basil of Caesarea, the first of the Cappadocian fathers, said it is not enough to confess the Father, Son, and Spirit as three prosōpa because that merely indicates three roles. He argued that even Sabellius, who taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single Person (hypostasis), claimed they are three prosōpa. It is also necessary to say that there are three hypostases. For example, Basil wrote:

“It is not enough to count differences in the Persons (prosōpa). It is necessary also to confess that each Person (prosōpon) exists in a true hypostasis. The mirage of persons (prosōpa) without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.” (Basil of Caesarea, Epistle 210.5.36–41)

Hanson2Hanson, Bishop RPC The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987 and Ayres3Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004 commented:

Basil “can readily use prosopon in the traditional exegetical sense of ‘character‘ or ‘part‘ (almost as in a play) which God or Christ or others were supposed to have assumed.” (Hanson, p. 692)

“Basil treats hypostasis and πρσωπον (prosopon, the face) as synonymous, but he also sees πρσωπον as less appropriate, too close to Sabellianism. Hypostasis indicates a reality of existence that he feels πρσωπον may not.” (Ayres, p. 210)

Jerome

Jerome objected strongly to Basil’s three hypostases and said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three prosopa of the same single hypostasis.

Jerome, well-known as the father of the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, wrote in Latin more or less at the same time as Basil. He confirmed the important distinction between hypostasis and prosōpon (persona in Latin). Strongly objecting to Basil’s view of three hypostases, he explained the Trinity as ‘one substance’, meaning one hypostasis (see here), but three personae (Latin for the Greek prosōpon):

He described “the tri-unity as ‘one substance, three persons’ (una substantia, tres personae).”

Jerome represents the view that dominated the Western church at the time, which was similar to Sabellius’. On the other hand, Basil of Caesarea represents the Eastern pro-Nicene view.

Meletian Schism

Referring to the Meletian Schism, in which Basil and Jerome were on opposite sides, Philip Schaff wrote that, while prosōpon stresses one-ness (unity), hypostasis stresses three-ness (triplicity):

“The doctrinal difference between the Meletians [including Basil] and the old Nicenes [i.e., Athanasius, Damasus of Rome, Jerome, etc.] consisted chiefly in this: that the latter acknowledged three hypostases in the divine trinity, the former only three prosōpa; the one laying the stress on the triplicity of the divine essence, the other on its unity.” (Philip Schaff)

See here for a discussion of the Meletian Schism.

Modern Scholars

Bryan M. Litfin’s research explains a prosōpon as a ‘role’ and a hypostasis as a ‘distinct existence:

“To defend themselves against charges of Sabellianism, the Nicenes developed not just the language of three prosōpa, or ‘roles’ within the Trinity, but three hypostaseis, or distinct personalities. This approach proved problematic … for the Greek word hypostasis … meant ‘to stand under or among’, that is, ‘to be existent’. Such language suggested three distinct existences within the Godhead, and this sounded to nervous Christian ears like tritheism.” (Litfin)

Hanson defines hypostasis as an ‘individual existence’ and prosōpon as a ‘role’.

“Dionysius of Alexandria [in the middle of the third century] had ‘rejected it (homoousios) because for him it implied that the Father and the Son had the same hypostasis, i.e. individual existence.” (Hanson, p. 193, quoting Simonetti)

Prosōpon is sometimes translated as “role” (Hanson, p. 649)

Conclusions

In the fourth-century Arian Controversy, a hypostasis is a Person; a Being who exists distinctly from other Beings. Prosōpa, on the other hand, are roles. A single person may have more than one role. The Sabellians claimed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three prosōpa of a single Person. Therefore, prosōpa are not ‘Persons’, as we today understand the term in normal English.

When a Greek author describes the Father, Son, and Spirit as three hypostases, they are “three distinct existences;” three distinct Beings with three distinct minds. The term hypostasis, therefore, should be translated as ‘Person’.

Trinity Doctrine

The Trinity doctrine teaches that Father, Son, and Spirit are three roles of a single Person. 

The traditional Trinity doctrine is sometimes stated as one Being existing in three hypostases or Persons. However, that is misleading. The ‘Persons’ in the Trinity doctrine share a single mind. Therefore, they are not hypostases or ‘Persons’ as we understand the term in normal English. The ‘Persons’ in the Trinity doctrine are mere modes of existing as God and are equivalent to three prosōpa, similar to Tertulian’s and Sabellius’ prosōpa. (Read More)


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “The mirage of persons (prosōpa) without hypostaseis is not denied even by Sabellius, who said that the same God, though he is one subject, is transformed according to the need of each occasion and is thus spoken of now as Father, now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit.” (Basil of Caesarea, Epistle 210.5.36–41)
  • 2
    Hanson, Bishop RPC The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 3
    Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

The doctrine of the Trinity deviates from the Nicene Creed.

This article series quotes extensively from leading scholars. Since not all readers are interested in detail, the green blocks summarize the longer sections. 

PURPOSE

The church adopted the Trinity doctrine at the conclusion of the fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy. However, discoveries of ancient documents and research over the past century have revealed that the traditional account of how and why the church accepted that doctrine is grossly inaccurate. Different articles in this series discuss different critical errors in the traditional narrative.

The current article addresses the false belief that the Trinity doctrine is consistent with the Nicene Creed of 325. For example, while the Creed uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms, the Doctrine uses these terms for contrasting concepts; Person and Being. And while the Creed asserts that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis, the Doctrine proclaims three hypostases.

The New Terms in the Nicene Creed

To describe the Son of God, the Nicene Creed of 325 uses the terms hypostasis and ousia in three statements:

      • The Son is begotten “of the ousia of the Father,”
      • Father and Son are “homoousios,” meaning ‘same ousia’, and 
      • The Son is not “of another hypostasis or ousia.” (Ayres, p. 93)

These terms were not used in any previous Christian creed. A pro-Alexander pre-meeting was held in Antioch just a few months earlier and not even the draft creed produced at that meeting used these terms. (Ayres, p. 92)

The Anathema …

This article focuses on the third instance, one of the Creed’s anathemas. Early Church Texts translates it as:

“But as for those … who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance [ousia] … these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.”

With the double negative removed, it says that the Son is of the same hypostasis and ousia as the Father. This seems to deviate from the Trinity doctrine in two ways:

Uses Hypostasis and Ousia as Synonyms.

Firstly, while the traditional Trinity doctrine makes a distinction between the terms ousia and hypostasis, saying that God is one ousia (one Being) existing in three hypostases (three Persons); the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Anathema seems to use ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.

Scholars confirm that the Anathema seems to use ousia and hypostases as synonyms.

        • 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)

In contrast, the Doctrine makes a distinction between the two terms. For example, the following is one possible definition of the Doctrine:

“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)

Says that Father and Son are One Person.

A second difference between the Anathema and the Trinity doctrine is that, while the Anathema seems to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis, the Doctrine says they are three hypostases. 

Scholars confirm that the Anathema seems to teach a single hypostasis:

“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)

“That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 235)

A hypostasis is something that exists distinctly. When used for intelligent beings, it is often translated as ‘person’.

Purpose of this article

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to determine whether the Anathema:

    • Uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms and 
    • Describes Father and Son as a single hypostasis.

Both the translation of the Anathema above and the definition of the Trinity doctrine quoted above explain ousia as ‘substance’. Today, we generally understand ‘substance’ as “the real physical matter of which a person or thing consists.” However, the purpose of the current article is to determine whether that was how the compilers of the Nicene Creed understood the term.

AUTHORS

This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class catholic 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

Anatolios, Khaled,
Retrieving Nicaea, 2011
Ebook edition

BEFORE NICAEA

Etymologically, they are synonyms.

In the earliest uses of these words known to scholars today, ousia and hypostasis were 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 compilers of the Nicene Creed borrowed these terms from Greek philosophy and that philosophy used these terms as synonyms for the fundamental reality that supports all else.

The authors of the Nicene Creed derived these terms from Greek philosophy. For example, Hanson refers to “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (Hanson, p. 846)1Hypostasis … 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 the terms hypostasis and ousia (substance) appear in this definition. In philosophy, a hypostasis was also a substance. Ancient Greek philosophers used these terms as synonyms for 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” or Ultimate Reality as ‘God’.

Only one instance in the Bible

The compilers of the Creed did not obtain these terms from the Bible. The Bible never refers to God’s ousia and only once to God’s hypostasis. In that one instance, it is not clear whether hypostasis refers to God’s nature or His entire ‘Person’ (hypostasis). 

The word hypostasis “occurs five times in the New Testament.” (Hanson, p. 182) Four instances do NOT refer to God and are translated as ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ (2 Cor 9:4; 11:17; Heb 3:14; 11:1). The only instance where the term hypostasis describes God is Hebrews 1:3. 2“The only strictly theological use (of the word hypostasis) is that of Hebrews 1:3, where the Son is described as ‘the impression of the nature’ [hypostasis] of God.” (Hanson, p. 182) 3“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’.” (Hanson, p. 182) In Hebrews 1:3, “the Son is described as the impression [exact image] of the Father’s hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187, 182) This is variously translated (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 versions translate it as referring to God as a distinct Individual or Person, meaning that the Son is the exact image of the Person 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)

Origen: Synonyms for distinct Individual

Origen wrote at the beginning of the third century. He used these terms as synonyms. While ousia is today often understood as “substance,” Origen used both terms for the Persons of the Trinity as distinct Individuals, as opposed to their substance.

For example:

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

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.”

The vast majority of the delegates to Nicaea were from the Eastern church and were followers of Origen, implying that they used these terms in the same way.

For example:

At Nicaea, “around 250–300 attended, drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (Ayres, p. 19)

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy [at Nicaea] were ultimately disciples of Origen.” (Bible.ca, quoting W.H.C. Frend)

This implies that most delegates to Nicaea regarded these terms as synonyms for the ‘Person’ of God.

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

WHEN THE CONTROVERSY BEGAN

Used differently by different people

When the Controversy began, considerable confusion existed as different people used these terms differently.

Hanson discusses how several ancient theologians used these terms. Did they use these terms to describe the Father and Son as Individuals (Persons) or their substance?

      • “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.” In other words, he used hypostasis for ‘Person’. “But he also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” In other words, he used ousia for substance. “Once again we find a writer who clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 187) What Hanson means is that Asterius made a distinction between the two terms and used them as we use them today.

Therefore, considerable confusion existed.

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

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

“That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis [in the Nicene Creed].” (Ayres, p. 98)

Synonyms for many

Although different people used these terms differently, many used these terms as synonyms.

For example:

“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)

Importantly, Athanasius, the paragon of the West, also used these terms as synonyms: “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)

MEANING CHANGED

Much later in the Century

The fourth century was a search for orthodoxy; not the defense of orthodoxy. The outcome of that Controversy, the Trinity doctrine, did not yet exist when the Nicene Creed was formulated. As a key part of that search for the doctrine of God, theologians changed the meanings of the terms ousia and hypostasis.

As confirmation that the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine, Lewis Ayres explains that ‘pro-Nicene theology’, which is what we today understand as the Trinity doctrine, was developed later in that century and differs from the theology of the Nicene Creed:

“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)

Consistent with the idea that theology evolved over the fourth century, the meanings of these two terms changed over that period:

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

“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)

By the Cappadocians

Some of the ‘Arians’ were the first to distinguish between hypostasis and ousia but the Cappadiocian fathers were the first pro-Nicenes to make that distinction. Based on their authority, the distinction became accepted in the Trinitarian church.

The Cappadocian fathers are traditionally credited for being the first to make a clear distinction between ousia and hypostasis:

“The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía … was Basil of Caesarea.”4Johannes, “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)

In reality, some of the Eusebians, the so-called Arians, 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’. For example, he “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And he said that the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “were different in kind and in rank.” (Hanson, p. 187) But 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.” He used hypostasis for ‘Person’. For example, he “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” But he used ousia for ‘substance’. For example, “he also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.” (Hanson, p. 187)

What we can say is that the Cappadocians were the first pro-Nicenes to make that distinction. While Basil was a three-hypostasis theologian (see here), Athanasius and the earlier pro-Nicene theologians believed in one hypostasis (see here) and did not need a distinction between hypostasis and ousia.

THE CREED

Uses these terms as synonyms.

The fact that, at the time, many people used the two terms as synonyms supports our conclusion above that the Anathema uses them as synonyms. That confirms that the Nicene Creed deviates from the Trinity doctrine in which the distinction between ousia and hypostases is foundational, saying that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases but one ousia.

It would furthermore mean that, 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) In other words, the translation of the Anathema as quoted above mistakenly translates ousia as ‘substance’. 

Teaches only one hypostasis.

Since the Anathema, with the double negatives removed, says that the Son is of the same hypostasis or substance as the Father, it claims that Father and Son are one single hypostasis. This deviates from the Trinity doctrine which asserts three hypostases.

Is Sabellian.

However, to say that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (a single Person) is Sabellianism.

Sabellianism was already condemned as heresy in the third century. Scholars confirm that the Anathema implies Sabellianism:

“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)

“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) Eustathius and Marcellus were the most famous Sabellians of the fourth century. (See here.)

Confirmed by Sabellian domination

A Sabellian statement was included in the Creed because Sabellians dominated at Nicaea through their alliance with Alexander and through the emperor’s support for Alexander.

The reader may question why the Creed would include a Sabellian statement. This is explained in the article on the meaning of the term Homoousios. (See here.) In brief:

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. In opposition to them, Sabellians said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis (Person).

Alexander and Athanasius, similar to the Sabellians, maintained that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis. (See here.) For that reason, at Nicaea, they were able to join forces with the Sabellians. Emperor Constantine took Alexander’s side in his dispute with Arius. This gave the Sabellians the upper hand at Nicaea.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the Creed presents Father and Son as one single hypostasis. However:

“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)

AGREES WITH THE ANATHEMA

However, if one goes beyond the formal wording of the Trinity doctrine to its essence, it does agree with the Anathema in two respects. Firstly, both describe the Father and the Son as a single hypostasis. Secondly, both use the terms ousia and hypostasis as synonyms.  

1. A Single Hypostasis

1a ‘Hypostases’ (Persons) are misleading.

Formally, the Doctrine confesses the Father, Son, and Spirit to be three hypostases (Persons). However, that is misleading. A hypostasis is a distinct being with a unique mind but, in the Doctrine, the Trinity is a single Being with a single mind.

The Trinity doctrine says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are “one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases [Persons].” This leads the reader to think of three distinct Entities because, in normal English, each ‘person’ is a distinct entity with his or her own mind. A hypostasis is also defined as an “individual existence” (Hanson, p. 193) or “distinct existences” (Litfin); something that exists distinctly from other things.  

However, in the Doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit do not exist distinctly. They are a single Being with a single mind. For example, the leading Catholic scholar Karl Rahner (The Trinity) wrote:

“The element of consciousness … does not belong to it [the Person] in our context [the official doctrine of the {Catholic} Church].” “But there exists in God only one power, one will, only one self-presence. … Hence self-awareness is not a moment which distinguishes the divine “persons” one from the other.”

“When today we speak of person in the plural, we think almost necessarily, because of the modern meaning of the word, of several spiritual centers of activity [minds], of several subjectivities [biases, views] and liberties [freedoms]. But there are not three of these in God. … There are not three consciousnesses; rather the one consciousness subsists in a threefold way. There is only one real consciousness in God, which is shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit, by each in his own proper way.”

In other words, the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single will, consciousness, and self-awareness.

“Each Person shares the Divine will … that come from a mind. … Each Person’s self-awareness and consciousness is not inherent to that Person (by nature of that Person being that Person) but comes from the shared essence.” (Rahner) 5“We must, of course, say that Father, Son, and Spirit possess self-consciousness and that each one is aware of the other two ‘persons’. But precisely this self-consciousness … comes from the divine essence, is common as one to the divine persons.” (Rahner) 

If the traditional Trinity doctrine taught three equal Minds, that would have been Tritheism. Rahner and other Catholic scholars confirm that the term ‘Person’ is misleading:

“When today we speak of person in the plural, we think almost necessarily, because of the modern meaning of the word, of several spiritual centers of activity [minds], of several subjectivities [biases, views] and liberties [freedoms]. But there are not three of these in God. … There are not three consciousnesses; rather the one consciousness subsists in a threefold way. There is only one real consciousness in God, which is shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit, by each in his own proper way.”

“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)

“By the conventions of the late fourth century, first formulated in Greek by the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, these three constituent members of what God is came to be referred to as hypostases (‘concrete individuals’) or, more misleadingly for us moderns, as prosōpa (‘persons’).” (Anatolios, xiii) 6In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose a ‘Social Trinity’ with “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but this article only considered the standard, traditional Doctrine.

Rather than the word ‘Person’, Hanson above explains the hypostases in the Trinity doctrine as “three ways of being or modes of existing” of the same one God. This reminds us of Modalism, the name Von Harnack gave to second-century Monarchianism; the teaching that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for the same Entity.

1b Origins do not make them distinct.

In the Doctrine, the only distinction between the ‘Persons’ is their origins, but that is an internal and invisible distinction within the one Being. It does not make them three ‘Persons’. So, the three-ness of God is a verbal formula without any practical implications. For us, in the Doctrine, God is only one Person.

In the Doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit differ only in their “relationships of origin;” the Son is begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and from the Son in Western theology). 7 For example, Karl Rahner, a leading Catholic scholar, in his book – The Trinity – says: “It follows that we must say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with the one godhead and are ‘relatively’ distinct from one another. These three as distinct are constituted only by their relatedness to one another … in God everything is one except where there is relative opposition.”

However, that does not mean that they exist distinctly because, firstly, the Son did not separate from the Father when He was begotten and the Spirit also does not separate when He proceeds:

“The eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being;” “within the unitary and simple Godhead.” (Ayres, p. 236)

Secondly, that distinction is invisible to created beings:

“By the last quarter of the fourth century, halting Christian attempts … had led … to … ‘the doctrine of the Holy Trinity’: the formulated idea that the God … is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, as one reality or substance, operating outward in creation always as a unity, yet always internally differentiated by the relationships of origin that Father and Son and Holy Spirit have with one another.” (Anatolios, xiii)

Therefore, in the Doctrine, from the perspective of the created universe, the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being. That agrees with the Anathema.

We also see the one-ness of God reflected in how the Doctrine interprets the term homoousios. Literally, it means ‘same substance’, implying two Entities with the same kind of substance. (See here.) But the Doctrine interprets it as ‘one substance’, which depicts Father and Son God as a single Entity, which we can describe as one hypostasis or one Person.

1c Conclusion

So, despite the evolution of theology in the fourth century and despite the change in the meanings of the terms ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostasis,’ in reality, the Doctrine of the Trinity continues to explain God as the Anathema and Athanasius explained Him; a single hypostasis.

As discussed here, Athanasius believed in one hypostasis. Above we concluded that the Anathema also implies one hypostasis. In its essence, despite its formal wording, the Trinity doctrine is still one-hypostasis theology.

2. Ousia and Hypostasis as synonyms

The Doctrine does not interpret the term ousia in the Creed as ‘substance’ but as referring to the Being of God. In other words, similar to the Anathema, it interprets ‘ousia’ as an individual existence, which is what hypostasis means.

We argued above that the Anathema uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms. 8Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (Ayres, p. 88) We also noted that Athanasius used them as synonyms. 9“Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)

The Doctrine uses the same two terms but, as already stated, by asserting three hypostases (three Persons) and one ousia (one Being), the Doctrine seems to give different meanings to the two terms. 

However, if ‘substance’ means “the real physical matter of which a person or thing consists,” note that the Doctrine does not interpret ousia as ‘substance’. It interprets it as a ‘Being’ – an individual existence, another way of saying Person or hypostasis.

In other words, similar to Athanasius and the Anathema, the Doctrine uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms; both meaning an individual existence.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 2
    “The only strictly theological use (of the word hypostasis) is that of Hebrews 1:3, where the Son is described as ‘the impression of the nature’ [hypostasis] of God.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 3
    “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’.” (Hanson, p. 182)
  • 4
    Johannes, “Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils”
  • 5
    “We must, of course, say that Father, Son, and Spirit possess self-consciousness and that each one is aware of the other two ‘persons’. But precisely this self-consciousness … comes from the divine essence, is common as one to the divine persons.” (Rahner)
  • 6
    In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose a ‘Social Trinity’ with “three Centres of Consciousness” (Hanson, p. 737), i.e., three ‘minds’, but this article only considered the standard, traditional Doctrine.
  • 7
    For example, Karl Rahner, a leading Catholic scholar, in his book – The Trinity – says: “It follows that we must say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with the one godhead and are ‘relatively’ distinct from one another. These three as distinct are constituted only by their relatedness to one another … in God everything is one except where there is relative opposition.”
  • 8
    Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (Ayres, p. 88)
  • 9
    “Clearly for him hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (Hanson, 440)