The Sabellians of the Fourth Century

Overview

This article discusses the views of the three main Sabellians of the fourth century:

      • Eustathius of Antioch,
      • Marcellus of Ancyra, and
      • Photinus of Sirmium.

Two of them (Eustatius and Marcellus) attended Nicaea, joined forces with Alexander, vigorously opposed the Arians, and played a major role in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.

However, both of them were deposed for Sabellianism within about ten years after Nicaea. Photinus was a little later and was deposed in 351.

After Marcellus was deposed by the Eastern Church, he was vindicated by the Western Church. Athanasius, who was found guilty of violence and tyranny by the Eastern Church, was simultaneously declared orthodox and innocent by the Western Church.

Alexander and Athanasius were similar enough in their theology to the Sabellians to join forces with the Sabellians both at Nicaea and during the decades after Nicaea.

In Sabellian theology, the Logos is God’s only Logos. The Logos or Son, therefore, is “in” the Father, meaning that Father and Son are one single hypostasis (one single Being, Reality, and Centre of Consciousness). The Son and Holy Spirit are simply attributes or activities of the one God. The Logos does not have a real distinct existence. The Logos is merely a word spoken by God or God’s thought. This has some important implications:

(1) Christ did not exist before He was born from Mary.

(2) Christ is a complete human being with a human soul (mind) so it was merely a human being who suffered, died, was resurrected, and now sits at God’s right hand. The Logos or Son did not suffer or die.

(3) The eternal Logos dwells in the man Jesus merely as an Energy or an Activity or as Inspiration and Moral agreement.

Introduction

In chapter 8 of his book,1The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God RPC Hanson discusses three bishops with similar views, that were prominent during the fourth-century Arian Controversy. They are:

    • Eustathius of Antioch
    • Marcellus of Ancyra, and
    • Photinus of Sirmium, which was another important city. Emperor Constans made “Sirmium his Head Quarters.” (RH, 316)2RH refers to Hanson’s book.

Ayres3Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy discusses Marcellus as one of the four “trajectories” in the church when the Arian Controversy began in chapter 3.1 of his book. This article is largely a summary of these two chapters.

Similar Theologies

Their theologies were similar:

“Marcellus learnt the main lines of his theology from Eustathius.” (RH, 234) Their theologies only differ “in minor respects” (RH, 216) and “stem from the same theological tradition.” (RH, 234) That tradition is identified below as that of the second-century Monarchians.

“Photinus, bishop of Sirmium … came from Ancyra, was a devoted disciple of Marcellus of Ancyra.” (RH, 235-6)

The Council at Nicaea

Joined forces with Alexander

Both Eustathius and Marcellus attended Nicaea. There, they joined forces with Alexander and were some of the most vocal opponents of Arius:

“Marcellus, Eustathius and Alexander were able to make common cause against the Eusebians.” (LA, 69)4LA refers to Lewis Ayres’ book. “Eustathius and Marcellus … certainly met at Nicaea and no doubt were there able to join forces with Alexander of Alexandria and Ossius.” (RH, 234) (Ossius presided over the meeting as the emperor’s agent.)

“Marcellus … played a major role at Nicaea.” (LA, 62)

Eustathius “was clearly a vigorous opponent of Arius and Arianism.” (RH, 208)

Triumphed at Nicaea

Eustathius and Marcellus are important because they influenced the wording of the Nicene Creed:

“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.” (RH, 235)

Deposed

However, both Eustatius and Marcellus were deposed within about ten years after Nicaea. Photinus lived a little later and was deposed in 351:

Eustathius was “deposed from the see of Antioch by a council and exiled by Constantine.” (RH, 209) Ayres says that this was “soon after Nicaea, probably in 327.” (LA, 68-69). Hanson says it “cannot have been later than 331.” (RH, 209)

“About ten years after the Council of Nicaea he (Marcellus) was deposed by a council held in Constantinople.” (RH, 217)

Photinus was “censured” and “condemned” in 344, 345, and 347, “but was only ousted and exiled finally … in 351.” (RH, 236)

For Sabellianism

Eustathius and Marcellus were deposed for Sabellianism:

“It seems most likely that Eustathius was primarily deposed for the heresy of Sabellianism.” (RH, 211)

Marcellus of Ancyra “cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism” (R.P.C. Hanson). “Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (RH, ix) “Marcellus was deposed for Sabellian leanings.” (RH, 228) Eusebius regards Marcellus’ “doctrine as outright Sabellianism, that is a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” (RH, 224) His book “was accused of favouring the ideas of Paul of Samosata.” (RH, 217). (This Paul was a prominent Sabellians from the third century.)

Vindicated in the West

While Marcellus was deposed in the East (Constantinople), he was vindicated as orthodox in the West (Rome):

“Julius (bishop of Rome), in the year 341, summoned a council to Rome, which vindicated the orthodoxy of Marcellus, as well as that of Athanasius.” (RH, 218)

Note that the West also vindicated Athanasius. His theology was similar to the Sabellians:

“Athanasius and Marcellus could come together in Rome. The perception that these two trajectories held to very similar beliefs would help to shape widespread eastern antipathy to both in the years after Nicaea.” (LA, 69)

“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.“ (LA, 69)

The similarity of their theologies is also shown by their alliance:

“At the Council of Jerusalem and the Council of Tyre in the same year he (Marcellus) had supported Athanasius.” (RH, 217)

“Athanasius … continued to defend the orthodoxy of Marcellus.” (RH, 220) “Though he (Athanasius) may temporarily at this period, when he was preparing to return from his second exile, have wished to place a distance between himself and Marcellus, he had no intention of making a final break with him. It is doubtful if he ever did this.” (RH, 220)

Another article provides further evidence of the Sabellian leaning of the theologies of Alexander and Athanasius. For example, “Studer’s account here follows the increasingly prominent scholarly position that Athanasius’ theology offers a strongly unitarian Trinitarian theology whose account of personal differentiation is underdeveloped.” (LA, 238) The question is, why did the West vindicate these two Sabellians?

One possible answer is that the West did not understand the issues. At first, the West was not involved in the Arian Controversy. For example, the delegates at Nicaea were “drawn entirely from the East. almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire.” (LA, 19) Hanson concludes that the East failed to properly understand the issues:

“Pope Julius and his associates who declared Marcellus’ doctrine to be orthodox can have never met the works of Origen nor known anything of the theology of the Eastern Church.” (RH, 231)

An alternative answer is that the West was also Sabellian. Hanson comments: “In this medley of opinions it is quite unrealistic to indulge in the business of labelling some as ‘heretical’ and some as ‘orthodox’.” (RH, 216)

One Hypostasis

In the Father

These Sabellians described the Logos, not only as in “God,” but as in “the Father.” With respect to Marcellus, for example:

“The Word … eternally is in the Father.” (LA, 63) “Before the world existed the Word was in the Father.” (LA, 63) “The Word was in the Father as a power.” (LA, 63)

“To describe the relationship between Word and God he (Marcellus) deploys the analogy of a human person and her reason.” In other words, the Word eternally exists “intrinsic to” the Father’s existence. (LA, 62)

One Hypostasis

Hanson defines Sabellianism above as “a failure to distinguish Father and Son.” (RH, 224) Since the Logos is “in” the Father, it follows that God is only One Hypostasis (Reality). In later Trinitarian language, these Sabellians believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one single ‘Person’. The Son and Holy Spirit are simply attributes or activities of the one God. For example:

Hanson refers to Eustathius’ “insistence that there is only one distinct reality (hypostasis) in the Godhead, and his confusion about distinguishing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (RH, 216) 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) “The point’ which was to them (Marcellus’ followers) crucial, that there was one hypostasis with one ousia.” (RH, 223-4) “Marcellus … is particularly incensed at the use of hypostasis or ousia in the plural.” (LA, 63)

The Logos has no real existence.

It follows that the Logos does not have a real distinct existence. For that reason, Ayres also refers to them as Unitarians (LA, 431). For example:

“’The Logos for Eustathius,’ says Loofs, … ‘has or is no proper hypostasis’.” (RH, 215) In other words, the Logos does not have an existence distinct from the Father.

Eusebius of Caesarea “accuses Marcellus of Ancyra of rejecting the hypostasis i.e. the distinct individuality, of the Son.” (RH, 53) 5RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987 For Marcellus, the Logos was only a temporary word spoken by God: “The Son was a mere word … immanent [inherent] during the time that the Father was silent, but active in fashioning the creation, just as one’s speech is inactive when we are silent, but active when we speak.” (RH, 224)

For Photinus“The Logos … was simply a mode of manifestation of the Father, a power or aspect of him not in any serious sense distinct from him.” (RH, 237) “Like Marcellus, he favoured the analogy of a man and his thought for the relation of the Father to the Son.” (RH, 237)

Not Sabellian

Marcellus insists “that he is not a Sabellian.” (LA, 63) Technically, this may be true. In Sabellianism, the Father and Son are parts of the one God. See – Sabellius. In contrast, as stated, for Marcellus, the Son is “in the Father.” (LA, 63, 64) Nevertheless, in both views, the Father and Son are one single hypostasis (Reality) and the Son is not a distinct reality. This article, therefore, uses the term “Sabellian” for any view in which God is only one hypostasis.

Who is Jesus?

The discussion above pertains only to the nature of God apart from the incarnation. But the more important issue is what ‘one hypostasis’ theology means for the question of who Jesus Christ is or was. That, after all, was the big question in the Arian Controversy.

Christ had no pre-existence.

All three theologians made a distinction between the Logos and the Son:

      • The Logos is eternal and an attribute of God.
      • The Son came into existence when He was born from Mary.

Marcellus

For example, for Marcellus, “the only-begotten Son” was equal to “Logos + assumed flesh.” (RH, 227) We usually say that the Son was “begotten” in eternity past. But, for Marcellus, the term “begotten” refers to the event, 2000 years ago, when the Logos assumed flesh. Before that event, the “Son” did not exist:

“It was not the Logos that was begotten, but the Son.” (RH, 224)

“The Logos was only called Son or Jesus or Christ after the Incarnation.” (RH, 225)

Eustathius

Eustathius, similarly, “distinguishes between ‘the Logos … and ‘Christ’s man’ who was raised from the dead and is exalted and glorified.” (RH, 213) “It is the man who sits at God’s right hand.” (RH, 214)

Photinus

“The Son did not come into existence until the Incarnation and was defined as the whole human being who was born of Mary; Christ had no pre-existence.” (RH, 237)

Christ has a Human Mind.

The fourth-century Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Christ does not have a human soul: God gave Him a body without a human soul or mind so that the Logos may function as Christ’s soul and mind. In that way, the Logos suffered all the pain and insult of the Cross. The Eusebians described the Son as God (divine) but with a lower form of divinity that is able to suffer and even die. They, therefore, were able to say that God suffered and God died. 

In contrast, the Sabellians said that the Son has a human soul (mind) and that that soul absorbed all human experiences. The underlying principle is that the Logos is God and God cannot suffer. For example:

Eustathius

“The man whom the Logos assumed was a complete man: ‘he consists of soul and body.” (RH, 213)

“The human being absorbs all the human experiences attributed to Christ in the Gospels, leaving the divine element untouched.” (RH, 215)

“This soul was able to endure the human experiences which it was unfitting for the divine element in Christ to endure.” (RH, 212)

So, in this theology, it was only a human person that suffered and died.

Marcellus

At first, Hanson says:

“There is no reason to conclude that Marcellus saw the necessity of postulating a human psyche in the flesh assumed by the Logos at the Incarnation.” (RH, 229)

But he later mentions factors that: “might cause us to consider again the conjecture discussed above, that Marcellus did in his middle or later period admit a human soul to Christ.” (RH, 238)

Photinus

“He certainly taught that the human body of Jesus had a human mind or soul.” (RH, 236)

Limited

Since Christ has a human mind, He is limited. For example:

Eustathius said: “God hid the knowledge of the day of the Second Coming from the man, but the divine element in Jesus Christ was omniscient.” (RH, 213-4)

And Photinus argued: “Christ was only Son of God in the sense that all Christians are.” (RH, 238)

An Activity or Energy

So, the question is, in what sense was God in this man? For the Sabellians, the eternal Logos dwells in the man Jesus as an Energy or an Activity or as Inspiration and Moral agreement:

“It would seem that Eustathius … holds that the Logos is  … dwelling as an ‘ENERGY’ in Jesus.” (RH, 215)

For Marcellus, with respect to “the Incarnation … the Godhead would appear to be extended simply by ACTIVITY so that in all likelihood the Monad is genuinely indivisible.” (RH, 228)

“Everybody in the ancient world accuses Photinus of reducing Christ to a mere man adopted by God, i.e. the union between Logos and man was one of INSPIRATION AND MORAL AGREEMENT” (RH, 237)

One or two Logoi?

Marcellus described the Logos as “the proper and true Logos of God.” (RH, 230). He said: There is not “another Logos and another Wisdom and Power.” (RH, 230) This is an attack aimed at the Eusebians who said that Jesus Christ is the Logos of God but God also has His own Logos. The Sabellians, therefore, found it ‘surprising’ that the Eusebians spoke of two Logoi. For the Sabellians, God only has one Logos, and that Logos works in Jesus as an activity.

Christ’s reign will end.

If the Logos is only an activity of God in the man Jesus, then that activity might end when the goal is accomplished. “Marcellus set a limit to this period of Christ’s reign. At the end of this reign the flesh of Christ was to be abandoned, the body deserted, and the Logos would return to God from whom he had (before the creation of the world) come forth.” (RH, 226-7) “He is most concerned to uphold God’s rule as complete and unmediated, and thus the kingdom of Christ must end.” (LA, 66)

Marcellus seemed to have later changed his view on this. “He played down his more eccentric earlier ideas” (RH, 238)

The Holy Spirit

In the same way, the Holy Spirit is merely an activity of or an energy from God. For Marcellus: “The Spirit remains inseparably in God, but goes forth as activity from the Father and the Logos.” (RH, 229) “The same language of going forth in energy is used for the Spirit as was used in the case of the Son.” (LA, 67)

Antecedents – Monarchian

“Scholarship has also consistently linked Marcellus with ‘Monarchian’ theologies. Monarchian theologians in the second and third centuries appear to have focused on the unity of God centred in the person of the Father. By their opponents they are accused of teaching that the Son and the Spirit do not have real independent existence and are in fact simply modes of the Father’s being. … Some scholarship has seen this theological tendency as a strong and persistent theological voice, both in Rome and in Asia through the third century, with Marcellus as the last prominent Monarchian voice.” (LA, 69)

Conclusions

The perhaps surprising conclusion is that the Arian (Eusebian) view of Jesus Christ is infinitely higher than the Sabellian view.

Another perhaps surprising conclusion is that the Socianians or so-called Biblical Unitarians are the continuation of the ancient Sabellians.


Other Articles in this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 20The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 21‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 22In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 23This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 24Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 29Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 30The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

All articles on this Site

 

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God
  • 2
    RH refers to Hanson’s book.
  • 3
    Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy
  • 4
    LA refers to Lewis Ayres’ book.
  • 5
    RH = Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 6
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 7
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 8
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 9
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 10
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 11
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 12
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 13
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 14
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 15
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 16
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 17
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 18
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 19
    The Trinity doctrine uses two terms that are basically synonyms to describe both what the Father, Son, and Spirit are individually and collectively.
  • 20
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 21
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 22
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 23
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 24
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 25
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 26
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 27
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 28
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 29
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 30
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

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”