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 Council of Constantinople in AD 381 was not ecumenical.

“The Council of Constantinople met during May, June and July 381.” (RH, 805)

Authors quoted

LA = Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004

RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

Due to discoveries of ancient documents and significant progress, the scholarship of the past hundred years has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy presents history from the perspective of the winner and is a complete travesty. These books reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

It was not an ecumenical council.

It is known as the Second Ecumenical Council. ‘Ecumenical’ that it represents all churches and perspectives. However, that council was far from ecumenical. It was a regional council of Antioch. For example, the Western church did not attend. 1Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)

Furthermore, already in the previous year, the emperor Theodosius had made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, exiled the Homoian bishop of the Capital, and outlawed all forms of non-Trinitarian Christianity, with threats of punishment. Consequently, no ‘Arian’ was allowed into the Council. It was attended only by pro-Nicenes:

“When Theodosius had entered Constantinople in November 380,” (the year before the council) he immediately exiled the Homoian bishop Demophilus and “accepted Gregory Nazianzen as de facto bishop.” (LA, 253) 

“Only about 150 bishops attended and they appear to have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius, who was its president, that is areas under the influence of the see of Antioch.” (RH, 806) 2“Meletius was the initial president of the council.” (LA, 253) 3“It seems unlikely that this meeting was intended as a universal council to rival Seleucia/Ariminum or Nicaea itself. … Those present at the council initially came from a fairly restricted area and the majority from areas known to be favourable to Meletius.” (LA, 253)

“Negotiations with the Macedonians … were undertaken but no agreement could be reached and the Macedonian bishops, about 30 in number, left the council.” (RH, 807)

“The details … of this council indicate the problems with later presentation of the meeting as an ‘ecumenical’ reaffirmation of Nicaea.” (LA, 255)

The emperor controlled the meeting.

The emperor summoned the council; not the church. (LA, 253)

“Theodosius welcomed the participants in his magnificent throne-room in the Imperial palace, but the Council did not meet there. … After receiving the bishops, Theodosius did not appear at any session of the Council, but remained in the wings, as it were, holding a watching brief.” (RH, 806)

“The first act of the Council was to affirm that Gregory of Nazianzus was the Catholic and legitimate bishop of Constantinople.” (RH, 806; cf. LA, 253-4) Gregory was the person whom the emperor in the previous year unilaterally appointed as bishop of the Capital after he had exiled the incumbent Arian bishop.

The chairperson was the emperor’s agent:

The first chairperson was Meletius, but he died soon and was replaced as chairperson by Gregory Nazianzen – the person whom the emperor appointed as bishop of Constantinople. 4“During the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council.” (RH, 807; cf. LA, 254) 

But Gregory resigned5“In the council itself Gregory seems to have quickly made himself unpopular.” (LA, 254) “At some point he seems also to have lost the support of Theodosius. Gregory offered his resignation … and it was accepted.” (LA, 255) and was replaced by a person (Nectarius) who was the equivalent to the mayor of the city (“praetor urbanus in Constantinople” (RH, 811)), but who was a mere lay-person in the church. “It was as if today the cardinals had chosen as Pope … the mayor of Rome.” (RH, 811) 6In the place of Gregory, “the bishops of the council chose an unbaptised catechumen, an imperial civil servant, Nectarius, who then became the presiding officer.” (RH, 807) 7Nectarius was “an unbaptized civil official in Constantinople.” (LA, 255) Now the chairperson was fully under the emperor’s control.

Nectarius was also elected as bishop of Constantinople:

“The Council found itself in a quandary over the choice of a new bishop of the capital city. … They finally picked … an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, who had been praetor urbanus in Constantinople. … The bishop-elect was hastily baptised and ordained.” (RH, 811) 8“The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose.” (RH, 811)

That the Council elected a civil servant as chairperson and as bishop of the Capital reveals the unity of church and state. The same person now managed both the city and the church. It also shows the control which the emperor had over the council.

It concluded the Meletian Schism.

As stated, Meletius, the bishop of Antioch and the first chairperson of the council, suddenly died. The meeting then discussed a replacement for Meletius as bishop of Antioch. The Meletian Schism is named after Meletius. It was a schism within the pro-Nicene camp, particularly over the rightful bishop of Antioch:

On the one side of that schism were the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (Athanasius, and his successor Peter, and Damasus, the bishop of Rome). They supported Paulinus as bishop of Antioch. All of them believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Rational Faculty (one hypostasis).

In the third main center of the Empire, Constantinople, the bishop was a Homoian until the emperor exiled him. But the most important pro-Nicenes in the East were the Cappadocians and they, like the Homoians, taught three Rational Faculties (three hypostases). In this camp, Basil of Caesarea supported his friend Meletius as bishop of Antioch.

This tension continued in the council. For example:

Paulinus had been for years steadily supported by Damasus and Peter against Meletius, the leader of the party of the Easterners at the council. Considerable antagonism between him and the followers of Meletius must have been aroused.” (RH, 810)

“It is wholly improbable that the bishop of Alexandria would have attended the council as long as Meletius was presiding over it, and if the bishop of Thessalonica regarded himself as in any sense representing the bishop of Rome (and he may have done so), it is not likely that he would have been content to attend a council with Meletius at the head of it either.” (RH, 808-9)

The selection of the bishop of Antioch intensified this conflict. Gregory proposed Paulinus but the meeting elected Flavian:

“Gregory wanted the council to elect Paulinus in place of Meletius as bishop of Antioch, but it preferred to choose Flavian.” (RH, 807)

Flavian was “a prominent presbyter of the party of Paulinus.” (RH, 810) So, he was on the same side as Paulinus.

Nectarius, the praetor urbanus in Constantinople, who was elected as bishop of the Capital (Constantinople), supported “the Eustathian cause in Antioch.” (RH, 811) Eustathius was the leading Sabellian when the Arian Controversy began. Like the bishops of Rome and Alexandria, the Sabellians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Rational Faculty (hypostasis). Nectarius, therefore, was also in the ‘one-hypostasis camp’.

It is interesting that Gregory proposed Paulinus because Gregory, presumably, since he was one of the Cappadocians, supported Basil in this dispute. Perhaps the emperor instructed Gregory to propose Paulinus. The emperor’s Edict of Thessalonica of the previous year also took the one hypostasis side of that schism. It explicitly mentions Peter and Damasus in that edict as role models for the Trinity doctrine.

In conclusion, the delegates “have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius.” (RH, 806) But the meeting ends with Meletius dead and his opponents in the Meletian Schism appointed as Bishops of Antioch and Constantinople, and as chairperson of the council. One wonders whether the emperor contributed more than his prayers to Meletius’ death. It seems as if the emperor fully hijacked Meletius’ meeting.

Other Decisions

“The council re-affirmed N but also produced the creed C. … All this lasted three months from May to July 381.” (RH, 807) See – Was the creed of AD 381 an update of the Nicene Creed of 325?

The council agreed that “the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy precedence in honour next after the bishop of Rome because it is the New Rome’. It is very likely that this was intended to reduce the pretensions of the archbishop of Alexandria.” (RH, 808)


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)
  • 2
    “Meletius was the initial president of the council.” (LA, 253)
  • 3
    “It seems unlikely that this meeting was intended as a universal council to rival Seleucia/Ariminum or Nicaea itself. … Those present at the council initially came from a fairly restricted area and the majority from areas known to be favourable to Meletius.” (LA, 253)
  • 4
    “During the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council.” (RH, 807; cf. LA, 254)
  • 5
    “In the council itself Gregory seems to have quickly made himself unpopular.” (LA, 254) “At some point he seems also to have lost the support of Theodosius. Gregory offered his resignation … and it was accepted.” (LA, 255)
  • 6
    In the place of Gregory, “the bishops of the council chose an unbaptised catechumen, an imperial civil servant, Nectarius, who then became the presiding officer.” (RH, 807)
  • 7
    Nectarius was “an unbaptized civil official in Constantinople.” (LA, 255)
  • 8
    “The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose.” (RH, 811)