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)

Basil of Caesarea taught three substances (three Beings).

Summary

Basil was elected bishop of Caesarea in 370. In some accounts, he was the architect of the pro-Nicene triumph.

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one undivided substance (one Being and one single Centre of Consciousness). In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Basil of Caesarea taught something similar to the Trinity doctrine. However, the purpose of this article is to show that Basil taught three distinct substances (three Beings and three distinct Centres of Consciousness).

All previous theologians, even Athanasius, assumed “a certain ontological subordination.” Basil was the first to propose that “the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (Ayres, p. 207) However, for the following reasons, Basil believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct substances:

1. Basil did not begin his career as a pro-Nicene. He began as an ‘Arian’; specifically, a Homoi-ousian. As such, he believed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same, meaning two distinct substances.

2. Even after he had moved away from the ‘similar substance’ formula of the Homoi-ousians, and taught that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father’s, Basil continued to say that the Son’s substance is “like” the Father’s, implying two distinct substances.

3. While a Trinitarian may understand homoousios as saying that two things are really one, Basil understood homoousios as saying that two things are really distinct but “like unalterably according to ousia.” This also shows that he believed in two distinct substances.

4. Basil argued, just like three people are three instances of humanity, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three instances of divinity. This is perhaps the clearest indication that Basil had two distinct substances in mind.

5. Basil speaks of the Father as choosing to work through the Son—not needing to, and the Son chooses to work through the Spirit, but does not need to. This means that Father and Son have distinct wills, which means that they must be distinct substances.

6. “Basil showed himself reluctant to apply homoousios to the Holy Spirit. … Homoousios was a word which applied particularly to the relation of the Son to the Father.” (Hanson, p. 698) If the Spirit is not homoousios with the Father and Son, then the Three cannot be one substance.

7. “Basil consistently presents the Father as the source of the Trinitarian persons and of the essence that the three share.” (Ayres, p. 206) If the Father is the only Being who exists without cause, it is difficult to imagine that Father, Son, and Spirit could be one substance.

8. Basil maintained a certain order among the Persons, described the Spirit as third in order, dignity, and even rank, and never referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘God’. Again, this argues against Them being one single substance.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Introduction

Authors

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

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

Ayres, Lewis
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Basil’s Importance

The three ‘Cappadocian theologians’, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa “were together decisively influential in bringing about the final form of the doctrine of the Trinity.” (Hanson, p. 676) “In some accounts Basil is the architect of the pro-Nicene triumph.” (Ayres, p. 187)

Basil’s History

“Basil was born around 330” and “was extremely well educated in rhetoric and philosophy” (Ayres, p. 187-188) “In 370 … Basil was elected bishop.” (Ayres, p. 188)

Terminology

Terminology is a huge hurdle in discussing the fourth-century Arian Controversy. During that Controversy, for most people, the Greek words ousia (substance) and hypostasis (distinct individual) were synonyms.

      • So, when the Eusebians said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three substances, they are also three hypostases.
      • And when the Sabellians said they are only one substance, they are also only one hypostasis. That is also how Athanasius used these words. (See – Athanasius

However. the Trinity doctrine causes confusion by using ousia and hypostases for contrasting concepts. In the Greek language of the fourth century, it says that God is one ousia existing as three hypostases. Similarly, in modern language, where Being and Person are synonyms, it says that God is one Being existing in three Persons.

So, the challenge is to find terminology for discussing the fourth-century controversy that will be clear to modern readers:

This article avoids the term hypostasis because, during the fourth century, it was used as a synonym for ousia but, in the Trinity doctrine, one ousia is three hypostases. 

This article focuses on the term “substance” because that term had more or less the same meaning in the fourth century as it has today. One substance is then one Being.

The question in this article is how many substances (Beings) the Father, Son, and Spirit are, and also, if they are more than one, whether their substances are the same.

Purpose

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one undivided substance (one Being). This may be compared to the various views held during the fourth century:

Sabellianism was still a strong force during the fourth century. Sabellians said that Father and Son are one single substance and that the Son emerges from the Father merely as an energy. For example:

“Marcellus of Ancyra uses the language of ἐνέργεια (energy) to explain how it is that the Son can come forth and work without God being extended materially.” (Ayres, p. 197) 

The Eusebians (the anti-Nicenes, usually but inappropriately called ‘Arians’) believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three unequal substances (Beings).

Pro-Nicene theology is more complex:

Emperor Constantine proposed and insisted on the inclusion of the term homoousios (literally, same substance) but he also asked the delegates not to interpret the term literally. He glossed the term with some vague meaning, based on which the majority accepted the term homoousios and the Creed. So, for the majority, the term was pretty meaningless.

How the minority, who supported the term homoousios, understood that term, is a different story altogether. See – Alexander.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Basil of Caesarea taught something similar to the Trinity doctrine, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are one single undivided substance (Being). However, the purpose of this article is to show that Basil taught three distinct substances (Beings).

The Same Substance Exactly

But before we discuss the number of substances, it is important to show that, what makes Basil different, is that he believed that Father Son, and Spirit have exactly the same type of substance:

Lewis Ayres says that “in all the previous discussions (before Basil of Caesarea) of the term (homoousios) … a certain ontological subordination is at least implied.” (Ayres, p. 206) For the Eusebians, that is obviously true. But it was even true for Athanasius; the great defender of Nicaea. For example:

“Athanasius’ pointed lack of willingness to” say that the Father is homoousios with the Son.

And Athanasius always described the Word “as proper to the Father, as the Father’s own wisdom,” namely, as being part of the Father, never the other way round. (Ayres, p. 206)

In contrast, “in Basil, the Father’s sharing of his being involves the generation of one identical in substance and power.” (Ayres, p. 207) Basil “says, of the Three Persons of the Trinity ‘their nature is the same and their Godhead one’.” (Hanson, p. 688)

This fact is often stated with phrases that sound as if he believed in only one single undivided substance (Being). For example:

He taught a “distinction between a unitary shared nature at one level, and the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit at another.” (Ayres, p. 190)

“Community of essence is the core of his teaching.” (Ayres, p. 194)

But the next section shows that he believed in three distinct substances:

Three Distinct Substances

The following shows that Basil did not yet understand Father, Son, and Spirit as one single undivided Being (substance), as in the Trinity doctrine, but taught that Father and Son are two distinct substances (Beings):

1. Homoi-ousian

Basil did not begin his career as a pro-Nicene. He began as an ‘Arian’; specifically, a Homoi-ousian. For example:

“Basil emerged from a background, not of the strongly pro-Nicene theology of Athanasius, but of the school of Basil of Ancyra.” (Hanson, p. 693) “He came from what might be called an ‘Homoiousian’ background.” (Hanson, p. 699)

“We may even think of Basil’s major dogmatic work, the Contra Eunomium, as the logical conclusion of one strand of Homoiousian theology.” (Ayres, p. 189)

“Through the 360s and especially in the 370s we see him gradually … (traveling) his road towards pro-Nicene theology.” (Ayres, p. 189)

As a Homoi-ousian, he believed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same, meaning two distinct substances. For example:

“Throughout Contra Eunomium 1–2 Basil continues to speak of essential ‘likeness’.” (Ayres, p. 204)

“None of the Cappadocian theologians derived their theological tradition directly from him (Athanasius). Their intellectual pedigree stemmed from the school of Basil of Ancyra. … The doctrine of ‘like in respect of ousia’ was one which they could accept, or at least take as a startingpoint, and which caused them no uneasiness.” (Hanson, p. 678)

2. Continued ‘like’ language

But, even after he had moved away from the ‘similar substance’ formula of the Homoi-ousians, and taught that the Son’s substance is the same as the Father’s, Basil continued to say that the Son’s substance is “like” the Father’s, implying two distinct substances:

Basil insists that “the Son, like the Father, is simple and uncompound.” (Ayres, p. 204)

He described the relationship between Father and Son as “invariably like according to essence” (Ayres, p. 189) or “like without a difference” (Ayres, p. 190).

“Basil still seems to view the relationship between Father and Son in a fundamentally Homoiousian way.” (Ayres, p. 190)

3. Homoousios – Meaning

Two Alternative Meanings

Basil’s explanation of the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed also shows that he believed in two distinct substances. Literally, the term homoousios means ‘same substance’, from homós (same) and ousía (substance). However, there are two ways in which the term has been explained over history:

In the Trinitarian understanding, it means ‘one substance’, saying that Father and Son are one single substance. That is called the numeric understanding because there is only one substance.

Alternatively, it means two different substances with the same qualities. This is also called the generic interpretation.

Two Substances

The following shows that Basil understood “homoousios” in a generic sense of two Beings (two distinct substances) with the same type of substance, rather than as saying that Father and Son are one single Being (one single substance):

“Basil … gives his own interpretation of it (homoousios).” He said: “Whatever ousia is hypothetically taken to be the Father’s, that certainly must also be taken to be the Son’s.” He proposes “like unalterably according to ousia.” (Hanson, p. 696-7)

“He says that in his own view ‘like in respect of ousia’ the slogan of the party of Basil of Ancyra) was an acceptable formula, provided that the word ‘unalterably’ was added to it, for then it would be equivalent to homoousios.” (Hanson, p. 694)

“Basil himself prefers homoousios.” “Basil has moved away from but has not completely repudiated his origins.” (Hanson, p. 694)

Hanson himself is not fully convinced of this conclusion but he mentions that Adolf von Harnack, a famous scholar in the fourth-century Controversy, “argued that Basil and all the Cappadocians interpreted homoousios only in a ‘generic’ sense … that unity of substance was turned into equality of substance.” (Hanson, p. 696)

Keeps the Persons Apart.

“Later, when he (Basil) had accepted homoousios as a proper term to apply to the Son, he still argued that it was preferable because it actually excluded identity of hypostases. This … forms the strongest argument for Harnack’s hypothesis.” (Hanson, p. 697)

“This expression (homoousios) also corrects the fault of Sabellius for … (it keeps) … the Persons (prosopon) intact, for nothing is consubstantial with itself.” (Hanson, p. 694-5)

These two quotes say the same thing. They use hypostasis and Person as synonyms. The Sabellians taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are only one single Person. But Basil argued that homoousios, by saying that the Persons are of the same substance, keeps the Persons apart. The point is that, while a Trinitarian may understand homoousios as saying that two things are really one, Basil understood homoousios as saying that two distinct things have the same substances. For that reason, Hanson says that this “forms the strongest argument for Harnack’s hypothesis.

Brothers are not homoousios

Basil said that “when both the cause and that which has its existence from the cause are of the same existence, they are said to be homoousios.” However, “things which are brothers to one another cannot be homoousios.” (Ayres, p. 205). Why Basil said this is not quite clear, but what is clear is that ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ are not one single substance. Therefore Ayres concludes:

Basil “argues—in a manner unique in his corpus—that homoousios is appropriately used in a ‘genetic’ sense.” (Ayres, p. 206)

4. Like humans

Basil argued, just like three people are three instances of humanity, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three instances of divinity. This is perhaps the clearest indication that Basil had two distinct substances in mind. For example:

Basil “discusses the idea that the distinction between the Godhead and the Persons is that between an abstract essence, such as humanity, and its concrete manifestations, such as man.” (Hanson, p. 698)

Basil assumed “that human persons are particularly appropriate examples” of “the nature of an individual divine person.” (Ayres, p. 207-8)

“Basil discusses the individuation of Peter and Paul as analogous to the individuation of Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 207)

Basil explains that “that relation which the general has to the particular, such a relation has the ousia to the hypostasis.” (Hanson, p. 692)

“Elsewhere he can compare the relation of ousia to hypostasis to that of ‘living being’ to a particular man and apply this distinction directly to the three Persons of the Trinity.” This suggests “that the three are each particular examples of a ‘generic’ Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 692)

“The instances … in which Basil compared the relation of hypostasis to ousia in the Godhead to that of particular to general, or of a man to ‘living beings’ … (is one of) the strongest argument for Harnack’s hypothesis.” (Hanson, p. 697)

5. Distinct Wills

“Basil … speaks of the Father choosing to work through the Son—not needing to. Similarly, the Son chooses to work through the Spirit, but does not need to.” (Ayres, p. 208)

This means that Father and Son have distinct wills, which means that they must be distinct substances.

6. The Holy Spirit is not Homoousios.

For Basil, the Spirit has the same substance as the Father:

“Basil deploys two tactics: The first is to argue that the Spirit participates in all the activities of Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 216) The second, building on the first, is that “common activity demonstrates a common essence.” (Ayres, p. 216)

But, for some strange reason, Basil did not regard the Holy Spirit as homoousios:

“Basil showed himself reluctant to apply homoousios to the Holy Spirit. … Homoousios was a word which applied particularly to the relation of the Son to the Father.” (Hanson, p. 698)

“The On the Holy Spirit of 375 is notoriously reticent about using homoousios of the Spirit.” (Ayres, p. 211)

“Basil goes on to defend the application of homoousios to the Son … he never applies this term to the Holy Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 694)

As mentioned above, Basil said that ‘brothers’ are not homoousios. (LA 205). If the Spirit is not homoousios with the Father and Son, then the Three cannot be one substance.

7. The Father is the Source.

Basil was sensitive to the accusation, since he teaches that Father and Son have exactly the same substance, that he could be accused of tritheism; three Ultimate Principles; three Beings who exist without cause and gave existence to all else:

“To speak of Father and Son as simply having the same ousia would be … to present him as logically another God.” (Ayres, p. 190)

Basil did not defend by saying that Father, Son, and Spirit really are one, as one would expect if he was teaching the Trinity doctrine, but by identifying the Father alone as the ultimate Source:

“Let no one think that I am saying that there are “three ultimate principles … There is one ultimate principle of all existent things, creating through the Son and perfecting in the Spirit.” (Hanson, p. 691)

“Basil consistently presents the Father as the source of the Trinitarian persons and of the essence that the three share.” (Ayres, p. 206)

He explains John 14:28 (‘the Father is greater than I’) by saying that “the Father is greater only by being the cause, not at the level of substance.” (Ayres, p. 206)

“It is the Father’s characteristic ‘to be Father and to exist as derived from no cause’.” (Hanson, p. 689)

If the Father is the only Being who exists without cause, it is difficult to imagine that Father, Son, and Spirit could be one substance.

8. The Priority of the Father

Although Basil described Father, Son, and Spirit as the same in substance, he maintained a certain order among the Persons:

“Father and Son are, indeed, the same in essence, but distinct at another level thus preserving a certain order among the persons.” (Ayres, p. 195)

“The Spirit is third in order and dignity.” (Ayres, p. 216)

“The Spirit is third in order and even rank.” (Hanson, p. 689)

He preserved the priority of the Father:

“By the 370s Basil had evolved a formula stating that the activities of God all come from the Father, are worked in the Son, and are completed in the Spirit. In this formula Basil seems … to find a way to speak of the unity of divine action while still preserving the priority of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 196)

He never referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘God’:

“While the Spirit is third in order and dignity, the Spirit is not third in an order of essences. Basil insists that the Spirit is to be accorded equal worship and honour with the Father and the Son, even if he is not willing to say directly that the Spirit is God in the same terms as Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 216)

“Its treatment of the Holy Spirit as uncreated and endowed with every exalted epithet except homoousion and theos is eminently reminiscent of Basil.” (Hanson, p. 687)

“Perhaps the major contribution of pro-Nicene pneumatology is the insistence that the work of the Spirit is inseparable from Father and Son … but on the subject of the Spirit’s place in the Godhead as such little progress is made.” (Ayres, p. 217)

Contemplation

“For Basil, arguing that Father and Son are ‘unlike’ flies in the face of biblical material such as Col 1:15, Heb 1:3, and Phil 2:6.” As Basil read these texts, they “all … point to a community of essence between the generated and the one who has generated.” (Ayres, p. 194)

But how did Basil know that these verses point to “a community of essence.” Basil answers: “By ἐπίνοια [epinoia] we know that there is a unity of ousia between Father and Son.” (Ayres, p. 194)

Ayres explains epinoia as:

    • “Concepts developed by the human mind,” (Ayres, p. 191-2) as
    • “A process of reflection and abstraction” (Ayres, p. 192), and as
    • “An intellectual contemplation of the reality of things” (Ayres, p. 193)

For Basil, we can only understand the Father, Son, and Spirit through “contemplation:”

Contemplation “throws away the letter and turns to the Lord.” (Ayres, p. 219)

“The contemplation of the Spirit necessary to understand the Spirit is itself at the core of Christian life.” (Ayres, p. 219) 

That sort of contemplation is only available to “Christians who have attained ‘purity of heart’.” (Ayres, p. 219)

But Eunomius, Basil’s rival against whom he wrote three books, dismissed ἐπίνοια as a way of gaining knowledge of God, as unreliable (Ayres, p. 191-2) and condemned it. (Ayres, p. 193) He argued: “If we know God only according to ἐπίνοια, then our knowledge is insignificant and our faith useless.” (Ayres, p. 195)

Basil’s Philosophy

Basil obtained his distinction between common diety and the differentiation of persons not from the Bible but from pagan philosophy.

Basil argued that “particularities, being added onto the substance … distinguish what is common by means of individual characteristics … For instance, deity is common, fatherhood and sonship are individualities.” (Ayres, p. 198) Ayres identifies “three basic influences on Basil’s account:”

“The first is Stoic terminologies about the relationship between general and individuated existence. … Stoics posited a universal … substrate (or ousia). … At the level of concrete existence individuals are also qualified by further qualities.” (Ayres, p. 199-200)

Secondly, “Neoplatonic-Aristotelian conceptions are used to interpret a basically Stoic scheme.” (Ayres, p. 202)

Thirdly, “we cannot, however, treat Basil’s distinction against a purely philosophical background. … It seems most likely that Basil’s evolution of the distinction occurred within a context where some such distinction was already clearly in the air.” (Ayres, p. 202) 

Hanson concludes that “the Cappadocians all relied on the aid of contemporary philosophy more than … Athanasius and Hilary.” (Hanson, p. 677) “A small work (by Basil) … at the end of Book V of Adversus Eunomium … is full of echoes of passages in Plotinus’ Enneads.” (Hanson, p. 687)


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