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)


OTHER ARTICLES