Why the Nicene Creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms

Purpose of this article

The original Nicene Creed, formulated in the year 325 AD, in the condemnations at the end of it, denounces:

“Those who say … that the Son of God is
of a different hypostasis (ὑποστάσεως)
or substance (οὐσιάς)” (Early Church Texts).

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT

“Substance” (οὐσιάς) is transliterated as ousia. In other words, according to the creed, the words hypostasis and ousia are synonyms and the Son of God is both of the same hypostasis as the Father and of the same ousia or substance as the Father. This causes the following anomalies:

(1) While, in the Creed, the Son is of the same hypostasis as the Father, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father and the Son are different hypostases (Persons).

(2) While the Creed uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms, in the Trinity doctrine, hypostasis and ousia differ in meaning: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three hypostases (Persons) but in one ousia (substance or being).

(3) By describing the Father and the Son as the same hypostasis and as the same ousía, the creed seems to teach Sabellianism (modalism), in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one Person (one mind and one will) wearing three faces or masks, like a single person playing three characters in a theatre. However, Sabellianism has already been rejected before the Nicene Creed was formulated.

To address these anomalies, this article discusses the original meanings of these words and how the meanings changed over time.

Summary

Etymology

Etymologically, ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) is a direct cognate of οὐσιάς (ousia), just like the English father, German Vater, and Latin pater are cognates. Originally, therefore, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Greek philosophers

Etymologically, both words meant “that which stands under.” The ancient Greek philosophers used these terms to describe real entities as having substance – “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” in contrast to imaginary entities.

Hebrews 1:3

Hypostasis appears only once in the Bible (Hebrews 1:3), where it has the same meaning as it had for the ancient Greeks, and is translated as “substance” (ASV) or “nature” (NASB).

How did the meaning change?

Since hypostasis originally meant substance, nature, or essence, to explain how and why its meaning changed to “person,” we need to trace this word through history:

First three centuries

In the first three centuries, Christian writers still used hypostasis in the same way as the Greek philosophers did before them, namely to denote “being” or “substantive reality” and as a synonym for ousia (substance).

Nicene Creed

As discussed above, the Nicene Creed used hypostasis in the same way.

Meaning changed to prevent Sabellianism

The council at Nicaea added the word homo-ousios (same substance) to the Nicene Creed on the insistence of Emperor Constantine (Erickson). As indicated by the large number of creeds which the church fathers formulated in the 50 years after Nicaea (see Arian creeds – Wikipedia), particularly to find alternatives for the word homo-ousios, the church reacted quite strongly against the word homo-ousios. One great objection, as explained above, was that the description of the Son as of the same hypostasis and as of the same ousia as the Father teaches Sabellianism.

It was explicitly to neutralize the objection that the creed teaches Sabellianism that Basil of Caesarea (in AD 375) and Gregory of Nyssa (in AD 380) proposed a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and that hypostasis be understood to mean person

Theodosius

In 380, through the Edict of Thessalonica and by replacing bishops with people who support his views, and, in the next few years, by exiling and sometimes killing people who opposed the edict, by forbidding them to remain in the cities, to meet, to ordain priests, or to spread their beliefs, and by confiscating their churches, Roman emperor Theodosius eradicated all opposition to his theology, which the edict stated as:

“Let us believe in the one deity
of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.”

This is how the Trinity doctrine was established, namely through the Edict of Thessalonica and the strong arm of the Roman Empire. There-after, the interpretation of hypostasis as meaning “person,” became official church doctrine. 

Conclusions

(1) The meaning of hypostasis did not change over time as a natural process of evolution in how the word was used. Rather, the meaning was changed as a result of an explicit proposal by one theologian that became generally accepted in the church as a means to interpret the Nicene Creed as to not teach Sabellianism.

(2) However, this does not take away the fact that the Nicene Creed describes Jesus Christ and the Father as one hypostasis (person), which implies Sabellianism.

– END OF SUMMARY –

Original Meaning of Hypostasis

Etymology

Etymologically (i.e., relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings), ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) is a direct cognate of οὐσιάς (substance) (See, Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils). This means that these two words have the same linguistic derivation. Examples of other cognates are the English father, German Vater, and Latin pater. Originally, therefore, ὑποστάσεως (hypostasis) and οὐσιάς (substance) had the same meaning.

In Greek Philosophy

Both ousía and hypostasis, originally, meant “that which stands under.” The ancient Greek philosophers used these terms to describe real entities as having substance – “the fundamental reality that supports all else,” in contrast to imaginary entities:

“Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else” (Hypostasis – Wikipedia)

In Hebrews 1:3

Hypostasis appears only once in the Bible, namely in Hebrews 1:3;

His Son … is the exact representation
of His
(God’s) υποστασις (hypostasis).”

Although hypostasis, today, is commonly interpreted to mean “Person,” in this verse, it is translated as “substance” (ASV) or as “nature” (NASB). In this verse, therefore, hypostasis has the same meaning as it had for the ancient Greeks. Similarly, Strong’s Greek: 5287 – ὑπόστασις (hupostasis) explains it as meaning “a support, substance, steadiness, hence assurance.”

How did the meaning change?

Since hypostasis originally meant “substance, nature, or essence,” how and why did its meaning change to “person?”

The meaning of hypostasis did not change over time as a natural process of evolution in how the word was used. Rather, the meaning was changed as a result of an explicit proposal by one theologian that became generally accepted in the church as a means to interpret the Nicene Creed as to not teach Sabellianism. To explain this, we need to trace the history of this word:

First Three Centuries

In the first three centuries, Origen and other Christian writers used hypostasis in the same way as the Greek philosophers did before them, namely to denote “being” or “substantive reality.” They used hypostasis as a synonym for ousia (substance). (Ramelli, Ilaria (2012). “Origen, Greek Philosophy, and the Birth of the Trinitarian Meaning of Hypostasis”. The Harvard Theological Review. 105 (3): 302–350.doi:10.1017/S0017816012000120.JSTOR 23327679, p. 302-350.)

For a definition of ousia, see, for example, Homoousion – definition of Homoousion by The Free Dictionary or οὐσία in Liddell & Scott.

Nicene Creed – 325

As discussed above, this is also how hypostasis was used in the anathemas appended to the Nicene Creed.

Five decades after Nicaea

The meaning of hypostasis was changed during the five decades after Nicaea. The council added the word homo-ousios (same substance) on the insistence of Emperor Constantine (Jörg Ulrich. “Nicaea and the West.” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (1997), p15) God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85.

As indicated by the large number of creeds which the church fathers formulated in the 50 years after Nicaea (see Arian creeds – Wikipedia), particularly to find alternatives for the word homo-ousios (see Fourth Century Arianism or Arianism – Wikipedia), the church reacted quite strongly against the word homo-ousios:

At the time, one main argument against the word homo-ousios was, with respect to words such as “Latin substantia, but in Greek ousia,” “that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding” (Fourth Century Christianity – Second Creed of Sirmium – 358). This is called Homo-ianism (see Acacians – Wikipedia). RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds from the fourth century that reflect the Homoian faith (Hanson R. P. C. 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 AD. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-567-03092-4, pp. 558–559)

But another great objection, as explained above, was that the description of the Son as of the same hypostasis and of the same ousia as the Father teaches modalism. It was explicitly to counter the suspicion that the creed teaches modalism that supporters of the Nicene Creed proposed a new meaning for hypostasis:

Basil of Caesarea (AD 375)

The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and for using hypostasis as a synonym of person, was Basil of Caesarea, namely in his letters 214 (AD 375 – Letter 214) and 236 (AD 376 – Letter 236) (See also Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils or Turcescu, Lucian (1997). “Prosopon and Hypostasis in Basil of Caesarea’s “Against Eunomius” and the Epistles”. Vigiliae Christianae. 51 (4), JSTOR 1583868, p. 374-395.) In both letters, his main motive was to neutralize the objection of the opponents of the Nicene Creed that, to speak of the Father and the Son as one hypostasis, is Sabellianism (modalism).

Gregory of Nyssa (AD 380)

After Basil of Caesarea, in c. 380, Gregory of Nyssa devotes his letter 35 to the difference between ousía and hypostasis (Letter-35).

Emperor Theodosius (AD 380)

As stated, during the five decades after Nicaea, the church opposed the Nicene Creed and formulated various alternative creeds, each proposing alternatives for the word homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed (See Arian creeds – Wikipedia). In 380, Emperor Theodosius made an abrupt end to this period.

Before Theodosius became emperor, as indicated by the contents of the creeds of that period (See, Arian creeds – Wikipedia), the Nicene supporters were in the minority. When he became emperor, “Arianism was widespread in the eastern half of the Empire” (Williams, Stephen; Friell, Gerard (1994). Theodosius: The Empire at Bay. B.T. Batsford Ltd. ISBN 0-300-06173-0, pp. 46–53).

In February 380, the 23-year-old emperor, through the Edict of Thessalonica, declared:

“Let us believe in the one deity
of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.” 

“This edict was the first known secular Roman law to positively define a religious orthodoxy” (Errington, R. Malcolm (2006). Roman Imperial Policy from Julian to Theodosius. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-3038-0, p. 217.)

Enforcement

The Edict of Thessalonica authorized imperial punishment for those who oppose it.

On 26 November 380, two days after he had arrived in Constantinople, Theodosius expelled the Homo-ian bishop (See Theodosius I – Wikipedia). (The Homo-ians are the people who refused to get involved in the debate about the substance of God because His substance is not revealed in the Bible. See Acacians – Wikipedia.)

Through persecution, Theodosius destroyed all resistance to his theology:

“In January of the following year (381), another edict forbade the heretics to settle in the cities.” (Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code, page 45) (cf. Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

“In the same year, after the reformulation of the Nicene doctrine by the Council of Constantinople … the procouncil of Asia was ordered to deliver all churches to these bishops ‘who profess that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one majesty and virtue'” (Boyd, pages 45-46 or Rubenstein).

In 383, the Emperor ordered the various non-Nicene sects (Arians, AnomoeansMacedonians, and Novatians) to submit written creeds to him, which he prayerfully reviewed and then burned, save for that of the Novatians, who also supported Nicene Christianity. The other sects lost the right to meet, ordain priests, or spread their beliefs (Boyd, page 47).

“The execution of Priscillian and his followers may be cited as typical of the treatment of heretics conditions in that time.” In 384, Priscillian was condemned by the synod of Bordeaux, found guilty of magic in a secular court, and put to death by the sword with a number of his followers (Boyd, pages 60-61 or The Edict of Thessalonica | History Today)

382 Synod Letter

After Theodosius destroyed all resistance, the interpretation of hypostasis as meaning “person,” became official church doctrine:

In 382, the bishops in Constantinople, to argue that their belief is not Sabellianism, sent a letter to the western bishops in which they used the phrase, “three most perfect Hypostases, or three perfect Persons” (Papal Encyclicals).

Overview of the Historical Development
of the Trinity Doctrine

This topic is addressed through a series of articles on this website. The current article is one of the links in the chain:

Arian or Unitarian?

I prefer to use the term Unitarian rather than Arian. Strictly speaking, Arianism refer to the teachings of Arius (e.g., Definition of Arianism by The Free Dictionary). But his was only one of many views during the Arian controversy of the fourth century (AD 318-381). Nevertheless, Trinitarians often refer to anything that opposes the Trinity doctrine as Arian. Due to this ambiguity, I avoid the term Arian.

I prefer prefer the term Unitarianism (from Latin unitas “unity, onenes). This term is often defined negatively, for example, “a part of the Christian Church that does not believe in the Trinity” (Cambridge Dictionary). But I like to define this term as the teaching that only the Father is God Almighty. As I read the Bible, God created all things through His Son (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6), maintains the universe through His Son (e.g., Heb 1:3), gave His Son to have life in Himself (John 5:26) and to have the fullness of deity (Col 1:19). However, in my view, in the Bible, only the Father is Almighty (e.g., Rev 21:22). (See, for example, the articles Subordinate and Almighty.) (By the way, I do not belong to any church or religious group.)

The Nicene Creed is Unitarian.

The Trinitarian concept, in a rudementary form, was one of the views presented at Nicaea and did, on the insistence of emperor Constantine (see Erickson), result in the addition to the decree of words related to the substance of God (homo-ousios and ousia). However, in spite of the claims of Trinitarians, the Nicene Creed is not Trinitarian. (See the article Nicene Creed.) Consistent with the views of the church fathers of the first three centuries, it still is a Unitarian statement of belief. For example, it begins as follows:

We believe in one God,
the Father Almighty, …

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God

As discussed in the article on the term homo-ousios, this term does not mean that the Son share the same substance (being) as the Father (numerical sameness). Rather, it means that the Son has a different substance (being) that is exactly equivelent to the Father’s substance (numerical sameness) (See Homoousion – Wikipedia). But even this does not mean that the Son is equal with the Father for, as the article on the Nicene Creed shows, there are a number of indications in the creed itself that shows that it views the Son as subordinate to the Father. To explain this in analogy to human beings: We are homo-ousios (of the same substance) but we are not equal.

Arian or Homo-ousian controversy?

People often refer to the great controversy of the fourth century as the Arian controversy. I do not agree with this term either because, as stated, Arius’ views was only one of a number of alternative views of the nature of Christ. It also was not the dominant view. The dominant view was Homoian, which is that it is inappropriate for us to speculate about the substance of God. 

Particularly during the 50 years after Nicaea, I prefer to refer to the controversy as the homo-ousian controversy because the controversy was particular about the word homo-ousios. This can be seen from the many creeds formulated in that period. (See Arian creeds – Wikipedia.) In that period, various views were proposed with respect to the nature of Christ (Christology) which divided the church – similar to the way that the church is today divided into denominations.

Branches of Christianity

These views were:

(1) Father and Son share one single ousia (substance). – This aligns with the Trinity doctrine as it later developed. 

(2) The Son has His own substance, but His substance was exactly equivalent to the Father’s (qualitative sameness). – This might imply 

(3) The Son has His own substance, which is very similar to the Father’s (Homo-i-ousian – Wikipedia), but different.

(4) Jesus is hetero-i-ousios with the Father (different substance). (See Anomoeanism – Wikipedia.) This, more or less, was Arius’ view.

(5) He is homo-ian (or homo-ean), which means similar to the Father without reference to substance. It is this view that held that it is inappropriate for us to speculate about the substance of God. (See Homo-eanism.)

For a discussion of these views, see, Homoousion – Wikipedia or my article Arianism.

Blasphemy of Sirmium

Perhaps the high point of this rejection of Nicaea was the Second Creed of Sirmium which Trinitarians refer to as the Blasphemy of Sirmium, This was a homo-ian statement which concluded:

“Many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called … in Greek ousia (substance). … There ought to be no mention of any of these at all … for this reason … that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them.”

Of the various views during the 50 years after Nicaea, Homo-eanism seems to have been dominant. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God) lists twelve creeds from that period that reflect the Homoean faith. And when Theodosius came to power, the bishop in the Capital of the empire (Constantinople) was Homoean (as the current author is also). 

Theodosius

But, as discussed above, as from the year 380, the 23-year old emperor Theodosius not only supported the Nicene Creed; he supported the Trinitarian interpretation of the Nicene Creed and made it law through the Edict of Thessalonica. By the strong of the empire, he ensured compliance within the Empire. This eradicated all opposition the Trinity doctrine among the elite in the Empire, but the Germanic peoples remained Unitarians. (See also Theodosius.)

Fifth Century

In the next (fifth) century, the Germanic people, who remained Unitarian, took control of the Western Empire, including Rome. Now the Western Empire was again Unitarian dominated but the Eastern Empire, with Constantinople as capital, remained Trinitarian. See Fall of the Western Roman Empire and Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

In the sixth century, the eastern emperor Justinian sent troops to the West, significantly weakened the Unitarian Germanic nations, and established control over the West through the Byzantine Papacy, a period of about two centuries during which the eastern emperors effectively ruled the West through the Papacy. (See Justinian and the Byzantine Papacy.) In this way, Unitarianism was eventually eradicated also among the Germanic peoples and the Trinity doctrine established.

The role of the Emperors

In conclusion, from the above and the other articles in this series, it should be clear that the decision to adopt the Trinity doctrine was not taken by the church; it was made by the Roman Emperors.

Why the emperors controlled the church

It is important to understand that the empire consisted of a very large number of diverse nations and that the main task of the emperors was to keep the empire united.

One should also appreciate that religion has a terrible power over people. For the emperors, religion, potentially, was both an asset and a liability. Religion can split the empire but an universal religion with strong links to state could help to keep the empire united.

That helps to explain why the emperors persecuted Christianity during the first three centuries and why, when they realised that Christianity is here to stay, they legalised it but also maintained control over it. The emperors used religion (both paganism and Christianity) to control the people but they not afford a split in the church. Their decisions to adopt one or the other doctrine, were at least partly motivated by their desire to maintain unity in the empire.

“Since Constantine desired that the church should contribute to the social and moral strength of the empire, religious dissension was a menace to the public welfare, and if necessary, secular authority might be exercised for its suppression” (Boyd, p34).

“The same desire to preserve unity within the church, rather than the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine, led Constantine to intercede for the settlement of the Arian controversy. … Believing ‘disunity in the church’ a danger to the state ‘more grievous than any kind of war'” (Boyd, p37).

How the emperors governed the church

Emperors called church councils and even presided over some of the councils; for example, Constantine and the council at Niceaea.

Emperors maniupulated the decisions of the councils. For example, Constantine insisted on the inclusion of the term homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed. As another example, Constantius

“Constantine established the precedent for imperial intervention in ecclesiastical affairs … while Gratian and Theodosius finally and decisively fixed the alliance of the state with ecclesial creed and persecution” (Boyd, p33).Emperors issued .

With this background, consider the role which the emperors played:

The Emperors and the Trinity Doctrine

The emperors took the decision for the church to adopt the Trinity doctrine. In brief:

The Nicene Creed, basically was a Unitarian document, but the references to the substance of God (homo-ousios and ousia), on which Constantine insisted, were inspired by views that are aligned to the Trinity doctrine.

Later, Constantine changed his view and allowed the .

Constantine did not understand must about the debate, describing it as “small and very insignificant questions” (Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55). Nevertheless, he called the Council at Nicaea (325), chaired the meeting, participated in the debate, proposed the controversial phrase homo-ousios, insisted on its inclusion and exiled the bishops who refused to sign the decree (Useful resources include: (a) Britannica, (b) Bible.ca, (c) Erickson (d) Graham).

“In 350 Constantius became sole ruler of the empire, and under his leadership the Nicene party was largely crushed” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Arianism, Vol. I, p.509 (Bible.ca – search for Constantius). According to the Wiki page on Arian controversy, at the 359 council in Constantinople, the voting did not go to Constantius’ liking. Constantius simply banished one of the leaders of the winning group (Aëtius). After that, the council agreed the homoian creed.

Constantius did not support the Trinity doctrine, but his example shows the decisive impact of emperors on the debate in the church.

Above, we described how the young man Theodosius declared, through the Edict of Thessalonica, the Trinity doctrine as the only legal religion, and with the power of the Roman Empire behind him, eradicated all opposition.

This is the information age. Through internet and other sources, information is available as never before. Through research, people are rolling back the clouds of darkness that built up during the Middle Ages.

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Extract from important books

Is Jesus the Most High God? – List of articles on this website

List of articles on the nature of Christ

Studies of specific Bible books

Specific Bible Passages

Beginnings

Jesus is not God but subordinate to God.

Jesus is equal to God.

Does the New Testament refer to Jesus as God?

The translation of John 1:1

Other