HYPOSTASIS AND OUSIA IN THE TRINITARIAN CONTROVERSIES

The following is an excerpt from Richard P. C. Hanson’s book The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, where he discusses the confusion that existed within the first four centuries of the church in respect to the terms that were employed in expressing the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, namely hypostasis and ousia. Hanson shows the reason for such confusion was due to the fluidity of the words in question, which certain individuals defined contrarily or differently from others and even their opponents. All emphasis will be mine.    

I. Hypostasis and Ousia

We have already had occasion to note that considerable confusion existed about the use of the terms hypostasis and ousia at the period when the Arian Controversy broke out. The surprise of Ossius at the news that not only did Eusebius of Caesarea believe in two ousiai, but that Narcissus of Neronias believed in three,l and the ambiguous anathema in N against those who believe that the Son is ‘from another hypostasis or ousia than the Father’2 are examples of this unfortunate semantic misunderstanding. The search for the Christian doctrine of God in the fourth century was in fact complicated and exasperated by semantic confusion, so that people holding different views were using the same words as those who opposed them, but, unawares, giving them different meanings from those applied to them by those opponents. It was also prolonged and entangled by the involvement in the dispute of issues concerning ecclesiastical jurisdiction and ecclesiastical law which had no intrinsic connection with the original and really important subject of the dispute. This last we shall begin to look at in the next chapter but one. But here we shall examine some examples of the semantic muddle, that is, unrealized ambiguity in the use of words.

It has already been made clear that for many people at the beginning of the fourth century the word hypostasis and the word ousia had pretty well the same meaning. They did not mean, and should not be translated, ‘person’ and ‘substance’, as they were used when at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words in theology which dealt with the doctrine of God. In fact for most (but not all) writers in Greek at the beginning of the controversy and for a long time after it had begun, there was no single agreed word available and widely used for what God is as Three in distinction from what he is as One. All pre-Nicenes, Sellers tells us, found difficulty in expressing the Son’s personality.3 The word hypostasis is virtually unknown in Classical Greek in its philosophical sense. It first emerges prominently in a philosophical sense with the Stoic Posidonius (ob. 50 B.C.), and later became a key-word in Platonism. It meant on the whole ‘realization turning into appearance’, but with this distinction that to Stoics each thing counted as non-existent before its realization, whereas to the Platonists (that is the neo-Platonists), the ground of the existence of each thing before its realization is ‘more than existing’.4 The word occurs five times in the New Testament, at 2 Cor. 9:4 and 11:17, where it means ‘confidence’ (i.e. psychological support), at Hebrews 1:3, where it denotes God’s being (NEB) or nature (RSV, JB), 3:14, where it again means ‘confidence’, and 11:1 where it means the assurance (RSV, ‘what gives substance to’ NEB, ‘guarantee’ JB) of what we hope for, again with the idea of ‘ support’ prominent. The only strictly theological use is that of Hebrews 1:3, where the Son is described as ‘the impression of the nature’ of God. The word also occurs twenty times in the LXX, but only one of them can be regarded as theologically significant, even though several Christian writers of the fourth century tried to make out that they all were so. 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’ (charakter tes hyposteos autou).5 Prestige points out that a double meaning of hypostasis can be found according as its significance is derived from the middle voice of the cognate verb, hyphistemi, or from the active voice of the verb. In the former case it means that which underlies (which could suggest ‘substance’), and in the latter that which gives support (which would suggest individual entity).6 He thinks that the second sense is the normal one in the theological discourse of our period, so that the emphasis came to be laid not on content but on individuality, whereas ‘ousia means a single object of which the individuality is disclosed by means of internal analysis’.7 But we must remember that 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, not in one sense only but in two. Prestige is always apt, in his eagerness to see a continuous inviolate tradition of Trinitarian orthodoxy, to read later meanings, and later harmonizations, into earlier texts. Stead notes that hypostasis is used by some writers who appear deliberately to avoid the word ousia, though they would regard the words as synonymous (for instance Alexander of Alexandria and Cyril of Jerusalem), because ousia does not occur m the Bible, whereas hypostasis does.8

Stead has devoted a comprehensive treatise to the concept of ‘substance’ (ousia) in his book, Divine Substance. The word has a wide variety of meanings: existence, category or status, substance stuff or material, form, definition, truth.9 The expression ‘beyond ousia‘ (epekeina tes ousias) is found often, but in several different meanings, when applied to God, beyond material substance, beyond created (and angelic) substance, beyond intelligible substance, beyond definition.10 Some writers do of course find it necessary or convenient describe God as ousia, among them Origen and Athanasius.11 Later in the fourth century it became conventional to distinguish God’s substance, ousia, what he is in himself and his ‘energies’, that is God as we experience and meet him, and to hold that the first is unknowable to us, but not, of course the second. This was the alternative taken when the practice of distinguishing the Logos or Son as that which can experience multiplicity and change in the Godhead from the simple immutable Father was seen to be unsatisfactory.12 It was also thought possible to distinguish the substance of God, in the Aristotelian tradition, from his properties, which are distinct from the substance but invariable, and from his accidents which are distinct and variable, though some (e.g. Athanasius and many Arians as well) believed that God’s substance was without accidents.13 Tertullian at the turn of the second to the third centuries had already used the Latin word substantia (substance) of God and used it in the most direct and literal way. For him God consist of spirit (spiritus), a kind of thinking gas. God therefore had a body and indeed was located at the outer confines of space. He is apparently immeasurable but not infinite. It was possible for Tertullian to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing this substance, so that the relationship of the Three is, in a highly refined sense, corporeal. His metaphysic (if that is the right word for it) borrowed directly from Stoicism.14 He can use the expression unius substantiae (‘of one substance’). This has led some scholars to see Tertullian as an exponent of Nicene orthodoxy before Nicaea, and even to claim that the West, represented by Tertullian, Novatian and Dionysius of Rome, had always upheld the consubstantiality of the Son. But this is a far from plausible theory. Tertullian’s materialism is, when seen at all closely, a totally different thing from any ideas of ousia or homoousios canvassed during the fourth century. His conception of substance would have struck most Eastern theologians as possessing precisely those faults which made many of them recoil from the use of the word homoousios. It implied a corporeal conception of God. Tertullian may well have supplied the West with its Trinitarian vocabulary; he certainly did not supply the East with its Trinitarian theology.15

The state of affairs as regards the use of hypostasis and ousia at the outset of the search for the doctrine of God occasioned by the ArianControversy can therefore be stated thus: several alternative ways oftreating these terms were prevalent. They could be regarded as synonymous and used either to describe what God is as, Three whathe is ‘as One; or hypostasis could be used to describe the Persons of theGodhead and ousia either ignored or rejected; or hypostasis could beused for ‘distinct existence’ and ousia for ‘nature’; or a general state ofindecision and uncertainty as to how either of them should be used could exist in a writer’s mind. We can find examples of all these alternatives. Origen certainly did not apply the word homoousios to the Son and did not teach that the Son is ‘from the ousia‘ of the Father.16 He used hypostasis and ousia freely as interchangeable terms to describe the Son’s distinct reality within the Godhead,17 but he did not usually employ ousia to describe the substance of God. He taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead. Ritter indeed thinks that Origen must have contributed to the doctrine found in Plotinus of three hypostases flowing from the Godhead without diminishing it.I8 If we are to believe Athanasius, Dionysius of Rome writing in Greek against Sabellianism said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy ‘into three sorts of potentiality and separated hypostases and three Godheads’; people who hold this in effect produce three gods and ‘three hypostases alien to each other entirely separated’.19 Gregory Thaumaturgus could describe the Godhead as ‘three in aspect but one in substance’ (hypostasis).20 Pierius had apparently referred to the Father and the Son as two ousiai rather than two hypostases.21

Eusebius of Caesarea appears to accept the equation of hypostasis and ousia in the anathema of N quite readily in his explanation of why he accepted that creed.22 He uses ousia to mean substance several times in the course of the same explanation, and, as we have seen, was, at least before the Council of Nicaea, accustomed to regard the Son as the eikon (mirror) or osme (perfume) of the Father’s ousia. Eusebius of Nicomedia, as quoted by Marcellus (who is being quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea) said, concerning the relation of the Son to the Father, ‘the image and that of which it is the image are not of course thought of as one and the same thing; but there are two ousiai and two facts (or ” things”, pragmata) and two powers, just as there are so many different names for them’.23 Alexander of Alexandria is no less ambiguous in his use of terms than others. He does not use the word ousia, but instead uses hypostasis for both ‘Person’ and ‘substance’, or, to be more accurate, he does not make a distinction between hypostasis = ‘Person’ and hypostasis= ‘substance’. When he quotes Hebrews 1:3, ‘impression of the hypostasis‘ (nature, substance), he cannot think that the Son is an impression of the Father as Father.24 He can also say that the Lord ‘does not reveal that natures which are two in hypostasis are one’,25 and on several occasions he uses hypostasis to mean the (distinct) existence of the Son.26 We have already seen that Arius is violently opposed to using homoousios, and spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.27 He did not object to using the word ousia of God, however. In Constantine’s Letter to Arius of 333 he quotes Arius as saying that there is ‘One God .. .’ and ‘an unbeginning and unending Logos of his ousia’.28 Athanasius describes him as teaching that ‘the Logos is alien and unlike in all respects to the Father’s ousia and propriety’ (idiotetos).29 And in De Synodis15 Athanasius quotes Arius as saying that ‘the Father is alien in ousia to the Son’ and that the Son does not know his own ousia, as well as asserting that the Son ‘has nothing in the structure (hypostasis) of his propriety (i.e. that which is peculiar to him) that is peculiar (idion) to God’ and that the hypostases of Father and Son are ‘incommunicable’ (anepimiktoi heatois). Boularand accuses Arius of confusing ‘substance’ and ‘Person’30 and of teaching three dissimilar ousiai when he said that the hypostases were incommunicable.31 If he did, he was certainly not alone in this error. But in fact it seems likely that he was one of the few during this period who did not confuse the two. No doubt he believed that the Father and the Son were of unlike substance, but he did not say so directly. He said instead that their hypostases, distinct individual realities, were different in kind and in rank. Asterius certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases,32 that the Son is not Son ‘because of the peculiarity of the ousia‘ (idion tes ousias);33 he equates ousia and physis (nature);34 he said that there were three hypostases.35 But he also described the Son as ‘the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power’ of the Father.36 Once again we find a writer who clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis even though he thought that the resemblance of the Son to the Father was closer than Arius conceived. We can see therefore that the statement of Bethune-Baker that it was not till the Council of Alexandria in 362 that anyone regularly regarded hypostasis as anything more than a synonym for ousia is not borne out by the facts.37

It is however likely that when Narcissus of Neronias at the Council of Antioch in 325 declared to Ossius that he believed in three ousiai he was equating ousia with hypostasis.38 If we can trust the translation, the doctrinal statement of the Council of Antioch of 325 said that the Son was the image of the Father as Father.39 It in fact is an echo of Heb, 1:3 where the Son is described as the impression (character) of the Father’s hypostasis and this must mean his nature.40 Ossius, who was one of those responsible for this doctrinal manifesto, must have been sorely puzzled by the intricacies of Greek theological terms. He was evidently surprised and shocked at hearing that Eusebius of Caesarea believed in two, and Narcissus in three, ousiai, which suggests that he thought that ousia should mean ‘substance’ or ‘nature’. At Antioch he subscribed to a manifesto which uses hypostasis to mean ‘substance’ or ‘nature’; he was shortly to subscribe to N, which apparently (but not quite certainly) identifies hypostasis and ousia; and, as we shall see41 he was eighteen years later to put his signature to a document which proclaimed that there was only one hypostasis in God.

The Creed of Nicaea itself made three statements involving the word ousia. It declared that the Son was ‘from the ousia‘ (ek tes ousias) of the Father. It said that he was homoousios with the Father, and it condemned those who taught that the Son was ‘of a different hypostasis or ousia from the Father’. The subject of homoousios will be dealt with a little later.42 The claim that the Son was ek tes ousias, (from the ousia) of the Father is an interesting one. Origen had rejected it.43 According to Athanasius (De Deeret 25) Theognostus had used this expression of the Son. Eusebius of Caesarea can say that the Son is ‘from the Father’s ingenerate nature and inexpressible ousia‘, but he very soon qualifies this statement, warning against materializing interpretations.44 Eusebius of Nicomedia in his Letter to Paulinus of Tyre had apparently rejected the expression ‘from the ousia‘, denying that the Son had any connection with the Father’s ousia. For him ousia means ‘nature or ‘rank’ or ‘metaphysical status’.45 Stead thinks however that in N the expression ‘from the ousia‘ was meant more to determine that the Son was not from any external source, but from God, and did not necessarily denote equal status. On the anathema in N, Stead argues that it too was not intended to establish equality of status between Father and Son, but once again to ensure that the Son was not derived from some source other than the Father. He produces evidence from Tertullian, Irenaeus, Theognostus and Methodius that they recognised three alternative possibilities for the origin of the Son, from non-existence, from some external source and from the Father. He concludes from this that this anathema did not in effect do away with a doctrine of three hypostases.46 It may be noted that the only way in which such an argument can be supported is the assumption that in this anathema hypostasis and ousia were regarded as synonymous, and that it was meant to condemn the view that the Son did not derive from the Father’s nature or substance (ousia). Prestige seems to take this view when he says that in this anathema ousia means ‘individual objective source’,47 though this last expression is itself a rather ambiguous one. Finally we may note that Ossius was not the only person confused by the ambiguity of these terms. The Emperor Constantine appears to have been so also. In his Letter to Arius of 333 he says of Arius and himself:

‘You think it is right to subordinate the ‘alien hypostasis‘, and indeed your belief is mistaken. But I recognize that the fulness of that power which is supreme and which runs through everything is the single ousia of the Father and the Son. If then you deprive him from whom nothing at all can be removed, not even in the thought of those who are not serious, and imagine additional properties and in short define far-fetched marks of recognition (gnorismata zeteseon) for him to whom (God) has granted entire eternity from himself, and incorruptible intellect (or thought, ennoia) and has allotted belief in his immortality both through himself and through the Church -‘

the Emperor breaks off in disgust.48 The translation can only be approximate because of the clumsiness and vagueness of Constantine’s language. If it means anything it means that there is only hypostasis (= ousia) in the Godhead, and indeed the anathema in N would fit well with this view. Some have seen in this a coherent theology, akin to that of Marcellus of Ancyra (who was soon to be deposed for holding this type of doctrine). But it is more likely that Constantine, who is writing in Greek, a language with which he was not well acquainted, and who cannot amid all his preoccupations have had opportunity to make any profound study of theology or philosophy, is simply floundering in water too deep for him. Like Ossius, his agent, he was defeated by the semantic conclusion.

Even those who distinguished hypostasis, meaning distinct reality, from ousia, meaning ‘nature’ or even ‘substance’, must not be thought to have anticipated the later meanings of those terms given to them in the second half of the century by the great Cappadocian theologians. The concept of what each Person of the Trinity is in his existence and proper form distinct from the others had not yet been distinguished from the concept of what all of them were as full and equal (or even as partial and unequal) sharers of the Godhead. Later theology would not have said that the Son was a mirror of the Person (hypostasis) of the Father, i.e. of the Father qua Father. Not only had no universally accepted term been achieved for the concept of what we would now call the ‘Persons’ of the Trinity (unsatisfactory though that word in certain respects is), but the concept itself had barely dawned on the consciousness of theologians. A more authentically Trinitarian theology had to be found, as It was eventually found by Athanasius and the Cappadocians, before the idea of ‘Person’ in this sense could reach maturity. (Hanson The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 [T&T Clark Ltd, Edinburgh, Latest impression 1997], Part II. Period of Confusion, Chapter 7: Semantic Confusion, pp. 181-190; bold emphasis mine)

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