Greek Trinitarian Terms in the Early Church (Part 1)

Greek Trinitarian Terms in the Early Church (Part 1)
Ng Kam Weng

Trinity – “the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence” (BB Warfield)

Substance – That by virtue of ‘what it is’. ‘What it is’, as distinguished from something else [essential characteristic) in contrast to accident.

Accident – \What has no independent and self sufficient existence but exist only in another being. What may change, disappear and be added while substance remains the same.

The simplest way to determine meaning of technical Greek terms is to refer to standard lexicons such as Liddell & Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, BAGD (Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker) and Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon.

However it soon becomes clear that terms assume wide semantic range over the centuries. It takes considerable lexicographical skills and extensive citation of usage to establish the exact shade of meaning used in a particular context.

Given the limitation of the blogsphere, I shall be contented with extensive quotations taken from the discussion of the Greek Trinitarian terms found in the classic work by G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought. Later articles will offer insights from Thomas Torrance. [Too bad I cannot get my hands on the classic work by Christopher Stead, Divine Substance. The 336 page book costs a whopping USD 170].

The confessional formula, “One Substance, three Persons” has served as a popular summary statement of the doctrine of Trinity. The formula safeguards the essential unity of the Godhead and the diversity of the Persons

However, its ongoing popularity is premised on the assumption that readers share the same understanding of these technical terms. In reality many people are unsure what these terms really mean, but the sense of unease is quietly ignored. For example, the word ‘person’ comes from the Latin word persona which was originally applied to the mask which an actor used when representing a particular character in a drama. The term may be misread as suggesting that the persons of the Trinity merely represent different manifestations of the Godhead. We land straight into the heresy of Sabellianism.

On the other hand, some readers associate ‘substance’ as something ‘material’ however spiritually we want to qualify it. That is to say, ‘substance’ seems to suggest some spiritual ‘stuff’ shared by the three Persons. The Godhead is reduced to something impersonal.

The assumption that readers adequately understand the formula is evidently questionable even when we discuss the proposition in terms of the English language. The problem is further complicated by the fact that contemporary English usage of these terms may not be direct equivalent of the Greek terms used to describe the Trinity in the Early Church.

My earlier essays on the Trinity focused on demonstrating logical coherence rather than conceptual clarification. Admittedly, discussion of logical coherence is appealing, but such discussion can also be beguiling. The discussion maintains an appearance of austere logic, and follows the suggestion that once the logical structure of the argument is unpacked, there will be agreement.

However, in reality, there are no empty or neutral logical terms or concepts ready to be deployed in logical arguments. Martin Heidegger once observed that philosophy is found in our struggle with the history of the meaning of concepts. This explains why analytic philosophers of religion, despite their rigorous argumentation, still debate the logical coherence of this or that doctrine interminably since the disputants operate with concepts loaded with different hidden meanings.

That agreement seldom happens is because the philosophers covertly smuggle in their own meaning of the terms deployed. This in turn results in different criteria of logical coherence. Inevitably, even the best minds fail to resolve the logic of doctrinal agreement.

It is imperative that we should at least be clear about what we mean if we want to use the terms to analyse of the doctrine of Trinity. In this regard, we need to go back to the original formulation of the doctrine in the early Church.

Meaning of Greek Technical Terms.
First, we note the original Greek formulation of the Trinity comes in the form “One Ousia in three Hypostaseis (plural of hypostasis).

We begin with the term prosopon which has a more non-philosophical origin. The term prosopon originally meant simply ‘face’ which displays a person’s inner mind or emotion or the character that is expressed. “From such senses it comes to express the external being or individual self as presented to an onlooker, and of things, the expression of substance.” (GPT157)

“Until the middle of the third century, the term prosopon was used sparingly with reference to the Trinity in any sense. Still, it provided a convenient non-technical and non-metaphysical expression to describe the permanent and objective forms or Persons in which the godhead is presented alike to human vision and to the divine self-consciousness.” (GPT 162)

Hypostasis and Ousia
Initially the terms were substantially identical and suggest the material stuff that constitutes a single object. Prestige elaborates:

“In the case of an ordinary object of experience, such as, for instance, the Matterhorn, the stuff or substance of which it is made is simply synonymous with the object itself. The certain weight of rock and glacier, with ascertainable height and shape and volume, is the Matterhorn; and nothing which is Matterhorn is anything else than Matterhorn. Complication arose in theology because, if Christianity is true, the same stuff or substance of deity in the concrete has three distinct presentations – not just three mutually defective aspects presented from separate points of view, in the sense that the Matterhorn has a northern face and an eastern face and an Italian face, but three complete presentations of the whole and identical object, namely God, which are nevertheless objectively distinct from one another. The theological problem of the Trinity was to stereotype terms which should give clear expression to this divine paradox which was also a Christian truth.” [167-168]

“In the beginning, as has been said, hypostasis and ousia amounted to the same thing. There was, however, another and a much more frequent use of hypostasis, in which the emphasis was different…It is important to remember that this second is the normal sense. Ousia means a single object of which the individuality is disclosed by means of internal analysis, an object abstractly and philosophically a unit. But in the sense of hypostasis, to which we shall now turn, the emphasis lay not on content, but an externally concrete independence; objectivity, that is to say, in relation to other objects. Thus, when the doctrine of the Trinity finally came to be formulated as one ousia in three hypostasis; it implied that God, regarded from the point of view of internal analysis, is one object, but that, regarded from the point of view of external presentation, He is three objects.” (GPT 168-169)

Hypostasis is appropriately contrasted with fanciful imagination or unreality. In the well known story from history of philosophy, Johnson suggested that kicking the stone [highlighting the sense perdurability or objective resistance of solid fact] vanquishes Berkeley’s suggestion that reality is merely a mental perception. In other word, hypostasis thus comes to mean positive and concrete and distinct existence, first of all in the abstract, and latter, as will be seen, in particular individual.

Correspondingly the adjective enhypostasos which played a crucial role in fourth century Christological controversy leading to Chalcedon implies “‘that which has an objective individual existence’, unlike an accident or attribute or other mental abstraction which is not a concrete object or thing. In the language of the medieval Scholastics an object would be enhypostates which possessed both substance and accidents.” (GPT 174-175)

In conclusion, the significance of hypostasis applied to the Persons of the Trinity suggests concrete and independent objectivity in contrast to the Sabellian heresy, which regards the persons as transient and abstract manifestations of the Godhead.

However, it took some time for the term hypostasis to be accepted, given how the Western Latin speaking Roman Church (in contrast to the Eastern Greek speaking Church) easily misunderstood the meaning of the plurality of hypostasis. To the Westerns the word has closer affinity to the Latin term substantia, of which hypostasis is the exact philological equivalent.

“It was natural for the Latins to imagine that words philologically identical in the two tongues had precisely the same meaning, more particularly when the Latins, who were not deeply conversant with the Greek philosophical thoughts, were unacquainted with the fact that hypostasis had two distinct ranges of meaning. Substantia corresponded in sense with the intransitive sense of hypostasis. A Latin could hardly be expected to realize that hypostasis had also an active sense, and that that active sense was in fact the sense in which the term was being applied to theology in the East.” (GPT 185)

Suspicion was also intensified by Arius’ acceptance of the phrase of three hypostasis which his understanding of there being three divided and substantially alien hypostasis, which any orthodox Oriental would deny. As such the phrase ‘three hypostaseis’ sounded like tritheism.

Eastern Church’s misunderstanding of “three prosopa”
The Western Church therefore fell back to the term prosopa (i.e. personae) in order to avoid the assertion of three ousia. But the term three prosopa sounded like Sabellian. This led to further protracted debate which providentially found its resolution in the great theologian and churchman Athanasius. Athanasius alerted the church that linguistic confusion that could arise from translation. However, the church should recognize that orthodoxy is a matter of intention, not formulae. He also pointed out that both groups meant the same in opposition against Arianism and Sabellianism.


“Both hypostasis and ousia describe positive, substantial existence, that which is, that which subsists; τό όν, το �?υφεστηκος. But ousia tends to regard internal characteristics and relations, or metaphysical reality; while hypostasis regularly emphasizes the external concrete character of the substance or empirical objectivity. Hence with regard to the Trinity, it never sounded unnatural to assert three hypostaseis, but it was always unnatural to proclaim three ousiai; although some writers, as will appear hereafter, occasionally use ousia in a sense approximating to that of hypostasis, definite examples of the reverse process are not often to be found.” (GPT 188)

“Athanasius himself seems to regard the ousia of the Father, out of which the Son was a true offspring, both in an external and in an internal aspect. Regarding it as an object or (so to speak) the empirical content of deity, he says (ad. Epict. 4) that the Son himself and not his human body was homoousios with the Father; the Son was born of the ousia of the Father, and His human body of Mary. This juxtaposition rather tends to suggest that what he has in mind, in speaking of the ousia of the Father, is the divine stuff of which the Father consists. With this passage may be compared the statement (decret. 19) that the Holy Synod of Nicea pronounced the Son to be not merely from the Father, but from the ousia of the Father, in order that it might be believed that He alone is truly out of God; for there is a valid sense in which all created things come from God, as being His handiwork, though they are not found of His substance.”

“On the other hand, there seems to be an internal reference to the essential character of the divine being in such passages as the following. Athanasius writes (de. syn. 34): “if when you name the Father, or use the word God, you do not signify ousia or by ousia Him that ‘is’ what He ‘is’, but signify something else relating to Him, not to say inferior, then you should not have written that the Son is out of the Father, or what is in the Father.” The point of the argument is that the Father’s ousia is the Father Himself, and not an attribute of the Father, though it has an internal and qualitative reference; therefore the being of the Son, if He proceeds from the Father’s being, must be the same as the Father’s being and not inferior.” (GPT 194-195)

“Thus he [Athanasius] writes (de.decret. 20) that, owing to the evasive attitude of the Conservative sympathizers with Arianism, the bishops were compelled to go outside the word of Scripture in order to enforce its substance, and to say that the Son is homoousios with the Father, in order to indicate that the Son is not merely similar to the Father from whom He proceeds, but identical in similarity, and to show that the similarity and immutability of the Son imply something different from the imitation which is attributed to men and which they acquire by means of virtue. Again, the generation of the Son from the Father is different from human processes, since He is not only similar to, but also inseparable from the Father’s ousia, and He and the Father are one, and the Logos is ever in the Father and the Father in the Logos, reproducing the relation of the radiance to the light, for that is what the phrase indicates [this is a most significant claim, because the metaphor of radiance and light was the traditional expression of divine unity, (de descret. 23): for these reasons the Synod, with that understanding, rightly wrote homoousios, in order to manifest that the Logos is other than the geneta. It is impossible to read this long statement carefully without observing that the unity of the Godhead and the identity of the Son’s ousia with that of the Father are as strongly in the mind of Athanasius as is the doctrine that the Son is God in the same sense as the Father is God.” (GPT 214)

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