Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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II. Basic principles of Patristic teaching

2. The contribution of the Cappadocian Fathers


       The vent, the timely solution to this problem, was given by the Cappadocian Fathers during the 4th century, through a radical innovation, the “innovating of names” as they called it.  Names had to be innovated, be given a new meaning. What the Cappadocian Fathers did, was the following:  Whereas up to that day the term ‘hypostasis’ related to the term ‘essence’ (Athanasios the Great clearly states that the two are the same thing), the Cappadocians took a further step (you see how they dared during those times) and said that here, we shall discern between these two meanings. The meaning of the word essence and the meaning of the word hypostasis do not signify the same thing, hence a very serious problem arose.  The first Ecumenical Synod placed an anathema on those who accepted, who confessed that God is one essence or Hypostasis.  Amendments followed………… The Cappadocians now said the following:  that the term ‘essence’ is identical to the term ‘nature’ and is used to denote the unity, the Oneness of God. God is therefore one essence, one nature.  The Latin term ‘substantia’ is henceforth translated into Greek, no longer as ‘hypostasis’, but as essence, or nature.  On the other hand however, the term ‘hypostasis’ is transposed (note this revolution in terminology), to now become equal to,  to relate to the term ‘person’.  Thus, the term ‘person’ in this light, now ceases to bear the meaning that Savellius had given it.  Because now, ‘three persons’ no longer implies three facades, since the person,  which is now related to the hypostasis, signifies three entities. So, from the historical aspect of philosophy, it is both a timely and a revolutionary move, even though it has not been given any special mention in the history of philosophy, significant as it may be.  A term such as hypostasis which is an ontological term, is now related to a term such as the person,  which was never an ontological term but had always existed, and had always denoted an association that appended to an entity.  We are thus relating the being: I am, let’s say, who I am; my being is not dependent on the role that I play, or on my person.  My person and I, are not the same thing.  Just like an actor, who plays a role: he has a person,  but that is not his actual being. In the same way, the Savellian view was that God is One Being, but He plays these roles.  Therefore, Savellius was quite happy with this use of the person,  but as we said, it did not appeal to orthodox Christians. And it was for this reason that Basil the Great insisted on saying that this expression “God has three faces” is unacceptable to us, unless the term hypostasis is included, to denote that the person is a hypostasis. What happens in this case :  By saying that I am a person,  it now means that I have an entity of my own, different to another’s entity. In this way, the person acquires an ontological meaning.   But we shall look into these matters in detail, when we interpret the dogma of the Trinity existentially.

Now you can understand how, historically, this revolution in terminology was not entirely arbitrary; It was because the term ‘hypostasis’ bore several nuances which allowed this development. But here, we are mainly interested in the outcome, and the outcome of the Cappadocian Fathers’ theology was that:  God is One – as regards His essence, His nature – and He is also Three – as regards His Persons, His Hypostases.  And this, as far as terminology is concerned; this is how we arrived at the formulation of the dogma of the Holy Trinity which we have to this day.

       And now for the meaning.  What they meant by it.  When we say that God is one Essence and three Persons, with the term Essence we always refer to something general, something that implies the existence of more than one being. For instance, when we say ‘human essence’ or ‘human nature’, this denotes that while all of us are of one essence, one nature – human nature – we are each individually a complete human being; that is, this one nature has many in number.  These ‘many in number’ we call hypostases, or persons. This analogy, this picture, was used by the Fathers. The Cappadocian Fathers say: Look here, what we theologians are saying about God is not so unreasonable, because if in fact we observe humanity, we can see that mention is made of one essence, one nature and simultaneously of two, three, four etc. hypostases of this same nature;  they are the numerous ways, in which this nature appears.  But, this now immediately brings on the danger of three gods, because we many humans are many people, therefore don’t we similarly have many gods? If we espouse this example, how do we avoid multi-deities?

This is where the Cappadocians’ extremely difficult task begins.  They pose the question: Why are we humans many and are consequently able to speak of a number of people, whereas in the case of God, we cannot speak of a number of gods?  The answer is that because we humans have been created, and our given nature – human nature – is divisible; for example, me and my father are two separate human beings. Between him and me, time has intervened (or distance, in other cases, while he is still alive), and this factor of time or space allows each one of us to be perceived as a self-existent person ( i.e. my father does not exist now, but I do). In other words, time has permitted individuality.  It has permitted me to be perceived independently of my father, and it is in this manner that nature is segmented, just as when man is born entirely individually, nature is segmented; because each person can be perceived individually, on his own, as a separate person.  This is why we have many people and the unity of the human race cannot be ensured, or, rather, why it conflicts with the multiplicity of those individual persons.  In order to simplify this difficult issue, I will promptly apply the example to the case of God, as the Cappadocians did.  Supposing that, in order to comprehend this example, there is no intervening time or space between us, and nature is not segmented during our birth, what would happen existentially?  What would happen, is that me and my father would never be apart; it would be inconceivable to have any void whatsoever between him and me…..  But what does that mean?  It means that in essence, we would be two persons, two persons that are different to each other, and, because we could never be apart, we would always be one.  Subsequently, how can unity be ensured?  By an incessant communion – relationship between us.  Thus, that which breaks up the communion – the association – between my father and me, is time and distance. Time and space are attributes of the created world. They appear precisely during Creation; it is impossible to refer to time and space with regard to God, and not inevitably face the matter of God’s origin, i.e., that ‘once upon a time, God did not exist’. In order to preserve God’s eternity, which is a contiguous and inherent factor of the concept of God that sets Him apart from the created world, we must necessarily exclude any admission of space and time within God’s existence.  Therefore, in the instance of God, we have this as a certain reality.  And what does that mean?  That here, multiplicity does not conflict with unity. That is the mystery of the Holy Trinity; a mystery with regard to our experience, because for us, multiplicity always conflicts with unity.  It is a mystery as regards our experience, however, from the moment that you accept God as an uncreated God Who is not subject to time and space, it ceases to be a mystery.  What happens?  One assumes an inevitable stance towards God.  It is a stance, which, if not taken, one loses the meaning of God; one looks upon God as a creation.  I repeat, all these things presuppose that you have decided from the start to accept the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  You will not prove why God is Threefold. You will try to prove how this can be so; how you can perceive this mystery. But with what kind of speculation, what kind of thought?  We shall see how it is not simply a matter of speculation or thinking that is directed at satisfying a certain curiosity of the mind, but something that has immediate consequences.  Our entire life changes, if God is not Triadic.  

If God is not triadic, man’s life is a totally different thing.  If God is Triadic, if this mystery is indeed real, and this comparison that I made, between our own experience (where singularity and multiplicity conflict with one another) and the experience (or rather the existence) of God, where this conflict does not occur; and if there is no unity wherein multiplicity is not a conflicting factor, then, a number of things in our existence are jeopardized. The Dogma on the Holy Trinity is the most bountiful existential message that any religion or a philosophy could possess.  Now, let us focus on the historic outcome. The Cappadocian Fathers had said that the aforementioned example of one human nature with a multitude of people could be applied to God, provided that we do not include time and space in the equation  - this being a self-evident condition anyway, with regard to the existence of God, thus, we automatically cease to have the problem of three Gods within the Holy Trinity.

       When they express this unity, the one essence, i.e. the association of God with the term essence, they immediately give rise to the following problem:  whether this essence pre-exists, and somehow becomes a Trinity at a later stage – which is something that occurs in us humans; something that the Greek philosophers had already pinpointed when they said that all us people come into existence as separate beings and diverse, from one, pre-existing essence, a pre-existing nature.  I would say that nature pre-exists in us, and it is followed by the person.   When I came into this world, it wasn’t me that brought the essence of humanity – human nature – into existence.  Human nature existed before me, and it is this point that the ancient Greek philosophers had expanded in a general manner, to say that this essence, this general thing in which many participate, is pre-existent and is followed by the more specific thing – the person.   Hence, the Platonic philosophers spoke of a “predominating kind” and the Aristotelians of a “subjective kind” – implying that, no matter what each one of us is individually, as an individual human being, we are but sequels of an existence.  For the Platonians, we are sequels of the ideal human being in which we all participate, while for the Aristotelians, we are sequels of human nature, of the human species which we all spring from.  The human species precedes the human being, and that is why - according to Aristotle – in death the particular beings may disappear, but the species itself survives. Consequently, for us, the essence precedes the person.   You will see the existential importance of this, later on.

The Cappadocian Fathers here are carving new paths in philosophy, on account of the Dogma of the Holy Trinity.  Basil makes the following statement as a basis, as an axiom of his entire subsequent argument:  There is no “bare” essence as he called it. With this, he meant that there could not be any essence without a hypostasis; an essence that does not have actual and specific hypostases. Therefore, it is impossible to presuppose a human nature, out of which specific beings can spring from.  One must consider that all specific beings are equally primeval in ontology, along with the essence of humanity.  Therefore, given that bare essence cannot exist, one cannot accept essence without any specific hypostases.

Now, if this is applied to the human species, what does it mean? That the origin and the unity – that which ensures the continuum of the human species – does not lie in the essence of humanity, because bare essence never existed on its own.  For example, Aristotle discerns between a human being in general
(this is the essence) and Kallias or Socrates who are persons, hypostases.  According to the Cappadocian line of thought, it is impossible to mention the term human essence without automatically implying Kallias or Socrates or George or Costa or someone. It is impossible to refer to the essence alone, without implying the specific persons; in other words, this primary, general humanity does not exist.  Even today, frequent mention is made, especially of ‘humanity’;  ‘Humanity’ means specific persons.  And no matter how strange it may seem to you, all these things have sprung from the Dogma of the Holy Trinity, with a profound impact on anthropology.  Since there is no bare essence, and we cannot subsequently presume that the origin of the human species is a human essence or Plato’s ideal human, or nature, as Aristotle’s definition, then what is the origin and the cause that makes man singular, if it isn’t his essence?

       This issue is discussed in one of Basil’ Epistles, in his dialogue with Amphilochios. These Epistles had been considered questionable, but they are very probably genuine and there is no serious reason for anyone to doubt them. At any rate, the topic is found in Basil’ epistles. In one of these epistles, the problem is thoroughly analyzed, and Basil totally agrees with the viewpoint that since a ‘bare’ human essence cannot be the origin of humankind, the chief ontological predicate of a human being cannot be his essence;  it must definitely be a specific being, and that being is Adam.  Thus, while the ancient Greeks said that we draw our descent, our existence as particular beings, from a common, human nature, we must – as Christians – say that we each draw our existence from one person,  Adam.  The cause of our being is not our nature; it is a person.

       By applying this to God, observe the consequences:  The Cappadocians for the first time in theology introduce the meaning of ‘agent’ – that the one God is not just one Essence, but that He is the Father, and that He as a Person makes manifest the unity of the Trinity, and not He as an essence. Naturally the term ‘one essence’ continues to exist, but not in the sense of a causative essence.  It is not essence that causes God to have hypostases.  Essence functions differently now.  The ultimate and the foremost point of reference for the existence of God is not the Essence, it is the Father.  This means that you cannot proceed from the essence of God in order to subsequently reach the Father.  You start from the Father, and, because He claims to be a Person and not an essence, He bears the characteristic of not being ‘only’; whereas essence can be understood as something on its own, and essence is of course one.

In this way, we bypass the principial status of the unit, by introducing multiplicity as something primeval in ontology, in God’s being; obviously, the meaning of the term ‘Father’ has no ground on its own, without the existence at least of a Son.  Whose Father would He be, if a Son didn’t exist?  We would then have to concede that He wasn’t always ‘Father’.  However, if He was always the ‘Father’, then the Son must also have existed always.  Thus, this multiplicity, this interdependence of the persons, becomes a chief ontological predicate; in other words, you cannot go past it, or behind it, in order to discover something that precedes it and leads us to it.  The one Essence is not a precedent, and it is not the ‘cause’ of God’s being.   Precedent is the Father, as the agent, but because by definition He is automatically in a communion, He cannot be acknowledged as a single unit.

       This is how we must comprehend the expression “God is Love”.  Because it is directly related to the triadic dogma, this point underwent many clarifications by the Cappadocian Fathers.  That God is love, is a statement that was not first made by Christianity; Plato had already said the same thing.  On the other hand, Gregory Nazianzene rejects the idea that God is love, in the sense that divine nature overflows with goodness, like an overflowing vessel; i.e., love is no longer an emotion.  That is not the meaning of love.  ‘God is love’ means that God is constituted as an existence; He exists, within personal associations.  Communion is a prime component of God’s existence; it is not something that God acquires in retrospect. Just as we can say ‘I exist and additionally I love someone’, we must try to imagine an instance where we cannot say ‘I exist, only if I am in communion with someone else’ otherwise I lose my identity, I disappear.  This is the reason that God is primarily the Father, inasmuch as He loses His identity altogether if He does not have the Son.  And subsequently, love – that communion which causes us to exist – is not an emotion.  Love is not an emotion; it is a relationship that causes us to exist.  Love actually proves to be love, when the existential thread is cut, and you begin to float in a void.  For example, death will cut this thread, and you realize that you no longer exist, if this thread is not reconnected. Because it is the other person, it is the communion with the other person that comprises the basis of your entire being.

Well, “God is love” essentially means that God is a Holy Trinity.  It is nothing else.  His essence is communion.  And what do we mean by ‘is’ communion? It means that we cannot imagine Him, not even as a fabrication, as an ‘Only’;  Just as you cannot ever imagine yourself alone, in love.  Not unless you love yourself, in which case, it is not true love.  So, therefore, if you take away the Trinity and make God a unit, then you automatically create the problem of whom God loves.  There is none other besides God, because that is the notion of God : He is without a beginning, and He comes before the world.

Many people have this naïve thought, that God is love because He loves the world; but then, the world didn’t always exist.  By definition, we cannot imply that the world is something eternal, and God likewise eternal, or co-eternal.  If therefore God loves the world and thus exists as love, then He wasn’t always love: He becomes love.  He is not love; he becomes love, when the world comes into existence  ( unless you follow the same steps as Origen and several others, who transferred the cosmos into eternity; in other words, to accept the world as being eternal and that the world somehow always existed in God’s mind. ) But then, God would be deprived of His freedom, because He would be obliged to possess this world and He could not exist without this world.  If God – this is a biblical demand – is absolutely transcendental, if God is imaginable (and He should be imaginable without the existence of the world), then, necessarily, (a) He either is not love or (b) He loves Himself – who is not love – or (c) He must be a Trinity.

The expression “I love myself” Implies the prerequisites of a subject and a verb: the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, the Father loves the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father, the Son… they each love more than one.  In this way, God does not love Himself, i.e. selfishly; He loves a certain person; He loves as a person,  because God is a Father, a person.   The essence does not love; the person loves.

With Augustine, all of what I told you up to now is cancelled.  Because from there onwards, an entirely new position is taken, on which many things will depend, such as the Filioque and many other things.  But, compared to the essence of the problem, the Filioque issue is minute in size.  The problem is summarized in the following: Does the essence of God precede the person?  Augustine couldn’t grasp the Cappadocians’ thoughts on this issue, and thus made the mistake of considering the Essence of God – the one Essence – as being the One God; hence the beginning of tremendous problems.  In our next lesson, before closing our historical overview, we shall examine Augustine’s theory.  Then we shall go on to an existential interpretation, i.e., to see if all these things are of any significance, or if they are simply things that we theologians say, in order to preserve traditions. Anyway, can anyone say things without explaining them?  The Fathers exhausted themselves in their attempt to explain these issues, because they could see the huge existential consequences that the Dogma on the Holy Trinity would have. 


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Greek text

Translation by A.N.

Article published in English on: 8-7-2005.

Last update: 4-8-2005.