Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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1. The Cappadocians’ perceptions of God’s “being”

a. The “that He is”, the “what He is” and the “how He is” of God


There are certain delicate distinctions in the “what is” God, which did not exist, prior to the Cappadocian Fathers. For example, before the Cappadocians, we do not see, nor do we have, the distinction between the essence on the one hand and the hypostasis on the other.  With Saint Athanasios, the essence and the hypostasis are the same thing. We also note that, in the Council (Synod) of Alexandria (360 A.D.) these terms of ‘essence’ and ‘hypostasis’ are likewise alternated. Subsequently, patristic theology has its own history; it is not monolithic, we do not place all of the Fathers into the same well, and draw from within that well, at random, whatever is to our benefit. To formulate a dogmatic stance, we need to observe history and historical developments; and again I repeat that, prior to the Cappadocians, we do not have any of these delicate distinctions, which have proven to be essential for Dogmatics.

Especially the distinction between nature –or essence- on the one hand and hypostasis –or person- on the other. So, what do these terms mean? To examine this somewhat difficult and complex issue, we shall make two basic observations; two kinds of distinction in ontology, which –again- were introduced by the Cappadocians. These distinctions pertain to the way in which we refer to God’s “being”, God’s existence, and they are distinctions that were not arbitrarily reached, but are found reflected in philosophy.

In the first group of distinctions are the ways that we refer to “being” in general, and thence apply it to God’s being. 

Firstly, there is that which the Cappadocians call “that He is. That He is God, is a position that merely states that God exists. It is the way that we affirm God’s existence, and rule out His non-existence.

Secondly, the way that we refer to God’s “being” (and “being” in general) could be called the “what is”.  In the case of God, this also refers to the essence of God; for example, when referring to any existent object –to this table, for example- it is one thing to say that this table exists, “that it is” (thus ruling out the possibility that the table doesn’t exist), and it is another thing to say “what this table is”. According to the standard perception Greek Philosophy, the “what is” pertains to the essence of the table. Thus, the “what is” is the essence. 

There is also a third way of referring to beings, and that is –according to the Cappadocian fathers- “as it is”, which can be said more simply, as “the way it is”, thus stating what the Cappadocian fathers called the way of being; i.e., the way that this being exists. We shall examine this analytically straight away, and especially in the context of God.

Distinguishing between the “what it is” and the “how or “as it is was stressed by the Cappadocian fathers and was introduced into patristic Theology. It became the object –so to speak- of exploitation in a positive manner, by the creative mind of Saint Maximus the Confessor; according to whom, the term “what it is” corresponds to “the reason it is” and the “how or as it is” corresponds to the “way it is”. Here, Saint Maximus follows up on the Cappadocian Fathers who had originally introduced these clear distinctions; he delves even deeper and with his creative mind, he promotes this topic of ontology even more.

What is of interest to us, is to see what these three distinctions represent, and how they are applied in the case of God.

First, let’s examine the “that it is”. The “that it is” states –as I said- the undeniable fact that God exists. It should be noted that in patristic Theology, we do not have the problem of whether God exists or doesn’t exist, as we do today –especially with the advent of atheism- because even in Hellenic philosophy (which was the chief opponent of patristic Theology), there was no such issue, in the guise of whether God exists or doesn’t exist. The Epicureans may have somehow placed God’s existence in doubt, but they were rather a marginal group, and so the main bulk of Hellenic Philosophy considered the existence of God a given fact.  So, the  “that it is” was not for discussion, or for doubting.  What is important is that in patristic Theology – and subsequently in Dogmatics – we can use the verb “to be” when referring to God.  Why is this important?  First of all, it is important historically, because at the time of the Fathers, in the presence of Neo-Platonism, an extreme negativity towards ontology had been introduced, and the position of the Neo-Platonists and Plautinus is probably already familiar to you, which appeared in the phrase “beyond the essence”.

The “One” that represents the equivalent of God in Neo-Platonism, was believed to be “beyond the essence”. We cannot relate it to the being; we cannot use the term “being”, when referring to the “One”. We can apply it, only to the lower stage - the stage that is below the “One” - thus, one could say, that we are unable to use ontology when speaking of the “One”.  This placement of negativist Theology which, as I said, is Neo-Platonic, can also be seen elsewhere; not necessarily in its Neo-Platonic form, but nevertheless, the trend is apparent.

These writings bear the name of Dionysios the Areopagite. In them are found expressions such as hyper-ousios (=above the essence) etc., expressly for the purpose of stating that God’s being – that God Himself – is above; that He stands above every ontological category that we can use. Why is that? It is because now, the expression of “beyond the essence” is interpreted in the sense that all the categories that we use, and all the names that we use, are taken from our experience of created things; from the reality of created things.

Indeed, in order to apply the above to God, one must surpass the common nature of things. Consequently, one could say that this means we cannot use ontology when dealing with God’s “being”.  But this would be wrong. Because in Patristic tradition (and we see this clearly in the Cappadocian Fathers), negation does not surpass ontology; it does not surpass the being.  There is an important passage of Saint Vasileios in his work “On the Holy Spirit”, which says that, when examining phrases such as “was within it” and “was the logos” etc., no matter how one tries to retrograde one’s intellect, the word “was” is such that one cannot surpass the “being”. One cannot go beyond the “was”, beyond “being”.  Therefore, the verb “is” – that God “is” – that “He is” – is not only permissible when it pertains to God in theology, in ontology, but it applies literally, and only for the being of God. And the proof that “being” (ontology) applies literally in the case of God is the fact that the Fathers use the expression “God is the One Who truly Is”. God is not beyond, or above the concept of “being”. He is the genuine, the true “is”.

Already, by the second century in Justinian, this use is clearly evident. Later on, based on the expression “I Am The One Who Is” of the Holy Bible in the Old Testament, the term is again used, to denote that God is – literally – “The One Who Is”; the One Who has an actual existence, which filters through to the heart of the Church, and the heart in collaboration with the mind expresses itself chiefly in the Liturgy of the Church.  The Liturgy, the Holy Eucharist, is what joins the mind and the heart.  And this referral to God is by no means philosophical; it embodies the elements of worship, personal association and prayer.

God – as “being”, as “The One Who Is” – is the One Whom we can address, Whom we can talk to during our prayer and moreso during the Divine Eucharist. In a part of the prayer of reference – at its very beginning – there is the following declaration, the official declaration of the Church, that God is the real, the true “being” :  “It is only deserving and fair, to praise You, to benedict You, to thank You, to worship You, in every place of Your Domain. For You are the inexpressible, the inconceivable, the invisible, the incomprehensible God, Who forever Is, and thus Is”.  The expression “thus Is” was familiar even in Plato’s time. It is a definition of “being”, of thus being; it states precisely the element of immutability, of non-change. Hence, the term “being” must imply something stable, because to the ancient Greeks, deterioration was always a problem. As it is to everyone.

Deterioration and death turn “being” into “non-being”; to something false, deceptive; ….you cannot cross the same river twice, even though the river has been named Axios and must surely be Axios.  But what is the essence of Axios?  What is its stable element, if it constantly changes?  And what is each one of us, if he believes in deterioration and eventually in death?  Even non-being can penetrate beings, and consequently render them unreal.  Therefore, in ontology, in the “being”, we seek a stability – a “forever thus” and a “thus it is” – and we do find it, but only in God. And we confess it, during the Divine Eucharist and the Liturgy, at the moment of mention of Vasileios the Great’s liturgy ritual: In the prayer that is said after the incantation:  “It is only deserving and fair, to praise You, to benedict You……”.  It is the prayer that begins with the expression “The One Who Is….Lord God and Lord Almighty…”.

It is therefore not only unrelated to the Theology of the Church, but also to the very life of the Church, for one to assert that we do not have ontology in our referral to God. On the contrary, it is not possible to refer to God without this inference of “being” – of true “being”, of an existing “being”, a “being” that actually Is; and that is precisely what is meant by “that He Is”.  So, the “that He Is” cannot be doubted. It is not an issue of negativist Theology.  We know it. In fact, Saint Gregory the Theologian, who very clearly in his second theological speech refers to the “that He Is” and says that this cannot be doubted by anyone.  It is evident, even in the study of nature.

So, while in the case of “that He Is” there is no issue of ignorance or negativism in the ontological sense, things are different in the case of “what is”.  The “what is” pertains to the essence, as we have already said. And there, in discerning between the “what is” and the “that He Is”, Saint Gregory stresses that we cannot know “what is” the essence of God. We are totally ignorant of “what is” God. In fact, he tries to show us how difficult it is to know the “what is”, or the “nature” or the “essence” of any being whatsoever. And in his second Theological speech, he shows how difficult it is to know the mysteries of nature, the mysteries of man, the mysteries of the human organism. Every single thing that pertains to the “what is” surpasses the human mind’s conception. How much more so, is it impossible –he says- to perceive the “what is”, or the nature, or the essence of God. There, nobody can ever know the essence. But what about the angels, who are also spiritual beings?  Neither can they perceive it.  And the saints, who have been cleansed of their sins? They neither.

Nobody has knowledge of the essence of God. Nevertheless, it is the essence that denotes (as we shall see and analyse it, further along) that stable and unchanging factor in any being whatsoever.  That is why Saint Maximus –as we said before- uses the concept of “the logos of nature” in order to denote the unalterable and stable factor in every being, i.e. that which makes it real, which renders it “existent”.  Because otherwise, if you were to remove that stability factor, you are at risk of removing its actual existence.  Always remember what I told you, about how deterioration constitutes a mocking, a falsifying of the status of “being”.  It turns it into something delusive and false.  That is why ontology always leans towards the stability of beings. And that is why Saint Maximus uses the concept of “the logos of nature”, to state that which in every being is stable and unchanging.

The third category, the third means of reference is the “as He is” or “how He is”. It is perhaps the most significant of all for Theology, because here, we can speak of the “how is” God.  This is what is referred to by the Cappadocian Fathers as “the way of existence of God” and they discern three ways of existence that correspond to the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.  The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit do not denote “what is” God –given that “what” = God’s essence and we cannot therefore say anything about it- but it denotes the “how” or the “as” He is.


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Greek text

Transcript by: T. B.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 16-11-2005.

Last update: 2-5-2008.