Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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2. The transferal of the terms “essence”, “energy” and “person” into Theology. (The problem of freedom)

b. The contribution of the Cappadocian fathers The Patristic concept of the person


The basic elements that the Cappadocian fathers contributed to the dogma on God are the following:

First of all, they contributed towards terminology. They shifted the term “hypostasis” away from its original connection to the term “essence” (which it had until that time, and even had almost the same meaning) and they moved it towards the person.   They related the term “hypostasis” to the term “person”.

The theological significance of this shift is that by their relating the “person” (which was a suspect term for Savellianism, because in the ancient Greek language and usage, the word “person” implied the façade or the mask worn by an actor on stage) to the term “hypostasis”, the term of “person” now acquired an ontological content.

The word “hypostasis” implies that something or someone actually exists; that they indeed and truly have an actual hypostasis. Whatever is regarded as non-hypostatic is that which has no true existence, no actual hypostasis. We still acknowledge this inference today, when we (Greeks) use expressions like “These rumors are non-hypostatic”, when we want to stress that something is devoid of truth; that it does not have a comprehensive, ontological content.

The hypostasis is that which provides a comprehensive, ontological content to someone or something. And that was precisely the contribution of the Cappadocian Fathers. By acknowledging, by naming the three persons of the Holy Trinity “hypostases”, they attributed to each of the three persons a full ontological hypostasis, thus avoiding Savellianism, which did not acknowledge a full ontological hypostasis to each person,  but instead attributed to each of them the notion of individual roles that are enacted by the one and the same person.

The third element that the Cappadocian Fathers contributed was that they not only “endowed” a complete hypostasis to each of the three persons, they in fact attributed the cause of God’s existence to the person of the Father. In other words, they attributed the beginning of God’s existence to the person of the Father – to a person.  

In view of the fact that they introduced these new elements (note: in the terminology, not in the dogma), the Cappadocian Fathers utilized images and analogies when referring to the Holy Trinity, which always had the characteristic of comprising complete beings.

In the 1st Ecumenical Council, with the theology of Saint Athanasius it was stressed very much that the Son is born of the nature -or of the essence- of the Father. That could have been misconstrued as an extension of the Father’s essence, and not as a birth of a complete and independent entity. If we have three extensions of God’s essence, then we are dangerously close to Savellianism.  That is why such a huge reaction against the “homoousion” had been raised, by those who were concerned that the “homoousion” -as defined in Nice- might contain in it the danger of Savellianism.

Savellius viewed God as a unit that extended itself; a unit that expanded and took on these three separate roles, and that in the end, this group would again contract unto itself, and become once again the original one unit. He saw God as a being that extended itself and acquired three “offshoots” which had the same essence.

The Cappadocians wanted to eliminate this interpretation, hence their insistence that these three persons are not extensions of the one essence, but three independent, complete entities, and that is the reason for their stressing the meaning of “hypostasis”.

The images they used for this purpose are characteristic. In both the 1st Ecumenical Council as well as the Symbol of Faith (the Creed), we note the image of light, which was used to portray the unity between the Father and the Son. There is the image and the expression of: “light out of light”.  Just as light emanates rays that cannot be distinguished from their source, nor the source from the rays, this proved itself to be a useful portrayal, to indicate that the Son is united with the Father inseparably, as “light out of light”.

The Cappadocian Fathers found this depiction inadequate, as it (the rays) could be construed, as the extension of a body, also, the Son could be construed as an energy of God.  So, instead of saying: “light out of light”, they preferred the concept of three suns.  Not just a light that originates from a light, but three individual suns, three lit torches.

These are the favored depictions, by which it is illustrated that we have three self-existent, complete persons, which, together with this depiction, are simultaneously presented as united. But here is the critical point: What is that common thing that unites those three suns?  It is the common essence, the common energy which they possess, because all three suns emanate the same heat and the same light. Consequently, the energy is common to all three, and the Essence –which goes along with the energy- is also common to all three.  It is in this manner that the presence of their hypostasis and the fullness of each person and their unity are simultaneously depicted.

In the analogy used for man, they used three persons in order to denote the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  Just as Basil, George and John are three persons, three people joined by a common nature, a common essence, which is their human nature, so can the three persons of the Holy Trinity be denoted by the image of three people.  In the instance of God, an adjustment of this depiction is necessary, because it is different to the instance of three people.  What needs to be stressed as an introduction to what will follow, is that the Cappadocian Fathers insisted that each person of the Holy Trinity comprises a complete entity, and that the depictions we use should be depictions of complete entities and not extensions of a body.  Three suns, three torches, three people.  This is the way to denote the full hypostasis of each person.

This led the Fathers to a special way of referring to the association between the three persons, in order to denote the unity and at the same time the individuality and fullness of each one.  This was named the “inter-embracing” (perihoresis) of the persons. The three persons are inter-embraced. The one is found entirely within the other. In this way, each person retains his self-existence and fullness, but at the same time they maintain their unity.

In the 38th epistle of Saint Basil, we note the following that was written by the saint, regarding the subject of inter-embracing: “Whatever the Father is, is also found in the Son. And whatever the Son is, is also found in the Father. The Son is found in His entirety within the Father and He respectively has the Father in His entirety within Him. Thus, the hypostasis of the Son is the image and the likeness by which the Father is recognized.  And the hypostasis of the Father is recognized in the image of the Son”.  This is where the phrase of the fourth Gospel relates to : “Whomsoever has seen me, has seen the Father, for I am in the Father and the Father is in me”.  Whomsoever sees the Son, also sees the Father. The Father is fully present, and the Son is fully present within the Father. In this way, each hypostasis, each person becomes the bearer of the entire Essence.  Godhood cannot be partitioned or fragmented; each Person possesses godhood, undivided and complete.

This is precisely what allows each person to exist inside the other persons. Saint Gregory the Nazianzene says:  “Godhood is unpartitioned, among its parts”.  Godhood, nature, essence cannot be partitioned.  It is however found in full, in the individual persons, in other words, in the persons that are different to each other.

Here we have a mysterious, paradoxical concept, which of course one could call a mystery (like the whole mystery of the Holy Trinity) and not attempt to comprehend at all.  But, as we attempted to do so with the other aspects of this great mystery of the Holy Trinity, we shall likewise attempt to shed light on this mystery also.

How is it possible, for one person to be the bearer of the entire Essence, and how is it possible for a person to exist inside another person,  without losing its identity?  Because, if we place two persons inside each other, there is the risk that they may relate to each other so much, that their individuality may be lost. On the contrary, here, the existence of the one person inside the others actually creates an “individuality”, a “selfsameness”, an “anotherness”. In our experience this is not possible, and the Fathers attribute this to the fact that our nature –the essence of humanity- is partitioned when the person comes into being. No single person is the bearer of the entire human essence, because if he were the bearer of the entire human essence, then at the death of one person, all people would have to die – all of the essence of humanity. The entirety of human nature would be eliminated, with the death of one man alone. But in the case of mankind, we have a partitioning of the essence and of the nature, with the birth of every single person.  This is attributed to the fact that the created being is composite, it has a beginning, and it moves within the limits of space and time, where space and time divide, and not unite.  This is why the created are also mortal/perishable.

These conditions cannot apply to God, as God has no beginning, and He has no mortality. Subsequently, He has no partitioning of the essence. With the three persons, the Essence is not partitioned into three parts, so that each person has a part; instead, each person takes all of the essence, it has all of the essence.

In our experience, if we examine the biological hypostasis of man, we can see that this does not apply, because we are all born with this partitioning nature. Hence the existence of death. Apart from the above, in our experience when we refer to personal relations, we can observe the phenomenon whereby a specific person has been regarded as the bearer of the entire human essence, of human existence. For example, in an announcement regarding the victims of a battle, the Ministry of Defence will say that there were ten fatalities. To a person who has no personal relations with those ten dead people, they are ten different people, whose individual deaths did not affect human nature in its entirety. Other people continue to exist, who continue to live and therefore human nature will continue to perpetuate itself. But for the mother of each of those deceased, or for someone who had a personal relationship with them, that one deceased person is a bearer of the entire human essence. He cannot be counted as “one of the ten”. He is the one, the person, the entire person. All of human nature is at risk of vanishing, when one person vanishes.  This is our experience within a personal association. Outside of a personal association, we cannot have this kind of experience. And why is this? Because this unity is so close, between two people, that the one actually considers the other to be the bearer of human essence, of human existence in its fullness,    

With these precise types of categorizing in the back of our mind, we can explain why this paradoxical and no less mysterious phenomenon occurs, as applied to the Holy Trinity. For example, when considering how the murder of one person is equivalent to a “crime against all of mankind”.  Or, when we say “after all, only one man was killed, the world isn’t lost”… Why is this?  Where do all these ideas of generalizing, of absolutizing a single person to such an extent spring from?  Well, all these ideas spring from our experience of personal relations, from our experience of the person.  The more we regard someone a person,  the more we regard him the bearer of humanity overall.

We have taken this from the concept that we have of God, because this is what God, the Holy Trinity means: that a single person is not a portion of the essence; it is the entire essence. Thus, we can observe in our own experience also, indications of such a Triadic existence - the same manner of existence as the Holy Trinity. And that is what makes us human beings the images of God. When we say that man is made in the image of God, we need to look for the analogies between God and man, based on the triadic association. This is why the dogma on the Holy Trinity is so important. Because it sheds light on man’s very existence.

Continuing on with this historical retrospect, we saw what the Cappadocian Fathers contributed.  With the Cappadocians, the dogma was completed in the East; practically nothing else was added, nothing was further elucidated afterwards. If we were to divide the Fathers after the Cappadocians (like Maximus and John the Damascene, who did not contribute essentially towards any topic but were able expressers of Patristic thought), then, on the subject especially of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, we could say that no-one had contributed essentially, after the Cappadocian Fathers. They did, however contribute essentially; they had actually made huge steps in completing the formulation of the dogma on the Holy Trinity.

Thus, in the East, the Greek Fathers came to a halt at the Cappadocians, with regard to the dogma on the Holy Trinity.  Whoever is not acquainted with the Cappadocians, is not acquainted with the dogma of the Holy Trinity.  One cannot learn about it from anyone else, only from the Cappadocians.  Prior to the Cappadocians, many ideas had been expressed, which, however, needed to be supplemented by the Cappadocians. With the Cappadocian Fathers, the East possessed the dogma on God in its completed form.

We shall now take a look at the West, to see what was going on there.  The first thing we observe, is that the Cappadocians were not well known in the West, nor did they influence the Western theologians and writers in essence. And when we say “the West”, we are chiefly referring to personalities such as Saint Ambrose of the 4th century. Before that, we have Tertullian, and Hippolyte – who was a Hellenic Westerner, not just a Westerner. All of them comprised the antechamber of the Cappadocian Fathers’ theology.

In the West, the one who placed his seal on Western thought and Theology with regard to the Holy Trinity was Augustine.  And even Augustine did not appear to know of the Cappadocians, nor was he influenced by them. For a very long time, Augustine was unknown, even to the West. However, with the rising of the Franks, Augustine became the banner of (initially) Frankish only theology, but eventually of the entire Theology of the West and the source from which westerners drew all of their theology, and especially their Triadic theology. This is why it is important to see how Augustine contributed to -and expressed- the dogma on the Holy Trinity.

The first thing we must observe is that Augustine did not apply the concept of three individual persons, three different entities, when denoting the persons of the Holy Trinity.  He presented us the basis of one single person. He believed that by observing one person, one can be led to the analogies required to speak of the Holy Trinity. We have here a radical difference to the Cappadocians.  By taking one person as the basis, Augustine attempted –through the observation of that one single person- to formulate images that would assist in expressing the Holy Trinity.

In this detail, Augustine was obviously influenced by neo-Platonism; so, in order to find a way to somehow shed light on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, he utilized Platonic anthropology in the belief that in there, he would find all the elements that were required for these analogies.

Platonic thought located the human’s “essence” by observing a human being; it was that, which supposedly made the human a human : it was the element they called the “Nous” (mind). The Nous of man was supposed to be his main characteristic. It was the Nous that caused man to exist, in a manner that was not merely biological, but also metaphysical.

Now, if that concept is transferred into the dogma on God (and Augustine did this), then the corresponding metaphysical concept would be to likewise call God in His entirety, in His essence, “Nous”. This image was not used for the first time by Augustine, i.e., that God is Nous. It was something that Plato had also said, and numerous other Christian theologians such as Saint Augustine had said, and many others also. Later on, this concept was adopted by Origen and Evagrios, who pursued and expanded on Origen.  All of them spoke of God with this concept of Nous: God is a Nous; He is the supreme Nous. And because man is also a nous by nature, he is related to God, through the nous. So, we have here an analogy. When we look at a human, we will supposedly see that in essence, he is a Nous. And this precise fact – that God is Nous in essence – is what denotes the unity. The one God is seen as one, big, metaphysical Nous.

Moving on from this basis, and observing human psychology, we notice that the nous of man consists of three basic elements. The one, supreme element is the element of Memory. Plato had slightly related the Nous to the notions of “Benevolent” (Agathos) and “Good” (Calos).  The term “Good” also denoted the “fair”, the “beautiful” (i.e., in composite words beginning with “cali-“).  With this as his basis, Augustine attempted to elucidate the mystery of the Holy Trinity, by presenting God as the “Good”, who, being a “Nous”, has Knowledge.  But, what does He have knowledge of, if there is nothing else beyond God?  He must have knowledge of Himself.  Therefore, “knowledge” must imply a knowledge of His Self.  Given that the Good and the Benevolent exert an attraction –and this is also a Platonic idea- it is not possible for the Good not to attract someone who will love it. That is supposedly why the Good and the Benevolent love each other.  And love –in this instance- is supposedly the love of God’s Nous for His Self. God loves Himself; He is attracted by His Self.

These are the three elements on which Augustine rested the analogies for the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, he puts the Father in the place of Memory; he puts  the Son in the place of Knowledge  and the Holy Spirit in the place of Love.  Thus, God is supposedly something analogous to these three psychological characteristics which we find in man, i.e., Memory, Knowledge and Love.  That is why the Spirit is referred to as the Nexus Amatis (the bond of love) between the Father and the Son.  We shall see later on how significant these points are, especially with regard to the Filioque problem.

What we should stress is that we are now in an entirely different theological cosmos to that of the Cappadocians and the Greek Fathers in general.  We will now highlight the differences.

The first difference is that –according to the Cappadocians- we require three persons in order to denote the Holy Trinity; three individual persons.  One is not adequate.  We cannot envisage the Holy Trinity through introversion, through an observation of one’s self.  Man is not man because he possesses nous, memory, logos, or love. These are not the elements that comprise the term “in the mage of” , i.e., man’s image; but according to Augustine, one could say that these are precisely the elements that compose the image, i.e. man’s being “in the image of God”.

Many Orthodox also have this same impression of the logos, of logic (you see, this theory of “in the image of” is not exclusively Augustinian), and they too place the concept of “in the image of” there, i.e., in the logic of man.

If we observe closely, we will see that, in order to obtain an image of the Holy Trinity, we need to have a communion of more than one persons. One person is not sufficient. One person equals no person. But Augustine (and this is important) portrayed the person as a thinking object., and in this way, he opened up a path which continues to be walked by the West and by some of us, as we are also influenced by Western thought.

To Western thought, the person is no longer what it was to the Cappadocians; instead, for someone to be a person,  one must possess the faculties of logic, of self-awareness, of cognizance and in fact, a cognizance of one’s self.  This self-awareness was subsequently pursued by western philosophy in general, and chiefly by Cartesian. Others followed him, such as Kant, Hegel, the Illuminists… Thus, when in the West –as well as here- one says: “he is a person”, it is implied that he is someone with a developed awareness, of himself as well as of others. In this context, the main characteristic of a person according to western thought is his awareness, his  “conscience”.

This psychological approach of the person gave rise to the problem of: “what happens to those people who do not have a developed faculty of awareness: are those people considered deficient, as persons?

Nowadays psychology fervently contemplates this point, and the tendency is to admit that these people are indeed deficient.  In fact, it is striving to pinpoint that time in man’s life, during which he actually becomes a person.  So, they ask themselves: When does man become a person?  Of course it can’t be during the fetal stage, before birth, nor when one is still a young child (which has no awareness of itself), but only when one is grown up and has acquired an awareness, a conscience of one’s self, only then does one become a person.   This is a hazy perception, which is attributed to Augustine, and more specifically, it is attributed to his triadology.  To the Eastern Fathers, to Eastern thought, perceptions such as these regarding the person are non-existent.  We shall now make our comparisons on this point, in more detail.

To the Fathers of the East, it is not possible to express the three persons on the basis of their characteristics, and especially psychological characteristics such as memory, cognizance, volition or love.  Cognizance, volition, love, all of these are associated –according to the Greek Fathers- with the one essence of God. They do not denote three different persons.  So, which are the three different persons, and in what manner are the three persons denoted?  They are denoted by their hypostatic characteristics, which are of an ontological nature. In other words, the Father has the hypostatic characteristic, the hypostatic quality, that He is unborn – the only unborn One (as a negative aspect), and (as a positive aspect), that He is a Father, inasmuch as He has a Son.  The Son is denoted negatively, inasmuch as He is not a Father, and positively, inasmuch as He is born. The Holy Spirit : negatively inasmuch as it is neither a Father or a Son, and positively, inasmuch as it proceeds from somewhere, and to proceed from somewhere signifies something different to being born of someone; but what that difference is exactly, we cannot say.  It merely denotes that the Holy Spirit is not the Son, because if the Spirit were also born of the Father, we would have two Sons. The Son is one, therefore the one person is born of someone.  So, how do we denote the other person,  who comes from the Father, but is not born of the Father?  We denote it, with the concept of  “proceeding from” the Father.

These three characteristics, Paternity, Filiality and Procession, denote an ontological association.  And what do we mean by “ontological association”?  We mean that these are the ways these three entities exist. These characteristics do not denote how these entities feel or how they think; nor do they denote love, cognizance, etc.  They simply denote a manner of existence.  This is what the Cappadocians meant about the “person” : they implied the manner of existence, the manner in which each person of the Holy Trinity exists; how they are each “subject to existence”.  The Father does not come into being; He simply exists, but He exists as the Father. And that is something ontological, because the term “Father” signifies one who brings the Son and the Spirit into existence. Thus, for the Greek Fathers the names of the Holy Trinity denote their ontological differences, their ontological peculiarities, and not their psychological experiences.

There is a positive and a negative side to these hypostatic characteristics. Saint Cyril of Alexandria (and before him, Saint Athanasios and the Cappadocians) continuously stressed that there is a difference between the terms “unborn” and “Father”. They both pertain to the same person of course, but they have different meanings.  This is because the Eunomians tended to relate the notion of “unborn” to the notion of “Father”.  The Father (says Saint Cyril of Alexandria) is a term which denotes that God has a Son. God cannot be Father if He doesn’t have a Son. This is not the same as saying the Father is unborn, because “unborn” merely signifies that the Father was not born of anyone.  This served the Arians’ and the Eunomians’ purposes – to simply declare that He is unborn. But not so, when we name God “Father”, because that way, we are giving a positive aspect to Him, inasmuch as He has a Son. Consequently, He could not be a Father without having a Son, nor could He become a Father some day, since He has been the Father eternally. Consequently, the Son has also existed eternally. This was precisely the Orthodox argument that confronted the Arians’ theory.

In the term “Father” we also have the “unborn” element, however; the term “Father” itself is the positive aspect.  In the concept of “Son”, the “Son” is the positive aspect, i.e., it denotes the way in which He came into being; it is His manner of coming into existence through birth, which is not merely an ontological dependence, but a special manner, which we cannot define how it is thus, but only that it is special.  He differs from the Spirit, because the Spirit also originates from the Father; there is also an ontological dependence, but with a different manner of existence; a different manner by which the Spirit “came into existence”.

Thus, according to the Greek Fathers, no psychological categories are utilized in order to denote the persons of the Holy Trinity, whereas according to Augustine, there are psychological categories which lead us to a perception of God; categories that permit the “images of God” (man) to be considered a person,  even when there is only one.  But, as a consequence of the Cappadocians’ Theology, a person cannot be a person in that manner. It must be in communion with other persons.

According to Western Theology, it is possible to refer to one person,  and thus, the “person” is related to the “person”.  Here, we not only have a literal relating of the two terms, of the two words; we have an essential relating of the person to the person. In other words, the “person” –which is also used by the Greek Fathers, but as an alternative word for “person” (we find this alternating usage in John the Damascene) –  in no way has the same meaning as it does in Western thought, Western Theology.  In Western Theology, the term “person” signifies an isolated person/being, which does not need to be perceived in communion with others, with a reference to others; whereas for the Greek Fathers, the term “person” bears an inference to association and cannot therefore be perceived as an isolated being/person.

There are even broader consequences for the perception of man, within the triadic Theology of Augustine.  Before examining these consequences with regard to human existence, we must firstly examine them in depth, with regard to the dogma on God.

To the Greek Fathers, memory, cognizance, volition and love are common to all three Persons (of the Holy Trinity).  They are either energies, or, they are associated with the nature –the essence- of God.  In this way, (although we have here a very delicate issue, which is misconstrued when we speak of the person) the Greek Fathers refer to the persons of the Holy Trinity, without “bestowing” upon God any anthropological-psychological experiences such as these (memory, cognizance and love). That would have meant the risk of anthropomorphism; we would have projected onto God the psychological experiences of man.  This projection of psychological experiences does not exist in the Greek Fathers, and it is for this reason that so many have spoken so much on negation and negativity, with regard to the persons.

Lossky was the first to make such an observation and many Orthodox also follow him today; they want to state that, when referring to the persons of the Holy Trinity, we have a concept of “person” that does not correspond to the concept of man’s “person”.  They too have based themselves on the assumption that the only possible notion of “person” is the psychological one.  It is the western idea of “Personalism”, which does not see man in any other way, except as that object which has a conscience and psychological faculties.

So, given that this “Personalistic” perception of the person developed in the West, many Orthodox today likewise consider it a bad thing for one to speak of a “person” when referring to the Holy Trinity.  Of course, it is something they cannot avoid, because it exists in their terminology, but they find it dangerous, for one to notice corresponding points in human existence.  The error here is located in the fact that they base their view on the presupposition that the only way to speak of a human person is through Personalism, i.e. self-awareness. But a faithful Theology, instead of taking vrious anthropomorphic, human experiences and transferring them to God, should take from Triadic Theology the meaning of the term “person” and transfer it to the human person.  

This is imperative; otherwise, we cannot speak of man “according to the image and the likeness of God.”

Here, Augustine has shaped God in the image and the likeness of Man, and that is why he has attributed psychological experiences to God, and that is also why western Personalism -quite correctly- cannot relate to Triadic Theology

And from this viewpoint, they are also correct, who say that it is futile for many people to speak of “person”, if they do not utilize the Patristic notion of “person”.  The mistake is in the contemporary stance that:  “Since we have western Personalism, it is therefore inappropriate to embrace the concept of the “person”, which is found in the Theology of the Greek Fathers” !

And this, precisely, is Orthodox Theology’s contribution:  To put aside that western Personalism, and to draw from Triadic Theology –especially of the Cappadocian Fathers- the meaning of “person”.  This way, man can become “in the image and the likeness of God”, instead of God becoming “in the image and the likeness of man”.

The dogma on God is of great importance, for the meaning behind man’s “person”.  In theosis, man becomes nothing else, except a person that is in the image and the likeness of the Holy Trinity.  We cannot attain theosis through our nature.  Our human nature cannot become God. My divine nature and my human nature cannot become God; it cannot become divine nature.  Created nature cannot turn into Divine nature. However, Man can become a person; he can become a child of God and recognize God as his Father.  All of the above imply personal relationships, which cannot be comprehended by means of western Personalism, nor can they be comprehended with the help of Augustine.  We need to comprehend them by means of the Cappadocian Fathers’ Theology, and Theology here has a very serious workload.


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Transcript by Í. Ì.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 9-2-2006.

Last update: 20-2-2006.