God in Patristic Thought pp. 188ff

God in Patristic Thought

To Athanasius himself the assertion of one hypostasis as no impossibility either in the Latin sense or even in the Eastern sense. In this connection hypostasis might still retain its proper meaning of ‘object,’ the contrast lying between the single entity constituted by the divine being and the three entirely separated and disjunct entities, of unequal substance, dignity, and value, maintained by the Arians. On the other hand, he was fully prepared to accept the expression three hypostaseis, provide it was understood in the orthodox and not in the Arian sense.

To sum up briefly the relations of the hypostasis and ousia, it may said first that they are often, for practical purposes, equivalent. Nevertheless they were never strictly identical in meaning, except in the Western instances quoted above, in which hypostasis may be regarded as a literal representation of the Latin substantia. Both hypostasis and ousia describe positive, substantial existence, that which is, that which subsists; τὸ ὄν, τὸ ὑφεστηκός. But ousia tends to regard internal characteristics and relations, or metaphysical reality; while hypostasis regularly emphasises the externally 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 sense approximating to that of hypostasis, definite examples of the reverse process are not often found.

Some sort of difference between hypostasis and ousia appears to be recognised by Irenaeus (haer. 5.36.1): “neither the hypostasis nor the ousia of the creation is to be abolished.” he claims, but the ‘fashion’ of this world passes away (cf. 1Cor 7. 31). He contrasts mere form with fact and content. Origen also seems conscious of the distinction. He is discussing (on St John 1.24, 151) the use made of the text, ” my heart has uttered a good word,” by the people who regarded this ‘word’ as a mere utterance, possessing neither the substantive reality ascribed by the Catholics to the divine Word, nor the relative mode of existence attaching to the Word when conceived as Word-immanent and a quality of paternal being. They think, he says, that the Son of God is a paternal utterance simply expressed, as it were, in syllables, and on this reasoning, if I understand them rightly, they decline to ascribe to Him hypostasis, nor do they recognise any ousia as belonging to Him at all; I do not mean by this, he adds, that they deny Him some particular form of being, but being of any description whatever.  Hypostasis here appears to mean, as usual, substantive, concrete individuality; while ousia seems to have a wider sense, which would include the existence proper to a quality or attribute.

The distinction between metaphysical reality and empirical objectivity comes out more definitely in the passage of Gregory of Nyssa (Macr., Migne 46.44B). Gregory is discussing the nature of living bodies, and remarks that their hypostasis is derived from the fusion of physical elements, but that, in respect of their ousia, their physical grossness enjoys an association with the simple incorporeality of the soul. Hypostasis in this passage clearly has reference to the stuff of objective presentation, while ousia no less clearly refers to an analysis of abstract characteristics. the same distinction can be observed in pseudo-Justin (quaest. Christ. ad Gent. resp. 5 conf. 2), where the subject under discussion is the sky. The writer warns his readers against the danger of attributing the deity to the sky from having regard to the vastness of its hypostasis (‘concrete extension’). Macarius Magnes, again, in discussing (3.11) the difficulty created by a discrepancy between the Gospels of St Matthew (8.31ff) and St Mark (5.1) observes that Matthew records the presence of two men, emphasising the number of hypostasis, while Mark, who only records the presence of one man, disregards the number, and dwells on the ousia that was suffering from disease. Both words might be paraphrased by ‘case,’ in the one instance in relation to number, and in the other instance in relation to the kind. Number is a matter of external presentation, and therefore hypostasis is the right word to use. Kind involves a question of quality, and therefore the right word is ousia.

It remains to give some detailed illustrations of the term ousia, as previously of hypostasis. It is well known that among the senses in which it commonly occurs are those of ‘material substance’ as when Athenagoras (de res. 6) observes that the food which a person takes becomes an increment to his ousia; of ‘secondary substance’ in the Aristotelian sense, or element, as when Athenagoras (supp. 22.2) says that, according to the Stoics, Zeus is the name given to the fervid ousia; or ‘matter’ in general; or ‘property’ (the close approximation of ousia to hypostasis is perhaps nowhere more strikingly illustrated than in the fact that hypostasis can also mean property, and is found in the papyri several times in the sense of valuation or tax assessment). It can also mean the principle, essence, or nature of an individual object, with reference to metaphysical analysis; or the element of form possessed in common by a number of individual objects, that is, logical universal or species. It may further express the result of metaphysical analysis in general, as perhaps when Justin (dial. 4.1) quotes Plato’s doctrine of absolute being is beyond all ousia, and cannot be either defined or expressed; or as when Celsus (ap Or. c. Cels. 7.45) says that ousia and genesis represent respectively  what is intelligible and what is visible, for to ousia belong truth and to genesis belongs illusion; or when Athanasius (c. Gent. 2) states that God exists beyond all ousia and human conception. In such instances, ousia appears to mean something like ‘intelligible reality.’

But its most important meaning in relation to theology is that of individual substance, the ‘primary ousia’ of Aristotle’s definition. Thus Athenagoras (supp. 23.2) states that Thales defines demons as psychic ousiai; Clement (strom 8.4, 9.1) discusses the question of knowledge of an object (ousia) in isolation, while its effects are totally unknown, instancing the consideration of plants or animals while in ignorance of their actions; and Methodius (de autex 8.1) inquires whether evils are ousiai or qualities of ousiai. Turning to theological applications, we find Origen (on Proverbs 8.22) maintaining the wisdom of God is an ousia, He came into existence before the ages, and before the creation, was eternal. Again, he states (on St John frag. 37) that the comparison of the Holy Spirit to the wind blowing where it listeth signifies that the Spirit is, indeed, an ousia, and not a divine activity without individuality of existence. In the commentaries only preserved in the Latin translations, he apples the conception of a single ousia to the divine triad. Thus he argues (on Numbers 12.1) for the distinction of three personae in the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit; but contends that there is only one fountain head, for there is a single substantia and nature of the triad: and again (on Leviticus 13.4), he infers from the description of the shewbread (Lev. 24.5-6 a reference to a single will and a single substantia in the godhead, although the two rows in which the shewbread was to be arranged seemed to him to imply two individualities of personae.

Pierius, who presided over the Catechetical school of Alexandria in the latter half of the third century, is alleged by Photius (bibliotheca 119) to have taught with pious orthodoxy concerning the Father and the Son, except in speaking of them, he used the expression two ousiai instead of the term hypostasis. According to Marcellus (ap. Eus. c. Marc. 1.4.39) when Hosius asked Narcissus whether he maintained two ousiai, like Eusebius of Palestine, Narcissus replied that according to Scriptures, he was induced to believe that there were three ousiai. And Marcellus further maintained (ib. 1.4.41) that Eusebius had positively written, word for word, as follows: “The Image, and that which it is the Image, are not conceived as one and the same, but they are two ousiai and two objects and two powers.”

Even after the Nicene controversy the word ousia not only continued to be used in general, apart from theology, of individual substances, but was applied even to the Persons of the Trinity. Thus Basil (hom. in Mamant. 4) says that the text, “I am in the Father and the Father in me” (St. John 14.10), does not imply the confusion of ousiai, but identity of characteristics; and (de Spir. sanct. 46) calls the Spirit a living ousia, Lord of sanctification. And Chrysostom (on Philippians 7.1, or according to the old notation, 6.1) observes that Marcellus and Photinus considered the Logos an activity of the Father, and not an objective (enhypostatos) ousia. it may be added, by way of further illustration, that the adjective οὐσιώδης is frequently employed with the meaning of ‘substantive’ or ‘concrete’ in exactly the same sense as enhypostatos.

Ousia was applied by the Stoics, who were materialists, to the conception of the material content or substance of God. As early as Justin (dial. 128.4) such a conception had been rejected from the Christian side, by the statement that the Son was begotten from the Father, but not by section, as if the ousia of the Father was cut in half. Origen (c. Cels 3.75) reminds us that the Stoics had taught the existence of a corruptible God and had describe His ousia as a mutable body. Though rejected in this crude form by all Christian teachers, this kind of thought continued to have a certain influence on theology. The being or substance of God, without being considered as material, came to be regarded as something which could, at leas by a sort of metaphor, be thought of as in extension; and Origen criticises (on St John 20.18, 157) those who interpreted the text, “I came forth from God,” as to make it appear that the Son was begotten out of the ousia of the Father, as a child is born of a woman, leaving the Father diminished and deficient in ousia which He previously possessed.

The orthodox doctrine is expressed by Eusebius (eccl. theol. 2.23.1) when he maintains that the Church of God does not profess either two gods or two agenneta, nor tow anarchia, nor two ousiai on parallel lines of march, but one arche and God. The whole ousia of the Father became by derivation as the whole ousia of the Son, according to the old metaphor, as radiance is derived form the light; Athanasius (decret. 25) quotes Theognostus, master of the Catechetical school of Alexandria towards the end of the third century, and an Origenist, as saying that the ousia of the Son is not one procured from outside, nor accruing out of nothing, but is sprang from the Father’s ousia, like the radiance of light or the vapour of water; the radiance and the vapour are not the actual sun or water respectively, but neither are they something alien; the Son is an effluence from the ousia of the Father, which, however suffers no partition in the process.

Athanasius himself seems to regard the ousia of the Father, out of which the Son was a true offspring, both an external and an internal aspect. Regarding it as an object or (so to speak) the empirical content of the deity, he says (ad Epictetus) 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 (De decret. 19) that the Holy Synod of Nicaea pronounced the son to be not merely from the Father, but from the ousia of the Father, in order that it might be believe 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 formed 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 understand 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, but that He is out of what is related to 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 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. And the being of God which is here under discussion clearly seems to be not only a substance but a ‘primary substance,’ in other words, substance in the concrete, expressed in an individual. Athanasius rightly proceeded to comment that the Arians, holding the ideas they did, treated the Word and the title Son as representing not ousia, but simply a name; here again he means by ousia a primary substance.

In the next chapter he affirms that ‘Father’ and ‘God’ are simply and solely expressions of the actual ousia of Him that is; the Arians had admitted that the Son was out of God, that is to say, out of the ousia of the Father; and this expression was derived from the Council of Nicaea, the Fathers there assembled having considered that it was the same thing to say in a right sense “out of God” and to say “out of His ousia”; for creatures, though they may be said to have come into being out of God, yet they do not do so in the sense in which the Son is out of God, yet did not do so in the sense in which the Son is out of God; for they are not offspring (gennemata) like the Son, but works. The word ousia is shown (c. Ar. 4.2) to be exhaustive of the whole being of God, and not to admit of the distinctions into generic essence and qualities or accidents; but this need not be quoted, since this book was not composed by Athanasius himself. But the close connection observed in the word ousia, quite apart from all theology, between the concept of primary substance and idea of metaphysical analysis may be illustrated form his de incarnatione (18): “what man, seeing the ousia of water changed and transformed into wine, can fail to perceive that He who did this is Lord and creator of ousia of all waters?” The argument is that only He who had made water what it is could have been able to transform the particular measure of water, which filled the water pots at Cana, into wine.


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