Greek Trinitarian Terms in the Early Church (Part 2)

A more succinct discussion on Substance (ousia) and Object (hypostasis) is given by G. L. Prestige in his book Fathers and Heretics.

Notes on Greek Trinitarian Terms in the Early Church (Part 2)
Ng Kam Weng

A more succinct discussion on Substance (ousia) and Object (hypostasis) is given by G. L. Prestige in his book Fathers and Heretics.

The terms have a similar meaning but are not identical [cf., etymologically, the Latin substantia is an exact translation of the Greek hypostasis.

“‘Substance’ means an object consisting of some particular stuff; it has an inward reference to the nature of the thing in itself, expressing what logicians call a connotation. ‘Object’ means a substance marked off as an individual specimen by reason of its distinction from all other objects, it bears an outward reference to a reality independent of other individuals, and expresses what logicians call a denotation.” (FH 88)

To clarify further let me give an illustration inspired by Prestige’s discussion.

Question: What is a thing?
What is the building at the roundabout between Pudu Road and Jalan Tun Perak? Answer: It’s Pudu Raya Bus Terminal. It’s neither the Klang Bus Terminal nor the Perkeliling Bus Terminal. The Pudu Raya Terminal is recognized as a peculiar building sub-dividing a major road into two, standing out as a distinct and concrete fact. But it does not suggest the kind of reason why you should want to look for it. It gives the distinct and concrete fact, but not the distinctive and significant fact.

It is a place where one may board a bus to reach one’s destination; it is not a train statioin, not an airport, etc.

The first defines it from the standpoint of ‘otherness’ with an outward reference to the building as what the Greek theologians call an ‘object’ or objective thing, showing that it must not be confused with other objects.

The second defines it by its own peculiar character and function, with an inward reference to the Church as being what the Greek theologians call ‘substance’ or significant thing.

“Now when the Council of Nicea wanted to assert the equality of the divine Persons, it used the terms that bore the inward reference. Though the Father and Son are not one but two objects as seen in relation to each other – the names denote distinct presentations of the divine beings – yet their ‘substance’ is identical; if you analyse the meaning connoted by the word God, in whatever connection, you arrive in each case at exactly the same result, whether you are thinking of the Father or of the Son or of the Spirit. That is the point which the creed was directed: the word God connotes precisely the same truth when you speak of God the Father as it does when you speak of God the Son.” (FH 89)

For Athanasius it connotes not only the same truth but the same actual God, the same being.
“If you contemplate the Father, who is one distinct presentation of the deity, you obtain a mental view of the true God. If you contemplate the Son or the Spirit, you obtain a view of the same God; though the presentation is different, the reality is identical.”

“God” said Athanasius, “is not synthetic”; hence it is untrue to say the Son ‘resembles’ the Father; the Son is identical with the Father, “pertaining to and identical with the being of God” (ad. Aft. 8). Thus though there are in God three objects to be recognized, there is but one simple Being to be apprehended.


“As against the Sabellians Athanasius insisted that the personal distinctions in the Godhead, which has been revealed in temporal history, are permanent and authentic features of the personality of the God who has revealed them. As against Arius, he maintained that howsoever God reveals Himself, it is the self-same God who is revealed.” (FH 89)

Each Person is a hypostasis.

“This term, owing to the derivation of Western theological language from the Latin, is commonly translated Person, but it does not mean an individual person in the ordinary sense. Its real purport is to describe that which ‘stands up to’ pressure, that which possess a firm crust, and so an object in the concrete, something not merely attribute or abstraction, but has a being of its own, and can jostle with other objects without losing its identity. Applied to God, it expresses the idea of a solid and self-supported presentation of the divine reality. All the qualities which modern speech associates with personality, however, such as consciousness and will, are attributed in Greek theology to the complementary term of the definition; they belong to the divine substance, the single being of God, and to the several ‘Person’ only by virtue of their embodiment and presentation of the unique being. The entire difference between the Persons is not of content but of manner. Nothing whatever exists to differentiate between the Father, the Son and the Spirit except the difference of aspect with which each person presents the whole reality of God. God exists Fatherwise, Sonwise and Spiritwise; this illustrates the truth that personality can live and act only in social relationship. But He is always one God; and this confirms Him as the ultimate ground of all existence and the sole object of legitimate allegiance and worship.” (FH 92-93)


JND Kelly in his book Early Christian Doctrine disagrees with Prestige and suggests that Athanasius misconstrued the aim of Nicea in its usage of homoousious.

First let us ask the question: are we to understand the term ‘of the same nature’ in the ‘generic’ sense in which Origen was alleged to have employed homousios, or are we to take it as having the meaning accepted by later Catholic theology, viz., numerical identity of substance? The root word ousia could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class, or it could connote an individual thing as such.

Kelly’s conclusion was that the Fathers could not be introducing an entirely novel and unexpected sense to the word: “The only reasonable inference is that in selecting it for insertion in their creed they intended it to underlie, formally and explicitly at any rate, their conviction that the Son was fully God, in the sense of sharing the same divine nature as His Father. Several other considerations lend support to this. First, we know that Arius himself, on the eve of the council, more than once used homosious, or expressions equivalent to it, in passages denying the Son was the same nature as the Father; but it is transparently clear that it was His alleged divinity, not His substantial unity with the Father, that he was repudiating. Secondly, the great issue before the council, as all our sources agree, was not the unity of the Godhead as such; it was the Son’s co-eternity with the Father, which the Arians denied, His full divinity in contrast to the creaturely status they ascribed Him. Thirdly, we may be sure that, if Eusebius and his allies had had the slightest suspicion that numerical identity of substance was being foisted on them in homousious, they would have loudly objected to it as Sabellian. In fact, as we know from his apologia to the Caesarean church, it was its materialistic flavour that he found awkward. Lastly, we know that afterwards, when the identity of substance of the three Persons were fully acknowledged, the most orthodox theologians continued to use homousious, in the appropriate contexts, with the sense of generic unity.

The theology of the council, therefore, if this argument is sound, had a more limited objective than is sometimes supposed. If negatively, it unequivocally outlawed Arianism, positively it was content to affirm the Son’s full divinity and equality with the Father, out of whose being He was derived and whose nature He consequently shared. It did not attempt to tackle the closely related problem of the divine unity, although the discussion of it inevitably brought nearer…Athanasius indeed, years later, was to claim that the deliberate object of the terms insertion was to emphasize that the Son was not merely like the Father but, in virtue of His unique generation, ‘identical in His likeness…inseparable from His essence’. But this was politically misleading reconstruction of events. (ECD 235-237)

Finally, for the sake of completeness, I include discussion of the term physis.

Physics (physis)

“This word is an empirical rather than a philosophical term…It refers to much the same thing as ousia, but it is more descriptive, and bears rather on function, while ousia is metaphysical and bears rather on reality. The Persons of the Trinity have one physics because they have one energeia: their activity is in each case divine and that divine activity admits of no variation. Physics therefore, more readily than ousia, supports a generic meaning…In relation to the Trinity, however, ‘of one physics’ can just as well imply ‘of identical function or nature’ as ‘of similar function or nature’; and as long as the definition ‘one ousia’ clearly implied identity of substance, so long would ‘of one physics’ support an interpretation which implied that the Trinity was in a real sense a single object.

A simple illustration may help to make the whole position clear. The pulpit of St. Mary’s Church at Oxford is a pragma, thing or object. It is a hypostasis, as being a concrete, objective entity, existent in fact and not merely in thought. It is a prosopon, as an object empirically distinct from other and possibly similar objects, such as the pulpit in the Church of All Saints, further along the street. It is a physics, as employed for preaching. And it is an ousia, as analysed in the substance and content into an actual instance of all that is connoted by the conception of pulpitry in general. Some of these words are capable of bearing a generic sense. But it should be observed that all of them can denote a single concrete entity, and in the illustration just presented all of them do so denote a single entity. Similarly, as applied to the being and the Persons of the deity, in the classic expostion of Trinitarian doctrine constructed by the Fathers of the fourth century, prosopon, hypostasis and ousia all equally denote single concrete entities, and physics denotes the characteristics of such a single entity. To the Greek, God is one objective Being, though He is also three Objects.” (GPT 234-235)