Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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II. Basic principles of Patristic teaching

1. The period prior to the Cappadocian Fathers


       In this lesson we shall examine the historical framework in which the Dogma on God evolved during the Patristic era.

I would like to remind you that the Patristic era inherited the Triadic formula “Faith in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” from the biblical era. And because this formula, or rather, this belief, had to be accepted by every Christian during baptism – it was not possible for one to become a Christian without passing through this confession of faith – it is quite understandable, how it was impossible for one to flatly reject the Holy Trinity in retrospect.

Differences did arise with regard to the interpretation of this formula, however, as the formula itself had been accepted, any discussion on the topic of the Holy Trinity always maintained this restricting factor. In other words, whenever anyone placed any doubts on the Holy Trinity with their positions, the discussion would automatically be terminated. It was something that nobody could deny.

In my previous lesson, I had outlined how the Church reached this point and why.  The reasons are deep-seated. It was impossible for it to be any other way, from the moment that this special relationship between Christ and God and the role of the Holy Spirit had been accepted in the life of the Church.

       Now, because the Patristic era inherited this Triadic formula, it had to ensure two things: that it be interpreted it in such a way as to exclude interpretations that would lead to idolatry; that is, interpretations of this Triadic formula that would distance the meaning of God according to the Old Testament principles on the God of the Hebrews, as defined in the previous lesson. Therefore, in their interpretation, this had to be taken into account.

The second thing that had to be done was to give this formula a content that would interpret this belief in such a way that would signify something to the cultural environment of the Patristic era. Take special note here, as it also applies today, i.e., that Theology and Dogmatics could not be an internal interest for only a few people; that is, we say something that we alone understand, and we are not concerned if these things seem like nonsense to anyone else beyond us. That was not the spirit of the Fathers. The spirit of the Fathers was assuredly to address their times, and to say things that bore a certain meaning to the people of their times. This required an interpretation, an attempt to interpret the Dogma, always within the philosophical categories of contemporary thought that were also familiar beyond Christendom. This pertained to the educated of those times. But it also contained a lifestyle such that would make the simpler folks embrace this faith, this idea of God, with a particular kind of personal acceptance.  We must now examine this interpretation, first of all historically, then from our point of understanding of this Dogma.

       During the 2nd century, an attempt to interpret this Triadic Dogma was made – chiefly by the Apologetes – and it was the following:  They preoccupied themselves with the Logos, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, Whom they considered to be a projection of God outside His Person, for the purpose of creating the cosmos. In this way, there was a certain vagueness as to whether the Logos belonged to the sphere of the Uncreated God, or in the sphere of the cosmos. It was unclear, because when we say that God becomes Triadic, or, that He acquires the Logos in order to externalize Himself and create the cosmos, then we are associating the existence of the Logos with the existence of the cosmos. This was the problem, and it made itself very apparent during the 4th century, with Arianism. There, the problem had reached its limits, when Arios followed up this Theology of the Logos, to arrive at the conclusion that the Logos belonged to the sphere of the created world and not to the sphere of the uncreated God. Thus, in the 2nd century, this meaning and this interpretation brought about certain problems.

One of the Apologetes who gave a better direction, but not an entirely satisfactory one, was Theophilos of Antioch during the 2nd century, who made the distinction between the inner logos and the expressed logos.  With this definition, he tried to say (as Justin said, and as was customary during the 2nd century with the Apologetes) that while the Logos may be a projection of God outside Himself for the purpose of creating the cosmos, nevertheless it pre-existed within God, as an inner Logos. Just as we have an inner expression inside us before we speak, and we afterwards make this expression a verbal one, in the same way, God always had the Logos, but when He decided to create the cosmos, He made this inner Logos an external expression. It was His way of safeguarding Himself from the world. But this interpretation was not sufficient, as it again left the unanswered question of whether the inner logos can exist without having its verbal expression, as it would thus cease to be the Logos.


       This was one attempted interpretation. Another one was the kind we called mannerist; that is, to perceive the three Persons of the Holy Trinity as three roles, three manners in which God appears. Three roles that God played: the Father in the Old Testament, the Son in the New Testament, and after the New Testament – in our time – as the Holy Spirit. This theory was mainly developed by Savellius at the beginning of the 3rd century, and it became especially widespread in the West.  He was of North African origin, but his activities were mainly in Rome and his teachings spread rapidly to the East as well. Savellianism naturally caused a serious disturbance, nevertheless, his views were rejected, namely, that God - the Holy Trinity – is equivalent to three roles, three facades that God put on in order to play a certain role in history, even if it was only for our sakes.

The Church reacted so intensely to Savellianism, that any form of crypto-Savellianism gave rise to the most acute reactions, especially in the East.  And it is characteristic, that the East always looked upon the West with suspicion in regard to Savellianism, during this period, the 4th century.  The Westerners were always willing to embrace any form of Savellianism, while the Easterners insisted that we must definitely keep these three Persons separate. In the 2nd century with the Apologetes, the issue was set out clearly, as follows: The three Persons of the Holy Trinity are “Three in Number”, in the sense of a numeric three; we do not refer to a One, to a unit, which either broadens – as Savellius claimed – and becomes (or takes on) three forms, or which takes in any other external element within the One God; this number of three is located within the very meaning of God. In other words, God never existed alone. Thus, the Fathers took that important step in distinguishing between the meaning of One and the meaning of Only; this was done, because in ancient Hellenism and the ancient Greek religion, God was understood as a Unit. I am referring to the Hellenic philosophical religion. There was always the secular religion – the secular polytheism – but polytheism was of a lower standard. The ancient Hellenes’ true religion was in fact monotheistic ( and very monotheistic at that ); so much so, that God was the Absolute One. And as you know, Neo-Platonism likewise identifies God as the One. When the question of God, of the One God, is posed within a Christian framework, this question is raised: whether God is an Absolute Unit, and what being a “Unit” means.

       Philon in the 1st century interprets monotheism (albeit a Hebrew, in this matter he was intensely influenced by Greek thought); he interprets the One God as “indeed the only One”. His comment on that certain part of the Old Testament that speaks of the creation of woman is characteristic: “it is not good for man to be one only; let us make for him a helper in his likeness” (Genesis 2,18). Commenting on this verse, Philon says that man cannot be alone; he cannot be allowed to be on his own, because only God can be the Only One.  That is, God as One is the Only One.

       It is obvious to you here, that this conflicts with – or rather, brings up – the huge problem of the Holy Trinity, to which the Apologetes responded immediately. They reacted vehemently to this Philonian perception and said that God is One, but not Only. From a philosophical and existential perspective, one can see that this opens up entirely new paths in ontology; later on, we shall see its significance.  For the time being, take note that the Church decided at an early stage to accept a monotheism that did not associate the One God with the Only God. God is not loneliness, or solitude. He was never Alone. The number three was always representative of actual entities that associated with one another, and not a unit that took on various appearances or played various roles. Subsequently, this sensitivity as to the entity of each Person posed a grave interpretational problem, at least in the sphere of philosophical interpretation and understanding. Therefore, whenever Christians spoke of these things, were they actually saying something, about what they meant, or were they just talking nonsense and understanding it only between themselves? The Fathers could not allow the matter to drift about, in this clouded and confused state. So they made certain attempts. The story behind this whole affair is very complicated ( These things are well known, from the History of Dogmatics. ) We shall refer to the main phases of these attempts, and will persevere on the outcome of these attempts of interpretation.

       First of all, on the matter of terminology: serious problems arose as to how they should interpret, how they should say, what words should they use, when stating that God is Triadic; that He is One and three Persons, three entities at the same time, and not three different facades. At the end of the 2nd century, Tertullian uses a Latin expression - within the framework of terminology – which later proved to be the determining expression : this expression was “UNA SUBSTANTIA, TRES PERSONS”. With the term “substantia” he wished to define the One God, and the unity. With the term “persons”, he wanted to indicate Triplicity.  This wording by Tertullian passed through to the East, to the Hellenic-speaking Christians, mainly through Hippolytus who was influenced by Tertullian and who – as you know – was born in Rome but was well versed in the Greek language and who translated this wording. Translated how? Here lies the immense problem.

       The word “sub-stantia” in Greek is translated as “hypo-stasis”.  The “persons” have been translated as “individuals” (persons). Now, they faced other difficulties. To say that God is a hypostasis, means that we give an ontological content to the term hypostasis (besides, the word hypostasis always had an ontological content – it denoted the stable being; or, that which supported a being; every being is supported on a base – this base is its hypostasis. This term in Greek passed through many adventures throughout the centuries, but it basically bore the same meaning. When we say that a rainbow does not have a hypostasis, we are saying that although it is a phenomenon, it lacks hypostasis. On the other hand, a table does have a hypostasis, because it has an ontological basis.) 

Therefore, generally speaking, the term ‘hypostasis’ denotes that God is indeed One, one hypostasis, but then the persons immediately create a problem. Because the word person in ancient Hellenism had exactly the same meaning as the word ‘façade’. The word person in ancient Greece (đńüóůđďí) was derived originally from its anatomical aspect, to indicate the surface of the head which was the face. But very soon it became a technical term, to be used in theatres in a ritualistic manner, inasmuch as the actor would wear a mask, as was the custom for actors at the time.  It is easy to understand the imminent danger when transferring this term in Greek, with reference to the Holy Trinity : Savellianism.  How was it possible for this Tertullian term to be accepted in the East, without any detailed explanations? From the time of Origen onwards, the term ‘hypostasis’ had replaced the term ‘person’ in the East, and therefore it was said that God had three hypostases.

However, in translating the term hypostasis into Latin, it immediately created ‘tres substantiae’, therefore, the Latin-speaking people faced the problem where they had the expression ‘una substantia’; now, it would not be fitting, to say ‘UNA SUBSTANTIA, TRES SUBSTANTIAE’; it was not possible.  There was in fact an immense problem caused by this confusing terminology. And the problem was not simply a linguistic one, it was a matter of what content these terms had, and how they could become accepted without basically leading anyone towards Savellianism; and for the East, this was a very important issue. Well, what was to be done?  An entire story ensued.


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Greek text

Translation by A.N.

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

Last update: 4-8-2005.