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Jesus Christ God, Man and Savior Week Six: God the Son at Nicaea and Constantinople

Peter Brown, Author

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The Essential Role of the Cappadocians: the Term Hypostasis

But even before the accession of Theodosius, a great deal of theological reconciliation had taken place as well; this time, a partial solution to the problem of theological language had been found with the help of the Cappadocian Fathers (Sts. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nanzianus). The principal objection to the term homoousios had been its alleged Sabellian tendencies to eliminate the distinctions between Father and Son. But it was the Cappadocians who proposed an intermediate solution. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were homoousios (of the same essence) but they were not the same things, but three different hypostases. Here we formally meet the term hypostasis which means the actual reality of a given essence.

To illustrate this term, we can return to our example of the term “tree.” The essence or ousia of tree is that which makes it a tree and not another thing. The hypostasis of “tree” is the concrete reality of this specific tree in my yard as a manifestation of tree essence common to all trees. The teaching of the Cappadocians was that there were three hypostases but one ousia which in English means roughly that there were three distinct entities but with one common nature. The Cappadocians had finessed Nicaea which had condemned the Arian belief that the Father and the Son were different hypostases, but using the term hypostasis in a different sense than Nicaea had.  This remains essentially the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity to this day.

The understanding necessarily lays a bit more emphasis on the distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit rather than on the oneness of God (which is emphasized more in western Catholic thinking) but nonetheless was a crucial breakthrough in the controversy.  It for the first time provided language in which the threeness of of the one God could be spoken of and safeguarded.  
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