St Basil the Great and the Search for Hypostasis


“As I see it,” St Basil the Great writes, “while there is much that distinguishes Christianity from Greek error and Jewish ignorance, I think there is no doctrine in the gospel of our salvation more important than faith in the Father and the Son” (Eun. 2.22). And as Basil makes clear later in the same work, he most certainly included faith in the Holy Spirit as integrally related to faith in the Father and the Son. The challenge was finding the appropriate conceptuality and vocabulary by which to speak of the Holy Triad.

As we saw in my article on the idiomata, in the Contra Eunomium Basil differentiates the three individualities of the Godhead by their identifying particularities or properties: the Father is divine ousia plus paternity; the Son is divine ousia plus filiality; and the Spirit is … well … we’ll have to wait for St Gregory Nazianzen’s Theological Orations to learn the definitive catholic answer. What is lacking in Basil’s analysis is a word to denote what the Three are as bearers of their respective properties. We have a word that speaks of the divinity which each share and possess—namely, ousia (substance, essence)—but we need a word that refers to the Three in their distinct identities. Basil would eventually settle on the term hypostasis (subsistence).

In 377 Amphilochius of Iconium wrote to St Basil and asked him to explain the distinction between ousia and hypostasis. Basil responded with the following statement:

The distinction between essence and hypostasis is the same as that between the general and the particular; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular human. Therefore, concerning the divinity, we confess one essence, so as not to give a differing principle of being; but the hypostasis, on the other hand, is particularizing, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be unconfused and clear. If we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics, namely, fatherhood, sonship, and sanctification, but confess God from the common notion of existence, we cannot possibly give a sound account of our faith. We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particularizing to the common. Divinity is common; fatherhood is particular; and we combine them to say, “I believe in God the Father.” And again in the confession of the Son, it is necessary to do the same, to unite the particular to the common and to say “I believe in God the Son.” Likewise for the Holy Spirit, we must conform our words according to the sequence, and say “I believe in the divine Holy Spirit.” So that the unity is completely preserved in the confession of the one divinity, while the particularizing properties of the persons is confessed in the distinction of the properties understood in each. (Ep. 236; quoted in John Behr, Nicene Faith, II:298)

Basil proposes a commonsensical grammatical analysis: when we speak of the divine substance, we are speaking of that which is predicated equally of the Father, Son, and Spirit; when we speak of the divine subsistence, we are speaking of the Father, Son, or Spirit as identified by his defining characteristic. John Behr suggests that Basil is working with the distinction proposed by Aristotle between primary and secondary substance:

It is clear that Basil is working along the lines of the distinction made by Aristotle in his Categories between primary substance (ousia), that is, a particular or individual substance (primary because this is encountered first), and secondary substance, that is, the common or generic substance designated by the qualitative characteristics of the particular object (derived by an act of reflection, and so second, at least in epistemological order). The hypostasis, for Basil, demarcates a particular instance of a given essence, as a particular cat, for example, is demarcated from the general nature of “cat” by its own particular properties. (II:297)

Basil’s analysis is helpful, as it utilizes a distinction with which we are all acquainted. We all know the difference between describing a person as a human being (i.e., a member of the human race) and identifying him as a distinct individual. But the analogy should not be pushed too far. As we have seen, Basil is insistent that the divine substance is incomprehensible. “We do not know what God is in his essence, what kind of being he is, because ultimately he is not a kind of being at all,” Behr explains (II:297). And because God is not a kind of being, he does not belong to “a genus or class of which the three persons are members, parallel with one another” (II:298).

In the Contra Eunomium Basil did not have a word to describe the combination of divine substance and particularizing qualities. Now Basil does have the needed word–hypostasis. Hypostasis designates the product of the union of ousia and idioma. Stephen Hildebrand notes the significance of Basil’s advancement in trinitarian vocabulary: “A hypostasis is not an idioma; rather the hypostasis (an individual or particular subsistent) is the combination of ousia and idioma—of the common (to koinon) and the particular (to idion)—and the idioma makes the hypostasis perceptible. Idioma belongs to the order of knowledge, hypostasis to the order of being. All of these distinctions, this adding and combining of concepts, serves clarity of thought about the Godhead and ensures the safe transmission of the faith” (The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea, p. 92; also see “St Basil and the Stupid Arithmetic of the Trinity“).

But Basil has not just invented a new word. He has taken a word synonymous to ousia and redefined it to signify the trinitarian instantiations of Godhead. Recall the citation from G. L. Prestige in the previous article in which he noted the nuance of difference between ousia and hypostasis. Here’s another passage from Prestige:

In the beginning … hypostasis and ousia amounted to the same thing. There was, however, another and a much more frequent use of hypostasis, in which the emphasis was different. It is important to remember that this second is the normal sense. Ousia means a single object of which the individuality is disclosed by means of internal analysis, an object abstractly and philosophically a unit. But in the sense of hypostasis to which we now turn, the emphasis lay not on content, but on externally concrete independence; objectivity, that is to say, in relation to other objects. Thus, when the doctrine of the Trinity finally came to be formulated as one ousia in three hypostaseis, it implied that God, regarded from the point of view of internal analysis, is one object; but that regarded from the point of view of external presentation, He is three objects; His unity being safeguarded by the doctrine that these three objects of presentation are not merely precisely similar, as the semi-Arians were willing to admit, but, in a true sense, identically one. The sum ‘God + God + God’ adds up, not to ‘3 Gods,’ but simply to ‘God,’ because the word God, as applied to each Person distinctly, expresses a Totum and Absolute which is incapable of increment either in quantity or in quality. (God in Patristic Thought, pp. 168-169)

The one God, we might say, objectively presents himself as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Hypostasis brings with it the ontological weight of being. To meet the Father of Jesus Christ is to meet the one God. To meet the Son born of the Virgin Mary is to meet the one God. To meet the Holy Spirit poured out upon the Church at Pentecost is to meet the one God. There is no other God behind these manifestations. Deity eternally subsists as Holy Trinity.

Hypostasis, therefore, denotes the distinct identity of each of the Three, the combination of ousia and idioma. What therefore distinguishes the three subsistences if each equally possesses the divinity? They are distinguished by their particularizing properties, i.e., their relations of origin: God is the Father as the unoriginate source of the begotten Son and proceeding Spirit. The only difference between the Three is how each is the one God—not a difference in substance but of mode of existence.

Yet I must note that my language in the last two paragraphs reflects later Church usage. For Basil, as for Jesus and the Apostles, the one God is the Father.

For the Christian faith there is, unequivocally, but one God, and that is the Father: “There is one God and Father.” For Basil, the one God is not the one divine substance, or a notion of “divinity” which is ascribed to each person of the Trinity, nor is it some kind of unity or communion in which they all exist; the one God is the Father. But this “monarchy” of the Father does not undermine the confession of the true divinity of the Son and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is certainly “true God of true God,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, but he is such as the Son of God, the God who is thus the Father. If the term “God” (theos) is used of Jesus Christ, not only as a predicate, but also as a proper noun with an article (ho theos), this is only done on the prior confession of him as “Son of God,” and so as other than “the one God” of whom he is the Son; it is necessary to bear in mind this order of Christian theology, lest it collapse in confusion. Basil … followed Scripture in not applying the term “God” to the Holy Spirit, preferring instead the word “divine” (theion), but he is nevertheless clear that the Spirit must belong together with the Father and the Son rather than among created things. (Behr, II:307)

“There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit” (Spir. 18.44).

(Return to first article)

This entry was posted in Basil of Caesarea and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.