The Cappadocian Brothers on the Propria of God


I’m sure it did not come as a surprise to either St Basil of Caesarea or St Gregory of Nyssa. Once they began to elucidate the mystery of the Trinity by means of the analogy between three human beings and the one nature that they share, it was only a matter of time before their opponents would accuse them of proclaiming three gods. Basil responded to the accusation, perhaps not totally successfully, in his homily On Not Three Gods. Gregory offered a more compelling response in his important treatise Ad Ablabium: On Not Three Gods. Gregory’s central contention continues to stimulate contemporary trinitarian reflection, as instanced in the theology of Robert W. Jenson: the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God because they are the joint subjects of one indivisible activity.

But to better understand Gregory’s rejoinder to the charge of tritheism, I’d first like to discuss one of Basil’s letters to Amphilochius. Basil is responding to a Eunomian criticism that the Orthodox do not know the God whom they worship:

Do you worship what you know or what you do not know? If I answer, I worship what I know, they immediately reply, What is the essence of the object of worship? Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, they turn on me again and say, So you worship you know not what. I answer that the word to know has many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence. The question is, therefore, only put for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated. But God, he says, is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence. But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know. If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach. (Ep. 234.1)

On initial reading it might sound like Basil is advancing a hyper-rigorous apophatic theology, along the lines of Clement of Alexandria or Pseudo-Dionysius: we cannot know what God is in himself; all we can know are his energeiai, thus apparently positing an infinite abyss between the inaccessible divine essence and the accessible divine operations. But neither Basil nor his brother (nor St Gregory Nazianzen, for that matter) divorces the immanent life of the Holy Trinity from the economy of salvation in this manner. Basil’s purpose in this passage is to direct us away from the kind of speculation that characterizes Eunomius and his followers. God cannot be comprehensively grasped and defined by philosophical apprehension. He can only be known as he presents himself to us in his acts of self-revelation. As John Behr comments:

Our knowledge of these properties of God arise from our reflection upon the revelation of God, and so depends upon his prior revelation. Basil is very clear that while we can know that God exists from the “common notion”: what God is remains beyond our apprehension (cf. Eun. 1.12). Apart from this bare knowledge of God’s existence, we can only know God as he reveals himself, that is, through his activities and work. … Every human attempt at understanding God depends upon his prior revelation and is a reflection on that revelation. The “inaccessibility” of the essence should not be taken to imply that the “essence” is something other than what is known through the activities, but it itself transcends each particular activity and the sum of all its activities. Some terms arrived at through reflecting on the activity of God, according to Basil, express positively something “present” in God (such as saying that God is good, just, the creator, etc.), while other terms refer to what is absent in God (negative terms, such as unbegotten, incorruptible, invisible, etc.). None of these terms, however, denote the very being or essence of God, and so there is no reason to regard any one of these aspects as more constitutive of his being than any other. “There is no single name which suffices to embrace the whole nature of God and expresses it satisfactorily” (Eun. 1.10). Neither type of name describes God himself independently from us, but only refers to him as he has revealed himself, and as we have perceived this revelation and reflect upon our perception. Or rather, as Basil puts it, from both of these sets of names, the negation of what is not fitting and the confession of those which apply, “a sort of imprint of God is engraved in us.” (The Nicene Faith, II:288-289 [emphasis mine])

Behr’s analysis, however, needs to be supplemented by the more recent scholarly work of Andrew Radde-Gallwitz. As noted in an earlier posting, Basil inserts a third category between the divine essence and the divine activities—the divine propria. On this point Gregory follows his elder brother. The propria, Radde-Gallwitz explains, are positive divine attributes, such as light, life, and goodness, “co-extensive with and intrinsic to the divine essence, but not individually definitive of that essence. They are neither accidents nor essential complements nor synonyms, and yet they do render knowledge of the divine substance, albeit incomplete knowledge” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, pp. 107-108). According to Basil the propria do not violate the divine simplicity, as they are predicated of the divine substance “as a whole” (pp. 156-157); nor are they accidental to the divine substance, as if God could be properly understood apart from them. The propria are not acquired by God but belong to him essentially and indivisibly. In his Homily on Faith, Basil speaks of the properties that belong to God by nature. “None of these is acquired by him,” he explains, “nor added adventitiously later. Instead, just as heat is inseparable from fire and radiance from light, so too are holiness, giving life, goodness, and uprightness inseparable from the Spirit” (De fide 3). And if they are inseparable from the Spirit, they are inseparable from the Father and Son, as each divine person shares equally in “the formula of substance.”

Radde-Gallwitz suggests that we think of the divine propria as analogous to those non-accidental features that characterize finite beings:

This terminology can be used to denote features traditionally thought of as accidental, such as medical skills in a human being, Smith. Smith could forget how to doctor and still be Smith, and certainly still be a human being. Moreover, Jones may be unable to doctor without being less of a human being. But the language of propria also, and more properly, denotes features that in every case go along with the species, such as the ability to laugh or risibility of humans, or the ability to neigh of horses. It is propria of this sort that Basil and Gregory have in mind when they use the terminology to speak of God’s attributes. Just as we cannot think of a horse that cannot neigh, we cannot think of God without goodness. The ability to neigh is no part of the essence of a horse (i.e. neighing will not be included in any definition of ‘horse’ through genus and difference). Yet, so the account goes, it is a necessary truth that if something is a horse, it is able to neigh, and if something is able to neigh, it is a horse. Thus, there is a kind of non-essential necessity with properties of this sort, which distinguishes them from strictly accidental properties. The notion of ‘non-essential necessity’ will sound like a contradiction in terms to those modern readers for whom X’s essential properties just are X’s necessary properties, the properties of X that belong to it in any possible world. To borrow from this modal language, not without some consternation, one can say that for Basil and Gregory, God is good in every possible world, and goodness is what we mean when we say ‘God’, yet we have no grounds for saying that goodness is the essence of God: that it is what makes God, God. (pp. xx-xxi)

For this reason the Cappadocian brothers should be assimilated neither to the Latin identification of the divine essence and divine properties nor to the Byzantine distinction between the divine essence and divine energies. Contrary to Eunomius, insists Basil, we cannot comprehend the incomprehensible ousia of God. “If you claim to know the essence,” he declares, “you do not know God” (Ep. 234.2). But unlike the radical apophaticists, Basil does not leave us in total agnosticism. Though we may not be able to define the eternal being of the Creator, we are given to know him as he truly is, in se, through the economic manifestations of his goodness, light, life, power, wisdom, righteousness. These distinct properties are neither identical to the divine essence nor parts of the divine essence; but they inhere in and are concurrent with the divine essence and are thus revelatory of God. As Basil notes, “For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated” (Ep. 234.1). There is a knowing of God that is not a comprehension of God. Radde-Gallwitz elaborates:

Basil and Gregory’s notion that a certain class of divine attributes should be viewed as propria of the divine nature constitutes a unique construal of the doctrine of divine simplicity. Propria necessarily inhere in the natures of which they are propria, and do so uniquely, such that they serve as identifying markers for those natures. Accordingly, they make possible knowledge of those natures that is not merely relative or mind-dependent—that is not merely knowledge by epinoia (though we should not disparage this either). Yet, at the same time, propria do not define the essence. God’s propria of goodness, wisdom, power, justice, and truth do not tell us what it is to be God. God is simultaneously known and unknown, and part of the theological task is stating clearly where the lines are drawn between them. (p. 225)

Nor do the essential attributes specifically name the divine ad extra activities (energeia). The activities disclose God to us by revealing the propria intrinsic to the divine nature. Hence when Basil states “that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence,” he is not positing a chasm between the Deus absconditus and the Deus revelatus.  Basil directs us to the economia precisely because it is the place in which the transcendent and ineffable Deity has chosen to make himself known.

In his book Aristotle East and West, David Bradshaw interprets the Cappadocians as anticipating the Palamite distinction between divine essence and divine energies (also see his paper “The Concept of Divine Energies“). He believes, for example, that when they use terms such as “good” and “wise,” they are referring to the divine energeiai; hence, he concludes, “the energeiai are not merely activities of God, but must be God Himself under some nameable aspect or form” (p. 165). But Bradshaw has apparently missed the central importance of the propria in the thought of St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa. Divine goodness, truth, wisdom, power, light, life—we learn of them from God’s creative energeiai (activities) in Scripture and the world, but they do not name energeiai; they properly name the essential attributes “around,” integral to, and expressive of the divine nature. Bradshaw sees only two possible, and incompatible, readings of the Cappadocians—Latin and Palamite. He chooses the latter. But a third and more likely reading exists. The divine activities do not stand on their own, as it were. They flow from the divine power (dunamis), understood as “a causal capacity rooted in the divine nature, which reflects or expresses that nature in the way that the power of heat reflects the nature of fire. This power is inseparable from the nature and gives rise to the divine activities (energeiai) in the world” (Radde-Gallwitz, p. 183). In Ad Ablabium Gregory speaks of the “varied operations of the transcendent power.” The Cappadocians present us not with an essence/energies distinction but with an essence/power/activities distinction. Perhaps we might extend this to say that they present us with an essence/propria/activities distinction. It is thus easy to see why medieval Byzantine and Latin theologians claimed them for their own, yet on their own they do not quite fit neatly into either tradition.

(Go to “The Power of God”)

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10 Responses to The Cappadocian Brothers on the Propria of God

  1. whitefrozen says:

    ‘…the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God because they are the joint subjects of one indivisible activity.’

    If you get that, you get Gregory. It took me a fair amount of reading to figure out that his entire discourse on the Trinity is basically saying that. Very simple.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      But where does the divine ousia disappear to? 🙂


      • whitefrozen says:

        From wikipedia:

        ‘The generally agreed-upon meaning of ousia in Eastern Christianity is “all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another”‘

        The ousia doesn’t disappear, it’s simply not used by Nyssa to get at a good definition of the Trinity. He gets there by way of ‘operation’.


  2. AR says:

    Does this mean “we know that the three are one God because we see from scripture that they are joint subjects of one indivisible activity?”

    Or does it mean that being such subjects is what constitutes their oneness?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Stay tuned. I think your question will be answered, from St Gregory’s perspective, in a future post, not the next one but the one after. 🙂


  3. whitefrozen says:

    Would it be appropriate to formulate something along these lines:

    One ousia, three distinct hypostasis – with the operations of the Godhead (per Gregory) being how they are united in their distinct-ness?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think that for Gregory, the conjoint activities of the Triad reveal the one power of God, and because God has one power, his nature must also be one. I think.


  4. SteveL says:

    Wow. Very nice. One of your best yet.


  5. tgbelt says:

    Jenson: ‘…the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God because they are the joint subjects of one indivisible activity.’

    Tom: I like the feel of this a lot. But I don’t see how it’s true. Are Son and Spirit jointly “subjects” of the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit? I don’t see how. Nor do I see how Father and Spirit are the “subjects” of the Son’s incarnate actions in the sense the Son is the subject of Christ.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Activity” refers specifically to God’s actions toward and in creation; hence it needs to be distinguished from the divine processions. Of course, Jenson does have some interesting ideas about them, too. 🙂


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