Nicene Metaphysics: Apprehending the Transcendence

It’s not clear in my own mind precisely when I began to make the connection between creatio ex nihilo and the metaphysical revolution initiated by the first two ecumenical councils and the theologians we now identify as the Pro-Nicene Fathers (St Athanasius the Apostolic, St Hilary of Poitiers, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa); but I’m confident it goes back to the late 70s and early 80s when I immersed myself in the Trinitarian theology of Robert W. Jenson and Thomas F. Torrance. Crucial confirma­tion came in the early 90s when, on the recommendation of now Archbishop Joseph Augustine DiNoia, I read Robert Sokolowski’s illuminating book The God of Faith and Reason. The connection was later wonderfully deepened by David Bentley’s Hart’s lecture “The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics After Nicaea,” which I heard delivered at the Fordham conference Orthodox Readings of Augustine a decade ago. My subsequent reading has only reinforced my conviction: in particular I mention Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology; Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea; Lewis Ayres, The Legacy of Nicaea; and, more recently, Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation.

My unoriginal thesis, simply stated: the Trinitarian reflection of the second- and third-centuries, elaborated in a subordinationist conceptuality, created a theological problem for the Church’s proclamation of the gospel that could not be resolved except by a transfor­mation of Hellenistic metaphysics.

The crisis began in the fourth century among the followers of Origen. Grabbing hold of one trajectory within Origen’s presentation of triadic divinity, Arius said what catholic theologians had always refused to say: Jesus Christ is a creature—the first and greatest creature of God but a creature nonetheless, generated out of nothing. Arius unequivocally locates Jesus on the creaturely side of the uncreated/created chasm: “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing” (quoted by Socrates of Constantinople, Church History I.5). The Son, in other words, is a contingent product of the Father’s will: he might never have been; he might never have been created. The transcendent Deity might have chosen not to generate his hypostatic Word and Wisdom, just as he might have chosen not to make the world. Arius thus resolves the instability of Origen’s speculations by divorcing Jesus and the divine nature, and he appeals to the Bible for support: “The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, for the sake of his works” (Prov 8:22 LXX). Khaled Anatolios elaborates:

The internal consistency of Arius’s doctrine comes into view once we see that his project is fundamentally concerned with integrating a strict definition of divine transcendence with a relativized but, in his view, scripturally adequate conception of the primacy of Christ. The highest level of divine transcendence is defined in terms of absolute simplicity and unqualified priority: the one God is therefore unbegotten/uncaused/monas. Therefore, God is not always Father; the Son did not always exist; the three hypostases are unlike each other in substance. In relation to this one God, the Son/Word/Wisdom, as secondary and caused, is a creature whose existence has a beginning as the effect of the will of the one God. But the son is also “God,” albeit in a secondary sense, as the created and necessarily incomplete representation and mediation of divine glory. Like all created beings, the Son is alterable by nature. But the primacy of Christ consists in his being granted an original and unsurpassable share in divine glory, which is not a participation in divine substance but in the freely bestowed grace of God’s benefits. The Word is therefore not like the other creatures but is the exemplary and uniquely “perfect creature.” (p. 52)

The response from others within the camp of Origen, representing the alternative trajectory, was immediate and emphatic: Arius has denied the gospel—anathema! Not only does Arius’s doctrine leave the Church worshipping a creature (idolatry!), but it subverts the baptismal gift of salvation! How can a creature save us from sin and nothingness? How can a creature, no matter how exalted, incorporate mankind into the eternal life of God? As Athanasius would later write: “For humanity would not have been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were true God. Nor would humanity have been drawn into the Father’s presence, unless the one who had put on the body was the true Word by nature” (C. Ar. 2.70).

Basil Studer makes explicit the interior connection between the creatio ex nihilo and the movement of the Church into a deeper comprehension of Trinitarian divinity:

By the turn of the century a new theological attitude to the concept of creatio ex nihilo had emerged in the apologetics directed against the pagans, probably under the influence of philosophical discussion. This made it urgent to give an unambiguous answer to the question still left open in Origen’s cosmology, governed as it was by the problem of the One and the Many: that is, whether the Logos was to be placed on the side of creation or of the Creator. Arius himself decided for the first option. According to him the pre-existent Logos cannot be equal to the Father, who alone is uncreated; thus he cannot possibly have come out of the being of the Father. He was rather created out of nothing like all creatures. However, he is the first creature; he was created before time, while the other creatures came into being through him in time. In short he is only a secondary God, not without beginning like the Father. (pp. 103-104)

The bishops gathered in Nicaea in 325 and promulgated their creed. The key credal statement and condemnation:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father, that is from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be, both those in heaven and those in earth.

And those who say “there once was when he was not”, and “before he was begotten he was not”, and that he came to be from things that were not, or from another hypostasis or substance, affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration—these the catholic and apostolic church anathematises.

Arius was excommunicated, but as subsequent writings and events bear out, the dogmatic definition did not resolve the debate. Theology remained trapped in the subordinationist metaphysics of the Hellenistic world. The Pro-Nicene Fathers struggled to find appropriate conceptuality in which to express their faith in the ontological equality of the Father and the Son (and eventually the Spirit). By the conclusion of the fourth century, the metaphysical revolution had been achieved. Subordinationism was rejected and a fresh and bold way to state the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was articulated. David Hart elaborates:

The doctrinal determinations of the fourth century, along with all their immediate theological ramifications, rendered many of the established metaphysical premises upon which Christians had long relied in order to understand the relation between God and the world increasingly irreconcilable with their faith, and at the same time suggested the need to conceive of that relation—perhaps for the first time in Western intellectual history—in a properly “ontological” way. With the gradual defeat of subordinationist theology, and with the definition of the Son and then the Spirit as coequal and coeternal with the Father, an entire metaphysical economy had implicitly been abandoned. These new theological usages—this new Christian philosophical grammar—did not entail a rejection of the old Logos metaphysics, but they certainly did demand its revision, and at the most radical of levels. For not only is the Logos of Nicaea not generated with a view to creation, and not a lesser manifestation of a God who is simply beyond all manifestation; it is in fact the eternal reality whereby God is the God he is. There is a perfectly proportionate convertibility of God with his own manifestation of himself to himself; and, in fact, this convertibility is nothing less than God’s own act of self-knowledge and self-love in the mystery of his transcendent life. His being, therefore, is an infinite intelligibility; his hiddenness—his transcendence—is always already manifestation; and it is this movement of infinite disclosure that is his “essence” as God. Thus it is that the divine persons can be characterized (as they are by Augustine) as “subsistent relations”: meaning not that, as certain critics of the phrase hastily assume, the persons are nothing but abstract correspondences floating in the infinite simplicity of a logically prior divine essence, but that the relations of Father to Son or Spirit, and so on, are not extrinsic relations “in addition to” other, more original “personal” identities, or “in addition to” the divine essence, but are the very reality by which the persons subsist; thus the Father is eternally and essentially Father because he eternally has his Son, and so on. God is Father, Son, and Spirit; and nothing in the Father “exceeds” the Son and Spirit. In God, to know and to love, to be known and to be loved are all one act, whereby he is God and wherein nothing remains unexpressed. And, if it is correct to understand “being” as in some sense necessarily synonymous with manifestation or intelligibility—and it is—then the God who is also always Logos is also eternal Being, not a being, that is, but transcendent Being, beyond all finite being.

Another way of saying this is that the dogmatic definitions of the fourth century ultimately forced Christian thought, even if only tacitly, toward a recognition of the full mystery—the full transcendence—of Being within beings. All at once the hierarchy of hypostases mediating between the world and its ultimate or absolute principle had disappeared. Herein lies the great “discovery” of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings. In affirming the consubstantiality and equality of the person of the Trinity, Christian thought had also affirmed that it is the transcendent God alone who makes creation to be, not through a necessary diminishment of his own presence, and not by way of an economic reduction of his power in lesser principles, but as the infinite God. In this way, he is revealed as at once superior summo meo and interior intimo meo; not merely the supreme being set atop the summit of beings, but the one who is transcendently present in all beings, the ever more inward act within each finite act. This does not, of course, mean that there can be no metaphysical structure of reality, through whose agencies God acts; but it does mean that, whatever that structure might be, God is not located within it, but creates it, and does not require its mechanism to act upon lower beings. As the immediate source of the being of the whole, he is nearer to every moment within the whole than it is to itself, and is at the same time infinitely beyond the reach of the whole, even in its most exalted principles. And it is precisely in learning that God is not situated within any kind of ontic continuum with creation, as some “other thing” mediated to the creature by his simultaneous absolute absence from and dialectical involvement in the totality of beings, that we discover him to be the ontological cause of creation. True divine transcendence, it turns out transcends even the traditional metaphysical divisions between the transcendent and the immanent. (The Hidden and the Manifest, pp. 147-148)

This dense but rich passage demands multiple rereadings (as does the the essay itself). I cannot pretend to have comprehended Hart’s analysis at every point, but here is my takeaway: whereas in earlier patristic reflection the Son and Spirit were conceived as subordinate “divine” beings—existing in hierarchical, vertical relationship between the one God at the top of the metaphysical ladder and temporal reality at the bottom—now they, with the Father, are seen as existing in immediate relationship to the cosmos and with each other. Radical transcendence makes possible radical immanence. The ladder, if you will, has been tipped over. In their mutual relations, Father, Son and Spirit are intrinsic to the internal structure of deity. God does not need mediators between the world and himself. The Father creates the world through his Son and by his Spirit: each hypostasis is fully divine; each equally immediate to the world as the ultimate source of existence. The biblical story of the one God who by his Son and Spirit creates, redeems, and transfigures the world reveals God as he truly is in himself. The Father exists eternally with his coinherent Word and Spirit. As Thomas Torrance was fond of saying, there is no God behind the back of Jesus. The Hellenistic notion of degrees of divinity is thus emphatically rejected. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “To compose the Trinity of Great and Greater and Greatest, as if of Light and Beam and Sun …, makes a ‘ladder of deity’ that will not bring us into heaven but out of it” (Letter 101.14; quoted by Jenson, p. 90). And Gregory Nyssen: “Between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is no interstice into which the mind might step as into a void” (Ep Pet. 41; see Lewis Ayres, “On Not Three People“).

Some, like analytic philosopher Alan Rhoda, have questioned the connection between the creatio ex nihilo and the ineffable mode of divine difference. The creatio ex nihilo only denies God’s creation of the world out of primordial matter; it implies nothing more. Origen and others, after all, affirmed the world’s creation from out of nothing, but they still maintained their adherence to subordinationist metaphysics. The most one can legitimately say is that the doctrine functioned as a catalyst. It certainly confronted the Church with an unavoid­able decision: Is Jesus Christ uncreated or not?

I keep mulling this over in my mind. It still seems to me that the creatio ex nihilo entails more than the denial of creatio ex materia. If God does not fashion the world from primordial matter in demiurgic fashion, and if he does not pantheis­tically generate the world through the emanation of his substance, then we are talking about a making that is not a making at all. The ex nihilo gestures toward the dissimilarity. Thus St Maximus the Confessor: “For if artists in their art conceive the shapes of those things which they produce, and if universal nature conceives the forms of the things within it, how much more does God Himself bring into existence out of nothing the very being of all created things, since He is beyond being and even infinitely transcends the attribution of beyond-beingness” (Various Texts on Theology 1.6). God is not a cause among causes: he is the transcendent bestower of finite being. He creates by summoning things into existence from the void of nothingness, not just at a moment in the past but at every instant of creaturely existence. In James Ross’s lapidary sentence: “The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer.” The Trinity sings into reality that which is genuinely other than himself, yet which depends totally on his creative act and presence. Hence we must speak of an “infinite analogical interval” between Creator and creature, similarity comprehended within apophatic dissimilarity. The creatio ex nihilo points us to the transcendent Mystery who surpasses metaphysical distinctions and categories, who exists beyond unity and difference, the one and the many, motion and stillness, substance and form.

The implications of the creatio ex nihilo for the Church’s understanding of Trinitarian divinity could be ignored for a time but not indefinitely. If the fourth century Church was to affirm, against Arius, the generation of Christ from the substance of the Father—“God from God, light from light, true God from true God”—then a rejection of subordinationist metaphysics was necessary. “For the God described by the dogmas of Nicaea and Constantinople,” writes Hart, “was at once more radically immanent within and more radically transcendent of creation than the God of the old subordinationist metaphysics had ever been. He was immediately active in all things; but he occupied no station within the hierarchy of the real” (p. 149). Perhaps we should think of the Nicene revolution as a creative moment akin to the movement in modern physics from the Newtonian model of the universe to the Einsteinian model—a matter of insight rather than logic. Paradigm shifts require something more than deduction. What is needed is an act of imagination, a thinking outside the parameters (see Garrett Green, Imagining God). It wasn’t that experimental evidence had disproved the Newtonian model. Einstein, rather, dared to look at the whole of the data in a new way. “Newton, forgive me,” he wrote in his Autobiographical Notes. “You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought—and creative power.” Robert Sokolowski suggests that the distinction between the world (which need not be) and its infinite Creator (who eternally exists in transcendent aseity) is “glimpsed on the margin of reason” (p. 39). It is not merely one mystery alongside other divinely-revealed mysteries but “the condition for our ability to assert the other Christian mysteries as mysteries” (pp. 38-39). The apprehension of the triune God who transcends transcendence and immanence lies in the liminal space between faith and reason.

Finally we may return to the contest between the unitarian and trinitarian models of God. In What is the Trinity? and other writings, Dale Tuggy maintains that the Nicene formulation of tri-hypostatic deity represents a negation of the biblical testimony to the one God and offers in evidence the teachings of orthodox theologians from the second- and third-centuries. He has a point. These theologians did employ the Hellenistic category of graded divinity to assert the inferior status of Jesus Christ. They did not question the inherited ontology of subordination; they presupposed it. This metaphysics thus functioned as an interpretive lens and boundary, and as long as it remained unchallenged, the Christian mind was constrained. The full and equal divinity of the Son and Spirit, upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ firmly rests, remained unsayable. Despite this constraint, the Church of course continued to proclaim the Lordship of the risen Christ and the gift of new creation through faith in his Name; continued to gratefully confess the sheer giftedness of world and cosmos; continued to live in the power of the coming Kingdom; continued to hope for the eschatolo­g­ical judgment when “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:28); continued to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Father through the Son by the Spirit; continued, in other words, to live in the Holy Trinity—but the catholic doctrine of the Trinity remained tacit, implicit, lived rather than clearly thought. (“We can know more than we can tell,” Michael Polanyi reminds us.) What was needed was a new act of paradigmatic imagination. What was needed was a St Athanasius:

The Trinity is holy and perfect, confessed as God in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or extrinsic mingled with it, nor compounded of creator and created, but is wholly Creator and Maker. It is identical with itself and indivisible in nature, and its activity is one. For the Father does all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit. Thus the oneness of the Holy Trinity is preserved and thus is the one God “who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.6) preached in the Church—“over all,” as Father who is beginning and fountain; “through all,” through the  Son; and “in all” in the Holy Spirit. (Ep. Serap. 1.28)

Orthodox Christianity dares to believe that in this confession the voice of the Spirit may be heard.

(Go to “Analytic Theology and the One God“)

 

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53 Responses to Nicene Metaphysics: Apprehending the Transcendence

  1. brian says:

    Father,

    This is a nice essay. I’ll piggyback a bit on your reflections, especially regarding the analysis of Hart’s quotations. I would say that the struggle to understand the metaphysics of the Christian revelation ultimately compelled theologians to say something the pagan world could not imagine. They recognized that one could not remain faithful to the gospel kerygma without acknowledging that God’s simplicity was also, equally, a relationality. Thus, the Father is eternally generating the Son; divine knowledge is always “specular” — the Father knows Himself (in the Son), etc. The flourishing plenitude of a dynamic aseity (one that encompasses perichoresis) is itself a revelation of infinite, delicate, divine intimacy within the life of God. The pithy conclusion is that the Christian God is uniquely love. It is from this new understanding of the divine that both the gratuity of the creation and the greater intimacy towards creation is made thinkable. Deeper awareness of TriUne divinity tacitly founds insight into the meaning of creatio ex nihilo. Only those Christians who think like moderns (they habitually consider creation as “intelligent design” and focus on material and efficient causality) are apt to miss that “ex nihilo” is a marker for the absolute generosity of the giftedness of being as well as the perduring participation of creaturely logoi in a nurturing Logos, rather than as a “negative” definition of the absence of “primal starting material.”

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    • Tom says:

      I recall DBH saying (online interview or lecture – can’t remember the venue, sorry) that even if one could prove that the material cosmos has always existed, that wouldn’t undermine creation ex nihilo (CEN) in the slightest. While I wouldn’t suggest that CEN be reduced negatively to an absence of primal starting material, is CEN really consistent with uncreated (as in ‘having never come-into being’) matter?

      Tom

      Liked by 1 person

      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Hi Tom

        That argument I believe was first posited by Aquinas; however, this was in the course of arguing the least that could be established by his method of inquiry. Per the patristic metaphysic of the absolute division of being between created and uncreated, CEN is incompatible with the notion of uncreated matter. Some of this spills over into the theology of time – did the creative act take a moment in time?

        Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        How much is/might this be this a matter of understanding “always” and “existed”? Is “existed” distinguished from ‘Superessential’, ‘Hyperousial’, ‘Beyond Being’, and does “always” characterize “existed” in analogous ways, as ‘everlasting’ in distinction from ‘eternal’? Could one, beyond this, posit a ‘coeternal’ Creation which yet as Created Existence is radically distinguished from and subordinate to Superessential Coeternal Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, One God in Three Persons, Creator and Sustainer?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Although terms are used analogously, the basis of meaning is a true similarity. Without this basis theology will slip into equivocal non-sense. A mirror reflects the original, a similarity to the original is beheld in the reflection. As far as it is indirect we are not beholding the original, but from the reflection we can recognize and learn truthfully about the original, however always aware we are looking at a reflection not the arche-type itself.

          I do think we can make a distinction between ‘uncreated matter’ and ‘matter has always existed’ in that the former speaks to cause whereas the latter to temporality. This is a distinction while not entirely useless it didn’t come into play until much later (Rambam, Aquinas) and as far as CEN and transcendence the distinction is of no consequence.

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      • Without knowing the particular comment by Hart, I’m fairly sure he would say that ‘uncreated matter’ and ‘matter has always existed’ are not the same. In English, we tend to conflate ‘causing something to be’ and ‘causing something to begin to be’ when talking about creation; in some languages, like Latin, it is extremely easy to make the distinction. So the idea is that even if the material world did not begin to be, it would still need a cause for being — they are at least distinct questions. Aquinas, as Robert notes, holds that there appears to be no reason why God could not, in principle, create a world with no beginning, although, of course, he holds that by faith we know that the world had a beginning. Others have argued that, while the questions are distinct, the answers go together — Bonaventure, for instance, holds that everything created must have had a beginning. So if Hart in context meant it weakly, he was merely distinguishing the questions; if he meant it strongly, he was advocating the Thomistic answer.

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  2. Dylan says:

    Have you read Jacobs’s “‘On Not Three Gods’—Again“? If not, it would be a good one to add to your reading on this topic.

    Also relevant: https://www.academia.edu/19832348/On_the_Metaphysics_of_God_and_Creatures_in_the_Eastern_Pro-Nicenes

    Liked by 1 person

  3. By the conclusion of the fourth century, the metaphysical revolution had been achieved. Subordinationism was rejected and a fresh and bold way to state the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was articulated. David B. Hart elaborates …

    However fancily David B. Hart may elaborate, the “metaphysical revolution” rests (embarrassing to say), on a poor play on words, and the anathema appended to the original Nicene of 325 is there to witness to it:

    And those who say … that he came to be … from another hypostasis [Gr. hypostasis] or substance [Gr. ousia] … these the catholic and apostolic church anathematises.

    In 325, when the anathema was appended to the creed, ousia and hypostasis, were two interchangeable philosophical terms. It was only after 362, after the Synod of Alexandria that, mostly thanks to the Cappadocians, the two terms became gradually differentiated, so much so that the Cappadocians summed up the essence of the “verbal revolution” in their shibboleth: “[God is] one ousia three [co-equal, coeternal] hypostases”.

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    • P.S. Let me be crystal clear. In 325, the above sentence would have been (no less stupid than) this:

      “[God is] one X in three [co-equal, coeternal] Xs”.

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    • Thomas says:

      Aristotle used hypostasis and ousia with differing connotations some six centuries earlier.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There is no evidence that Aristotle used the word hypostasis, other than to mean the substratum of material things. In his Categories, the first of six treatises of his work on logic, the Organon, Aristotle only used the distinction between primary/secondary substances (ousiai), the former meaning the concrete individual, the latter to refer to the species (of genus) it belongs to. It was only in the eighth-century that the Byzantine thinker John Damascene replaced Aristotle’s pair by the pair hypostasis/ousiai.

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        • CORRIGE: the pair hypostasis/ousiai => hypostasis/ousia

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        • Contrary to your claim below, this is very difficult to understand. Aristotle usually uses ousia to talk about both ‘primary substance’ and ‘secondary substance’ (which would both more accurately be translated as primary and secondary beings); hypostasis is not a technical term in Aristotle. It’s hypokeimenon he uses for the substrate of change. (One finds hypostasis used quite a lot in some commentators on Aristotle, like Simplicius, but he doesn’t use it as a strict synonym for either ousia or hypokeimenon.) And surely we have hypostasis/ousia being discussed at length at least by Gregory of Nyssa.

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          • All you can produce is nitpicking. The main point I made is that the one produced by the Cappadocians (“one ousia three hypostases”) is a mere play on words, based on what, at the time of Nicea 325, was, at least for the Conciliar Fathers, a mere DWAD (Distinction Without A Difference), as attested by the anathema appended to the original Nicene Creed of 325. Check. John Damascene, in the 8th century, tidied up, to some extent, the mess that was already there, by changing Aristotle’s terminology. Check.

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          • By ‘nitpicking’ you mean that I pointed out that your claim was, in fact, difficult to understand because several of the things you said about hypostasis and ousia are in fact wrong. This is in fact still true. Your comment in response is equally obscure because, unlike your previous comment, it does not address at all the claim about Aristotle to which you were responding, and therefore was not in any way the “main point” of the comment I was correcting.

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        • Thomas says:

          As Brandon points out, hypostasis != hypokeimenon. Aristotle himself uses hypostasis in a number of different senses, such as what settles (or sediments) at the bottom, the act of supporting or standing under something, or the expression of an idea. And, of course, Aristotle distinguishes a number of senses of ousia.

          It seems to me that a quick trip to a Greek Lexicon would disabuse anyone of the notion that hypostasis and ousia must be used as exactly equivalent terms. And, as Aristotle belabours, even ousia can be used in widely different senses, meaning one usage of ousia and another need not be univocal.

          And this is besides the point. Even if these were exact equivalent, the creation of terms of art entails giving words a sense they did not already possess.

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          • Even if these [hypostasis and ousia] were exact equivalent, the creation of terms of art entails giving words a sense they did not already possess.

            Very poetical … 🙂

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          • Thomas says:

            Miguel:

            No more poetical than the difference between the meaning of the modulo operation in Euclidean division, floored division, and truncated division. Which is to say, not very.

            People with some level of familiarity with the field are able to grasp technical distinctions. That’s the first sign one has started to get the hang of a discipline.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mario, I do not understand your point. Everyone agrees that ousia and hypostasis were used with multiple meanings in the first-half of the fourth century. That is not at issue.

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  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    Fr Aidan,

    Great post on an important topic, thank you.

    I too see an intrinsic connection between Creatio Ex Nihilo and divine transcendence. Since at least the 4th Century following the Cappadocians, it is untenable to separate Creatio Ex Nihilo, divine transcendence, the division of being, and the creation of time. The last was contested by Aquinas, but I think he was arguing for the least that can be asserted per his line of reasoning. Gregory of Nyssa takes the creation of time as the beginning of creation. For him CEN Creatio Ex Nihilo explicitly excludes the eternity of time, CEN Creatio Ex Nihilo means that God did not require a moment in time to create (ex nihilo- out of no thing, no time, no place).

    Only God who is outside the chain of created mode of being (i.e. who is truly transcendent) can create ex nihilo, whose will is his word is his power by which he creates. The intrinsic connection means that to modify the nature of divine transcendence, one will have to modify the meaning of Creatio Ex Nihilo. This all to say that how we conceive of the nature of God affects our understanding of the meaning of Creatio Ex Nihilo, the two concepts intrinsically connected.

    If God is not truly ontological free, thus ontologically dissimilar to creation; if God is not without prior constraint or necessity; if His essence is not identical to His existence, but participates in attributes as does creation; then the meaning of Creatio Ex Nihilo becomes incoherent. Ex nihilo denotes precisely the want of necessity, the freedom from becoming and potentiality, the aseity of purus actus. For the truly Transcendent to be is to do, a perfect identity between to will and desire.

    In my opinion this is so crucial, that to modify this is to modify the Gospel. This I believe was Nyssen’s motivation – not the defense of some obscurant theology for the sake of argumentation, but rather the very meaning of the Gospel itself. Change the meaning of CEN and divine transcendence (or sever their relation) and we do not have the God-Man in our midst; salvation will have become an impossibility.

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    • Only God who is outside the chain of created mode of being (i.e. who is truly transcendent) can create ex nihilo, whose will is his word is his power by which he creates.

      Robert,

      Apart from the positive role that you attribute to the Cappadocians, there is not a single statement in your comment that I could disagree with.

      You speak God “whose will is his word is his power by which he creates”. Care to explain in what sense God’s word, God’s creative power would be personal? Thanks 🙂

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        No, I don’t care to explain, your comments are argumentative, and disrespectful to boot.

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        • This is a blog, not a tea party or a mutual admiration society. And I asked you kindly. Take care.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Actually, Miguel, Eclectic Orthodoxy is not an ordinary blog. We maintain a fairly high level of civility and mutual respect. We argue with each other, sometimes vigorously, but we work to ensure that the argument is constructive and substantive. To be honest, you have pushed the civility envelope on more than one occasion over the past two weeks. I haven’t said anything, simply because my attention has been focused on my reading and writing. There are plenty of blogs out there (though not nearly as many as there were a decade ago) that thrive on knock-down drag-out polemic. This is not one of them, and hasn’t been since its inception five years ago.

            I expect you, as I expect everyone else, to abide by the norms of civil conversation as practiced here on Eclectic Orthodoxy. Thanks.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Fr Aidan and all,

      Perhaps we should think of the Nicene revolution as a creative moment akin to the movement in modern physics from the Newtonian model of the universe to the Einsteinian model—a matter of insight rather than logic. Paradigm shifts require something more than deduction.

      I would add to this that we can observe this insight come into focus in the later exchanges (notably with the Neo-arians, such as Eunomius) expressed in the disagreement about epinoia. So for Gregory of Nyssa epinoia (‘conceptions’) of theology proper are valid analogous applications which do not establish an identity with the ‘what’ of God essence. This is a two-prong argument – 1.) conceptions are valid (pace Eunomius, not intrinsic knowledge deposited by God, but acquired through the application of reasoning and observing faculties) and 2.) that while epinoia are valid they nevertheless never fully comprehend God’s nature. This applies to both cataphatic and apophatic epinoia, both affirmations (‘God is the good’) and negations (‘God is immortal’). So we see here a denial of univocity (such as Eunomius use of ‘unbegotten’ identified with God’s nature) and an affirmation of theo-logos by means of analogous epinoia.

      Here it comes into focus: the underlying fundamental problem with the old metaphysics and subordinationist theologies is an anthropomorphic literalism by which concepts are univocally applied to theology proper. ‘Begotten’ predicated of God does not denote a beginning in time. Transcendence and immanence are affirmed by analogous predication. God is radically dissimilar, while yet his image is beheld. God exists and creates but ‘is’ and ‘does’ radically different from our own way of existing and doing. This interval of difference can only be reflected in a theology which affirms both dissimilarity and similarity. The paradigm shift is complete – there is a perfect identity of divine being and doing.

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  5. I am not aware that I have been un-civilized. By now it is obvious that I do not sing along with the Cappadocian choir. Also, that I point out inconsistencies. Is this incompatible with commenting here? It may help you to know that I am an admirer of Marcellus of Ancyra.

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  6. It wasn’t that experimental evidence had disproved the Newtonian model.

    In spite of his many contradictory statements on the subject, in later accounts, in his paper of 1905 (On The Electrodynamics Of Moving Bodies, A. Einstein, June 30, 1905), Einstein makes clear reference to the Michelson-Morley experiment, when he speaks of “unsuccessful attempts to discover any motion of the earth relatively to the ‘light medium’”. This, just considering Special Relativity. Besides, Einstein was perfectly aware that, on the basis of Newtonian physics, the precession of the perihelion of Mercury simply could not be explained. Whatever irrationalist epistemologists may say, observation and experiment are still the ultimate test for the falsification of a theory.

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  7. No more poetical than the difference between the meaning of the modulo operation in Euclidean division, floored division, and truncated division.

    OIOW, we (say, Cappadocians) need the distinction to mark a real difference, so as to reconcile two arguing parties (say, neo-Nicene and semi-Arians) so we affirm it. Some people (say, Athanasius) may find our ways unpalatable, but they ultimately subscribe to them, for “political” reasons.

    People with some level of familiarity with the the history of Christian doctrines are able to grasp the situation. That’s the sure sign one has stopped playing the esoteric game.

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  8. Despite this constraint [the ontology of subordination], the Church of course continued to proclaim the Lordship of the risen Christ and the gift of new creation through faith in his Name; continued to gratefully confess the sheer giftedness of world and cosmos; continued to live in the power of the coming Kingdom; continued to hope for the eschatolo­g­ical judgment when “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:28); continued to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Father through the Son by the Spirit; continued, in other words, to live in the Holy Trinity—but the catholic doctrine of the Trinity remained tacit, implicit, lived rather than clearly thought.

    Could Justin Martyr’s “original sin” of “another God and Lord” (Gr. theos kai kurios eteros), the continuing sin of Subordinationism, the crisis of Arianism, be cured with a pharmakon other that the Trinity? Which snapped the Hellenistic “chain of being”, true, but at the cost of enveloping Christianity in esoteric mystery? Yes, it could. Marcellus of Ancyra had already started administering it at Nicea. Unfortunately the Arians raised their head, unfortunately the Eusebians took advantage of the confusion, to try and restore the previous subordinationist status quo, unfortunately the Cappadocians, with the guilty help of Athanasius, invented a remedy that is worse than Justin Martyr’s “original sin”, and which can only be put right by disposing of it for good.

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  9. Brandon Watson says [16 August 2017 at 7:37 pm] By ‘nitpicking’ you mean that I pointed out that your claim was, in fact, difficult to understand because several of the things you said about hypostasis and ousia are in fact wrong. This is in fact still true. Your comment in response is equally obscure because, unlike your previous comment, it does not address at all the claim about Aristotle to which you were responding, and therefore was not in any way the “main point” of the comment I was correcting.

    The main point remains that “one ousia in three hypostases is a mere play on words, based on what, at the time of Nicea 325, was, at least for the Conciliar Fathers, a mere DWAD (Distinction Without A Difference), as attested by the anathema appended to the original Nicene Creed of 325.” 😉

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mario, the important point, from the perspective of the development of doctrine, is that the fourth century did eventually come to distinguish between hypostasis and ousia when speaking of the Trinity. The 325 Creed of Nicaea was then interpreted accordingly. The earlier synonymity of terms was thus broken. See my article “St Basil the Great and the Search for Hypostasis.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • Aidan,

        thanks for the link to St Basil the Great and the Search for Hypostasis (14 July 2013), which I read with interest, although it didn’t provide any information that I was not already familiar with.

        You obviously are an apologist, more, an enthusiast of the Cappadocians. I think they are possible the worse thing that could happen to Christianity at the most critical time.

        Basil may try to explain the difference between hypostasis and ousia to a perplexed Amphilochius of Iconium as much as he likes. The fact remains that those definitions are entirely his invention, without the faintest basis in Aristotle and in previous usage. So much so that John Behr “suggests that Basil is working with the distinction proposed by Aristotle between primary and secondary substance” adding to the confusion, because (at least according to your quotation), the “particular instance” (say, John) is precisely what Aristotle refers to as “primary ousia” whereas the “given essence” is precisely what Aristotle refers to as “secondary ousia” (in this example, man).

        Athanasius was perfectly aware of this abusive use of hypostasis by the Cappadocians, so much so that he continued to refer to God as mia hypostasis.

        Perhaps you are aware that, around the Synod of Alexandria (362), the Latins tried to translate the Cappadocian formula ena ousia en treis hypostaseis with una essentia in tribus substantiis, and they were horrified, because they perceived it as tri-theistic, through and through.

        Perhaps you are also aware that the Latins, so as to stop being scandalized, had to invent a new word to replace substantia, as a translation for hypostasis: subsistentia. As the Online Etymological Dictionary appropriately says, “Latin subsistentia is a loan-translation of Greek hypostasis,”foundation, substance, real nature, subject matter; that which settles at the bottom, sediment,” literally “anything set under.””

        Oh, BTW, I notice that, in your concluding remark at the linked post, you are honest enough to admit: “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.”

        And this is precisely the problem with Eastern Orthodox Christianity: they have never let go of (a certain amount of) Subordinationism. 😦

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  10. Jeff says:

    Cappadocian basic interest was the complete co-ordination of the divine Persons; their phrasing regularly alludes to Aristotle’s Categories (cf. the ‘formula of being’ with its well-known tenet that there is not a more or a less in a substance (cat 5 [3b33–4a9]). ?

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    • @ Jeff

      The ‘formula of being’ to which you allude seems to make reference to a quotation from Aristotle’s Categories based on the Bekker Numbering. Here is the relative passage:

      [3b33–4a9] Substance, again, does not appear to admit of variation of degree. I do not mean by this that one substance cannot be more or less truly substance than another, for it has already been stated that this is the case [2a11-16]; but that no single substance admits of varying degrees within itself. For instance, one particular substance, ‘man’, cannot be more or less man either than himself at some other time or than some other man. One man cannot be more man than another, as that which is white may be more or less white than some other white object, or as that which is beautiful may be more or less beautiful than some other beautiful object. The same quality, moreover, is said to subsist in a thing in varying degrees at different times. A body, being white, is said to be whiter at one time than it was before, or, being warm, is said to be warmer or less warm than at some other time. But substance is not said to be more or less that which it is: a man is not more truly a man at one time than he was before, nor is anything, if it is substance, more or less what it is. Substance, then, does not admit of variation of degree. (Categories, by Aristotle, ca. 350 BCE, translated by E. M. Edghill).

      Can you please explain how the above would help in the “complete co-ordination of the divine Persons”? Thanks 🙂

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      • Jeff says:

        Moving away from the derivative ( and eunomian) model to the equality Divine Persons , ousia -hypostasis model

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        • Jeff,
          would you say that ousia, in the “ousia -hypostasis model” of the trinity is used in Aristotle’s primary or secondary sense?

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          • Jeff says:

            It’s been thought that ousia in that context is that of the second substance . However, it has to be qualified. (logos tis ousias ), the term , does not signify the first category, but means ‘being’ which, in theory, occurs in all the categories.

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          • Jeff says:

            Zachhuber in ‘ Human nature in Gregory of Nyssa ‘ puts it this way :

            To understand this ambiguity one has to see that ousia in the phrase ‘formula of being’ had in the interpretative tradition been partially assimilated to the eidos of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. This is in a sense not surprising, as the latter seems to fulfil a somewhat similar function, but it means, of course, a limitation of its meaning: in the context of Metaphysics an account of an eidos would certainly not point out the being of a quality! Thus, it is understandable that a fourth century author, who was not restricted by the rigid requirements of commenting on the text of the Categories, would find it natural to think of the ousia indicated by the formula of being as of the essence (eidos) of a substantial thing. This, I think, is what the Cap- padocian author does.

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  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A germane citation from Robert W. Jenson:

    It was the center of the revelation to Israel that the Lord is a ferociously jealous God, that he brooks no almost-gods, no “next” powers “after” the Father of all. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God,” is the first creed of the church also. In the Bible there is the Lord, the Creator of all things, and there are his creatures, and there is nothing in between; there is no ontological overlap, no pantheon of not-quite-gods or divine creatures.

    So which is the Logos, Creator or creature? For such Bible-readers as were the ancient churchmen, the question could not be ignored, but it could be long suppressed. Until finally poor Arius pressed it so urgently that it had to be faced, whereupon the church blew apart.

    The outcome is familiar. A few thinkers took up Arius’s challenge and faced the church with the stark alternative: either stop worshiping the Son, because he is a creature and Christians do not worship creatures, or acknowledge that the Son is Creator, God Almighty. For a time such radicals were a minority, yet with this stern biblical reasoning they eventually bullied the church, kicking and screaming, into the confession of Nicaea and Constantinople, that the Son who is from God is nevertheless, or rather just so, himself true God, that in the case of this God, being from God is not incompatible with being 100 percent God.

    The thought was achieved that has since enabled all specifically Christian thought on any given subject: that to be God the Father is first to be the Father of the Son, and just and only so to be God; that to be God the Son is first to be the Son of this Father, and just and only so to be God, and that to be God the Spirit is first to be the Spirit of this Father resting on this Son, and just and only so to be God; so that only in their mutuality is there God at all. God—if I may use my own jargon—is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.

    So Jesus is the Son, who is of one being with the Father, either of whom can be called Lord and neither of whom can be called the Lord without the other. From A.D. 381 on that has been the dogma of the holy catholic church. (“With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, pp. 16-17

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Not so sure about the bullying part, or what precisely he means to say by adding this. In any case, for much of the 4th century, and for sure its last half, the majority confessed to be Arian or leaned towards semi-Arian theology. Only anachronistic black and white caricature of history would allow for a facile assignment of bullying. The situation was variegated, complex, and dynamic, not allowing for a (for us) convenient and clear separation of the good guys on the side and the bad guys on the other side.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. @ Jeff (21 August 2017 at 9:30 am)

    It’s been thought that ousia in that context is that of the second substance . However, it has to be qualified. (logos tis ousias), the term , does not signify the first category, but means ‘being’ which, in theory, occurs in all the categories.

    Aristotle uses the expression kata tounoma logos tēs ousias to distinguish between things that are homonymous (e.g. “a man” and “the picture of a man” are each termed “animal”, although the name “animal” is common, but the logos of the ousia is different), or things that are synonymous (e.g. “a man” and “an ox” are each [properly] termed “animal”, because the name “animal” is common, and the logos of the ousia is the same) [Aristotle, Categories, Ch. 1 – BN 1a]

    My impression is that the “respect” for ipse dixit is such that people (including professional philosophers) are ready to speak like obscure oracles, so as to make reference to his authority.

    Even if Tertullian was not without sin in this respect (especially since he moved to Montanism), I also feel like asking, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”

    @ Jeff (21 August 2017 at 11:39 am)

    See previous comment.

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    • Jeff says:

      thinking of the ousia as of the essence (eidos) of a substantial thing seems to be exactly what St. Basil is saying in the first few pages of epistle 38., it is philosophical for sure

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      • I do not care at all for what Basil & the Cappadocians said. Even Athanasius was perfectly aware that their “one ousia in three hypostaseis” was a ploy to reconcile the neo-Nicene and the semi-Arians. Sadly for Christianity, they succeded 😦

        P.S. Oh, BTW, I would love to see you carry to the logical conclusion the example that Basil makes in Ep. 38 (with Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, all sharing the same “essence or substance of humanity”), when applied to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit … 😉

        (Hint: tri-theism much?)

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  13. Jack H says:

    The recent post about Denys Turner brought this to mind, and I thought it would be more pertinent in this discussion board. I recently came across a quote by Denys Turner about how we must not conceive of the Christian God`s transcendence in metaphors of gaps, even infinitely large gaps. He went on to elaborate that this applies to quantitative gaps as well as qualitative gaps. No doubt, I can understand how the former is inadequate and is indicative of a univocal ontology, but isn’t the latter concept the bread and butter of the analogia entis? Does this mean that Turner subscribes to a kind of equivocity in theological language? Or is he till faithful to the analogia entis when he affirms that even an infinite qualitative gap, which I cannot distinguish between the “ever greater dissimilarity.” Can anyone shed some light on this?

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    • 7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Jack. I know that Turner discusses analogy at some length in his book Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, but I have not read it yet. I have not reflected on the analogy of being nearly as deeply as either Brian Moore or Robert Fortuin (hopefully they’ll chime in here), but I did write a article on the topic some six months ago: “Analogy of Being.” I don’t know if it addresses any of your concerns. I’m still very much in the learning mode here.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi Jack,

      What Denys is saying is that the divine/creaturely dissimilarity is beyond quality and quantity because it is a dissimilarity in mode of being – it is a difference on a much more fundamental level. Nearness, location, size, perfection – none of these can be used to truthfully understand this absolute ontological difference. A good way to demonstrate this is with goodness. So we don’t say God is the most perfect exemplar of goodness, or of the good. We would have to say, to reflect the difference in mode of being, that God is the good, and is goodness itself. And why is that? For God does not participate in the good – unlike creatures do (i.e. we have various degrees of goodness, we can become good, become better, and so forth). This does not however entail absolute equivocity in theology, and Denys is not proposing such. A true similarity (reflection as in a mirror) of the archetype is beheld with the infinite interval of difference in mode of being. This is why we don’t mistake the icon for the Person, but we do encounter the Person by means of the icon.

      Impossibly brief, but I hope that helps.

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      • This is why we don’t mistake the icon for the Person, but we do encounter the Person by means of the icon.

        Perhaps this is an example of what Aristotle would call a homonymous use of the word “encounter”. But for the encounter of a person (also Person) with a person (also Person) to be a proper encounter, it has to be bi-directional.

        P.S. I am aware of the limits posed by the Turing test …

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      • Jack says:

        Robert, quite succint and very helpful. Thanks.

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  14. Ignatius says:

    Thank you for this fantastic series, I’m loving it. A few thoughts raised for me:
    1) When you write, “The Trinity sings into reality that which is genuinely other than himself”, should you perhaps rather say “themselves”? It feels wrong to me either way…
    2) Is the Son’s generation from the Father, roughly equivalent to the Pantheistic generation of the cosmos?
    3) With regard to the 2nd/3rd century theologians, I’d suggest we should distinguish between the faith of the Church, which is authoritative, and that of a group of theologians, however many and important. Theologians will always make mistakes, and they won’t represent what the whole Church believes. Their struggle is to articulate the faith, but, especially in the areas they’re not focusing on, they will make mistakes. And for a while, no one will notice or care. This is fine.

    God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ignatius, I wrestled with the pronoun question when I wrote that sentence. I tried it a couple of ways and tentatively settled on the single personal pronoun, but like you, I’m not completely happy with my choice. I intended to look into the matter a bit more, to see how others had solved the problem, but I forgot. It seems to me that when the “the Trinity” is used, it basically functions as a synonym for “God” in his perichoretic unity. At least that was my rationale at the time. I’m open to correction.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Regarding your second question, I don’t know if I’d say “roughly equivalent” but certainly analogous. Borrowing from the Neo-Platonic tradition, the language of emanation is often used to speak of the divine processions, whereas it is not nearly as often used to speak of the act of creation. Aquinas does use emanation for the latter, but he can get away with it only because he is so clear on the creatio ex nihilo.

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