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Seraphim Reeves
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Joined: Sun 27 October 2002 7:10 pm
Location: Canada


Postby Seraphim Reeves » Sat 31 January 2004 4:10 pm

Both of these terms (hypostasis and essence), which are part of Orthodox triadology (teaching on the Holy Trinity) are, I discovered, found in the Greek New Testament (though used to address subjects other than God.) This gave me the opportunity to look up their etymology, and hopefully come to a better understanding of their original meaning.

Ousia - Apparently this is a feminine noun which means...

what one has, i.e. property, possessions, estate

It is the feminine form of the verb oan, which has the meaning of "being".

Hypostasis - While Strong's Greek-English concordance gives several definitions of this word, the most relevent that I could find was the following...

2. that which has foundation, is firm
a. that which has actual existence
1. a substance, real being

What I found interesting was that the King James Bible translates both of the passages these two terms occur in as "substance" (St.Luke 15:13 and Hebrews 11:1).

While I know "hypostasis" is commonly translated "person" in English (at least in the context of triadology) I've always been a bit hesitant with using that term, if only because of what I know of it's Latin origin. The word persona, in Latin, originally refered to the "actor's mask" - that is to say, the phenomenal experience of others, but implying that this is really only a part that is being played - it certainly did not refer to any objective, real existance. In fact, we have imported the word "persona" directly into English (what a hodge podge language we have!) to mean precisely this - we often speak of a man as having many "persona".

Another problem (or perhaps just a person scruple on my part) I have had with translating "hypostasis" as "person" without any qualification, is perhaps a more general problem we as a society have to contend with - just what is a "person"? Too often when you say "person", it gets saddeled with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage, thoughts of physicality, etc... IOW not that which is really "essential" to being a "person", but what is really accidental to our being human persons. This is not good to bring into discussion about God, since only one of the Trinity (the Logos) became a man, and even this was without confusion of natures.

I'm curious as to whether others have dwelled on this subject before - is this just a strange scruple on my part, or is this really an important distinction to make?


Fr. Andrew Kostadis
Posts: 1
Joined: Sat 31 January 2004 9:49 pm


Postby Fr. Andrew Kostadis » Sat 31 January 2004 9:49 pm

Dear Seraphim,
Those terms were widely used in the ancient Greek philosophy and came to the Orthodox terminology in the first centuries. Ousia, hypostasis and essence – all these terms are similar and originate from the ancient “cosmic” philosophical approach. Ancient Greeks believed that there is one universal “material” in universe. Some philosophers thought it is water, other thought that it was air, fire, soil, or their combination etc. The main idea here is ONE universal material, which can, under various conditions, take a shape of any earthly object, including animals and human beings.
At the same time, Greek philosophers discriminate different qualities of objects. “Ousia” is the term, which signifies the similarities in different objects. Hypostasis signifies the differences in various objects. Essence signifies the mutual similarities in a group of objects (or in a single object), which make them (it) different from another group of objects (or of a single object). Having such complicated terminology, different philosophers (or philosophical schools) often made it even more complex by placing special “accents” or even meanings for those terms. When Church Fathers began to use ancient philosophical terminology for the purpose of Christian Trinitarian Theology and later for Christology, they inherited all difficulties in usage of that terminology. Tradition associates the establishing of the order in the Christian terminology with the names of Aphanasius the Great and Iosia of Corduba (First Ecumenical Council against the Arius). The final order in the terminology is associated with the name of Basil the Great. According to the final meaning of these ancient Greek philosophical terms, they mean the following. “Ousia” signifies the similarities in God. “Hypostasis” signifies the differences in God. “Essence” signifies the difference between God and His creation. Therefore we confess that there is one essence in God for all Three Hypostases (in the Latin terminology - for Three Faces). (This divine essence is different from human essence.) Because the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) have the same essence, the Orthodox terminology accepted the famous St. Aphanasius’ “omo-ousion”, which signifies the identity of the Father’s and the Son’s (and the Holy Spirit’s) essence. Furthermore, the Orthodox Dogmatic used the ancient formula: the nature (physic) = essence + will + energy. It is clear that all latest Christology derivates from this formula: the two natures in Christ. Therefore He has two essences (the divine and the created one or the human one), two wills, and two energies. Therefore we believe in one Face in Christ, which is the Face of the Son, the Second Face of the Holy Trinity. (St. Leonty of Constantinople or Jerusalem said this in the 6th century.)
I hope the above short excursus may help clarify the meaning and the use of this theological terminology.
Fr. Andrew Kostadis.

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