Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Cup o’ Cappadocian (Part 1)

How do you like your Cappadocian? Decaf or leaded? Whole milk or skinny? Whipped cream on top or naked? How about a shot of hazelnut syrup to sweeten us up a bit today? You look like you could use it! Chocolate chip cookie with that? Now we're talkin'! That'll be $6.75 please.

As good as that sounds, the kind of Cappadocian we'll be talking about today ain't available at Starbucks. Fact is, we gotta go back to the pre-Starbucks days, all the way back to the fourth century to learn about the theological trio known as the Cappadocian Fathers. In case you didn't already know it (And of course most of you do. Not!), Cappadocia was located in Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey. There were three Cappadocian Fathers: Big Basil, his little brother Greg and their cousin Greg (Basil the Great, Gregory Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus). These dudes were major players in those days. In fact Gregory Nazianzus presided over the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (381 A.D) where they put the finishing touches on the Nicene Creed.

To appreciate what the Cappies did, you gotta get into a fourth century mind set. Remember, this was a time of great theological turmoil regarding the doctrine of God. Everybody was working late, burning the candles low, trying to figure out a way to talk about God that made sense of the biblical revelation. Face it: what would you do, Bubba? On the one hand, we've always believed in one God; yet on the other hand, God has lately fully revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? I mean, give me a break! One? Three" What's going on here? How do we put this together in a way that half-way makes sense?

Not to worry though. We've got several options already making the rounds out there. There are always the subordinationists. They say the way to protect the unity (oneness) of God is to make the Son and Spirit junior Gods, something less than the real thing. That way the Father can remain all alone in his unique oneness and we'll make both the Jews and the Greeks happy. These boys thought they had a winner. Then, of course, there were the modalists. You remember them, don't you? They've been around since the second century. They were saying that God is really just one person, not three. So what's the big deal about all this one and three stuff? (For the answer to that question, see my previous post entitled, "One or Three?"). Finally there were the tritheists who said, "What the heck. Let's call it three gods and let it go at that." But not many took those guys seriously. So basically, we've got to figure out a way to steer between the subordinationists on one hand and the modalists on the other. In other words, we've got to protect the oneness (unity) of God; we've got to account for all three persons of the Godhead (diversity), and we've got to keep everybody equal to avoid subordinationism and to keep Athanasius from comin' down on our heads!

But I know what you're thinking. Some bright folks are wondering: But what about Tertullian? All the way back in the second century he was saying that God was una substantia, tres persona (one substance, three persons). True enough, Bubba. But Tertullian was way over in western Africa writing in Latin, so he hadn't really caught on over in the eastern, Greek speaking part of the empire where the fireworks were really happening.

So here's the deal: This is what the Cappies were up against. How do we maintain the biblical revelation that God is one while also maintaining the equally biblical revelation that God eternally exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Many of us today could probably give a reasonable answer to that question. But remember, in the fourth century no one had clearly articulated a theology that maintained both the unity and diversity of the Godhead. This is what Big Basil and the two Gregs brought to the table (building on the work of Athanasius). Their formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is known as the "Cappadocian Settlement." Despite the influence of Augustine (who went off on his on track), so much of what we say about the doctrine of the Trinity today is rooted in the work of the Cappadocians. So pour a cup, kick back and relax, 'cause we're gonna be here a while. Here we go!

Based upon their understanding of the triune pattern of biblical revelation, the Cappadocians argued that God exists as one substance, essence, being or nature (Gr. ousia oo-SEE-ah) in three persons (hypostases hi-PASTA-seez) (Gonzales, 1987:287; cf Olson, 1999:174ff). For the Cappadocians, ousia (substance, essence, being or nature) is the unifying principle of the Godhead; hypostasis (hi-PASTA-sis, person) is the principle of distinction (cf Jenson, 1995:105). The Cappadocian formula (one ousia, three hypostases) preserves both the unity (oneness) and the diversity (threeness) of the Godhead. Thus, the Cappadocians articulated the trinitarian grammar that would allow the Church to speak of God as one substance or essence (ousia) in three persons (hypostases)—One in Three; Three in One. (The formal Cappadocian statement in Greek is mia ousia, treis hypostaseis, one substance, essence or nature; three persons). Cool!

Articulating a fine distinction between hypostasis and ousia to defend the ontological equality of the divine persons, the Cappadocians asserted that the Son is distinct from the Father in terms of hypostasis but equal in terms of ousia (substance or essence) (LaCugna, 1991:70). Did you get all that! The Cappadocians are boo-coo smart. Ousia gives us unity and equality. The Triune Persons are the same in ousia; hence, equally God (They are all homo-ousios, "same substance." Remember our last post?). At the same time, the Triune Persons are distinct in terms of hypostasis (person). The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father. That gives us the multiplicity or diversity of the Godhead. So there you go. Goodbye subordinationism. Goodbye modalism. Hello trinitarian orthodoxy.

Let's sum it up real simple like:

  • ousia (substance, essence, being, nature) accounts for the unity and equality of the Godhead. "Hear O Israel, The Lord is one."

  • hypostasis (person) accounts for the diversity of the Godhead. The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father . . .

  • We maintain unity, equality and diversity by saying that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of ousia, yet distinct in terms of hypostasis. The Father and Son are one substance or essence (ousia) but distinct persons (hypostases). Ditto with the Spirit.

Simple! Only took a few centuries to work it out!

Nevertheless, because of the Cappies' assertion that there are three distinct hypostases (persons) in the Godhead, some of the boys started hollerin' "Foul!" They thought Big Basil and the two Gregs were actually closet tritheists (believing in three gods, not one). So the Cappies had to get down to the real nitty gritty in their thinking. Here's what they came up with:

The distinction between substance (ousia) and person (hypostasis) does not mean that the three divine persons can be thought of as independent autonomous beings (Schwöbel, 1995:50). Rather, at the heart of the Trinity, the Cappadocians saw an interpersonal communion (koinonia) or fellowship, wherein communion is a function of all three persons of the Godhead. Hence, the being of God is interpersonal, that is, internally relational with each person related to the others in "reciprocal delight" (O'Collins, 1999:131, 132). In the Cappadocian doctrine of God, we see the incipient concept of perichoresis, that is, the "being-in-one-another" of the persons of the Trinity. "In a unique 'coinherence' or mutual penetration, each of the trinitarian persons is transparent to and permeated by the other two" (O'Collins, 1999:132). The concept of perichoresis precludes the charge of tritheism in Cappadocian theology with its inherent affirmation that the divine persons must be understood, not in terms of individual subjectivity, but in terms of intersubjectivity (O'Collins, 1999:132).

Wow! We gotta give that wild Irish Jesuit O'Collins some big time credit for that statement. The triune persons are not three separate Gods out there, each doing his own thing. Rather the three divine Persons exist in an eternal fellowship of "reciprocal delight" and harmony of will, intent, and purpose. In other words, the fellowship in the Godhead is a communion, not of individual subjectivity, but of INTER-subjectivity. Way to go, O'Collins! Cool stuff! (P.S. Much more needs to be said about perichoresis, but we'll leave that for another day. O'Collins captures the essential point).

As Zizioulas (Schwöbel, 1995:47) notes, the Cappadocians further avoided the charge of tritheism by suggesting that ousia was a general category that could apply to more than one individual. For example, humanity is a general category that applies to Larry, Mo and Curley, who are three hypostases (persons) that share a common ousia or nature (humanity). LaCugna (1991:67) develops the analogy further, noting also that Gregory of Nyssa compares the substantial unity (consubstantiality) of the divine persons to the consubstantiality of human persons. The word "humanity" can refer to more than one individual person. Larry, Mo and Curley are all humans, yet they remain distinct and unique individuals. While each person (or "stooge" in this case) retains his uniqueness and diversity, all three stooges share the same ousia (essence, nature, or substance). Their common ousia is humanity (anthropos). Because they possess the same ousia, the three hypostases—Larry, Mo and Curley—are homoousios (of the same substance). Similarly, the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct hypostases who share one common ousia (theos or Godness); that is, they are three divine Persons who share the same essence, nature, or substance (they are homo-ousios). All are theos; that is, all are God. Said another way: What Father, Son and Spirit are is the same; who each is, is unique and distinct. (As an aside, Olson (1999:194) provides a simple but useful way to understand the Cappadocian formula, wherein "what-ness" (ousia) and "who-ness" (hypostasis) are distinguished. The Godhead may be described as three "who's" in one "what.")

Simply stated, the Cappies are trying to avoid the charge of tritheism by showing that three distinct "somethings" can share one nature, just as three people share the same human nature. That's great as far as it goes. But analogies are never perfect, and this one is fraught with difficulties. To be sure, many scholars have noted the problems, even dangers, in the Cappadocian analogy of three humans sharing a common nature. As Zizioulas (Schwöbel, 1995:48, 49) notes, the analogy of Larry, Mo and Curley is problematic because it refers to three people, whereas the Trinity is not three Gods, but one God. Moreover, human nature both precedes and continues after the existence of an individual human being. In other words, human nature exists apart from Larry, Mo and Curley. It existed before the Stooges took the stage and it continues after the last pie in the face is thrown. LaCugna (1991:69) warns, therefore, against the mistake of thinking of ousia in abstract terms, divorced from the three hypostases. For example, one may think of human nature in general, abstract terms apart from the concrete particularities of Larry, Mo and Curley, as when one says, "It's just human nature . . ." This kind of thinking, however, does not apply to the divine ousia. Unlike human beings, with God it is impossible to say that nature (substance, essence, being) precedes person or exists apart from it because the three persons of the Trinity do not share a pre-existing nature but rather coincide with it. In Cappadocian theology, ousia expresses concrete, not abstract, existence. "Each divine person is the divine ousia; the divine ousia exists hypostatically, and there is no ousia apart from the hypostases" (LaCugna, 1991:69).

Folks, I cannot overstate how important that last point is. We gotta get this if western Christianity is ever to fully return to the ancient catholic faith articulated by Irenaeus, Hilary, Athanasius, the Cappadocians and many others. So let's unpack LaCugna's last statement, "There is no ousia (substance, nature) apart from the hypostases (persons)." In plain speak, there is no unknown, mysterious, abstract essence of God (ousia) that exists apart from the Father, Son and Spirit as revealed in salvation history (oikonomia). If the ousia (substance, essence) of God existed apart from the Triune Persons, then the ousia of God would be a "fourth something," as Colin Gunton puts it, that exists in addition to the Triune Persons. And that is a major "no-no" because that would mean that the "deepest truth" (Baxter Kruger) about God is something other than what has been revealed in God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Against the speculative theology of Thomas Aquinas and subsequent medieval scholasticism, there is no divine ousia to be considered in the abstract apart from the Triune Persons. The Triune Persons in their perichoretic interrelations are the ousia of God! The fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwelling eternally in reciprocal delight, is the ousia of God, and there is no ousia to be considered apart from that divine fellowship.

But wouldn't you know it, so much of the horrid awful-ness of the western doctrine of God comes right out of the tendency, inspired by Greek philosophy (the bane of the western doctrine of God), to talk about the ousia of God in abstract terms apart from God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history as Father, Son and Spirit. Yet if we talk about the essence of God as if it were something other than what has been revealed in Christ and the Spirit, we invariably end up with a god very different from the all-loving, self-sacrificing Triune God revealed in Jesus. In short, we end up with the immutable, impassible deity of Greek philosophy. If we follow Augustine and Aquinas and start with "substantialist metaphysics" (philosophical speculation on the substance or nature of God considered apart from God's triune self-revelation in salvation history), we end up with what Baxter Kruger calls the "omni-God" or what I call the "cosmic ogre" or "monster God." You remember him don't you, the all-powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), ever present (omnipresent) pissed off deity who can't wait to send you to hell! But alas! I digress. More on this in future post.

Here's the essential point: Our speech about God must begin with God's self-revelation, not with our own speculative ideas about the Godhead. Methodologically, we always start with Jesus (or, as the Irish say, "JAY-sus!") and move from him to the Father and right into the heart of the Triune Godhead. That way we don't get distracted with speculative, "cosmological" proofs about the nature of God based on an unbiblical framework like Aristotilean metaphysics. Sorry, Thomas Aquinas. Brilliant saint that you are, I wish you had paid closer attention to Athanasius and less to Aristotle. Let's move on.

Regarding the problems in the Cappies' analogy of three human beings sharing a common nature: In the Triune God, the one (ousia) not only does not precede the many (hypostases) but, to the contrary, requires the many for its existence. It is, therefore, impossible to say that in the Triune God any one of the three divine persons exists apart from the others. As Zizioulas (Schwöbel, 1995:48) argues, "The three constitute such an unbreakable unity that individualism is absolutely inconceivable in their case. The three persons of the Trinity are thus one God, because they are so united in an unbreakable communion (koinonia) that none of them can be conceived apart from the rest." In short, the unity (ousia) and multiplicity (hypostases) of the Godhead are like two sides of a coin, wherein it is impossible for one to exist without the other. Unlike humanity, multiplicity in God does not involve a division of the divine nature nor does the unity of the Godhead (ousia) exist logically prior to or apart from the three divine persons (hypostases). Goodbye tritheism.

The Cappadocians, and their older contemporary Athanasius, contributed immeasurably to the settlement of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. As a result of their work, the second great ecumenical council at Constantinople (381 A.D.) added language to the creed developed at Nicæa to provide what is known to Christians throughout the world as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The council included the key Nicene affirmations regarding the deity of the Son and added language regarding the third person of the Trinity to assert that the Holy Spirit is Lord and giver of life and to be worshipped with the Father and Son (Jenson, 1995:107). The creed established the formal doctrine of the Trinity as worked out by Athanasius and the Cappadocians and is regarded as the orthodox summary of the faith by all major branches of the Christian Church (Olson 1999:173).

P.S. There is much more to be said about the Cappadocians and the philosophical revolution they launched by countering the prevailing Greek thought of the day. See you in Part 2 for another "Cup o' Cappadocian!"


Gonzalez, J.L. 1987. A History of Christian Thought (vol 1). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 400pp.

Jenson, R.W. 1997. Systematic Theology (vol 1). Oxford: OUP. 244pp.

LaCugna, C.M. 1991. God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. 434pp.

O'Collins, G. 1999. The Tripersonal God: Understanding and Interpreting the Trinity. New York, NY: Paulist Press. 234pp.

Olson, R.E. 1999. The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 652pp.

Schwöbel, C. (ed). 1995. Trinitarian Theology Today. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 176pp.


  1. Hi Martin,
    This is the best, and funniest, and clearest explanation of the tri-unity of the One God I have read up until now. I love the statement of "three who's and one What". I am sending this to eveyone on my email list. Keep it coming.

    God Bless,
    See you soon,

  2. Thanks Martin for this clear and helpful summary of the development and content of the doctrine of God's triune nature.

    What a profound blessing it is to understand, as John testifies, that our God in his being and act is *love* - a divine *communion* of love, that, in Jesus, includes all humanity.

    There is no other true God. And that is great good news for us all!

    I look forward to part two!


  3. Thanks Martin for your distinct sense of humor and ease in presenting these writings as " The Good News" for all humanity in Jesus, and He in all of us. This had always been such a mind block for me; however it has been busted open. I am sure Father, Son and Spirit are smiling as one. It resonates with my new heart, and I am looking forward to more. John

  4. Thanks guys for your encouragement. Writing this blog is both a lot of work and a lot of fun. I really appreciate your support.

    Hey, it's great to have Michael on board. He's an Anglcian clergyman from Australia. I've passed the chalice a few times myself, Michael.

  5. Hi Martin,

    Well done on producing a funny, easily readable intro to the Cappies that I can point my non-theologically-inclined friends to and know they'll probably read it and understand it.

    Looking forward to part 2!



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