Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Cup o’ Cappadocian (part 2)

Greetings everyone! Have you had your cup o' Cappadocian today? I thought not. Then sit back and relax while I fire up the espresso machine and steam the milk (2%, of course). And by the way, I'm gonna add a heapin' tablespoon of sugar for one or two of you, 'cause you need it!

Last time, we started talking about those wild and crazy Cappadocians. You remember those brothers, don't you? There's three of 'em: Big Basil and the two Gregs, sometimes known as Basil the Great, Gregory Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus. These dudes were pretty smart. They described the Triune God as one ousia (substance, nature, essence) in three hypostases (persons). They used the term ousia (oo-SEE-uh) to capture the oneness or unity of the Godhead, that is, what is common to the divine Persons; then they grabbed hold of the Greek word hypostases (hi-PASTA-seez) to capture the diversity or distinctions within the Triune Godhead (the Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father . . .). According to the "Cappadocian Settlement" of the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th century, God eternally exists as mia ousia, treis hypostaseis (one substance, three persons). Man, the Cappies knew how to spit out a mouthful in a few words!

But we haven't even started appreciating how smart these brothers were. I guarantee you, all three of them graduated the 6th grade! If we really want to appreciate their work, we gotta wrap our minds around some Greek philosophy. I know we'd all rather talk about fishin' or football or making biscuits, but we gotta do what we gotta do. So, like it or not, we need to know a smidgen ("a little bit" ) about the philosophical milieu (say what?) in which these boys lived and worked. So pay attention and try not to fall sleep.

In the Hellenistic (Greek) thought of the day, the divine (what the TV preachers call "Gawd") was regarded as an absolute unity, simple in its essence (substance) without characteristics of any kind and not subject to change (immutability). The divine was way up there, all by its lonesome: aloof, distant and unaffected by this world of dirt down here (impassibility). Furthermore, the divine was considered impersonal and arelational (lacking relationship), for relationship in the Deity was a "no-no," because it would compromise the all-important Greek insistence on divine simplicity (more in next post).

Against the philosophical milieu (there's that word again!) of their day, my boys the Cappies launched a philosophical revolution by countering the prevailing tendency of Greek thought, which was to view the divine as a simple undifferentiated essence. Because they began their thinking about God with God's redemptive acts in the economy (oikonomia) of salvation as revealed in the incarnate Son (and the gift of the Spirit), the Cappies found it necessary to clearly articulate the exact nature of the Father-Son relationship (LaCugna, pp. 60ff). In articulating the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, they challenged the established view of Greek philosophy by giving ontological primacy to person over nature (i.e., substance, essence) (Schwöbel, pp. 52, 53). This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. Don't miss this point: In exact opposition to Greek philosophy, the Cappies give person (multiplicity!) greater ontological significance than unitary essence. This is important; it matters! It means we can start talking about God in terms of persons in relationship rather than in the then prevailing Greek notion of God as unitary (undifferentiated) substance. We don't have to retreat into "substantialist metaphysics" (sounds high falutin' don't it!), lost in deep philosophical contemplation of the divine essence considered apart from God's triune self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia).

You see, the Cappies didn't think about God as simple, arelational substance (Augustine and Aquinas would buy into that big time!). They understood that the Father-Son relationship is an eternal relationship characteristic of God's transcendent Being, not merely a temporary economic (historical) manifestation of the Godhead. Thus, they began their thinking about God in the very un-Greek way of persons in relationship. According to John Zizioulas (a big time Greek orthodox type):

If, therefore, we wish to follow the Cappadocians in their understanding of the Trinity in relation to monotheism, we must adopt an ontology which is based on personhood, i.e. on a unity or openness emerging from relationships, and not one of substance (Schwöbel, p. 52).

Similarly, John Sanders writes:

[The Cappadocians] emphasized divine relationality in their debates with Eunomius, [a neo-Arian bishop] who claimed that God was a simple essence (not composed of any parts) and so the Son and Spirit could not be fully God: God is devoid of internal relations [per Eunomius]. In response, the Cappadocians claimed that the terms "Father" and "Son" referred to the relation between the Father and Son. In so doing, they held that person, not substance, was the ultimate metaphysical category and thus claimed that God was supremely relational. The Father can beget the Son because the Father, as personal, has self-emptying love for another. God is then not alone, in isolation from relationships, but eternally related within the Godhead as Trinity. God is then not an "in-itself," apart from others, but the epitome of love in relation (Sanders, pp. 147-148. Here Sanders closely follows LaCugna, pp. 14, 63-66).

Do you see? Let me recap: Rather than develop a metaphysics of substance based on the Greek philosophical presupposition that God is utterly simple and arelational, the Cappadocians asserted that person is the supreme ontological principle and, in so doing, they understood the Godhead as eternally and supremely relational . Unlike the philosophers, they did not regard substance (ousia) as an abstract principle to be considered apart from the concrete particularities of the divine persons: Father, Son, and Spirit (LaCugna, p. 69; also see previous post). Rather, they saw that the divine persons in relationship among themselves constitute the "Being" of God (Gunton, p. 86). In the Cappadocians' trinitarian ontology, the Triune Persons exhaust the Godhead without remainder. As LaCugna notes, "[T]here is no ousia apart from the hypostases." Gunton (p. 86) asserts , "[T]ogether the persons in relation to one another constitute the 'being' of God. So the 'being' of God is simply what the persons are one to another." God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no fourth "something," no unknown substance, no substratum, hidden behind or lying beneath the Triune Persons.

To fully appreciate the Cappadocian contribution, we gotta compare their approach to the Augustinian-Thomist-Western approach to the doctrine of God. (We'll get more of the Augustinian-Thomist approach in future posts). Nowadays, just about everyone knows that the Eastern (Greek) theologians begin their articulation of the nature of God with the Triune Persons (diversity) and move from there to the essence (unity) of the Godhead. The Western (Latin) approach is just the opposite: Western theologians, following Augustine (who was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism) and, later, Thomas Aquinas (influenced by Aristotelianism), begin their articulation of the doctrine of God with the unitary substance (essence, nature) of God and from there work toward the Triune Persons (some would argue that they never quite get there). We'll explore why this is so in an upcoming post.

In relation to the Latin emphasis on the unitary substance, Western theology tends to speak of the Godhead as "three 'relations' subsisting in the 'Being' of God" (Gunton, p. 86). I have often tried to picture what the Latin theologians are getting at. To risk the absurd, it sounds like they are describing three eggs. Have you had a fried egg sandwich lately? I'll think I'll have one for lunch. Here's what you do: You break out the salt, pepper, mayo and Bunny Bread, slick down the cast iron skillet with bacon grease, then heat it up till the grease starts smelling oh so fine! Next, you crack three eggs on the edge of the kitchen counter, being careful not to let the egg white drip into the cutlery drawer, then you carefully drop the eggs into the skillet and sort of let them run together and become one big egg with three yokes staring up at you. Notice that the yokes are in the egg but they don't constitute the whole thing. There's a lot of egg white left over, surrounding the yokes. It seems to me that's how Western trinitarian theologians, following Augustine, describe the Trinity. The Persons do not constitute the Being of God; rather, they are just somehow in there ("subsisting" in the Being of God). The problem may be obvious to those of you who remember the previous post. Describing the Godhead as three "subsistences" in the Being of God seems to suggest that the Being of God is something more than the Triune Persons, a fourth "something" that underlies the divine Persons. According to Gunton (p. 87), "If you say that the persons are subsistences in the 'being' of God, then you are implying that the 'being' of God is different from the 'persons'. If something 'subsists' in God then what is this 'being'?" In Western (Latin) theology, it appears that the "real" Being of God remains hidden, lying somehow beyond God's Triune self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia). That thought causes me to shudder, because it means that the "deepest truth" (Baxter Kruger) about God is not fully and accurately revealed in Jesus.

Not to worry, however! Let's look at the Eastern (Greek) approach as articulated by the Cappies, building on Athanasius. If we start with God's self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia) as Father, Son and Spirit, we are immediately thrown into the arena of relationship, for "Father" and "Son" are relational terms: the Father loves the Son in the Spirit; the Son loves the Father in the Spirit. As Baxter Kruger has said often, "To say the name of Jesus is to say the Father's Son." And then we are right into the middle of the Triune Godhead who eternally exists as Father, Son and Spirit. For the Cappies, the Triune Persons, in their perichoretic interrelatedness (relationship!), are the Being of God. The Triune Persons constitute the Being of God, so that there is no unrevealed fourth "something" left over, no "deep truth" about God that is hidden from us. Remember the Nicene assertion that Jesus is homoousios to Patri, that is, "of one substance with the Father." The Nicene Creedal language encapsulates the supremely assuring truth that when we look at Jesus, we see God as God is. Jesus is the self-revelation of God. As he himself said, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." There is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus (Torrance).

So here is a brief comparison of the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) approaches to the doctrine of God:

  • The West begins with speculation on the unitary substance of God , cast in terms of the substantialist metaphysics of Greek philosophy (speculation on the substance or being of God considered apart from God's self-revelation in salvation history), and subsequently construes the Godhead as three "subsistences" in the Being of God. Hence, Being appears to underlie the Triune Persons. Arguably, by starting with the unitary Being of God, the West never quite makes it to the Triune Persons and ends up with modalism (God as a unipersonal monad). As Colin Gunton (p. 87) says, "[I]f you scratch the surface of many Western theologians you find modalism."

  • The East begins with the Triune Persons in relationship and subsequently understands the Being of God as constituted by the Triune Persons without remainder. Thus the Being of God cannot be considered in the abstract apart from the concrete particularities of the Father, Son and Spirit in their perichoretic interrelatedness; there is, therefore, no unknown God hidden behind the back of Jesus. Furthermore, in the Eastern approach, the doctrine of God is intimately united to God's salvific self-revelation in redemptive history in the incarnate Son and the gift of the Spirit (this is especially true of Athanasius, whom the Cappies followed). Note: For a doctrine of God to be biblical, it must be explicated in terms of God's salvific acts for us in the incarnate Son and the gift of the Spirit; that is, God as revealed. Hence, Theology Proper (the doctrine of God) must be united to Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). This vital connection has been lost in the Western doctrine of God with frightening implications.

By giving "person" ontological priority over "substance" (being, essence), the Cappies (following Athanasius) turned upside down the Greek world with its distant, aloof, impersonal and uncaring deity. By beginning with God's Triune self-revelation, Big Basil and the two Gregs developed their doctrine of God in terms of the Father's relationship with the incarnate Son who is homoousios to Patri. Thanks to Athanasius, the Cappies, and many others, we can rest in the profound assurance that in the infinitely loving, compassionate eyes of Jesus, we peer deeply into the heart of the Triune God, who is eternally God for us! Hurray for the Cappadocian Fathers! That's what I'm talkin' 'bout!

P.S. Well be getting to NeoPlatonism, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and substantialist metaphysics in upcoming posts. I know you can't wait!


Gunton, C.E. 2007. The Barth Lectures. Transcribed and edited by P.H. Brazier. London: T & T Clark. 285pp.

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

Sanders, J.E. 2007. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 384 pp.

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


  1. Martin, you just make church history fun! Thanks bunches!

  2. Amazing work! I smiled and chuckled in the truth that there is no unknow-ness in God! Eastern religion and new age wants a god who can't be known but just is... A lot of Christians want a god who is different from Jesus... But the Cappies and Athanasius knew a God who had fully explained and shown Himself by coming to us in Person!


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