Ousia: “Particular, Concrete Existence”

Probably old hat to some, but reading this today in the translator’s note to Gregory of Nyssa’s “An Answer to Ablabius” really helped me with Trinitarian metaphysics.

In the Cappadocians, the divine ousia (essence) is not strictly speaking a “universal” of which the three Persons are individual instances. This would entail tritheism, because the three Persons (hypostases) would be particularizations of a generic essence, in the same way that individual human beings are particularizations of generic human nature. Rather, in the Cappadocians the divine ousia is a “particular, concrete existence”–it is identical in each of the three Persons. Whereas the ousia expressed by individual men is only generic, in the Trinity it is identical.

Correspondingly, the three Persons are “modes of being” in the one God, existing perichoretically (in interpenetration with each other). The divine ousia is not ontologically divided into three hypostases; rather, the three hypostases are causal distinctions within the one ousia. The Father is uncaused, but the Son and Spirit are caused (of course, understanding from other Cappadocian works that “caused” does not mean “finite with a beginning”).

This is Gregory’s answer to Ablabius’ incipient tritheism. Quite intriguing, and it helps me understand Trinitarian metaphysics much better.

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3 Responses to Ousia: “Particular, Concrete Existence”

  1. Who was the editor? I think that view of the Cappadocian theology would be fairly controversial among theologians nowadays.

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Andrew, long time no see! Glad to see you’re still around. What are you up to these days?

    I am using the 1954 edition of The Library of Christian Classics, Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy. If you know of a better source, please do tell. I’m trying to figure a lot of this stuff out as I go, so I need to make sure I’m using good sources!

  3. I’m doing an MA in Theology at Wycliffe College (part of Toronto School of Theology, which is part of UofT) right now. Thinking about doing work on scripture in systematics. Personally, things are going pretty well!

    I’m not sure of any particular names; it just seems like that is a fairly Western/Latin spin on the Fathers. I think Russian Orthodox and Neo-Palamite guys would say the editor is importing Augustinian (or even Barthian (Barth is charged by some with being a modalist precisely for using the language of “modes of being”)) trinitarianism onto the Cappadocians. But I could be wrong; trinitarianism is becoming pretty controversial nowadays among those who profess to believe it (with social trinitarianism, latin trinitarianism, Barthian, EO, Swinburne, etc. etc.). Your editor might turn out to be right anyway…

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