The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: The Significance of the Cappadocian Contribution

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John D. Zizioulas

The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity:
The Significance of the Cappadocian Contribution

This originally appeared in Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act, pp. 44-60.
Slightly edited for clarity


Cappadocia, which lies in the heart of Asia Minor, became an important centre of Christian theology in the fourth century ad. Already at the time of St Paul there was a small Christian community in Cappadocia where Christianity spread so rapidly as to produce a number of martyrs and confessors in the second century, and to contribute seven bishops to the Council of Nicaea in ad 325. But it was mainly in the second half of the fourth century that Cappadocia became famous for its theological thought. This was due to four leading figures whose theological and philosophical originality sealed the entire history of Christian thought: St Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (ca. 330-79); St Gregory of Nazianzus, known as the Theologian (ca. 330-89/90), at first briefly bishop of Sassima in Cappadocia and later on, also briefly, Archbishop of Constantinople; St Gregory, the younger brother of Basil, bishop of Nyssa (ca. 335-94?); and, finally, their friend St Amphilochius (340/45-?), bishop of Iconium. The first three of these left behind them a considerable number of writings (dogmatic treatises, exegetical works, ascetic writings, orations, sermons, and letters), which allow us to appreciate their thought, while St Amphilochius' work survives only in a limited number of homilies and letters, some of them only in fragments.

Although the theological contribution of these Cappadocian Fathers is universally recognised and acknowledged, its importance is by no means limited to theology. It involves a radical reorientation of classical Greek humanism, a conception of man and a view of existence, which ancient thought proved unable to produce in spite of its many achievements in philosophy. The occasion for this was offered by the theological controversies of the time, but the implications of the Cappadocian Fathers' contribution reach beyond theology in the strict doctrinal sense and affect the entire culture of late antiquity to such an extent that the whole of Byzantine and European thought would remain incomprehensible without a knowledge of this contribution.

How does the doctrine of God appear, if placed in the light of Cappadocian theology? What problems concerning the doctrine of the Trinity and its philosophical integrity could be overcome with the help of this theology? What consequences does this theology have for our understanding of the human being and of existence as a whole? These kinds of questions are the essential concerns of this paper. Needless to say, however, such vast and complex questions cannot be dealt with in an exhaustive way in such a limited space. Only some suggestions will be put forth and some central ideas underlined. The Cappadocian contribution still awaits its comprehensive and exhaustive treatment in theological — and philosophical — research, in spite of the considerable number of words devoted to its individual representatives.

In order to understand and appreciate correctly the contribution of the Cappadocians to the doctrine of the Trinity we must first set the historical context. What were the Cappadocians reacting against? Why did they take the view they took, and how did they try to respond to the challenges of their contemporaries? After trying to give an answer to these questions we may consider the lasting significance of these Fathers' theology for other times.

I. The Historical Context

If we try to single out the sensitivities — we might call them obsessions — of the Cappadocian Fathers vis-à-vis their contemporaries, we may locate them in the following areas:

A. Sabellianism

Sabellianism represented an interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity which involved the view that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit were not full persons in an ontological sense but roles assumed by the one God. Sabellius seems to have used the term person in the singular, implying that there is one person in God. Cf. G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, London: SPCK 1936, pp. 113f and 160f. This modalistic interpretation made it impossible to understand how the Son, eternally or in the Incarnation had a relation of reciprocal dialogue with the Father, praying to Him, etc., as the Gospel stories require us to believe. It would also make it impossible for the Christian to establish a fully personal dialogue and relationship with each of the three persons of the Trinity. Furthermore, it would appear that God was somehow acting in the Economy, pretending, as it were, to be what He appeared to be, and not revealing or giving to us His true self, His very being.

For these and other reasons, the doctrine of the Trinity had to be interpreted in such a way as to exclude any Sabellian or crypto-Sabellian understanding, and the only way to achieve this would be by stressing the fullness and ontological integrity of each person of the Trinity. The Cappadocians were so deeply concerned with this that they went as far as rejecting the use of the term prosopon or person to describe the Trinity See Basil, Ep., 236:6. — a term that had entered theological terminology since Tertullian in the West and found its way into the East probably through Hippolytus — particularly since this term was loaded with connotations of acting on the theatrical stage or playing a role in society, when used in the ancient Graeco-Roman world. In their attempt to protect the doctrine from such connotations, the Cappadocians were at times ready to speak of three beings in referring to the Trinity. For the same reason, they preferred to use images of the Trinity that would imply the ontological fullness of each person, such as three suns, three torches, etc., thus introducing a fundamental change in the Nicaean terminology which was inclined towards the use of images indicating one source extended into three (light of light etc.). By doing this, the Cappadocians came to be known as being interested in the Trinity more than the unity of God. (Cf. the well-known textbook thesis that the West began with the unity of God and then moved to the Trinity, while the East followed the opposite course.) This stress on the integrity and fullness of the persons was full of important philosophical implications, as we shall see later on.

Out of this concern for the ontological integrity of each person in the Trinity came the historic revolution, as I should like to call it, See my Being As Communion, London: Darton, Longman & Todd 1985, p. 36f. in the history of philosophy, namely the identification of the idea of person with that of hypostasis. It would lead us too far to discuss here the history of these terms. Suffice it to recall that only a generation before the Cappadocians the term hypostasis was fully identified with that of ousia or substance See Athanasius, Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya (PG 26, 1036B). (indeed, the Latin term substantia would literally translate into Greek as hypostasis). St Athanasius makes it clear that hypostasis did not differ from ousia, both terms indicating being or existence. The Cappadocians changed this by dissociating hypostasis from ousia and attaching it to prosopon. This was done in order to make the expression three persons free from Sabellian interpretations and thus acceptable to the Cappadocians. That this constitutes an historical revolution in philosophy we shall have an opportunity to point out later, when we discuss the philosophical significance of the Cappadocian contribution.

Now, the Cappadocians seem to have done well with pointing out and defending the fullness and integrity of each person, but what about the unity or oneness of God? Were they not in danger of introducing tritheism?

To avoid this danger, the Cappadocians suggested that ousia (substance) or physis (nature) in God should be taken in the sense of the general category which we apply to more than one person. With the help of Aristotelian philosophy, they illustrated this by a reference to the one human nature or substance which is general and is applied to all human beings, and to the many concrete human beings (e.g. John, George, Basil) who are to be called hypostases (plural), not natures or substances. E.g. Basil, Ep. 236:6; 38:5 etc. In this way, they removed all apparent illogicality from their position, since it is logically possible to speak of one substance and three hypostases (or persons), as the above example shows. But the theological difficulty was there, since in the above example of the one human nature and three (or more) human beings we have to do with three men, whereas in the Trinity we do not imply three Gods, but one.

In order to meet this theological difficulty, the Cappadocian Fathers posed the question of what accounts for the difficulty in reconciling the one and the three in human existence. This was of paramount significance anthropologically, as we shall see later. The reason why human beings cannot be one and many at the same time involves the following observations.

(a) In human existence, nature precedes the person. When John or George or Basil are born, the one human nature precedes them; they, therefore represent and embody only part of the human nature. Through human procreation humanity is divided, and no human person can be said to be the bearer of the totality of human nature. This is why the death of one person does not automatically bring about the death of the rest — or conversely, the life of one such person the life of the rest.

(b) Because of this, each human person can be conceived as an individual, i.e. as an entity independent ontologically from other human beings. The unity between human beings is not ontologically identical with their diversity or multiplicity. The one and the many do not coincide. It is this existential difficulty that leads to the logical difficulty of saying one and many with the same breath.

Now, if we contrast this with God's existence, we see immediately that this existential and hence logical difficulty is not applicable to God. Since God by definition has not had a beginning, and space and time do not enter His existence, the three persons of the Trinity do not share a pre-existing or logically prior to them divine nature, but coincide with it. Multiplicity in God does not involve a division of His nature, as happens with man. E.g. Gregory of Nyssa, Quod non sint tres ... (PG 45, 125).

It is impossible, therefore, to say that in God, as it is the case with human beings, nature precedes the person. Equally and for the same reasons it is impossible to say that in God any of the three persons exist or can exist in separation from the other persons. 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. The mystery of the one God in three persons points to a way of being which precludes individualism and separation (or self-sufficiency and self-existence) as a criterion of multiplicity. The one not only does not precede — logically or otherwise — the many, but, on the contrary, requires the many from the very start in order to exist.

This, therefore, seems to be the great innovation in philosophical thought, brought about by the Cappadocian Trinitarian theology, which carries with it a decisively new way of conceiving human existence, as we shall see later.

B. Eunomianism

Eunomianism marked a problematic unknown to Athanasius and Nicaea, since it introduced a far more sophisticated philosophical argument than original Arianism had done. Eunomius, who came himself from Cappadocia, was made by the Arians Bishop of Cyzicus, and was the most radical and perhaps the most sophisticated of the extreme Arians known as Anomoeans. In order to prove by way of Aristotelian dialectic that the Son is totally unlike the Father, the Eunomians placed the substance of God in being unbegotten (agennetos) and concluded that since the Son is begotten (Nicaea itself called him so), he falls outside the being or substance of God.

The refutation of such an argument requires that we make a sharp distinction between substance and person in God. By being a person, the Father was to be distinguished from divine substance, and thus it would be wrong to conclude that the Son is not God or homoousios with the Father. When God is called Father or unbegotten, He is called so not with reference to His substance, but to personhood. Indeed, about the substance of God nothing can be said at all: no property or quality is applicable, except that it is one, undivided and absolutely simple and uncompounded, descriptions pointing to total unknowability rather than knowledge of the divine substance. If there are any properties (idiomata) that can be spoken of in God, these are applicable to His personhood, such as unbegottenness or Fatherhood for the Father, begottenness or Sonship of the Son, and ekporeusis (spiration) of the Spirit. These personal or hypostatic properties are incommunicable — unbegottenness being precisely one of them — whereas substance is communicated among the three persons. A person is thus defined through properties which are absolutely unique, and in this respect differs fundamentally from nature or substance. The reaction against Eunomianism produced, therefore, on the one hand a clear and fundamental distinction between person and nature, thus allowing the concept of person to emerge more clearly as a distinct category in ontology, and on the other hand underlined the idea that personhood can be known and identified through its absolute uniqueness and irreplaceability, something that has not ceased to be of existential relevance in philosophy.

Now, this incommunicability of hypostatic properties does not mean that persons in the Trinity are to be understood as autonomous individuals. We must beware of making this incommunicability the definition of person par excellence, as Richard of St. Victor seems to do, for although the hypostatic properties are not communicated, the notion of the person is inconceivable outside a relationship. The Cappadocians called the persons by names indicating schesis (relationship) E.g. Gregory Naz., Or. 29 (PG 36, 96): The Father is a name neither of substance nor of energy, but of schesis.: none of the three persons can be conceived without reference to the other two, both logically and ontologically. The problem is how to reconcile incommunicability with relationship, but this again is a matter of freeing divine existence from the servitude of personhood to substance, a servitude which applies only to created existence. By being uncreated, the three persons are not faced with a given substance, but exist freely. Being is simultaneously relational and hypostatic. But this leads us to a consideration of the philosophical consequences of Cappadocian theology.

II. The Philosophical Implications

Here again history must give us the starting point. It is normally assumed that the Greek Fathers were Platonic or Aristotelian in their thinking, and yet a careful study of them would reveal that they were as obsessed with Greek philosophy as they were with various heretical ideas of their time. The doctrine of the Trinity offered the occasion to the Cappadocians to express their distance both explicitly and implicitly from Platonism in particular and thus introduce a new philosophy.

One of the references to Plato made by St Gregory of Nazianzus is worthy of particular mention. He refers at one point to the philosopher as having spoken of God as a crater which overflows with goodness and love, and rejects this image as implying a process of natural or substantial and therefore necessary, generation of existence. Gregory would not like to see the generation of the Son or the spiration of the Spirit understood in such terms, i.e. by way of a substantial growth. (Here we may perhaps observe some departure from the Athanasian idea of the fertile substance of God.) He would insist, together with the rest of the Cappadocians, that the cause or aition of divine existence is the Father, which means a person, for this would make the Trinity a matter of ontological freedom. In fact, in one of his theological orations, Gregory takes up the defence of Nicaea against the Arian accusation that the homoousious implies necessity in God's being and develops it further than Athanasius — who in fact said very little on this matter — by stressing the role of the Father as the cause of divine being. Generation (and spiration) are not necessary but free because, although there is one will concurrent (as St Cyril of Alexandria would say) Cyril Alex., De Trin. 2. with the divine substance, there is the willing one (ho thelon) Thus Gregory Naz., Or. theol. 3, 5-7. and that is the Father. By making the Father the only cause of divine existence, the Cappadocians aimed at understanding freedom in ontology, something that Greek philosophy had never done before.

It is in the light of this observation that we can appreciate two more points emerging from the study of the sources. The first is a detail that we observe in the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople, a detail dismissed normally by historians of doctrine (e.g. Kelly) Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, London: Longmans 1950, p. 333. as insignificant. I am referring to the fact that the Council of Constantinople of ad 381, operating clearly under Cappadocian influence — Gregory of Nazianzus, then Archbishop of Constantinople was presiding over it for a time — took the bold step of altering the Creed of Nicaea at the point where it referred to the Son as being from the substance of the Father (ek tes ousias tou patros) and making it simply read from the Father (ek tou patros). This change at a time when fights took place over words could not be accidental. It is a clear expression of the Cappadocian interest in stressing that it is the person of the Father and not divine substance that is the source and cause of the Trinity.

The other point relates to the content that the term monarchia finally received in the Greek Fathers. The one arche in God came to be understood ontologically, i.e. in terms of origination of being, and was attached to the person of the Father. The one God is the Father See e.g. Gregory Naz., Or. 42, 15. Cf. G. L. Prestige, op. cit., p. 254: ... their (the three Persons') ground of unity (henwsis) is the Father, out of whom and towards whom are reckoned the subsequent Persons, not as to confuse them but so as to attach them. The doctrine of monarchy had begun by basing the unity of God on the single Person of the Father ..., and not the one substance, as Augustine and medieval Scholasticism would say. This puts the person of the Father in the place of the one God, and suggests a kind of monotheism which is not only Biblical, but also more akin to Trinitarian theology. 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, i.e. of the self-existent and in the final analysis individualistic being. The philosophical scandal of the Trinity can be resolved or accepted only if substance gives way to personhood as the causing principle or arche in ontology.

I have called the Cappadocians revolutionary thinkers in the history of philosophy. This would emerge from a hasty survey of ancient Greek thought in relation to that of the Cappadocians.

Ancient Greek thought in all its variations, ever since the pre-Socratic philosophers and up to and including Neoplatonism, tended to give priority to the one over the many. At the time of the Greek Fathers this had taken several forms, some of them more theological and some more philosophical. On the theological level the predominant pagan Greek philosophy at the time of the Cappadocian Fathers, namely Neoplatonism, had identified the One with God Himself, considering the multiplicity of beings, the many, to be emanations basically of a degrading nature, so that the return to the One through the recollection of the soul was thought to be the purpose and aim of all existence. Earlier on in the first century, Philo, whose significance as the link between classical Platonism and Neoplatonism was decisive, had argued that God is the only true One because He is the only one who is truly alone. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity as developed by the Cappadocians ran counter to this priority and exaltation of the One over the Many in philosophy.

With regard to human existence, too, classical Greek philosophy at that time had given priority to nature over particular persons. The views current at the time of the Cappadocian Fathers were either of a Platonic or of an Aristotelian kind. The first spoke of human nature as an ideal humanity, a genos hyperkeimenon, whose image every human being is, whereas the latter preferred to give priority to a substratum of the human species, a genos hypokeimenon, from which the various human beings emerge. See Basil, Ep. 361 and 362. For a discussion of these letters and their philosophical significance see my On Being a Person: Towards an Ontology of Personhood in Chr. Schwöbel and C. E. Gunton (eds.), Persons: Human and Divine, Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1991, pp. 37ff. In both cases, man in his diversity and plurality of persons was subject to the necessity — or priority — of his nature. Nature or substance always preceded the person in classical Greek thought.

The Cappadocian Fathers challenged this established view of philosophy through their Trinitarian theology. They claimed that the priority of nature over the person, or of the one over the many, is due to the fact that human existence is a created existence, i.e. it is an existence with a beginning, and should not be made into a metaphysical principle. True being in its genuine metaphysical state, which concerns philosophy par excellence, is to be found in God, whose uncreated existence does not involve the priority of the One or of nature over the Many or the persons. The way in which God exists involves simultaneously the One and the Many, and this means that the person has to be given ontological primacy in philosophy.

To give ontological primacy to the person would mean to undo the fundamental principles with which Greek philosophy had operated since its inception. The particular person never had an ontological role in classical Greek thought. What mattered ultimately was the unity or totality of being of which man was but a portion. Plato, in addressing the particular being, makes it clear that the whole was not brought into being for thy sake, but thou art brought for its sake. With a striking consistency, classical Greek tragedy invited man — and even the gods — to succumb to the order and justice that held the universe together, so that kosmos (meaning both natural order and proper behaviour) may prevail. Underneath the variety of beings, the many, there is the one Reason (Logos) that gives them their significance in existence. No digression from this one Reason can be allowed for the many or for the particular beings without a disruption of being, even the very being of these particular beings.

The Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocian Fathers involved a philosophy in which the particular was not secondary to being or nature; it was thus free in an absolute sense. In classical thought, freedom was cherished as a quality of the individual, but not in an ontological sense. The person was free to express his views but was obliged to succumb finally to the common Reason, the xunos logos of Heraclitus. Furthermore, the possibility that the person might pose the question of his freedom from his very existence was entirely inconceivable in ancient philosophy. It was, in fact, first raised in modern times by Dostoevsky and other modern existentialist philosophers. Freedom in antiquity always had a restricted moral sense, and did not involve the question of the being of the world, which was a given and an external reality for the Greeks. On the contrary, for the Fathers the world's being was due to the freedom of a person, God. Freedom is the cause of being for Patristic thought. For further discussion see my Being as Communion, London: Darton, Longman & Todd 1985, esp. ch. 1.

Cappadocian theology stressed this principle of freedom as a presupposition of being by extending it to cover the being of God Himself. This was a great innovation of the Cappadocian Fathers, even with regard to their Christian predecessors. The Cappadocian Fathers for the first time in history introduced into the being of God the concept of cause (aition), in order to attach it significantly not to the one (God's nature) — but to a person, the Father. By distinguishing carefully and persistently between the nature of God and God as the Father, they thought that what causes God to be is the Person of the Father, not the one divine substance. By so doing, they gave to the person ontological priority, and thus freed existence from the logical necessity of substance, of the self-existent. This was a revolutionary step in philosophy, the anthropological consequences of which must not pass unnoticed.

III. The Anthropological Consequences

Man, for the Fathers, is the image of God. He is not God by nature, since he is created, i.e. he has had a beginning, and thus is subject to the limitations of space and time which involve individuation and ultimately death. Nevertheless, he is called to exist in the way God exists.

In order to understand this, we must consider the distinction made by the Cappadocian Fathers between nature and person or mode of existence (tropos hyparxeos), as they called it. Nature or substance points to the simple fact that something exists, to the what (ti) of something. It can be predicated of more than one thing. Person or hypostasis, on the other hand, points to how (hopos or pos) and can only be predicated of one being, and this in an absolute sense. When we consider human nature (or substance: ousia), we refer it to all human beings; there is nothing unique about having a human nature. Furthermore, all the natural characteristics of human nature such as dividedness — and hence individuation leading to decomposition and finally death — are all aspects of human substance and determine the human being as far as its nature is concerned. It is the how of human nature, i.e. personhood, that by acquiring the role of ontological cause, as is the case with God's being, determines whether nature's limitations will finally be overcome or not. The image of God in man has precisely to do with this how, not with the what man is; it relates not to nature — man can never become God by nature — but to personhood. This means that man is free to affect the how of his existence either in the direction of the way (the how) God is, or in the direction of what his, i.e. man's nature is. Living according to nature (kata physin), would thus amount to individualism, mortality, etc., since man is not immortal kata physin. Living, on the other hand, according to the image of God means living in the way God exists, i.e. as an image of God's personhood, and this would amount to becoming God. This is what the theosis of man means in the thinking of the Greek Fathers.

It follows from this that although man's nature is ontologically prior to his personhood, as we have already noted, man is called to an effort to free himself from the necessity of his nature and behave in all respects as if the person were free from the laws of nature. In practical terms, this is what the Fathers saw in the ascetic effort which they regarded as essential to all human existence, regardless of whether one was a monk or lived in the world. Without an attempt to free the person from the necessity of nature, one cannot be the image of God, since in God, as we have noted above, the person, and not nature, causes Him to be the way He is.

The essence, therefore, of the anthropology which results from the Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocian Fathers lies in the significance of personhood in human existence. The Cappadocian Fathers gave to the world the most precious concept it possesses: the concept of the person, as an ontological concept in the ultimate sense. Since this concept has become, at least in principle, not only part of our Christian heritage but also an ideal of our culture in general, it may be useful to remind ourselves of its exact content and significance as it emerges from a study of the theology of the Cappadocians.

(a) As it emerges from the way personhood is understood by the Cappadocian Fathers with reference to God, the person is not a secondary but a primary and absolute notion in existence. Nothing is more sacred than the person since it constitutes the way of being of God Himself. The person cannot be sacrificed or subjected to any ideal, to any moral or natural order, or to any expediency or objective, even of the most sacred kind. In order to be truly and be yourself, you must be a person, i.e. you must be free from and higher than any necessity or objective — natural, moral, religious, or ideological. What gives meaning and value to existence is the person as absolute freedom.

(b) The person cannot exist in isolation. God is not alone; He is communion. Love is not a feeling, a sentiment springing from nature like a flower from a tree. Love is a relationship, it is the free coming out of one's self, the breaking of one's will, a free submission to the will of another. It is the other and our relationship with him that gives us our identity, our otherness, making us who we are, i.e. persons; for by being an inseparable part of a relationship that matters ontologically we emerge as unique and irreplaceable entities. This, therefore, is what accounts for our being, and our being ourselves and not someone else: our personhood. It is in this that the reason, the logos of our being lies: in the relationship of love that makes us unique and irreplaceable for another. The logos that accounts for God's being is the uniquely beloved Son, and it is through this loving relationship that God, too, or rather God par excellence, emerges as unique and irreplaceable by being eternally the Father of a unique (monogenes) Son. This is the great message of the Patristic idea of the person. The raison d'être, the logos tou einai of each one's being, for which the Greek mind was always searching, is not to be found in the nature of this being, but in the person, i.e. in the identity created freely by love and not by the necessity of its self-existence. As a person you exist as long as you love and are loved. When you are treated as nature, as a thing, you die as a particular identity. And if your soul is immortal, what is the use? You will exist, but without a personal identity; you will be eternally dying in the hell of anonymity, in the Hades of immortal souls. For nature in itself cannot give you existence and being as an absolutely unique and particular identity. Nature always points to the general; it is the person that safeguards uniqueness and absolute particularity. The immortality, therefore, of one's soul, even if it implies existence, cannot imply personal identity in the true sense. Now that we know, thanks to the Patristic theology of personhood, how God exists, we know what it means truly to exist as a particular being. As images of God we are persons, not natures: there can never be an image of the nature of God, nor would it be a welcome thing for humanity to be absorbed in divine nature. Only when in this life we exist as persons can we hope to live eternally in the true, personal sense. This means that exactly as is the case with God, so with us, too: personal identity can emerge only from love as freedom and from freedom as love.

(c) The person is something unique and unrepeatable. Nature and species are perpetuated and replaceable. Individuals taken as nature or species are never absolutely unique. They can be similar; they can be composed and decomposed; they can be combined with others in order to produce results or even new species; they can be used to serve purposes — sacred or not, this does not matter. On the contrary, persons can neither be reproduced nor perpetuated like species; they cannot be composed or decomposed, combined or used for any objective whatsoever — even the most sacred one. Whosoever treats a person in such ways automatically turns him into a thing, he dissolves and brings into non-existence his personal particularity. If one does not see one's fellow human being as the image of God in this sense, i.e. as a person, then one cannot see this being as a truly eternal identity. For death dissolves us all into one indistinguishable nature, turning us into substance, or things. What gives us an identity that does not die is not our nature but our personal relationship with God's undying personal identity. Only when nature is hypostatic or personal, as is the case with God, does it exist truly and eternally. For it is only then that it acquires uniqueness and becomes an unrepeatable and irreplaceable particularity in the mode of being which we find in the Trinity.


If we are allowed or even incited in our culture to think or hope for true personhood in human existence, we owe it above all to the Christian thought that Cappadocia produced in the fourth century. The Cappadocian Church Fathers developed and bequeathed to us a concept of God, who exists as a communion of free love out of which unique, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable identities emerge, i.e. true persons in the absolute ontological sense. It is of such a God that man is meant to be an image. There is no higher and fuller anthropology than this anthropology of true and full personhood.

Modern man tends on the whole to think highly of an anthropology of personhood, but the common and widespread assumptions as to what a person is are by no means consonant with what we have seen emerging from a study of the Cappadocian Fathers. Most of us today, when we say person mean an individual. This goes back to Augustine, and especially Boethius in the fifth century ad, who defined the person as an individual nature endowed with rationality and consciousness. Throughout the entire history of Western thought the equation of person with the thinking, self-conscious individual has led to a culture in which the thinking individual has become the highest concept in anthropology. This is not what emerges from the thought of the Cappadocian Fathers. It is rather the opposite of this that results from a study of their thought. For, according to it, true personhood arises not from one's individualistic isolation from others, but from love and relationship with others, from communion. Love alone, free love, unqualified by natural necessities, can generate personhood. This is true of God whose being, as the Cappadocian Fathers saw it, is constituted and hypostasized through a free event of love caused by a free and loving person, the Father, and not by the necessity of divine nature. This is true also of man who is called to exercise his freedom as love and his love as freedom, and thus show himself to be the image of God.

In our times, several attempts are being made by Western philosophers to correct the Western equation of the person with the individual. Thus, J. Macmurray, The Self as Agent, London: Faber & Faber 1957, and Persons in Relation, London: Faber & Faber 1961. Christianity's encounter with other religions, such as Buddhism, is forcing people to reconsider this traditional individualistic view of personhood. Today, then, is perhaps the most appropriate time to go back to a deeper study and appreciation of the fruits of Christian thought produced in Cappadocia in the fourth century, the most important of which is undoubtedly the idea of the person, as the Cappadocian Fathers saw and developed it.

This, therefore, is the existential — in the broader sense — significance of the Cappadocian contribution to Trinitarian theology: it makes us see in God a kind of existence we all want to lead; it is, therefore, basically a soteriological theology. But I think the Cappadocians have also something to say to some of today's issues concerning the doctrine of God. I refer particularly to the issues raised by feminist theology, especially concerning the use of names for God. The Cappadocians, in accordance with the apophatic tradition of the East, would say that all language concerning the substance of God and its qualities or energies is bound to be inadequate. Yet, a distinction must be made between nature and person also at the level of human discourse. The names Father, Son, and Spirit are indicative of personal identity. And since these are the only names that indicate personal identity they cannot be changed. Names indicating energies are changeable (e.g. God is good, or powerful, for example), because they are all drawn from our experience, which cannot adequately describe God. But what about Father, Son, and Spirit — are they drawn from experience? Is there any analogy possible between God's Fatherhood and human fatherhood? There may be something of an analogy in what concerns moral qualities attached to Fatherhood (Creator, loving and caring person, etc.). But these are not personal properties — they apply to all three persons of the Trinity, i.e. to the common substance or energy. Father, Son, and Spirit are names of personal identity, names by which God in Christ reveals Himself and names Himself for us. This is the big difference between Trinitarian language and even the appellation God, which, in the sense of divinitas, is not a name of God. Only as Person is He nameable. But His name is known and revealed to us only in Christ, which means only in and through the Father-Son relationship. He is, therefore, only known as Father.

The distinction between nature and person is, therefore, crucial also with regard to the issue of what is called comprehensive language. Equally, it is crucial whether we identify the one God with the Father or with the one substance. For if He is Father only secondarily and not in His ultimate personal identity, Fatherhood is not the name of God, but a name about God. In this case, it can be changed so as to convey better the message we wish to convey about God's being.

The Cappadocians have taught us that the Trinity is not a matter for academic speculation, but for personal relationship. As such, it is truth revealed only by participation in the Father-Son relationship through the Spirit which allows us to cry Abba, Father. The Trinity is, therefore, revealed only in the Church, i.e. the community through which we become sons of the Father of Jesus Christ. Outside this it remains a stumbling block and a scandal.



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