Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine

Zanchi on the Trinity (1a)

Appended to the end of Zanchi’s De religione Christiana fides are a series of Observationes (“Observations”) in the form of aphorismi (“distinctions, definitions, pithy sentences”). Luca Baschera and Christian Moser point out in their introduction that these basically function as footnotes to the dogmatic statements in the confession itself. Not every subsection–indeed, not every chapter–has one of these. Caput 2, on the Trinity, has two, one for the first subsection (discussed yesterday) and one for the third. This post, which includes the first, is an addendum to yesterday’s. In that post, I alluded to the thorniness of the term ὑφιστάμενοι/hypostases; this “footnote” deals with precisely the same thing.

Text and Translation

Aphoris. I.
Etsi proprium ὑφισταμένων est ὑφιστάναι ἐν τῇ οὐσίᾳ, de Deo tamen loquentes altera uti locutione eaque etiam usitata certis de caussis maluimus, nempe ut, cum primis adversus Arianorum nostri temporis calumnias et sarcasmos, essentiam illam divinam non nisi in personis reperiri doceremus, non igitur a nobis essentiam seorsum a personis subsistentem constitui, in qua porro tres personae subsistant, quasi quatuor in Deo ὑφιστάμενα a catholica ecclesia fingantur.

Additional discussion for Section I.

Although the proper meaning of “things subsisting” is “to subsist in an essence,” nevertheless when speaking about God we prefer to use a different way of speaking, and one that is also customary, for sure reasons: namely, so that we might teach (particularly against the chicanery and taunts of the Arians of our day) that the divine essence is not found except in the Persons, [and] therefore that we do not establish that the essence–in which, then, the three persons subsist–subsists apart from the Persons, as if the catholic church should invent four subsistences in God.1


  1. Note, again, that the “Persons” have to do with modes of being, not “centers of self-consciousness,” vel sim. The usefulness of the term has to do specifically with its value for preserving threeness within the unity of the divine essence.
  2. Not only does Zanchi wish to preserve threeness within the unity of the divine essence; he wants to do this without thinking of the divine essence as some fourth thing that serves as a substrate for the three, and that exists (or can exist) apart from the three subsistences. Thus it is found only in personis and cannot be imagined as existing as it were by itself, apart from the subsistences (seorsum a personis subsistentem).
  3. Another way to put this is that deity is not a genus. Nor, one might add, is it a compound of the three.2
  4.  A quotation from John of Damascus that may be helpful here: “Further we say that each of the three has a perfect subsistence, that we may understand not one compound perfect nature made up of three imperfect elements, but one simple essence, surpassing and preceding perfection, existing in three perfect subsistences. For all that is composed of imperfect elements must necessarily be compound. But from perfect subsistences no compound can arise. Wherefore we do not speak of the form as from subsistences, but as in subsistences. But we speak of those things as imperfect which do not preserve the form of that which is completed out of them. For stone and wood and iron are each perfect in its own nature, but with reference to the building that is completed out of them each is imperfect: for none of them is in itself a house.”The subsistences then we say are perfect, that we may not conceive of the divine nature as compound. For compoundness is the beginning of separation. And again we speak of the three subsistences as being in each other , that we may not introduce a crowd and multitude of Gods. Owing to the three subsistences, there is no compoundness or confusion: while, owing to their having the same essence and dwelling in one another, and being the same in will, and energy, and power, and authority, and movement, so to speak, we recognise the indivisibility and the unity of God. For verily there is one God, and His word and Spirit.” (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1.8)
  5. Likewise, Isaak Dorner: ” [I]f the whole were thought as a fourth magnitude, outside of the Three who are contained and real, and really embracing them (Tetradism), the divine Unity, which is the divine Essence withal, would be opposed to the Three, whereby true Deity would be taken from them, and they would be debased to mere elements or qualities of a fourth and different Being. On the contrary, were the Whole simply thought of as the genus or the sum of the Three, that would lead to Tritheism. The Deity is not to be thought of as a genus, which embraces different individuals, just as mankind embraces many men. That view Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and others, for example,1opposed very consciously and very definitely. If the divine Essence were distributed, if the Unity were divided into Three, we should have three separate Individuals, Tritheism. Instead of this, the Athanasian Creed says: Non tres Dii, sed unus est Deus. The tres personce rather constitute the idea of the One true and self-dependent God, because Unity is not something separate from Them, but immanent in Them.” (A System of Christian Doctrine vol. 1, 381)
  6. Again, Thomas on whether God is contained in a genus: “On the contrary, In the mind, genus is prior to what it contains. But nothing is prior to God either really or mentally. Therefore God is not in any genus.”I answer that, A thing can be in a genus in two ways; either absolutely and properly, as a species contained under a genus; or as being reducible to it, as principles and privations. For example, a point and unity are reduced to the genus of quantity, as its principles; while blindness and all other privations are reduced to the genus of habit. But in neither way is God in a genus. That He cannot be a species of any genus may be shown in three ways.”First, because a species is constituted of genus and difference. Now that from which the difference constituting the species is derived, is always related to that from which the genus is derived, as actuality is related to potentiality. For animal is derived from sensitive nature, by concretion as it were, for that is animal, which has a sensitive nature. Rational being, on the other hand, is derived from intellectual nature, because that is rational, which has an intellectual nature, and intelligence is compared to sense, as actuality is to potentiality. The same argument holds good in other things. Hence since in God actuality is not added to potentiality, it is impossible that He should be in any genus as a species.

    “Secondly, since the existence of God is His essence, if God were in any genus, He would be the genus “being”, because, since genus is predicated as an essential it refers to the essence of a thing. But the Philosopher has shown (Metaph. iii) that being cannot be a genus, for every genus has differences distinct from its generic essence. Now no difference can exist distinct from being; for non-being cannot be a difference. It follows then that God is not in a genus.

    “Thirdly, because all in one genus agree in the quiddity or essence of the genus which is predicated of them as an essential, but they differ in their existence. For the existence of man and of horse is not the same; as also of this man and that man: thus in every member of a genus,existence and quiddity–i.e. essence–must differ. But in God they do not differ, as shown in the preceding article. Therefore it is plain thatGod is not in a genus as if He were a species. From this it is also plain that He has no genus nor difference, nor can there be any definition of Him; nor, save through His effects, a demonstration of Him: for a definition is from genus and difference; and the mean of a demonstration is a definition. That God is not in a genus, as reducible to it as its principle, is clear from this, that a principle reducible to any genus does not extend beyond that genus; as, a point is the principle of continuous quantity alone; and unity, of discontinuous quantity. But God is the principle of all being. Therefore He is not contained in any genus as its principle.” (ST Ia, Q.3, Art. 5)

  7. Baschera and Moser hypothesize that the reference to Arianorum nostri temporis (“the Arians of our day”) is probably directed at Servetus, “who identifies the notion of a quaternitas as one of the absurd consequences of the doctrine of the Trinity” (528-9, n.7).
  1. The translation is my own.
  2. The issue of “quaternity” has been discussed on this site here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.