Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

“Person” Doesn’t Mean Person

Gregory of NazianzusOration 21, again.

Though the term “person” in Trinitarian theology carries a lot of baggage with it now, and often imports misleading ideas into reflection on the Godhead (e.g. “individual center of self-consciousness,” vel sim.), such ideas have little to do with the term as it was originally used in the fourth century. Gregory explains that it was first introduced because of the philosophico-theological poverty of the Latin language, which forced Western theologians to grasp for some term that avoided the implication that they believed in three divine essences (i.e. tritheism). (His discussion here of course elides the related and tricky truth that ousia and hypostasis originally had been synonymous in Greek; cf. the anathema attached to the original Creed of 325: “But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance or essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”/Τοὺς δὲ λέγοντας, ὅτι ἦν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν, καὶ πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν, καὶ ὅτι ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ἐγένετο, ἢ ἐξ ἑτέρας ὑποστάσεως ἢ οὐσίας φάσκοντας εἶναι, [ἢ κτιστόν,] τρεπτὸν ἢ ἀλλοιωτὸν τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, [τούτους] ἀναθεματίζει ἡ καθολικὴ [καὶ ἀποστολικὴ] ἐκκλησία.) So Gregory:

This, however, is less admirable than his conduct. What wonder that he, who had already made actual ventures on behalf of the truth, should confess it in writing? Yet this point I will add to what has been said, as it seems to me especially wonderful and cannot with impunity be passed over in a time so fertile in disagreements as this. For his action, if we take note of him, will afford instruction even to the men of this day. For as, in the case of one and the same quantity of water, there is separated from it, not only the residue which is left behind by the hand when drawing it, but also those drops, once contained in the hand, which trickle out through the fingers; so also there is a separation between us and, not only those who hold aloof in their impiety, but also those who are most pious, and that both in regard to such doctrines as are of small consequence (a matter of less moment) and also in regard to expressions intended to bear the same meaning. We use in an orthodox sense the terms one Essence and three Hypostases, the one to denote the nature of the Godhead, the other the properties of the Three; the Italians mean the same, but, owing to the scantiness of their vocabulary, and its poverty of terms, they are unable to distinguish between Essence and Hypostases, and therefore introduce the term Persons, to avoid being understood to assert three Essences. The result, were it not piteous, would be laughable. This slight difference of sound was taken to indicate a difference of faith. Then, Sabellianism was suspected in the doctrine of Three Persons, Arianism in that of Three Hypostases, both being the offspring of a contentious spirit. And then, from the gradual but constant growth of irritation (the unfailing result of contentiousness) there was a danger of the whole world being torn asunder in the strife about syllables. Seeing and hearing this, our blessed one, true man of God and great steward of souls as he was, felt it inconsistent with his duty to overlook so absurd and unreasonable a rending of the word, and applied his medicine to the disease. In what manner? He conferred in his gentle and sympathetic way with both parties, and after he had carefully weighed the meaning of their expressions, and found that they had the same sense, and were in nowise different in doctrine, by permitting each party to use its own terms, he bound them together in unity of action. (Oration 21.35)

As originally used, then, the term “person” was freighted with nothing more than the hypostatical “properties” (begetting, begotten, processing) of the Three in contradistinction to the essential properties of the One Godhead. (For Girolamo Zanchi’s gloss on the distinction between the personal and essential properties, see here, here, and here.)

By E.J. Hutchinson

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