Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Substance and Hypostasis in the Trinity

In my experience a lot of the problems in modern philosophy of religion come about from not taking enough care to get right the religious position the philosopher is analyzing. Part of this difficulty stems from the way terminology shifts across the centuries, so that the modern philosopher takes for granted an anachronistic understanding of key terms.

Dr Vallicella and others at Maverick Philosopher have been discussing the logical coherence of the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as giving links to contemporary philosophy of religion discussions of the topic. Here is one of the posts: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2010/01/some-water-analogies-for-the-trinity.html

More than once Dr Vallicella points out that God's substance can't be understood as matter, which is correct. But he fails to understand what "substance" means in trinitarian doctrine. He writes: "The sense in which water is a substance is not the sense in which God is a substance. Water is a substance in the sense of a stuff; God is a substance in the sense of a hypostasis (that which stands under) or hypokeimenon (that which is placed under), or as I prefer to say, an individual."

From the standpoint of traditional, classical Trinitarian theology, this is incorrect. God is a substance neither in the sense of stuff (hyle) nor in the sense of individual (hypostasis). Here's a representative explanatory snippet from St John of Damascus, showing the universal traditional use of the terms, from "De Fide Orthodoxa" c.48: "Substantia quidem communem speciem et complectivam speciem homoiodon (id est earum quae unum sunt specie) hypostaseon (id est personarum) significat, utputa Deus, homo; hypostasis autem atomon (id est individuum) demonstrat, scilicet Patrem, Filium, Spiritum Sanctum, Petrum, Paulum."

So "substance" here means something like "essence" or "being" (in the sense of ousia) rather than hypostasis; the whole doctrine of the Trinity depends on this distinction between the one nature, substance, being, essence, etc. on the one hand and the three individual persons or hypostases on the other. In most cases where there is one existing human nature (man), there is one individual hypostasis (Peter or Paul); in the case of the Trinity there is one divine nature (God) instantiated in three hypostases (Father and Son and Holy Spirit); conversely, in the Incarnation there are two existing natures (God and man), but only one hypostasis (Christ the Incarnate Logos). It is not good Trinitarian doctrine to say that there is one individual or hypostasis (God) who is identical to three individual persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

There's no point in discussing the coherence of a doctrine if the doctrine is not first clearly understood. But the doctrine turns into unintelligible mush if these crucial distinctions are not carefully preserved.

9 comments:

onus probandi said...

"But he fails to understand what "substance" means in trinitarian doctrine."

I'm aware of the Platonic vocabulary typically employed by the Latins at Nicaea; however, were the actual meaning of the terms employed then actually carried the very same meaning as when the ancients originally used them in antiquity? Or is it that by that time, the Latins themselves utilized the terms with some specific special meaning (e.g. a term of the art) within the existing theological framework of the time?

Michael said...

onus,

I can't illuminate the different shades of meaning used by 4th century Christians and 4th century neoplatonists, because I don't know enough about the latter. I can with confidence assert the following:

1) There are certainly differences in the way technical terms are used by Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus on the one hand, and by Christians on the other. These differences have to be illuminated by comparing the usages of the writers in question, just as one must do to illuminate shades of meaning among the pagan ancients themselves. Your typical Latin theologian from ca. 400-1400 would not admit that his vocabulary was "Platonic" whatever its historical origin; you have to look at what he actually means by it.

2) There are differences in terminology between Christians themselves, especially between the Latin and Greek traditions, and this has been a source of a lot of confusion and disagreement between Churches. "Substance" has been used to translate both "ousia" and "hypostasis", and one has to very careful about which meaning is meant in a given case.

3) The distinction laid out by St John Damascene here is both typical and normative for the Latin theological tradition, which I presume to be the locus of discussion when a contemporary western philosopher of religion talks about "The Doctrine of the Trinity".

This doctrine is not a proposition or set of propositions existing in a vacuum, so that one can examine, e.g. the Athanasian Creed all by itself without reference to how it is and has been understood by those espousing it; otherwise one's critique runs the risk of having no bearing on the actual doctrine as affirmed and believed. Otherwise it will be nothing but an analysis of the residue of a set of propositions after one has run them through the alchemical transformations of one's own modern hermeneutical apparatus.

berenikee said...

His latest post (quaternity) puzzled me - bear with my igronance, but I can't see how it has any point whatsoever unless one says that God and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all divine persons (and in the same sense). Does anyone say that? Have I missed something really obvious? :/

onus probandi said...

Thanks for the prompt, elaborate response.

"There are certainly differences in the way technical terms are used by Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus on the one hand, and by Christians on the other."

I appreciate your confirming for me that there is some subtle meaning upon which the ancient philosophers originally used these terms as opposed to how later Christians (particularly, the Church Fathers themselves) had actually utilized them.

I suspected as much (albeit with amateur lenses) since in some instances I couldn't quite reconcile how a Christian theologian of the later periods used a certain term versus how earlier Greek philosophers before them had typically used it.


"Your typical Latin theologian from ca. 400-1400 would not admit that his vocabulary was "Platonic" whatever its historical origin;"

Apologies, I should've been more sensitive in deference to the actual context within which these terms were used in the various discussions.


"There are differences in terminology between Christians themselves, especially between the Latin and Greek traditions, and this has been a source of a lot of confusion and disagreement between Churches."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't the Greeks themselves reluctant to employ the very same set of terms the Latins used not only due to a differing ordo theologiae by which they operated under but also because of an accumulated resentment (repugnance, even) of their Greek philosophers from which these terms originated?

I see instances of the same even in their modern contemporaries today, too.


"This doctrine is not a proposition or set of propositions existing in a vacuum, so that one can examine, e.g. the Athanasian Creed all by itself without reference to how it is and has been understood by those espousing it; otherwise one's critique runs the risk of having no bearing on the actual doctrine as affirmed and believed. Otherwise it will be nothing but an analysis of the residue of a set of propositions after one has run them through the alchemical transformations of one's own modern hermeneutical apparatus."

I cannot agree more with this statement.

The hermeneutics we may ourselves employ often is more derivative of a more modern interpretation of things as opposed to a genuine interpretation of what was actually meant at the time such a rendering of the doctrine was first defined and illuminated.

Yet, it is quite understandable especially when you consider the extensive gulf that lies between us and these figures of a relatively distant and even quite ancient past.

If the average modern mind is unable to grasp things that only arose a mere century ago with respect to certain ideas of that time, how much more so these?

Michael said...

berenikee,

I don't think you've missed anything, but Dr Vallicella is raising a point of logic. If God is a person, and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each a person, don't we have four persons?

Of course if don't take the word "God" to be referring to a hypostasis, but to the nature or substance of God, the problem goes away.

One way to approach his problem would be to point out that while the identity predications "the Father is God", "the Son is God," etc. are true, "the Father is the Son" is not. "The Father is God" is not a sentence like "Mark Twain is Sam Clemens", but one like "Mark Twain is (a) man".

Michael said...

onus,

Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't the Greeks themselves reluctant to employ the very same set of terms the Latins used

The Greeks of course would use Greek terms and the Latins would use what were meant to be Latin equivalents. The Greeks didn't do theology in Latin, of course. And as I say, this led to problems. In the present instance, for example: "Substance" is a literal translation of "hypostasis": "hypo"="sub" and "stasis"="stans". But in fact the Latins (generally but not uniformly at first, but eventually universally) used "substantia" to translate "ousia" and such terms, and "suppositum" or "persona" to translate "hypostasis" or "prosopon". So sometimes the Greeks were confused when looking at Latin works which used "substantia" and thought it meant "hypostasis", and suspected the Latins of error. Similar misunderstandings took place with regard to the filioque, etc., but I'm not going to get into that more here.

Michael said...

not only due to a differing ordo theologiae by which they operated under but also because of an accumulated resentment (repugnance, even) of their Greek philosophers from which these terms originated? I see instances of the same even in their modern contemporaries today, too.

I suspect you must be thinking of our old Energetic Procession friends. As I've argued many times before, I'm very suspicious of the idea of a Greek vs. a Latin "ordo theologiae. I think this whole idea is a fiction by people with an anti-western historical ax to grind. Neither the Latin nor the Greek Fathers have a uniform approach of the sort they suggest, and I don't recall any western theologian ever using the (Latin, obviously) term ordo theologiae, especially to mean what they mean by it. I think that whole "Originist vs. Cappodocian ordo" story is false and a red herring.

Now it's certainly true that the Eastern Church has, historically, a different relationship to and attitude about the Greek philosophers. They used them in some ways no less than the Latin fathers, but one has to remember that for most of the history of the Christian West there were no pagan schools of philosophy left, only (some) books already received through the mediacy of the Fathers. In the East the pagan schools operated much longer and were real competitors to Christianity. One must also remember that most of the Eastern heresies arose in a scholastic and philosophical context, whereas this was not the case in the West. So "philosophy" generally meant something different in the East than in the West. This doesn't mean that the Greek Fathers didn't use pagan philosophical terms and categories just like the Latin ones. It's obvious even to a casual reader that they did so. And on the other hand one should also remember the furor that arose when the un-patristically-mediated Aristotle came into the West. There was a big suspicion until theologians began to demonstrate that (some aspects of) Aristotelianism could be absorbed into the Christian intellect without destroying or perverting Christian doctrine.

So I would be very wary of saying "For the Greeks philosophical reasoning is bad but the Latins think it's good". This can be distorted by both sides for their own ends and in any case is not really true.

Yet, it is quite understandable especially when you consider the extensive gulf that lies between us and these figures of a relatively distant and even quite ancient past.

I think it's important to recognize that this gulf is not temporal so much as intellectual and cultural. For myself I feel more at home in the Latin middle ages than in contemporary academic literature, not least because I've read so much more of the former than of the latter. Aquinas and Scotus are speaking my native intellectual language, and it's the moderns who sound foreign and strange to me (in C.S. Lewis' terms, Faber and I are among the last dinosaurs). The scholastic manuals, like the one I quoted in my last post, are much more congenial to me than Rahner or von Balthasar, and thinkers seven hundred years old are much less bizarre to me than, say, the much more recent German idealists. But in order to be at this point one has to be raised (or raise oneself) like this. For myself I began studying Latin and reading St Thomas (in translation at first) at 17 [on my own, while studying Plato and Aristotle in school] long before I spent any time reading contemporary academic philosophy and theology, or even contemporary studies of these past thinkers. I suspect that for someone like Dr Vallicella it would be very difficult to become "fluent" in scholastic thought in the same way after having been living in a different intellectual world for decades.

onus probandi said...

"So sometimes the Greeks were confused when looking at Latin works which used 'substantia' and thought it meant 'hypostasis', and suspected the Latins of error."

There is a popular theory (at least, some popular rumor during my days at university when taking up certain liberal studies -- unfortunately, it was neither philosophy or theology but merely what was termed 'interdisciplinary education' then) that one of the major factors that fueled the schism between East and West (aside from the politics and waht not) was the inevitable misunderstandings that arose when neither of the two was ever again capable of effectively communicating to the other certain fundamental ideas and thoughts unlike in the days when certain Latins (Ambrose I believe being the last of these) actually understood and spoke Greek with but the highest proficiency. As no later Latin was (unfortunately) ever as capable, the ever expanding gulf between East and West could only turn for the worse.


"For myself I began studying Latin and reading St Thomas (in translation at first) at 17 [on my own, while studying Plato and Aristotle in school]..."

You're certainly an inspiration -- I'm attempting a self-study of sorts on my own (as I can hardly afford a formal education in this area of study); beginning with first year Latin, some rudiments of Aristotelean philosophy and eventually Aquinas.

I hope that I can obtain the same sort of skill (perhaps not at so high a level as either of you two) wherein I can finally read certain books in the original language even if somewhat (albeit, I'll be restricted -- that is, if I ever achieve this goal -- to the works of the Latins).

berenike said...

ta very much.