Why were ousia and hypostasis synonymous in the Nicene Creed?

In the original 325 A.D. Nicene Creed, an anathema is included which has ousia and hypostasis as synonymous. In this case, the Trinity is one hypostasis ( = homoousios).

And in the Holy Spirit. But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance (ὑποστάσεως ἢ οὐσιάς) or created, or is subject to alteration or change these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.

Source: https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/creed_of_nicaea_325.htm

It seems also the meaning of υποστασις in Hebrews 1:3.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (υποστασις) (ESV). The ASV has "substance".

However, in later centuries hypostasis began referring to the "person", not the "nature" or "being" of the Trinity. Why did such change in definition occur? It would be helpful to address the semantical development of υποστασις on how it changed from "substance" (nature/essence) to "person".

The Church confesses is that God is three Persons (hypostasis) in one Essence (ousia).




3 Answers 3


This response has been extracted from a longer article of mine on the subject (linked at the end) , hence the discontinuous numbering of its sections.

1. Ousía in Greek philosophical discourse

Deriving then from the verb "to be", as we can see in [4] ousía enters the Greek philosophical discourse with Plato, who uses it to mean the primary, fundamental kind of being, ("prōtē ousíā", pl. "prôtai ousíai"), with Aristotle afterwards using it with the same meaning. It is crucial to note that, for both Plato and Aristotle, ousía does not enter the discourse as a definition but as a question to be answered: what is the primary, fundamental kind of being? What is prōtē ousíā?

While ousía means the same for both Plato and Aristotle as a question, they provide completely different answers to that question. Plato's answer is well known: the Form, which exists in a transcendent world of Forms, is prōtē ousíā, the primary, real being, of which the particular objects in the sensible world are just shadows. Against this Platonic background, Aristotle then provides his own answer in two works, Categories and Metaphysics, in which, notably, he provides different answers.

Categories, part 5 [6]

  • Primary ousía is the individual, particular, concrete entity, of which species and accidents can be predicated without it being predicable of or attributable to anything else. This is actually stated in negative terms: “what is neither in a subject nor said of a subject”, i.e. the particular subject itself or "hypokeimenon" [7], literally “that which underlies or lies beneath” the universals (first of all species and genus) in which it falls and the accidents which inhere in it.

  • Secondary ousía ("deutérā ousíā", pl. "deúterai ousíai") is the species (first of all) and the genus to which the particular subject belongs.

Metaphysics, book VII/Zeta [8]

  • Primary ousía is the essence of the particular entity, which is its form, while the particular entity, the composite of form and matter, is ousía in a derivative sense. (The Aristotelian expression that the Latins translated as "essentia" is "to ti ên einai", "the what it was to be", although sometimes he uses the shorter expression "to ti esti", "the what it is".)

  • Species and genus are not ousía.

A question arises at this point: Is for Aristotle the form of a particular entity a particular or a universal? This, in conjunction with his statement in Z.13 that no universal is ousía, is the most disputed issue regarding Aristotle's Metaphysics, and has given rise to a whole field of Aristotelian exegesis, in which the main lines are [9] [10]:

  • Forms are not universal, and each particular entity has its own form which resides in that entity, so that all individuals of a given species have forms which are identical to one another but numerically different.

  • Forms are universal, and Z.13 actually does not exclude them as ousía.

Since the second line is basically a reversion to Platonism, IMO it is extremely implausible that it may reflect Aristotle's personal position.

Summarizing the answers that Aristotle gives to the question "What is primary ousía?":

  • Categories: the particular entity or "hypokeimenon", the subject which underlies all predicates and cannot be predicated of anything else.

  • Metaphysics: the essence of the particular entity, which is its form, which may be understood in a particular or a universal sense.

2. Hypostasis, the original cognate of substantia

Etymologically [1] [2],

hypostasis = hypó ("under") + stásis ("a standing" = (hístēmi ("to stand") + -sis, verbal noun suffix)) = "that which stands under"

is a direct cognate of [3] [4] [5] [6]:

substantia = sub ("under") + stans ("standing", present active participle of stō ("stand")) = "that which stands under".

According to [7], the first recorded use of hypostasis as "substance" was in the book "On the cause of plants" by Aristotle's successor Theophrastus (c. 371 - c. 287 BC), while the term may have been introduced in the philosophical discourse either by the Stoic Poseidonius (c. 135 BC - c. 51 BC) according to some, or by the Epicurean Demetrius Lacon (fl. late 2nd century BC) according to others, in both cases with the meaning of objective or concrete existence or reality. Thus, real entities were said to "have hypostasis", whereas merely apparent or imaginary entities did not.

Recalling at this point that both the Stoic and the Epicurean philosophical schools were materialistic, the first conceiving the all-pervading Logos as a subtle fiery aether and the second conceiving reality as consisting just of atoms and void, it is clear that, to the extent that they used the term ousía, they would not have used it in the sense of form understood as universal or even in the sense of form at all, but in the sense of the individual, particular, concrete entity, the "hypokeimenon", “that which underlies or lies beneath”, which clearly overlaps with the meaning of hypostasis. Therefore, it is clear that for both Stoics and Epicureans the terms ousía and hypostasis were synonyms, but that was due to the specific sense in which both schools understood ousía.

Introducing now the Latins, who were now becoming interested in philosophy, into the picture:

Since, per linguistic design, substantia = hypostasis,

and, per Stoic and Epicurean understanding of ousía, hypostasis = ousía,

then, for the Latin-speaking Stoic- and Epicurean-dominated culture, substantia = ousía.

This was precisely the case of Tertullian, who was heavily influenced by Stoic metaphysics and coined the formula "tres Personae, una Substantia" early in the III century, after which substantia came to mean, among Latin-speaking Christians, the single infinite spirit that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have in common, which is the meaning of ousía in the Nicene sense, as we will see next.

5. The "one ousía" answer to Arianism, its modalistic and tritheistic risks, and Nicaea's "one hypostasis" as prevention of the second.

Since Arians denied that the Son and the Father were one, they had to interpret Jesus' words "I and the Father are one." (Jn 10:30) in the sense of only moral oneness and not ontological oneness. To counter that eisegesis, the orthodox sought for the right word to add to Jn 10:30 to convey unequivocally the sense of ontological oneness: "I and the Father are one"... what?

We arrive at the same question from four key statements by Jesus of his divinity that were not mentioned in the previous section: the 4 times in which He explicitely applied to Himself the divine Name in the first person revealed in Ex 3:14: "Ehyeh", "Ego Eimí", I Am": Jn 8:24,28,58 & 13:19. If each of the Father and the Son names Himself "Ego Eimí", "I Am", then Each is a distinct "I" but Both are the same... what?

The natural answer to that question was the term ousía, which derived precisely from the verb "eimí", "to be". So, the initial orthodox answer to the Arian challenge was: the Father and the Son are one ousía and two prósōpa, one being and two persons. Now, each term in that answer, ousía and prósōpon, was at risk of misinterpretation resulting in another heresy.

The risk of misinterpretation of ousía came from the fact that the philosophical stage at the beginning of the IV century was very different from that of around 70 AD when the Letter to the Hebrews was written. Platonism had come back with Plotinus (204-270) and Porphyry (234-305), and with it the notions of forms and universals and therefore the issue of the exact meaning of ousía. Let us recall from section 1 that ousía had entered the philosophical discourse, some 700 years before Nicaea, not as a definition but as a question to be answered, and for which Aristotle had provided two different answers, one in the Categories and another in the Metaphysics, the second of which could in turn be interpreted in two different ways:

C: the individual, particular, concrete subject or "hypokeimenon", “that which underlies or lies beneath”;

M1: the essence or form, understood as particular;

M2: the essence or form, understood as universal.

Each of these senses of ousía led to a different sense of the statement that the Father and the Son were "homoousious", "of the same ousía":

C: They were the same particular, concrete subject.

M1: They had the same essence or form, understood as particular.

M2: They had the same essence or form, understood as universal.

It is easy to see that, while sense C amounts to modalism, sense M2 amounts to tritheism, since the case would be the same as stating that three horses have the same essence or form. It was probably to prevent the risk of understanding ousía as a universal of which there were multiple instances, or equivalently, of understanding the expression "of the same ousía" in the sense of only qualitative identity instead of numerical identity, that the Nicaea fathers added hypostasis - which, as we saw in section 2, had the meaning of objective or concrete existence or reality - as synonym of ousía, anathematizing those who asserted that the Son of God "is of another hypostasis or ousía" [1] [2]. Since substantia was originally the cognate and equivalent of hypostasis, making hypostasis equivalent to ousía (M1) reinforced the Western understanding of substantia as the Latin equivalent of ousía (M1) that had begun with Tertullian.

Whereas the addition of hypostasis as synonym of ousía effectively prevented the M2 sense of ousía as universal, which leads to tritheism, it in effect promoted the C sense - which is evident from the etymological equivalence of hypostasis, literally "that which stands under", with hypokeimenon - which leads to modalism.

Which takes us precisely to the risk of misinterpretation of prósōpon, which came from the fact that it meant "face", "mask" or "character in a theatrical play" [3]. Thus modalists could claim that they were in complete agreement with the definition of Nicaea.

6. The three Hypostases formula: appearance, toleration by St. Athanasius and resistance by St. Jerome.

As noted in section 3, the use of hypostasis as synonym of ousía, so that the Father and the Son were said to be "of the same hypostasis", was inconsistent with the sense of hypostasis in Heb 1:3, since that passage necessarily implies - from the very notion of "charaktēr" as impressed image or copy, reproduction, representation - that the Son is or has a numerically different hypostasis from that of the Father, irrespective of what hypostasis may mean.

It was not this consideration, however, what motivated orthodox theologians to advocate formulating trinitarian doctrine in terms of three hypostases, but the realization that using all the terms that can convey a sense of objective reality - i.e. hypostasis and ousía - to denote the common being of the Father and the Son amounted to leaving the door open for modalists to claim that they were in full agreement with the dogmatic definitions of the Church.

The notion of three Hypostases had been introduced in Christian theology by Origen and had been used also by his former student St. Dionysius of Alexandria. Its first documented use after Nicaea was by (also Alexandrian) St. Athanasius, in his work "In Illud Omnia", written probably c. 335 [1] [2]:

"For the fact of those venerable living creatures [Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8] offering their praises three times, saying 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' proves that the three Hypostases are perfect, just as in saying 'Lord,' they declare the one Ousía."

After that, the expression was not used again by St. Athanasius, in deference to the anathema of Nicaea [1], but was used by non-Nicene bishops, e.g. in the Dedication creed of the council of Antioch of 341 and in a letter by the homoiousian bishop George of Laodicea in 359. But by the time of the Council of Alexandria of 362, presided by St. Athanasius, the expression was already being used by people holding homoousian orthodoxy, as attested by the letter to the Church in Antioch written by that Council, known as "Tomus ad Antiochenos" [3] [4], which acknowledged that both expressions, "three hypostases" and "one hypostasis", could used in a sense consistent with homoousian orthodoxy.

In stark contrast with St. Athanasius in the Council of Alexandria of 362, St. Jerome, in his epistle 15 to Pope St. Damasus, written in 376 or 377 [5] [6] [7], manifests his deep trouble with the use of the formula "three hypostases".

7. The three Hypostases formula: proposal by St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa and increasingly official Church adoption since 382.

After Nicaea, the first orthodox theologian to propose a notion of hypostasis distinct from that of ousía in a published work was St. Basil of Caesarea (330-379), and he does it in his epistles 214 (375) to Count Terentius [1] and 236 (376) to Amphilochius [2]. In both letters, the main motive for using hypostasis as synonym of Person is that, if the orthodox keep speaking of one hypostasis, they set the stage for the Arians to accuse them of Sabellianism (modalism).

St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) devotes his epistle 35 (c. 380) addressed to his brother Peter - which is often referred to as St. Basil's epistle 38 to his brother Gregory - to the difference between ousía and hypostasis. St. Gregory starts by distinguishing between the common or general and the particular, and provides a definition of hypostasis [3].

In 381, i.e. around one year after Gregory's letter to Peter, the second Ecumenical Council convened in Constantinople, and the next year, i.e 382, a synod of bishops assembled in that city and sent a Synodical Letter to Pope Damasus and other Western bishops, which is the first official (though not ecumenical) Church document speaking of three Hypostases [4]:

Letter from the Constantinople Synod of 382 to Pope Damasus

What we have undergone — persecutions, afflictions, imperial threats, cruelty from officials, and whatever other trial at the hands of heretics — we have put up with for the sake of the gospel faith established by the 318 fathers at Nicaea in Bithynia. You, we and all who are not bent on subverting the word of the true faith should give this creed our approval. It is the most ancient and is consistent with our baptism. It tells us how to believe in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: believing also, of course, that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have a single Godhead and power and substance, a dignity deserving the same honour and a co-eternal sovereignty, in three most perfect Hypostases, or three perfect Persons. So there is no place for Sabellius’s diseased theory in which the hypostases are confused and thus their proper characteristics destroyed.

End of quote from the Constantinople Synod of 382.

In 431 the third Ecumenical Council convened in Ephesus. The third letter of St. Cyril of Alexandria to Nestorius, which was read at the council and included in the proceedings, spoke of the Hypostases of the Word and of the Holy Spirit [5]:

St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his 3rd letter to Nestorius

All the expressions, therefore, that occur in the gospels are to be referred to one Person, the one enfleshed Hypostasis of the Word.

For even though the Spirit exists in his own Hypostasis and is thought of on his own, as being Spirit and not as Son, even so He is not alien to the Son.

End of quote from St. Cyril.

In 451 the fourth Ecumenical Council convened in Chalcedon and proclaimed a Christological definition which contains all the terms considered so far: ousía, prosopon, hypostasis, and nature [6] [7].

Finally, in 553 the fifth Ecumenical Council convened in Constantinople and proclaimed a series of trinitarian and Christological definitions, the first of which explicitely identifies ousía with physis and hypostasis with prosopon [7].


Section 1

[4] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CE%BF%E1%BD%90%CF%83%CE%AF%CE%B1

[5] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CE%BF%CF%85%CF%83%CE%AF%CE%B1

[6] Studtmann, Paul, "Aristotle's Categories", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/aristotle-categories/

[7] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/hupokeimenon

[8] Cohen, S. Marc, "Aristotle's Metaphysics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/aristotle-metaphysics/

[9] Loux, Michael J., "Primary Ousia: an essay on Aristotle's Metaphysics Z and H", Cornell University Press, 2008. https://books.google.com/books?id=1DOIpuLnrnIC

[10] Cohen, S. Marc, "Z.13: Substances and Universals", 2008. https://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/433/Z13Lecture.pdf

Section 2

[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BD%91%CF%80%CF%8C

[2] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%83%CF%84%CE%AC%CF%83%CE%B9%CF%82

[3] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/substantia

[4] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sub#Latin

[5] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/stans#Latin

[6] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sto#Latin

[7] Ute Possekel, "Evidence of Greek philosophical concepts in the writings of Ephrem the Syrian", Peeters Publishers, Louvain, 1999. https://books.google.com/books?id=rZ3gGQuJUS4C

Section 5

[1] http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/creed_of_nicaea_325.htm

[2] http://www.fourthcentury.com/urkunde-24/

[3] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%80%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%83%CF%89%CF%80%CE%BF%CE%BD

Section 6

[1] Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction, Ashgate Publishing, 2007. https://books.google.com/books?id=SGOpA_MjSUgC

[2] https://www.elpenor.org/athanasius/in-illud-omnia.asp?pg=7

[3] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Oct 28, 2004. https://books.google.com/books?id=iT4VDAAAQBAJ

[4] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2818.htm

[5] The Letters of Saint Jerome, Aeterna Press, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=iTwIDAAAQBAJ

[6] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001015.htm

[7] http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/main/jerome/jerome_ep_15_tres_hypostases.shtml For the quoted passage, I used this Latin text to improve the accuracy of the English translation in the previous two references.

Section 7

[1] https://www.elpenor.org/basil/letters-3.asp

[2] https://www.elpenor.org/basil/letters-3.asp?pg=39

[3] https://www.scribd.com/document/212698195/Letter-35

[4] http://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum02.htm

[5] http://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum03.htm

[6] Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, The acts of the Council of Chalcedon, Liverpool University Press, 2005. https://books.google.com/books?id=6IUaOOT1G3UC

[7] Pavouris, Raphael (2001), The condemnation of the Christology of the three chapters in its historical and doctrinal context: the assessment and judgement of Emperor Justinian and the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553). PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. http://theses.gla.ac.uk/1503/

Article from which the above has been extracted: http://ousiakaihypostasis.blogspot.com

  • 3
    You have not included any references. Are the bracketed numbers references ? In which case could you include the source of the reference. please ?
    – Nigel J
    Jul 29, 2020 at 20:48
  • Done. Thank you for pointing it out.
    – Johannes
    Jul 29, 2020 at 22:14
  • I know the response is lengthy for this site, and that's precisely the reason why I originally left out the references, though your previous comment made me realize that they should be included. Now, I do not think it can be further shortened. Note that I left out the quotes from the Antiochene Tome, St. Jerome, St. Basil, St.Gregory and the Council of Chalcedon.
    – Johannes
    Jul 29, 2020 at 22:54
  • The question IS about a "historical complication" of a philosophical and linguistic nature. If the subject is not explained adequately, it is not possible to understand why hypostasis was first used as a synonym of ousía in Nicaea and then as a synonym of divine Person from 382 onward, or why substantia, a direct cognate of hypostasis, ended up having the meaning of ousía.
    – Johannes
    Jul 29, 2020 at 23:12
  • 4
    @Johannes No need to be defensive about long answers, we love long answers on complex topics here!
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 30, 2020 at 1:28

The Wikipedia article on Hypostasis makes it clear that there was some confusion in terminology due to language difficulties of Latin, Greek and English.

The concepts being referred to are confused by misunderstanding what 'substance' and 'essence' actually mean when applied to Divine Persons.

It was mainly under the influence of the Cappadocian Fathers that the terminology was clarified and standardized so that the formula "three hypostases in one ousia" came to be accepted as an epitome of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.[5] Specifically, Basil of Caesarea argues that the two terms are not synonymous and that they, therefore, are not to be used indiscriminately in referring to the godhead. He writes:

The distinction between ousia and hypostases is the same as that between the general and the particular; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man. Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give variant definition of existence, but we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear.[5]

This consensus, however, was not achieved without some confusion at first in the minds of Western theologians since in the West the vocabulary was different. Many Latin-speaking theologians understood hypo-stasis as "sub-stantia" (substance); thus when speaking of three "hypostases" in the godhead, they might suspect three "substances" or tritheism. However, from the middle of the fifth century onwards, marked by Council of Chalcedon, the word came to be contrasted with ousia and used to mean "individual reality," especially in the trinitarian and Christological contexts. The Christian concept of the Trinity is often described as being one god existing in three distinct hypostases/personae/persons.[6]

I have always avoided the confusion of 'substance' and 'essence' (in relation to the immaterial and metaphysical) and I prefer to express (of That which is Spirit) 'nature' and 'Person'. The divine nature is shared by three Persons, in One, Holy, Spirit, is how my own faith apprehends the Deity


Ousia and Hypostasis in the Nicene Creed

Trinity Doctrine

R.P.C. Hanson defines the basics of the Trinity doctrine as one ousia (substance or Being) existing as three hypostases (Persons):

“The champions of the Nicene faith … developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word' Person'), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson Lecture)

Hanson says that the term 'Person', in this context, is 'misleading':

  • In normal English usage, each person has his or her own mind and will. Each person is a distinct center of consciousness.

  • In contrast, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one Being with one single mind and will.

The term 'Person', therefore, does not accurately describe what a hypostasis in the traditional Trinity doctrine is. Nevertheless, Hanson himself often uses the term and this article also uses the term because most people are familiar with it.

In contrast to the traditional Trinity doctrine, some modern theologians propose that the Trinity is "three Centres of Consciousness" (RH, 737), but that view is not considered in this article.

Nicene Creed AD 325

“One of the most striking aspects of Nicaea in comparison to surviving baptismal creeds from the period, and even in comparison to the creed which survives from the council of Antioch in early 325, is its use of the technical terminology of ousia and hypostasis.” (LA, 92)

While the Trinity doctrine uses the terms ousia and hypostases for very different concepts, the Nicene Creed seems to use these terms as synonyms when it anathematizes those who say that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia than the “one God Father Almighty:”

"But as for those ... who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance ... these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes." (Early Church Texts)

Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis. (LA, 88) R.P.C. Hanson says that the Nicene Creed "apparently (but not quite certainly) identifies hypostasis and ousia.” (RH, 188)

If the Creed does use these terms as synonyms, it does not teach the Trinity doctrine in which God is one ousia existing as three hypostases.

An even more serious problem is that the anathema seems to say that the Son is the same hypostasis (Person) as the Father. That would be Sabellianism, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis:

“By the standard of later orthodoxy, as achieved in the Creed of Constantinople of 381, it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition, because the Son must be of a different hypostasis (i.e. 'Person') from the Father.” (RH, 167)

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (Hanson's Lecture)


The first purpose of this article, therefore, is to determine whether the Creed does use those terms as synonyms. For that purpose, it discusses how those terms were used during the centuries before Nicaea and when the Arian Controversy began.

The article also attempts to determine, if these terms are used as synonyms, whether they mean 'Person' or 'substance'. In other words, whether that anathema teaches Sabellianism.

The Holy Spirit

That anathema does not mention the Holy Spirit, just as the Creed does not say that the Holy Spirit is “God” or that the Spirit is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father.” The Nicene Creed, in its AD 325-form, focused on the Son. For that reason, this article does likewise.


This article is largely based on the following recent writings of world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy:

  • Hanson - A lecture by R.P.C. Hanson in 1981 on the Arian Controversy.

  • RH = Bishop RPC Hanson The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God - The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

  • RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

  • LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004 Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Before Nicaea

How were these terms used in the centuries before Nicaea?


Etymologically (i.e., relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings), hypostasis and ousia are direct cognates (See - Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils). That means that these two words have the same linguistic derivation, just like the English father, the German Vater and the Latin pater are cognates. In other words, originally, therefore, hypostasis and ousia had the same meaning.

Greek Philosophy

The authors of the Nicene Creed derived these terms from Greek philosophy:

“Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (RH, 182) 

Hanson refers to hypostasis and ousia as “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (RH, 846)

In Greek Philosophy:

“Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else” (Hypostasis - Wikipedia)

Note that both the words hypostasis and ousia (substance) appear in this definition. Basically, a hypostasis is a substance. Ancient Greek philosophers used these terms as synonyms for "the fundamental reality that supports all else," namely, the primary, fundamental kind of being, in contrast to the objects in the sensible world which are mere shadows. In other words, in a Christian context, we perhaps might refer to this concept as the Ultimate Reality or God.

In the Bible


The Bible never refers to God’s ousia. (For a definition of the term, see - The Free Dictionary or Liddell & Scott.)


“The word occurs five times in the New Testament” (RH, 182):

  • In the four instances, it does NOT refer to God and is translated as 'confidence' and ‘assurance’ (2 Cor 9:4; 11:17; Heb 3:14; 11:1); consistent with the concept of 'fundamental reality' in Greek philosophy.

  • The only place where the term hypostasis is used to describe God is Hebrews 1:3. (RH, 182) There “the Son is described as the impression [exact image] of the Father's hypostasis.” (RH, 187, 182)

Although hypostasis, today, is commonly understood to mean “Person,” in this verse, it is translated as "substance" (ASV) or as “nature” (NASB). “It denotes God's being or nature.” (RH, 182) This shows again that these terms were used as synonyms.

Furthermore, in this verse, similar to ancient Greek philosophy, hypostasis refers to the Ultimate Reality, of which His Son is "the exact representation."

“The word also occurs twenty times in the LXX (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), but only one of them can be regarded as theologically significant.” “At Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God's hypostasis, meaning his nature; and no doubt this is why Hebrews uses the term 'impression of his nature'.” (RH, 182)


The Bible cannot be used to justify the terms ousia and hypostasis in the Nicene Creed:

“The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they try to show that the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really to be found in Scripture.” (RH, 846)


“Tertullian at the turn of the second to the third centuries had already used the Latin word substantia (substance) of God … God therefore had a body and indeed was located at the outer boundaries of space. … It was possible for Tertullian to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sharing this substance, so that the relationship of the Three is, in a highly refined sense, corporeal. … He can use the expression Unius substantiae ('of one substance'). This has led some scholars to see Tertullian as an exponent of Nicene orthodoxy before Nicaea … But this is a far from plausible theory. Tertullian’s materialism is … a totally different thing from any ideas of ousia or homoousios canvassed during the fourth century.” (RH, 184)

Elsewhere, Tertullian states:

"For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole" (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9).

In other words, for Tertullian, the Son is part of the Father, which is the definition of Sabellianism.


Origen wrote at the beginning of the third century. He was the most influential writer of the first three centuries. "The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen." (Bible.ca, quoting W.H.C. Frend)

Origen used these terms as synonyms. While ousia is understood today as "substance," Origen used both terms for the Persons of the Trinity. For example:

He “used hypostasis and ousia freely as interchangeable terms to describe the Son's distinct reality within the Godhead." (RH, 185)

“For Origen the words hypostasis … and ousia are … synonyms for … distinct individual entity." (RH, 66-67)

"He can say … that the Son is 'different in ousia' from the Father, meaning that he is a distinct entity from the Father." (RH, 66-67)

"He taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (RH, 184)

While Origen wrote that the Son is "separate in hypostasis or ousia from the Father" (RH, 66-67), the Nicene Creed states the exact opposite and condemns those who say that He “is of a different hypostasis or substance.”


In the time before the Arian Controversy:

  • The two terms were used as synonyms.
  • Both terms were used for the Persons of the Trinity.

Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance." (RW, 164)

In other words, ousia was NOT used for the substance of God, as the Nicene Creed seems to do when it says that the Son was begotten from the ousia of God.

When the Controversy began


After discussing several examples, our authors conclude:

“Considerable confusion existed about the use of the terms hypostasis and ousia at the period when the Arian Controversy broke out.” (RH, 181)

“Several alternative ways of treating these terms were prevalent.” (RH, 184)

“The ambiguous anathema in N (the Nicene Creed) against those who believe that the Son is 'from another hypostasis or ousia than the Father' … (is one example) of this unfortunate semantic misunderstanding.” (RH, 181)

"That continuing terminological confusion is reflected in the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis." (LA, 98)


Nevertheless, for most people, the terms were synonyms:

“For many people at the beginning of the fourth century the word hypostasis and the word ousia had pretty well the same meaning.” (RH, 181)

“For at least the first half of the period 318-381, and in some cases considerably later, ousia and hypostasis are used as virtual synonyms.” (RH, 183)

“It is only much later in the century that the two are more clearly distinguished by some.” (LA, 98)

Even for Athanasius, some decades after the Controversy began, “hypostasis and ousia were still synonymous.” (RH, 440)

Therefore, when dealing with documents from or before the beginning of the Arian Controversy, including the Nicene Creed:

These two terms "did not mean, and should not be translated, 'person' and 'substance', as they were used when at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words.” (RH, 181)

One vs Three Hypostasis Views

Although theologians, generally, regarded the two terms as synonyms, they were divided into ‘one hypostasis’ and ‘three hypostasis’ views:

Three Hypostases

Following Origen, the Eusebians (the so-called Arians) said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases (three distinct Realities), each with his own ousia.

One Hypostasis

The Sabellians, on the other hand, said that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis and one single ousia, meaning that they are one single Being:

Among the pre-Nicene church fathers, Bishop Dionysius of Rome (in the middle of the third century) “said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy 'into three … separated hypostases and three Godheads'; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (RH, 185)

In the fourth century, the Sabellians Eustathian and Marcellus were famous for this teaching.

The “’one hypostasis’ of the Godhead was to become the slogan and rallying-cry of the continuing Eustathians.” (RH, 213)

“One point about Marcellus which is unequivocally clear is that he believed that God constituted only one hypostasis.” (RH, 229-230)

As discussed in another article, Athanasius also fell into this category. The “clear inference from his (Athanasius’) usage” is that “there is only one hypostasis in God.” (LA, 48)

Nicene Creed

The Wikipedia page on the Nicene Creed translates 'hypostasis or ousia' with two words that are more or less synonyms: "substance' or 'essence." That seems like an acknowledgment that the two terms were synonyms.

But why did those translators choose 'substance' rather than 'Person'? As discussed above, during the centuries before Nicaea, these terms were synonyms for 'Person'; rather than for 'substance':

  • To translate these two terms with 'Person' would imply Sabellianism. So, perhaps the translators attempted to avoid that impression.

  • Alternatively, the anathema says that the Son is not of a different hypostasis or substance. With the double negatives removed, it says that the Son is of the same hypostasis or substance as the Father. It is possible, therefore, that the translators assumed that the anathema is another way of saying homoousios (same substance) and, for that reason, translated these terms with "substance' or 'essence."


Before Nicaea

During the centuries before Nicaea and when the Nicene Creed was formulated, hypostasis and ousia were indeed used as synonyms. Ousia did not mean ‘substance’, as we use the term today. Rather, both hypostasis and ousia meant “person.”

No Trinity Doctrine

The Nicene Creed indeed seems to use the two terms as synonyms. Therefore, since the distinction between ousia and hypostases is foundational in the Trinity doctrine, the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine. Hanson concludes, at the time of Nicaea:

“The concept of what each Person of the Trinity is in his existence and proper form distinct from the others had not yet been distinguished from the concept of what all of them were as full and equal (or even as partial and unequal) sharers of the Godhead.” (RH, 190)

“The concept of what we would now call the 'Persons' of the Trinity … had barely dawned on the consciousness of theologians.” (RH, 190)

As confirmation that the Nicene Creed does not teach the Trinity doctrine, Lewis Ayres makes a distinction between ‘pro-Nicene’ theology and 'Nicene theology':

“By ‘pro-Nicene’ I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … These theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (LA, 6)


Whether the Creed teaches Sabellianism is perhaps impossible to say. The people at the council were divided into different factions and the minority faction of Alexander was able to dominate because the emperor had taken their side. Alexander, as argued in another article, was a Sabellian. So, perhaps he intended the Creed to reflect Sabellianism.

The majority, on the other hand, glossed the technical terms to fit their views. They, certainly, did not explain the Creed as Sabellian.

Who made the distinction?

“When at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words,” hypostasis and ousia respectively meant “'person' and 'substance'.” (RH, 181)

When and by whom were these changes made? 

The Cappadocians

It is often said that it was the Cappadocian fathers - particularly Basil of Caesarea – who, more than 40 years after Nicaea, for the first time made a distinction between person and substance. For example:

“The first person to propose a difference in the meanings of hypostasis and ousía, and for using hypostasis as synonym of Person, was Basil of Caesarea” [Johannes, "Ousía and hypostasis from the philosophers to the councils"].

“Basil's most distinguished contribution towards the resolving of the dispute about the Christian doctrine of God was in his clarification of the vocabulary.” (RH, 690)

Basil “is often identified” with the “distinction between a unitary shared nature at one level, and the personal distinctions of Father, Son, and Spirit at another.” (LA, 190-191)

Basil's Innovation

What was Basil's innovation? Compare his views with those before him:

  • Athanasius taught that Father and Son are one single substance (one single Person).

  • As mentioned above, the anti-Nicene taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct substances (three Persons), with three different types or grades of substance.

Basil did not yet understand God as one undivided ousia (substance), as in the Trinity doctrine. Basil's innovation was to propose three distinct substances that are the same type of substance in all respects. He proposed, just like Peter, Paul, and John were three instances of humanity, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three instances of divinity. In his view, there is only one substance in the sense that the Son does not have a lower form of divinity or substance, but that all three Persons have the same type of substance.

The Eusebians were first.

The ancient philosophers used 'substance' for the Ultimate Reality. The previous section shows that Basil, in contrast, used 'substance' in the sense of the material a Being consists of. But he was not the first to use 'substance' in that sense. The Eusebians; some decades before the Cappadocians, already made a distinction between hypostasis and ousia and used ousia in that sense:

Arius used hypostasis for a "distinct individual reality’:

He “spoke readily of the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” For example, he said that the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “were different in kind and in rank.” (RH, 187)

And he used ousia for "substance.“ He wrote, for example:

“The Father is alien in ousia to the Son” (RH, 186), and “The Logos is alien and unlike in all respects to the Father's ousia.” (RH, 186)

Hanson concludes:

“It seems likely that he was one of the few during this period who did not confuse the two.” (RH, 187)

Another leading “Arian” “who clearly did not confuse ousia and hypostasis” was Asterius. (RH, 187) He used hypostasis for ‘Person’:

He “said that there were three hypostases” and “certainly taught that the Father and the Son were distinct and different in their hypostases.” (RH, 187)

He used ousia for 'substance':

"He also described the Son as 'the exact image of the ousia and counsel and glory and power' of the Father.” (RH, 187)

Who made what change?

So, when and by whom was the change made? In my view, the meanings of the terms did not change. The terms still are synonyms. To explain:

When the Arian Controversy began, theologians were divided into 'one hypostasis' and 'three hypostases' camps.

In contrast, the Trinity Doctrine, as it was developed later, describes God BOTH as One and as Three and it uses synonyms for what God is as one and for what God is as three.

For example, the Trinity doctrine does not use the term ousia (substance) to refer to the material substance of a Being (as the Eusebians and Basil did) but to refer to the entire Being. The Trinity doctrine still uses ousia for what it always meant; "the fundamental reality that supports all else;" the Being that we know as the Ultimate Reality. When the Creed says that the Son is of the same substance as the Father (homoousios), the Trinity doctrine interprets this as saying that Father and Son are one single Being; not that they are two Beings with the same substance.

Hypostasis also did not change in meaning. “For Origen the words hypostasis … and ousia are … synonyms for … distinct individual entity." (RH, 66-67) The Eusebians followed the practice. So, to say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, as the traditional Trinity doctrine does, is not a change in meaning.

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