Ousia and Hypostasis in the Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed of AD 325 seems to use the terms hypostasis (Person) and ousia (substance) as synonyms when it anathematizes those who say that the “Son of God” is of a different hypostasis or ousia than the “one God Father Almighty.” That would also mean that the Son is the same hypostasis (Person) as the Father, which would contradict the Trinity doctrine, in which the Father and Son are two distinct Persons but one substance or Being. In fact, that anathema seems to teach Sabellianism in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one single hypostasis (Person).
To explain these terms, this article shows that, during the centuries before Nicaea and during most of the Arian Controversy, hypostasis and ousia were indeed used as synonyms. Although there was, during that period, significant confusion about the meaning of these terms, ousia did not mean “substance.” Rather, both hypostasis and ousia were used for “Person.”
It was mainly under the influence of the Cappadocian Fathers, in particular Basil of Caesarea, after the year 360, that the terminology was standardized so that the formula ‘three hypostases in one ousia’ came to be accepted as an epitome of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
The Cappadocians proposed these more specific meanings because, in contrast to the Sabellians, they recognized three distinct Realities (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) but regarded them as equal in every respect. However, then the anti-Nicenes would object that that implies three First Principles (three Beings who exist without cause and who gave existence to all else). So, they proposed the distinction to say the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Realities (Persons) but only one First Principle (ousia).
In other words, Basil did not simply propose specific meanings for the two terms. His purpose was to formulate a distinction between the three distinct Realities (Persons) and the one First Principle and assigned meanings to the terms to assist with that distinction.
But when the Nicene Creed was formulated, this distinction did not yet clearly exist. Hypostasis and ousia did not yet mean “Person” and “substance” respectively. When the Creed was formulated, the two terms still had pretty must the same meaning and both meant ‘person'. Therefore:
Firstly, the Nicene Creed does indeed use the two terms as synonyms
and that anathema does indeed imply Sabellianism.
Secondly, since that distinction is the epitome of the Trinity
doctrine, the Trinity doctrine did not yet exist when the Nicene Creed
The Nicene Creed of AD 325 anathematizes those who say that the “Son of God,” compared to the “one God Father Almighty,”
“Is of a different hypostasis (ὑποστάσεως) or substance (οὐσιάς,
transliterated as ousia).” (Early Church Texts)
The terms “ousia and hypostasis” are “one of the most striking aspects of Nicaea.” These terms have not appeared in any previous creed and also do not appear in the creed formulated just a few months earlier at Antioch. (LA, 92) Hanson describes them as “new terms” (RH, 846).
The anathema seems to use the terms hypostasis and ousia as synonyms:
Ayres refers to “the seeming equation of ousia and hypostasis (LA,
R.P.C. Hanson says that “N (the Nicene Creed) ... apparently (but not
quite certainly) identifies hypostasis and ousia” (RH, 187).
Consequently, the anathema seems to say that the Son of God is the same hypostasis (Person) as the “one God Father Almighty." This would be a contradiction of the Trinity doctrine in which the Father and the Son are:
- Two different hypostases (Persons)
- In one ousia (Being or substance).
In fact, by describing the Father and the Son as the same hypostasis AND as the same ousía, that anathema seems to teach Sabellianism in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of one single ‘Person’. R.P.C. Hanson says of the condemnation quoted above:
“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. And in fact there were present at the
Council people, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who were quite ready to
maintain that there is only one hypostasis in the Godhead, and who
were later to be deposed for heresy because they believed this.” (RH,
167) (“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite
properly be called Sabellian” (RH, ix))
“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)
The Holy Spirit
This anathema does not mention the Holy Spirit, just as the Creed does not say that the Holy Spirit is “God” or “of one substance with the Father.” The Nicene Creed, in its 325-form, focused on the Son. For that reason, this article also focuses only on the Father and Son.
The purpose of this article is to determine whether that is really what the Creed says. For that purpose, it explains how these terms were used in the time leading up to the Nicene and in the rest of the fourth century. From this analysis, we can conclude whether the Nicene Creed teaches or contradicts the Trinity doctrine.
This article uses the following codes for referring to the books of three world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century 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
As far as possible, I quote from these scholars but I also want to explain these complex principles as simple as possible. For that reason, I sometimes abbreviate or paraphrase what they wrote.
Centuries before Nicaea
This section discusses how these terms were 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.
In Greek Philosophy
“Hypostasis … became a key-word in Platonism.” (RH, 182) Hanson says hypostasis and ousia were “borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846).
Ancient Greek philosophers also used these terms as synonyms. They used both ousía and hypostasis as meaning:
- "That which stands under;" and
- "The fundamental reality that supports all else."
- The primary, fundamental kind of being, in contrast to the objects in the sensible world which are mere shadows.
In other words, they used these terms to describe God.
In the Bible
The Bible does not use these terms to describe God. Hanson says:
“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)
The Bible never uses ousia to describe God. For a definition, see - The Free Dictionary or Liddell & Scott.
“The word occurs five times in the New Testament” (RH, 182):
In the four instances where it is used NOT with reference to God, it 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 fifth instance is Hebrews 1:3, in which “the Son is described as the impression (character) of the Father's hypostasis and this must mean his nature.” (RH, 187) “It denotes God's being or nature.” (RH, 182)
The word hypostasis also appears once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament:
“In the LXX, … at Wisdom 16:21 the writer speaks of God's hypostasis,
meaning his nature.” (RH, 182)
Note that, while hypostasis, today, is commonly understood to mean “Person,” in these two verses it is mostly translated as the "nature" of God (BibleHub).
In Origen's writings
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):
“For Origen the words hypostasis … and ousia are … synonyms for the
same thing - distinct individual entity." (RH, 66-67)
He “used hypostasis and ousia freely as interchangeable terms to
describe the Son's distinct reality within the Godhead." (RH, 185)
As an example where Origen used these as interchangeable terms (synonyms), he "can argue … that the Logos is … separate in hypostasis or ousia from the Father." (RH, 66-67)
As an example where Origen used these terms for a "distinct reality" (a Person, we might say), "he taught that there were three hypostases within the Godhead.” (RH, 184)
However, while Origen wrote that the Son is "separate in hypostasis or ousia from the Father" (RH, 66-67), the Nicene Creed states the opposite and condemns those who say that He “is of a different hypostasis or substance.
So, while ousia is understood today as "substance," Origen used it for "Person" (a distinct reality):
"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)
"His statement … that the Son 'does not differ' in ousia from the
Father does not … mean that the ousiai of the Father and Son are
identical; the subsequent passage makes it perfectly clear … that they
are distinct. But Origen means that they are not unlike, not of
different natures.” (RH, 66-67)
Dionysius of Rome
Bishop Dionysius of Rome (in the middle of the third century) also used hypostases for ‘distinct individual entity’. For example, he “said that it is wrong to divide the divine monarchy 'into three sorts of … separated hypostases and three Godheads'; people who hold this in effect produce three gods.” (RH, 185)
So, in summary:
- In terms of origin, hypostasis and ousia are cognates (the same or similar nature), just like the English father and the German Vater.
- Greek Philosophy used them as synonyms for "the fundamental reality that supports all else” (“God” in modern English).
- The New Testament uses hypostasis once for God’s “nature” but never refers to God’s ousia.
- Origen, a century before Nicaea, used the terms as synonyms for a “distinct individual entity" (a divine Person).
- Bishop Dionysius of Rome, about 60 years before Nicaea, also used hypostases for ‘distinct individual entity’.
Therefore, in the time before the Arian Controversy:
- The two terms were used as synonyms,
- For "a distinct individual entity."
In other words, ousia was NOT used for the substance of God. Williams refers to “the respectable pre-Nicene usage of ousia for primary (individual) substance." (RW, 164)
When the Controversy began
“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)
“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)
“It is … likely that when Narcissus of Neronias at the Council of
Antioch in 325 declared to Ossius that he believed in three ousiai he
was equating ousia with hypostasis.” (RH, 187)
“Eusebius of Caesarea appears to accept the equation of hypostasis and
ousia in the anathema of N quite readily.” (RH, 185)
But with different meanings
However, different authors gave different meanings to the same word. For example:
Eusebius of Nicomedia used ousia to describe the Persons (distinct
individual entities) of the Godhead. For example, he said “there are
two ousiai and two facts (or "things")” (RH, 185-6)
“Eusebius of Caesarea … uses ousia to mean substance.” (RH, 185)
“Alexander of Alexandria … does not use the word ousia, but instead
uses hypostasis for both 'Person' and 'substance'” (RH, 186)
The manifesto of Antioch in 325, shortly before the Nicene Council
“uses hypostasis to mean 'substance' or 'nature'” (RH, 188).
Some used the terms in the “orthodox way.”
“When at last the confusion was cleared up and these two distinct meanings were permanently attached to these words,” hypostasis and ousia meant “'person' and 'substance'.” (RH, 181) But it seems as if some ‘Arians’ already used these terms in that way. Arius, for example:
Said that the hypostases of Father, Son and Holy Spirit “were
different in kind and in rank.” (RH, 187) (In other words, he used
hypostasis for a "distinct individual reality’.)
Wrote, “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) (In these instances, he used ousia for "substance.“)
“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 “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 also described the Son as 'the exact image of the ousia and
counsel and glory and power' of the Father.”
Note also, from these quotes, that Arius thought that “the Father is alien in ousia to the Son,” meaning that the Son's substance is very different from the Father's. In contrast, Asterius said that the Son is "the exact image of the ousia' of the Father.” “He thought that the resemblance of the Son to the Father was closer than Arius conceived.” (RH, 187) As discussed, the so-called 'Arians' were not followers of Arius.
“The state of affairs as regards the use of hypostasis and ousia at the outset of … the Arian Controversy can ... be stated (as) … a general state of indecision and uncertainty as to how either of them should be used:” (RH, 184-185)
Decades after Nicaea
“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)
“The distinction in meaning between ousia and hypostasis (both of
which mean ‘something that subsists’) was worked out only in the late
fourth century.” (Lienhard, Joseph T. Ousia and Hypostasis: The
Cappadocian Settlement and the Theology of ‘One Hypostasis’. Oxford
“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.” (González, Justo L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought)
Hanson similarly says that, even though some (in the time before the Cappadocians) “distinguished hypostasis, meaning distinct reality, from ousia, meaning 'nature' or even 'substance',” this does not mean that they have “anticipated the later meanings of those terms given to them in the second half of the century by the great Cappadoclan theologians.” He gives examples. For example:
“The concept of what we would now call the 'Persons' of the Trinity …
had barely dawned on the consciousness of theologians.” (RH, 190)
“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,
Basil of Caesarea
Basil of Caesarea, one of the three Cappadocians, is in particular credited with this development:
“In some accounts Basil is the architect of the pro-Nicene triumph:”
He “develops an account of the distinctions between persons and
essence of such power that the final victory of pro-Nicene theology
under the Emperor Theodosius is inevitable.” (LA, 187)
“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"), namely in his letter 214 (AD 375)
and Letter 236 (AD 376).
Michael Pomazansky, in discussing the fact that the Nicene Creed uses
the terms hypostasis (person) and ousia (substance) as synonyms,
remarks: “Finally, following the authoritative example of St. Basil
the Great, it became accepted to understand by the word Hypostasis the
Personal attributes in the Triune Divinity.” (Orthodox Dogmatic
Theology, p. 94-95). (Britannica)
Since Basil was born only born after the Creed was formulated (“around 330” (LA, 187)), the distinction between hypostasis and ousia did not yet exist when the Nicene Creed was formulated. In the Council itself, the two terms still had a similar meaning.
It is not just that the meanings of the terms changed; Basil formulated these meanings for these terms to establish the distinction between Being and Person:
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)
This is important because it means that the concept of three Persons in one Being is not to be found in the Nicene Creed.
Why the meanings changed
On pages 189-190, Ayres discusses Basil's motivation for developing the concept that God is one Being but three Persons. In brief:
Firstly, the Sabellians interpreted homoousios as meaning that the
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one single Reality (Person). Basil
did not agree. He wanted to say that they are distinct but the same in
However, then the anti-Nicenes objected that this implies three
Ultimate Principles (three Beings who exist without cause and who are
the cause of all life).
So, Basil developed the distinction to enable him to say they are
three Realities (Persons) but only one Ultimate Principle (ousia).
To quote Ayres more fully:
In Letter 361, Basil seems to have had two concerns “about the difficulty of understanding homoousios appropriately:” (LA, 189)
“On the one hand, Basil may be expressing an anti-Marcellan concern
with homoousios.” (LA, 190) Basil understood the phrase “light from
light” to “speak clearly of two realities.” His concern was that
homoousios may imply “that Father and Son are the same one light;”
(LA, 190) (one single reality), as claimed by the Sabellians and
“On the other hand … it may well be that Basil of Caesarea's concern
in Letter 361 is” “that homoousios implies Father and Son are of
identical ontological status. (In that case) Homoousios is
unacceptable because it implies the existence of two ultimate
principles.” (LA, 190) “To speak of Father and Son as simply having
the same ousia would be … to present him as logically another God.”
“Basil's new distinctions have provided him with an understanding of homoousios that overcomes his earlier concerns.” (LA, 195)
Developed through Epinoia.
In brief, the anti-Nicenes said that the Bible teaches that only the Father exists without cause. Therefore, no other being can be equal to Him. But Basil argued that, if we reflect (epinoia) on certain texts, then "there is a unity of ousia between Father and Son." To quote Ayres more fully:
“Basil's Contra Eunomium,” consisting of “three books,” “probably finished in 363 or 364” (LA, 191) opposed the teachings of Eunomius, the leading ‘Neo-Arian’, also known as a hetero-ousian, meaning that he taught that the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s.
As Ayres discusses on pages 191 and following, Basil and Eunomius had different approaches:
For Eunomius, the main distinction between God and all other beings,
including His Son, is that God is “ingenerate” (exists without cause).
(LA, 194) “Ingenerate,” therefore, is “the primary name of God.”
Basil responded that “ingenerateness” is merely the absence of a
quality “and hence it is unsuitable as the primary name of God.” (LA,
194) He argued that if ingenerateness is God’s primary identification,
then “Father and Son are unlike” (LA, 194) and this, he argues, “flies
in the face of biblical material such as Col 1:15, Heb 1:3, and Phil
Basil explained, on the basis of such texts, “by epinoia we know that
there is a unity of ousia between Father and Son.” (LA, 194) Epinoia
means “concepts developed by the human mind,” through “a process of
reflection and abstraction” (LA, 191-2). Epinoia, therefore, means to
extrapolate the text of the Bible beyond what it literally says. But
Eunomius objected saying, “If we know God only according to epinoia,
then our knowledge is insignificant and our faith useless.” (LA, 195)
“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.” (González, Justo L. (1987). A History
of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon.
Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. p. 307.)
Gregory of Nyssa (AD 380)
After Basil of Caesarea, in c. 380, Gregory of Nyssa, another of the Cappadocians, devotes his letter 35 to the difference between ousía and hypostasis.
Council of Chalcedon
However, after the Cappadocians, many Latin-speaking theologians continued to use hypostasis and substance as synonyms. It was only from the middle of the fifth century onwards, marked by the Council of Chalcedon, that the word came to be contrasted with ousia and used to mean "individual reality," especially in the trinitarian and Christological contexts. (González, Justo L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. p. 307.)
So, when the Controversy began, and for a considerable time afterward, there was “a general state of indecision and uncertainty as to how either of them should be used.” (RH, 184-185) “The ambiguous anathema in N against those who believe that the Son is 'from another hypostasis or ousia than the Father” was the consequence of “this unfortunate semantic misunderstanding.” (RH, 181)
This confusion helps to explain why the Controversy continued for another 55 years after Nicaea:
“When apparent agreement was reached at Nicaea in 325 the Creed …
contained in one of its anathemas a confusion of terms so disastrous
as to render its eirenic function (to promote peace or reconciliation)
virtually worthless” (RH, xviii)
Since “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), and since the Creed itself seems to use these terms as synonyms, it is quite possible that the Creed does indeed use “ousia and hypostasis” as synonyms. “It is only much later in the century that the two are more clearly distinguished by some.” (LA, 98)
Therefore, referring to the terms hypostasis and ousia in the Nicene Creed, R.P.C. Hanson states:
“They 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)
No Trinity Doctrine
One important implication is that the Trinity doctrine did not exist when the Nicene Creed was formulated in AD 325 because:
- The distinction between hypostases (Persons) and ousia (Being or substance) is foundational in the Trinity doctrine, and because
- That distinction was only developed decades later.
It is important to understand that 'Pro-Nicene theology' is different from 'Nicene theology'. Lewis Ayres wrote:
“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)
Furthermore, since the Creed uses hypostasis and ousia as synonyms, it indeed says that the Son of God is the same hypostasis (Person) as the Father, which is a clear Sabellian statement.