Monday, July 15, 2013

Prosopon and Hypostases

From the book The Person in the Orthodox Tradition by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, and translated by Esther Williams

""1. The theology of the person

It must be said from the very beginning that the holy Fathers used the term 'prosopon', (person), first and foremost in referring to God, and particularly the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. A whole process had to be gone through in order to arrive at the formulation that the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are particular Persons-Hypostases, but have a common essence or substance. The common substance does not remove the particularity of the Persons-Hypostases, and the Persons-Hypostases do not remove or break the oneness of the substance.

In ancient Greece the word 'prosopon', which now means 'person', had more the meaning of the mask which the actors used to play different roles on the stage. There is a whole history surrounding the development of the mask into person. Through a long process the word that was used to mean 'mask' finally came to mean not simply something that one puts on, but what makes one a real human being(1).

The holy Fathers did this work chiefly in the fourth century, in their effort to confront various heretics who, in using Greek philosophy, were distorting Christ's teaching about the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus we can say that real orthodox theology is experiential and ascetic, while dogmatic theology is mainly "polemic", which means that the Fathers applied various terms from philosophy, not in order to understand and increase or improve the orthodox faith, which is revelation, but in order to express it in the terms of their time and to protect it from various distortions.

In what follows I would like us to take a look at how the holy Fathers came to apply the term 'Prosopon' to the Trinitarian God.

Various philosophising theologians, in their attempt to clarify the relationship between the Father and the Son, ended in a variety of dangerous and heretical teachings. In opposition to the gnostic polyarchy there developed two 'monarchian' parties: the patropaschites and the adoptionists. The former teach that the Son is identical with the Father, while the latter deny the divinity of the Son or Word.
The heresy of the patropaschites was shaped and developed further by Sabellios, who maintained that the Christian God is one, but at times He took on a different prosopon, a different mask. So in the Old Testament he is presented as Father, and in the New Testament as Son and in the period of the Church as Holy Spirit. In reality Sabellios was identifying the substance with the hypostasis. This teaching overturns and distorts the revealed truth about the Trinitarian God. And if it had prevailed, it would have had dreadful consequences for theology, the Church and for man's salvation(2).

The holy Fathers confronted this heresy, which confused the hypostatic characteristics of the Persons of the Holy Trinity and in effect broke up the Trinitarianness of God. I should like to effect briefly to the teaching of st. Basil the Great on this subject so as to show the process by which the theology of the person was settled.
In his texts Basil the Great refers many times to the teaching of Sabellios. He writes that Sabellios regarded God as one, but transformation by different masks: ".....that the same God, though one in substance, is transformed on every occasion according to necessary circumstances, and is spoken of now as Father, and now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit"(3)

Thus the persons of the Trinitarian God are really without substance, they lack ontology. Commenting on this, Basil the Great observes: "For not even Sabellius rejected the non-subsistent representation of the Persons"(4).
Also in other texts of Basil the Great we can find this teaching of Sabellius which regards the persons as a mask which is not connected with the hypostasis(5).

Basil the Great, however, is not content simply to present the teaching of Sabellios, but he refutes it and at the same time expresses the revealed truth in the terms of his time. In what follows I should like us to look at the theological views of Basil the Great relating to the Person of God.

He writes that just as anyone who does not accept the common essence falls into polytheism, so also anyone who discards "the distinction of hypostases", is led to Judaism(6).
We as Christians believe in the Triune God, who has a common essence and distinct hypostases. But in order to reach this point and express himself as perfectly as possible, Basil the Great does two very important things.
First he separates the essence (ousia) from the hypostasis. Until then the essence was identified with the hypostasis, and this still appears also in the dogmatic formulation of the First Ecumenical Council. Basil the Great says that the essence or nature is what held is common in the Trinitarian God and that the hypostases are the particular ways of being of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

On this subject he says: "substance and person have the distinction that the general has with reference to the particular; for example, just as 'a living creature' has with reference to 'a particular man'.
For this reason we confess one essence for the Godhead, so as not to hand down variously
the definition of Its existence, but we confess a person that is particular, in order that our conception of Father and Son and Holy Spirit will be distinct and perfectly clear to us"(7).
Making this distinction was a great effort, and I might say that it was a great "revolution", which finally prevailed, thanks to the great influence of the personality of Basil the Great.

Secondly, Basil the Great identified the hypostasis with the person. Thus while until that time 'person' had meant something "unreal", the mask, from the time of Basil the Great, and thanks to his own efforts, the person has acquired ontology and substance. The person is identified with the hypostasis, and is not something abstract, it is not a mask. St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, writes characteristically: "For it is not sufficient to enumerate the difference in the Persons, but it is necessary to confess that each Person subsists in a true hypostasis"(8).

Referring to the term 'homoousios', he says that it is the most suitable for expressing the relationship of the Son to the Father: "This term also sets aright the error of Sabellios; for it does away with the identity of person ('hypostasis') and introduces a perfect notion of the Persons of the Godhead"(9).
Thus the 'prosopon'- when identified with the hypostasis- which is the essence with the particular peculiarities- takes on great value, losing its impersonal and abstract character and acquiring ontology.

These two elucidations, that is to say the separating of the essence from the hypostasis and the identifying of hypostasis with person, were necessary in order to combat the heresies about the Trinitarian God. Anyone who identifies essence with hypostasis necessarily accepts the teaching of Sabellios. Basil the Great writes felicitously: "Those who say that substance and persons are the same are forced to confess different Persons only, and in hesitating to speak of three Persons, they find that they fail to avoid the evil of Sabellius, who even himself, although often confusing his notions, tried to distinquish the Persons by saying that the same Person changed its appearance according to the need arising on each occasion"(10).

Since the fourth century, then, person has been identified with hypostasis, and essence with nature. These terms are suitable for expressing the dogma of the Holy Trinity. Of course we must add that they do not help us to understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity. As the expression "mystery of the Holy Trinity" bears witness, we cannot understand this great mystery with our reason, but we can formulate it in these terms, even though they are completely inadequate, and therefore we often use apophatic expressions. Thus we can understand logically the dogma about the mystery of the Holy Trinity and not the mystery in itself, which transcends human reason and is a subject of revelational experience.""

Pages  68 - 73 from the book The Person in the Orthodox Tradition by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, and translated by Esther Williams







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