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Bulgakov. Divine Motherhood Category: Theosis …between created and uncreated…

God. Trinity. Absolute Subject
The Cappadocians' Doctrine of the Holy Trinity
In the works of Fr. Sergei Bulgakov

Dogmatic formulation of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity

The Cappadocian triad — St. Basil the Great, his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Theologian — play a decisive role in the Eastern trinitarian theology. They have given it a dogmatic formulation that, for the most part, with its strong and weak sides, is the dominant one even today in Eastern theology.

In assessing the achievements of the Cappadocians, one must recognize that they dogmatically established the classic doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which can be accepted as the norm of the Church teaching: It is free of non-orthodox deviations toward monarchianism, and toward subordinationism, both ontological and cosmological; and in this sense it represents a middle, "royal way" of the Church doctrine. The achievements of these "universal teachers of the Church" cannot be overstated here.

The Cappadocian triad — St. Basil the Great, his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Theologian — play a decisive role in the Eastern trinitarian theology. They have given it a dogmatic formulation that, for the most part, with its strong and weak sides, is the dominant one even today in Eastern theology. Our aim in this section is to expound, succinctly and accurately, the main elements of this doctrine.1


1 This dotrine is expounded in more detail in my essay "Chapters on Trinity."

First of all, it is necessary to indicate the purely terminological achievements of this doctrine, which are not unimportant for theology. The pre-Cappadocian theology did not have categories for the separate expression of personhood and substance, or essence, but confused, both terminologically and logically, the existing terms hupostasis and ousia, hypostasis and substance. Prosōpon, the Greek term for "person," which as persona received the right of citizenship in Western theology as early as Tertullian, seemed suspicious both because of its nearness to Sabellianism and, in general, because of the indeterminacy of its meaning; for it can refer to everything that appears before one's eyes — to profile, mask, appearance, etc. If we do encounter prosōpon in St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa, it is only alongside hupostasis, as its clarification.1 The concept "hypostasis" is considered by the Cappadocians not in a personalistic but in a material sense. Decisive here is Aristotle's doctrine of prōtē ousia [first substance], i.e., of concrete being in which alone does concrete substance exist and outside of which it is a mere abstraction (deutera ousia [second substance]). This concrete reality is established by a particular character of a thing thanks to which hypostasis arises in ousia. Both animate and inanimate objects can be subsumed under this concept of hypostasis: a rock, an animal, a human being, an angel, God. In itself this concept is devoid of personalistic meaning; and if such a meaning is put into it in a de facto manner, in conformity with the Church dogma (as existence according to itself, kath' heauton), this meaning has no connection with the category of hypostasis. This Aristotelean distinction between ousia and hypostasis with reference to the Holy Trinity postulates for its realization the unity of the Divine substance on the one hand and, on the other hand, hypostatic properties that would concretize this essence into trihypostatic being; and there must evidently be three such hypostatic properties, in conformity with the number of hypostases.


1 St. Gregory the Theologian directed his irony against the Romans (in Oration 21) because, due to the poverty of their language, they substituted the term "person" for "hypostasis."

The first requirement is satisfied by homoousianism, which all three Cappadocians profess steadfastly, although their interpretation of it is perhaps somewhat different from that of St. Athanasius (that is, it is marked by a tendency to homoiousianism): The unity of Divinity as the Divine nature is their fundamental dogmatic presupposition. In his polemic with Eunomius (1.1), St. Basil the Great defends this unity of Divinity by stating that unity is contained in the very idea of substance. The ground for this affirmation had been sufficiently prepared by the development of homoousian theology and the earlier Neoplatonizing Origenism. Rather unexpectedly, the influence of Neoplatonism and Origenism is combined with Aristoteleanism in the Cappadocians' doctrine of the unknowability of divinity, which they were compelled to develop in the struggle against the rationalism of Eunomius (and then Aetius), who considered Divinity to be fully rationally knowable. Against this doctrine the Cappadocians forcefully profess apophatism, the unknowability and, hence, the transcendent character of Divinity.1


1 In St. Gregory of Nyssa this affirmation is intensified by his skeptically relativistic doctrine of the names of God, which he anthropomorphyzes, depriving them of ontological content and thus essentially dooming theology to silence.

The substance of God is unfathomable, unnameable, undefinable. God is higher than essence, goodness, beauty, even divinity. Such an assertion of the total transcendence of Divinity is, however, logically overcome in Neoplatonism and Origenism by subordinationism, which makes possible the transition from apophatics to kataphatics, to a positive doctrine of God through the self-revelation of Divinity in the divine world. But given the Cappadocians' rigorous rejection of subordinationism, such a transition is not possible for them. In the Cappadocians' system, Aristoteleanism and Neoplatonism stand side by side unharmonized: That which is impossible in negative theology turns out to be self-evident in kataphatic theology, where ousia is defined in terms of hypostatic properties. Thus, on the one hand, for the Cappadocians the Divine ousia is unfathomable, transcendent Divinity, whereas on the other hand it is a general substance that exists only because it is concretized by hypostatic properties.

But since hypostatized, concrete being represents the only existent being, whereas general nature (the "second" ousia) is an abstraction, there arises a new difficulty on the pathways of theological Aristoteleanism: Is the trinely hypostatized substance not divided into three parts, or (which in this case is the same thing) three hypostases? In other words, does one not encounter here the logical phantom of tritheism, which in any case did not afflict the subordinationistic theology? Being, by virtue of the Church dogma, absolutely invulnerable in this respect dogmatically, the Cappadocians were theologically vulnerable from this side in their Aristoteleanism and had to defend themselves against possible attacks (cf. St. Gregory of Nyssa's letter to Ablabius on "Not Three Gods"). According to Aristotle, hypostases (hypostatic properties) not only concretize but also thereby divide substance, for only concrete being exists. Therefore, also according to Aristotle, one can rigorously deduce the fact that there are three hypostases, but not their trinity as triunity.

This question has another aspect: How do different hypostases have one substance in the capacity of a common nature? In other words, how and to what degree can homoousian consubstantiality (which in St. Athanasius approached identical substantiality, tauto-ousia) be realized here? In the natural world, "hypostases" "fractionate" their ousia (thus, all gold things contain a part of gold) as a whole, which exists only for abstracting thought (the substance of Divinity was divided in an analogous manner in Stoic subordinationism). But is it possible, on the basis of Aristoteleanism, to express the dogma not of common possession, and not of separate possession, but precisely of consubstantiality? Although the Cappadocians are, once again, extremely insistent in their defense of the Church dogma, they are not so firm theologically in establishing the unity of God's essence in the three hypostases and their consubstantiality. Within the limits of Aristotelean categories, within which the Cappadocians confined their theology, there truly is no place for Divine triunity, for trihypostatic consubstantiality.1 It remains a philosophically unsubstantiated postulate.


1 St. Basil the Great uses the terms "communion" (koinōnia) and "communality" (koinōtēs): "a certain ineffable and inconceivable communion," "a continuous and indissoluble communion," so that "the difference of the hypostases does not sunder the nature; nor does essential communality lead to the fusion of distinct features." St. Gregory the Theologian also discusses the commonality and co-essentiality of the nature (in Oration 29).

With respect to the one divine substance the trine forms are determined, according to Aristotle, by special hypostatic properties. These properties are taken from the relations of origin in such a manner that the first is designated as fatherhood, the second as sonhood, and the third as procession.

In effect, between these hypostatic properties (gnōrismata) and the hypostases themselves there is placed an equals sign such that the Father is unengendered, the Son is engendered, and the Holy Spirit proceeds. The path that is adumbrated here is the one that later was decisively taken (although, to be sure, in its own manner) by Catholic theology. In and of itself, this equation of hypostatic properties with the hypostases themselves is unjustified. One must remember that hypostatization in Aristotle has nothing to do with personally hypostatic definitions. The Cappadocians, in effect, apply his scheme to the dogma already given by the Church, but this scheme is totally insufficient to establish the personal character of hypostatic being. Nevertheless, it does achieve another goal that the Cappadocians pursue in their problematic: it divides Divinity into three, making it trihypostatic.

This division into three goes, as we have seen, even farther than is needed. That which is required for the trinitarian dogma is not merely three I's but a triune I, trinity in unity and unity in trinity (to which the Cappadocians ceaselessly bear witness). In this construction, however, the triune I is assured only by the unity of the ousia, not by the unity, even if trinitarian, of the hypostasis. But this is insufficient, for the Holy Trinity is one not only in the ousia, or essence, but also in the trihypostatic subject. And precisely the incompleteness of the doctrine in this respect makes it vulnerable in relation to tritheism. The reason for this is the reified but not hypostatic character of the Aristotelean categories, which, in and of themselves, are therefore insufficient for knowing the hypostases and the trihypostatizedness, although, in that epoch, they introduced a certain comparative clarity.

In their theological interpretation of the dogma of trinity (and this is a general feature of the Eastern trinitarian theology), the Cappadocians take as their starting point not the unity of the ousia but the trinitarity of the hypostases, in contrast to Western theology, which takes as its starting point the unity of substance, seeking in it the origination of the three hypostases. The three hypostases are united in the Holy Trinity, which consists of equally divine hypostases. The doctrine of the Cappadocians rejects both subordinationism and cosmologism in the interpretation of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity exists eternally in Itself, independently of Its revelation in the world. This immanent character of the Holy Trinity is sometimes defined entirely in the spirit of Neoplatonism (without its subordinationism), even in the very same words. Elements of Neoplatonic metaphysics are combined here with Aristotle's logical rationalism.

In assessing the achievements of the Cappadocians, one must recognize that they dogmatically established the classic doctrine of the Holy Trinity, which can be accepted as the norm of the Church teaching: It is free of non-orthodox deviations toward monarchianism, and toward subordinationism, both ontological and cosmological; and in this sense it represents a middle, "royal way" of the Church doctrine. The achievements of these "universal teachers of the Church" cannot be overstated here. Moreover, their doctrine includes, in the capacity of its presuppositions, the ripest fruit of ancient speculation — a synthesis of Aristoteleanism, Platonism, and Neoplatonism. The religio-philosophical one-sidedness of each of these positions is overcome; they complement one another, if not always organically.

Such a synthesis cannot be final or complete, of course. It is marked by the limitations of the epoch; and this must be said too about the Cappadocian theology, which is far inferior to the Cappadocian dogmatics. The weak sides of this theology, already noted in part above, are as follows: First, the doctrine of the Cappadocians is not, strictly speaking, a doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a purely trinitarian doctrine, although dogmatically it aspires to be precisely such. Their doctrine takes as its point of departure the trinitarity of the hypostases, of which the Holy Trinity is then composed; but this composition remains unfinished in the sense that its result is three united in one nature, not a triunity. The unity of the Holy Trinity is thus established not by the trihypostatizedness of the Divine Person, including the trinitarity of the equally divine Persons with one nature, but only by the unity of this nature. As one, the trihypostatic Divinity is only the Divine It, not the trihypostatic I, the Divine triunity. This is the only part of the Cappadocian system where the doctrine of the Trinity is expounded not only imprecisely but even erroneously. Unity in Trinity is equally both Person (although the trihypostatic one, Elohim-Yahweh) and one nature (but not only the unity of nature).

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov
The Comforter
VI. The Cappadocians' Doctrine of the Holy Trinity and of the Holy Spirit

Weak sides of the Cappadocians' Doctrine

First, the Cappadocians' Doctrine of the Holy Trinity remains unfinished, because it results in three united in one nature, not a triunity.

Second, the hypostases, each of which is established by its hypostatic property, remain unconnected among themselves. They are three, not a trinity; and hypostatic trinitarity is replaced here by ousian unity.

Third, the idea of monarchy, the distinction in the Holy Trinity between the Principle without beginning and hypostases that do have a beginning, must be explicated and defended with reference to subordinationism.

Fourth, taking the order of the hypostases from revelation and applying it to the principle of monarchy, the Cappadocians do not give it a theological and ontological interpretation, because their trinitarian doctrine fails to establish a connection between the three hypostases.

Such a synthesis cannot be final or complete, of course. It is marked by the limitations of the epoch; and this must be said too about the Cappadocian theology, which is far inferior to the Cappadocian dogmatics. The weak sides of this theology, already noted in part above, are as follows: First, the doctrine of the Cappadocians is not, strictly speaking, a doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a purely trinitarian doctrine, although dogmatically it aspires to be precisely such. Their doctrine takes as its point of departure the trinitarity of the hypostases, of which the Holy Trinity is then composed; but this composition remains unfinished in the sense that its result is three united in one nature, not a triunity. The unity of the Holy Trinity is thus established not by the trihypostatizedness of the Divine Person, including the trinitarity of the equally divine Persons with one nature, but only by the unity of this nature. As one, the trihypostatic Divinity is only the Divine It, not the trihypostatic I, the Divine triunity. This is the only part of the Cappadocian system where the doctrine of the Trinity is expounded not only imprecisely but even erroneously. Unity in Trinity is equally both Person (although the trihypostatic one, Elohim-Yahweh) and one nature (but not only the unity of nature).

Associated with this is a second weak side of the Cappadocians' trinitarian doctrine, a weakness connected with their formal-logical Aristoteleanism: The hypostases, each of which is established by its hypostatic property, remain unconnected among themselves. They are united by the unity of their ousia or substance (with all the obscurity of this definition; see above), but not among themselves. Their relation is only that of a series. They are three, not a trinity; and hypostatic trinitarity is replaced here by ousian unity. This is a result of the formal and mechanical application of the Aristotelean schemata of ousia and hypostasis, where each separate hypostatic property, gnōrisma, gives a new hypostasis. The number of these hypostases is defined only de facto, according to the presence of the properties, so that in itself it could be more or less than three. The ontological necessity of precisely three, as a trinity, is not shown and not proved. True, this trinitarity is motivated for the Cappadocians by the three hypostatic properties taken from revelation. Having begun their ontological deduction of trinitarity on the basis of Aristotle, they conclude it on the basis of the dogmatic fact of the revelation concerning the three hypostases; but this conclusion based on revelation cannot replace theological development.

Third, the Cappadocians also desire to constrain the Holy Trinity and theologically justify the triunity of the three by means of the idea of monarchy, the distinction in the Holy Trinity between the Principle without beginning and hypostases that do have a beginning: aitia and aitiatoi. But this important idea remains theoretically unclarified in its theological significance and, in any case, it must be explicated and defended with reference to subordinationism.

Fourth, owing to their particular formulation of the trinitarian problem, the Cappadocians naturally give a prominent place to the order, or taxis, of the Divine persons, also in connection with the monarchy of the Holy Trinity. Taking the order of the hypostases from revelation and applying it to the principle of monarchy, the Cappadocians do not give it a theological and ontological interpretation, because their trinitarian doctrine fails to establish a connection between the three hypostases. Meantime, a theory of taxis and of its true significance must play a fundamental role in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Turning specifically to pneumatology, it is first necessary to establish the thesis (common to all the Cappadocians) of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. All the Cappadocians did battle with the pneumatomachians, who denied this thesis. The confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit is a theological feat common to the three Cappadocians, and many of their writings attest to it. It is characteristic of the spirit of that age and of the difficulty of this task that, notwithstanding the ardor of his defense of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great avoided applying the word God to the Holy Spirit, for which he was reproached (even by his friend Gregory the Theologian). This is not surprising if we recall that, although the socalled Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed professes that the Holy Spirit is equal in dignity and divinity to the Father and to the Son, it too does not directly call the Holy Spirit God.

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov
The Comforter
VI. The Cappadocians' Doctrine of the Holy Trinity and of the Holy Spirit

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