I shall propose in this post an alternative non-metaphysical interpretation of the Nicene Creed’s “ousia” and “hypostaseos” by fleshing out the meaning of those terms according to the way they are used in the New Testament. I shall accept the following claims as the premise of this discussion:
(1) The “orthodox” formula that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is ὁμοούσιον or “homoousion” or “the same substance” with God the Father yet not of the same ὑποστάσεως or “hypostaseos” or person or nature as him. (I shall justify the “nature” part later.)
(2) The letter of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, although not necessarily the “traditional” reading of that Creed (hereafter simply called the “Nicene Creed”).
(3) The meaning of the terms of the Nicene Creed in the very same sense in which those terms are used in the Scriptures.
The last proposition seems odd and a little redundant. After all, when the Nicene Creed uses the word “creator of heaven and earth”, surely of course we mean “creator” in the sense in which the Scriptures uses the word “creator”. This may be so, but in the following discussion, I am going to apply the exact same argument to the term “ousia” to very surprising and unexpected results.
“Ousia” as the Resources, Riches or “Substance” of the Divine Life
The constant refrain throughout the Nicene controversy by the anti-Nicene councils and theologians is that the term “homoousion” simply cannot be found in the Bible and obviously elevating an unscriptural term to the level of an indispensable church dogma would be rather problematic. As the Fourth Creed of Sirmium (359) puts it,
But whereas the term ‘substance,’ (ousias) has been adopted by the Fathers in simplicity, and gives offence as being misconceived by the people, and is not contained in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to remove it, that it be never in any case used of God again, because the divine Scriptures nowhere use it of Father and Son. But we say that the Son is like the Father in all things, as also the Holy Scriptures say and teach.
While the anti-Nicene party maybe right that homoousion (same substance) cannot be found in the Scriptures, but the term ousias (substance) is actually contained in the Scriptures, just not quite in the way they think. It is a term which is used in two places in the Bible and that is, interestingly enough, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The relevant verses are Luke 15:12-13,
The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property (οὐσίας or ousias) that will belong to me.” So he divided his property (βίον, bion or life) between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property (οὐσίαν, ousian) in dissolute living.
The term “ousias” or “property” here has also been translated as “goods”, “estate”, etc.
Thus my argument would be that the homoousion of the Nicene Creed is to be understood in the following way: That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, shares in the abundant riches of God’s very own divine life. Thus the life of Jesus Christ is the same as that of his Heavenly Father, in the very same sense in which a son has access and a share in his father’s estate or goods or livelihood.
Here are two Scriptural arguments for taking this line of interpretation of the term “homoousion”. First it is clear from verse 12 of Luke 15, that the Gospel uses the term “ousias” and “bion”, or life/livelihood, interchangeably, that is, the Son demands his share of the property (ousias) and the father proceeds to divide his property (bion) between them. Thus, the “substance” of the Father is simply nothing more than the goods, the riches of the divine life itself.
A second argument which can be used is that towards the end of the parable, the elder son complains that even after the younger son has squandered the father’s property, the father still kills the fatten calf for him, to which the father replies that everything which he has, the elder also has. Here are the relevant verses from Luke 15:30-31,
But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property (bion) with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
So from here we can see that to be “homoousion” is simply to share in the same life, riches, goods, property, etc. Just as the elder son, who having always been with the father, has all that the father has, likewise does Jesus Christ has a share in the very same substance, life, riches of God the Father who says to Christ that “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
A Novatian Reading of Divine Sonship; the Communication of the riches of the Father’s life to the Son
So far we have defined the sense in which the Son is “homoousion” with the Father, that is, the Son has a share, partakes of, the very same life as God the Father. Now we need an account of the sense in which the Son is the son of God the Father. We can get into an intricate discussion about the distinction between “begot” and “create”, etc, and how the Son is the Son by virtue of being begotten and not by virtue of being created, etc. I am however sceptical that this distinction is capable of a robust Scriptural explication. Therefore I would turn to Novatian’s explanation instead of what the divine sonship of Jesus Christ consist of which I believe will prove much more fruitful.
Novatian (200-258) was a third century church theologian and priest and also the “antipope” or rival claimant to the papacy against Cornelius. Throughout the history of the church he was also infamously known for his “rigorist” approach the repentance and absolution. He supposedly denied lapsed Christians absolution on the grounds that the church has no power to absolve lapsed Christians and that at most they can be admitted as “life-long penitents” who can only hope for forgiveness from God (and not the Church) after their deaths. (It is important to note that Novatian’s “rigorist” approach has precedence in Tertullian and St Hippolytus.)
More relevantly for our post, Novatian also wrote an interesting treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity where he has an intriguing explanation of the relationship between the Father and the Son. The essence of Novatian’s understanding can be summarised in this verse:
For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself…
Thus the idea is that the sonship of Jesus Christ consists in him having received his life, and everything else he has, power, glory (John 17:24), lordship, dominion and godhood over the world, etc, from the Father who granted it to him. Although the divine life of the Father is properly his own (the Father has life in himself), however, the Son has a share in that same life (homoousion) because the Father gave it to him so that he might have it in himself. In answer to the Arian quip about how the equal divinity of the Father and Son would make them brothers instead, we can say that the Son is properly the Son because he receives life from the Father who does not himself receive it from the Son. Here is an extended explanation from Novatian:
And He is reasonably affirmed to be in the form of God, in that He Himself, being above all things, and having the divine power over every creature, is also God after the example of the Father. Yet He obtained, this from His own Father, that He should be both God of all and should be Lord, and be begotten and made known from Himself as God in the form of God the Father. He then, although He was in the form of God, thought it not robbery that He should be equal with God. For although He remembered that He was God from God the Father, He never either compared or associated Himself with God the Father, mindful that He was from His Father, and that He possessed that very thing that He is, because the Father had given it Him.
-A Treatise of Novatian concerning the Trinity
Note the alternating bold and underlined parts. I have bold the parts which Christ possesses, and underlined the reason why he has it. He is “both God of all and should be Lord” because he “obtained this from His own Father”. He “possessed that very thing that He is” “because the Father had given it Him.”
Here is another passage from the same treatise:
And I should have enough to do were I to endeavour to gather together all the passages whatever on this side; since the divine Scripture, not so much of the Old as also of the New Testament, everywhere shows Him to be born of the Father, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made, who always has obeyed and obeys the Father; that He always has power over all things, but as delivered, as granted, as by the Father Himself permitted to Him.
Again note the bold and underlined pair. One more passage before we conclude this section.
He is therefore the Son, not the Father: for He would have confessed that He was the Father had He considered Himself to be the Father; and He declares that He was sanctified by His Father. In receiving, then, sanctification from the Father, He is inferior to the Father. Now, consequently, He who is inferior to the Father, is not the Father, but the Son; for had He been the Father, He would have given, and not received, sanctification. Now, however, by declaring that He has received sanctification from the Father, by the very fact of proving Himself to be less than the Father, by receiving from Him sanctification, He has shown that He is the Son, and not the Father.
Therefore we see a consistent theme throughout these passages. The Son is not the Father, the distinction between the two is grounded upon the argument that whatever the Son has (divine lordship, everything he is, power, holiness), he has because the Father has given it to him. Therein we have an explanation of the sonship of the Son, as the receiver of the infinite riches of the divine life.
Subordinationism and the Concept of Hypostaseous or Nature
Novatian however in the passages cited above have said some rather disturbing things about the “subordination” or inferiority of the Son to the Father. To better engage this question, we now turn to the “other side” of the orthodox Trinitarian formula, the distinction in “hypostaseous” or nature between the Father and the Son.
What is interesting is that “hypostaseous” has frequently been translated as “person” because of the way it is translated into Latin as “personae” or person. However, the meaning is actually closer to something like “character” or even “nature”. But following the rule which we have set out for ourselves, we shall once more allow the Scriptures to determine the meaning of the terms.
The one place where the word is clearly used is in Hebrews 1:3,
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (ὑποστάσεως, hypostaseous)…
The NRSV translates “hypostaseous” as “very being”, the ESV as “nature”. Whatever the exact meaning of hypostaseous, the point is clear is that the Son is the “exact imprint”, “image”, “representation”, “likeness”, etc, of that hypostaseous, of that character, nature or being. To say that the Son is not of the same “ὑποστάσεως” or hypostaseous as the Father just is to say that the Son is not the same person, character, or nature as the Father. He is however the perfect “representation”, “image” or “imprint” of it. Therefore this is the biblical sense whereby we can legitimately speak of the “inferiority” of the Son to the Father, that is, the Son is an image of God’s character but not of the same character, having received his own character from the Father.
As a side discussion, it is interesting to note that the word “hypostatis” is used mainly in the New Testament to refer to idea of guaranteeing or assuring, promising or granting confidence to something. Thus we see this in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance (ὑπόστασις, hypostasis) of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This has even been translated in the KJV as “the substance of things hope fore”. So we can think of God’s nature or character as the assurance, the guarantee, the “substance”, of his promises and Word, that indeed he will keep his promises and fulfil them to us. So, in this sense, Christ is the “representation” or representative of God by being his very steadfast commitment and guarantee to his promises by coming into this world precisely to fulfil God’s promises of the defeat of sin, the devil and evil and to bring his promise of salvation to the world.
Conclusion: Biblical versus Metaphysical Understanding of the Terms
I do not deny that the word “ousia” and “hypostasis” has a specific metaphysical meaning in Greek philosophy, however I have here provided a way to read them according to non-metaphysical categories and without external philosophical speculations, instead letting the Scriptures themselves decide the meaning of the terms. The result of letting the Scriptures decide the meaning of these terms I believe is a much more fruitful and illuminating exercise and more importantly, adheres to the fundamental Protestant principle sola scriptura, letting the Scriptures alone, and not the vain speculations of metaphysics, inform our faith.
I do believe however that reading “ousia” as life and “hypostasis” as character would open avenues for a much richer explication of the Trinue relationship according to the categories of the Scriptures.