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Christianity and Hellenism, Part 2 of 3: On Being, Loosely Speaking

November 6th, 2010 | 4 min read

By Kevin White

In my last post, I asserted that the early Christians made discriminating use of the ideas and methods of Greek philosophy. The key terms and categories were carefully reshaped and turned towards biblical ends. If old Plato was baptized in early Christian thought, it was only because he was generally catechized and exhorted first.

I mentioned that I have seen simplistic claims about the influence of Greek philosophy from all corners. An example: I was sitting in on a session at a major, mainstream academic conference. One presenter was discussing the concept of the canon, and the importance of heeding the timeless truths of the creeds of the early Ecumenical Councils. During Q&A, one presumably learned gentleman stood up and said, essentially, “I see no timeless truths in the Nicene Creed alongside all the Neo-Platonist imagery.”

Now, our esteemed anonymous questioner was probably exaggerating. But still, on the surface, he seems to have a point. Let’s look at two parts of the creed of the Council of Nicaea, from which the familiar Nicene Creed is derived:

And [we believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence [ousia] of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence [homoousios] as the Father, through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth...
But those who say, Once he was not, or he was not before his generation, or he came to be out of nothing, or who assert that he, the Son of God, is of a different hypostasis or ousia, or that he is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

Note briefly how the Council strings together a long set of descriptive analogies to drive their point home. Note also the three Greek terms, or rather the two words and a prefix, that I highlighted: ousia, homoousios, and hypostasis. (Don’t worry, that is pretty much all the Greek that this post will contain!) They are philosophical terms used in both Platonic and Aristotelian descriptions of being and existence. Their technical uses carried as much and as varied of freight as a cargo ship. Roughly speaking, ousia means “being, essence, nature, underlying reality.” The prefix homo means “same”, thus homoousios means “of the same being.” Hypostasis can have a very similar meaning to ousia. Alternatively, it can refer to that which sets an individual thing apart from other items of the same nature.

Homoousios is the big term, whose use sparked a decades-long conflict. It really got people mad. In particular, several theologians and local councils argued back and forth over whether the Son had the same, a similar, or a totally different ousia than the Father. Each of these interpretations had profound implications concerning the nature of our Savior and how (even if!) He can reconcile us with the Father. They were arguing over how to use a Greek philosophical term, one for which Aristotle described several important technical meanings. But it was not really a fight over Greek philosophy.

Why? Because if it was, it would have made almost no sense. When used to describe something’s essential being, a good Greek philosopher would say than an ousia was indivisible. If you tried to tell him about two distinct persons of the same ousia, he would send you to the corner wearing a dunce cap. Unless you were saying that they were items of the same type or category, but then the Trinitarians, Arians (who called the Son a created being), and Modalists (who denied that Father, Son, and Spirit were different persons) would all with one voice call you “heretic.”

No, at Nicaea they seized upon it as a term that is useful, if used loosely. They also loosely threw about a few other Greek metaphysical terms, as we have seen, as well as a whole slew of other analogies, but none are used with any rigor. Use of the particular terms of a school of thought does not mean subscription to that school of thought. Not everyone who mentions the bourgeoisie or the proletarians is a Marxist, or talking about Marxism. Likewise, not everyone who uses the word ousia is a Platonist.

So, the first Ecumenical Council took a term, ousia, stuck a prefix on it, and stripped most of its technical meaning away. Over the following decades of debate, a loose group of theologians and controversialists developed a more specific meaning for it, one that allowed it to describe how the Father and Son are distinct persons but one God. Once they finished turning homoousios into a Christian technical term, it little resembled the Greek philosophical term that they first coopted. *

It’s kind of like playing with Legos. You can buy a little Lego flying saucer, and it has all the pieces needed to build a distinctive little space ship. Or, you can do what I always liked to do. Take that pre-made spaceship, rearrange the pieces, add a few of your own, and make your own completely different spaceship. That’s what the early Christians did with Greek thought. They took it apart, put the pieces together in a novel way, threw in a bunch of items from the Bible and traditional Hebraic thought, and built an image of Christ our Savior and His work for us and our salvation.

* This is one factor that can make the early Church Fathers tricky to read. The earlier the text, the less precise the language, and the less one can read into the use of key terms. In later texts, the terms are more settled and technical, though still more fluid than modern theology textbooks suggest.

Kevin White