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Let us take, by way of illustration, the word monad, which when applied to intellectual beings, includes the idea of personality. Dionysius of Alexandria, for instance, speaks of the monad and the triad: now, would it be very harsh, if, as he has spoken of “three hypostases” in monad so he had instead spoken of “ the three monads,” that is, in the sense of “thrice hypostatic monad,” as if the intrinsic force of the word monas would preclude the possibility of his use of the plural monads being mistaken to imply that he held more monads than one ? To take an analogous case, it would be about the same improper use of plural for singular, if we said that a martyr by his one act gained three victories instead of a triple victory, over his three spiritual foes. And indeed, though Athanasius does not directly speak of three monads, yet he implies the possibility of such phraseology by teaching that, though the Father and the Son are two, the monas of the Deity (Oeórns) is indivisible, and that the Deity is at once Father and Son.
This, then, is what I conceive that he means by sometimes speaking of one, sometimes of three hypostases. The word hypostasis stands neither for Person nor for Essence exclusively ; but it means the one Personal God of natural theology, the notion of whom the Catholic corrects and completes as often as he views him as a Trinity; of which correction Nazianzen's language (Orat. xxviii. 9) contrasted with his usual formula (vid. Orat. xx. 6) of the Three Hypostases, is an illustration. Thespecification of three hypostases does not substantially alter the sense of the word itself, but is a sort of catachresis by which this Catholic doctrine is forcibly brought out (as it would be by the phrase "three monads”), viz. that each of the Divine Persons is simply the Unus et Singularis Deus. If it be objected, that by the same mode of reasoning, Athanasius might have said catachrestically not only three monads or three hypostases, but three Gods, I deny it, and for this reason, because hypostasis is not equivalent to the simple idea of God, but is rather a definition of Him, and that in some special elementary points, as essence, personality, &c., and because such a mere improper use or varying application of the term hypostasis would not tend to compromise a truth, which never must even in forms of speech be trifled with, the absolute numerical unity of the Supreme Being. Though a Catholic could not say that there are three Gods, he could say, that the definition of God applies to unus and tres. Perhaps it is for this reason that Epiphanius speaks of the " hypostatic Three,” “co-hypostatic," “ of the same hypostasis,” Hær. 74, 4 (vid. Jerome, Ep. 15, 3), in the spirit in which St. Thomas, I think, interprets the “non tres æterni, sed unus æternus,” to turn on the contrast of adjective and substantive.
Petavius makes a remark which is apposite to my present purpose. “Nomen Dei,” he says, de Trin. iii. 9, § 10,“ cùm sit ex eorum genere quæ concreta dicuntur, formam significat, non abstractam ab individuis proprietatibus, sed in iis subsistentem. Est enim Deus substantia aliqua divinitatem habens. Sicut homo non humanam naturam separatam, sed in aliquo individuo subsistentem exponit, ita tamen ut individuum ac personam, non certam ac determinatam, sed confuse infiniteque representet, hoc est, naturam in aliquo, ut diximus, consistentem ... sic nomen Dei propriè ac directe divinitatem naturamque divinam indicat, assignificat autem eundem, ut in quapiam personâ subsistentem, nullam de tribus expresse designans, sed confuse et universe.” Here this great author seems to say, that even the word “ Deus” may stand, not barely for the Divine Being, but besides “in quâpiam personâ subsistentem,” without denoting which Person; and in like manner I would understand hypostasis to mean the monas with a like indeterminate notion of personality, (without which attribute the idea of God cannot be,) and thus, according as one hypostasis is spoken of, or three, the word may be roughly translated, in the one case “personal substance,” or “ being with personality,” in the other “substantial person,” or “person which is in being.” In all cases it will be equivalent to the Deity, to the monad, to the divine usia, &c., though with that peculiarity of meaning which I have ir sisted on.
5. Since, as has been said above, hypostasis is a word more peculiarly Christian than usia, I have judged it best to speak of it first, that the meaning of it, as it has now been ascertained on inquiry, may serve as a key for explaining other parallel terms. Usia is one of these the most in use, certainly in the works of Athanasius; and we have his authority as well as St. Jerome's for stating that it was once simply synonymous with hypostasis. Moreover, in Orat. iii. 65, he uses the two words as equivalent to each other. If this be so, what has been said above in explanation of the sense he put on the word hypostasis, will apply to usia also. This conclusion is corroborated by the proper meaning of the word usia itself which answers to the English word “ being.” Now, when we speak of the Divine Being, we mean to speak of Him, as what he is, ó ôv, including generally His attributes and characteristics, and among them, at least obscurely, His personality. By the “ Divine Being” we do not commonly mean a mere anima mundi, or first principle of life or system of laws. Usia then, thus considered, agrees very nearly in sense, from its very etymology, with hypostasis. Further, this was the sense in which Aristotle used it, viz. for what is “individuum,” and “numero unum ;” and it must not be forgotten that the Neo-platonists, who exerted so great an influence on the Alexandrian Church, professed the Aristotelic logic. And so St. Cyril himself, the successor of Athanasius (Suicer, Thes. in voce, ovvia.)
This is the word, and not hypostasis, which Athanasius commonly uses in controversy with the Arians, to express the divinity of the Word. He speaks of the usia of the Son as being united to the Father, and His usia being the offspring of the Father's usia. In these and other passages usia, I conceive, is substantially equivalent to hypostasis, as I have explained it, viz. expressing the divine povàs with an obscure intimation of personality inclusively; and here I think I am able to quote the words of Father Passaglia, as agreeing (so far) in what I have said. “Quum hypostasis," he says, de Trinitate, p. 1302, “ esse nequeat sine substantiâ, nihil vetabat quominus trium hypostasum defensores hypostasim interdum pro substantiâ sumerent, præsertim ubi hypostasis opponitur rei non subsistenti ac efficientiæ.” I should wish to complete the admission by adding, “Since an intellectual usia naturally implies an hypostasis, there was nothing to hinder usia being used, when hypostasis had to be expressed.”
6. After what I have said of usia and hypostasis, it will not surprise the reader if I consider that púois (nature) also, in the Alexandrian theology, was equally capable of being applied to the Divine Being viewed as One, or viewed as Three or each of the Three separately. Thus Athanasius says, One is the Divine Nature, (contr. Apoll. ii. 13 fin. de Incarn. V. fin.) Alexander, on the other hand, calls the Father and Son the “two hypostatic natures,” and speaks of the "only begotten nature,” (Theod. Hist. i. 4,) and Clement of “the Son's nature” as “most intimately near the sole Almighty,” (Strom. vii. 2,) and Cyril of a “generating nature” and a "generated” (Thes. xi. p. 85) and, in words celebrated in theological history, of “the Word's One Nature incarnate.”
7. Eldos is a word of a similar character. As it is found in John v. 37, it may be indifferently interpreted of essence or of person; the Vulgate translates it“ neque speciem ejus vidistis." In Athan. Orat. iii. 3, it is synonymous with deity or usia ; as ibid. 6 also ;. and apparently in ibid. 16, where the Son is said to have the species of the Father. And so in de Syn. 52. Athanasius says that there is only one "species deitatis.” Yet, as taken from Gen. xxxii. 31, it is considered to denote the Son ; e.g. Athan. Orat. i. 20, where it is used as synonymous with Image, eikóv. In like manner the Son is called “the very species deitatis.” Ep. Ag. 17. But again in Athan. Orat. ii. 6, it is first said that the species of the Father and Son are one and the same, then that the Son is the species of the Father's (deity), and then that the Son is the species of the Father.
The outcome of this investigation is this :---that we need not by an officious piety arbitrarily force the language of separate Fathers into a sense which it cannot bear; nor by an unjust and narrow criticism accuse them of error; nor impose upon an early age a distinction of terms belonging to a later. The words usia and hypostasis were, naturally and intelligibly, for three or four centuries, practically synonymous, and were used indiscriminately for two ideas, which were afterwards respectively denoted by the one and the other.