5.1.1 The Cappadocians

The Cappadocians

Although the approaches authored by the Cappadocian fathers have been presented in a general sense, the specifics and emphases are vital to discuss, as these are still relevant within modern Greek and Russian Orthodox theology. One of the more significant contributions was the rationale for and establishment of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. A doctrinal emphasis crucial to trinitarian thought, and formally endorsed by the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. The clarification of the divinity of the Holy Spirit paved the way for concrete statements about the Trinity to be formulated. Upon this basis was developed the notion of one divine substance, which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit relationally shared. The task at hand, was to more clearly consider the relational dynamics of the Trinity. The Cappadocians played a major role in the initial development of these ideas. The core of the Cappadocian theology of the Trinity consists first and foremost of a defence of the divine unity, and secondly of a support of the image that the Godhead exists in three different “modes of being” at the same time. The formula which rose under the writings of the Cappadocians (and is familiar at this point) was “one substance (ousia) and three persons (hypostaseis)”. What is particular to the Cappadocians is the continual effort to emphasize equality among Father, Son, and Spirt; stressing that in no way the Son or the Spirit are subordinated to the Father. However there often appears a preference or priority to highlight the Father as the source or fountainhead of the Trinity.

The model of the Trinity, specific to the Cappadocians, is of the Father of whom the Son is “begotten”, and from whom the Spirit “proceeds”. In this model the being of the Father is imparted to the Son and the Spirit, albeit eternally and perpetually. For instance, Gregory of Nyssa states “the one person of the Father, from whom the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds”. Elsewhere Gregory of Nyssa similarly states that the ultimate ground of unity lies within the Trinity is the Father: “the three have one nature (that is, God), the ground of their unity being the Father”. The issue with which the Cappadocians wrestled (and has been mentioned already), was the question of unity and diversity within the Trinity. How to marry the concepts of unity of being and the distinction of persons. The example that was utilized was that of a relatable state of being that is both universal and containing particulars. The immediate example that came to mind was of human beings and human persons. It is an analogy that is relatable enough to identify with as it pertains to the subject of the Trinity. There is such a thing as a human species. The human species is a category of being to which no other being outside of homo sapiens belongs. There is a universal quality to all life forms called “human beings”. Yet there is also distinction. A human being does not automatically constitute a person. A person has uniqueness and distinctiveness specific to only that person. “Human persons” can be differentiated from one another, in fact they must be. If there were only three human beings in the world, one could say that they are all “one being” and “three persons”. Gregory of Nyssa states this as follows:

“Peter, James, and John are called three humans, even though they share a single common humanity. … So how do we compromise our belief, by saying on the one hand that the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit have a single godhead, while on the other hand denying that we are talking about three gods?”

So it is characteristic differentiation that builds the cappadocian theological complex, with each of the three persons within the Trinity inhabiting certain personal distinctions. As Basil of Caesarea put it, the distinctives of each of the persons are as follows: the Father is distinguished by fatherhood, the Son by sonship, and the Holy Spirit by the ability to sanctify. For Gregory of Nazianzus, the Father is distinguished by “being ingenerate” (agennesia, which is a word that basically means “not being begotten” or “not deriving from any other source”), the Son by “being generate” (gennesis, which means “being begotten” or “deriving one’s origins from someone else”), and the Spirit by “being sent” or “proceeding”. Full credit to the Cappadocians for acknowledging and wrestling with the issues associated with an analogous dealing with the Trinity. The baseline created by their thinking and writing is the bedrock for solid reasoning regarding the Trinity. It is however in the nature of the beast, as it were, for the waters to get muddied by the differing and sometimes contradictory explanations of unity and diversity or substance and person. We are looking for a clearer picture still. Therefore, on to the fascinating and enriching contributions made by Augustine of Hippo.