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St Basil of Caesarea: A Letter to Gregory against Eunomius


The distinction between nature/substance and person, ousia and hypostasis, the whatness and whoness of a person is key to understanding Christian Theology. In fact, most of the Christological controversies in the Church of the first Millennium were about this very thing. Here is St Basil of C writing to his brother St Gregory on the distinction. Clearing up the errors of Eunomius the Arian. It is a very important read. This is courtesy of the website; Christian Classics Ethereal Library. A truly invaluable resource that I would recommend donating to. If there is any issue with me reproducing the text, I’ll gladly keep the link instead. So without further adieu, here it is:


St Basil against Eunomius

Letter XXXVIII.2022

To his Brother Gregory, concerning the difference between οὐσία and ὑπόστασις.

Many persons, in their study of the sacred dogmas, failing to distinguish between what is common in the essence or substance, and the meaning of the hypostases, arrive at the same notions, and think that it makes no difference whether οὐσία or hypostasis be spoken of.  The result is that some of those who accept statements on these subjects without any enquiry, are pleased to speak of “one hypostasis,” just as they do of one “essence” or “substance;” while on the other hand those who accept three hypostases are under the idea that they are bound in accordance with this confession, to assert also, by numerical analogy, three essences or substances.  Under these circumstances, lest you fall into similar error, I have composed a short treatise for you by way of memorandum.  The meaning of the words, to put it shortly, is as follows:

Of all nouns the sense of some, which are predicated of subjects plural and numerically various, is more general; as for instance man.  When we so say, we employ the noun to indicate the common nature, and do not confine our meaning to any one man in particular who is known by that name.  Peter, for instance is no more man, than Andrew, John, or James.  The predicate therefore being common, and extending to all the individuals ranked under the same name, requires some note of distinction whereby we may understand not man in general, but Peter or John in particular.

Of some nouns on the other hand the denotation is more limited; and by the aid of the limitation we have before our minds not the common nature, but a limitation of anything, having, so far as the peculiarity extends, nothing in common with what is of the same kind; as for instance, Paul or Timothy.  For, in a word, of this kind there is no extension to what is common in the nature; there is a separation of certain circumscribed conceptions from the general idea, and expression of them by means of their names.  Suppose then that two or more are set together, as, for instance, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and that an enquiry is made into the essence or substance of humanity; no one will give one definition of essence or substance in the case of Paul, a second in that of Silvanus, and a third in that of Timothy; but the same words which have been employed in setting forth the essence or substance of Paul will apply to the others also.  Those who are described by the same definition of essence or substance are of the same essence or substance2023 when the enquirer has learned what is common, and turns his attention to the differentiating properties whereby one is distinguished from another, the definition by which each is known will no longer tally in all particulars with the definition of another, even though in some points it be found to agree.


My statement, then, is this.  That which is spoken of in a special and peculiar manner is indicated by the name of the hypostasis.  Suppose we say “a man.”  The indefinite meaning of the word strikes a certain vague sense upon the ears.  The nature is indicated, but what subsists and is specially and peculiarly indicated by the name is not made plain.  Suppose we say “Paul.”  We set forth, by what is indicated by the name, the nature subsisting.2024

This then is the hypostasis, or “understanding;” not the indefinite conception of the essence or substance, which, because what is signified is general, finds no “standing,” but the conception which by means of138the expressed peculiarities gives standing and circumscription to the general and uncircumscribed.  It is customary in Scripture to make a distinction of this kind, as well in many other passages as in the History of Job.  When purposing to narrate the events of his life, Job first mentions the common, and says “a man;” then he straightway particularizes by adding “a certain.”2025  As to the description of the essence, as having no bearing on the scope of his work, he is silent, but by means of particular notes of identity, mentioning the place and points of character, and such external qualifications as would individualize, and separate from the common and general idea, he specifies the “certain man,” in such a way that from name, place, mental qualities, and outside circumstances, the description of the man whose life is being narrated is made in all particulars perfectly clear.  If he had been giving an account of the essence, there would not in his explanation of the nature have been any mention of these matters.  The same moreover would have been the account that there is in the case of Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, and each of the men there mentioned.2026  Transfer, then, to the divine dogmas the same standard of difference which you recognise in the case both of essence and of hypostasis in human affairs, and you will not go wrong.  Whatever your thought suggests to you as to the mode of the existence of the Father, you will think also in the case of the Son, and in like manner too of the Holy Ghost.  For it is idle to bait the mind at any detached conception from the conviction that it is beyond all conception.2027  For the account of the uncreate and of the incomprehensible is one and the same in the case of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  For one is not more incomprehensible and uncreate than another.  And since it is necessary, by means of the notes of differentiation, in the case of the Trinity, to keep the distinction unconfounded, we shall not take into consideration, in order to estimate that which differentiates, what is contemplated in common, as the uncreate, or what is beyond all comprehension, or any quality of this nature; we shall only direct our attention to the enquiry by what means each particular conception will be lucidly and distinctly separated from that which is conceived of in common.


Now the proper way to direct our investigation seems to me to be as follows.  We say that every good thing, which by God’s providence befalls us, is an operation, of the Grace which worketh in us all things, as the apostle says, “But all these worketh that one and the self same Spirit dividing to every man severally as he will.”2028 If we ask, if the supply of good things which thus comes to the saints has its origin in the Holy Ghost alone, we are on the other hand guided by Scripture to the belief that of the supply of the good things which are wrought in us through the Holy Ghost, the Originator and Cause is the Only-begotten God;2029 for we are taught by Holy Scripture that “All things were made by Him,”2030 and “by Him consist.”2031  When we are exalted to this conception, again, led by God-inspired guidance, we are taught that by that power all things are brought from non-being into being, but yet not by that power to the exclusion of origination.2032  On the other hand there is a certain power subsisting without generation and without origination,2033 which is the cause of the cause of all things.  For the Son, by whom are all things, and with whom the Holy Ghost is inseparably conceived of, is of the Father.2034  For it is not possible for any one to conceive of the Son if he be not previously enlightened by the Spirit.  Since, then, the Holy Ghost, from Whom all the supply of good things for creation has its source, is attached to the Son, and with Him is inseparably apprehended, and has Its2035being attached to the Father, as cause, from Whom also It proceeds; It has this note of Its peculiar hypostatic nature, that It is known after the Son2036 and together with the Son, and that It has Its subsistence of the Father.  The Son, Who declares the Spirit proceeding from the Father through Himself and with Himself, shining forth alone and by only-begetting from the unbegotten light, so far as the peculiar notes are concerned, has nothing in common either with the Father or with 139the Holy Ghost.  He alone is known by the stated signs.  But God, Who is over all, alone has, as one special mark of His own hypostasis, His being Father, and His deriving His hypostasis2037 from no cause; and through this mark He is peculiarly known.  Wherefore in the communion of the substance we maintain that there is no mutual approach or intercommunion of those notes of indication perceived in the Trinity, whereby is set forth the proper peculiarity of the Persons delivered in the faith, each of these being distinctively apprehended by His own notes.  Hence, in accordance with the stated signs of indication, discovery is made of the separation of the hypostases; while so far as relates to the infinite, the incomprehensible, the uncreate, the uncircumscribed, and similar attributes, there is no variableness in the life-giving nature; in that, I mean, of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but in Them is seen a certain communion indissoluble and continuous.  And by the same considerations, whereby a reflective student could perceive the greatness of any one of the (Persons) believed in in the Holy Trinity, he will proceed without variation.  Beholding the glory in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, his mind all the while recognises no void interval wherein it may travel between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for there is nothing inserted between Them; nor beyond the divine nature is there anything so subsisting as to be able to divide that nature from itself by the interposition of any foreign matter.  Neither is there any vacuum of interval, void of subsistence, which can make a break in the mutual harmony of the divine essence, and solve the continuity by the interjection of emptiness.  He who perceives the Father, and perceives Him by Himself, has at the same time mental perception of the Son; and he who receives the Son does not divide Him from the Spirit, but, in consecution so far as order is concerned, in conjunction so far as nature is concerned, expresses the faith commingled in himself in the three together.  He who makes mention of the Spirit alone, embraces also in this confession Him of whom He is the Spirit.  And since the Spirit is Christ’s and of God,2038 as says Paul, then just as he who lays hold on one end of the chain pulls the other to him, so he who “draws the Spirit,”2039 as says the prophet, by His means draws to him at the same time both the Son and the Father.  And if any one verily receives the Son, he will hold Him on both sides, the Son drawing towards him on the one His own Father, and on the other His own Spirit.  For He who eternally exists in the Father can never be cut off from the Father, nor can He who worketh all things by the Spirit ever be disjoined from His own Spirit.  Likewise moreover he who receives the Father virtually receives at the same time both the Son and the Spirit; for it is in no wise possible to entertain the idea of severance or division, in such a way as that the Son should be thought of apart from the Father, or the Spirit be disjoined from the Son.  But the communion and the distinction apprehended in Them are, in a certain sense, ineffable and inconceivable, the continuity of nature being never rent asunder by the distinction of the hypostases, nor the notes of proper distinction confounded in the community of essence.  Marvel not then at my speaking of the same thing as being both conjoined and parted, and thinking as it were darkly in a riddle, of a certain2040 new and strange conjoined separation and separated conjunction.  Indeed, even in objects perceptible to the senses, any one who approaches the subject in a candid and uncontentious spirit, may find similar conditions of things.


Yet receive what I say as at best a token and reflexion of the truth; not as the actual truth itself.  For it is not possible that there should be complete correspondence between what is seen in the tokens and the objects in reference to which the use of tokens is adopted.  Why then do I say that an analogy of the separate and the conjoined is found in objects perceptible to the senses?  You have before now, in springtime, beheld the brightness of the bow in the cloud; the bow, I mean, which, in our common parlance, is called Iris, and is said by persons skilled in such matters to be formed when a certain moisture is mingled with the air, and the force of the winds expresses what is dense and moist in the vapour, after it has become cloudy, into rain.  The bow is said to be formed as follows.  When the sunbeam, after traversing obliquely the dense and darkened portion of the cloud-formation, has directly cast its own orb on some cloud, the radiance is then reflected back from what is moist and shining, and the result is a bending and return, as it were, of the light upon itself.  For flame-like flashings are so constituted that if they 140fall on any smooth surface they are refracted on themselves; and the shape of the sun, which by means of the beam is formed on the moist and smooth part of the air, is round.  The necessary consequence therefore is that the air adjacent to the cloud is marked out by means of the radiant brilliance in conformity with the shape of the sun’s disc.  Now this brilliance is both continuous and divided.  It is of many colours; it is of many forms; it is insensibly steeped in the variegated bright tints of its dye; imperceptibly abstracting from our vision the combination of many coloured things, with the result that no space, mixing or paring within itself the difference of colour, can be discerned either between blue and flame-coloured, or between flame-coloured and red, or between red and amber.  For all the rays, seen at the same time, are far shining, and while they give no signs of their mutual combination, are incapable of being tested, so that it is impossible to discover the limits of the flame-coloured or of the emerald portion of the light, and at what point each originates before it appears as it does in glory.  As then in the token we clearly distinguish the difference of the colours, and yet it is impossible for us to apprehend by our senses any interval between them; so in like manner conclude, I pray you, that you may reason concerning the divine dogmas; that the peculiar properties of the hypostases, like colours seen in the Iris, flash their brightness on each of the Persons Whom we believe to exist in the Holy Trinity; but that of the proper nature no difference can be conceived as existing between one and the other, the peculiar characteristics shining, in community of essence, upon each.  Even in our example, the essence emitting the many-coloured radiance, and refracted by the sunbeam, was one essence; it is the colour of the phænomenon which is multiform.  My argument thus teaches us, even by the aid of the visible creation, not to feel distressed at points of doctrine whenever we meet with questions difficult of solution, and when at the thought of accepting what is proposed to us, our brains begin to reel.  In regard to visible objects experience appears better than theories of causation, and so in matters transcending all knowledge, the apprehension of argument is inferior to the faith which teaches us at once the distinction in hypostasis and the conjunction in essence.  Since then our discussion has included both what is common and what is distinctive in the Holy Trinity, the common is to be understood as referring to the essence; the hypostasis on the other hand is the several distinctive sign.2041


It may however be thought that the account here given of the hypostasis does not tally with the sense of the Apostle’s words, where he says concerning the Lord that He is “the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person,”2042for if we have taught hypostasis to be the conflux of the several properties; and if it is confessed that, as in the case of the Father something is contemplated as proper and peculiar, whereby He alone is known, so in the same way is it believed about the Only-begotten; how then does Scripture in this place ascribe the name of the hypostasis to the Father alone, and describes the Son as form of the hypostasis, and designated not by His own proper notes, but by those of the Father?  For if the hypostasis is the sign of several existence, and the property of the Father is confined to the unbegotten being, and the Son is fashioned according to His Father’s properties, then the term unbegotten can no longer be predicated exclusively of the Father, the existence of the Only-begotten being denoted by the distinctive note of the Father.


My opinion is, however, that in this passage the Apostle’s argument is directed to a different end; and it is looking to this that he uses the terms “brightness of glory,” and “express image of person.”  Whoever keeps this carefully in view will find nothing that clashes with what I have said, but that the argument is conducted in a special and peculiar sense.  For the object of the apostolic argument is not the distinction of the hypostases from one another by means of the apparent notes; it is rather the apprehension of the natural, inseparable, and close relationship of the Son to the Father.  He does not say “Who being the glory of the Father” (although in truth He is); he omits this as admitted, and then in the endeavour to teach that we must not think of one form of glory in the case of the Father and of another in that of the Son, He defines the glory of the Only-begotten as the brightness of the glory of the Father, and, by the use of the example of the light, causes the Son to be thought of in indisso141luble association with the Father.  For just as the brightness is emitted by the flame, and the brightness is not after the flame, but at one and the same moment the flame shines and the light beams brightly, so does the Apostle mean the Son to be thought of as deriving existence from the Father, and yet the Only-begotten not to be divided from the existence of the Father by any intervening extension in space, but the caused to be always conceived of together with the cause.  Precisely in the same manner, as though by way of interpretation of the meaning of the preceding cause, and with the object of guiding us to the conception of the invisible by means of material examples, he speaks also of “express image of person.”  For as the body is wholly in form, and yet the definition of the body and the definition of the form are distinct, and no one wishing to give the definition of the one would be found in agreement with that of the other; and yet, even if in theory you separate the form from the body, nature does not admit of the distinction, and both are inseparably apprehended; just so the Apostle thinks that even if the doctrine of the faith represents the difference of the hypostases as unconfounded and distinct, he is bound by his language to set forth also the continuous and as it were concrete relation of the Only-begotten to the Father.  And this he states, not as though the Only-begotten had not also a hypostatic being, but in that the union does not admit of anything intervening between the Son and the Father, with the result that he, who with his soul’s eyes fixes his gaze earnestly on the express image of the Only-begotten, is made perceptive also of the hypostasis of the Father.  Yet the proper quality contemplated in them is not subject to change, nor yet to commixture, in such wise as that we should attribute either an origin of generation to the Father or an origin without generation to the Son, but so that if we could compass the impossibility of detaching one from the other, that one might be apprehended severally and alone, for, since the mere name implies the Father, it is not possible that any one should even name the Son without apprehending the Father.2043


Since then, as says the Lord in the Gospels,2044he that hath seen the Son sees the Father also; on this account he says that the Only-begotten is the express image of His Father’s person.  That this may be made still plainer I will quote also other passages of the apostle in which he calls the Son “the image of the invisible God,”2045 and again “image of His goodness;”2046 not because the image differs from the Archetype according to the definition of indivisibility and goodness, but that it may be shewn that it is the same as the prototype, even though it be different.  For the idea of the image would be lost were it not to preserve throughout the plain and invariable likeness.  He therefore that has perception of the beauty of the image is made perceptive of the Archetype.  So he, who has, as it were mental apprehension of the form of the Son, prints the express image of the Father’s hypostasis, beholding the latter in the former, not beholding in the reflection the unbegotten being of the Father (for thus there would be complete identity and no distinction), but gazing at the unbegotten beauty in the Begotten.  Just as he who in a polished mirror beholds the reflection of the form as plain knowledge of the represented face, so he, who has knowledge of the Son, through his knowledge of the Son receives in his heart the express image of the Father’s Person.  For all things that are the Father’s are beheld in the Son, and all things that are the Son’s are the Father’s; because the whole Son is in the Father and has all the Father in Himself.2047  Thus the hypostasis of the Son becomes as it were form and face of the knowledge of the Father, and the hypostasis of the Father is known in the form of the Son, while the proper quality which is contemplated therein remains for the plain distinction of the hypostases.


2022This important letter is included as among the works of Gregory of Nyssa, as addressed to Peter, bp. of Sebaste, brother of Basil and Gregory.  The Ben. note says:  “Stylus Basilii fetum esse clamitat.”  It was moreover, referred to at Chalcedon as Basil’s.  [Mansi, T. vii. col. 464.]

2023    ὁμοουσιοι.

2024    ὑφεστῶσαν. ὑπόστασις is derivatively that which “stands under” or subsists, ὃ ὑφέστηκε.  cf. my note on Theodoret, p. 36.

2025    Job i. 1, LXX.

2026    Job ii. 11.

2027    The mss. vary as to this parenthetical clause, and are apparently corrupt.  The rendering above is conjectural, but not satisfactory.

2028    1 Cor. xii. 11.

2029    ὁ μονογενὴς θεός is the reading of the Sinaitic and Vatican mss. in John i. 18.  The insertion of the words οὐδὲ ὁ υιἰος, adopted by R.V. in Matt. xxiv. 36, but of which St. Basil knows nothing, as appears from his argument on the difference between the statements of St. Matthew and St. Mark on this subject in Letter ccxxxvi., is supported by these same two mss.

2030    John i. 3.

2031    Col. i. 17.

2032    ἀνάρχως.

2033    ἀγεννήτως καὶ ἀνάρχως ὑφεστῶσα.

2034    For similar statements by St. Basil, cf. De Sp. S. p.  cf. also Cont. Eunom. i:  ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡ ἀρχὴ τῷ υἱῷ, κατὰ τοῦτο μείζων ὁ πατὴρ ὡς αἴτιος καὶ ἀρχή.

2035    cf. notes, pp. 15, 24.

2036    μετὰ τὸν υἱόν.  So the Benedictine text with four mss. in the Paris Library, and the note.  “μετὰ τοῦ υἱοῦ” is a reading which is inadmissible, repeating as it does the sense of the following clause καὶ σὺν αὐτῷ.  The sense in which the Son is both “after the Son” and “with the Son” is explained further on by St. Basil, where he says that the three Persons are known in consecution of order but in conjunction of nature.

2037    ὑποστῆναι.

2038    Rom. viii. 9; 1 Cor. ii. 12.

2039    Apparently a mistaken interpretation of the LXX. version of Ps. cxix. 131, εἵλκυσα πνεῦμα=”I drew breath.”  A.V. and R.V., “I panted.”  Vulg., attraxi spiritum.

2040    ὥσπερ ἐκ αἰνίγματι.  cf1 Cor. xiii. 12.  ἐν αἰνίγματι or ἐξ αἰνιγμάτων, as in Æsch., Ag. 1113=by dark hints.  The bold oxymoron concluding this sentence is illustrated by Ovid’s “impietate pia” (Met. viii. 477), Lucan’s “concordia discors” (Phars. i. 98), or Tennyson’s “faith unfaithful.”

2041    The scientific part of the analogy of the rainbow is of course obsolete and valueless.  The general principle holds good that what is beyond comprehension in theology finds its parallel in what is beyond comprehension in the visible world.  We are not to be staggered and turn dizzy in either sphere of thought at the discovery that we have reached a limit beyond which thought cannot go.  We may live in a finite world, though infinite space is beyond our powers of thought:  we may trust in God revealed in the Trinity, though we cannot analyse or define Him.

2042    Heb. i. 3.

2043    The simpler explanation of the use of the word hypostasis in the passage under discussion is that it has the earlier sense, equivalent to οὐσία.  cf. Athan., Or. c. Ar. iii. 65, iv. 33, and Ad. Apos. 4.

2044    John xiv. 9.

2045    Col. i. 15.

2046    This phrase is not in the Epistles, nor indeed does the substantive ἀγαθότης occur in the N.T. at all.  “Image of his goodness” is taken from Wisdom vii. 26, and erroneously included among the “words of the Apostle.”

2047    cfJohn xiv. 11.


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