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The Trinity: Distinguishing Between Nature and Person.


The distinction between nature and person is a huge part of Orthodox theology. And Christian theology in general. The Christological controversies of the Ecumenical Councils were due to trying to articulate the Trinitarian revelation brought by Jesus Christ. That God was both one and three. And that one of the three became man and yet remained God. By making the distinction between person and nature, the Fathers of the Church recognised that they were ultimately dealing with a mystery. And resolved to give definitions that at best cleared wrong ideas of what a person is not. As opposed to a specific and definition of what a person is. I still have a ton to read on these issues. But it’s always helpful to map out ones understanding of an issue in order to see where improvement is needed. Writing also helps me to think and see what I believe. The more difficult part is accurately expressing this. So excuse me novice errors as I try and articulate part of what I understand in that great mystery we call the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity states that God is one in essence, but three in person. One ousia, three hypostasis. But it was not always so defined. Much theological and philosophical work had to go into forming the right terminology to express the doctrine correctly. This included the radical innovation in what it meant to be a person. The person is not a part or quality of their nature. But rather is a reality with the nature, which gives the nature it’s grounding in reality or concreteness. The idea that persons are not reducible to the sum total of their nature, is a matter of Christian revelation. For God who is one in essence and yet three in person is the centre of the faith. And the key act of Christianity, the incarnation, displayed that it is possible to predicate action to one member of the Trinity, that is not applicable the others. If essence equals person, and God has only one divine essence, then God is truly only ever one divine person (the heresy of Modalism). It would be just as true to say that the Father died on the Cross at it would be to say the Son (the heresy of Patripassianism). And it would mean that at the incarnation, the one we call Christ is two persons, one a divine nature and the other a human nature, working together (the heresy of Nestorianism).

At the time, it was normal to think of a person as being reducible to a part or whole of their nature. To put it in a simplistic manner, the person simply was the rational nature. The word hypostasis which connotated the realness or being of a thing, was used almost synonymously to mean somethings substance (ousia). For something to have a hypostasis meant that it was more than an abstract idea, but was concrete. So at the time to say that God was three in hypostasis would be to cause confusion. For it would be saying that God had three separate concrete essences. And thus was three separate beings. This was unacceptable for the Monotheism that Christianity held. And it was for such reasons that Eunomius and the Arians rejected the deity of Christ. For them person = nature. And God was one simple and indivisible ousia or hypostasis and thus one person. The word for person (persona), was also problematic. A persona was a mask/character that an actor would put on for a performance in the Greek plays. To say that God had three personas would be to fall into Modalism. For then the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are roles of the one God or ousia. It was later that the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great 330–379, Gregory of Nyssa 332–395 and Gregory of Nazianzus 329–389) combined the two terms of hypostasis and persona, to create the concept of personhood that would be used to describe the Trinity. Hypostasis, which was the realness of a thing, coupled with persona, gave the person a real concrete existence. To now say that God was one in essence but three in person-hypostasis, meant that the persons were not their essence. But rather gave the essence its realness. It also meant that the persons could not be reduced to the some total or part of their essence. nor a relation of an essence to itself.

Thus the divine persons are the irreducible subjective realities of the essence which ground it in existence. Subjective here referring to their self-awareness as opposed to lack of absoluteness. On the contrary, as the grounding of the divine essence, they are the absolutizing principles of its being. They’re the mode/way in which the rational essence has its existence in reality. Just like my rational essence exists in my unique particular mode. There can be no other me, even if my exact same nature and memories were replicated. In that way we do not speak of Kate’s mode of being, as if speaking about *how* Kate is existing/making use of her nature. But rather we speak of the mode of being that *is* Kate. Her subjective particularity and instance, or rather instancing, of human nature, that can never be repeated. So Sarah’s human nature does not equal Sarah. But that specific human nature is Sarah’s. By rational essence, it is not to say that the essence is the subject, but rather that in order for *one* to be a subject, their essence must have rational capacities.

Thus the one divine essence has three hypostasis. Its personal modes/groundings in reality. This is different to modalism. Modalism supposes an already existing essence, and makes the persons relative as being “of” the essence. Since the persons are manifestations of the one essence, the essence has to exist logically prior to the manifestation. It becomes really messy then when the question of whether this is an impersonal or personal essence manifesting three personalities. When we speak of a hypostatic mode, it is different than the relative mode. The person being the mode which grounds the rational essence’s existence, is not prior to the essence or after. Rather the hypostasis and the essence are simultaneous. There is no divine essence which isn’t enhypostasised/enpersoned/grounded in reality. And there is not person that exists sans essence. The essence has no or is no existence on its own sans a person. And a person does not exist sans essence. This then has some interesting Trinitarian implications.

According to the Church of the First Millennia (CFM), since there is only one divine and indivisible essence, and yet three persons, they are distinguished by their hypostatic modes in which they ground the essence. Another dogma is that the Father is the principle hypostasis of the essence. He is logically prior to the other two. The Father’s hypostatic qualities are Unbegottenness and Causality. He grounds the divine essence in by existing in an Unbegotten manner, being from no one. The Son, grounds the divine essence in a begotten manner. And the Spirit grounds the divine essence in a Spirated manner. The beauty of it is in the real unity and diversity this creates. And how one cannot be emphasised without the other. Nor is there are priority of essence or person. But all things existing eternally and simultaneously as they are.

It is true that the Father grounds the essence, logically prior to the Son and Spirit. However, He grounds it as *Father*. If ever there was a time when He was not Father, or He ceased to be Father, then the divine essence would cease to exist. If my person never came into being, then my essence would not be either. But the Father never came into being, so He has always been Father. And as such can never not be Father or there is no essence grounded by the Father. So God only exists because God is Father, thus God has a Son. Sons are images of their Father. And words likewise reveal the person who speaks them. So too Jesus is the Son and Word of the Father. Since he is the Word and Son, he is “of” and logically second to the Father. But since He is the perfect Son and Image, he is like the Father completely in every single way in His essence. But the Father cannot create a second divine essence, since the divine essence is uncreated and thus uncreatable. So the Son partakes of the same divine essence and grounds it too in a begotten manner. The Son therefore is uncreated, divine and internal to the essence. As opposed to creation which is external to the essence. The Holy Spirit too is spirated from Father and thus grounds the essence in a spirated manner. All that is common to the persons is the essence, and all this different is hypostatic. The essence is tri-grounded, tri-hypostasised. Each member fully possessing the one essence and thus deity. Yet each only exists in communion with the other. Though the Father is the principle manner of their existence, he would not exist sans being Father. Thus the divine essence only exists in communion. They are one in essence, and thus one in activity which comes from their use of the essence. That is why our highest good as human beings is to be in communion the Trinity. To share in their own divine life. By partaking not in their divine essence, but energies (divine activities). And though the activities are external to the essence, they are of the divine nature. Uncreated and thus divine. “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (2 Peter 1:4).”

Since there are three divine persons, there will either be three separate principles or one unifying principle. Here is what I mean. If then there is no eternal generation, but each is eternally Unbegotten, then there would be three Divine essences. Or, there is one essence, which exists prior to the three persons, of which they are distinct emanations. In which case, persons are ultimately reducible to a substance. If it is a personal essence then there are really four members of the God head. Or one major, more sublime or prior consciousness with three lesser. If it is an impersonal essence, then the question of how personality arose from impersonality is brought up. Rather there is the simultaneous hypostatic grounding (person) and that which is grounded (essence). With one hypostasis as the principle of the other two.

There is then the threefold distinction of the person, their essence and their activities/energies. And all things predicated of God, will fall under one of those categories. Only that which is essence or energy is common to the persons of the Trinity. While that which is hypostatic cannot be shared. This then is the issue of the Filioque. If all that is meant by this is that the eternal and temporal manifestations of the Spirit’s activities are through the Son, then that is correct. For the Trinity work as one. The Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. But this is in regards to their activities. However the Hypostatic existence of the Spirit does not come through the Son. The spiration of the Spirit is due to the hypostatic quality of causation attributed to the Father alone. That is what makes Him Father. The hypostatic quality cannot be shared unless the Father and Son are actually the same person. On the other hand if it is an essential quality, then it is shared by all three persons and not just the Father and Son. Otherwise, the Spirit is not of one essence with them. If it is of the essence and the Spirit is of one essence, then it is a common activity. Which would make the Spirit spirator of his own hypostasis. If the spiration is only of Father and Son, the Spirit is not of one essence with them. And thus He is external to their essence and is now an activity of Father and Son. Is it any coincidence, that the Spirit is called the Love of the Father and Son? But love is an activity, not an essence or person. Rather it would be better to say that the Spirit makes manifest the love of the Father and Son, by His divine activity of love, in which they all share.

In closing, the person-hypostasis is a mystery. Not reducible to nature or definable by a positive statement. In fact all accurate positive statements on what a person is are at best borders to negate what it is not. Thus persons are inexhaustible and unknowable completely, except by personal communion. It also is the foundation for a libertarian view of free will, where persons, not determined by their nature are ultimately free to accept or reject God. This irreducible nature of personhood, is the foundation for the “mystical” aspect often attached with Orthodoxy. Orthodox “mysticism” as it were is not a rejection of logic and reasoning. Rather it is the realization that a person is more than a set of propositions and can only be truly known by direct experience. And since person =/= nature, they are known primarily, not by their essence but their activities. Thus in Orthodoxy, one can only truly know God personally not in a propositional way, but by direct participation in his eneregies/divine glory. In fact, the divine essence in Orthodoxy is beyond being. Beyond our ontology and comprehension. Wholly other and unknowable. Whilst the energies of the Persons are being itself and the very foundation of our existence. “For in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).” That is what is understood by the doctrine of Theosis/Deification/Glorification and the Essence/Energies distinction. That we can become what God is in his energies by participation, while still remaining creatures since we do not partake of the essence. The energies are not created effects of God, for then there would be no participation in God himself. But a creature. Rather the energies are Trinitarian usage of the essence. God’s manifestations in being of who he is by the power inherent to his divine essence. And since God is fully and indivisibly present in each of his works. To participate in his energies, is to participate in God.

The idea then that persons are irreducible to nature and  known only by personal experience, coupled with the notion that the God’s essence is unknowable, place the highest form of knowing God beyond propositional facts. As well as the ontological limits of our understanding, as creatures in being, serving a God beyond being, all make for the organic and relational dynamic in Orthodoxy, that often pass for mysticism. The supremacy of personhood, and value of human beings and human freedom are all tied to the Trinitarian nature of God.And as Christ himself said “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:1-3).

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).”

“The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature“:78 “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”79 “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”80 “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”81  (

‘’For theological anthropology, the patristic definition of person-hypostasis as relation suggests that it is in personal, or hypostatic, relations that human persons, or hypostases, actualize their unique mode of being and achieve ontological fullness. Therefore this understanding of person-hypostasis makes it possible to substantiate that, from the Christian point of view, the perfection of the human being depends above all on the profundity of his or her personal relations with divine and human persons. Moreover, the understanding of person-hypostasis as mode of being and relation implies the unknowability of the human being as a person through objectifying analytical methods dealing with different natural qualities and properties. The only way to understand a human person is to join in such a communion with him or her, which is based on personal relations, i.e. the “face to face (prÒswpon prÕj prÒswpon)”30 relations of trust and love. The sine qua non condition of such relations and consequent communion consists in the mutual openness of both the person who is understood and the one who understands.

…However, all these features characterize the personal way of living in an apophatic manner; in the final analysis, they reveal different aspects of the irreducibility of the person-hypostasis to nature (Chursanov).”


Chursanov, Sergey. That They May Be One, As We Are: The Significance Of The Cappadocian Fathers’ Trinitarian Comprehension Of Divine Persons For The Theological Understanding Of The Constitutive Features Of Human Persons. 1st ed. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.,. ‘Catechism Of The Catholic Church – “He Was Conceived By The Power Of The Holy Spirit, And Born Of The Virgin Mary”‘. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Aug. 2015.


2 comments on “The Trinity: Distinguishing Between Nature and Person.

  1. Benjamin Scott
    August 17, 2015

    “In closing, the person-hypostasis is a mystery. Not reducible to nature or definable by a positive statement. In fact all accurate positive statements on what a person is are at best borders to negate what it is not. Thus persons are inexhaustible and unknowable completely, except by personal communion. It also is the foundation for a libertarian view of free will, where persons, not determined by their nature are ultimately free to accept or reject God. This irreducible nature of personhood, is the foundation for the “mystical” aspect often attached with Orthodoxy. Orthodox “mysticism” as it were is not a rejection of logic and reasoning. Rather it is the realization that a person is more than a set of propositions and can only be truly known by direct experience. And since person =/= nature, they are known primarily, not by their essence but their activities.”

    The person/nature distinction is the core of what it means to be human I’d estimate. I say that having wrestled with the inhumanity of the other side as a youth. If we deny this distinction then we are captured as total slaves to our natures, as in Calvinism and other competing theologies which don’t seem to escape their individual orbits of Calvinism…. Nobody in Protestantism really answers these questions or even asks them. I never got that because from childhood these were the real questions of life, even if I didn’t understand how to think through them yet.

    To me the conflation of nature and person is one of the most anti-Christian and dehumanizing things that was ever dreamed up. Wisdom is locked out of the universe of someone who denies his humanity before God. How can such a one even repent before God? He has denied his own creation as a being who exists in God’s image. Many Protestants have syncretistic views that operate off of both sides in different spheres of their activity and thought.

    The idea that person = nature is a denial of personhood as it is swallowed up by nature. It is thus a denial of mankind being created in God’s image in the first place, at least in the full sense. It’s a denial of the glory of what God created man to be and thus a denial of God’s ambitions and love towards us.

    I don’t understand these things on as advanced a level as you are expressing them but I wanted to chime in with my take. Hopefully I’m getting it. If I am expressing anything in error, in your opinion, please correct me. I have learned how theology affects psychology in very deep personal ways since childhood and that’s how I relate to much of this. I am interested in

  2. Pingback: Keeping Up with the Cappadocians | Irish With A Tan

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