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Hypostasis, Existence and Salvation



Understanding the worldview of the Orthodox Church has a lot to do with understanding the incarnation. In fact there is a saying I’ve often heard that in Orthodoxy, the only real dogma is the incarnation. Get that right, and other things fall into place. Errors in theology, can also imply or have at their root certain misgivings about the incarnation and how it relates to humanity as a whole and salvation in particular. A key part to getting it right is to understand the distinction between nature and person. So in this piece, I’ll be putting some ideas about how the two relate in regards to salvation. Particularly salvation as seen in Orthodoxy, which has at its centre the incarnation. These ideas are not new to me, and others have dealt with them much more extensively. However, a good way for me to think or make sure I’ve grasped something is to put in my own words. I would also like to explore the issue from a train of thought that may be slightly different than before. In order to get better clarity on the issue. So we will be look at what a hypostasis is, how it relates to existence and salvation.

The nature person/distinction is key to Triadology and Christology. 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 recognized 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. 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 had the connotation of realness or being of a thing, was used almost synonymously to mean somethings substance or essence (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. 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.

Consider then the difference between an idea of something and a concrete manifestation would be its hypostatisation. So the difference between the thought of a horse in your head, and the horse that you see in front of you is that one of them has being/is concrete, or rather is hypostasised/concretised. What then makes the differences between something being just an idea and something being concrete, or rather something that doesn’t exist, to existence, is a third agent that has the ability to give concreteness to things. This would be God.

A human abstracted is a rational animal. That is, we are corporeal (material) creatures with a non corporeal aspect (intellect/rationality). The two together are what it takes to have the essence of humanity. This is the logos, principle or form that establishes what it means to be human. These logoi in God, when actualized are his divine energies. He monergistically hypostasizes various things into existence and holds them in it. That is, God alone without the activity of that thing itself, acts as the principle that sustains and keeps it in existence. But the logos of humanity, while brought about in existence by the activity of God alone, is kept in existence by the synergy of man as well. Because the human is a person. They actually are a hypostasis. So a cat or tree is reducible to its nature. And is but a form given concreteness. But a human is more than a form given concreteness. They are not objects and by virtue of their personhood, not reducible to their nature. But they are the living principle or hypostasis of that nature. The hypostasis only has what is unique but the nature what is common and shared by other. All humans are rational animals. But not all people are you. And you’re irreplaceable, since if you ceased to exist, an exact replicated nature would not mean the same hypostasis. It could not. In other words, human *persons* are not forms which God by his will alone hypostasises. But human persons are *hypostasises* themselves, granted to be so by God Himself. In order that they may be like Him.

The hypostasis which enhypostasises a rational form in reality, is a person. The difference between say a cat and person, is between saying that a particular cat is a hypostasized nature and a person hypostasizes a natures. In the former the subject is reduced to either a whole or part of the nature. In the latter the subject is distinct from the nature. And this distinction is not just conceptual. By conceptual I mean the way that the roundness of a ball and the ball itself are two different ideas but in reality there is no separate *thing* called roundness. Such that the ball is not said to be *with* roundness, but *is* round. So persons are not just another way of referring to a rational nature. Rather the person is a reality that is distinct from, but with a nature but not separate from it. In other words persons don’t exist without their essence, and personal essences don’t exist without being personalized (enhypostasized).

With this understanding of personhood some of the theological issues at play in the Orthodox view of salvation should become clearer. With other things in creation, God monergistically hypostasizes them. So cat, dog, trees and nature in general, exists by the will of God solely. But for humans, each person is a hypostasis of their human nature not God. And they remain in existence by concretising a divine logos, human nature, by participating in the energy/activity of that logos which gives it the power to exist. To boil it down then, the divine logoi are the divine principles or blueprints of what can exist, a hypostasis or hypostatised logoi is the particular existence of a thing, and the divine activity or energy is what allows a thing to exist and determines what sort of thing it will be by giving power to a logos.

All natures then are created for specific ends. And by doing so, participate in the divine energy of their existence. If a thing stopped being what it was meant to be, then it stops participating in the energy that gives it its existence. This is where the problem comes in. While other things in existence naturally move towards their ends, humans can choose to move away from or towards God. The end/purpose/telos/final cause for human nature is the image of God. That’s God’s will for human nature and it’s inherent to us. What is moral and what makes us virtuous are actions and dispositions that move us in the direction of fulfilling that image. Moving in the opposite direction is what constitutes evil. In fact since God is the source of its fulfillment, it is moving away from Him. It is a return to corruption, death, nonexistence. Because it’s trying to have immortality, life and existence without the source of all those things. Aiming for something that doesn’t exist. An idol. So if man moves towards the divine energies powering the logos of his existence, he’ll remain in being. If not, he will cease to be.

To somewhat illustrate this, think of the logoi as transparent images of various things like dogs and cats. Then think of God’s activity as the light that shines through them, projecting those images on a wall (which will be existence). God keeps those other images in place by himself. For humans however, each person holds their own image. The more you move away from the light, the weaker the image becomes on the wall. Moving it completely out of line of the light, would cause your image to lose all projection. This is in essence the view of human nature espoused by St Athanasius in his famous work “On the Incarnation.” And what seems to be the over arching view of salvation in the Orthodox Church.

“But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption [Wisdom vi. 18.].” And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, “I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you: but ye die as men and fall as one of the princes [Psalm lxxxii. 6].” This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says: God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world [Wisdom ii. 23].” When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment. Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and rapine filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice, all kinds of iniquities were perpetrated by all, both singly and in common.”

So we see that the existence of humanity, depends on both a human and divine synergy. Some balk at this because their own Christian traditions have assumptions about the nature and relation between God and man. God’s determination for some, is to the exclusion of human freedom as any real factor. Even then freedom is defined in such a form that God could determine it however way he wants. However this is not so in Orthodoxy. There are certain things God can’t or won’t do in relation to us, because of how he made us. He would be going against his own will for humanity, which is inherent to how we were created to be. Persons given free will, can choose not to and as such are at risk of going out of existence. That’s what character is about. Adam and Eve were not created with a righteous nature, but a functioning one. Natures (substances/non personal parts) are only good or bad to the degree that they conform to their design. A good car works, a bad car doesn’t, none of which are of moral value. Evil comes about by the deliberate misuses of natural properties. That’s why sanctification is important. And that’s why creatures are free. Since character is a personal property of a persons use of their will, God cannot make you have it without forfeiting freedom. So since righteousness is an attribute of persons, and thus of the will, Adam couldn’t have been created with a righteous nature, but a functioning one. He was in a state of righteous (justified- right with God) but had to himself become righteous in character, acting in accordance with what is good for his nature, in order to remain in that state of Grace (connected to God). Thus our natures circumscribe or qualify our choices. But they don’t determine which choice is acted upon. That’s the Person who does that. Thus they’re choices are not just happenings or events in a long chain of causation, already determined. Rather the agent, determines what direction they will go in. Free will therefore must be agent causation not event causation. So in order to save man, over-riding the will was not an option.

Simply giving them more existence wouldn’t work either. That existence *is* their participation in the divine energies. God *is* already giving them existence simply by virtue of the fact that they have a nature which they are existing (enhypostasising). But they can as mentioned before turn away from the energies that sustain them. To deny that man could ever have this power, would be to deny man is a hypostasis, because it precisely in light of him being a hypostasis that this is possible. Otherwise persons are reduced to natures like cats and trees (don’t worry, I’m not picking on them, I love both). And as someone mentioned before, even God did keep supplying mankind with existence, it would only be like continuously blowing air in a balloon with a hole in it. Or trying to fill a bucket with holes in it. These would be outside or external solutions, to an internal problem. Also it would not reflect on God’s character and justice, if people who turned against the source of life, were continuously rewarded for their evil by receiving life itself. Here again is Saint Athanasius on the issue.

“Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits.”

This then left the dilemma; Satan tempted and succeed in getting mankind to fall, to their own doom. If God overdid man’s freedom, it would defeat the purpose of having mankind in the first place. If God however let humanity disappear into non-being, his will for human nature, its end to be glorified and exist forever, would have been thwarted. Showing the devil’s will as able to overcome the will of God. Then too, there is the issue of justice. God cannot simply stand by, letting evil go on without its natural consequence. What was the solution then? God did something to both keep human nature in existence forever, whilst not over riding the free will of persons; to *enhypostasises* human nature. That is the Son of God, took on human nature in his own person. Such that the essence of humanity was now enhypostasized, by a divine person. God incarnated. This is different to what God was doing before. For cats and trees, God gives and grounds them in existence. But he does not become a cat or tree. Nor does he give them personhood such that they ground themselves in existence. For humans God creates them each as persons, being their own hypostasis and grounding themselves in existence by virtue of participation in God’s energies. Which they can move towards or away from. At the incarnation a divine person takes on a human nature and now grounds it in existence by virtue of his own hypostasis. So that since humanity is mystically united together, the incarnation means that its existence would no longer depend on a human hypostasis that could fail to exist. But a divine one that could not. By becoming man, a divine person was no longer externally related to humanity, but internally. By this union, what happens to His human nature is passed on to everyone else. That is why since Christ conquered death, all will be raised from the dead. So people are free to reject God if they will, but human nature has been so transformed by virtue of one man, Jesus Christ, that the full consequence no longer attains. Since His humanity will exist forever, all humanity will too. This is not God overruling his divine judgement, or God suspending the natural consequences; corruption and death. Rather it is God, by the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, overcoming the natural obstacles. So that the human persons who repent could have a relationship with God restored for all eternity. As Saint Athanasius puts it:

“As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.”

The package deal is that in order to save the repentant, the unrepentant would be saved also, as far as their natures were concerned. Though personally they would not be reconciled to God. And as such, the divine Glory that will one day permeate and clean all creation, would become joy for the prepared, but torment for the unprepared. Also the prepared would have their characters perfected in order to enjoy their new perfected human natures. The unprepared would not have their characters perfected and would in a sense be trapped in a state where their characters and habits wish to actualize and do things that their new existence won’t allow them. That too would be torment. This horrible end is not what God wants for human persons. But if they resist their own good, it is the inevitable consequence of their free will. So God the Father’s purposes for humanity, to exist forever and freely come into a relationship with the Trinity will be actualized. But whether that turns out good or bad for each person, is up to themselves.<

Adam was a Son of God, but He failed. Israel was God’s Son, and meant to be a light to the nations. So God in Christ does for us, what we could not for ourselves. He did it in such a way that the integrity of the human person and God’s design for our nature would both be preserved. By becoming one of us, God worked both sides of the divine-human synergy. And just as “death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).”

“I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm achieved salvation for me (Isaiah 63:5).”

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