No Person is an Island

In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Hebrews 1:1-3a

In the previous post, God from God, Light from Light, a development in understanding the being of God was seen in the exegesis of Hebrews 1:3 by Origen and St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. The statement that Christ is “the very imprint,” seal, stamp, impression, or image (charakter, χαρακτήρ) of the Father’s hupostasis (ὑπόστασις) was stretched beyond its original conceptual boundaries (being, essence, nature, substance) to include the notion of person.

But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence.1

Origen (fl. c. 200-254)

For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father’s person.2

St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (fl. c. 248-264)

Later Fathers picked up their thread and contemplated Hebrews 1:3 in a new, personalistic light beyond Greek philosophical categories.

For the apostle says that the Son is the express image of the person of the Father.3

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394)

I believe that there is one God the Father and one Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father. Also that there is one Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, brightness of his glory and express image of the Father’s person…4

Theodoret of Cyr (c. 393-466)

St. John Chrysostom (fl. 386-407), while recognizing that God is utterly beyond thought and conception, embraces the personalistic turn: 

For instance, that God is everywhere we know, but how we do not understand. That there is a certain incorporeal power, the cause of all our good things, we know, but how it is or what it is, we know not. We speak and do not understand! I said that he is everywhere, but I do not understand it. I said that he begot from himself, and again I know not how I shall understand it… 

And to show you that even Paul is weak and does not put out his illustrations with exactness, and to make you tremble and refrain from searching too far, hear what he says, having called him Son and named him Creator, “who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person.”5

St. Athanasius (fl. 325-373), among others, retains the original Greek meaning of hupostasis in Hebrews 1:3, which suits his defense of the Son’s consubstantiality (“one in being”) with the Father:

Therefore, he is true God, existing consubstantially (homoousios) with the true Father, while other beings to whom he said, “I say, ‘you are gods,’” have this grace from the Father only by participation in the Word through the Spirit. For he is the “very stamp” of the Father’s “being,” and “light” from “light,” and the “power” and true “image” of the Father’s substance.6

Both interpretations of hupostasis approach but do not encompass divinity, for being and person are not bounded concepts but fluid, dynamic, interpenetrating realities.

This survey of patristic commentary on Hebrews 1:3 reveals a new revolution in the history of metaphysics.

What God is (being/nature) and Who God is (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) interpenetrate in an indivisible perichoresis (“dance”) without borders.

The notion of “person” is permeable and bursts the bounds of Hellenistic individual substance.

To be a person is to be in all other persons. No person is an island.

-GMC

1 Origen, In Principiis, Book I, Chapter 2, 8.

2 St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, To Alexander of Alexandria, 12.

3 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Faith.

4 Theodoret of Cyr, Letter 83.

5 St. John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Hebrews 2.1.

6 St. Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 1.3.9.

The last four quotations are from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D. W. Krey, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 12-15.

4 thoughts on “No Person is an Island

  1. BJK

    The beautiful icon you posted above dates to ~ 1410, painted by master Andrei Rublev, perhaps the greatest medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons and frescos (1360-1430).
    His life story was depicted in the biographical/historical drama ‘Andrei Rublev’, produced in 1966 during the Soviet era, and critically considered one of the greatest films of all time.
    – from the wiki entry:
    ‘In Rublev’s art two traditions are combined: the highest asceticism and the classic harmony of Byzantine mannerism. The characters of his paintings are always peaceful and calm. After some time his art came to be perceived as the ideal of Eastern Church painting and of Orthodox iconography.’

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Rublev
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Rublev_(film)

    Like

  2. fdan

    Deer GMC, thank you for your reflection. “Reason is our soul’s left hand, Faith her right. By these we reach divinity.” (J. Donne) Thank you for all you do to help us reach there.

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  3. GMC Post author

    Thanks be to God! The reflections of the Church Fathers on the Trinity may seem rather abstruse and remote, but they are the ground of our faith.

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  4. GMC Post author

    Yes, Rublev’s icon is sublime–the height of contemplation on the Trinity in form and color. Thank you for the historical information and for guiding us to the film about him.

    Like

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