Glossary of Trinitarian Terms, Part 4

We continue our series on important terms specifically regarding the Trinity. Our focus for this post is on the hypostasis and the hypostatic union that was controversial during the early church. One more key term to note is the Logos Christology and how that relates to Jesus as the Word of God that is described in John 1. Finally, pay special attention to modalism as this is still practiced today by many Christian churches.

Hypostasis: The Greek word variously renders “person,” “substance,” “subsistence.” In Heb 1:3 it denotes “substance,” “actuality or reality of something.” The term was appropriated by the church fathers in two ways: first by the Cappadocians to denote the personal objective realities that share the same nature, that is, the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as individual divine realities; second by Chalcedon to mean the one person (hypostasis) of Christ as having two unconfused but inseparable natures. (E. Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 443-45)

Immanence: God’s omnipresence in and with his creation, as contrasted with divine transcendence.

Immanent Trinity: The view that centers on the Trinity in and of itself, i.e., as present (immanent) only to itself—a view occasionally expressed in Scripture (Jn 1:1-2,18); thus it focuses on the internal relations between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Traditionally, the Immanent Trinity is assumed as the ontological basis for the Economic Trinity, a posture being questioned by some today. See Economic Trinity.

Incarnation: (Lat. in + caro, carnis, “flesh”) The Son’s act of “taking flesh,” i.e., a full human nature; thus, as Tertullian and later Chalcedon articulated, in the one person Jesus Christ exists the fullness of deity and of humanity (two natures). See Apollinarianism, Chalcedonian Definition, Hypostasis, Nicene Creed.

Logos Christology: The conception of Christ that sees the Son as the pre-existent divine Word (Jn 1:1-3) or expression of God, especially based on the Prologue of the Gospel of John. With both Gk and Heb entailing rich conceptions of logos, 2nd and 3rd century Apologists speculated that the Son was originally only latent in the Father, implying the personal inferiority (subordination) of the Son. Nicea insisted on coeternal equality of the Son’s nature and person as God. See Generation.

Modalism: Advocated especially in the 3rd century, it constitutes a form of Monarchianism in which God diversely manifests himself as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, thus denying eternal distinctions of three persons within the Godhead; the divine names denote only manifestations or modes of expression of a single-personned God. Deemed heretical. See Monarchianism, Patripassionism, Sabellianism.

Monarchianism: A diverse effort especially in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that emphasizes the one principle (arche) or monarchy of God such that it denies the personal distinctiveness of the divine Son and the Holy Spirit in relation to God the Father; expressions include Adoptionism, Modalism, and Sabellianism, deemed heretical.

Monotheism: The belief in one (and only one) personal, omnipotent, omniscient God who created the universe and everything in it, as in classical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; as distinct from Pantheism, Panentheism, polytheism, and atheism.

Montanism: The doctrine of Montanus, a converted priest from a frenetic sect of Asia Minor (c. 155) who claimed special anointing of the Holy Spirit through prophecy, glossalalia, and rigid moral standards by which he challenged the “lax” church; he claimed the old dispensations were now superceded by the law of the Spirit, and that the New Jerusalem would soon be instituted in his home town in Phrygia.

Nature: The fundamental properties, “material” reality, or inherent character that constitutes an individual being; used theologically to signify the being or substance of the three persons of the Godhead; largely synonymous with Essence, Ousia, Substance; see also Consubstantial, Homoousios.

Neo-Platonism: As articulated by Plotinus (d. 270), a dominant Greek philosophy from the 3rd to the 6th centuries that taught that everything that exists comes from the Glossary of Trinitarian Terms 5 ineffable One—a single, impersonal, transcendent source, from which all beings derive. A person “must gradually divest his experience of all that is specifically human, so that in the end, when all attributes have been removed, only God is left.” (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed., 960). See Platonism.


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