Neo-Arianism and the Cappadocian Fathers

Neo-Arianism and the Cappadocian Fathers

Svetoslav Ribolov


Sofia University “St Kliment Ochridski”                                                           DOI                                                      
Faculty of Theology 20 June 2020
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Abstract: The Cappadocian Fathers – Basil the Great, Gregory th Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa – represent central figures in the anti-Arian polemic of the 4th c. AD. Their theological thought is based on the achievements of ancient philosophy and modified through the perspective of the apostolic teaching on the salvation of the human being. Their involvement in the Arian controversy is the key in order to understand Orthodox Theology, the Orthodox teaching on the Trinity of God and the consequences of this issue in relation with ascecis, the path to salvation and the knowledge about God.

Key Words: Arianism, Patristics, Ancient Christianity, Cappadocians


The Cappadocian fathers are particular important as authoritative teachers of the theology of the Greek East. Their works are considered treasures of the Byzantine theology and are cited in many of the vast volumes written and copied by monks during the Medieval Ages. Their intellectual authority is well known not only in the Greek speaking Christian tradition but also in the West. Subsequently through the influence of the Greek speaking tradition the Cappadocian fathers became known in the Slavic speaking world and remain of central important when it comes to the most important topics of Christian theology. For example, the doctrine of Trinity, Christology and the knowledge of God.

Their particular contribution in the debate with the Neo-Arians or the so-called “eunomians” and “anomoeans” is centered on the question of divine knowledge. The serious question of Godlikeleness, i.e. the possibility of the human person to become alike God is a direct consequence of the question of divine knowledge. Godlikeleness can be considered a process of spiritual ascent or progress[1].

According to St. Basil of Caesarea, the Christian worldview suggests that nature does not follow the name, but rather the names are invented after things, objects and reflect them as such (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 4). The Neo-Arian Eunomius overestimates the capabilities of the human mind by believing in its immediate capacity to attain the knowledge of God within the framework of human logic, something that is contrary to the understanding of the Eastern patristic tradition of man’s spiritual development on his way to salvation. This process is realized through purification (κάθαρσις), mind’s enlightenment (φωτισμός) and deification (θέωσις, θεοποίησις). Moreover this is a process of constant motion and cannot be considered static and is adapted to the current state of human nature. Of course, these three stages of the Christian’s spiritual development vary both terminologically and substantively in the writings of the various theologians of Greek patristic literature. 

However according to this context human nature bears the blemish of corruption from the illness of death – the consequences of sin, as Apostle Paul affirms (Rom. 5-6 ch.). Insofar as humans remain in this state after the Fall of man, they are trapped under the yoke of passions, their mind and their will is diverted from the spiritual and directed to the carnal (Rom. 8). They find themselves in a genuine lack of divine knowledge as a consequence of sin and therefore commit themselves to base deeds (Eph. 4:17-19) This is something that St. Gregory the Theologian emphasizes inspired by Apostle Paul. It is a teaching that opposes the rationalist maximalism in the field of gnoseology expressed by Eunomius and Aetius. In this case really significant are the Five Theological Orations of St. Gregory

St. Basil of Caesarea developed his opposition to this gnosiological maximalism in the same direction by affirming the inability of human names to express God’s nature. The Cappadocian father considers that the search for difference in names as a difference in nature is nothing more than false wisdom (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 3). To prove this he resorts to Aristotle and his understanding on the formation of language (see Basilius, Contra Eunomium 1, 10). Following Aristotle (Aristoteles, De Interpretatione II, 16a:)[2], states that  „the designations do not signify the substances, but rather the distinctive features that characterize the individual“ (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 4; see also Hexaemeron III, 2),the designations are actually the result of some convention between those who using them and they cannot be considered derived from the nature“ (Aristоteles, De interpretatione II)[3].

St. Basil in opposition to Eunomius’s thesis, argues that the peculiar mode of coexistence between Father and Son is not mean their difference of their essences. He does not attempt to identify their essence, which, according to the Nicene Creed is one for both of Them and completely inaccessible to the creation as a whole and to the human mind in particular (Basilius, Ep. LII (PG, 32, 393A; 396A), but only their different hypostases, assuming that the common thing they have is the essence – the deity while the particular is determined by their individual hypostatic attributes, properties (ἰδιότητες, ἰδιώματα).  By successfully preventing the Savelian merging of the Trinitarian hypostases at the same time St. Basil overcame the Arian theological teachings on this issue. He achieved that because in his teaching unity is maintained in essence and difference in hypostasis, a teaching that does not claim to reveal the mystery of the Trinity in a comprehensive manner but is functional in affirming the much-contested Nicene consubstantiality.

Coming back to the concept of “essence” (οὐσία), we should note that the Cappadocian Fathers were aware of the problem of Nicaea’s adversaries precisely in the sphere of categorical, philosophical speculation par excellence; in what Aristotle calls “the first philosophy” and what we commonly nowadays call “metaphysical premises.” The Cappadocian Fathers understand the slipperiness of the formulation of γεννηθέντα…ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός, inserted along with the “consubstantial” (τὸ ὁμοούσιον) in the Nicene Creed. This formula is considered as something imposed but unexplained thus leading to the ambiguity of the concept of οὐσία and leaves unclear the application of the Aristotelian categories of essence (οὐσία) and “relationship” (προς τι) in the sphere of Trinitarian theology or what the Fathers call simply “theology” (θεολογία).[4]

In dividing the names in common and proper, St. Basil in his 38th Letter  to his brother Gregorius sets out the formal principle by which they could be defined as such. In one case the name refers to the general nature (ἡ κοινότης τῆς φύσεως) of what is signified and in the second case the nature that underlies the designated object (ὑφεστῶσαν τὴν φύσιν) (Basilius, Ep. XXXVIII, 2-3). In order to describe the individual, it is necessary to specify the characteristics or attributes (ἰδιώματα) of the person (ibid.). This statement of St. Basil is similar to what Porphyry the neoplatonist philosopher has also said.[5] In his attempt to formulate what an individual is Porphyry gives the following explanation: “such is called an individual because each is made up of particular attributes, the sum of which would never be obtained from the other” (ἄτομα οὖν λέγεται τὰ τοιαῦτα, ὅτι ἐξ ἰδιοτήτων συνέστηκεν ἕκαστον, ὧν τὸ ἄθροισμα οὐκ ἄν ἐπ’ἄλλου ποτὲ τὸ αὐτὸ γένοιτο) (Porphyrius, Isagoge, CAG 4A, 7, 21-23).

In this sense the way of existence of hypostasis is reflected in their attributes, i.e. the hypostastic attributes by which the divine hypostases are recognized, which is the only thing in them that is not common to all of them (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 28-29). Since these attributes consist in what St. Basil says, simply that we have known some attributes that can be observed in the nature of the Father and the Son; for this reason we can have a clear knowledge of these two hypostases, without being forced to accept a different in their common essence (οὐσία) (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2,28).

In relation to this St. Gregory the Theologian rejects Eunomius’s argument that the name “non-begotten” expresses the Father’s essence (οὐσία) while claims that it could not express the essence as much as it expresses deprivation, because the one who is not begotten is the one who has not begotten-ness (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 29, 12). St. Gregory clearly uses a position found in Aristotle’s logic that deprivation is prerequisite for the generations of things (see Aristoteles, Physica 191b),[6] while the content of the deprivation constitutes a lack of actual semantic accuracy where it should exist. Thus deprivation represents the possibility of form (τὸ εἶδος) while the disposition (ἕξις) is the relation of the form, i.e. its activation[7]. Generation has as its starting point the deprivation and for its purpose – the form or the realization of the form in the active cause that precedes the deprivation of the realization (Aristoteles, Categoriae, 12ab).[8]

Otherwise the common position in the thought of the Cappadocian Fathers is the fact that the name does not designate the essence of things, nor does it express it by any definition. According to St. Basil and St. Gregory Theologian names that somehow follow or are derived from our thoughts designate energies (actions) not the essence.[9] They follow the various energies and manifestations of the Creator in relation with the creation (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 1, 7). In other words the name “unbegotten” and moreover “Father” should related more with the energies, with that that is “last in God” and “out of the inside of Him.”  

Nonetheless during the course of the controversy the Eunomians adapt their position by maintaining that the name of the “Father” expresses the essence in the following way: if the name “Father” expresses movements or energies, then the Son is necessarily created, because according to their logic it is the creation of the Father (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 29,16). In order to answer to this strong argument, St. Gregory the Theologian replies that the name “Father” should not be associated neither with nature nor with energy, but with the relationship between “begotten” and “begetter”, which again legitimizes the use of Aristotle’s category “relation” (προς τι) in explaining the Trinitarian theology (see Gregorius Naz. Oratio 29, 16). The idea of St. Gregory the Theologian is that the three hypostases of the Holy Trinity are united by means of the relationships between them in their essence and these relationships make one hypostasis to be exactly what it is and not something else. Therefore, the name “Father” is also a name that designates relation or movement. By avoiding the speculations of anomeans and by arguing that the name does not fully reflect even the energies St. Gregory the Theologian places the discussion on a truly apophatic basis, which proceeds from the premise that the names “Father” and “Son” represent relationships according to the human thinking process. These relationships are attributive to one begetter/parent and one begotten-ness/birth. Moreover, according to St. Gregory these relationships are similar to the relationships we observe in the sensory-perceptual world, such as between father and son (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 31, 10). These similarities, as well as the words expressing them in speech are the consequences of the energies of the whole Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). For this reason it is not possible to claim that the Son is a consequence of the energies of the Father (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 29, 16).

Hence neither the forms of perception, nor the name, nor the meaning that is understood according to the name is capable of providing us with the knowledge of the divine essence. However all these things are capable of providing us with some idea about God’s energies as a unit of the Trinity and as a Trinitarian totality. Based on this premise St. Gregory sets off in a new direction and develops his thoughts. He baffles the eunomians by arguing that the name “Father” can be related in some way to both the essence and the energies (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 29, 16). But in this case both essence and energies are seen as ontological forms in the creation similarities, from which one ascends to the contemplation of the Trinitarian Hypostases and therefore the reflection is done in a way according to the concepts that are common to every human being.[10]

On the other hand, St. Basil formulates his apology against the eunomeans regarding the generation of the Son by the Father in the following way: the generation of the Son from the Father does not mean, as Eunomius states that the Divine essence is subject to material and human suffering. Of course, the idea of generation/birth is as closely related to the suffering of the Son as it is to His relationship with the One who begets Him. The birth of the Son by the Father does not relate to the human mode of birth, so that the divine nature is attributed with human suffering but expresses the essential relationship between the Father and the Son. In other words the names Father and Son do not initially lead to the thought of being born in a passionate-bodily sense, but mainly to the relationship that exists between them (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 5.22.24). St. Basil argues that “Father” means that he provides the being from his nature, and that “Son” means that He received from another the Being by generation/birth (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 22). In this way the relationship etween the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is freed from the indirectness of the relations between the Hypostases in a static plan that emphasizes the common and acquires the meaning of an emphasized causal relationship.[11] In his 38th Letter to his brother St. Gregory, St. Basil the great examines passages in Scripture referring on the distribution of goods, which is the proper way to look for the reasons of their differentiation (Basilius, Ep. XXXVIII, 4). In fact the Hypostases represent unity; this unity is observed from the text of the Scripture as an ordered consistency. In the first place is the Father, which can be identified as the common cause (αἰτία), which precedes the Son. Furthermore, the Father is also the One Who causes the existence of the Holy Spirit that precedes from Him (Basilius, Ep. XXXVIII, 4). Nevertheless St. Basil the Great points out that although the relationship between the Father and the Son may be similar to the causes and what originates from them; in the realm of the divine reality there is no superiority in nature and precedence in time (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 1, 20).

This proposition of St. Basil is rendered even more clear by his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, who unequivocally considers the Father as the source of the Divinity: “In the Holy Trinity things are not as [in men], for one is the person of the Father, from whom the Son is born and the Holy Spirit proceeds. Therefore we rightly say “one God,” since the [Father] is the one cause of all that is caused by Him, since he co-exists with them. For neither in time they are divide the Persons of Divine Essence, neither by place, nor by will, nor by occupation, nor by energy, nor by any passion, from those observed in human beings, except only by the fact the Father is the Father and not the Son that the Son is the Son and not the Father and the Holy Spirit is not neither the Father nor the Son. Therefore, there is no need for us to consider “three gods” the three persons, as we call many persons a bunch of people according the state reasons above and for a similar reason one thing in itself cannot be one and many”  (Gregorius Nyss. Adv. Graecos, PG 45, 180CD).

This is exactly the meaning of the hypostatic names of the divine Hypostases. No one can claim that we abusively give these names to God, because they have demonstrated only the human and bodily way of birth. Nevertheless even if only the idea of generation/birth proceeds from the human reality, when this idea refers to God then the meanings of birth and generation that are related with humans and are humiliating for God must be avoided and only these meanings who apply to the Divine and uncreated nature must be accepted. St. Basil asserts that no human passion must be used in order to consider the immutable essence of God as subject to suffering and change of a changeable nature. It is inappropriate to relate what is without beginning with what is created and limited in a way, so that it is believed that the incorporeal God gives birth in a painful manner like the bodily creatures. The incorruptible and immortal God has properties and modes of existence that are different from those of the creatures. According to St. Basil the incorruptible way of birth is also derived from the fact that the Son is called the Word in Scripture, precisely because it proceeds from the Father without passion, as the word from our mind. Consequently the generation/birth of the Son should not be associated, as in Eunomius, with the will and the action of the Father but with His very Essence (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 22-24). 

According to St. Basil though the Father begets unpassionately from his Essence and this mode of generation/birth constitutes a property by which His Hypostasis is manifested; we still cannot know the exact mode of divine generation/birth, which remains indescribable and completely unknowable in itself. The generation/birth of the Son by the Father is a marvellous and incomprehensible mystery that cannot be understood by human reason. If anyone insists on clarifying this mystery he will surely reach spiritual blindness. He will be blinded like an eye that wants to stare at the sun (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 22, 24; Ep. LII, 3). However it is precisely the causal relationship between the Hypostases of the Trinity that somehow determines the inherent properties in each of them. Thus in his 38th Letter St. Basil identifies two attributes for each Hypostasis, one of which is related precisely at determining its exact position in the causal order of the Trinity and the other defines the relationship with the Person to whom it directly relates.[12] In such  way the Father is the first cause as the Begetter of the Son, the Son is the Son of the Father and is considered inseparable from the Holy Spirit while the attributive characteristics of the Holy Spirit is that It becomes knowledgeable with the Son and after Him and that he receives his being by the Father (Basilus, Ep. XXXVIII, 4).

As far as the mystery of divine generation//birth is considered; it is not subject to the categories that are valid for the created beings such as place and time. Moreover it is impossible for human intellect to grasp it and for language to express it. Therefore the eternal generation/birth of the Son by the Father should not be an object of scientific study but should be accepted and mentioned with silence (Basilius, Hom. in Sanctam Christi generationem 1-2). Silence is the proper explanation of the mystery of divine generation/birth. Nonetheless according to St. Basil the apophatic nature of the mystery of the divine generation/birth does not mean that we must stop believing the Father and the Son. If we could observe and understand everything and even to understand the incomprehensible then we would not stay like that waiting and relying on faith and hope (Basilius, Contra Eunomium 2, 24). According to St. Basil the Great the way in which the Son is born of the Father is indescribable and incomprehensible to every created being and is known only to the Father who begets and to the Son who is born – i.e. it is known to the uncreated Persons of the Holy Trinity. Then what consists the human knowledge of regarding the birth of the Son by the Father? The answer of St. Basil is that the human mind has considerable advanced knowledge in regard with this matter if it realizes the incomprehensibility of that birth (Adv. eos qui per calumniam dicunt dici a nobis deos tres 4). St. Gregory the Theologian shares the same thought. According to him, whatever we think of this great mystery of the inward-divine life we speculate within the framework of the created world while we have before us only the revelations of God’s energies and powers. According to the holy father, we are unable to now anything else about the nature of God with the help of our minds apart from imperfect created similarities. (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 28, 4.). In order to demonstrate the inability of the human mind to comprehend divine knowledge St. Gregory the Theologian uses an extended allegory with Moses on Mount Sinai. This allegory presents the path of the soul from the bodily passions to the undertaking of the way of theology. The final step of this pas is the contemplation of the “last nature” of God, i.e. His uncreated energies (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 28, 3). Since the knowledge of God can only be based on the similarities of truth it has symbolic and apophatic character. Nonetheless St. Gregory the Theologian also asserts that the energies of God are a means located between the world and God, then in undertaking the path of divine knowledge we should not exclude cataphatics (Gregorius Naz. Oratio 30, 17).


[1] See Риболов (2014), 113-127.

[2] “We have already said that a noun signifies this or that by convention. No sound is by nature a noun it becomes one, becoming a symbol. Inarticulate noises mean something – for instance, those made by brute beasts. But no noises of that kind are nouns” (τὸ δὲ κατὰ συνθήκην, ὅτι φύσει τῶν ὀνομάτων οὐδέν ἐστιν, ἀλλ’ὅταν γένηται σύμβολον· ἐπεὶ δηλοῦσί γέ τι καὶ οἱ ράμματοι ψόφοι, οἷον θηρίων, ὧν οὐδέν ἐστιν ὄνομα). Cit. trnsl. Harold P. Cook, On Interpretation, LOEB Library (1962), 117.

[3] Cit. trnsl Mark DelCogliano / Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Against Eunomius, (Washington D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 134. Сf. Basilius, Contra Eunomium 1, 10.

[4] See Каприев (2011), 23–24.

[5] Христов (1997), 33, 39.

[6] Translated by Христов (2012), 47–49.

[7] See Христов (1994), 10–11.

[8] Translated by Христов (2008), 63–67.

[9] The same could be said about the youngest of the three Cappadocians, Basilius brother – Gregory of Nyssa: Contra Eunomium 1, De anima et ressurectione.

[10] Христов (1994), 17–18.

[11] See Kariatlis (2010), 57–83.

[12] Христов (1997), 36.


Basilius Caesar. Contra Eunomium (PG 29, 497-773)

Homiliae et sermones (PG 31, 164-525).

De Spiritu Sancto (PG 32, 68-217).

Adversus eos qui per calumniam dicunt dici a nobis deos tres (PG 31, 1488-1496).

Homilia in Sanctam Christi generationem (PG 31, 1457-1476)

Lettres, t. I, II, III,, ed. Yves Courtonne, Paris, 1957, 1961, 1967.

Gregorius Nazianzenis, Orationes 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 (PG 12-172).

Gregorius Nyssen. Contra Eunomiusm (GNO Iet II, Leiden 1964).

Adversus Graecos (PG 45, 176-185).

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Каприев, Г. (2011), „Византийската философия: понятие, аксиоматика, рецепция“. Архив по средновековна философия и култура 17, 7–31 / (Kapriev, G. (2011), “Vizantiyskata filosofia: poniatyatia, aksiomatika, retseptsia.” Arhiv po srednovekovna filosofia i kultura 17, 7–31)

Христов, Ив. (1994), „Богословието в петте богословски слова на Григорий Назиански“ – увод-кометар към Григорий Назиански, Пет богословски слова, превод и студия Иван Христов (София) / Hristov, Iv. (1994), “Bogoslovieto v pette bogoslovki slova na Grigoriy Nazianski” – uvod-komentar kam Grigoriy Nazianski, Pet bogoslovski slova, prevod i studia Ivan Hristov (Sofia))

Христов, Ив. (1997), „Понятията „същност“ и „ипостас“ в 38 писмо на Василий Велики“. Архив по средновековна философия и култура 4, 31–41/ Hrisov, Iv. (1997), “Ponyatiyata “sashtnost” i “ipostas” v 38 pismo na Vasiliy Veliki.” Arhiv po srednovekovna filosofia i kultura 4, 31–414)

Христов, Ив. (2008), Аристотел. Съчинения в шест тома, т. І: Органон, част І, превод с гръцки текст и коментари (София) / Hristov, Iv. (2008), Aristotel. Sachinenia v shest toma, t. 1: Origen, chast I, prevod s gratski tekst i komentari (Sofia))

Христов, Ив. (2012), Аристотел, Съчинения в шест тома, т. ІІ: Органон, част І, превод с гръцки текст и коментари (София) / Hristov, Iv. (2012), Aristotel. Sachinenia v shest toma, t. II: Origen, chast I, prevod s gratski tekst i komentari (Sofia))

Риболов, Св. (2014), Традиция и контекст в богомислието на гръцките отци (София) / (Ribolov, Sv. (2014), Traditsia i kontekst v bogomislieto na gratskite otsi (Sofia))

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