Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

Cognizance «in persona». The element of Freedom // Cognizance «in persona». The element of Love

Freedom and Divinity in Ancient Greek thought and the Fathers

V. Bakouros

Christian Love – Part 2

The ancient Greek philosophers may have progressed significantly in their search for God; however, they finally reached a dead end. This dead end was the result of a “subjugated God”, who was not the master of his own existence!  And this is where the superiority of Christian revelation became evident; when God Himself –through our Fathers- clarified the solution to this problem.

This article is the second part of the extract from an article by the University teacher V. Bakouros that was published in the magazine “TREETO MAHTI” (December 2004 edition No.128, pages 22-26, with the general title “Socialistic Social Solidarity and Christian Love”).

This article is being re-published, by kind courtesy of the magazine, and will be completed in a series of segmented articles.

This morph -of a subjugated divinity- did not of course worry all of the pre-Christian religions, because either those societies that believed in this did not have the necessary gnostic background to analyze such a speculation, or, because freedom did not constitute an organic part of those societies’ lifestyle.  

But it did preoccupy the -rational or not- Hellenic philosophical Reason, especially that of Plato who, for the sake of solving this fundamental problem of divine self-definition transposed it to another level of speculation, but did not essentially solve it.  Plato proposed that the gods are what they are, but within a framework ordained by Eimarmeni, otherwise known as the cosmic Destiny, or, more accurately translated, the cosmic order-harmony. In the light of such hermeneutics, the problem appears to be solved gnostically, but not morally. This theory takes the problem of  “self-compulsion” and turns into a problem of  “hetero-definition”, thus multiplying subjugation.  The nature of divinity is no longer defined by the compulsory element that its very essence imposes; instead, the essence itself is such (divine), because it has been so ordained by a superimposing factor that is above the gods themselves: Destiny.

This ontological problem is not only theological in its essence but also philosophical, given that the way in which man is seen to perceive God is directly influenced by the way in which man perceives himself and is led into self-understanding.

The Hellenic (or Hellenic-speaking) Fathers of the first centuries (Athanasius the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, Vasileios the Great, Gregory of Nyssa) and even the heretics (Origen, Theodore Mopswestias) immediately perceived the criticality of the problem. If they were to strive for a new anthropology through a new Community (the Church), they had to previously provide such a solution to Plato’s philosophical impasse, that would first convince gnostically and thereafter be selected as a living experience.

They naturally used the gnostic tools of Hellenic rumination by selecting the tradition of Aristotle, whose normative methods provided the prerequisites for safer conclusions.

Based on the Aristotelian speculation regarding the Essence of beings, they started by distinguishing between the Essence and the Persona in the God of Christianity, by viewing the persona not as a simple expression of the essence, but as a logical proof of it.  Given that the essence of God is inaccessible gnostically, the only thing that man can speculate on, is the persona of God, since it was presented voluntarily, within History. For man, God exists because He is a Persona, not because He is an Essence.

Thus, by theologically preserving the essence of divinity from the scandal of its enclosure in the finite human mind, they formulated a theological speculation with the form of a philosophical system and indeed, based on the Hellenic Word. This system was an ontological one as regards the essence of man and existential-moral-gnosiological as regards God and Man.

Thus, philosophical thought from then on was rendered mainly Aristotelian, and not because the Fathers weren’t familiar with the earlier Plato or the pre-Socratic philosophers. On the contrary, it was precisely because they had embraced in depth the Platonic system, that they had perceived its gnostic impasse and had striven to overcome it.  To the Fathers, Aristotelian thought was not looked upon as a mere hermeneutic tool (which in itself was by no means negligible, as a scientific enterprise); it was used as a construction tool, for the formulation of a new theological perception (of God), as well as a new philosophical stance (for Man).

Love now became a philosophical notion instead of a vague sentiment, without however losing its emotional weight. It is worth noting that the noun for ‘Love’ (Greek=ÁãÜðç - Agape) is used in Greek literature for the first time by Christian thought, as a derivative of the verb “agapo” which was already encountered in Homer’s work (Odyssey, v.289). It is also worth noting that, during the first Christian usage of this term, it had already acquired a social content:  In the first years of Christianity, the common meals of the faithful were called “Agapes”.  The contextual term “eros” is closer related to the corporal realization of the sentiment of love. It is used by Homer (Odyssey 212) and in all of his references or interpretations he  uses it to denote the carnal attraction and the sentiment that underlies it. This is the kind of activity that is latent in the homonymous God that is so characteristically portrayed in the Hellenistic years mainly.

In evangelical terminology, the word “agape” was preferred, as being a more general term and less dependent on bodily functions, hence easier to relate to God, who is “spirit”.

Love, therefore, is -for divine personae- a spontaneous expression, an act of communion between them. It is spontaneous, in the sense that it is freely chosen by each persona, because it is not imposed by God’s essence, since that essence per se cannot “have” any volition.  Volition presupposes the procedure of self-defining and God as essence “cannot” be contra-distinguished with anything else so that it can define itself, as Aristotle teaches.

To be more specific, God’s essence is pre-eternal, beyond time, and it cannot be registered in full, in any dialectic relation to something “other”, since there is nothing analogous, or similar, or opposite to it.  This is the very source of “being”. Self-defining, however, presupposes a point of reference – but, a point of reference besides this source cannot exist without eliminating it, since it would then exist as the “something” that would be “beyond” God. This is the familiar (Aristotelian) argument of “the third person”, with which the philosopher opportunely undermined the philosophical prestige of the Platonic theory of Ideas.

This was the same cogitative means that was used by the Fathers in their ontological perception of God. This doesn’t mean they manufactured an idea of God. The issue was not to create a rational theological system. Patristic thought s not an original philosophical composition. It is an interpretational enterprise. It was necessary to rationalize -as much as was possible- the Logos of God as recorded in the Gospels, so that He can become more perceptible and therefore experienced.  So they used the only worthy philosophical instrument of their time: the Hellenic Word.

The fruit of this enterprise was the introduction – or, rather, the invocation- of the divine personae. In fact, the Cappadocian Fathers related the term “persona” with the term “hypostasis”, by suggesting (on the basis of the available and versatile Aristotelian terminology) that the “persona” is that which provides “hypostasis” (existence) to the essence.

If, therefore, the essence of God has no volition (with our noetic measures), the personae of God do have volition, because they define themselves, within a process of relations of each one to the other.

Therefore it is their volition to be such personae. So far, God “has succeeded” –through the Fathers- in being a “necessary being”, that is, a being that is subjugated to necessity (with regard to its essence) and free (with regard to its persona), thus overcoming the Platonic impasse of the slave (of Destiny) God.

But it still hasn’t attained unity, thus allowing for the potential of polytheism to appear.

This ontological problem was solved by the Fathers, with the invocation of the existential dimension of Love (Agape), given that the divine personae willingly –of their own free volition- love one another and are thus in communion with each other. “In communion” does not imply ordinary “communication”, but a “co-existence”, and, in the case of God, “communion” is the unifying factor of the one essence, since God “exists” in the form of personae and not of essence.

The immense ontological upheaval that was brought about by the Fathers with the introduction of the concept of “Agape” as an existential category in the arsenal of Hellenic philosophical Reason, was that the essence (necessity) exists in the manner that the persona chooses and it is not that which defines the existence of the persona, since it (the essence) “cannot” exist without the persona, as it alone does not have the “volition” to exist.


Continuation, with topic: “Love and Triunity


 Excerpt from the magazine “TREETO MAHTI”, December 2004 edition No.128, pages 22-26.  Article written by V. Bakouros, with the general title “Socialistic Social Solidarity and Christian Love”.


Translation by A.N.

Greek text

Article published in English on: 21-9-2005.

Last update: 13-10-2005.