What is meant by the "Substance" of God?
By Paul Petersen
In the Trinitarian discussion the concept of the divine "substance" plays a significant role. In popular presentations the history of the term is often forgotten, and consequently the usage of the expression is at times misguided, and the concept misunderstood. Contrary to much popular usage, when Church fathers used the expression "sustantia" about the essence of God's being, the purpose was not to designate some kind of quasi-physical "matter" of which the core of divine being was composed.
The Latin term "substantia" came to be used as a translation of the Greek "ousia", "being", along with the word "persona" for the Greek "hypostasis," saying "one being, three persons." At the time of the Early Church of the 3rd and 4th centuries, some confusion at times reigned because the term "substantia" in some circles was used as a translation of the Greek "hypostasis", not in itself strange as the two words in Latin and Greek, respectively, share similar etymological meaning.
What was then meant with the "ousia/substantia" of God by Church fathers such as Anastasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine? And what was intended by the use of the words in the creeds?
Not least Anastasius and the Cappadocian fathers fought a Greek dualistic philosophy which tended to make the essential being an ontologically independent entity of the actual phenomena of that very being. If that type of ontological philosophy in the end had gained the upper hand in the Trinitarian discussions, the Church would have had not three persons in the Godhead, but also a fourth ontological entity, an impersonal substance of which the divine persons were composed. However, leading theologians in the Early Church as well as throughout the history of Christianity have consistently argued against such a position.
Rather, the "substance/ousia" was seen by the Cappadocian fathers as those very divine attributes which describe the persons of the one God in their internal relation and characterise them uniquely as God, such as Creator, independent of creation, and consequently, omnipotent, omniscient, and for ever present, and also as Redeemer, working in personal unity to save. In short, the "ousia/substance" of God is relational.
This insight which so drastically contrasted the pervading Greek philosophy, has throughout the ages been lost in various degrees. When that has happened, the understanding of the divine "substance" as a "substance" in the modern sense of something tangible, or at least quasi-physical, has surfaced, and people have tended to describe the commonality between the Father and the Son as their shared substance. For Seventh-day Adventists a unique historical example of an abuse of the term, inspired by Greek dualistic philosophies, is found with J. H. Kellogg whose teaching about the divine substance permeating everything got very close to pantheism.
Ellen White in contrast presents an Adventist example of the classical use of the terminology, in full accordance with the ancient Church creeds and the intention behind the original Trinitarian doctrine as espoused by Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers. Ellen White describes the unity between Father and Son in the following manner, "Jesus said, ‘I and my Father are one.' The words of Christ were full of deep meaning as he put forth the claim that he and the Father were of one substance, possessing the same attributes (Ellen White in "The True Sheep Respond to the Voice of the Shepherd," Signs of the Times, November 27, 1893, 54)."
The secret to the meaning of the term is to understand the way the Bible describes persons. It is often called "anthropology" because we are concerned about the nature of man; but some of the principles apply to our concept of God, even though God of course is different and far beyond our full comprehension, and though our human terms are limited in their ability to grasp God. However, God is throughout the Bible first understood on the basis of what He does. That means that we as humans know Him from the way He has revealed Himself, not from abstract philosophical reflection. God is what He does. Similarly, a human being is defined by the life of that human being in his/her relations.
The true essence of God is not something beyond what God is in his relations. The persons of the Trinity therefore share the basic relations to each other and to the created world. The latter we often label attributes, such as omnipotence, omniscience etc., but in the above quotation from Ellen White, it seems that more than these traditional attributes are in mind. She may also be speaking about the relational aspects as attributes, that is, the mutual love, servanthood, and submission which characterizes God in a unique way as the triune God.