Given the Greek philosophical context of the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) in which the Council Fathers articulated the Christian belief and doctrine in the Creeds, it is helpful to come to an Aristotelian philosophical understanding of the terms used in the Creed so that we may understand it clearly.
The Creed, as this word, which comes from the Latin word credo, suggests, is a statement of belief and it begins accordingly: πιστεύω or, as the Council Fathers actually put it, πιστεύομεν, indicating that not only as individuals, but as a community do we believe (Decrees 5, 24). What we profess is a shared belief, mutually substantiated and believed, revealed to the Church, not only to individuals. It is what Aristotle would call ἔνδοξα, which is commonly accepted belief or opinion as opposed to mere δόξα, which is simply individual belief or opinion (Topica 100a30-100b24). This latter is an insufficient premise upon which to build knowledge as Plato demonstrated in his Thaetetus and Meno. Aristotle, however, in the first book of his Topica, carefully distinguishes δόξα from ἔνδοξα and further that which merely appears to be ἔνδοξα and that which really is ἔνδοξα (100b21-101a1). I suggest that the plurality of πιστεύομεν at the beginning of the Creed as written by the Council Fathers indicates something of this same notion of ἔνδοξα. It indicates, that is, a belief that is generally accepted and upon which it is possible to begin true reasoning and not merely “contentious reasoning,” as Aristotle puts it (Topica 101a1-4).
Reasoning, on the other hand, is 'dialectical', if it reasons from opinions that are generally accepted (ἔνδοξα)…. Those opinions are 'generally accepted' which are accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the philosophers - i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them (Topica 100a30 - 100b23).
This true generality of acceptance of the propositions made in the Creed is also indicated at its end when it describes the Church as καθολικὴν, which means general or according to the whole (Decrees 24). Further, the word πιστεύομεν comes from πίστις, indicating faith, trust, and confidence, which is more than mere δόξα. The Creed is not claiming an opinion that what it professes may be true, but rather the confident assurance that it is true. The πιστεύω does not mean, “In my opinion there is a God,” but rather, “I have sure faith in God.” Aristotle uses this word πίστις in his Metaphysics when he writes that “we can convince ourselves… by means of induction” (1067b13-14). Another translation might be, “we can have faith by means of induction.” For Aristotle, then, πίστις indicates not merely an asserted belief but a convinced knowledge that has been arrived at inductively. All knowledge is built upon first principles, which “we must get to know… by induction; for the method by which even sense-perception implants the universal is induction” (Posterior Analytics 100b3-5). St. Paul might agree when he writes, “For faith comes by hearing” (Rom 10:17).
Aristotle writes, “Now reasoning is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them” (Topica 100a25-27). In the Creed, the generally accepted faith (πίστις) is laid down and reasoned upon. Having laid down the faith and begun from this established premise, then, the Creed proceeds categorically to describe its essence. Aristotle lists his ten categories thus: “Expressions which are in no way composite signify substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, or affection” (Categories 1b25-27). These categories describe a thing completely. That is what the Creed does with God. It describes Him as completely as human words are capable. Herein I will particularly examine the first four of these categories as they are used in the Creed.
In the Creed, the subject immediately follows the premise: “We believe in one God” (Decrees 24). The subject, the substance, the ουσία with which the Creed is concerned is God. A primary substance is a particular thing itself. It is the subject about which the predicates are identified and which itself cannot be predicated. For example, Aristotle is a primary substance. Nothing is Aristotle except Aristotle. The primary substance of God is God as we know Him, as He is revealed to us in His energies. Speaking of primary substance, Aristotle writes, “Substance, in the truest and primary and most definite sense of the word, is that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject; for instance, the individual man or horse” (Categories 2a11-13). “Father” is a primary substance. The Father cannot be made the predicate of any other thing. Nothing is the Father except the Father. The Son is not the Father and the Holy Spirit is not the Father. So it is also with the other Persons in God. The quantity of the primary substance of God is three, which is to say, there are three Persons in God, all identified in the Creed. God is revealed to us and relates to us as Trinity. The Persons in God cannot be predicated. While we rightly say that the Father is God, we do not customarily say that God is the Father, because to do so would be insufficient and would seem to exclude the Son and the Holy Spirit. God as God – the essence of God – is the secondary substance.
Concerning secondary substance, Aristotle writes, “In a secondary sense those things are called substances within which, as species, the primary substances are included; also those which, as genera, include the species” (Categories 2a13-19). For example, Aristotle is a man and a man is an animal. These notions of “species” and “genera” can only be applied in a limited way to our understanding of God. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the concept works, I think. The essence of God relates, by analogy, to the “species” and the spiritual nature of God relates, by analogy to the “genus.” The Father, for example, is God and is spiritual. “Of secondary substances,” writes Aristotle, “the species is more truly substance than the genus, being more nearly related to primary substance” (Categories 2b7-8). Here again, this works in a limited way. “God” is what the Father is more absolutely than a spiritual being is what the Father is. Likewise, Aristotle is more a man than an animal – though both are true. The essence, the ουσία, of God is His secondary substance and it is one and is unknowable beyond knowing that it is. God, as the One Who Is, the Being One, the ὁ ὤν is, in Aristotelian terms, the secondary substance, which is the absolute pure being, the essence, the form. God as God is not the primary substance of God because God is predicable to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each is God. The Creed identifies the Father as God (“true God”), the Son as God (“true God from true God”), and the Holy Spirit as God (“the holy, the lordly… co-worshipped and co-glorified”) and it tells us that there is “one God” (Decrees 24). The Son is ὁμοούσιον with the Father. The Holy Spirit is ὁμοούσιον “together with the Father and the Son.” This one and only one ουσία is the secondary substance of God. For this reason Jesus can say, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), not because Jesus is the Father in His primary substance, which He is not, but because He and the Father are one in their secondary substance (John 10:30). That is, they are both God.
Aristotle’s second category is quantity, which has already been addressed to some degree in that I have pointed out the Creed’s assertion that there is one God and three Persons in God. However many primary substances there are, there is always only one secondary substance, which is the form of the thing. There are billions of people, of which Aristotle is one, and yet there is one human nature which all people share. “Quantity is either discreet or continuous,” Aristotle points out (Categories 4b20). The quantity of the Persons in God as described above is a discreet number – three. Of continuous quantities, Aristotle identifies many instances including time. “Time,” he writes, “past, present, and future, forms a continuous whole” (Categories 5a6-7). The Creed refers to this continuous whole only to point out that its subject, God, transcends it, when it states that the Son is begotten “before all the ages” (Decrees 24). The Persons in God as God are above this continuous quantity, unlike Aristotle who has a past, a present, and a future.
The only-begotten quality of the Son and the processional quality of the Holy Spirit – both identified in the Creed – bring into focus the relational category in God. Aristotle writes, “Those things are called relative, which, being either said to be of something else or related to something else, are explained by reference to that other thing” (Categories 6a36-38).The very names by which we identify two of the Persons in God in the Creed indicate relation. The Father is Father as the one who begets the Son and the Son is the Son as the one who is “only-begotten… begotten from the Father” (Decrees 24). The Son would not be the Son without the Father and vice versa. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is such as the one who is “proceeding forth from the Father” (Decrees 24). A helpful concept in Aristotle’s discussion of relation is that “correlatives are thought to come into existence simultaneously” (Categories 7b15). I became a father at the moment that I had a son. Before I had a son, I was not a father. As father, I came into existence at the moment my son came into existence as son. In the case of the Persons in God, of course, it is necessary to remember that this simultaneous interdependent existence does not come to be but is “before all the ages” (Decrees 24). Aristotle continues, however, “Yet, it does not appear to be true in all cases that correlatives come into existence simultaneously” (Categories 7b22-23). He gives the example of knowledge, which is in relation to the object of knowledge and he points out that the object of knowledge precedes the knowledge itself. There is interdependent relation, independent relation, and dependent relation. Much of the Creed is concerned with this latter type of relation, that is, it is concerned with the relationship between God and Man, which most certainly did not “come into existence simultaneously.”
It is helpful to look at the side of the Creed that deals with the human and the human’s relationship with God with the four causes that Aristotle identifies. The categories help us understand God as He is described in the Creed, but the causes help us understand that which God has caused. God as God is the uncaused cause and so the use of causes in seeking to understand God as presented in the Creed is futile. However, in seeking to understand the human of whom God is the Creator and cause and which God became in the incarnation, it is worthwhile.
The first cause Aristotle identifies is the material cause, “that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists” (Physics 194b23-24). This cause is notably absent in the Creed’s account of Father’s creation “of heaven and of earth” and later of the Holy Spirit’s “life-giving” because God created “all things both seen and unseen” – all material – out of nothing, which is contrary to Aristotle’s belief in the eternity of matter (Decrees 24). However, the material cause is present in the Creed’s description of the incarnation. Humanity having already been created, it now provides the material cause of the incarnation when the Son “became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary [and] became human” (Decrees 24). God the Son took His humanity from the material of the human Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Virgin Mary is the material cause of the incarnation.
The second cause Aristotle identifies is the formal cause, “the form or the archetype, i.e. the statement of the essence” (Physics 194b27-28). The essence of the Son who “came down from the heavens” and became man is God (Decrees 24). Yet, also, He took on the essence of Man. He who is ὁμοούσιον with the Father also became ὁμοούσιον with humanity and so there are two formal causes of the incarnation: the forms or secondary substances of both God and Man. The form or essence of the incarnate Jesus Christ is both God and Man.
The third cause Aristotle identifies is the efficient or agent cause, “the primary source of the change or coming to rest” (Physics 194b29). The agent cause of the incarnation is the Holy Spirit, because the Son of God “became incarnate from the Holy Spirit” (Decrees 24). As Creator, God is the primary source of all that comes to be. In God, the Father cannot be understood as the cause of the Son or the Holy Spirit, though some may be tempted to come to that conclusion given that the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, because the Son and the Holy Spirit, as God, are uncaused. However, the Father is the cause of the Son being begotten and the Father is the cause of the Holy Spirit proceeding. It is “from the Father” that the Son is begotten and it is “from the Father” that the Holy Spirit proceeds (Decrees 24). I will return to further efficient causes described in the Creed after I describe for what purpose these agencies work, that is, their final cause.
The fourth cause that Aristotle identifies is the final cause “in the sense of end or ‘that for the sake of which’ a thing is done” (Physics 194b33-34). “For us humans and for our salvation” is the final cause of what follows in the Creed: the incarnation, the crucifixion, the suffering, the burial, the resurrection, the ascension, the session, the coming again, the judgment, the kingdom, the prophets, the Church, and baptism (Decrees 24). All these things are the efficient causes or agencies that bring about our salvation, which is “the forgiving of sins…, resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come” (Decrees 24). This is a description of our salvation, the final end of these acts of the Lord. These acts of the Lord create the potential for our salvation, which we can cooperatively actualize in ourselves by responding affirmatively to Him with our lives.
The philosophical terms of Aristotle’s categories and causes are useful for organizing our thinking and clearly expressing the truth that has been revealed to us in the Church. It seems apparent that the Fathers of the First Nicene and Constantinopolitan Councils allowed his philosophy to shape their understanding and expression of the faith and it is good for us to learn his system of thought so that we can more clearly understand them.
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.
Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. Ed. Norman P. Tanner. Vol. 1. London: Sheed & Ward, 1990.