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Ousia ( /ˈziə,ˈsiə,ˈʒə,ˈʃə/ ; Greek : οὐσία) is an important philosophical and theological term, originally used in ancient Greek philosophy, then later in Christian theology. It was used by various ancient Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, as a primary designation for philosophical concepts of essence or substance . In contemporary philosophy, it is analogous to English concepts of being and ontic . In Christian theology, the concept of θεία ουσία (divine essence) is one of the most important doctrinal concepts, central to the development of trinitarian doctrine. [1]


The Ancient Greek term Ousia was translated in Latin as essentia or substantia, and hence in English as essence or substance . [2]


The term οὐσία is an Ancient Greek noun, formed on the feminine present participle of the verb εἰμί, eimí, i.e., "to be, I am". In Latin, it was translated as essentia or substantia. Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca and rhetorician Quintilian used essentia as equivalent for οὐσία, while Apuleius rendered οὐσία both as essentia or substantia. In order to designate οὐσία, Early Christian theologian Tertullian favored the use of substantia over essentia, while Augustine of Hippo and Boethius took the opposite stance, preferring the use of essentia as designation for οὐσία. [3] [4] Some of the most prominent Latin authors, like Hilary of Poitiers, noted that those variants were often being used with different meanings. [5] Some modern authors also point out that the Greek term οὐσία is properly translated as essentia (essence), while substantia has a wider spectrum of meanings. [6]

From οὐσία (essence), philosophical and theological term οὐσιότης (essentiality) was also derived. It was used by Platonists, like Alcinous, as designation for one of the basic properties of divinity or godhead. [7]


Aristotle defined protai ousiai (πρῶται οὐσίαι), "primary essences", in the Categories as that which is neither said of nor in any subject, e.g., "this human" in particular, or "this ox". The genera in biology and other natural kinds are substances in a secondary sense, as universals, formally defined by the essential qualities of the primary substances; i.e., the individual members of those kinds. [8]

In Book IV of Metaphysics Aristotle explores the nature and attributes of being (ousia). Aristotle divides the things that there are, or "beings," into categories. Aristotle calls these substances and argues that there are many senses in which a thing may be said "to be" but it is related to one central point and is ambiguous. [9]

Aristotle states that there are both primary and secondary substances. In Categories Aristotle argues that primary substances are ontologically based and if the primary substances did not exist then it would be impossible for other things to exist. [10] The other things are regarded as the secondary substances (also known as accidents). Secondary substances are thus ontologically dependent on substances. [11]

In Metaphysics, Aristotle states that everything which is healthy is related to health (primary substance) as in one sense because it preserves health and in the other because it is capable of it. Without the primary substance (health) we would not be able to have the secondary substances (anything related to health). While all the secondary substances are deemed "to be" it is in relation to the primary substance. [12]

The question, what is being, is seeking an answer to something "that is." A contemporary example in rhetoric would be to look at a color. Using white as an example, when we define a color, we define it by association. Snow is white. Paper is white. A cow is white. But what is white? While we are saying things that are white, we are not defining what white is without qualification. Ousia is thus the answer to the question of "what is being" when the question is without qualification. The unqualified answer of what is white is the ousia of white.

Much later, Martin Heidegger said that the original meaning of the word ousia was lost in its translation to the Latin, and, subsequently, in its translation to modern languages. For him, ousia means Being, not substance, that is, not some thing or some being that "stood" (-stance) "under" (sub-). Moreover, he also used the binomial parousiaapousia, denoting presence–absence,[ clarification needed ] and hypostasis denoting existence. [13]

Christian theology

The concept of θεία ουσία (divine essence) is one of the most important concepts in Christian theology. It was developed gradually, by Early Church Fathers during the first centuries of Christian History. Central debates over the doctrinal use and meaning of ουσία were held during the 4th century, and also continued later, some of them lasting up to the present day. [1]

New Testament

The word ousia is used in the New Testament only in relation to the substance in the sense of goods, twice in the parable of the Prodigal Son where the son asked his father to divide to him his inheritance, and then wasted it on riotous living. [14] [15]

An apparently related word, epiousios (affixing the prefix epi- to the word), is used in the Lord's Prayer, but nowhere else in the scriptures. Elsewhere, it was believed to be present in one papyrus (a list of expenses) among expenses for chick-peas, straw, etc., and for material. [16] In 1998, according to a xerographic copy of a papyrus found in the Yale Papyrus Collection (from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) inventory 19 (a.k.a. P.C.+YBR inv 19), it was suggested that the document had been transcribed differently from other early manuscripts and that the actual word used in that particular papyrus was elaiou, meaning "oil". [17]

Early Christianity

Origen (d. 251) used ousia in defining God as one genus of ousia, while being three, distinct species of hypostasis: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Synods of Antioch condemned the word homoousios (same essence) because it originated in pagan Greek philosophy.[ citation needed ] The Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Paul of Samosata states:

It must be regarded as certain that the council, which condemned Paul, rejected the term homoousios; but, naturally, only in a false sense, used by Paul; not, it seems, because he meant by it a unity of Hypostasis in the Trinity (so St. Hilary), but because he intended, by it, a common essence, out of which both Father and Son proceeded, or which it divided between them—so St. Basil and St. Athanasius; but the question is not clear. The objectors to the Nicene doctrine in the fourth century made copious use of this disapproval of the Nicene word by a famous council. [18]

In 325, the First Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism and formulated a creed, which stated that in the Godhead the Son was Homoousios (same in essence) of the Father. However, controversy did not stop and many Eastern clerics rejected the term because of its earlier condemnation in the usage of Paul of Samosata. Subsequent Emperors Constantius II (reigned 337–361) and Valens (reigned 364–378) supported Arianism and theologians came up with alternative wordings like Homoios (similar), homoiousios (similar in essence), or Anomoios (unsimilar). While the Homoios achieved the support of several councils and the Emperors, those of an opposing view were suppressed. The adherents of the Homoiousios eventually joined forces with the (mostly Western) adherents of the Homoousios and accepted the formulation of the Nicene creed.

The generally agreed-upon meaning of ousia in Eastern Christianity is "all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another" - in contrast to hypostasis, which is used to mean "reality" or "existence". [19] John Damascene gives the following definition of the conceptual value of the two terms in his Dialectic: Ousia is a thing that exists by itself, and which has need of nothing else for its consistency. Again, ousia is all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another. [20]

See also

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Arianism is a Christological doctrine first attributed to Arius, a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. Arian theology holds that the Son of God is not co-eternal with God the Father and is distinct from the Father. However, as in mainstream Trinitarianism, Arianism holds that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who was begotten by God the Father,.

Being Broad concept encompassing objective and subjective features of reality and existence

In philosophy, being means the material or immaterial existence of a thing. Anything that exists is being. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies being. Being is a concept encompassing objective and subjective features of reality and existence. Anything that partakes in being is also called a "being", though often this usage is limited to entities that have subjectivity. The notion of "being" has, inevitably, been elusive and controversial in the history of philosophy, beginning in Western philosophy with attempts among the pre-Socratics to deploy it intelligibly. The first effort to recognize and define the concept came from Parmenides, who famously said of it that "what is-is". Common words such as "is", "are", and "am" refer directly or indirectly to being.

Substance theory, or substance–attribute theory, is an ontological theory positing that objects are constituted each by a substance and properties borne by the substance but distinct from it. In this role, a substance can be referred to as a substratum or a thing-in-itself. Substances are particulars that are ontologically independent: they are able to exist all by themselves. Another defining feature often attributed to substances is their ability to undergo changes. Changes involve something existing before, during and after the change. They can be described in terms of a persisting substance gaining or losing properties. Attributes or properties, on the other hand, are entities that can be exemplified by substances. Properties characterize their bearers, they express what their bearer is like.

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Essence is a polysemic term, used in philosophy and theology as a designation for the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the entity or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity.

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Consubstantiality Identity of substance, as between the three Persons of the Trinity and as between Christ and other humans

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Semi-Arianism was a position regarding the relationship between God the Father and the Son of God, adopted by some 4th century Christians. Though the doctrine modified the teachings of Arianism, it still rejected the doctrine that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal, and of the same substance, or consubstantial, and was therefore considered to be heretical by many contemporary Christians.

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Nietzsche's critique of the historical subject is based in the rejection of an existing substance in favor of forces and wills combining to form combinations, sometimes in the form of a consciousness. Heidegger later traced the concept of subject to the metaphysical concept of ousia to demonstrate the impossibility of eliminating the subject by simply historicizing it. The contemporary definition of subjectivity, according to Heidegger, recovered Immanuel Kant's definition of the substance in the Critique of Pure Reason and Aristotle's definition of ousia in Metaphysics.

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Homoiousian Christian theological theory on the nature of Jesus the Son of God and God the Father

Homoiousios is a Christian theological term, coined in the 4th century by a distinctive group of Christian theologians who held the belief that God the Son was of a similar, but not identical, essence with God the Father. Homoiousianism arose as an attempt to reconcile two opposite teachings, homoousianism and homoianism. Following Trinitarian doctrines of the First Council of Nicaea (325), homoousians believed that God the Son was of the same essence with God the Father. On the other hand, homoians refused to use the term οὐσία, believing that God the Father is "incomparable" and therefore the Son of God can not be described in any sense as "equal" or "same" but only as "like" or "similar" to the Father, in some subordinate sense of the term. In order to find a theological solution that would reconcile those opposite teachings, homoiousians tried to compromise between the essence-language of homoousians and the notion of similarity, held by homoians. Their attempt failed, and by the First Council of Constantinople (381) homoiousianism was already marginalized.

Homoousion Christian theological term and concept

Homoousion is a Christian theological term, most notably used in the Nicene Creed for describing Jesus as "same in being" or "same in essence" with God the Father. The same term was later also applied to the Holy Spirit in order to designate him as being "same in essence" with the Father and the Son. Those notions became cornerstones of theology in Nicene Christianity, and also represent one of the most important theological concepts within the Trinitarian doctrinal understanding of God.

Eastern Orthodox teaching regarding the Filioque

The position of the Eastern Orthodox Church regarding the Filioque controversy is defined by the Bible, teachings of the Church Fathers, creeds and definitions of the seven Ecumenical Councils and decisions of several particular councils of the Eastern Orthodox Church.


  1. 1 2 Athanasopoulos & Schneider 2013.
  2. Aquina, Thomas (2003-06-01). "Book One". Commentary on Aristotle's Physics. A&C Black. p. 29. ISBN   978-1-84371-545-0.
  3. Owens 1951, pp. 137–154.
  4. Brown 1996, p. 276.
  5. Weedman 2007.
  6. Pásztori-Kupán 2006, pp. 59–60.
  7. Bracht 2009, p. 111.
  8. Cohen, S. Marc (2004). "Lecture on Categories". Primary substances are fundamental in that "if they did not exist it would be impossible for any of the other things to exist". [Categories, 2b5]
  9. Aristotle. "Metaphysics" (PDF).
  10. Cohen, Mark. "Substances" (PDF).
  11. Cohen, Mark. "Substances" (PDF).
  12. Aristotle. "Metaphysics" (PDF).
  13. Heidegger 1996.
  14. Thomas Mozley The creed or a philosophy 1893 p. 303 "III 'Ousia' In The New Testament The only appearance of this word in the New Testament is in two successive verses of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It there designates first the 'living' which the Prodigal Son compelled his father..."
  15. Luke 15:12-13 Greek
  16. Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 2, pp. 590–591). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  17. Discussion on the B-Greek mailing list. Tue Jun 7 2005
  18. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11589a.htm
  19. Lossky 1976, p. 51.
  20. Lossky 1976, p. 50.