Translations – Brief Chapters on the Trinity and the Incarnation

This is a draft translation of a short work by Abū al-Faḍā’il Ibn al-‘Assāl, one of three brothers and scholars of the Coptic Orthodox Church of the 12th century. This family had produced as many as six generations of scholars and this short theological work on the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation expresses the knowledge and ability of this remarkable family.

The English text is translated from the French translation by Khalil Samir in P.O. 192.

Translation

These are brief chapters on the Trinity and the hypostatic union, composed in Cairo for those who requested them, in the last days of the year 639 of the Arabs.

A work of the virtuous sheikh and Christian philosopher, Abū al-Faḍā’il Ibn al-‘Assāl (may God sanctify his soul!). He says:

  1. General Introduction

A Summary of the Dogma of the Church

The Christian Church firmly holds that the Most-High Creator is a unique substance, described by the attributes of perfection; and that He is defined as three hypostases, namely the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that the Son became man.

First Part – The Trinity

Introduction to the Trinity

Definition of Technical Terms

Substance is that which is subsisting in itself, not by another than itself. The attributes are subsisting by substance, not by themselves. And hypostasis is the “sum” of the substance and the attribute which is proper to it. The Father is therefore the divine substance, with the attribute of fatherhood. The Son is the substance mentioned, with the attribute of sonship. And the Holy Spirit is that same substance mentioned, with the attribute of the procession.

  1. The different types of Attributes

Substance here designates the essence of the Creator, which has been established to be one.

A. NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE, RELATIVE AND COMPOUND ATTRIBUTES

The attributes of this divine essence are varied: Some are negative, such as when we say: “The Most-High is not a body and is not created”. Some are relative, like when we say: “He is prior to his creatures.” Some are made up of the two previous, like when we say: “He is the first”. Indeed, the concept of “first” means that there is none before him, other than him, and this is a negative attribute; and that He is above all other than Himself and this is a relative attribute. Some are positive, as when we say, “He is powerful and willing.” That is, power is an attribute belonging to His essence, and the same for the will. Some are made up of both, as when we say, “He is wise”. Indeed, knowledge is an attribute belonging to His essence, and dependent on the known. So therefore, as a belonging to His essence, this attribute is positive; and as dependent on that which is known, it is relative.

B. THE ATTRIBUTES OF ESSENCE AND ACTION

On the other hand, the attributes of God Most High are either essential, which do not go beyond his essence, as when we say: “He is alive and rational” or active, derived for Him from his actions as when we say: “He is creator and benefactor”.

C. THE THREE HYPOSTASES ARE REVEALED QUALIFICATIONS

As for the three hypostases, these are the revealed definitions, which the Lawgiver has ordered to hold firmly. When he said this to the apostles: “Make disciples of the nations, and baptize them, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

III. IN WHAT SENSE GOD IS SAID “SUBSTANCE” AND “HYPOSTASE”

Substance here designates the essence of the Creator, which has been established to be one.

A. IN WHAT SENSE GOD IS SAID TO BE “SUBSTANCE”

Those for whom the term “substance” designates that which receives accidents and occupies a space refuse to call God Most High “substance”. For us, we mean by this term “that which is subsisting in itself”, as it is with the Philosophers. Now, there is no disagreement that God Most High is subsisting in himself, and not subsisting by someone other than himself, as [is the case with] accidents. The opposition is therefore in the terms, not in the sense; we will therefore not pay attention to it.

B. IN WHAT SENSE GOD IS SAID TO BE “HYPOSTASIS”

As for the fact of describing God Most High by means of the three hypostases, it is in this sense that it is defined by three essential and positive qualifications. Those therefore who affirm the existence of positive attributes, refuse only the use of the expression; and it doesn’t matter. Those of the Philosophers and Mu’tazilites who are Muslims, b,,,,,ky rejecting positive attributes, also reject the very concept.

IV. JUSTIFICATION OF POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES APPLIED TO GOD

And the proof that it is possible to qualify God Most High by means of positive attributes.

A. FIRST ARGUMENT: GOD IS POWERFUL, WILLING AND KNOWING

It is the fact that he is defined as being powerful, willing and learned. And they do not say that he who describes him is a liar, when he describes him so; especially not when it comes to the glorification and praise of God. For they do not attribute to themselves the lie, For whoever considers it lying to call God something, must necessarily consider it true to call him what is opposed to him. If, then, to describe God as powerful and learned was a false description, then to describe God as powerless and ignorant should be a true description. But we agree that this is absurd. It is therefore established that whoever describes him is truthful, when he describes him as being powerful and learned.

B. SECOND ARGUMENT: THE CREATOR IS DESCRIBED BY WHAT EXISTS IN HIM

Veracity is “the conformity between speech and internal reality”. However, the speech conforming to the description is: – either its definition, or part of its definition; as when we say of man that he is a “rational animal” or that he is “rational” – or that it indicates a concept existing in the description; as when we say of white lead that it is white, because whiteness exists in it. And truthfulness in speech can only be one of these two aspects. For any true description of a thing is taken either from the very essence of that thing, or from its accidents. Now the essence of the Creator is simple; and in reality, it is the compound that can be defined. It remains therefore that the description of its essence is true, when it is described by what exists in it.

C. THIRD ARGUMENT: GOD CAN ONLY BE DESCRIBED BY THE MODES OF HIS ESSENCE, THAT IS, THE POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES

If we describe God Most High by means of multiple description which indicate concepts which are different from each other, for the concept of “learned” is different from the concept of “mighty”, since each of the two can be found existing in one without the other being there, then it is not possible that the point of reference for these descriptions, which are numerous and different from one another, is the essence itself; for the essence is one and simple. It remains therefore that their point of reference is the modes of essence. And these are the positive attributes.

D. FOURTH ARGUMENT: ATTRIBUTES ARE DIFFERENT FROM ESSENCE AND DIFFERENT FROM ONE ANOTHER

Further, the proof that it is possible to describe God Most High by means of positive attributes, is because, after establishing the essence by one proof, we still need to establish the attributes by other evidence; and after having established each of the attributes by a proof of its own, we still need to establish yet others of the attributes by other proofs. If, then, the attributes were the essence itself, or if each of the attributes were the other attribute itself, then if we know the existence of the essence, we should necessarily know the attributes, and if we know one of the attributes, we should necessarily know the rest. Now, since we need, in order to know the essence and each of the attributes, other proofs of their own, we know that its attributes are not its essence, and that each of its attributes is different from the other.

E. NOTE: POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES ARE DIFFERENT FROM RELATIVE ATTRIBUTES

As for the fact that the positive attributes are not relative, it is because their existence is not conditioned by the existence of something other than themselves, while for the relative attributes their existence is conditioned by the existence of something other than them. As for negative attributes and relative attributes, no one rejects them.

V. THE HYPOSTASES ARE THREE, NO MORE OR LESS

As for the fact that the hypostases are three, neither more nor less, this is shown from three points of view.

A. PROOF BY HOLY SCRIPTURE WHOSE TRUTH IS PROVEN BY MIRACLES

The first proof is from what has been told by those of whom the veracity of their statements is established by miracles. And this is divided into three categories: The first, from what is recorded in the Prophecies, such as the word of David: “By the word of God the heavens were stabilized, and by his spirit all his armies.” So then, by “God” he designated the Father; and by “his Word”, he designated the Son (indeed, “the Word” is a term synonymous with the Son, in our revealed Law; and by “his spirit”, he designated the Holy Spirit. The second, from what is recorded in the Gospel, such as the word of Christ: “Make disciples of the nations, and baptize them, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” The third, from what is reported in the Epistles, such as Paul’s words: “And God is my witness, he whom I serve with the support of the Spirit, to proclaim his Son”.

B. PROOF BY THE WORDS OF THE PHILOSOPHERS

The second point of view is from the words of the philosophers.

Indeed, they have shown that the Most-High Creator is qualified as being an Intelligence, which is the intelligence of its own essence, and which is intelligent by its own essence; and that it is not possible to take something away from these three qualifications, nor to add something to them.

C. PROOF BY THE WORDS OF THEOLOGIANS OF THE FUNDAMENTS OF RELIGION

The third point of view is of the words of the theologians of the foundations of religion. Indeed, they have shown that the Most-High is described as being alive, learned and powerful; and that to take anything out of these three qualifications would be to take away something from the perfection of God Most High; and that adding something to it would derive from these three descriptions, and is therefore not necessary.

D. CONCLUSION

Now we must base ourselves, in things that human intelligence cannot manage to verify and be certain of, on the word of the one whose veracity has been established. And this has been said before.

VI. CONCLUSION OF PART ONE: THREE ATTRIBUTES OF A SINGLE ESSENCE

A. THE TRINITY DOES NOT CAUSE BELIEF IN THREE GODS

Know that just as when we say that “God is living and learned and mighty” and that “these descriptions indicate concepts different from each other”, and that “the living is God, and the learned is God, and the mighty is God ”, this does not necessarily imply that the Most High is three gods, thus, when we say that “God is Father and Son and Holy Spirit”, and that “these qualifications indicate different concepts from each other”, and that “the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God”, this does not necessarily mean that the Most High is three gods. Because there are multiple qualifications of a single essence.

B. THE HYPOSTASES ARE IDENTICAL AS TO THE SUBSTANCE, DIFFERENT AS TO THE SPECIFIC ATTRIBUTES

Know also that the hypostases are identical in substance, different in specific attributes. And that all the attributes by which the divine substance is described (such as divinity, wisdom, power, will, capacity to create, mercy, eternity without beginning and without end, the quality of giver, the power, and the like), also describe each of the hypostases. For each of the hypostases is this unique divine substance, with a property which belongs to it; and these are the attributes which the Legislator has assigned in his own right to each hypostasis.

Second Part

The Hypostatic Union

VII. The nature of the Hypostatic Union

  1. What is the Incarnation?

The Incarnation of the Son is his union with a man perfect in humanity; from the beginning of its existence, carried in the womb of the Virgin Mary, from the moment when the Annunciation was made to her and when she accepted it; as the union of the soul of man with his body.

  • This union of humanity and divinity does not end

However, the union of his divinity and his humanity does not cease. Neither at the moment of the union of the soul of his humanity with his body, before death and after the resurrection; nor at the time of his death, which is the separation of the soul of his humanity from his body. Indeed, his divinity remained united to his soul, even when he went to paradise as the thief said; and remained united to his body, even when he was in the tomb. And this is why, “he did not see corruption,” as the prophet David said.

VIII. Disagreement between Christians only concerns philosophical terms

  1. Total agreement of Christians on the essentials and disagreement on certain philosophical terms

Know that Christians are in agreement on all that is contained in the Gospel and the Epistles and the universal Creed; and on the fact that Christ is a God become man; and on qualifying him of divinity and mankind with their qualifications, as reported by the Gospel and the Epistles and the Creed; and on the fact that he is the only Lord, as it is contained in the Creed. After that, they disagree on a few philosophical terms.

  • Opinion of the Jacobites

The Jacobites then said: He is one in all aspects: in substantiality, hypostasity and will. For the Gospel and the Epistles and the Creed have actually spoken of him with terms of uniqueness, not of duality. And also, because the concept of the union of the two is precisely that they both become one. That is why we said, “It is a single substance coming from two substances, a single hypostasis coming from two hypostases, possessing one will and one action. By hypostasis we mean the distinct substance. And if it was not a single substance consisting of two substances, both of which are found in it, it would not have been possible to qualify each of the two substances with their qualifications. it is possible to describe God and man as being both “God”, or both as “man.” As for God become man, it is possible to describe him as being God and as being man. it is possible to qualify the whole with the description of its parts.

  • Opinion of the Melkites

The Melkites said: “There are two substances: God and man; he has two actions and two wills: the divine and the human. And he is one hypostasis, namely the divine hypostasis, to the exclusion of the ‘human’. Their Ancients said, “The union has taken place, in the total sense, in man; yet the total sense is not hypostasis. Their Moderns said,” Hypostasis is what is self-sustaining. But the humanity of Christ is found to be united with the divinity.” Both of these opinions are weak.

  • Opinion of the Nestorians

The Nestorians said: “He is unique in Christhood and filiation, knowledge and will. And there are two substances, two hypostases: God and man”.

  • Test of understanding of various opinions

Those who affirm unity, in whole or in part, rely on the fact that it has been recorded thus in the Gospel and the Epistles and the Creed; and are based on the fact of safeguarding the union, since it consists in making that many become one. Those who assert duality, in part only, aim to safeguard natures as they are in their reality, and have sought to distance themselves from the accusation of an alteration that may have taken place among them.

  • Justification of the Monophysite position

The simplest and most obvious means to demonstrate to our opinion to the other two groups is to say to them: The holy Fathers and the Doctors are unanimous in representing the union of the divinity of Christ with his humanity by the means of the union of the soul of man with his body. And this representation is the most suitable and the most accessible that they have found. The humanity of Christ, which is the sum of his soul and his body, which are two substances, is necessarily: either a single substance, or else two substances. If therefore she were two substances, Christ would be three substances: the substance of his divinity and the two substances of his humanity. And no one will say that there are three substances. But if it is a single substance (and this is the well-known truth), then it is possible that two substances become one without alteration, so that a single substance is formed from the two. And this is our opinion of Christ.

IX. Proof of the union of the divinity and humanity of Christ

The ways to demonstrate the Incarnation of God, I mean the union of divinity with Christ-like humanity, are three.

A. First proof: Realization and completion of prophecies

The first is what is recorded in the Prophecies, informing that God will manifest Himself to people in becoming man, and that He will do what the Gospel witnesses. As when they say: “Behold, the Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and he will be given the name of Emmanuel, whose interpretation is “God-with-us.” And the Prophecies have not ceased to be reported on every detail, until the completion of his Economy. He said: “So when therefore he saw that he had completed everything, as it is written in the Prophets, he bowed his head and delivered his spirit.” The Gospel and the Epistles contain most of the Prophecies that indicate this. And that is why [Christ] said, “Examine the Books; indeed, they bear witness on my behalf.”

B. Second Proof: Christ made the miracles own to God alone, by his will and his power

The second, is the way by which the Philosophers demonstrated the existence of the Creator and the union of soul and body; namely to demonstrate, by the existence of specific marks, the existence of what causes these marks, and what is specific to them. And that is why [Christ] said, “Since you do not believe me, therefore believe my actions.” And he did the miracles that are proper to God alone, by his will and power. And he associated them with drawing people to believe in his name. And this is the difference between him and the Prophets, and it is like the difference between the Apostles and the Friends of God. Indeed, the Apostles claim a mission, while the Friends of God refrain from being attributed this.

C. Third Proof: The fact that the Disciples had performed miracles in his name

The third [means] is the fact that Christ sent his Disciples to the whole world, to bring them to believe in his divinity; and empowered them to work brilliant miracles. So, they went out to all kinds of people, and performed shining signs among them. And they made them believe in his divinity. They believed the testimony, and the gospel, whose truthfulness is established.

D. Fourth Evidence: The Life of Mystics and Martyrs

Another way, which is not theoretical, is the certainty that results from [spiritual] exercise and purification from within. However, the Fathers who succeeded on this path to the end bore witness that only Christianity is true. The proof is that they have achieved, through Christianity, union with God, to such an extent that his traces are manifested in them; and that they persisted in Christianity and clung to it to such an extent that they gave their own lives without separating themselves from Christianity, out of obedience to it.

X. CHRIST CAN BE QUALIFIED WITH THE ATTRIBUTES OF DIVINITY AND HUMANITY

A. CHRIST CAN BE QUALIFIED WITH THE QUALIFICATIONS OF GOD AND MAN

Know that it is possible to describe a thing by what is in it. Now, since the divinity and humanity of Christ are found in him, it is possible to define him by them and by their description. It is therefore possible to describe him as being God and as being man; and by the definition of the divinity, such as the marvellous actions which are specific to it; and by the definition of mankind, such as the actions and passions attached to it.

B. THIS IS WHY WE SAY CHRIST IS CREATOR AND MORTAL

This is why we have said that Christ is the creator and the benefactor; and that he is the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified, who is mortal. But these descriptions belong to him by his divinity, while these others belong to him by his humanity. As the Apostles said: “He was born by his body, was crucified by the weakness of his humanity, and died by his body”. And this is as when we say of a man: “He is a thinker, and he is tall.” In reality, he is a thinker through his soul, not through his body; and he is great in his body, not in his soul.

XI. Reasons for the Incarnation

The Doctors have mentioned multiple motives for the Incarnation, which come down to two categories:

A. FIRST REASON: FROM THE CREATOR’S SIDE

The first is from the point of view of the Creator.

Introduction: Summary of the Argument

Namely: this is why he made us exist (and which is none other than his quality of Giver), it is because of this that he united with our nature, to complete us (and which is none other than the completion of his quality of Giver).

Necessity of the Incarnation

And the proof of the necessity of the Incarnation, [here it is]: The Most-High Creator is the best of Givers. However, the best of the Givers is the one who gives the best of the essences. And the best of essences is the essence of the Creator. It was therefore necessary for the Creator to give us the gift of his essence; and it took place through his union with us.

Possibility of the Incarnation

Another proof is that his union with us is possible. Because the obstacle to the union is the internal opposition between the two parties who are to be united. Now, the Creator is not opposed to his creature, since the opposite reduces his opposite to nothing, and does not make him exist. Moreover, God has said in the Law that he creates man in his likeness; but the similitude is close to the union.

Conclusion

If therefore the union of God with us is possible, and if this is for us the height of honour, and for him the perfection of his quality of Giver, then there is only helplessness or lack of generosity which can prevent it; and these are two attributes of imperfection, and he is above that! The union of God with us is therefore necessary.

B. SECOND REASON: FROM THE SIDE OF THE CREATURE

The second category is from our point of view.

Namely: When we were unable to reach our human perfection, and when the Prophets were unable to bring a very small number to the first elements of the mentioned perfection, God became man, to send the greatest number to the pinnacle of human perfection and existence. And the books bear witness to this, as to the condition of Christians as compared to the condition of those who came before them. They have moved away from the worship of other than God towards the worship of God, and from an extreme license of behaviour towards the height of asceticism.

XII. GENERAL CONCLUSION. THEOLOGY IS THE MOST NOBLE AND MOST ELUSIVE OF SCIENCES

A. DIVINE SCIENCE ASSUMES A DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF SOURCES

Discourse on divine science, and more especially on what is most subtle in this science, is difficult; especially for those who have not been concerned with the sources, the knowledge of which is essential for the understanding of this science, such as the philosophical books and the religious books (the Old and the New Testament). And the Apostle, who said that “it is Christ who speaks in him”, said: “In reality, we know a little among many, and we see things as a picture and as one who sees them in a mirror. But we will contemplate them face to face later “, that is to say after the resurrection.

B. DEFINITION OF DIVINE SCIENCE

On the other hand, divine science is: “the acquisition of the noblest of concepts by human intelligence”. Now, “the noblest of concepts” can only be acquired by the noblest of intelligences. For union is possible when there is similarity and is prevented when there is dissimilarity.

C. PRAYER AND SOUL PURIFICATION ARE NECESSARY TO UNDERSTAND THEOLOGY

So, as long as man has not purified his soul and his intelligence, from attachment to sensitive pleasures, and from what plunges him into the occupation of the realities of the world, and as long as he has not begged God to give him sufficient understanding, according to the word of the Apostle: “whoever lacks wisdom, let him ask God”, then it will be difficult for him to grasp what man could grasp from this noble science. So let us ask God to give us guidance and happiness, in science and indeed. Amen.

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