Friday, August 17, 2012

Kyana and Qnuma: The Nature of Natures

My hope with this entry is to provide a simple guide to the Syriac terms as they are understood by the Church of the East. This understanding is very important because words are only worth what someone, or a whole group of people, mean by them. The beautiful thing is that the Syriac fathers gave us great definitions of the terms both before and after the controversy about how those terms were used to describe Christ. We will not use a dictionary as a source. Dictionaries are very flawed because they tell you one man’s view of what a word means and while that may be accurate to his sources, chances are he did not account for everyone’s meaning and you might be speaking to someone who understands the term differently from how the dictionary does—this is especially true of words used during a centuries-long argument.

Syriac fathers borrowed philosophical terminology from the Greeks, especially Aristotle. They also had their native sense about philosophy going back centuries to the ancient thinkers of their land. Therefore, it is important to study how the early Syriac Fathers used the terms the Church uses to describe nature and person as in “two natures in one person in Christ”.
Saint Ephraim the Great in On the Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, writes regarding the trinity, but defining the same words later used to speak of Christ (my translation):

You have heard of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three gain their respective names due to their qnume (hypostasis). It is not that the names are mingled and shared appellations of one entity, but that the three—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are mingled in unity [they can be spoken of as one]. If you confess that these three names are true, but you do not confess their qnume, then you are just confessing an empty name and are an unbeliever. Anything which you name which does not have a qnuma is just a meaningless name, empty of reality. Anything that does not have a qnuma is just an empty name. A qnuma is what is required to minimally assert that something exists in reality.. (ܡܪܓܢܝܬܼܐ ܕܥܠ ܫܪܪܐ ܕܟܪܣܛܝܢܘܬܐ.ܩܫ ܝܘܣܦ ܒܝܬ ܩܠܝܛܐ ܡܘܨܠ ܡܛܒܥܬܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܬܐ1924   pg 114)

For Saint Ephraim, qnuma, which we call hypostasis, is the reality of a nature. However If one speaks in abstract of human nature, kyana is appropriate. Kyana describes humanity as a whole. But if I speak of something as being human, it must have a qnuma, or it does not exist. Here is another quote from Saint Ephraim: “For where there is no qnuma, namely, hypostasis, (or the underlying substance of nature) its appellation is null and void, for that which has no qnuma, its name is also void.” (The Book of Marganita. Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, Kerela 1965, pg 81)

Almost a thousand years later, Mar Yokhannan Bar Zo’by wrote a treatise on “Nature as separate from Hypostasis and Hypostasis from Prosopon and Prosopon from Appearance”. The English translation of the Syriac title that this treatise appears in is The Book of Harmonious Tapestry (translation mine).
For kyana (nature) is different in its essence from qnuma (hypostasis). Kyana is universal, but qnuma is specific. When kyana is divided, it constitutes its various [instances] and qnume. But when qnuma is divided, it is corrupted and destroyed because if you divide qnume…it will lose its natural qualities. (ܡܪܓܢܝܬܐ 98)

Mar Yokhannan and the Church of the East follow Saint Ephraim and the ancient Syriac Fathers in their definitions, which are more Aristotelian than Platonic—this will be further addressed in another entry.
Note the vital difference between the platonic definitions we have used since the Council of Ephesus and the Syriac definitions. Hypostasis – qnuma – for the Church of the East is nature when we are speaking of a specific instance such as you, me, the Second Person of the Trinity or the Human Nature taken from the Theotokos. All of these qnume are instances of the universal human nature, or in the case of the Second Person of the Trinity, the divine nature.

When Chalcedonian Orthodox use the corresponding term, Hypostasis, we mean a person. Such as the person of Jesus Christ, in whom we speak of two separate natures—divine and human. Nature to use is one word used to speak of the universal as well as the instance of a nature.

Therefore, when the Church of the East says two kyane and two qnume it corresponds to Orthodoxy’s two natures and not as saying two persons. Simply, the Church of the East is distinguishing between universal nature and the instance of a nature and uses the same word we use for person to refer to the instance of a nature. However, that leaves us with a clear way to speak of two in Christ—Divine and Human—but how will we speak of one in Christ? The next entry will be on the terms used to speak of Christ as one.


  1. This was a really great and informative post! Again, I encourage you to keep going. =) Anyways, I'm attempting to sort out the differences and overlap in Greek, Latin and Syriac terminology and so far this is what I've mapped out.

    There is one divine: ousia - substantia/essentia - kyana
    Christ is of two: physis - natura - qnoma
    In the Trinity there are three: hypostasis - subsistentia - qnoma
    In the Trinity there are three: prosopon - persona - parsopa

    I was wondering if you could comment on whether you find this to be accurate or not...?


  2. I have one more article dealing with the terms themselves. I'll be putting it up latter today or early tommorow. Ultimatly words are abstractions which we define into specific meaning using not only careful selection of a term but also by context and discourse.

    Here, one must read the context that one uses the term. That said, I think you've drawn up a nice guide to the terms, but be careful not to assume that how use precisly have a term defined is what some ancient writer might have taught.

    Qnuma can be defined as Chalcedon's hypostasis then that's what it is. It can be defined as St Ephraim and Mar Yokhannan's Qnuma and then that's what it is.

    Ousia defined the what-ness of something or its substance. Nature is the summary of all the individual realities of being something. I am a human being, ousia human, but I belong to the human Kyana/physis/nature.

    Hypostasis for a platonist is merely the imperfect incarnation of a form-physis. So human nature-form-physis is an ideal form of which we are all broken examples (hypostasis). Plato also argues that our male and female genders are signs of how we fall short since the ideal has both genders (accd to Symposium). This usage of Nature as form and hypostasis as a complex being reflective of the ideal but in a broken fashion is how Alexandria used the term following the Origenist Neo-Platonic School of Alexandria.

    Aristotelian usage uses hypostasis to refer to the specific instance of something with all the properties by which that things nature is defined. So I am a human hypostasis since my hypostasis is representative of what all humans share. This is the view represented by Mar Yokhanna in this blog entry and in tommorows.

    We'll get into that stuff more clearly and better as this goes on. One more entry and I'll introduce the real substance of the matter.

    God Bless!

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