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[ex|homo]ousia ?

August 2, 2012

Suzanne’s recent post on exousia = potestas = power reminded me of a question I’ve had since encountering this Greek word for the first time in Paul’s letters this summer. Etymologically, this word looks clearly related to that other very important word in Trinitarian theology and the Nicene Creed, homoousious = consubstantialem = of the same substance, translated into English as “one in being” or “consubstantial”.

(As opposed, of course, to homoiousious = of similar substance: thereby* giving rise to the phrase “not one iota’s worth of difference”. Which is such a delightful bit of wordplay that I don’t much mind the new “consubstantial” translation in the Catholic missal. But onward.)

So my question is, is it reasonable to interpret the meanings of these two Greek words in light of their apparent morphological relationship? If homoousia means “same substance”, then does exousia in some sense connote “out of the substance”? If so, it sheds some interesting light on the source and interpretation of this “power” as something that is neither acquired (like a learned skill) nor conferred (like a civic office) nor instrumental (like a whip in the hand of an overseer), but arises from one’s very being.

And furthermore, getting back to Suzanne’s point about gender issues, if Jesus was, by virtue of his dual nature, homoousious not only with the Father, but also with us humans (a point made by some of the patristic writers I read for my Trinity class that had never previously occurred to me), does that suggest anything about the difference, or lack thereof, in exousia between women and men?

What do you think? Is this a reasonable path, or am I being misled by etymological fairy tales?

*This is the etymology I learned, but when I looked for a source to cite, I found some sources that took it for granted, and others that argued about whether or not it was a myth.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 3, 2012 12:33 am


    Thanks for taking this up! Here is the lexicon entry for exousia, derived from the verb exesti (it is possible.) Exousia seems to mean both power and authority, as well as permission and possibility.

  2. Carl W. Conrad permalink
    August 3, 2012 7:35 am

    What ἐξουσία and ὁμο-ουσία have in common is ultimate derivation from the verb εἷναι. But ὁμο-ουσία is based on the noun οὐσία which is rooted in the existential sense of εἷναι, while ἐξουσία derives from the impersonal verb ἔξεστι, ordinarily construed with a dative and an infinitive, “it is permissible” or “it is allowed” — so that ἐξουσία means “authority” or “license to act.”

  3. August 3, 2012 10:45 am

    Thanks, Suzanne and Carl, that is very helpful!

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