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According to Hebrews 1:3, the Son is a “representation” (NASB) of God’s hypostasis.

When the letter to the Hebrews was written, hypostasis and ousia had pretty well the same meaning; both meant a distinct reality, namely, the Foundational Reality which supports all else (God). (Ousia did not mean "substance.") (See, Synonyms)

So, what Hebrews 1:3 means is that the Son is a “representation” of God’s ‘being’. That is how the NIV, for example, translates this verse. Some translations render hypostasis here as “substance.” But most translations interpret this verse as saying that the Son is a representation of God’s “nature.” (See Biblehub)

These three terms have different meanings. They may overlap in meaning, but they are not equivalent. One cannot say, for example, that the Son was begotten from the nature of God, but you can say that the Son was begotten from God's substance, as in the Nicene Creed. So, substance has a corporeal implication which nature does not have.

It is possible to say that the Son was begotten from the being of God. That is something which some of the so-called Arians admitted, but they were not willing to say that the Son was begotten from the "substance" of God for fear of material implications. So, “being” and “substance” are also not equivalent.

“Substance” may be understood in a non-material sense but it also has a possible materialistic connotation; the other two terms do not.

I cannot see a justification for translating hypostasis here as “substance.” I am not aware of anyone, at the time that the letter was written or before, who referred to God’s substance, as we use the term today. The second-century Gnostics used homoousios in that sense. The Nicene Creed says that, since He is begotten from the substance of God, He is of the same substance (homoousios). That makes it abundantly clear that substance is used in the Creed in a corporeal sense.

So, my question is, what justification do translations such as the Berean Literal Bible, the ASV, and the ERV have for translation hypostasis here as "substance?"

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    'Substance', in referring to Deity, clearly denotes 'spirit' (not physical substance'). Hupostasis means, literally, 'under-upstanding' which is, literally, what 'substance' conveys. But, as the question points out, the word is used (both in Greek scripture - and in English translation) in a specific and technical (and doctrinal) manner. Up-voted +1. I personally prefer the wording 'hidden substance'.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 29, 2023 at 13:39

3 Answers 3

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The phrase in question in Heb 1:3 is:

χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ = (literally) the exact representation of His substance

This is the translation by some versions. In the case of the NASB, it chooses the translate the phrase, "exact representation of His substance" with the rendering:

(NASB) the exact representation of His nature

That is, God's "hypostatis" is translated "nature" (see appendix below). This is somewhat justified because we are told that:

  • "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16)
  • "God is light" (1 John 1:5) and Jesus is "The light of the world" (John 8:12)
  • the Father is "full of grace and truth" (John 114)
  • etc

Thus, the substance of the Father/God appears to be His nature as displayed in the person of Jesus.

APPENDIX - ὑποστάσεως from BDAG

BDAG lists four basic meanings of ὑποστάσεως which overlap:

  1. the essential or basic structure/nature of an entity, substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality, eg, Heb 1:3
  2. a plan that one devises for action, plan, project, understanding endeavor, eg, 2 Cor 9:4, Heb 3:14
  3. situation, condition, ... frame of mind, eg, 2 Cor 9:4, 11:17, Heb 3:4, 11:1
  4. guarantee of ownership/entitlement, title deed, eg, Heb 11:1

Thus, the meaning of ὑποστάσεως is varied and versatile. Further note that "Nature" or substance" is perfectly reasonable translation in Heb 1:3.

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  • Hi Dottard, please help. I do not read Greek. According to Biblehub, the word is hupostasis, not ousia (substance). Why do you say it is "substance"? Or are you referring to another phrase?
    – Andries
    Jul 29, 2023 at 12:51
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    the substance of the Father/God appears to be His nature as displayed in the person of Jesus. Agreed, Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 29, 2023 at 13:45
  • @Andries - See my updated answer above. "Substance" or "nature" are perfectly reasonable translations of ὑποστάσεως
    – Dottard
    Jul 29, 2023 at 21:10
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ὑπόστασις is literally built from ὑπό=under/sub and ἵστημι=state/stance so it’s only logical a literal translation translates it as substance.

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“Substance” is arguably the most literal and, when understood according to its original usage, is a good rendering for the word hypostasis in Heb 1:3.

Strong's Greek: 5287. hupostasis

confidence, substance

From a compound of G5259 hypo and G2476 histemi; a setting under (support), that is, (figuratively) concretely essence, or abstractly assurance (objectively or subjectively): - confidence, confident, person, substance.

In modern usage the word “substance” refers to that which is tangible or concrete, but it actually originated as a philosophical term. How it is used in common speech, however, has greatly strayed from its philosophical roots.

Cambridge commentary on Heb 1:3 :

The word hypostasis, substantia (literally that which “stands under”) is, in philosophical accuracy, the imaginary substratum which remains when a thing is regarded apart from all its accidents. The word “person” of our A. V. is rather the equivalent to prosôpon. Hypostasis only came to be used in this sense some centuries later. Perhaps “Being” or “Essence,” though it corresponds more strictly to the Greek ousia, is the nearest representative which we can find to hypostasis, now that “substance,” once the most abstract and philosophical of words, has come (in ordinary language) to mean what is solid and concrete. It is only too possible that the word “substance” conveys to many minds the very opposite conception to that which was intended and which alone corresponds to the truth. Athanasius says, “Hypostasis is essence” (οὐσία); and the Nicene Council seems to draw no real distinction between the two words.

Relevant to this discussion, one of the main uses of "substance" in philosophy is to reference a particular kind of entity.

Thus, for some purposes, discussion of substance is a discussion about individuals, and for other purposes it is a discussion about universal concepts that designate specific kinds of such individuals… If one is concerned with kinds of substance, one obvious question that will arise is ‘what makes something a thing of that kind (for example, what is involved in being a dog)?’ This is the question of the essence of substantial kinds. – “Substance,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

From this perspective, "substance" refers to the essence or foundation of a thing, regardless of its materiality. Applying this meaning to Hebrews 1:3, we can interpret it to say that whatever kind of entity/substance the Father is, can be seen in the Son as an exact imprint.

The wording of Heb 1:3 brings together two seemingly contradictory ideas – that which is representation/imprint with that which is substance/reality. In the process, it blurs the lines between them. For how can a representation be of the substance of something? This question/discussion recalls to me Jesus’ words in Jn 14:9 :

Jesus says to him, "Am I with you so long a time, and you have not known Me, Philip? The one having seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? - Jn 14:9

If this contradiction in terms is intentional on the part of the author, then "substance" works well to preserve that intent.

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  • We must determine whether the modern word “substance” is a valid reflection of the meaning of hypostasis when Hebrews was written. You say that hypostasis and ousia originally were synonyms and referred to the fundamental reality that supports all else. Substance, in contrast, has a very tangible meaning. But you say that "substance" in Heb 1:3 means "essence," regardless of its materiality. But then the translation "substance” is still wrong, for the first impression one gets when reading about God’s substance is the material stuff God consists of.
    – Andries
    Aug 10, 2023 at 16:29
  • Furthermore, between the Bible and us sits the Nicene Creed which says that the Son was begotten from the ousia of the Father and, therefore, is of the same ousia as the Father. I do not see how one can deny that that has corporeal/material implications. To render Heb 1:3 as “substance” brings automatically to mind the material implication of ousia (substance) in the Creed. Is "substance" in this verse not a reckless accommodation of the Nicene Creed?
    – Andries
    Aug 10, 2023 at 16:35
  • @Andries (edit) You ask on what basis is hypostasis rendered as "substance" in Heb 1:3? In answer, the choice of the word "substance" in some translations is based, not on the common, but the philosophical meaning developed by Aristotle during the 4th C BC. Ellicott notes, "Most of the earlier English versions have 'substance'." In researching your question, I now think that "substance," when used and understood in the philosophical sense, makes the best rendering for hypostasis. Because of how it is commonly understood, however, I see why most translations have opted to use other words.
    – Nhi
    Aug 12, 2023 at 0:02
  • @Andries The word substance did not refer to corporeal matter until the 14th C, according to this source. To my limited knowledge, the use of ousia in the Nicene Creed did not have a material implication. "The creed states that the Son is homoousion tō Patri ('of one substance with the Father'), thus declaring him to be all that the Father is: he is completely divine" Encyclopedia Britannica.
    – Nhi
    Aug 12, 2023 at 1:03
  • I agree that, if the Son is of the same substance as the Father, he must be equal with the Father in all respects. But simple reading comprehension shows that homo-ousios in the Creed has material implications: He is begotten from the substance of the Father, therefore he is of the same substance as the Father. To deny that would be to deny the obvious. I know that the king (emperor) said it must not be understood materially but, in this case, the king is naked. But the big thing is; what does "substance" mean today - for the reader of today - not what it meant in ancient history.
    – Andries
    Aug 12, 2023 at 5:24

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