Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Part 1 — Review of Being As Communion 

Being As CommunionAfter some responses to a previous post (The Cross and the Cradle from two days ago) I promised to give an outline of the first chapter (‘Personhood and Being’) of John Zizioulas’ Being As Communion. Zizioulas is an important Orthodox scholar and is Metropolitan of Pergamon, in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Born in 1931, he studied at the Universities of Thessaloniki and Athens, becoming a Doctor of Theology in 1965. He has been Professor of Theology at Glasgow University and at King’s College in London. He has been a key figure in a number of important ecumenical dialogues. Being As Communion is a must read, particularly if you have been raised in a Western church. It will open your eyes to some of the riches of the Eastern tradition and make you aware of some of the blindspots of Western theology. I first obtained this book from my local Christian bookstore. It was an impulse buy and I had not previously heard of the book or the author. The book was so different from the books that surrounded it that it caught my attention. As it was cheap I purchased it, expecting something different, but nothing as stimulating and thought-provoking as the book turned out to be. Whether you end up agreeing with him or not, you will be challenged by your reading of Zizioulas. Peter Leithart has interacted with the thought of Zizioulas in his helpful article “Framing” Sacramental Theology: Trinity and Symbol (Westminster Theological Journal 62.1 [2000]). Whilst Leithart’s article is not (to my knowledge) available online, a discussion of it is. Whilst I would share some of Leithart’s concerns with Zizioulas’ theology, I do not think that I would be quite as critical of it or, to put it another way, I might be more inclined to see the merit in some of the more controversial positions that Zizioulas holds.
What is the ‘Person’
Zizioulas argues that the concept of the person is inextricably bound with patristic theology and ecclesiology. Greek thought was unable to give a coherent account of personhood. This was because Greek thought was wedded to monism. Ultimate ontological unity means that God Himself is incapable of freely ‘dialoguing’ with the world, being bound by ontological necessity to the world and the world being bound to Him. If freedom is essential to personhood, then there is no possibility of a fully personal being in such a framework. Freedom can have no ontological ultimacy. Personhood is without ontological content. The term ‘person’ (prosōpon) in Greek quickly became associated with the mask in the theatre in its meaning. Zizioulas argues that within Greek thought this is all that the person was, a ‘mask’. The ‘mask’ enables the actor to acquire a degree of freedom the world denies him. However, once the mask is removed, necessity returns and freedom evaporates. To become a person in Greek thought was to have something added to your being, the person could not be the true being. The Roman term persona bore a similar meaning. It referred primarily to the role played by someone in social and legal relationships and gave no account of the ontology of the person. Whilst both the Greek and Roman world were able to show man ‘a dimension of existence which may be called personal, this dimension could never be ontologically justified. The concept of the person was first given genuine ontological content as a result of the Church’s attempt to give expression to the doctrine of the Trinity. Within this attempt, a philosophical landmark was achieved: the ‘hypostasis’ was identified with the ‘person’. The term ‘hypostasis’ had previous been associated with the essence of man and would have been sharply distinguished from the term ‘person’. Now the person became the hypostasis of the being itself. The person now became the constitutive element of being. This revolution was accomplished as a result of two things. Firstly, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo destroyed the ‘closed circle’ ontology of the Greeks. The world was no longer to be seen as ontologically necessary but was rather a product of freedom. ‘That which exists was liberated from itself; the being of the world became free from necessity.’ Secondly, the doctrine of God developed by the early church gave ontological ultimacy to personhood. Zizioulas argues against the idea that the ontological ‘principle’ of God is founded upon an impersonal divine substance, maintaining that the person of the Father is the ‘cause’ or ‘principle’ of the being and life of God.
Thus when we say that God “is,” we do not bind the personal freedom of God—the being of God is not an ontological “necessity” or a simple “reality” for God—but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom.
God’s existence is founded upon His free will to exist. The Father freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. The substance of God never can be conceived of as a naked state without hypostasis. Being is traced back to person rather than nature or substance. Consequently, God is ontologically free. ‘He transcends and abolishes the ontological necessity of the substance by being God as Father.’ God’s being is found in an act of communion. The Trinity exists not because the divine nature is itself ecstatic, but because the communion is freely willed by the Father as a person. Love has ontological ultimacy.
The expression “God is love” (I John 4:16) signifies that God “subsists” as Trinity, that is, as person and not as substance. Love is not an emanation or “property” of the substance of God … but is constitutive of His substance…. Thus love ceases to be a qualifying … property of being and becomes the supreme ontological predicate. Love as God’s mode of existence “hypostasizes” God, constitutes His being. Therefore, as a result of love, the ontology of God is not subject to the necessity of the substance. Love is identified with ontological freedom.
God’s immortality is not founded on the continuance of His substance but on account of His Trinitarian existence.
The life of God is eternal because it is personal, that is to say, it is realized as an expression of free communion, as love. Life and love are identified in the person: the person does not die only because it is loved and loves…. Death for a person means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of its hypostasis, which is affirmed and maintained by love.
Outside of the communion of love, the person becomes a being indistinguishable from other beings.
Brief Analysis
I believe that Zizioulas’ treatment of the subject of personhood and being is very helpful. In my next post I will give more attention to the anthropological implications of Zizioulas’ thesis. For the moment I will focus upon Zizioulas’ articulation of the doctrine of God. Here there are a number of things to appreciate and a few areas to question. I will begin with three areas of appreciation. Firstly, his maintaining of the personal nature of God is salutary. Although I believe that his objection that Western theology places the ontological principle of God in the divine substance should be far more qualified, it is nonetheless an error that our attention should be drawn to. God is not a product of the necessity of an impersonal substance, but freely exists in love. Secondly, his statement that God “subsists” as Trinity is again helpful. By giving the Trinity ontological ultimacy (rather than reserving this for the substance of God), relationships are given ontological ultimacy. The significance of this insight should not be underestimated. Multiplicity is built into the very heart of ontology and is not a ‘second storey’ or departure from it. Thirdly, by recognizing the constitutive nature of love for being each Person of the Trinity finds its identity only in relationship with the other Persons. I will now move on to one particular area of concern. I remain unconvinced by Zizioulas’ treatment of the Father as the source of the Trinity. I believe that his approach tends towards a dangerous subordinationism. Part of my concern might be attributed to the fact that I am, as a child of the Western Church, inclined to approach the issue of the Trinity from a different direction. However, I do not believe that my concerns can be wholly accounted for by this. I am certainly convinced that God’s unity is personal. However, Zizioulas’ account of the unity of God is not, in my opinion, demanded by this. We need not say that God owes His existence to the Father in the same manner that Zizioulas does. I do not believe that Zizioulas gives enough weight to the fact that the Father is conditioned by the Son, just as the Son is conditioned by the Father. Whilst some have been inclined to argue that the language of Father and Son merely speaks of reciprocity within the Trinity, I believe that the term Father must be understood to convey more than this. The Trinity should not be understood merely as three persons co-existing in communion. There is ‘eternal subordination’ of the Son and the Spirit to the Father. The origin of the Father-Son relationship is to be found in the Father. It is clear that the Father possesses a primacy as the first Person of the Trinity. However, we should beware of presuming that this implies ontological subordination. Zizioulas seems to lean too far in this direction. If personhood has ontological ultimacy and ‘God owes His existence to the Father’, we do seem to be talking about ontological subordination. I believe that there could be no Father without the Son and yet the Father is in some sense the originator of this relationship (of course, language of ‘origin’ and ‘cause’ when applied within the eternal Trinity should be used extremely carefully). I am persuaded that Zizioulas’ account fails when the first part of this statement is put into the equation. As I believe that the Son is autotheos, I am unwilling to follow Zizioulas at this point. However, I am convinced that the ontological ultimacy of personhood need not be undermined by this. Perhaps Zizioulas, by placing too much emphasis upon one particular starting point for this doctrine, fails to recognize the existence of many valid perspectives on the question. Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the TrinityHow can we argue for a personal oneness of God? One of the most bold ways of declaring the personal nature of God’s unity is seen in Cornelius Van Til’s statement that ‘God, that is the whole Godhead, is one person.’ Such a paradoxical statement helps to humble us before the mystery. It maintains what Zizioulas is trying to defend, albeit in a manner that would probably be quite unsatisfactory to him. Van Til also contends that the ‘oneness’ and the ‘threeness’ have equal ultimacy. This is again helpful, providing a caution against attempts to discover first ‘causes’ and the like. It is important that the perichoretic unity of God is recognized. This is the dynamic unity by which each Person of the Trinity indwells the others. The Persons of the Trinity are mutually constitutive of each other and each Person of the Trinity is co-terminous with the whole being of God. The Father’s relationship to the Son is not something that belongs to one particular ‘moment’ in eternity, but is something continually occurring. In my next post (or possible two) I hope to conclude this look at Zizioulas by dealing with his approach to anthropology and salvation.

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