Wednesday, December 24, 2003
After 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 ). 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.