Being and Communion

When Being as Communion came out (especially in English) generated much discussion regarding the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine’s relationship to ecclesiology. Although many Trinitarian theologians would say that the divide between Eastern and Western Trinitarian theologies has been overplayed, Zizioulas emphasis on the uniqueness of Orthodox Trinitarian theology leads to many constructive claims. These constructive claims come primarily in his discussion of ontology and of ecclesiology. Like his ontology, Zizioulas’s ecclesiology begins with particulars; for example the bishop does not exist without the laity and the laity does not exist without a bishop. Moreover, no ordained person realizes his ordination in himself, rather his ordination is realized in the community. In this sense the being of the ordinant is non-existent apart from communion with the community. While Zizioulas’ work on ecclesiology—The eucharist, apostolic succession, ordination, the local church—is fascinating my goal is to draw out what Zizioulas has to say about personhood.

The heart of Zizioulas proposal is his Trinitarian ontology—an ontology he says is formulated by Athanasisus and the Cappadocian Fathers. According to him, they teach that the being of God is a relational being; “without the concept of communion it would not be possible to speak of the being of God.” (17) He explains that it is impossible to speak of the “one God” apart from speaking of the God who is “communion.” Because God is the foundation of being and God is a being in communion, we are led to believe that Trinitarian ontology is the fundamamental ontology for all being. Zizioulas extrapolates from this notion and points out that nothing in existence is conceivable apart from communion.

One thing that makes Zizioulas proposal interesting is his claim that substance is not the cause of communion, rather it is a person that is the cause of communion, specifically it is the Father who is the cause of communion. God the Father is the ground of being of the Trinity. Zizioulas states, “the fact that God owes his existence to the Father, that is to a person, means (a) that his “substance,” his being does not constrain him (God does not exist because He cannot but exist, and (b) that communion is not a constraining structure for his existence.” (18)

These primary ideas mentioned above are developed in the first two chapters of Being and Communion. In these chapters he describes Greek ontology and argues that the Church fathers developed the term hypostasis away from Greek understandings towards a Trinitarian understanding. Western Christians, Zizioulas claims, still operate with Greek ontology, but the Greek fathers teach that the being of God is in the hypostasis, the person of the Father. That the being of God is “caused” by the father allows Christians to affirm the freedom and love of God, something Zizioulas says is impossible if the “cause” of God is a substance and not a person.

As the image of God, humans have a particular telos. This telos is to realize the personal life which is realized in God himself, only at the human level of existence. (50) This, he says, is the meaning of theosis: participation in the personal existence of God. Unless a human participates in the personhood of God that human is not truly personalized. This true personalization, Zizioulas calls “the hypostasis of ecclesial existence.” This mode of being personal is constituted by the new birth, by baptism. (53) The church, and the partaking of the eucharist, leads humans into a personal relationship of communion with Christ—the person through whom we enter into communion with the Triune God.

The aspect of Zizioulas’ proposal that is especially interesting to me is his notion that we are personalized when we enter into communion with Christ. This reminds me of Torrance’s claim that among human beings, Christ is the “personalizing” person and that we are “personalized” persons. Zizioulas explicitly says that “Thanks to Christ man can henceforth himself ‘subsist,” can affirm his existence as personal not on the basis of the immutable laws of his nature, but on the basis of a relationship with God which is identified with what Christ in freedom and love possesses as Son of God with the Father.”  (56) However, Zizioulas goes on to say that this adoption, which is “the identification of his hypostasis with the hypostasis of the Son of God” is the essence of baptism. (56) I disagree with Zizioulas’ theology of baptism, nevertheless, I find the claim that we are hypostasized upon adoption a fascinating claim that I am inclined to affirm.



Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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