Communion and Otherness

In Communion and Otherness, John Zizioulas expands and elaborates upon ideas that were presented in Being and Communion. What sets this book from the earlier book is that instead of focusing on how communion is related to being he focuses on how otherness is related to being – what ties together communion and otherness is that both are relational categories, therefore Zizioulas’ ontology is rightly considered a relational ontology.

Zizioulas begins by decrying how “Individualism is present in the very foundation of this culture.” (1) This, he says is due to the influence of Boethius who taught that a person is an individual of a rational nature and St. Augustine  who emphasized the importance of self-consciousness. Much like Being and Communion, this work seeks to turn back to Patristic sources in order to present (what Zizioulas takes to be) a truly Christian and biblical ontology of persons.

In Being and Communion Zizioulas almost mentions in passing that God the Father is the ground of being of the Trinity. He states, “the fact that God owes his existence to the Father, that is to a person.” (18) Here he does not simply put forth such a claim, he develops an argument for it. By engaging in a close reading of the early creeds and the Cappadocians he argues that “the one ontological arche in the Trinity is the Father, who is in this one sense the One God.” Such a view, he says, remains faithful to the biblical and creedal equation of God with the Father. (119) Part of his argument turns on his interpretation of the Cappadocians use of ousia and hypostasis. “Ousia” connotes “what he is” but “hypostasis” connotes “how he is.” Both terms refer to being. With this version of Trinitarian theology in hand Zizioulas points out several consequences for Theological Anthropology. First, if we are to speak of personhood for humans, we must “allow God’s way of being to reveal to us true personhood.” (141) This means that a person is always a gift from someone, personhood never occurs in an individualistic manner. Second, we must affirm that our personal existence is due to a person and not a nature. This means that the primary ontological category for theological anthropology is persons not natures. Third, we learn that personal otherness is a-symetrical. There is always something which is ontologically prior to ourselves.

Zizioulas’ Trinitarian anthropology has further consequences. Since humans are made in the image of God, we must no longer think of the image of God in terms of our nature, rather we must think of the imago Dei in terms of personhood. He says, “the image of God has precisely to do with this how, not with the what man is.” (165) The only reason we can legitimately speak of human nature being prior to human personhood is because there are other humans who instantiate the nature prior to our personhood coming to exist.

My dissertation on Torrance is a work of Christological anthropology. What I am interested in doing is showing how Torrance’s theological anthropology can be interpreted and be further developed by making use of Christological categories. Chapter six of Communion and Otherness is especially relevant to my dissertation chapter on personhood. There he argues that Christology should not be limited to issues of soteriogology but rather Christology is the key to understanding humanity’s destiny as the image of God. In Christ, human nature “recovers its ekstatic movement towards God.” (238) Through Christ, “personhood is objectively restored not on the level of an individual but on the level of true personhood.” (238) Like Torrance who calls Christ the “personalizing person,” Zizioulas says that “In Christ, therefore, every man acquires his particularity, his hypostasis, his personhood, precisely because” the individual is “constituted as being in and through the same relationship which constitutes Christ’s being.” (240) This relationship which constitutes Christ’s being is the filial relation between Christ and the Father. Through baptism, humans are incorporated into the filial relationship that constitutes Christ’s personhood, thus humans participate in a person constituting relation.

Another interesting point that Zizioulas makes in this chapter that might be relevant to my research is that Christ “constitutes the ontological ground of every man.” (243) Zizioulas calls this the de-individualization of Christ. This “de-individualization” does not make sense with an individualized understanding of personhood—where a person is a wholly independent being—i.e. an understanding of personhood based on substance ontology. Personhood, however, is not introverted, it is ekstatic, thus personhood emerges in relation. Christ is “the man par excellence” because of how he relates to all other human persons, thus in Zizioulas’s words Christ is also the ‘catholic’ man, the “’one’ who is at the same time ‘many.’” (241)


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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