Zizioulas: Being as Communion

Image result for being as communion

If I criticized Western models of the Trinity in the last post, I am going to push back against some fashionable Eastern models in this one.

Zizzy notes that ancient Greek thought maintained a diversity in spite of apparent unity (29). Therefore, there could never be a unique “person” since everything reduced to the One. Christianity would come along and identify the hypostasis with the prosopon. In other words, the ancient teaching could now differentiate between person and nature. Person is no longer a category of being, but the hypostasis of a being. Person constitutes being (39).

Ontology and God’s Existence

The person of the Father is the ontological principle of God’s existence (40). The hypostasis of the Father grounds the “being” of God. This forces ontology into a “relational category” (this is quite interesting given that modern physics has also moved into relational categories; see Polkinghorne, Trinity and Entanglement).

Athanasios, contra later moves by Thomas Aquinas, made a distinction between substance and will (Contra Arianos: 1:33). He broke the closed ontology of the Greeks. To be is not the same as to will or to act. He connected the Son’s being to the substance of God, which of course, is grounded in the person of the Father. Since “substance” is grounded in the person of the Father, substance now has relational signficance.

While “hypostasis” and “ousia” technically mean the same thing (or at least overlap)–anyway, before St Basil—several things have happened that prevent a neat identification. Hypostasis now has a relational dimension, and Athanasios rejected the distinction between primary and secondary substance (85 n. 61).

Truth and Communion

The Greeks were perceptive enough to know that history is in the realm of decay (2nd Law of Thermodynamics). Their reticence to history was not due to “gnostic otherworldliness,” but to common sense. If Truth is timeless and eternal, how can it interact with the changing realm of history?

St Maximos the Confessor was the one to solve this riddle. He did so by allowing for “truth” in the movement of being (e.g., history). He proposed to see the world as genesis–>kinesis–>stasis. Thus, history is provisional but it is also meaningful: it now possesses an “end.” The truth of history is identifiable with creation, and both are moving towards the future.


This is only a thumbnail sketch. The rest of the book deals with ecclesiological issues that are probably more relevant for Orthodox seminarians


Zizioulas thinks the Fathers saw person simply in relational contexts.  Is this true?  Lucian Turcescu’s argues that it is not. The simple reason is Gregory of Nyssa had no qualms about defining a person as individual. Both Basil and Gregory, perhaps drawing upon Porphyry, saw ‘Peter’ and ‘Job’ “as unique collections of properties” (Turcescu 530). Gregory says that Job is “this man,” going so far as to write “a person (hypostasis) is also the concourse of the peculiar characteristics” (Difference between ousia and hypostasis; I understand this might have been written by Basil, but Turcescu seems to think Gregory wrote it).

For Z. to be a person is to be a person in communion.   God’s being is relational and the Trinity is the “primordial ontological concept” (Zizioulas, BaC, 16-17).

Priority of the Father and the Sovereignty-Aseity Conviction

The Person of the Father is the supreme category (Zizioulas 18).


Can the Father’s radical freedom allow him to choose a world in which evil is praiseworthy (McCall 198)?

The Father’s radical freeness seems to imply that he has different properties than the Son.  Does he have different “personal” properties or different essential properties? The first is orthodox; the second is not.  It’s hard to see how it can be a personal property. Personal properties are relational, but the Father’s property of radical freedom is not in relation to Son or Spirit (201).

An Extended Analysis (McCall 202-203).

(1) The Father alone is ultimate (Sovereignty-Aseity Conviction; SAC)

(2) The Father is a person (SAC)

(3) Persons exist only in communion (BAC)

McCall spells out the above contradiction

(4) Persons exist only in communion (BAC)

(5) The Father is a Person (BAC and SAC)

(6) Therefore, the Father exists only in a communion.

But (6) contradicts (1).

 Lucian Turcescu’s “‘Person’ versus ‘Individual,’ and other Modern Misreadings of Gregory of Nyssa.” Modern Theology 18:4 October 2002.

McCall, Thomas.  Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, Church History, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Zizioulas: Being as Communion

  1. cal says:

    It’s interesting to compare to an “unofficial” site on the Church of the East (Nestorian)’s trinitarian theology. From their conciliar documents and manuals, they separate hypostasis from prosopon, where the latter is the subject and the former is the instantiation of a nature. Thus, Jesus has a human physis and a human hypostasis, he didn’t become Humanity, but became a specific man. In some ways, their documents preempt Constantinople III’s neo-chalcedonian emphasis on Jesus being a complete man (including a soul and a will), and offer an alternative grammar on what Maximus describes as the hypostatization of a nature. However, it sounds like the East gets away from the monarchy of the Father that one sees more strictly in the Nazianzen.


    • J. B. Aitken says:

      Very good point. While I don’t think later, post-Chalcedonian councils are Nestorian, I do think they had to face up to inevitable claims made by Nestorians on Jesus’s real humanity.


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