John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004).


Introduction (pp. 15-26)

Here we encounter the central themes with which Zizioulas is concerned in this book, namely the ontological nature of ecclesiology, the dialectic between history and eschatology, and the role of the Eucharist in both these themes.

For Zizioulas ecclesiology is not simply one aspect of theology. It assumes a fundamental importance not only for all of theology, but also for our understanding of humanity as such. The Church is a “way of being” which is “deeply bound to the being of man, to the being of the world and to the very being of God.” (15)

The Fathers were not concerned with whether God existed, but rather with how he existed, a question had direct consequences for both the Church and humanity, for both were considered “images of God”. They sought to ground human personhood in a relational ontology that emerged from the eucharistic experience of the early Church. This enabled them to avoid both the monism of Greek philosophy and the “gulf” between God and the world of gnosticism. The being of God is thus a relational being. The Trinity is a primordial ontological concept and not a notion that is added to the divine substance. For the Fathers communion becomes an ontological concept. It is communion that makes things “be”.

This is not a communion for its own sake, but a communion that originates with a free person – the Father – and which is orientated towards free persons. The ultimate ontological category that makes something really be is neither an impersonal and incommunicable substance, nor a communion existing by itself or imposed by necessity, but rather the person. Being is the consequence of a free person.

Zizioulas claims that the theology of the person would not have been possible without the mystery of the Church. The human person as an absolute freedom is humanly speaking impossible, for our being is given to us. Instead, the demand for absolute freedom involves a new birth, a baptism. It is “the ecclesial being that ‘hypostasizes’ the person according to God’s way of being, only thus can the concrete, free person emerge. That is what makes the Church the image of the Triune God.” (19)

However, this does not simply mean ‘triadology’. Humanity and the Church are in the image of God according to the order of the economy of the Holy Trinity, which is rooted in history. While this is the basis of ecclesiology it is not its goal, which is the vision of God as he is. Thus we encounter the dialectic between God and the world, the uncreated and the created, history and the eschaton. Eastern theology has tended to emphasise the meta-historical, eschatological and iconological dimension of the Church with the risk of historically disincarnating the Church. Western theology has tended to limit ecclesiology to its historical content and to project realities belonging to history onto the eternal existence of God, making the Church completely ‘historicized’. Both Eastern and Western theology need to rediscover the Patristic synthesis. “Ecclesial being must never separate itself from the absolute demands of the being of God – that is, its eschatological nature – nor from history. The institutional dimension of the Church must always incarnate its eschatological nature without annulling the dialectic of this age and the age to come…” (20)

In order to do this both East and West need to rediscover the lost consciousness of the primitive Church regarding the Eucharist in ecclesiology. This means returning to the ancient understanding of the Eucharist that was common to both East and West until around the twelfth century. In this the Eucharist is not one sacrament among many, a ‘means of grace’ ‘used’ or ‘administered’ by the Church. Rather it is the gathering that constitutes the Church, enabling it to be. It manifests the historical form of the divine economy and thus affirms history, structure and institution. But these are themselves inadequate. Through the epiclesis and the presence of the Holy Spirit “it dilates history and time to the infinite dimensions of the eschata” (22) and thus makes the Church eschatological. Thus the Eucharist manifests the Church not just as something instituted but as something constituted and constantly realised.

Zizioulas distances himself here from the “eucharistic ecclesiology” of Father Nicholas Afanasiev. He wishes to place ecclesiology in the broader context of ontology and to see the mystery of the Church as bound to the entirety of theology, rather than seeing the celebration of the Eucharist simply as a sacramental act. Moreover, he sees Afanasiev’s principle “where the Eucharist is, there is the Church” as dangerous insofar as it leads to a distorted view of the relationship between the local and the universal Church.

This question of the relationship between the local and the universal Church is of course important in ecumenical dialogue, and Zizioulas argues that “it is the Eucharist itself which will guide us in this, for, by its nature, it expresses simultaneously both the ‘localization’ and the ‘universalization’ of the mystery of the Church, that is the transcending of both ‘localism’ and ‘universalism’.” (25)

Some reflections

An introduction is obviously a place for presenting themes that will be expanded on in greater length in the rest of the book, and so it is difficult to properly engage with his ideas here. There is much here that needs to be unpacked further. However, some – briefly noted and probably inadequately worked out – points:

  • This work touches on themes that are of central importance for me personally. I have always been aware that my own faith is fundamentally ecclesial and that this is directly related to the Eucharist. Even in my most radical moments I have never been able to envisage faith without the Church – with all its historical, institutional mediations – nor a “Eucharist” that was not organically linked to the traditional of the Church (i.e. I have never felt able to participate in “priestless Masses”). However, this was more intuitive than clearly worked out, a sense that there is more to the mystery of the Church than what remains after critical theory, but also that the theological tools that I had were not capable of expressing or engaging this. I have known for several years that I should read this book and am excited at finally getting down to it!
  • In recent years I have become more conscious of the shifts in eucharistic theology that occurred in the West towards the end of the Middle Ages, which are also linked to broader theological shifts and the divorce between “theology” and “spirituality”. That is an enormous area in which I do not have the necessary background but which seems important to further investigate at some stage. (i.e. I really must get down to reading de Lubac!) And I am also conscious that my own experiential perspective on the Eucharist has changed, partly due to exposure to Eastern Christianity, i.e I have become increasingly uncomfortable with things like daily Mass, eucharistic adoration, etc. but also with the familiarity with which we approach the Holy Gifts. I have become increasingly convinced that the liturgical movement did not go far enough in addressing these things, but also that insofar as it did address them it lost its way and that we are now faced with the false alternatives of a sort of post-Tridentine (or late medieval) eucharistic positivism which sees the Eucharist as one more “thing”, however holy, and the sterility of (post)modern criticism and tacky superficial liturgy that has cut adrift from the tradition and lacks the power to speak to us with any depth, to provide an ontological grounding. Of course this goes way beyond what Zizioulas deals with here, but it does explain the background against which I am reading this book, and perhaps also why I find it exciting!
  • One often hears reference to the “institutional Church”, usually by people who have problems with it! Now, there are also aspects of the Church with which I have problems, but this playing off of the institutional Church against a ‘popular’ or ‘charismatic’ or whatever Church strikes me as theologically irresponsible, perhaps even Gnostic. I will be interested to see where Zizioulas goes in situating this institutional aspect of the Church within the dialectic of history and eschatology.
  • I am not unaware that this book has generated a certain controversy. Zizioulas has been charged with reading the Patristic tradition in terms of nineteenth century philosophy and of importing human notions of community into the Trinity. I have not read any of his critics directly, which I suppose that I had better do at some point and in the course of these books I had better come to grips with the issues involved (and in Communion and Otherness he reacts to some of the critics). However, it does seem to me that his thought is considerably more traditional and theologically subtle than some of the “Trinity as a model of human community” theologies that one sometimes encounters.

Lastly, a quote with which I can only concur and which I think anticipates my own interest in this book:

If Orthodoxy is only this sort of “interesting” subject, provoking the curiosity and enriching merely the knowledge of Western theologians, it would be better that it stop being presented: it has played this role enough up until now and accomplished this “task.” These studies are addressed to the reader who seeks in Orthodox theology the dimension of the faith of the Greek Fathers, a dimension necessary to the catholicity of the faith of the Church and to the existential implications of Christian doctrine and of the ecclesial institution. They are addressed to the Western Christian who feels, as it were, “amputated” since the East and the West followed their different and autonomous paths. (26)