It was probably an illusion to think that I was going to be able to produce concise summaries of Zizioulas. Either I have lost my ability to write concisely or else it is impossible to present him concisely, or perhaps a bit of both. In any case, here is the first instalment of chapter one with some very brief comments.

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

Chapter 1. Personhood and Being (27-65)

This chapter is concerned with the emergence of the concept of the person and its rootedness in theology. Zizioulas argues that the concept of the person “is purely the product of patristic thought. Without this, the deepest meaning of personhood can neither be grasped nor justified.” (27) This chapter is divided into two major sections. The first traces this emergence historically and shows theology’s role in accounting for the person. The second explores the ecclesial grounding of personal identity.

I. From Mask to Person. The birth of an ontology of Personhood.(27-49)

This section traces the development of the concept of the person from Greek thought, where it tentatively raised its head only to be frustrated by the ontological necessity implied by monism, to its emergence in patristic thought where it is intimately related to the working out of Trinitarian theology.

Ancient Greek thought was unable to see human individuality as permanent in any real sense because of its basic principle which sought to trace the multiplicity of existent things back to a unity in the “one” being. This ontological monism meant that not even God could escape this ontological unity.

It is in Greek tragedy that the person (pro<sopon) appears and is identified with the mask that was used in the theatre. The person is ultimately a tragic figure caught in the conflict between human freedom and the rational necessity of a unified and harmonious world. Although the person has acquired a certain taste for freedom, this freedom is necessarily circumscribed and is therefore really illusory, for it has no ontological foundation.

The mask is not unrelated to the person, but their relationship is tragic. In the ancient world for someone to be a person means that he has something added to his being; the person is not his true “hypostasis.” “Hypostasis” still means basically “nature” or “substance.” Many centuries would have to elapse before Greek thought would reach the historic identification of “hypostasis” with “person.” (33)

The Roman understanding of the person was similar although it is more linked to the social and political role of the person. Persona was the role that one plays and Roman thought was not so much concerned with humanity’s being as with its relationship with others which finds expression in the contemporary politicisation of humanity and the rise of sociology. In this human identity comes to be defined in terms of the group which exercises freedom and defines its boundaries.

Thus the Graeco-Roman world raised the possibility of personhood but was unable to provide it with any real grounding. Pro<sopon and persona were pointers to the person but their cosmological framework prevented them from identifying personhood with the essence of things.

Two things were necessary for the person to become identified with the essence of humanity. Firstly, a radical cosmological changed that would free the world from ontological necessity, and, secondly, an ontological view of humanity which would unite the person with humanity’s being. The first was offered by Christianity with its biblical outlook and the second by Greek thought with its interest in ontology. It was the Greek Fathers were able to unite these two.

This ontological identification of the person came about through the Church’s efforts to express its faith in the Triune God in which it came to identify “hypostasis” with the “person”. There was initial hesitation in the East about the West’s use (from the time of Tertullian) of the word “person” for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, precisely because “person” lacked an ontological content and could lead to Sabellianism or the manifestation of God in three “roles”. The East preferred the term “hypostases” for the Trinity, but this was also problematic because of its use in Neoplatonism, and also because it could have led to a sort of tritheism. In seeking to avoid all these dangers, the Church developed a mode of expression that came to identify hypostasis with person.

This means that the person is no longer a sort of adjunct to being but is itself the hypostasis of being. Moreover, entities no longer trace their being to being itself but rather to the person who constitutes being. Thus “from an adjunct to a being (a kind of mask) the person becomes the being itself and is simultaneously – a most significant point – the constitutive element (or “principle” or “cause” of beings.” (39)

This ontological reappraisal was made possible by two “leavenings” that had occurred in patristic theology. Firstly, the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo traced the world back to an ontology outside the world, i.e. to God, and made being a product of freedom. Secondly, the being of God was Himself identified with the person, namely the Father. And it is in his trinitarian existence that He confirms this will to exist. The substance never exists in a “naked” state but is dependent on this trinitarian mode of existence.

That God “exists” on account of a person and not on account of a substance has experiential significance for us, for the ultimate challenge to the freedom of the person is the necessity of existence. If the only way to assert one’s freedom over and against the necessity of existence is suicide, then this leads to nihilism. Therefore Zizioulas claims:

Philosophy can arrive at the confirmation of the reality of the person, but only theology can treat of the genuine, the authentic person, because the authentic person, as absolute ontological freedom, must be “uncreated,” that is unbounded by a “necessity,” including its own existence. If such a person does not exist in reality, the concept of the person is a presumptuous daydream. If God does not exist, the person does not exist. (43)

However, the expression of human freedom threatens to lead to chaos and needs to be constrained for the sake of law, order and harmony. The “other” becomes a threat to the person who once again appears to be illusory. And here theology once more intervenes. It grounds God’s ontological freedom not in His “nature” – which would be of no help to us for our nature is created whereas God’s nature is uncreated – but rather in His personal existence, in the “mode of existence” by which He exists as God. It is this “ecstatic character of God, the fact that His being is identical with an act of communion” (44) that makes free existence possible. Thus love is not an emanation or “property” of God’s substance but is constitutive of His substance. It becomes the supreme ontological predicate.

All this means that personhood creates for human existence the following dilemma: either freedom as love, or freedom as negation. The choice of the latter certainly constitutes and expression of personhood – only the person can seek negative freedom – but it is a negation nevertheless of its ontological content. For nothingness has no ontological content when the person is seen in the light of trinitarian theology. (46)

Moreover, we desire not only being but also uniqueness, an existence as a concrete unrepeatable entity. Our inability to ensure our absolute identity culminates in death. But “Death becomes tragic and unacceptable only when man is regarded as a person, and above all as a hypostasis and unique identity.” (47) Humanistic existential philosophy answers this through an ontologizing of death refuses the possibility of an ontology outside the world. It is theology that provides an ontology which transcends the tragic aspect of death. This is rooted not in God’s substance, but in His trinitarian existence in which the Father is eternally in relation to both the Son and the Spirit.

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; outside the communion of love the person loses its uniqueness, and becomes a being life other beings, a “thing” without absolute “identity” and “name,” without a face. (49)


Brief – and very much still in process – reflection:

Reading this was both exciting and intimidating! It was exciting because

  • Zizioulas’ examination of the theological roots of the person presents a challenge to the insufficiently examined assumptions of Western thought.
  • The connection between God’s personhood and our personhood is of fundamental importance in Christian theology and it receives a thorough grounding here.
  • The link between monotheism and freedom has opened up new vistas for me that I need to work through more. At a personal level I’m not always clear what I understand by a personal God, and in reaction to anthropomorphism fear that I sometimes tend towards a sort of practical monism. Moreover, I suspect that it is only by reading the Fathers that I will be able to process this properly!

So reading this is also intimidating, for it makes me conscious of my own need for a much more thorough grounding in patristic theology. For the questions that have been addressed to Zizioulas are part of broader debates in patristic theology. In particular his insistence – following the Cappadocians – on the Father as cause is related to the differing ways in which trinitarian theology developed in East and West, and ultimately also to the issue of the filioque. And it is also related of course to the structure of the Church and the role of the bishop. But I hope that these will become clearer as this reading progresses.