Here is the rest of chapter one. The summary is once more rather detailed. I don’t know if anyone is interested in these summaries, but I think that this is a useful exercise for me and that posting them here will – hopefully – provide a certain stimulus to keep me writing! However, I have realised that trying to write a response to this now feels too forced. There is much that needs to emerge with time, that needs further reflection and that I hope will become clearer as the book proceeds. So I have decided to simply note a couple of points for further reflection at the end and to come back to these at some point in separate posts. (Although I fear that I shall not have much time for writing in the next couple of weeks).

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

II From Biological to Ecclesial Existence:
The Ecclesiological Significance of the Person

This second part of chapter one is concerned with the ecclesial emergence of the person. Salvation means that we become participators in the Divine Life, precisely because we come to participate in God’s personal existence, for “The goal of salvation is that the personal life which is realized in God should also be realized on the level of human existence. Consequently salvation is identified with the realization of personhood in man.” (50)

Patristic theology was concerned with the person precisely as an “image of God”. It identified two “modes of existence”, namely, the “hypostasis of biological existence” and the “hypostasis of ecclesial existence”.

The hypostasis of biological existence is constituted by conception and birth and as such is the product of communion between two people. Such erotic love is an astounding mystery of existence and conceals a tendency to the ecstatic transcendence of individuality through creation. However, it suffers from two passions, namely ontological necessity because of its tie to natural instinct, and individualism in which the body becomes a new mask. “The body tends towards the person but leads finally to the individual.” (51) Death is the natural development of the biological hypostasis, which can assure the continuation of the species but not of the person.

All this means that man as a biological hypostasis is intrinsically a tragic figure. He is born as a result of an ecstatic fact – erotic love – but this fact is interwoven with a natural necessity and therefore lacks ontological freedom. He is born as a hypostatic fact, as a body, but this fact is interwoven with individuality and with death. By the same erotic act with which he tries to attain ecstasy he is led to individualism. His body is the tragic instrument which leads to communion with others, stretching out a hand, creating language, speech, conversation, art, kissing. But at the same time it is the “mask” of hypocrisy, the fortress of individualism, the vehicle of the final separation, death. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7: 24) The tragedy of the biological constitution of man’s hypostasis does not lie in his not being a person because of it; it lies in his tending towards becoming a person through it and failing. Sin is precisely this failure. And sin is the tragic prerogative of the person alone. (52)

Two things are necessary for salvation. Eros and the body should not be destroyed, for they are the necessary means for expression and becoming a person. However, their constitutional make-up needs to be changed, not through moral improvement but through a kind of new birth in which their activity becomes adapted to a new mode of existence, namely the “hypostasis of ecclesial existence” which is given to us in baptism.

Whereas the biological hypostasis is bound up with biological necessity, the ecclesial hypostasis, in order to avoid such necessity, needs to be rooted in an ontological reality that does not suffer from createdness. It is precisely this that Patristic Christology offers us.

Christology, in the definitive form which the Fathers gave it, looks towards a single goal of purely existential significance, the goal of giving man the assurance that the quest for the person, not as a “mask” or as a “tragic figure,” but as the authentic person, is not mythical or nostalgic but is a historical reality. Jesus Christ does not justify the title Savior because He brings the world a beautiful revelation, a sublime teaching about the person, but because He realizes in history the very reality of the person and makes it the basis and “hypostasis” of the person for every man. (54)

It is in this context that we should view the Patristic insistence on both the identification of the person of Christ with the hypostasis of the Son of the Holy Trinity – in order to free the person from the necessity of nature, which a Nestorian position would have implied – and the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures – which provides us with the assurance that our nature too can be assumed and hypostasised in a manner free from ontological necessity.

Thanks to Christ man can henceforth “subsist,” can affirm his existence as personal not on the basis of 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. This adoption of man by God, the identification of his hypostasis with the hypostasis of the Son of God, is the essence of baptism. (56)

This new birth which is brought about through baptism is realised in the Church, hence the importance of the Patristic use of mothering imagery for the Church – it is where birth takes place. And it is also not surprising that the early Christians transferred family terminology onto the Church. The Church did not provide a parallel existence to that of the human family but rather the transcendence of the latter by the former. The new birth which it brings about enables us to transcend exclusive relationships. Catholicity “permits the person to become a hypostasis without falling into individuality.” (58)

Thus the Church becomes Christ Himself in human existence, but also every member of the Church becomes Christ and Church. The ecclesial hypostasis exists historically in this manner as a confirmation of man’s capacity not to be reduced to his tendency to become a bearer of individuality, separation and death. The ecclesial hypostasis is the faith of man in his capacity to become a person and his hope that he will indeed become an authentic person. In other words it is faith and hope in the immortality of man as a person. (58)

This clearly begs the question of the relationship between the biological hypostasis and the ecclesial hypostasis, for it should be obvious to us that the biological hypostasis does not cease to exist. Thus it becomes increasingly clear that the ecclesial hypostasis is fundamentally eschatological. But this is not eschatology in the sense of an evolution or potentiality in human nature. It is in this context that Zizioulas introduces the idea of a eucharistic ontology.

The situation created by the expectation and hope of the ecclesial identity, by this paradoxical hypostasis which has its roots in the future and its branches in the present, could perhaps have been expressed by another ontological category, which I would call here a sacramental or eucharistic hypostasis. (59)

It is in the Eucharist that we are able to transcend the necessity and the exclusiveness of the biological hypostasis. Understood properly “the eucharist is first of all an assembly (synaxis), a community, a network of relations, in which man ‘subsists’ in a manner different from the biological as a member of a body which transcends every exclusiveness of a biological or social kind.” (60) It is the Eucharist moreover that is able to hold together both the whole and the parts. “There Christ is ‘parted but not divided’ and every communicant is the whole Christ and the whole Church.” (60) This is the reason why the Church has bound all of her acts to the Eucharist.

The sacraments when not united to the eucharist are a blessing and confirmation which is given to nature as biological hypostasis. United, however, with the eucharist, they become not a blessing and confirmation of the biological hypostasis, but a rendering of it as transcendent and eschatological. (61)

But the Eucharist is also a movement; it both expresses our eschatological existence and it also involves a movement towards it. The eucharistic expression of the ecclesial hypostasis belongs not only to history but also to the eschatological transcendence of history.

The ecclesial hypostasis reveals man as a person, which, however, has its roots in the future and is perpetually inspired, or rather maintained and nourished, by the future. The truth and the ontology of the person belong to the future, are images of the future. (62)

Thus the Eucharist is pervaded by the dialectic of “already but not yet”. The ecclesial hypostasis does not obliterate the biological hypostasis but transcends it. It “draws its being from the being of God and from that which it will itself be at the end of the age”. (62)

Here we encounter the ascetic nature of the ecclesial hypostasis which is not a denial of biological nature but rather of the biological hypostasis. Neither eros nor the body are to be abandoned but they must be hypostasised according to the “mode of existence” of the ecclesial hypostasis and thus freed from ontological necessity.

It becomes a movement of free love with a universal character, that is, a love which, while it can concentrate on one person as the expression of the whole of nature, sees in this person the hypostasis through which all men and all things are loved and in relation to which they are hypostasised. The body for its part as the hypostatic expression of the human person, is liberated from individualism and egocentricity and becomes a supreme expression of community – the Body of Christ, the body of the Church, the body of the eucharist. (63-64)

And, having become freed from the laws of the biological nature concerning individualism and exclusiveness, this ecclesial hypostasis is therefore also free from its law of death. Despite living the tragic aspects of the biological existence intensely, the ecclesial hypostasis is rooted ontologically in the future, and the pledge of this future is the resurrection of Christ into whose image we are hypostasised through our participation in the Eucharist.

When the eucharistic community keeps alive the memory of our loved ones – living as well as dead – it does not just preserve a psychological recollection; it proceeds to an act of ontology, to the assurance that the person has the final word over nature, in the same way that God the Creator as person and not as nature had the first word. (64-65)


Points for further reflection:

  • We should note the importance of Christology, in the sense that Christ’s assuming of our nature opens up the way to personhood for us. This relates to Gregory of Nazianzus’ pithy statement of “what is unassumed is unhealed”, which I have always found important, not only as an historical criterion of orthodoxy but also in the context of new theologies of gender essentialism which appear to undermine this. This is something that I’ve written a bit on recently and on which I feel strongly, so I’m sure I’ll write something on it here at some point. But it’s also something that I need to ponder in a deeper way, for it goes to the very heart of our faith, which we cannot simply speak about but need to enter into!
  • This reading also makes me aware of how fundamentally Eastern theology is rooted in the idea of “Christ in us” rather than Christ simply doing something for us, outside of us. While this is not absent from the later Western tradition, something of it has been lost in the West. More food for an ongoing reflection!
  • The understanding of asceticism – and especially its role on the border between the biological hypostasis and the ecclesial hypostasis – ties in with themes with which I have been concerned recently and which I want to develop further. But this will also emerge more fully when I get to Communion and Otherness. (This is also related, but not limited, to thinking through a theology of celibacy, which I’m inclined to think would be worth doing at some point).

I’m sure there is much else that needs to be mulled over, but it will emerge with time!