One of the points on which John Zizioulas has been roundly criticized is on his insistence that the Father be understood as the arche of the Trinity. The Father, on Zizioulas’ view, informed by the Cappadocians, is the ground of the personhood of the Son and the Spirit in a distinctly a-symmetrical way. The Son and Spirit derive their pershonhood, their hypostasis from the Father, and particularly from the Father’s freedom as a person.
Zizioulas is quick to clarify his view. Clearly, the Father is never without the Son and the Spirit, they are all co-eternal. Moreover, the personal causality of the Father vis á vis the Son and Spirit should not be understood at the level of ousia, of substance. The Father does not bestow the divine nature on the Son and the Spirit (which would result in some sort of Arianism), but rather, personhood. Zizioulas is clear on this point, the Father is the cause of the personal being of the Son and the Spirit, but the reverse is not the case in any way whatsoever. The Father’s personhood, unlike that of the Son and Spirit is underived an ingenerate.
This, I think is a fundamental problem in Zizioulas’ trinitarian ontology. His whole case is built upon the premise that personhood is ontologically ultimate and the personhood can only be rightly understood in an ontological sense as communion. However, in making the Father the cause of the communion of the Trinity, what are we to make of the Father’s distinctive status as a hypostasis of the Trinity? How can the Father truly be personal on Zizioulas reading? He is clear that “a person is always a gift from someone.” If this is truly the case, how can the Father really be understood as a person? Zizioulas is clear that the Father does not recieve his personhood from the Son or Spirit in a reciprocal way, because, Zizioulas fears that such a statement would imperil biblical monotheism.
However, does it even make conceptual sense to deny that the Father’s personhood is constituted by his relations with the Son and Spirit? The tradition of the church has made clear that the only things which distinguish the persons of the Trinity from one another are their relations. Thus, the Father is the Father because he begets the Son and spirates the Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit because he is spirated by the Father (through the Son we might add) and the Son is the Son because he is begotten by the Father (through the Spirit we might also add). If this is the case, then the Father, as a distinct person of the Trinity does not constitute the personhood of the Son and Spirit a-symmetrically, but is himself constituted by his relations of generating and spirating the other two. In other words, the Father’s fatherhood, which is what makes the Father a distinct hypostasis is only a reality on the basis of his relations with the Son and the Spirit.
Because the Father can never be the Father without the Son and Spirit, how can we say in any meaningful way that the Father causes the personhood of the other two, but is not reciprocally “caused” by the other two? Clearly the personhood of the Father is constituted by his relation of fatherhood, which is dependent on the eternal co-reality of the Son and Spirit. There seems no way to say in any meaningful sense that the Father’s personhood, his distinct nature as a hypostasis is underived, for it is contingent upon the Son and Spirit.
All of this seems to indicate the problematic nature of positing the Father as the cause of the personhood of the other persons of the Trinity. In the first place, it imperils the Father’s own personhood and risks introducing and individualist notion of personhood into our understanding of the personhood of the Father. Secondly, it introduces the very problematic notion of causality into the Trinity. As such, it seems that Zizioulas’ monarchical model of the Trinity should not be embraced. Rather than identifying the One God with the person of the Father, we must be more rigorous in insisting that the Three persons are the One God without remainder.