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Zizioulas on the Father as Cause

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.


  1. Derrick wrote:

    Good analysis Halden. I wholeheartedly agree and this very point is something that I was wondering after reading Being and Communion (though I still have to get around to his latest book, which if I remember correctly you told me was excellent…) It is certainly an interesting endeavor to read an insightful and penetrating author as he or she attempts to keep their thoughts from going in the very direction to which they seem tendentially predisposed, but Zizioulas seems (dare I say) hellbent on maintaining that, since the existence of the Trinity is primarily personal, its existence cannot be “necessary,” in the “substantialist,” strain of the so-called “Necessary Being,” theology–hence his prioritizing of the Father as freely “affirming,” His being in the Son and the Spirit, rather than the mutual constitution and reciprocity of personhood that otherwise saturates his theology, anthropology, and ecclessiology (though I would still maintain that he gives too much priority to the Bishop–but Im of course not Eastern Orthodox…). I think you hit the nail on the head. Zizioulas perhaps ended up with his conclusion based upon both his loyalty to Eastern Orthodox’s priority of the Father, but also on the somewhat false dichotomy of necessary vs non necessary “substantial,” existence. Good work.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Derrick wrote:

    I would like to add also that this makes me skeptical to some extent of the lauding of the “Cappadocian Fathers,” in Zizioulas. Their creativity and theological acumen cannot be impugned, but I think that in many ways they also prioritized the Father as the proto-arche in this way. Obviously, like I said, there can (clearly) be no doubt of the revolutionary metaphysical steps the Cappadocians took to explain the Biblical texts through a pro-Nicean theological framework, nonetheless I have the sneaking suspicion that there is (much like some of the anti-Augustinian work recently) some generous glossing over of an otherwise very complex historical tradition, and so merely appealing to the Cappadocians as the “personalizers,” of Trinitarian theology (which, as I know your aware of, is more and more frequently being appealed to in the torrent of somewhat uninspired Trinitarian theologies of late) is simply inadequate.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 5:09 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yes, I think the influence of Zizioulas’ ecclesiology is central to his configuration of the Father as “cause” here. Actually (and you’ll be thrilled to hear this), I think Pannenberg has a better angle on this whole issue in his discussions of the Father recieiving the Kingdom from the Son, etc.

    Also, I think that Zizioulas just doesn’t get Barth, or the whole issue of act and being. That’s why he gets hung up on the problematic notion of causality.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 5:25 pm | Permalink
  4. roflyer wrote:

    Good critiques Halden. I’ll comment more when I get the time, but I just wanted to add something quick.

    What I find problematic about Zizioulas doctrine of the Trinity is his insistence on person as cause rather than substance in order to emphasis the absolute freedom of God. God doesn’t exist by necessity, but by a free choice. However, if the Spirit and the Son are both persons should they not be ontologically free as well? If their very existence is dependent on the Father as cause, does this not limit their freedom to exist and therefore diminish their equally being God? Zizioulas wants to maintain a sort of subordinate relationship, but at times it seems like a sort of subordinationism.

    Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

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