“For the Christian faith,” Fr John Behr declares, “there is, unequivocally, but one God, and that is the Father” (Nicene Faith, II:307). Western Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, hear this declaration and wince. It just does not accord with their understanding of the Holy Trinity. The Eastern construal of the monarchy of the Father seems like a relic of a bygone era that has now been transcended by superior models of divine triunity (see, e.g., “Beyond 4th-century Trinitarianism” by Michael Liccione). Not only are there the classical formulations of St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas; but in the last century we have witnessed a renaissance in trinitarian reflection—Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Jurgen Moltmann, Catherine LaCugna, Wolfhart Pannenbert, Robert W. Jenson, Colin Gunton. None of them speak of the divine monarchy as Orthodoxy does, yet Eastern theologians remain insistent: the Father is the one God.
Among contemporary theologians Met John Zizioulas has been the most vigorous in advancing the divine monarchy of the Father. His reflections on the mystery of the Holy Trinity are sophisticated, subtle, profound, and, yes, controversial. He has been accused of reading back into the Fathers, and into the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity, a modern existentialist understanding of personhood. Zizioulas has read deeply in the Fathers, but he reads them not as a historian but as a systematic theologian. Hence it is sometimes difficult to know where St Basil stops and Zizioulas begins. There is nothing wrong with this. Theology is not archaeology. It is creatively speaking the apostolic faith into the present.
After finishing my article on “St Gregory the Theologian and the One God,” I picked up my old copy of Being and Communion, as well as two other Zizioulas books that I had bought over the past month or two, and began working my way through Zizioulas’s trinitarian essays. I will not pretend that I have a firm or even confident grasp of the material. Zizioulas is a brilliant theologian. Few can match his erudition. I probably should re-read (and re-read yet again) his books before blogging on him—but bloggers go where real theologians fear to tread. So instead I thought I would briefly share with you my provisional and fallible thoughts on Zizioulas’s understanding of the role of the Father within the eternal life of the triune Godhead.
(1) The Cappadocian Fathers established the vocabulary of trinitarian discourse by stipulating the use of the word ousia to designate the common nature of God and the use of hypostasis to signify the individual realities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as uniting hypostasis with prosopon.
Up until the Cappadocian revolution, hypostasis served as a synonym for ousia, both being translated into Latin as substantia (substance). Both ousia and hypostasis were employed as metaphysical terms to denote “the unchanging being found within or beneath each individual thing” (Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics [LCD], p. 49). Different philosophical schools gave these two words their own twists in meaning, but the important point is that they basically functioned synonymously to signify, in some way, the ontological reality of things.
In the decades both preceding and following the Council of Nicaea, ousia was used by Eastern theologians to designate that which makes God to be God and unifies the Triad; but what word was to be used to designate the particular realities of the Father, Son, and Spirit? The West had decided in the late 2nd century on the word persona; but matters were more difficult in the East. One possibility was prosopon, which meant “aspect” or “face” and was used to refer to the mask worn by actors in the theatre; but this was deemed inappropriate for trinitarian usage. It too easily suggested a form of modalism. In the third century the great Origen had begun using hypostasis to designate the beings of the Triad, but this created a lot of confusion for the Latins and Easterners alike. Ousia and hypostasis were generally considered synonymous, and both words were rendered in Latin by the word substantia. How can there be three substances and one substance? It was all quite confusing.
St Basil of Caesarea finally brought clarification to the trinitarian vocabulary when he redefined the words for theological purposes: ousia would designate the unity of the Godhead, that which is common to the Three, i.e., the divine nature (physis); hypostasis would designate the Three in their particular ontological realities. Basil also allowed the use of prosopon to specify the Three. Prosopon thus became an ontological term, and hypostasis was interpreted as “person.” Unlike other scholars who claim that the use of “person” is inappropriate as a translation of hypostasis, Zizioulas believes that this is precisely the point, when necessary qualifications are made:
The term ‘hypostasis,’ which had referred to what was most fundamental and unchanging, was now a synonym for person, which consequently was understood as an ‘ontological’ category. Person no longer denoted just a relationship that an entity could take on or the role that an actor would play. For this reason Saint Basil insisted that we can only say that God is three ‘prosopa’ when we make it clear that the ‘prosopon’ indicates a distinct and particular entity, and not a ‘face’ or role in Sabellius’ sense. (LCD, pp. 50-51)
The speaking of authentic personhood, both for God and for humanity, had now become a possibility within the world.
(2) Following, and extending, biblical and creedal usage, the Cappadocian Fathers identified the hypostasis of the Father as the “one God” and exclusive source and cause of the Holy Trinity.
The identification of the Father as the one God can be traced back to the New Testament and is reflected in the early baptismal creeds, as well as the conciliar creed of Nicaea. Similarly, that Christ and the Spirit are in some sense “from” the Father is also traditional. But the Cappadocians made a critical move: they declared that the Father as source (arche) is also the cause (aitia) of the triune Godhead. The Father begets the Son; the Father sends the Holy Spirit; and by these eternal “acts” he constitutes himself as Father in eternal relationship with the Son and Spirit. Consequently, the Father is ontologically prior (not temporally but logically) to the divine ousia. The Holy Trinity is not one God because of the substance; it is one because the Father, as person, is the one God. Zizioulas explains:
Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the ontological “principle” or “cause” of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God, but in the hypostasis, that is, the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the “cause” both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Spirit. Consequently, the ontological “principle” of God is traced back, once again, to the person. Thus when we say that God “is,” we do not bind the personal freedom of God—the being of God is not an ontological “necessity” or a simple “reality” for God—but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through “being” His free will to exist. And it is precisely His trinitarian existence that constitutes this confirmation: the Father out of love—that is, freely—begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. If God exists, He exists because the Father exists, that is, He who out of love freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. Thus God as person—as the hypostasis of the Father—makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the one God. This point is absolutely crucial. For it is precisely with this point that the new philosophical position of the Cappadocian Fathers, and of St Basil in particular, is directly connected. … The being of God is identifed with the person (Being as Communion [BC], pp. 40-41)
Zizioulas thus firmly asserts the monarchy of the Father. At no point can the divine substance be analyzed apart from the divine hypostases. Divine substance never exists in a naked state. It always exists in a personal mode of existence, as divine person. Zizioulas believes this is the critical flaw of Western trinitarian theology: Western reflection begins first begins with the essence of God and then establishes the persons of the Godhead as relations within that essence. Some theologians have complained that Zizioulas has presented us with a caricature of traditional Western triadology; but regardless, he has made his point. Divine being is person.
(3) Because the Father is both the source of the Son and the Spirit and the cause of their existence, God is free from all necessity.
Here we come to the heart of Zizioulas’s theological and soteriological concerns. Consider the alternative. If substance is ontologically prior to person, then even God is bound to necessity: God must exist. God must generate the Son and Spirit. God must be Holy Trinity. Ultimately, he is no more free than the creatures he has made. The necessity of substance rules. And if God is imprisoned by substance and its necessities, then he cannot give us hope for authentic freedom.
Zizioulas’s assertion of divine freedom at this point raises an important question: Does God choose to be triune? How is God’s freedom to generate the divine persons different from his freedom to create the world ex nihilo?
St Gregory Nazianzen contributed the solution by making a distinction between “will” and the “willing one” [Or 29.6-7]: the “will” is common to all three persons of the Trinity; the Son shares this one divine will common to all three persons, which, as St Cyril of Alexandria put it, is “concurrent with the divine ousia.” Yet, there is no will without the willing one, as there is no ousia without the hypostasis. The “willing one” is a person, and as such is primarily none else but the Father. The one divine will shared equally by all three persons and lying behind the creation of the world, in accordance with Athanasius and Nicaea, does not emerge automatically and spontaneously as it were out of itself, but is initiated by a person, namely the Father, as “the willing one.” (Communion and Otherness [CO], p. 121)
The kind of freedom that God enjoys is ontological, not moral. The Father is the initiator of the three trinitarian identities. This way of putting it can sound as if first there was the Father, and then the Father freely chooses (and he might have chosen otherwise) to generate the Son and Spirit. But this way of thinking forgets that we are talking about an eternal event, not a temporal process, and that that the Father is constituted precisely by his immanent relations. He is only Father in eternal relationship with the Son and Spirit. Without the Son and Spirit, he would not be Father; he would not exist. Zizioulas quotes this remarkable passage from St Athanasius:
For, just as the Father willed his own person, so the person of the Son—who is of the same being as the Father—is not unwilled by the Son. The Son is wanted and loved by the Father, so we should understand that God’s being is voluntary and willed. The Son is freely desired by the Father, and the Son loves, wants and honours the Father in the same way, so that we can consider the Son to be in the Father, and the Father to be in the Son. (Third Oration against the Arians 66) (LCD, p. 60)
Divine freedom is thus the freedom of God to be himself. It is the freedom of ontological personhood. The Father freely wills his own person, and in so doing he freely wills the Son and Spirit. Perhaps it also works the other way: the Father freely wills the Son and Spirit and in so doing freely wills to be Father. But how are the Son and Spirit free? Has not the Father imposed himself upon them? Zizioulas answers:
In a sense, all this remains a puzzle to our common logic, because we tend to associate freedom with individuality: how can one be constituted freely if someone else with his freedom constitutes him? Has the Father “asked” the Son and the Spirit for their free consent before he brought them into being? Such a question presupposes individualism, for how can you “ask” someone’s consent for his being if he does not already exist? Ontological individualism is precisely the establishment of an entity prior to its relationships. Its opposite is the establishment of the entity through the very relations that constitute its existence. This is what we mean when we speak of the relational character of “divine substance,” or of Father, Son and Spirit as relational entities. The Father as a relational entity is inconceivable without the Son and the Spirit. His freedom in bringing them forth into being does not impose itself upon them, since they are not already there, and their freedom does not require that their consent be asked, since they are not established as entities before their relationship with the Father. This is the difference between moral and ontological freedom: the one presupposes individuality, the other causes individuality, or rather personhood. (CO, p. 122)
God exists in absolute freedom. He transcends and annuls the necessities of substance. How then are we to understand the coordination of hypostasis and ousia? This is one of the most difficult aspects of Zizioulas’s thought to grasp. Zizioulas states the matter this way:
No substance or nature exists without person or hypostasis or mode of existence. No person exists without substance or nature, but the ontological “principle” or “cause” of being–i.e. that which makes a thing to exist–is not the substance or nature but the person or hypostasis. Therefore being is traced back not to substance but to person. (BC, p. 42 n. 37)
Because the Father is person, because he freely initiates his trinitarian existence, he enjoys absoute freedom. He is not bound by the necessities of substance, not even his own substance. God is truly free, and it is this freedom, the freedom of personhood, the freedom from death and the constraints and burdens of fallen existence, that he offers to humanity in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. It is this reality that underlies the truth and power of the gospel. What is resurrection but the gift of freedom and triumphant life.
(4) Because the Father freely generates the Son and Spirit, he is love.
“God is love,” the Apostle John proclaims (1 John 4:16). But what does this mean? Is it referring simply to the generosity that the Creator extends to human beings? Or is it perhaps saying something more, something about God in his inner being? Would it be true to say that God is love even if he had never created the world? Zizioulas, with the Eastern tradition, insists that God is love because of the divine monarchy:
It thus becomes evident that the only exercise of freedom in an ontological manner is love. The expression “God is love” (1 John 4:16) signifies that God “subsists as Trinity, that is, as person and not as substance. Love is not an emanation or “property” of the substance of God—this detail is significant in the light of what I have said so far—but is what He is, the one God. Thus love ceases to be a qualifying—i.e. secondary—property of being and becomes the supreme ontological predicate. Love as God’s mode of existence “hypostasizes” God, constitutes His being. Therefore, as a result of love, the ontology of God is not subject to the necessity of substance. Love is identified with ontological freedom. (BC, p. 46)
To speak of the love of God is to speak of the Father who is love, of the one who communicates himself fully, totally, and exhaustively in his Son and Spirit. It does not, in other words, refer to an emanation that flows from the divine essence; it does not refer to the nature that is shared in common by the divine hypostases; it does not refer to the benevolence, at least not principally, that the Deity expresses towards the created order. Love refers, first and foremost, to the Father who begets his beloved Son and who, in infinite self-giving, spirates his Holy Spirit. “When we say that ‘God is love,'” explains Zizioulas, “we refer to the Father, that is, to that person which ‘hypostasizes’ God, which makes God to be three persons” (BC, p. 46 n. 41). The love of God is personal, free, and ontological. If it were not, it would not be love.
If Zizioulas is correct in his analysis, perhaps we can better understand now why Orthodoxy is so emphatic on the decisive significance of the divine monarchy: it guarantees the freedom of God over the necessities of nature and establishes his trinitarian unity in infinite and eternal love. Hence Orthodoxy’s firm refusal to compromise on the filioque. There can only be one cause of the Godhead—God the Father. It is insufficient to simply affirm that the Father is the source of the Son and Spirit. It is also necessary to declare that he is the one and only initiating cause: “The term cause, when applied to the Father, indicates a free, willing and personal agent, whereas the language of source or principle can convey a more natural and thus impersonal imagery” (Zizioulas, “One Single Source“). In whatever ways we might want to develop the Church’s formulation of the Trinity, we cannot abandon, compromise, or slight the monarchy of the Father.