Nazianzen and Zizioulas on the Divine Processions

Eunomius posed a simple and clear challenge for the doctrine of the Church: given that God is unbegotten, incommunicable substance, all divine activity, generation, or emanation must occur outside of God. Michel Barnes explains:

For Eunomius the transcendence of God requires that He cannot be understood to generate a product which has the same kind of existence He has, since that kind of existence is to be uncaused or unproduced, and any product will necessarily (i.e., by definition) be caused. The uniqueness of God’s kind of existence means that any productivity must exist outside His nature. Any suggestion that God was, in His essence, a cause posed problems for Eunomius’ conception of divine transcendence; hence he placed great emphasis on the very limited way in which a productive causality could be directly attributed to God. According to Eunomius, God’s productive capacity can only be that of an activity, energeia, which is external to the essence. This external productive activity is that of creating, the only sort of divine production that Eunomius recognizes. God’s own activity of creating is limited to the production of the second Person; the second Person creates everything else. Eunomius distinguished the created nature of the Son from other created natures by describing the Son as the unique product of God’s own activity, while everything else was created by the activity of the Son. (“Eunomius of Cyzicus and Gregory of Nyssa,” Vigilae Christianae 52 [1998]: 62-63)

Eunomius’s understanding of divinity thus logically entails the conclusion that the Son does not share in the divine substance. Though he may be like God in many ways, at the level of substance he is dissimilar to him.

St Gregory the Theologian responded to this challenge by invoking the monarchy of the Father: the Father is the one God who eternally begets his only Son and eternally breathes out his Holy Spirit, thus constituting the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. As Gregory declaimed early in his priestly ministry, the Father is the “origin of Godhead and goodness, which are contemplated in the Son and the Spirit” (2.38). The Son and Spirit derive from the Father both their personal distinctiveness and identity of substance. There is a way to be God, fully and completely, and yet be originated. This is the radical Cappadocian insight which finally brought the East into full dogmatic union with both Alexandria and Rome.

In the earlier Origenist system the Son and Spirit were understood as generated by the one God and as possessing lesser degrees of divinity. They functioned as mediators and bridge-beings between the immutable, impassible, ingenerate Father and the mutable, passible, finite world he created through them. An ontological distance was thus established between the transcendent Father and the world, with the Son and Spirit serving as vertical rungs on the ladder bridging the eternal and temporal realms. The Cappadocians tipped this vertical system onto its side and made it horizontal to the creation. The Son and Spirit are no longer seen as ontologically subordinate and inferior to the one God; they are no longer understood as mediating between the world and the distant Creator. The Son and Spirit eternally derive their existence from the one God, but each is homoousios with the one God and thus is God. The Son and Spirit are definitively located on the Creator side of the Creator/creature divide, and the originating processions are understood as occurring within the transcendent Godhead—directly contradicting the theology of Eunomius. The Holy Trinity is the Creator: the Father makes and sustains the world through the Son in the Holy Spirit in one indivisible activity. The vertical distance between God and creation is thus obviated. “Creator” specifies an absolute metaphysical difference between God and creature but no distance; each of the divine hypostases is actively, immediately, and equally involved with humanity and all created beings (see Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity, pp. 74-77, 89-92, 106-107). The Cappadocians continued to confess the Father as the one God and Creator, yet the change in theological understanding also imposed linguistic changes in theological discourse. “When I say ‘God,'” St Gregory declared, “I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (38.8).

Gregory understands the generation of the divine persons to be the free “act” of the Father. He addresses this freedom in two places in Oration 29. Gregory first tells us that the divine generation must be clearly distinguished from Neo-Platonic emanation. It is not an “overflowing of goodness,” as if liquid had been poured into a bowl and was now flowing over the rim. “We ought never to introduce the notion of involuntary generation (in the sense of some sort of unrestrained natural secretion), which is completely out of keeping with ideas about the Godhead” (29.2). The generation of the Son is free and voluntary and totally unlike any natural process. A little later Gregory addresses a conundrum posed to him by his Eunomian opponents (29.6). “Has the Father begotten the Son voluntarily or involuntarily?” They think they have posed an impossible dilemma. If Gregory answers “involuntarily,” then his God is demonstrated to be either under the constraint of even a greater God or imprisoned in the necessities of his own being. If he answers “voluntarily,” then the Son is a product of the divine will (he is a “son to a will”) and by Eunomian logic outside the divine substance and therefore a creature. Gregory thinks he can answer the conundrum by treating it as a grammatical puzzle, which is probably not how it was originally intended—hence his answer is not particularly convincing (read the section to see what I mean)–but he adduces one important point: he who is begotten belongs not to the will but to the one who willingly begets. Gregory is struggling here to assert the possibility of free and non-necessitated personal generation within the Godhead. Not everything God does must produce a created being. God can generate God. “For God begetting may well just be the will to beget—but without anything intervening” (29.6). Or as John Zizioulas puts it, there is a critical distinction between the will, as shared equally by the three divine persons, and the “willing one” who is the Father (Communion and Otherness, p. 121).

Patristic scholars such as Christopher Beeley, John McGuckin, and John Behr interpret the Gregorian doctrine of the Father’s generation of the Son and Spirit as the communication to them of his divine substance. Zizioulas disputes this interpretation, though it is unclear to me whether he disputes it on the grounds of historical exegesis or theological interpretation. Zizioulas is fearful that the construal of substantive impartation will undermine the priority of person over substance.

“There seems to be a widespread assumption,” begins Zizioulas, “that the term ‘being’ denotes the ousia or substance or essence of God, and that it is to be distinguished from the persons of the holy Trinity. Being and personhood are juxtaposed as two parallel or different ideas, as if the notion of person did not connote being” (CO, p. 124). Let me confess right away–this is how I have been interpreting Gregory Nazianzen since I started reading him last year. Ousia seems to be frequently rendered by the English word “being” by translators and commentators alike. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised by Zizioulas’s argument when I came across it last week. According to Zizioulas, “being” is used by the Cappadocians in two senses: (1) to denote what God is, i.e., his incomprehensible ousia (substance, essence) and (2) to denote how he is, i.e., his hypostatic relations. To speak of one divine being and three hypostases of the Godhead is therefore misleading. “The three persons of the Trinity denote God’s being just as much as the term ‘substance.’ In speaking of the divine persons we speak of God’s very being” (CO, p. 125). Zizioulas quotes St Basil (Contra Eunomius 2.22): “For Father is the one who has given the beginning of being (arche tou einai) to the others. … Son is the one who has had the beginning of his being (arche tou einai) by birth from the other” (CO, pp. 131-132).

Why is this important? Because it allows us to speak of the divine being as a personal event of communion, as “being in communion.” This communion happens at the level of person, not of essence, about which we can say nothing. When we speak of God as Father, we immediately denote relationship, “that is, a specific identity which emerges from a relationship or connotes a relationship” (CO, p. 126). To be Father is to be in communion with the Son and Spirit. The assertion of the Father as “ontologically ultimate” therefore implies the “primordial communion” of the Trinity.

Once we clearly distinguish between the two senses of “being” within Cappadocian trinitarian reflection, then we can better understand why, in Zizioulas’s judgment, the Father’s generation of the Son and Spirit does not involve a transfer of substance:

The idea of causation is used in order to describe the how of divine being and avoid making the emergence of the Trinity a matter of transmission of ousia. What the Father “causes” is a transmission not of ousia but of personal otherness (i.e., of the how of being). The principle of causality distinguishes the persons, it involves the emergence of otherness in divine being. The Father as “cause” is God, or the God in an ultimate sense, not because he holds the divine essence and transmits it—this would indeed endanger the fulness of the divine being of the other persons and would also turn him into an individual conceivable prior to the other persons—but because he is the ultimate ontological principle of divine personhood. … Now, all this transcends the historical context in which it appeared and implies that causation in God does not destroy ontological equality. It produces otherness of “wholes of the whole.” It brings about otherness in communion and communion in otherness. By not being a matter of transmission of substance, causality involves freedom in personal being and makes God the Trinity not a necessary but a free being, exactly as Gregory Nazianzen states in explaining why causality is a matter not of nature but of personhood: “so that we may never introduce an unfree generation” [Or 29.2]. (CO, pp. 129-130)

But what about the assertion of the original Creed of Nicaea that the Son is begotten “of the substance of the Father”? On multiple occasions in his essays, Zizioulas claims that the 381 Council of Constantinople intentionally omitted this phrase in order to avoid the intimation of the priority of substance over person. He provides little to no documentation for this claim—only his inkling that since the 325 creed was the model for the Creed of Constantinople (was it?), it had to be intentional. The proposal would be more convincing if there was evidence that the Constantinopolitan Fathers had actually discussed the matter. But given that many of the bishops of the council, like St Basil though not St Gregory Nazianzen, had been suspicious of the homoousios language as inevitably leading to a modalist construal of the Trinity, perhaps it makes sense that they would choose to omit or avoid the phrase “of the substance of the Father.”

In any case, other portions of the Church have not had problems with the Nicene phraseology. For example, St John of Damascus explicitly teaches that the Son comes “from the substance” of the Father. But, Zizioulas comments, no where does he say “that in being cause the Father ‘imparts his ousia'”:

It is one thing to say that the Son comes from the ousia of the Father, and quite another to say that in being the cause the Father imparts his ousia The correct way of stating the matter would be to say that although the Son is homoousios with the Father, since he comes from the same ousia, common to the Father and to himself, the Father causes in generating him not a transmission of ousia but the emergence of a person, called the Son. This means that the person of the Father does not cause sameness (ousia connotes something common, i.e., sameness, within the Trinity) but otherness, i.e., personhood. (CO, p. 130, n. 53)

These are subtle questions. We are talking here about eternal reality and ineffable mysteries. As much as might be inclined to speak in terms of “before” and “after,” Nazianzen would be the first to remind us not to import our temporal categories into divinity. He’d probably make great fun of us, as he does in this wonderful Abbott and Costello routine in Oration 29.3:

So when did the Son and Spirit originate?
They transcend “whenness,” but if I must give a naive answer—when the Father did.

When was that?
There has not been a “when” when the Father has not been in existence. This, then, is true of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Put another question and I will answer it.

Since when has the Son been begotten?
Since as long as the Father has not been begotten.

Since when has the Spirit been proceeding?
Since as long as the Son has not been proceeding, but being begotten in a non-temporal way that transcends explanation.

But would St Gregory have understood Zizioulas’s assertion that person enjoys freedom over substance? Beeley does not think so: “For Gregory, the first principle of the Trinity is neither ‘personhood’ nor the divine essence per se, but God the Father, who, as unbegotten Divinity, is both hypostasis and divine essence” (Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, p. 212). But Zizioulas would not disagree. Perhaps Basil of Caesarea speaks to this question somewhere in his writings (my acquaintance with Basil is limited); but I have to wonder whether the priority of person over substance was ever in Gregory’s mind as he wrote about the Holy Trinity. Yet there may be one tantalizing hint. In Oration 30.7 Gregory cites the gospel verse “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). Apparently his Eunomian opponents were citing this verse as evidence of the superiority of the Father over the Son. Gregory notes that he could easily dismiss the argument by attributing the saying to the economy: the Father is greater than the Son in his incarnate form—but this, he says, would be trivial. Gregory will not avail himself of this easy exegetical route. The Father, rather, is greater than the Son as cause, not by nature; in other words, the Father is greater on the level of person, not on the level of substance. Might this not allude precisely to the point about personhood that Zizioulas is making?

Zizioulas is clear that he is speaking here of the logical priority of person over substance, not a temporal priority:

Divine nature does not exist prior to the divine persons, as a sort of possession of the Father who grants it to the other persons—that would be the Eunomian position which the Cappadocians vigorously rejected. Divine nature exists only when and as the Trinity emerges, and it is for this reason that it is not “possessed” by any person in advance. An a priori possession of divine nature by any person would imply the existence of this nature prior to personhood. In saying that “God as person—as the hypostasis of the Father—makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the one God,” we automatically exclude the priority of substance over personhood, and at the same time its privileged possession by the Father, which would introduce the risk of inequality of deity in the Trinity. The co-emergence of divine nature with the Trinitarian existence initiated by the Father implies that the Father, too, “acquires,” so to speak, deity only “as” the Son and the Spirit are in existence (he is inconceivable as Father without them), that is, only “when” divine nature is “possessed” by all three. Thus, the Father is shown to be “greater” than the Son (and the Spirit) not in nature, but in the way (the how) the nature exists, that is, in the hypostasization of nature. Trinitarian ordering and causation protect rather than threaten the equality and fulness of each person’s deity. (CO, p. 140)

Is Zizioulas guilty of importing his personalist philosophy into the Cappadocian Fathers, or is he expressing in personalist categories an understanding of the Holy Trinity faithfully grounded in their writings?

(Return to first article)

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8 Responses to Nazianzen and Zizioulas on the Divine Processions

  1. I have to confess that I simply don’t have the expertise within the Cappadocians to know whether Zizioulas’ thought represents an importation. As far as I’ve read, I think it is faithful. Perhaps we may ultimately conclude that Z is “neo-Cappadocian.” But I think the logical priority of person is very important. I’ve wrestled with this now since the late 80’s, thinking about it in every possible regard. I find it compelling and important. I’m not sure how we would understand freedom without it. Those who undermine Z’s work, should not lose themselves within participles and infinitives. They should keep sight of the key issues – freedom and true personhood.

    BTW, I have generally translated ousia as “being,” and to einai as “existence.” Seems to work better for me.


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Regarding the question with which I end my article, see Aristotle Papanikolaou, “Is John Zizioulas an Existentialist in Disguise?


  3. This reminds one of St. Athanasius’ remark that the Father can only be the eternal Father if the Son is also eternal.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      One of my favorite quotes from St Athanasius: “God, in that he ever is, is ever Father of the Son” (De decr 12).


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I came across this introduction to the thought of Met John by Douglas Knight. Some may find it of interest:


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A reader just brought my attention to this critique of Zizioulas by Nicholas Loudovikos: Person Instead of Grace and Dictated Otherness. Perhaps some day, when I have read more Zizioulas, I will feel a bit more competent to comment on Loudovikos’s essay. My thanks to the reader who sent me the link.


  6. roblewis92 says:

    Do you think that St. Gregory’s position necessitates the idea that the Father can freely will to not generate the Son and Holy Spirit?


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