John Zizioulas and the Created-Uncreated Dialectic

Well over twenty years ago, on the urging of Fr Stephen Freeman, I purchased and read Being as Communion by John Zizioulas. I was most interested in Zizioulas’s ecclesiological writings, but I was perhaps most challenged by his reflections on personhood. There was, however, one element that I simply did not understand—his emphatic emphasis on the Creator/creature distinction. I of course believed in this distinction, but he seemed to be suggesting that creaturehood itself was the soteriological problem confronting mankind. In the margin I even pencilled “Does Z equate finitude & biology with sin?” (p. 52). I have since discovered that others have raised this question also. For example, Nicholas Loudovikos comments that for Zizioulas “nature and the Fall are completely identified” (p. 3). I was reminded of this concern when I recently re-read De Incarnatione by St Athanasius. “Aha!” I thought. “So this is where Zizioulas got the idea.” Not that Athanasius identifies creaturely being with sin; but he does claim that in his natural state man is mortal, and it is this natural state, this mortality and corruption, that is our soteriological problem (see “The Surd of Sin“). Nature has been sundered from grace. Death is our enemy. In our natural state we are incapable of fulfilling our vocation to ascend into the eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (theosis).

And so I thought I would revisit John Zizioulas and see if can better understand his understanding of creaturehood and death. Fortunately, he has a lengthy essay devoted to this question: “‘Created’ and ‘Uncreated,'” in Communion and Otherness.

Why did the Greek Fathers dogmatically advance the concept of the creatio ex nihilo when Hellenistic philosophy and religion found the idea preposterous? Zizioulas offers the following explanation:

When the Gospel began to spread among the ancient Greeks and especially among those who had some philosophical education, the first serious problem which presented itself was that of the relationship between God and the world. In the whole of Greek thought, the world was considered as eternal. It was impossible to speak of any beginning of the world in the full sense of the term, in other words in the sense that the being of the world, its ontological “substance,” had a starting point, nor of whatever it was that would have allowed the statement that the world was created ex nihilo. … Historically, the Greek Fathers were grappling with two incompatible approaches to God, which led to two opposing ontologies; on the one hand, the god of the Greeks who was always linked to the world, submitted to the being of the world, and who remained the absolute being. Even when it went “beyond essence”, Greek thought did not rupture the ontological union between god and the world. On the other hand, there was the God of the Bible, who was so independent of the world that he was “conceivable” without relation to the world (something inconceivable for ancient hellenism) and could do what he wanted, free from any logical or ethical obligation: a shockingly arbitrary God, who has mercy “on whom he has mercy” and who has compassion “on whom he has compassion” (Rom. 9:15), a God who is unaccountable to any Reason or Ethic. (Such was the God of the Bible—notice that we have subsequently “rationalized,” “moralized,” and therefore “hellenized” him!) In such an approach to God, it is not being that holds the decisive place in ontology, in absolute relationship with the truth of existence, but rather freedom. It is precisely the notion of freedom which imposes that of nothing as an absolute notion. Yes, this world might just as well not have existed at all (could an ancient Greek have said that?). The fact of existence, for an object, does not just follow of itself, but is something owing to the free will of someone. This someone, who according to biblical faith is God, is not dependent on the being of the world (nor on his own being) because he gives being to all that is. He is the cause not only of beings but also of being qua being, and even of his own being. (pp. 250, 255)

Freedom is the heart of the creatio ex nihilo. The world might not have been. If the world were eternal, if it had always existed, then we could never ask the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? Those who do not subscribe to the creatio ex nihilo might ask, Why does the world exist as it presently exists? Why does it exist in this form rather than some other form? Scientists ask this kind of question all the time. Yet Christian philosophy asks the more radical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? We might wonder which came first, the question or the doctrine—Zizioulas does not speak to that—but the fact remains that when the gospel began to make converts in the Hellenistic world, this question became meaningful. By patristic apprehension, that the world exists is a mystery: it can only be explained as a personal act of divine grace. I question whether the God of the Bible, at least as he was interpreted by the Greek Fathers, is as “arbitrary” as the Metropolitan of Pergamon intimates; but Zizioulas is certainly correct that the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo is grounded upon divine freedom and expresses divine freedom.

If the world might not have been, then it enjoys an absolute beginning. But whence came the world? From out of nothing, the Fathers replied. But what is this nothing? The concept of nothing, Zizoulas explicates, “has no relationship whatever to being, it has no ontological content at all. When the Fathers speak of creation from nothing, they are not envisaging the decoration of the universe nor the production of the world from a formless clay, but a production from ‘nothing’ in the absolute sense” (p. 254). Nothingness is easily misunderstood. Some have criticized Zizioulas for proposing an absolute reality parallel to God; but Zizioulas rightly replies that “nothing” does not refer to any thing: “Therefore, since it has no ontological content, nothingness cannot constitute a reality alongside God—it does not constitute a reality in any sense at all; it has no being” (p. 273).

If God has created the world from out of nothing, then God is truly “Creator” and the world is truly his creation, in the absolute sense. Creatures are not an emanation from the divine being, nor have they been crafted from some preexistent matter. Creatures are truly new, enjoying an existence and reality that is distinct from, though utterly dependent upon, their Creator. God is God and creatures are creatures. The creatio ex nihilo gives depth to the Creator/creature distinction and brings to light its true significance.

Once the doctrine is understood and assimilated, a new attitude toward existence becomes possible:

Accepting that my existence is a gift moves my heart to overflow with gratitude as soon as I become conscious of my existence. Thus, the awareness of being, and ontology, becomes eucharistic in the deepest sense of the term: an act of grace, of thanksgiving. … The consequence of this is a very concrete attitude to life and a kind of human being who considers nothing of what he possesses as his own, but who relates everything to someone else, who is grateful for everything and does not think in terms of “having rights.” The consequence is an attitude and a life of grace, overcoming the ego, individualism and all feelings of “superiority” or concupiscence; being ready to give thanks, to give one’s entire existence, to fight against death itself and to offer oneself in an exercise of freedom, analogous to the act which brought one’s own existence into being. Knowing that our existence is a gift of freedom and not an “eternal” and self-evident reality does not just deliver us philosophically and intellectually from the captivity of thinking in terms of obligatory “axioms” and logical “categories”; it frees us from enslavement in our very existence, an enslavement forged by biological necessity and its instincts. It makes us grateful for the gift of existence without enslaving us to it; we can value it while freely making a gift of it. Such is exactly the attitude of the martyrs and the saints, the attitude of the Church, flowing from the created-uncreated dialectic. (p. 256)

One might be excused for beginning to suspect that Zizioulas believes that we are saved by the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo. This, of course, is not the case, yet the above passage demonstrates how deeply Metropolitan John has appropriated the creatio ex nihilo into his prayer and spiritual life. To know the proper distinction between Creator and creature is to know a truth that changes and informs one’s life.

(Go to “Ontological Entropy”)

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10 Responses to John Zizioulas and the Created-Uncreated Dialectic

  1. Isaac says:

    Fr. Aidan,
    Have you ever read anything from Fr. Christopher C. Knight? He writes on the intersections of science and Orthodoxy. It would be really interesting to know what you think of his article entitled “Divine Action: A Neo-Byzantine Model” in relation to the thought of Zizoulas and his understanding of creatio ex nihilo. I would be happy to email the pdf if you are interested. There is a big connection here between what is understood about biology in our own times and this ancient view of the nature of creation. Roughly it would be the idea that a first stage of creation marked by death and corruption is not inherently evil, but rather incomplete. Man is called out of this first creation to be a bridge to the second or “new” creation, which finds its being in the divine life of God (as opposed to being merely contingent and certainly not immortal or eternal by nature). A rough picture would be the Platonic shadow lands imagined by CS Lewis emerging into the more solid world imagined in The Great Divorce. But man fails in this calling and falls back under the order of the second creation, becoming subject to death and corruption. The incarnate God/Man is not a human with super powers (which the vast majority of uneducated believers and unbelievers take him to be, but simply what all humans were called to be. That is why the wind and waves obey him and death and corruption do not have power over him. And the creation is subject to futility not because death and corruption enter the world at the Fall, but because humans have failed to carry out their purpose as the “gardeners” of the creation. The “signs” of the Kingdom of Heaven are not miracles enacted upon the natural world from the outside, but rather Jesus calling for this second potential in the creation to come forth. Fr. Christopher, following the lead of St. Maximos, calls this the Logos of creation.

    Anyway, this is a very rough sketch, but it would be very interesting to know if you find intersections between this scientist-turned-priest and Met. Zizoulas, especially considering one of the biggest criticisms of modern Christianity is that it appears to be at odds with what is known about the natural world (death predates modern humans, dinosaurs had arthritis, the life forms we see today would not have emerged apart from a culling process, etc).


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Sounds promising! I look forward to reading the essay, though I don’t know when that will be. Clearly Orthodox theologians need to come to grips with the reality of death and violence that preceded the emergence/creation of man. What to do with the dinosaurs? 🙂


      • coffeezombie says:

        “Clearly Orthodox theologians need to come to grips with the reality of death and violence that preceded the emergence/creation of man.”

        This is a question that has been niggling in the back of my mind for a while. Particularly ever since I read David Bentley Hart’s book, The Doors of the Sea. In that book, he insists, as against common theodicies that claim everything bad that happens is part of God’s greater plan, that evil and suffering exist because of the freedom of the world which has been subject to futility on our account, and because of our own freedom and so on. That God does not require these things to happen, but He does use and redeem them to work our salvation. Or something along those lines.

        In the end, it certainly seems like a much better understanding, and one that is consistent with the Scriptures (particularly the New Testament), but what, then, does that have to do with death and suffering and violence before man? It fits very neatly into a cosmology that takes the Biblical creation account literally, but AFAIK, most Orthodox do not. And, if we are to give modern science any credence, then we must admit that death precedes man.

        It’s good to see some Orthodox theologians dealing with that.


    • tgbelt says:

      Isaac, would you mind emailing me Knight’s article as well? (


  2. I appreciate your writings. I find them educational and inspirational. God Bless.
    Angie Giallourakis


  3. Rhonda says:

    Clearly Orthodox theologians need to come to grips with the reality of death and violence that preceded the emergence/creation of man. What to do with the dinosaurs?


    This is a question that has been niggling…(whole paragraph)…Or something along those lines.

    Modern quantum physics has some really mind-boggling findings, especially where our perceptions & conceptions of time are concerned. Traditionally cause preceded its effect in time. This formed the basis of scientific experimentation; isolate a cause A & then measure any effect X. But no more! Now, thanks to quantum physics, effect X may precede cause A in time! It may also be stated this way, effects may ripple backwards in time from their causes. Beginning with Einstein’s theories on relativity & continuing on through quantum physics 100 years later, science itself has been putting forth that our conception & experience of time is an illusion.

    So—my question now becomes: Is there really a clear theological issue that Orthodox theologians need to come to grips with by the existence of violence & death, or even the dinosaurs, pre-Adam (pre-humanity)? Do we really need to re-vamp our theology (belief about God) in order to conform to science (study of the created) & time (also created)? Nope, not anymore! Thank you, scientists, for debunking once again one of your own primary arguments against my timeless Faith 🙂

    Extra credit question for you all: Explain how evolutionary theory & the Scriptural creation story (in the Scriptural Truth sense, not in a literal word-for-word sense) may both be true 😛


    PS: Please let’s let the heterodox fuss over all of this religion vs. science stuff because it is truly a false dichotomy.


  4. Mark says:

    It seems that most Orthodox theologians accept evolution and an old universe. Yet, there seems to be VERY little literature written on this from an Orthodox perspective. I’m not sure quantum physics can simply solve the problem for us. It may be one angle. Another is Michael Murray’s book, “Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw.” Apparently, eh used modern scientific discoveries to say that the upper apes and humans are the only animals CONSCIOUS of physical pain.

    Ironically, it seems that a lot of the literature on animal death before the fall takes a lot of cues from Eastern Orthodoxy yet the Orthodox world seems clueless as to what great resources we have to deal with this issue!

    Another issue is how to deal with original or ancestral sin/evolution if Adam never actually existed. Evangelicals are really doing a lot more work on this subject than we are. And a lot of it is pretty helpful.


  5. Rhonda says:

    Hi Mark;
    When I was a catechumen & 1st Chrismated, this was a quandry (rather than an issue) for me concerning the Adam vs. evolution thing. A decade later it is not. As Fr. Stephen & others have said, the Orthodox do not read the early Genesis narratives in a literalistic fashion. Even many of the Jewish commentators & early Christian Fathers read them as analogy/allegory revealing Spiritual truth (we are created by God & fallen) rather than historical literal documents (that record in detail the creation & fall). I really hope such issues are not seeping into the Church, but I can hardly be surprised though if they are with all of the Protestants that have been received the past several decades.


  6. Mark says:

    Right. Peter Bouteneff’s book on ancient Christian interpretations of Genesis help. The best book I’ve read on the subject is by Peter Enns, who is a Protestant: “The Evolution of Adam.” It is interesting how Origen and Nyssa and others interpreted the Genesis story, but I think it’s worth digging into in light of historical/critical considerations. Enns does this very well.


  7. PJ says:

    The notion that the earth is billions of years old and that we are the products of evolution is ably challenged by Wolfgang Smith in his “The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology.” I HEARTILY recommend this book. It will blow your mind. Smith is now dummy:

    “Smith graduated in 1948 from Cornell University with a B.A. in Philosophy, Physics and Mathematics. Two years later he obtained his M.S. in Physics from Purdue University and, some time later, a Ph.D in Mathematics from Columbia University.

    He worked as a physicist in Bell Aircraft corporation, researching aerodynamics and the problem of atmospheric reentry. He was a mathematics professor at MIT, UCLA and Oregon State University, doing research in the field of differential geometry and publishing in academic journals such as the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Journal of Mathematics, and others. He retired from academic life in 1992.”

    Prior to reading Smith’s work, I too was deluded into believing that modern science basically necessitated a spiritual reading of Genesis. I now realize that this is anything but the case. We should listen to the holy fathers and Scripture, not evolutionists and their materialist brethren. Not one of the fathers denied that all men are descended from one man, Adam, and one woman, Eve. Many of the fathers read Genesis “spiritually,” but only in addition to a literal reading.

    (For you Orthodox, Smith is well acquainted with the east. He relies on the work of Seraphim Rose at points, as well as other Orthodox sages, ancient and modern.)


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