Christos Yannaras: The God who is Person & Love

I had not planned to walk over to my bookshelf and pull out my unread copy of The Freedom of Morality. Christos Yannaras, through no fault of his own, simply was not on my must-read-in-the-next-decade list. So many books, not enough time and energy. But Fr Stephen Freeman’s December postings, particularly “Why Sin is Not a Moral Problem” and “The Un-Moral Christian,” persuaded me it was time to give the book a perusal. I have read it quickly, much too quickly, and have reread a couple of chapters. Yannaras requires significantly more attention and focus than I am able to presently give him. I cannot claim any degree of confidence in my grasp of his thought. I welcome insight and correction from all who have read his work.

“In the life of the Church,” Yannaras writes, “God reveals Himself as the hypostasis of being, the personal hypostasis of eternal life” (p. 16). He rejects any philosophical approach that begins with analysis of the cosmological apprehension of deity, thereby identifying “the truth of being with God as an objective and abstract first cause of existence and truth” (p. 16). Such a starting point must necessarily distort our understanding of the transcendent Creator. “The God of whom the Church has experience is the God who reveals Himself in history as personal existence, as distinctiveness and freedom. God is person and He speaks with man ‘face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend’ (Ex 33:11)” (p. 17).

Yannaras thus locates himself (and Eastern Orthodoxy) within what might be called a revelational personalism. The living God is only known as he freely gives himself to be known. We cannot reason ourselves to God—neither through abstract philosophical analysis (as Latin scholasticism does, so Yannaras believes) nor through the “objective” scholarly study of biblical and theological texts. Only in the sacramental and mystical life of the Church does God present himself to be encountered as personal existence and therefore free from any “predetermination by essence of nature” (p. 17). The living God determines himself; he transcends all natural necessity. “This means,” Yannaras explains, “that the divine essence of nature is not an ontological reality prior to God’s personal existence and determining it: God’s being is not an ontological datum, anterior to the distinctiveness and freedom of the divine person” (p. 17). He approvingly quotes St Gregory Palamas:

And when speaking to Moses, God did not say, “I am essence,” but, “I am He who is”: for He who is, is not from the essence, but the essence is from Him who is. He who is has comprehended within Himself all being. (In Defense of the Holy Hesychasts 3, 2-12; quoted on p. 17)

Yannaras’s elevation of person above nature raises numerous questions. He appears to come close to saying that God wills himself to exist. Thomists will wonder if he is here asserting a voluntarist understanding of Godhead (and if he is, is this a bad thing? why or why not?). Barthians will applaud his rejection of natural theology and his insistence that God is only known in his self-communication but will no doubt suspect that his understanding of deity still differs significantly from their own (see, e.g., Yannaras’s essay “The Distinction Between Essence and Energies“). Western theologians have not yet given Yannaras the scholarly attention and critique that his work deservedly demands.

The critical difference between Yannaras and both Thomists and Barthians becomes clear in his presentation of the Holy Trinity:

The one God is not one divine nature or essence, but primarily one person: the person of God the Father. The personal existence of God (the Father) constitutes His essence or being, making it into “hypostases”: freely and from love He begets the Son and causes the Holy Spirit to proceed. Consequently, being stems not from the essence, which would make it an ontological necessity, but from the person and the freedom of its love which “hypostasizes” being into a personal and trinitarian communion. God the Father’s mode of being constitutes existence and life as a fact of love and personal communion. (pp. 17-18)

When (Orthodox) Christians speak of God, they are referring to the hypostasis of the Father, who eternally begets the Son and generates the Holy Spirit. In absolute freedom God constitutes himself as a communion of love. The biblical proposition “God is love” (1 Jn 4:16) thus refers not to the divine nature nor to “one among many properties of God’s ‘behaviour,’ but to what God is as the fulness of trinitarian and personal communion” (p. 18). In his immanent self-actualized identity, God simply is love. His divine mode of existence is “nothing other than personal distinctiveness and the freedom of love” (p. 18).

Yannaras elaborates upon his understanding of trinitarian being in his book Elements of Faith:

When Jesus manifests himself as the Son of God, he reveals that “Father” is the name which expresses in the most profound way the hypostasis of God, what God really is: He is one who begets, a life-giving principle, the possibility for a relationship to begin which hypostasizes being (gives being an hypostasis). In the Gospels, Christ reveals that the fatherhood of God has in principle a unique character: it corresponds to the only Son, who is the “beloved” (Mt 3.17), the one in whom the Father “is well pleased” (Lk 3.22), he whom “he loved before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17.24). And love is the assurance par excellence of freedom, the revelation par excellence of personal existence, free from every predetermination of essence or nature.

God the Father “begets” God the only Son, which means: the Person of the Father hypostasizes his own Essence (Divinity) in a loving relationship with the Son. The unity of the divine Being (the One God) does not constitute a logical necessity, but a unity of freedom and love. It is a unity of wills (Jn 5.30) and of activities (Jn 5.17-20) of the Father and the Son, their co-inherence (Jn 10.38; 14.10; 17.21), a reciprocal intimate relationship of knowledge and of love (Jn 12.28; 13.31; 17.4). (p. 32)

Here Yannaras comes very close to affirming a “social Trinity.” His theology has been deeply informed by the thought of John Zizioulas, but Zizioulas stops short of speaking of multiple centers of consciousness within the Godhead, recognizing that the Church Fathers attribute the divine will to the divine essence. (Perhaps Yannaras also does, but I’m not sure.) But Yannaras and Zizioulas agree that the Father is the one God who personalizes the divine being as a triadic communion of freedom and love (see “The Importance of the Monarchy of the Father“). Again Yannaras:

Holy Scripture assures us that “God is love” (1 Jn4.16). It does not tell us that God has love, that love is an attribute, a property of God. It assures us that what God is is love, that God is as love, that the mode by which God is is love. God is a Trinity of Persons and this Trinity is a Monad of life, because the life of the hypostases of God is not a simple survival, a pathetic event of maintaining existence, but a dynamic actualization of love, an unbroken union of love. Each Person exists not for himself, but he exists offering himself in a community of love with the other Persons. The life of the Persons is a “co-inherence” of life, which means: the life of the one becomes the life of the other; their Existence is drawn from the actualization of life as communion, from life which is identified with self-offering love. (p. 36)

We do not comprehend the divine essence, yet we may boldly assert that “love constitutes the being (einai) of Divinity” (p. 28).

(Go to “Human Person as Icon of God”)

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4 Responses to Christos Yannaras: The God who is Person & Love

  1. tgbelt says:

    I’m reading his ‘Person and Eros’ and it’s slaying me!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Oh my, that seem serious. 🙂

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      • tgbelt says:

        Papanikolaou (Being With God, dealing with Lossky and Zizioulas) exposes some interesting issues along these same lines. It’s not easy to posit the free (i.e., hypostatic [of the Father]) begetting of the hypostasis of the Son by the hypostasis of the Father if hypostasis is an intrinsically relational notion.

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  2. brian says:

    Hi Father,

    I have a couple of points to make. The first does not really address Yannaras, but it is a general reflection on how we think and talk about the Trinity. All our talk is going to fail here and there is nothing controversial in asserting such. But there are different ways to fail and I think the best way to gesture towards the Triune God involves living with a paradox that cannot be resolved in our temporal existence.

    Cyril O’Regan has an apt quote dealing with Balthasar’s view in O’Regan’s excellent recent work, The Anatomy of Misremembering:

    . . . Balthasar suggests that ideally a trinitarian theology would unite both Augustinian and social Trinity perspectives and thus yield a theology that would maximally respect both divine unity and the plurality of divine persons. Such a theology, he recognizes, has a more or less heuristic character and is only eschatologically realizable. To the extent to which theological production is within history and thus in via, the most that can be expected is that the church as a whole tends to balance these different emphases with their different strengths. Precisely what it should not do is choose.

    In my view, something similar is involved when reading Yannaras. Personally, I like William Desmond and Norris Clarke. Clarke gives a reading of Aquinas that emphasizes the neo-platonic dimension in Thomas’ thought as well as contemporary thinking on the person. Yannaras does emphasize what you are calling revelational personalism, i.e. he draws the lines so that there is a kind of opposition between person and nature. Clarke, working from within the conceptual framework of Thomism, sees personhood as implicit in nature and the ultimate flourishing of nature as personal. In some respects, one is dealing with semantic differences. Terms are contextualized and used in different ways, so the opposition is less than might appear.

    Nonetheless, I think Yannaras’ take on personhood is more deeply rooted in an apophatic sensibility. His interpretation becomes more existentialist, more Kierkegaardian, in some ways, whereas the Western tradition for the most part is drawn from a metaphysics of substance or nature. Yannaras follows Heidegger in seeing that metaphysical tradition as inherently flawed. While I think such a view is appropriate for what is called the ontotheological project or the foundationalism of the modern era (Descartes, Kant, etc. and their epigoni), I do not agree that it holds the same kind of sway over the ancients and the medievals. There is a way to read Plato and Aquinas so that they are subsumed under a “forgetfulness of being,” but I don’t grant that it is legitimate.

    In any event, in a manner similar to the way I think one has to hold both Augustinian and social Trinity notions at tension without prematurely opting for one over the other, I believe that Yannaras’ personalism is incisive, but I also think one can think metaphysics in a way that is not hostile to revelation in the way Yannaras supposes. In short, I believe one can have one’s Aquinas and Yannaras, too.

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