John D. Zizioulas on the eschatology of the Person

It is an open secret that John Zizioulas, representative of Greek Orthodoxy on the international ecumenical scene, is himself one of the theological giants. He has not published much more than Being in Communion, and what there is, is almost gnomic and appears to be largely about inner-Churchly concerns. There is a growing number of people who have looked to him for a distinctive statement on personhood, but with it has grown the number who have read him in a hurry and missed the extent and distinctiveness of his thought.

John Zizioulas on the eschatology of the Person
in David Fergusson & Marcel Sarot (eds) The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology Edinburgh: T & T Clark 2000

It is an open secret that John Zizioulas, representative of Greek Orthodoxy on the international ecumenical scene, is himself one of the theological giants. He has not published much more than Being in Communion, and what there is, is almost gnomic and appears to be largely about inner-Churchly concerns. There is a growing number of people who have looked to him for a distinctive statement on personhood, but with it has grown the number who have read him in a hurry and missed the extent and distinctiveness of his thought.
Zizioulas draws a distinction between the concept of the individual and the concept of the person. The individual is a demonic and tragic concept: as long as he is understood as individual, removed from the whole sum of the relationships he stands in, he is an aberration, a person only in an anti-theological sense. A person on the other hand is not an individual but a plural being, who sums up and makes present the whole relationship world. The Zizioulas use of ‘person’ is not, as in everyday usage, synonymous with ‘individual’. The identity of particular person is not to be found somewhere deep inside him or her: he has no self, centre, soul or other form of private existence before being exposed to the world of relationship. The identity of each person is spread across the whole extent of the nexus of human personhood. It is not hidden in an monadic internal place without extension; it is rather constituted and sustained everywhere, and by everyone. Zizioulas does not assert that one person is the function of many other persons, for then the question would indeed just be of which persons and which community? Rather, each person is the function of all persons. All the persons in the whole history of the world will be constitutive of the being of each and every person in the world.
Certainly, all the fallen creatures of the world together are not sufficient to sustain the being of a single creature, to bring even one of their number to perfection, so the logic of such a statement must be an eschatological logic. But this world has no other logic than as the creation of God, and its Creator is free to be present to his creatures in it, one economy with them. The trinitarian persons must therefore be included amongst the persons of the world, and as the trinitarian persons are constitutive of each other, so they are also constitutive of all other persons of creation.
Beyond persons, there is no being. There is no substrate of any stuff to which we could give the name ‘being’, that lies behind persons or which provides them with their basis. The trinitarian persons are persons to one another, and are fully able to correspond to each other: their being and doing does not require the supply of any being-stuff, nor leave any remainder of being-stuff behind it. The Trinitarian Persons are therefore the full and sufficient condition of ‘human’ persons. Because God empersons others, the conditions of personhood for all are met; no conditions remain unmet. This is the point most in need of reiteration, for it is different from the usual inquiry into conditions, which assumes that there are other conditions, and that they have not been met, or that they have been met locally in Christ, but their universal achievement remains in question. The whole nexus of humanity is what characterises the identity of each one of us. The sum of Adamic humanity is not of itself sufficient to do this, but the identity of Adamic humanity and with it the particularity of you and me is really given and secured by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is not available to either to ‘humanity’ or to individuals to give away or to add to. God is already society, and ‘human’ society is not (yet) society. Our personhood is their work, and now in the Church the whole personhood of Adam’s race becomes our eucharistic co-work.
Questions that seek individualistic answers simply serve to restate the demonic loneliness of man the individual, who intends to arbitrate between God and himself. Zizioulas refuses to fall in with assumptions about an entity called ‘the world’ as long as this is by default a world that consists of individuals. The world has no dignity or unity – not yet. What we are pleased to call ‘the world’, or ‘Society’, are many by-ways and cul-de-sacs, all of which are known by the Church and in that sense not outside it, but which are for the world’s sake rejected by it. So as long as we ask him how individuals may take their place in the Christian community or in the world, how they may establish their boundaries or how the Church may make itself relevant to the world, or how we may know any of this, we are asking questions that play on the dichotomy between individual and society. Zizioulas can only repeat that this distinction is spurious and must be replaced by the more fundamental distinction between individual and person, because this asserts the absolute primacy of relation, the co-priority of relation with being. Persons are already entirely plural; particularity and diversity are equally safeguarded by personhood and may not be played off against each other. The fundamental assumption of the incompatibility of one-and-many that is the basis of all sociological-political and ethical debate is wrong, and a concept of persons in constitutive relation contests the familiar individual-versus-community definitions of humanity and sociality, systematised in the social sciences and assumed by much theological anthropology and ethics. This is the Cappadocian revolution, a comprehensive Christian deconstructing of ontology as protology, and its replacement by eschatological ontology, a move not to be found in any other tradition, and which establishes man and God as free.

The tragic-biological hypostasis
God’s intention is to come to man and be with him. This coming to man is an event not initiated by the fall, though the fall now dictates that salvation must be the idiom of this coming. The fall does not make sin constitutive or allow us to talk about it abstracted from its dissolution in salvation. Though only sin is possible for bodies determined by death, death also sets the limits to what sin can achieve. Sin cannot become terminal or speak a defining word: it is contained and sealed off in the damage-limitation exercise of the biological hypostasis, the world and those bodies, human and other, of which the world consists. Considered on its own terms this body is also tragic. To gain strength for your body you have to break open animal bodies and consume them, and take their death as your further lease on life. It is by sex that we come into being, and by it we are drawn together to another person and with them to reproduce ourselves, but succeed only in reproducing children who, though they are like us, are not us, and who in the course of their upbringing age us and take our place. By its bounds this body of ours is made for communion with others, driven by its desire to meet and be with others – and by its bounds that communion is denied it, it is divided from other bodies and left to its own dissolution.
Sin takes the form of individualised being – being an individual. This is not a problem for which a new, extrinsic solution has to be sought, for it is already part of a solution. God has, from the first, kept man safe within the biological hypostasis of the world, held where he cannot do any serious damage to himself. God does not have to cross alien ground to reach man, nor to recover him from some state that he has achieved and sustains for himself from his own resources. Just as there is no such thing as human nature, neither have we accomplished for ourselves something called fallen nature. The tragic form taken by our biology is not merely a function of our fallenness, but of God’s arrangement to nullify and redeem our fallenness, one that is completed when the resurrection turns the biological body into a meta-biological body, the eschatological ecclesial body.
Man’s fallenness is too often confused with his identity. Because his identity is not in his own possession, man’s fallenness will not finally succeed in constituting his identity. Freedom should not be seen as the cause of a problem. God intends no less than absolute freedom for man, so it is because he was not able to exercise the priesthood for which he is made that man fell, not because he demanded the freedom proper to this priesthood. Without man to make it free, creation cannot achieve its telos, and apart from it, creation is so disordered that nothing acquires its proper form and everything can result only in sin.
In one theological tradition it has been supposed that there was no death before the arrival of man in creation, death came to creation as a punishment for Adam’s disobedience, and that God himself introduced this evil which he then tried through his Son to remove. Against this tradition we must say that things have their own proper demarcation and boundaries, and as they have beginnings, so they have ends, and as they have ends, mortality is intrinsic to the world. Boundaries – and with them mortality – are necessary to allow the organism to move through stages on its way to freedom and duration. ‘Nothing was created perfect from the beginning. Everything, including especially the human being, was meant to grow into perfection.’ In isolation from the eschaton, the organism remains stalled in each early form of life, the whole adds up only to mortality, and mortality results in sin. But we may not talk about sin apart from eschatology, for there cannot be a concept of sin apart from the concept of freedom as the end towards which everything is orientated, for sin is not deviation from an original state but from what will be.
The hope of the whole creation is dependent on man’s hope of absolute freedom. If man is not free the creation cannot reach its own proper order and loses its hope for survival. It is better that Adam retained his claim to absolute freedom – and fell – than that he renounced this claim to freedom and so lost hope of it. And yet as it is viewed from what it will be, it is the actual condition of the world on its own terms – sin – that makes it impossible for the creation to raise itself from these boundaries and make itself free.
So we have to think of history as a double movement, toward the end for which the world was created, and from that end. Though the world consists of all movement in all direction, the movement from the eschaton grasps this movement and makes it correspond to itself, to the end. It is the outward movement of the eschaton that makes all other movement, movement toward the eschaton. Movement that does not correspond is mere deviation and is without telos or being. Evil is not, as the tradition stemming from Origen believed, a deviation from the beginning, but from the end, an irrational movement towards things other than the end. The creation is contaminated by evil, and those processes which should have been ongoing are instead brought to nothing by non-being. Since the end decides finally about the truth of history, only those events leading to the end will be shown to possess true being, being as such. The historical events of revelation, therefore, are true and real because they lead to the end from which they came into being. Not even the cross has a meaning of its own; it is the resurrection that makes the cross the event it is. Though everything may be said to end in death, only one death, that of Jesus Christ, was taken up by the movement of the end to correspond to itself, and by this correspondence has been made the saving death, the death that gathers death, and which as a result of the resurrection, brings all death to nothing. Without our final resurrection, Christ’s resurrection would be without existence. It is the movement from the end that makes the movement to the end. ‘It is the eschaton that gives being to history.’

High Priesthood
Creation, in a state of mortality, owing to its having had a beginning, awaits the arrival of the being determined not by a beginning but by the end – Man, the perfecter of creation. ‘A personal approach to creation would thus elevate the material to the level of man’s existence. The material creation would in this way be liberated from its own limitations and by being placed in the hands of man, it would itself acquire a personal dimension; it would be humanised.’ Had Adam acted as the Priest of Creation, acted within the freedom of the end rather than the constraint of his origin, he would have overcome the mortality inherent in these beginnings and ends, and so freed all creation for the eschatological and free life of the creature of God. So Adam’s fall represented his reluctance to overcome the mortality inherent in creation. Being dependent on a creature, who had not yet learned his freedom and grown into it, creation was not liberated from its mortality.
But it is the end that is determinative, not the beginning. The end re-determines the beginning. The beginning is reckoned from him who is at the end and from whom all beginnings and ends come to take their orientation. By taking the world into his hands and creatively integrating it and referring it to God, the new Adam liberates creation from the failed priesthood of Adam the individual, and allows the future to be determined by the Adam who is Man-with-God, the creature who is with his Creator. Jesus Christ is the vindication of Israel, the moment in which Israel is revealed to have been Adam-in-waiting, and the event of Israel is made perfect, and at last starts to function as the priest, chief creature, head of creation, the very point and telos of all biology.
God is free, and free is what he makes his creation. As the Father and the Son are free for each other in the Spirit, so they are free to be for this creation and for us. It is not by the coming into being of creation that he is the Father, but because he is the Father of the Son who by the Spirit is able obediently to call him by this name. Since, in the Spirit, the Father is free to be Father to the Son, the creation is not a necessary function of their being, and since the creation does not have a two-way dependent relationship with its Lord, it is able to come into existence-and-freedom. Zizioulas has been challenged on the issue of the Father as aition, usually translated ‘cause’, but his insistence on the monarchia of the Father is a part of his eschatological ontology. Aition is not however a synonym for arche; it would be better translated ‘agency’ so we can confess the Father as agent, the starter because the finisher. The agency is not merely the Son’s; Jesus Christ is not alone, working his own work, as individual. It is the Father’s work he is about, and what he does he does with the Father, and because he is not alone, his agency is valid. To say the Father is the cause is not to say the Father’s agency is necessary because it originates in the Father as individual; it is not to attempt to explain the Father’s agency, to ask further about rationality or origins. It is to say that this agency is both plural, ‘of the Son’ because ‘of the Father’, and that is the single agency of the One God, and thus is not divisible, and thus to rule against the further and inappropriate use of cause or agency language. That there is one God is our liberation and means that necessity is not intrinsic to our createdness: this ‘monotheism’ and ‘monarchy’ is our freedom from the other gods, principles, forces and other disguises of necessity.

The World
Finally a little more must be said about the gap perceived between world and Church. As we have distinguished the person from the individual, we can distinguish between creation and world, and can say that the world has no intrinsic shape or unity of its own, but that only as creation will it really come to be the world. The world is neither a lump of recalcitrant material, of ‘being-stuff’ with an agenda of its own and the means to make it come to pass, nor is it neutral space, left-over from other happenings. It is not the case that space can succeed in opening a gap between God and Man, or hinder their coming together. The world does not create and own itself, neither is it neutral and owned by nobody: it is creation, and as such it has a future.
So that the world can know that it really is itself that is being addressed, and so that it is clear that the Church is not talking to itself in a corner, there is of course an obligation to give a reasoned public account of the Church to the world. This obligation is not served, however, by the adoption of a methodological agnosticism that examines doctrines singly and in isolation. The doctrine of the Church must be understood to be already a doctrine about the world. No greater insight is gained by considering the world as something other than the creation of God. This is the direction taken by non-constitutive, non-ontological approaches to relationality, which operate on a dichotomy of self and other, and which treat world and creation, as individual and person, as sets of synonyms, with the result that world and individual are bound by necessity to each other.
Is Zizioulas’s theology the premature triumphalism of the Church or inner-Churchly game? Should we not say, against him, that there is real sociality apart from the Church? One expression of this sort of concern comes from Alan Torrance, who suggests that language is a prior form of unconditioned covenant and commitment to others, and that ‘language’ equals ‘world’, prior to the Church and its claims. He asks how the ‘trans-subjectivity’ of the Church is the foundation and cause of human relationships on what he calls a ‘wider scale’. Yet that the world is a larger circle and the Church a smaller circle set within it, is an assumption that could be made only on the basis of temporary agnosticism about other Christian doctrines. There is no reason why we should choose to make this assumption, that the world is a wider space and the Church a narrower. The Church is a eucharistic and thus eschatological being, not a special case of relationships the possibility of which is established elsewhere, within any economy which considers itself master of its own limits and therefore pronounces itself to be ‘world’ and not the creation of God. The eucharist of the Church holds together what, on all other bases, floats apart. The Church sustains this ‘wider’ world, which is not wider at all and has no unity of its own, and is that future that will indeed make the world both wide and free. In raising Jesus Christ and calling out the Church, God has elected the whole human race, and elect the Church to be its future, the guarantee of its continuity and identity. As the Church is one, it works this priestly task of making the world one world, and no part of the world is able to secure itself in unfreedom, against this end.
Much present discussion of relationality and persons has preferred to approach the issue through the concepts of Dialogue or Communication, and to use these as a basis on which to establish the relative claims of the Other and the Self. The Dialogue approach is premised on an assumption about the prior existence of a space in which two-parties are equally-weighted, in which they weigh each other to determine which of them is to go first and start, and, by this start, provide the ground for their speech and meeting. But the Creation is not the neutral ground on which the two giants, Man and God, meet, and no start is possible to us who are already the creatures of God’s speech and interceding. There is no silence, and none that has on any new or extraneous basis to be broken, nor does speech have to be re-founded on some substrate or basis that must, necessarily, be non-speech. We are not at a start, but in the middle; God speaks and God hears and answers. The world is the house and ground of God, and as such it is what has been heard just as it is what has been spoken. It is his time, his time first, and only thus is it also ours, ours because his.
The ‘Call to Personhood’ theme founders on the issue of Who calls, God or man, or who calls first ? and which of them may do this, and this becomes the issue of how may he, using what means, his or ours, and if ours, how his ?… and so on. This is to enquire about possibility in ignorance of the actuality, and where inquiry about possibility could only be about another and opposing actuality and thus an act of disobedience. Is this not to attempt to second-guess God, who has called and elected us, and so from an agnostic position on the doctrine of election? Discussion of Speech or Dialogue or Communication, considered in isolation from the doctrine of election, personifies Speech and Dialogue, makes little gods of them. We are not talking about Speech as such, but about one particular speech and its obedient hearing, namely that of the Father and the Son and one that is not extrinsic or alien or prior to them, but which is itself based in a person, or even more is a person, the Holy Spirit.
John Zizioulas has shown that the doctrine of creation is an eschatological doctrine that sets out the future of man as the priest of creation, a future in which he is freely with God. ‘Man and the world are no longer imprisoned in their past, in sin, decay and death. The past is affirmed in so far as it contributes to the end, to the coming of the kingdom.’ When the persons of the Trinity are understood to be the sufficient condition of all persons – the Cappadocian revolution – being ceases to be the opponent of freedom; then we can understand, from Maximus, that our rationality may also be transformed from a basis in protology and fate to one based in freedom.