Book | Communion and Otherness by John D. Zizioulas

6a00e54ef86de9883400e55004fb418833-800wiZizioulas, Jean, and Paul McPartlan. Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.


zizioulasJohn Zizioulas (Greek: Ιωάννης Ζηζιούλας; born 10 January 1931, Kozani) is the Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon. He is the Chairman of the Academy of Athens and a noted theologian.[1]

My Thoughts on Communion and Otherness

I will be brief and to the point in this reflection. There is one thing that I glean from this book that is very beneficial for my research and the missional conversation. There is also one thing that I struggle with. The piece that I glean from Zizioulas is his definition of personhood. He moves away from the classical obsession with substantivist ideas about human ontology and defines personhood as relational ontology. The uniqueness of the individual person is not found in the substance of the individuum that possesses certain classifiable universal categories. Rather, the uniqueness of the individual is constituted by the relationship with the other. The person is other to the other first, and thus, by standing in contrast to the other, is differentiated as unique. Left to the individual self-as-substance, the self is isolated, in Hell, and ceases to exist. Personhood, therefore, is relationality. This is evident in the Trinitarian Personhood of God. God is not unified substance that possesses three modes of being. God is three persons-in-relationship. The church, and all of creation, is thus constituted in relationality, and the ministry of Jesus, the personhood of Son, is to reconcile all things into relationality by demonstrating the incapacity to be self-sufficient through death, and bringing all things into communion through the capacity of life-in-relation to God through resurrection.

The piece of Zizioulas’ theology that is difficult for me is his insistence on the monarchy of the Father. He has built into his system a hierarchy that places the person of the Father as primary cause through willing the Son in relationship. This scheme then substantiates the Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology in which the bishop of the church instantiates the church and the church is the “amen” to the bishops “Yes” in the same way that all creation stands in relation to the Father’s “Yes.” This hierarchical scheme does not solve the same monarchicalism of the Western immanent Trinitarianism that has led to so much colonialism and oppression throughout church history.



“The first thing that emerges from a study of the doctrine of the Trinity is that otherness is constitutive of unity, and not consequent upon it. God is not first one and then three, but simultaneously one and three. His oneness or unity is safeguarded not by the unity of substance, as St. Augustine and other Western theologians have argued, but by the monarchia of the Father, who himself is one of the Trinity. It is also expressed through the unbreakable koinonia that exists between the three persons, which means that otherness is not a threat to unity but a sine qua non condition of it.

Secondly a study of the Trinity reveals that otherness is absolute. The Father, the Son and the Spirit are absolutely different (diaphora), none of them being subject to confusion with the other tow.

Thirdly and most significantly, otherness is not moral or psychological but ontological. We cannot tell what each person is; we can only say who he is. Each person in the holy Trinity is different not by way of difference of natural qualities (such qualities are all common to the three persons), but by way oft he simple affirmation of being who he is.

As a result, finally, otherness is inconceivable apart from relationship. Father, Son and Spirit are all ames indicating relationship. No person can be different unless he is related. Communion does not threaten otherness; it generates it.”[2]


“In the Eucharist we can find all the dimensions of communion: God communicates himself to us, we enter into communion with him, the participants of the sacrament enter into communion with one another, and creation as a whole enters through man into communion with God. Al this takes place in Christ and the Spirit, who brings the last days into history and offers to the world a foretaste of the Kingdom.”[3]


“Absolute uniqueness is indicated only through an affirmation arising freely from a relationship which constitutes by its unbrokenness the ontological ground of being for each person. In such a situation what matters ontologically is not ‘what’ one is but the very fact that he or she is and is not someone else. The tendency of the Greek Fathers to avoid giving any positive content to the hypostases of the Trinity, by insisting that the Father is simply not the Son or the Spirit, and the Son means simply not the Father and so on, points to the true ontology of hypostasis: that someone simply is and is himself or herself and not someone else, and this is sufficient to identify him or her as a being in the true sense. This point acquires tremendous existential significance when placed in the context of ordinary human life. In relationships of genuine love, which are the proper context for the ‘experience’ of an ontology of personhood, one does not—and should not—identify the other with the help of their qualities (physical, social, moral, et.), thus rejecting or accepting the other on that basis as a unique and irreplaceable partner in a relationship that matters ontologically (on which one’s own personal identity depends). The more one loves ontologically and truly personally, the less one identifies someone as unique and irreplaceable for one’s existence on the basis of such classifiable qualities. (In this case, one rather loves in spite of the existence or absence of such qualities, just as God loves the sinner and recognizes him as a unique person.) Here it is perhaps appropriate to introduce into our terminology the category of ethical apophaticism, so badly needed in our culture, with which to indicate that, exactly as the Greek fathers spoke of the divine persons, we cannot give a positive qualitative content to a hypostasis or person, for this would result in the loss of his or her absolute uniqueness and turn a person into a classifiable entity. Just as the Father, the Son and the Spirit are not identifiable except simply through being who they are, in the same way a true ontology of personhood requires that the uniqueness of a person escape and transcend any qualitative kataphasis. This does not place personhood in the realm of a ‘misty’ mystery any more than the absence of a positive content in our reference to the persons of the Trinity does. Both in the case of God and in that of human beings the identity of a person is recognized and posited clearly and unequivocally, but this is so only in and through a relationship, and not through an objective ontology in which this identity would be isolated, pointed at and described in itself. Personal identity is totally lost if isolated, for its ontological condition is relationship.”[4]


“In Christ, therefore, every man acquires his particularity, his hypostasis, his personhood, precisely because, by being constituted as a being in and through the same relationship which constitutes Christ’s being, he is as unique and unrepeatable and worthy of eternal survival as Christ is by virtue of his being constituted as a being through his filial relationship with the Father, which makes him so unique and so eternally loved as to be an eternally living being. In Christ, therefore, understood in the way in which I am trying to describe hypostatic union, man not only maintains his personhood but so fulfils it as to make it constitutive of his being in the ultimate ontological sense which, as we have seen, is implied in the notion of personhood and which is to be found only in God. This is precisely what is implied in Baptism, which is constitutive of a ‘new being’ (note the term ‘birth’ applied to Baptism), of a being which is not subject to death and therefore ontologically ultimate, precisely because Baptism is essentially nothing other than the application to humanity of the very filial relationship which exists between the Father and the Son (note the narratives of Christ’s baptism in the Bible and the baptismal rites of the early Church).”[5]


Summary of Human Capacity and Human Incapacity

(A) man = man-in-communion-with-God

(B) “capacity and incapacity are not to be opposed to each other but to be included in each other. Only the scheme capacity-in-incapacity does justice tot he mystery of man.

C. Imago Dei = Imago Trinitas: not that man can become God in his ‘nature’ but can be in communion with God. Man can himself live the event of communion which is realized in divine life and he can do this with and for the entire creation.

D. Man reveals his creaturehood in a way of difference and not division from God.

E. The break in communion—the Fall—poses the relation between man and God as one of presence-in-absence. Christ, through the incapacity of death, restores communion through his personhood, turns the created realm into a presence of God.

F. “The issue of human capacity and incapacity serves as a significant illustration of this when it ceases to represent a dilemma. In communion with God, man is capable of everything (Mk 9.23; Phil. 4.13; etc.)—though only in the incapacity of creaturehood, which poses itself clearly in such a communion. Thus, the conclusion brings with it the echo of Paul’s words: ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12.10).[6]


[2] Jean Zizioulas and Paul McPartlan, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: T & T Clark, 2006), 5.

[3] Ibid.,  7.

[4] Ibid.,  111-112.

[5] Ibid.,  240-241.

[6] Ibid.,  248-249.

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