Review of Lacugna’s God for Us

I did the first part here.

The Problem of Arius

Arius’s challenge was not so much that he had good arguments against the Son’s deity, but that the way he phrased the arguments seem to account for a lot of biblical passages. He did highlight key areas where talk of God’s economy had been eclipsed. The response to Arius was mostly successful: Christ is the economy of God come into the world. The metaphysical oneness of Father and Son, however, made it difficult to talk of God suffering for us.

The Cappadocians

In this section Lacugna gives some helpful clarifications of the philosophical jargon that the Cappadocians used. She sets forth the fundamental thesis of the Cappadocians as God’s ousia exists as three hypostases (54).

Stoic categories: a category is a predicate, a way of talking about being. There are four of these:
substance ←> matter
quality: that which differentiates matter
Disposition: being in a certain state of matter
relation: that which an object is defined by

Aristotelian categories:
Primary substance: a particular entity (this oak tree)
secondary substance: a generalized entity (oak-ness)
relation: a term is relative to another if it implies another (a Father is constituted by Son). Relation is the weakest (thinnest) of categories because it only says what a thing is with reference to another and nothing about the entity itself.

Relational categories work quite nicely when talking about Father or Son. Problem, though: “Spirit” is not a relational term. As Lacugna notes, “The distinction of hypostases is grounded in the relation of origins” (67).   This is one area where Zizioulas’s project falls flat.

Pros and cons of Cappadocian Theology

Saying that the three hypostases manifest the divine ousia lessens the gap between ontology and economy. However, this seems to cut against their likewise assertion that God’s ousia is so unknowable. One agrees that it is, but what is the point of saying that if the hypostases manifest the ousia? If they do, then in some sense the ousia is knowable.

Further, to the degree that hypostasis still connotes a concrete existent of the divine ousia, there is the spectre of tritheism. To speak of hypostases concretizing the ousia almost implies that the ousia is divisible (Sergius Bulgakov makes this point with much force, The Comforter, Eerdmans).


After Feurbach and the Enlightenment, the idea of an “in-itself” is viewed as an impossibility.


The main problem with Palamas is that he posited an essence-beyond-essence, or God in itself. Indeed, one can see the Palamite structure accordingly:



—————– (line of hyperousia)


the heart of the criticism: ousias do not have “interiorities.” In other words, there is not a subsection of ousia apart from the life of that ousia. As Heidegger reminds us, “ousia” is always “par-ousia,” being present. If Palamas wants to say that the energies make the ousia present, fine. But if he says that, then one really doesn’t have warrant to speak of a superessential, ineffable ousia by itself, for the very point of the energies and of ousia in general is that it is not by itself.
Perhaps the most damaging criticism of Palamas is the divorcing of economy and ontology. Related to this is that the energies seem to replace the role of the Persons in the divine economy. For example, the energies are not unique to a single person but common to all three who act together. This is not so different from the standard Western opera ad intra indivisible sunt. Lacugna, quoting Wendebourg, notes, “the proprium of each person…fades into the background” (Lacugna, 195). By contrast, the Cappadocians would say we distinguish the Persons by their propria–by their hypostatic idiomata. In Palamas, though, this role has been moved to the energies. This is further confirmed by the fact that Palamas has the persons as hyperousia. If we can no longer distinguish the persons by their propria, then Palamas is guilty of the same modalism that the East accuses the West of.

Part 2

Lacugna begins with an interesting observation. Pre-Nicene liturgy consisted of a lot of mediatorial prayers to the Father through Christ. While this was not denied by later Trinitarianism, neither was it affirmed as much. From a later vantage point it didn’t seem to make much sense to see Christ as a mediator when he was primarily thought of as sharing the same being as the father. Of course, one does not deny Christ’s consubsantiality, but the emphasis on theologia soon eclipsed the biblical witness to economia. Lacugna draws the conclusion: the saints were soon seen as mediators (210).

Conclusion and Critique

My critique will also include a lot of the later material in her book. While I think her initial thesis is sound (a hard divorce between economy and theology posits an irrelevant Trinity), I think she is rather haphazard in applying it. She correctly notes that on the Cappadocians’ model, God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, yet she downplays problems for the Cappadocians (they came very close to concretizing the essence; their mysticism made much of their Trinitarianism irrelevant, and so they are prey to Lacugna’s critique). Further, while her take on Zizioulas is appreciated, and though she offers a brilliant and brutal critique of Palamas, she doesn’t really take into account Palamas’s virtual dogmatic status in the Orthodox world. This makes it rather problematic for her to say we should look to the East on the Trinity.

Further, regarding the word “Person.” In her discussion on Barth she does note that that the definition of “person” shifted from the ancient world to the modern.. She accuses Barth of modalism because Barth defined “person” as tropos huparxos and that God is one divine subject who exists in three modes of simultanaeity. There is a certain irony in Lacugna’s rejection of Barth: Barth used the exact same definition, literally word-for-word, as Gregory of Nyssa, to whom Lacugna says we ought to return! The problem, as Bruce McCormack has noted, is that the word person in the post-Enlightenment world simply doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in the ancient world. He notes,

Second comment: as Bruce indicated, the problem repeatedly in the nineteenth century was the assumption that the patristic hypostasis and prosopon could be translated into the English ‘person’, with all the connotations of those words in a post-Romantic age. Strauss, for instance (a quotation Bruce used): ‘to speak of two natures in one person is to speak of a single self-consciousness, for what else could a single person mean?’ However, it is clear that in the patristic construction of Trinity and Christology such ‘personal’ characteristics as ‘self-consciousness’, if considered at all, were attached to natures not persons—this was, for instance, the whole point of the orthodox solutions to the monoenergist and monothelite controversies. (This is why Barth preferred ‘mode of being’ to ‘person’ for the three hypostases of the Trinity; in post-Romantic terms, all that is ‘personal’ in God is one.)

Translation: Person in modern-speak means a situated self-consciousness, implying, among other things, a mind. This is most certainly not what the Patristics meant, to the degree they had a coherent definition of person, anyway. “Self-consciousness” and “mind” for the Fathers was located in the nature, not the person (otherwise we would have three or four minds in the Trinity). Lacugna simply hasn’t reflected enough on what person can mean. To say we should go back to “personalism” is not helpful at all. You can’t say you want to go back to the robust personalism of the Cappadocians if you mean person = self-consciousness, for that’s precisely what the Cappadocians rejected! I have my own reservations about Barth’s project, but he knew exactly what both he and the Cappadocians were saying and avoided all the problems that Lacugna’s project succumbs.

A Trinitarian Ethic

This is where he project comes close to self-destruction. Despite being a Roman Catholic and teaching at Notre Dame, Lacugna is a feminist. To be fair, though, she blunts a lot of her feminist critique and actually raises good points. My problem in this section is her use of vague language that will likely provide fodder for later mischief.


Despite being published by Harper San Francisco, this is a surprisingly good read. The historical analyses on the Cappadocians and Augustine are superb. She corrected a lot of my own misreadings of Augustine. I don’t think she has fully reflected either on how the modern world forced Trinitarian dialogue to mutate nor does she really understand what the Cappadocians were saying.