Volf’s critique of Zizioulas

I normally do not agree with Miroslav Volf on many points, but he has a perceptive critique of John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion project.  I wrote this a long time ago as a rejoinder to what Orthodox Bridge would say to my critique of Palamas.  They never critiqued it, so I never posted this.  However, Volf’s coments are enlightening in the context of Pannenberg’s treatment of the Trinity.

I stand by what I have written in response to Arakaki’s article on Calvinism, especially as it relates to the Trinity.   That said, there are several aspects I would change:

John Zizioulas:  Mr Arakaki based much of his work off of the brilliant patristic theologian John Zizioulas.  Zizioulas’s thesis that the hypostasis of the Father constitutes the ground of the other two hypostases in the Godhead is a strong one.  I was initially hesitant to rebut it since I cut my “trinitarian” teeth on much of Zizioulas.    I had suspected (back then) that there were weaknesses to Zizioulas, but I couldn’t put my finger on them.  I now think I can voice them better.  I have since come across Miroslav Volf’s After Our Likeness, which deals extensively with Zizoulas.

For Zizioulas, their is an asymmetry in the Trinity.  The Father as aitia (cause).  The Cause has to be a person, otherwise there would be no grounds for prioritizing person over essence.  The monarchia of the Father is the grounds of distinguishing the persons.  There is no mutual reciprocal causality, for then there would be no way of distinguishing the persons.  Volf wonders, though, why the monarchy of the Father is the only grounds for unity in the Godhead.  Whatever merits there are in Zizioulas’s construction, it is by no means clear that the alternative to his project is the prioritizing of substance.

In short, Volf writes,

“Zizioulas distinguishes between being constituted (the Son and the Spirit through the Father) and the Father being conditioned (The Father by the Son and the Spirit).  If one presumes that the Father alone is the constituitive entity within the Godhead, then, as we have already seen, it is difficult not to ascribe priority to the person before the communion.  If, on the other hand, one takes seriously the notion of the Father as conditioned by the Son and the Spirit, then the differences between the persons risk being leveled.  If the Father is conditioned by the Son and the Spirit, then he is constituted by them.  That is, he is God only as Father. As soon as one allows innertrinitarian reciprocity, the innertrinitarian asymmetry seems to vanish (After Our Likeness, 80).



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.

Review of Horton, Covenant Ecclesiology Part Two

Horton recapitulates the argument of his book in chapter 6. Chapter 1 argued the where of Christ’s presence (Ascension), chapters 2-5 argued the how of Christ’s presence (Covenantal Speech-Act), and chapter 6 argues the what of identity on earth. In what sense is the church one and many?

Horton makes several key distinctions between “unity” and “unicity.” Unity is a healthy respecting of differences best seen in a covenantal community. This can only be by the Spirit. Noting Leslie Newbigin’s poignant remark, when we make the church an “extension of the Incarnation,” we confuse sarx (Christ’s flesh) with soma (his body as the church). In such a move any union is at the level of fused essences flowing downward in a hierarchy (as is necessary in all Platonic and Dionysian visions; 187). Rather, our union with Christ is through the Spirit in anticipation of the age to come.

This has important practical applications. When faced with high-church claims to “unity over Protestant divisions,” one may rightly ask if unity is even possible on a Roman or Orthodox position? Does not their own version of unity reduce all to sameness, in a sense losing unity altogether for unicity? If they hold to a Dionysian ontology in which differences are overcome through an ascent on the divine ladder (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 34), do they not lose the many to the one? Indeed, to borrow a line from the postmoderns, does not differance become violence?

Throughout this discussion Horton engages in some very important analyses of John Zizioulas and Miroslav Volf, thus adding a particular relevance to his work

Horton correctly condemns the political maneuvering of Urban II (259ff), but fundamentally misses the point and result of the first crusade. While many knights did see themselves as waging war against the infidel, the first crusade is better seen as a sustained defensive measure against Islam (remember, the Muslims invaded first). Further, he then invokes–ironically, in almost a religious manner–liberal democracies litany of “bad guy countries:” South Africa, “colonialism,” and Serbia.

Normally, I would let it slide but since I probably know more about Serbia than 90% of Americans, I feel compelled to expand the point. Serbs before 1999 simply did not see themselves as King David. Milosevic remained an atheist until shortly before his murder in The Hague. He only claimed the mantle of Tsar Lazar on Kosovo Poltje in the final days of the war–and that for political, not religious reasons. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Moss points out, Serbia was the most secular post-Communist country in the 1990s (with also the highest abortion rate). As C.I.A. analyst John Schindler (Unholy Terror) remarks, “The sad irony is that Serbia was already close to Hilary Clinton’s vision of a secular state in the new world order.” To make the irony worse, Serbia only became interested in its religious heritage as a response to Hillary’s War. I only belabor the point because it seems to contrast with Horton’s earlier (and admirable) resisting the collapse of cult and cultus. Is not his endorsing–however seriously he meant the statement–the litany of liberal democracy a similar collapsing? (To be fair, he later critiqued the nigh-ubiquitous equation of the Kingdom with liberal democracy, p. 287 n.100) I share his suspicion to Christian Reconstructionism, for example, and I am equally skeptical of Van Tillians’ chanting “No neutrality,” but this may be the one area they actually have a point.

Concerning the Temple (or “Temple-speak” as I shall call it), Horton is correct to note that the person and work of Christ replaced the Temple economy with its sacrifices (268ff). Further, he is correct that we should not as Christians seek a rebuilt Temple. While Horton’s final conclusions may indeed be correct, the inference does not follow that because Revelation “spiritualizes” (whatever that word means) a Temple that all prophetic references to “Temple-speak” are necessarily about Jesus. What then is the point of a temple, one may ask? The answer to that question hinges on several eschatological presuppositions, but those aside, one may posit that a newly-built temple, while having no relevance for Christian worship (indeed, it would be blasphemy) is necessary to Anti-Christ’s false covenant with the Jews.

Oddly enough, Horton quotes Jurgen Moltmann with approval (Moltmann elsewhere has given one of the most penetrating critiques of ideological amillennialism). At this point, almost without warning (270-271), Horton shifts from his “spiritual temple” to why Christian activism in politics is wrong.

While his section on “Holy War” has much promise, I am skeptical of Horton’s invoking Meredith Kline’s “intrusion ethics” (272). Whatever merits intrusion ethics may have, and while it does mitigate some of the harsher passages in the OT for today’s application, I doubt it would have been of much comfort to the Canaanites! (Admittedly, Horton realizes “intrusion” is a terrible ethical term, as it implies relativistic ethics. His use of “irruption,” while perhaps not allaying all of the difficulties in his position, is much better and doesn’t have the situation-ethics overtones). While “irruption ethics” sounds good in broad, general outlines, it is by no means clear that it automatically follows “mean texts” (which itself is a subjective judgment). Horton, in responding to Kant, says that “imprecatory psalms” are delayed because God delayed his judgment (277). Maybe so, but he is reading that into the passage.

Intrusion ethics becomes particularly troubling in this quote, “Other examples of intrusion ethics appear in the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac and Hosea’s marriage” (ibid). Admittedly, these are ethical nightmares (the former more so than the latter) for any systematic theologian, but Horton’s position at this point seems to reduce to a voluntaristic Divine-command ethic, which is odd given his commitment to natural law.

While perhaps not a criticism of Horton, in another place we see how tenuous the sharp divide between cult and cultus is. While we should be wary of “killin ‘em terrorists for Jesus” (GOP?), Horton himself shows, even if does not realize it, how difficult it is to dichotomize one’s life: “As throughout the history recounted above, the cosmic battle is waged through earthly agents; personal and institutional; religious and social; cultic and cultural; rhetorical and political. Yet the church knows the real enemy behind behind these penultimate agents” (283). He is correct that this battle is taking place in history. And he is correct that we cannot take an AK-47 against the “real agents,” but the unspoken conclusion hangs heavy in the room, a conclusion I suspect he would disavow: may we not, acting as good citizens in the Kingdom of God’s Left Hand (actually a good name for a political party!), take the AK-47 against the penultimate agents? On a 2 Kingdoms ethic it’s hard to see why not (all other things . Even more, as Horton states this battle is in history, we are historical beings (per his correct critique of Karl Barth), we cannot divorce our lives from this history. As Aragorn tells King Theoden, “Open war is upon you, whether you wish it or not.” This has always been the fatal flaw in neo-Two Kingdoms ethics: as long as the state says its not acting as the church, it’s hard to see how any one program the state is wrong. Natural law ethics helps but only to an extent.