A Feminist Critique of Monarchia in John Zizioulas’ Doctrine of the Trinity

For Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “would be unthinkable to speak of the ‘one God’ before speaking of the God who is ‘communion,’ that is to say, of the Holy Trinity,” because God’s very being is inseparable from relation.[1] Zizioulas reveals God’s “being as communion” in his “neopatristic synthesis” of the Cappadocian Father’s faith tradition for the modern, Western world.[2] As Zizioulas re-examines the writings of these Greek Fathers, he discovers the free, loving person witnessed in the life of the Trinity as the ultimate ground of all being.[3] However, Zizioulas singles out the divine person of the Parent – always referenced as “Father” in his writings – as the sole initiator or “cause” of the God’s being as Trinity; an idea Zizioulas names monarchia. As this paper will show, monarchia is a core feature of Zizioulas’ doctrine of the Trinity. I write as a Euro-American male from an evangelical context who approaches Zizioulas’ theology with a healthy sense of humility as a newcomer to Greek philosophy and theology. In this paper, I present a feminist critique of Zizioulas’ reliance on monarchia because it ignores an undeniable history of “ideological abuses of personhood with respect to women, or the poor, or other marginalized groups” under hierarchical structures.[4] In light of this history, I propose that the monarchia of Zizioulas’ Trinitarian symbol be framed within the mutual, interdependent relations among the community of equal Trinitarian persons. This change to Zizioulas’ Trinitarian doctrine is essential for its appropriation in the life of the local church.

John Zizioulas is a noted theologian and spokesperson for the Eastern Orthodox Church and currently serves as the Metropolitan of the ancient see of Pergamon. He is well-known for his ecumenical work between Eastern and Western faith traditions and for his more recent focus on confronting the ecological crisis. However, his Trinitarian theology and its resulting “ontology of personhood that understands being as communion” is the focal point of all his theological work.[5]

I have chosen to engage the Trinitarian theology of John Zizioulas because I, with Catherine LaCugna, am convinced that the “the doctrine of the Trinity is in fact the most practical of all doctrines.”[6] This characteristic of Trinitarian doctrine fits well with my training as a software engineer, which has conditioned my thinking in very practical, problem-solving ways. The importance of the Trinity in the life of the church is immense: it dictates our response to the good news of Jesus, paints a vision of personal and societal transformation, defines the justice we seek, informs our worship, and shows us what it means to participate in the life of God.[7] I have a particular interest in the doctrine of the Trinity as a future student of international development who desires to live amongst and work with poor, rural communities in ways that shape a shared life of community which reflects the image of the Trinitarian God.

John Zizioulas constructs his Trinitarian theology on the theological traditions of the Cappadocian Fathers. These Greek theologians were at the helm of the early church’s efforts “to give ontological expression to its faith in the Triune God.” [8] The question framing the Trinitarian debate for the Cappadocians asked: “What does it mean to say that God is Father [sic], Son [sic] and Spirit without ceasing to be one God?”[9] In their response to the controversial Sabellian answer to this question, which viewed the three divine persons as “three different modes of revelation of the one God,”[10] the Cappadocians forged an unprecedented philosophical connection between two previously unrelated terms: prosopon and hypostasis.[11] Prior to this event, the term prosopon basically referred to a human face and also denoted an actor’s mask.[12] In both of these cases, prosopon was something added to the being of a person – not something constitutive of it.[13] The term hypostasis denoted a particular manifestation of the one, true substance of being before its re-interpretation by the Cappadocians.[14] By identifying hypostasis with prosopon, the Cappadocians detached hypostasis from its dependence on the being of a pre-existing, unified substance and created a new expression to name the Trinitarian hypostases which avoided Sabellianism by ensuring “the fullness and integrity of each person.”[15] This feature of the Cappadocian’s answer to the Trinitarian controversy was extremely significant because it pointed towards a new kind of ontology.

This ontology was new because it was personal. In classical Greek thought, God’s being, along with everything else, was necessarily derived from a monistic, unified substance, but the Cappadocians rejected this idea and upheld God’s free existence when they gave ultimate ontological value to the three hypostases, or persons, of the Trinity instead of the one substance.[16] As a result, the being of all existing things became a “product of freedom” instead of an ontological necessity.[17] Zizioulas points to the Cappadocians’ commitment to the freedom of God from created things professed in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as a primary catalyst for this ontological leap from substance to person.[18]

While God’s freedom was essential to Cappadocian doctrine, the unity of God was also a central concern. According to Zizioulas’ interpretation of the Greek Fathers, the ground of God’s unity, and therefore the “ontological principle” or “cause” of God’s being “does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasisthe person of the Father [sic].[19] Therefore, substantial being of the one God arises from the personal freedom of the Parent “who out of love freely begets the Son [sic] and brings forth the Spirit.”[20] Apart from the eternal, free choice of the “uncaused” Parent to “cause” the personal identity of the Child and the Spirit, God is not one.

With this move towards the person of the Parent as the ontological ground of the Trinity’s being, the idea of monarchia comes into focus. According to Zizioulas, monarchia is “absolutely crucial” to the Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians because it safeguards God’s freedom from the ontological necessity resulting from a substance-based ontology.[21] As a person, God the Parent freely chooses to exist as a communion of hypostases arising from the Parent’s ecstatic acts of begetting the Child and breathing forth the Spirit.[22] Zizioulas describes this free, ecstatic choice of the Parent as the definitive act of love; “God is love” because “God subsists as Trinity.”[23] Love is no longer a property of God’s substance because it is revealed as “the supreme ontological predicate” of God’s Trinitarian being.[24] Without monarchia, love is excluded from God’s being.

The last implication Zizioulas draws out of the seismic Cappadocian link between person and hypostasis came in response to the challenge of Eunomianism. Eunomius interpreted monarchia to mean that the Child and the Spirit were ontologically subordinate to the Parent because the substance of the Parent was “unbegotten,” while the substance of the Child and the Spirit were caused by the Parent.[25] This challenge was overcome by “[distinguishing] between substance and person in God.”[26] In order to avoid a subordinationalist understanding of monarchia, the Cappadocians’ defined the unbegottenness of the Parent, the begottenness of the Son, and the spiration of the Spirit as personal properties describing the absolute uniqueness of each Trinitarian hypostasis and therefore not communicated among God’s  substance.[27] In order to guard against an individualistic understanding of the Trinitarian persons as a result of this sharp distinction between the persons and substance of God, Zizioulas points to how the personal Trinitarian names denote relation: “none of the three persons can be conceived without reference to the other two, both logically and ontologically.”[28] As a result, Zizioulas returns once more to the idea of monarchia and concludes that God’s being is “simultaneously relational and hypostatic” as it “is constituted and ‘hypostasized’ through a free event of love caused by a free and loving person, the Father [sic], and not by the necessity of divine nature.”[29]

With this vision of God “who exists as a communion of free love out of which unique, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable identities emerge,” Zizioulas suggests that the Cappadocian Fathers have given the world “the most precious concept it possesses: the concept of the person, as an ontological concept in the ultimate sense.”[30] Zizioulas finds the basis for this concept in his modern synthesis of Cappadocian thought which identifies the person of the Parent as the sole arche, or source, of the Trinity. However, according to Ralph Del Colle, this emphasis on monarchia represents a unique development in the interpretive history of Cappadocian thought.[31] In his survey of contemporary Trinitarian theology, Stanley Grenz expresses the concerns of several theologians towards this defining characteristic of Zizioulas’ doctrine.[32] While these concerns are important, this paper has chosen to critique Zizioulas’ monarchia from a feminist perspective. Three definitions will be helpful as this critique unfolds. Catherine LaCugna defines feminism as “the critique of patriarchy” in all its myriad manifestations, and understands patriarchy to denote “a system of social relations in which the male is normative and in which the male-female relationship is one of domination and subordination.”[33] LaCugna distills the essence of the polyphonic feminist voice as a critique of the “symbols, myths, and thought-forms [which] Christianity serves to maintain the social world of hierarchy and lack of equality between men and women.”[34]

According to Elizabeth Johnson, “the symbol of God functions;” it captures the shared understanding of what is good, beautiful, and valuable in a community, defines its vision of the good life, and powerfully shapes its corporate identity and praxis.[35] Patricia Fox, in her critical correlation of Zizioulas’ and Johnson’s Trinitarian doctrines, places the primary impetus for Johnson’s theological endeavors in the experience of women whose human dignity has been denied in a consistent, historical way by a symbol of God which refuses an equal place for women in society.[36] Fox highlights Johnson’s argument for how “the triune symbol of God has contributed to structural injustice for women and their patriarchal subordination.”[37] Johnson locates the origin of this patriarchal, structural injustice when she observes that, in both Eastern and Western doctrines of the Trinity, “priority always rests in the Father [sic]” due to the exclusive ordering of persons as “Father [sic], Word, Spirit.”[38] For Johnson, this Trinitarian “order of procession” reveals a subtle “pattern of dominance and subordination between Father [sic], from whom all proceed, and Son [sic] and Spirit who do the proceeding.”[39] Fox notes Johnson’s insight into how this “implicit Trinitarian hierarchy” critically undermines “belief in the radical equality of the three persons” and negates the significant concrete, societal transformation which could be empowered by “the consistent doctrinal teaching on the mutual and equal relations of the three persons of the Trinity.”[40]

From her perspective as a feminist theologian, Johnson highlights a significant problem with Zizioulas’ monarchia. Fox rightly identifies the importance of monarchia in Zizioulas’ doctrine but she also notes a further, unintended effect: its reinforcement of “the hierarchical distinctions within the triune symbol.”[41] While Zizioulas seems to be aware of this effect, he is not willing to modify his theological positions because of it. He insists on an explicit, immutable ordering of Trinitarian persons “since the Father [sic] always comes first, the Son [sic] second, and the Spirit third in all biblical and patristic references to the Holy Trinity.”[42] He claims this ordering is “inevitable” in the Trinity because “every movement in God… begins with the Father [sic] and ends with him [sic].”[43] He responds to critique from Elizabeth Johnson and others with a categorical dismissal in which he states that this ordering “should not be understood in temporal, moral, or functional terms… [and] does not imply a hierarchy of value or importance… [and] neither does it endanger… the wholeness and equality of each person’s deity.”[44]

Zizioulas makes this sweeping claim on the basis of a highly nuanced interpretation of two frequently misunderstood terms in Cappadocian thought: “being” and “cause.” When the Cappadocian Fathers spoke about God’s “being,” they simultaneously referred to the “what” of God’s being, the substance of God, and to the “how” of God’s being, the personhood of God.[45] These two senses of “being” were held together so tightly that “the three persons… denote God’s being just as much as the term ‘substance’.”[46] The Cappadocians developed their understanding of “cause” by making two important modifications to its typical definition in their Greek philosophical milieu: (1) they freed “cause” from any association with time; (2) they spoke of “causal language [being] permissible… only at the level of personhood, not of substance” so that cause applied only to the “how” of God and not the “what” of God.[47] These modifications defeated Eunomian claims of subordinationism by dissociating “cause” from the transmission of divine substance and attaching it exclusively to an act of distinguishing between the Trinitarian persons which introduces the “emergence of otherness in divine being.”[48] Therefore, because “being” can be equally denoted by personhood or substance, and because “cause” only refers to personhood, Zizioulas argues that the Parent as “cause” of God’s “being” actually “ensures the equality of the three persons in terms of deity” and “brings about otherness in communion and communion in otherness.”[49]

While Zizioulas’ “communion in otherness” seems to defend him against what Rosemary Radford Ruether names as the destructive “impulse of monotheistic, monarchical monocultural oneness [emphasis added]” typical of traditional, androcentric conceptions of God,[50] his defense remains problematic for at least two reasons. First, he ignores the actual, historical appropriation of monarchia to justify oppression and injustice, especially towards women. Second, he fails to acknowledge different orderings of Trinitarian persons where the Parent does not come first.

In her well-known work on the Trinity God For Us, Catherine LaCugna provides a detailed discussion of Zizioulas’ ontology of personhood and employs this idea to critique the tendency in some feminist and liberationist theologies to base Trinitarian unity in the divine substance instead of “in the unique identity of the divine persons in the economy.”[51] However, she holds back her full endorsement of Zizioulas’ ideas because he fails to provide a social dimension of personhood which “could serve as a basis for a critique of the concrete shape of the social order,” which, in many instances, “destroy[s] or inhibit[s] full personhood.”[52] While Zizioulas states that monarchia “should not” be understood in a functional way to justify patriarchal orders, LaCugna is convinced that the opposite is true.[53] Zizioulas’ suggestion seems to ignore the historical reality of cultural and political trends at work in the time of Cappadocians which led to the development of an increasingly dominant, patriarchal church still in existence today.[54] While both Zizioulas[55] and Gregory of Nazianzus[56] agree that no analogy exists between the Parenthood of God and human parenthood, LaCugna observes how the Cappadocians were obviously not successful in ridding the church of its patriarchal God.[57] On the basis of this sobering historical reality, LaCugna is not optimistic about Zizioulas’ chances of convincing the church to abandon its exclusive “Father-God” and therefore rejects a monarchic Trinitarian structure in fear that it will continue to be used to justify patriarchal structures of oppression.[58] It is incumbent upon Zizioulas to realistically consider the destructive effects of placing monarchia at the center of his Trinitarian theology.

Elizabeth Johnson expresses a similar alarm over how an implicit hierarchy within Trinitarian theology will continue to undermine the equality of all human persons.[59] However, her critique focuses on Zizioulas’ claim concerning the explicit, exclusive ordering of Trinitarian persons which always places the person of the Parent first. She rejects this notion of a single pattern “set in stone” and argues for a variety of Trinitarian orderings as seen in New Testament texts.[60] She enlists the help of Jurgen Moltmann to substantiate her point. In his work The Trinity and the Kingdom, Moltmann reveals an ordering of Trinity seen in the Spirit’s work of glorification which actually begins with Spirit and ends with the Parent: “the song of praise and the unity proceed from the Spirit through the Son [sic] to the Father [sic].”[61]

In this deconstruction of the monarchic ordering of Trinitarian relations, Johnson moves closer to her goal of articulating a Trinitarian symbol which conveys “an incomprehensibly profound community of equal ‘persons’ in mutual relations [emphasis added].”[62] In their evaluation of Zizioulas’ theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Colin Gunton provide further impetus towards this goal as they too express the need for a stronger focus on the mutuality of relations constituting the persons of the Trinity. Gunton recalls the words of Cappadocian Father St. Basil to stress the “completing” effect of the Spirit’s person in order to balance Zizioulas’ “excessive ‘monotheism of the Father [sic].’”[63] Pannenberg affirms the traditional “relations of origin” between Parent, Child, and Spirit, but he adds that these relations “have to be understood from, and complemented by, what the Scriptures say about the mutuality of the Father [sic] and Son [sic], and between them and the Spirit.”[64] In fact, Zizioulas himself points towards mutual relations when he speaks of “the co-emergence of divine nature with the Trinitarian existence initiated by the Father [sic] [which] implies that the Father [sic], too, ‘acquires’… deity only ‘as’ the Son [sic] and Spirit are in existence.”[65] However, he holds on to the idea of monarchia even while making this concession. Unlike Zizioulas, Johnson has chosen to draw attention to the reality of a suffering creation and allows this reality to shape how she speaks of “the living God revealed in the Scriptures as being always dynamically active to save.”[66] As a result, she cannot accept any notion of hierarchy within the Trinitarian symbol that would “impede the prophetic teaching on the equal and mutual relationships within the koinonia of the triune God.”[67]

The feminist critique of LaCugna and Johnson are of utmost importance as I consider the praxeological implications of Zizioulas’ naming of the person of the Parent as the ontological “cause” of God’s Trinitarian being as loving communion. LaCugna’s critique causes me to stop and consider my context before I create a theology that ignores or even contribute towards the oppression of others. My current church context, Six:Eight Community Church, is located in suburban Ardmore, PA, where the typical resident is raced as white, is middle-aged, and is well-educated according to the 2010 US Census.[68] In this context, Jason Guynes, Six:Eight’s pastor, has observed what he describes as a pervasively individualist culture in which most people enjoy being self-made, self-motivated, and in control of their lives.[69] Zizioulas’ ontology of personhood witnessed in the Trinity is directly applicable to Six:Eight’s pursuit of community in Ardmore because it reveals how no person is self-made or self-caused. According to Zizioulas, “a person is always a gift from someone;” as “the outcome of love and freedom,” persons “owe their being who they are… to another person.”[70] The impact of Six:Eight’s life and witness in the Ardmore community would be powerfully seen and experienced if this idea was embraced. As the pastoral intern at Six:Eight, I feel an especially heavy burden to embody this ideal of personhood in my role as a leader. However, Johnson’s critique of Zizioulas’ exclusive Trinitarian ordering calls me to seek out mutual relations between myself and those I am given to lead. My leadership should never be an exclusively one-way exercise of authority over others, but should reveal and actively appreciate how those I lead are absolutely essential, irreplaceable persons who constitute my being as a leader. Only as a “servant-leader,” as one who, as Alberto Guerrero describes, has “understood that the wholeness of the servant-leader and the interrelationships of leadership are of vital and transcendent importance for the health of a congregation,”[71] can I serve my church at Six:Eight in a way which reflects the Holy Trinity whose being is communion.

[1] John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 17.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Ibid., 16, 18.

[4] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 287.

[5] Patricia A. Fox, God as Communion: John Zizioulas, Elizabeth Johnson, and the Retrieval of the Symbol of the Triune God (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 3-8.

[6] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “The Practical Trinity,” Christian Century 109, no. 22 (July 15-22 1992): 679.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Zizioulas, Being As Communion, 36.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Eduard Lohse, “πρόσωπον,” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), 778.

[11] Zizioulas, Being As Communion, 36.

[12] Lohse, “πρόσωπον,” in TDNT, 6:768,769.

[13] Zizioulas, Being As Communion., 33.

[14] Helmut Koster, “ὑπόστασις,” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 577.

[15] John D. Zizioulas, “The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: The Significance of the Cappadocian Contribution,” in Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act, ed. Christoph Schwobel (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1995), 47.

[16] Zizioulas, Being As Communion, 39.

[17] Ibid., 39, 40.

[18] Zizioulas, Being As Communion., 39.

[19] Ibid., 40.

[20] Ibid., 41.

[21] Ibid., 41, 42, 44.

[22] Ibid., 44.

[23] Ibid., 46.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 137.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Zizioulas, “The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: The Significance of the Cappadocian Contribution,” 49, 50.

[28] Ibid., 50.

[29] Ibid., 50, 59.

[30] Ibid., 56, 58.

[31] Ralph Del Colle, “’Person’ and ‘Being’ in John Zizioulas’ Trinitarian Theology: Conversations with Thomas Torrance and Thomas Aquinas,” Scottish Journal Of Theology 54, no. 1 (January 1, 2001): 70.

[32] Grenz, 143, 144.

[33] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “The Baptismal Formula, Feminist Objections, and Trinitarian Theology,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26, no. 2 (1989): 236.

[34] Ibid., 237.

[35] Elizabeth Johnson, “Trinity: To Let the Symbol Sing Again,” Theology Today 34, no. 3 (1997): 300.

[36] Fox, 216.

[37] Fox, 220.

[38] Johnson, 306.

[39] Ibid., 307.

[40] Fox, 220.

[41] Ibid., 223.

[42] John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan  (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 137.

[43] Ibid., 138.

[44] Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, 139.

[45] Ibid., 125.

[46] Ibid., 125.

[47] Ibid., 128.

[48] Ibid., 129, 130.

[49] Ibid., 130, 139.

[50] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “The Politics of God in the Christian Tradition,” Feminist Theology 17, no. 3 (May 1, 2009): 332, 337.

[51] LaCugna, God For Us, 260-266, 274.

[52] Ibid., 266.

[53] Ibid., 268.

[54] Rebecca Oxford-Carpenter, “Gender and the Trinity,” Theology Today 41, no. 1 (April 1, 1984): 8.

[55] Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, 122, 123.

[56] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “God In Communion With Us: The Trinity,” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 93.

[57] LaCugna, “God In Communion With Us,” 94.

[58] LaCugna, “God In Communion With Us,” 105, 108.

[59] Fox, 220.

[60] Johnson, 308.

[61] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 127.

[62] Johnson, 308.

[63] Colin E. Gunton, “Persons and Particularity,” in The Theology of John Zizioulas: Personhood and the Church, ed. Douglas H. Knight (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 103.

[64] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Divine Economy and Eternal Trinity,” in The Theology of John Zizioulas: Personhood and the Church, ed. Douglas H. Knight (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 84.

[65] Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, 140.

[66] Fox, 149.

[67] Ibid., 221.

[68]  Quick Facts, “Ardmore CDP, Pennsylvania” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/42/4202896.html, (accessed September 30, 2010).

[69] Jason Guynes (6:8 Pastor), in discussion with author, September 2012.

[70] Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, 141-142.

[71] Alberto Guerrero, “Servant-leaders, Facilitators of Integral Mission” in The Local Church, Agent of Transformation: An Ecclesiology for Integral Mission, eds. Tetsuano Yamamori and C. Rene Padilla, trans. Brian Cordingly (Buenos Aires: Kairos Ediciones, 2004), 226.