Church in the Image of the Cross

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Because Jesus is fully human, the church is called to affirm humanity, reaching out in attentive, vulnerable love to the whole human family, but especially to those who are poor and hurting. In Christ’s identification with suffering humanity – with a humanity ground under the wheels of the powers and principalities – the church receives its own orientation as those who are called to be with and for the victims of this present age. Bonhoeffer writes, “Christians can and ought to act like Christ: they ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor… It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sin.” That this bearing of burdens is not simply “religious talk” but refers to concrete action is made clear when Bonhoeffer notes: “The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need.” The bearing of the sins and burdens of others to which Jesus calls the church is nothing less than a concrete imitation of Jesus’s own life, a cruciform life, one that was fundamentally disruptive and that cannot be contained in the categories of religion.

…The church’s identification with those who suffer unveils the fact that the current age, in which the few are on top while the many suffer below, has met its end in Jesus Christ… Christians solidarity with the suffering is a search for Jesus who is hidden in their midst.

…Bonhoeffer is not merely interested in the church being in solidarity with the suffering, but calls the church to actively seek to eliminate the suffering of the poor through an ethics of responsibility with two practices of prophetic ministry: unceasing prayer and action for justice.

…The practices of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution are constitutive of [John] Perkins’s vision of the church. The church is that community marked by witness to the gospel, the whole gospel. The church’s most appropriate social location then is among the poor in the abandoned places of empire, a location that places the body of Christ in the ideal situation to witness to the whole gospel, which meets the whole needs of the whole person. The prophetic church, as Perkins’s envisions it, is a space in which all people, black and white, poor and rich, can gather and grow from an economy of grace.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel and Christian T. Collins Winn, “Religionless Ecclesiology and the Missional Church,” in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, 108-122.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: His Pastoral Letters [Part 4]

oscar-romero-iconRomero published his first pastoral letter on the occasion of Easter 1977 only a few months after his installment as archbishop in February of that same year. He would go on to write three more pastoral letters; all three would be published on the occasion of the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrated in August 1977, 1978, and 1979. In his first letter, Romero defined the church as “the sacrament of Easter”: “a church that is born of Easter and exists to be a sign and instrument of Easter in the world.”[1] His three subsequent letters would build on this foundation as Romero worked out the consequences of his vision of the church for the suffering, persecuted people of El Salvador.

While his vision of the church was uniquely embodied in his ministry, it did not arise out of a vacuum. In all four letters, Romero reveals his deep regard for the church and his dependence on its teachings; specifically those teachings put forward by the Second Vatican Council and the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, as well as Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi. In this way, Romero’s visionary leadership was a shining example of what L. Gregory Jones has called “traditioned innovation”: the kind of transformative leadership that preserves the wisdom of tradition and knows how to adapt it to empower the proclamation of God’s reign in a particular time and place.[2] As I examine Romero’s vision of the Easter church set forth in his pastoral letters, four interwoven themes arise as its foundational pillars, which will be explored in further detail: a continual conversion, a pilgrim journey, a liberating evangelism, and a persecuted service.

The Easter church envisioned by Romero lives in the redemptive power of Christ’s “passage from death to resurrection” through the Holy Spirit in a process of conversion whereby the church is transformed by a “paschal tension” which calls it “to destroy whatever is sin and to bring into being ever more powerfully all that is life, renewal, holiness, justice.”[3] Romero suggests that conversion must begin within the church itself, which is driven to inward examination by its encounter with the evil of the world through its ministry to the lowly, poor, and weak.[4] Romero offered this “change of heart that makes a person more human” to all people – rich, poor, and middle class, oppressed and oppressor – as an invitation to the kingdom of Jesus Christ.[5] For Romero, only the church engaged in the continual work of conversion can live out its true identity and therefore make its prime contribution to the life of the world: “to be itself.”[6]

The journey of the Easter church in the world is the journey of a pilgrim, of “a body of men and women who belong to God, but who live in the world.”[7] The process of conversion is essential to this journey because the life of the pilgrim church must be an illuminating presence in the history of darkness wherein God is at work.[8] As a bearer of light in a specific time and place in human history, the church is called to shine into all the dark places of sin – both personal and social – that it encounters in the world.[9] The church’s confrontation with sin, especially in its structural forms, may necessitate and inspire political action.[10] However, the church must be vigilant to navigate a middle-way between its political or socio-economic mission and its spiritual vocation; the church “must link true evangelization and human advancement” as it works out its conversion as the body of Christ in history.[11]

As it travels in history as a pilgrim being continually converted into the image of its final destination, the church’s “paschal origins” in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ place it under obligation to respond to the cries of a needy world with a liberating word “from the only Redeemer who can save them.”[12] Like Jesus, the church is to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God at hand, “especially for the great majority who, in worldly terms, have been estranged from it.”[13] The liberating evangelization of the church brings an awareness of true freedom and an empowerment for the work of liberation by involving the whole person, centering on the kingdom of God, proceeding from a scriptural vision of humanity, demanding conversion, and excluding violence.[14] At the same time, the church’s work of evangelization must not be reduced to either its religious, transcendent elements or to its temporal, immanent elements; both must be held in tension.[15]

Finally, as the Easter church proclaims its liberating message of good news to sinful persons and structures, it will face persecution. As the servant is not greater than his master, so the church of Jesus Christ will be persecuted as Jesus was persecuted.[16] The church is persecuted when it is barred from proclaiming the justice, peace, love and truth of God’s kingdom, when the sin of the world cannot be denounced, and when the rights of the people to whom the church is bound are abused.[17] When the church “is faithful to its mission of denouncing the sin that brings misery to many, and if it proclaims its hope for a more just, humane world, then it is persecuted.”[18] However, as the church suffers together in faithfulness to its common mission, it partakes of “the precious fruit” of unity, which is essential for its credibility and effectiveness in service to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.[19] This life of unity, of Christian love, as the fruit of common suffering, is the ground of Christian hope.[20]


[1] Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jon Sobrino, and Ignacio Martin-Baro, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, trans. by Michael Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 56.

[2] L. Gregory Jones, “Traditioned Innovation | Faith and Leadership,” accessed December 15, 2012, http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/traditioned-innovation.

[3] Romero, Sobrino, Martin-Baro, 57.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 72, 111.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 68.

[10] Ibid., 100.

[11] Ibid., 60.

[12] Ibid., 58, 59.

[13] Ibid., 74.

[14] Ibid., 98, 99.

[15] Ibid., 130.

[16] Ibid., 72, 79.

[17] Ibid., 80.

[18] Ibid., 80.

[19] Ibid., 81.

[20] Ibid., 82.

The Vision of Oscar Romero: His Ministry as Archbishop [Part 3]

oscar-romero-iconThroughout his short ministry as archbishop of El Salvador, Romero embodied a vision of the church that stood in uncompromising solidarity with those who were suffering the most – the campesinos. He expressed this vision succinctly in one of his homilies when he described the relationship between himself and another bishop who had publicly challenged his pastoral ministry by saying, “in what is substantial we are servants of this church, which does not want to betray either the gospel or the people [emphasis added].”[1] Romero’s allegiance was never divided between the gospel and the people; for Romero, there was no gospel apart from the good news proclaimed to a specific people in need of liberation.

On several occasions as archbishop, Romero refused to betray the suffering people of El Salvador. After the murder of Father Grande along with two church members, he called a meeting of the clergy to vote on a proposal to close the schools for three days and hold a single national Mass at the cathedral as a sign of church unity and protest against the persecution of the church in response to its ministry among the neglected campesinos. The vote passed and Romero followed through with this unprecedented display of protest even in the face of stark opposition from El Salvador’s nuncio, the powerful diplomatic ambassador of the pope who was well connected to the government and the military.[2] A few months later he vetoed the nuncio’s plans for a religious ceremony, which would be attended by government officials who continually refused Romero’s pleas for justice and meaningful dialogue, because it would be “an expression lacking in solidarity with the sufferings of this church and people.”[3] He cited the same concerns for solidarity when he refused the same nuncio’s invitation to a church-government papal “coronation” ceremony in honor John Paul I, which prompted the nuncio to begin working with the cardinal and the president for Romero’s removal.[4] In all of these instances, Romero boldly displayed his unwillingness jeopardize his pastoral relationship with the campesinos, in spite of extreme criticism from the government, the media, and members of the church hierarchy.

In addition to these somewhat private refusals to betray his people, Romero regularly voiced his unflinching solidarity with the suffering, persecuted clergy and campesinos through his weekly homilies, which were broadcast nationally over the radio. As the government and its paramilitary forces continued their practice of kidnapping and murdering anyone they suspected of “communist” activity, Romero shared in the grief of his people by announcing the names of those killed and “disappeared” in his homilies.[5] In addition to this, Romero called in lawyers to investigate every report of human rights abuse and transformed his office into an open house for the people to gather and share their reports of murder and kidnapping, as well to receive advice from Romero over a cup of tea.[6]

Romero’s courageous unmasking of lies and his prophetic denouncement of violence and injustice grew directly from his ministry among the people as their pastor.[7] Even while the conflict raged, Romero’s time was mostly consumed with pastoral work concerning the ministry of catechesis, word, and sacraments in his archdiocese.[8] This pastoral dedication was a consistent feature throughout Romero’s ministry; one that would transform him from a pious, conservative friend of the powerful into an unabashed voice for justice and peace on behalf of the suffering. In order to fulfill his overwhelming desire as a pastor “to be faithful to what God asks,” Romero was willing to adapt his vision of the church in order to become a source of hope to his suffering flock.[9] The conviction with which Romero practiced solidarity with the poor and oppressed is an essential aspect of his vision. With every decision he made as a church leader, he carefully guarded his ability to minister faithfully as a pastor among a suffering people and always let their voices speak louder than his own.


[1] James R. Brockman, S. J., Romero: A Life (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), 96.

[2] Brockman, Romero, 12-13, 16.

[3] Ibid., 102.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] Ibid., 91,92.

[6] Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero, directed by Ann Carrigan and Juliet Weber (2011; Notre Dame, IN: Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, First Run Features, 2011), DVD.

[7] Brian J. Pierce, “Romero, Resistance, and Resurrection,” Living Pulpit 14, no. 2 (April 1, 2005): 15.

[8] Brockman, Romero, 149-150.

[9] Brockman, “The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero,” 312.

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.

The Dancing God

Trinity by Farid De La Osa

Throughout my life, the Trinity has been taught as an abstract concept that claimed to explain how the one, true God could be three persons: Parent, Child, and Spirit. While God was said to exist as three persons, God’s unity was trumpeted over God’s diversity by emphasizing how the three persons were equal in position, singular in purpose, and alike in character. These persons were only differentiated by their functions: the Parent created the world, the Child redeemed the world, and Spirit indwelt God’s people to guarantee their salvation. However, these functions were taught without connection to a broader conception of God as Trinity. This separation meant that the doctrine of Trinity could only focus on explaining the nature of God’s being in Godself. This singular task virtually guaranteed that any teaching on Trinity would end in confusion or frustration because my context assumed that God’s nature was beyond human understanding. As a result, teaching on Trinity functioned only as a means to deepen worship and encourage further submission to God by inspiring a heightened sense of humility and awe.

My understanding of God as Trinity was transformed when I learned of the early church’s primary concern in their formulation of Trinitarian doctrine: the nature of their salvation in Jesus Christ.1 When this same soteriological concern became the foundation for my own understanding of Trinity, I was compelled to examine God’s saving actions within human history as the primary source for constructing a renewed Trinitarian doctrine. In stark contrast to the transcendent focus of my embedded Trinitarian doctrine, this new focus on salvation history created a profound connection between the life of the Trinity and my everyday experience in relation to God, myself, and others. In more concise theological terms, my understanding of Trinity made a dramatic shift from a static, inconsequential tradition to a dynamic, saving reality because oikonomia – “the self-communication of God in the person of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit”2became the foundation for my thinking on theologia –God’s ‘inner’ life.”3Instead of “looking up” in attempts to perceive God as existing apart from my everyday reality, I was freed to “look around,” to “taste and see,”4how God has acted in the past, is acting in the present, and will continue to act in the future to bring about salvation for all creation.

This new foundation for my Trinitarian thought begins with God’s salvific work in the world. This work is accomplished by God entering the world on a mission of redemption and sanctification as the incarnate Child alongside the indwelling Spirit respectively.5 While the full nature of God is present in these missions, they reveal God’s multiplicity: the Child is God but not the same as the God who sends the Child and the Spirit is God but not the same as the God who sends the Spirit.6

This plurality of God, witnessed in oikonomia,necessitates a discussion of theologia because “theologia and oikonomia, the mystery of God and the mystery of salvation, are inseparable”7. What is said about God’s internal nature in light of God’s self-differentiated missions describes God as three persons – Parent, Child, and Spirit. The Trinitarian persons are not individuals – they are relations that cannot exist apart from their communion with one another8: the Parent is Parent by relation to the Child and Spirit, the Child is Child by relation to the Parent and Spirit, and the Spirit is Spirit in relation to Parent and Child. As persons, these three have freedom to be “other”; the Parent is not Child, and the Child is not Parent, and the Spirit is not Parent or Child.9However, this freedom must be for the other and never from the other because isolation violates personhood.10As a result, these Trinitarian persons are essentially ecstatic relations – existing on behalf of another and always moving out beyond themselves towards the other.11

These three ecstatic, free relations that define Trinity are also one God. The best explanation for how these three persons are one is captured in the idea known as perichoresis. This term, literally meaning “dancing around,”12evokes an image of Parent, Child, and Spirit bound together in an eternal dance of “encircling, encompassing, permeating, enveloping, [and] outstretching”13one another. This inter-Trinitarian reality of communion characterized by “relationships of equality, mutuality, and reciprocity”14cannot be contained in Godself: theologia fades into oikonomia as thePerichoresis proceeds as Parent, Child, and Spirit into creation in order that all may join in the dance.

God as ecstatic, perichoretic Trinity has serious implications for the broad sweep of middle class, North America to which I belong. At its core, this context is driven by rampant individualism. The individual – not the person – is of utmost importance. Entire political and economic systems are built upon this core principle. The freedoms of individual choice are enshrined and praised in our laws. Our markets inundate us with an overwhelming array of products to appease our every desire. In this context, the only rule is the individual’s freedom from the other. This rule requires that there be no explicit telosfor society; as long as the individual has the freedom to choose, the end result is irrelevant.

Into this mass conglomeration of lonely, anxious individuals, the Triune God cries out for community. Over against North Americans’ insistence on individual liberties, the life of the Trinity calls for the giving up of our rights for the sake of communion with others.15 In opposition to an over-consumption that fuels a false sense of independence and self-reliance, Trinity reminds us that we are persons, not just individuals, who “flourish in friendship at its deepest and most real…[and] depend upon courtesy, mutual commitment and love.”16

Markedly different from prevailing North American deontology, the doctrine of Trinity demands a rule of radical inclusion opposed to all ways of life that undermine, exclude, or dehumanize others.17Individual freedom cannot be allowed to keep others from equal participation as persons in all facets of life. For example, Delores Williams reminds us that a Trinitarian ideal challenges even the dominant symbolism of our culture because of its tendency to exalt one group and devalue another.18

Trinity also provides a stark contrast in teleology: all human endeavors should be judged based on their contribution to the construction of a human community characterized by “equitable and egalitarian political structures… and respect for difference and diversity among people and groups.”19 All societal systems – political, economic, cultural, and ecclesial – that tend to exalt individuals over community or force community onto individuals are called into question by this Trinitarian telos.

In conclusion, God as Trinity completely overthrows the North American idol of the individual and reveals a new ethic of life based in perichoresis: all are invited to the dance of friendship, interdependence, and shared joy as persons created in the image of a personal, communal God.

 1 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, The Practical Trinity,” Christian Century 109, no 22 (July 15-22 1992): 678.

2 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper, 1973),2.

3 Ibid.

4 Ps. 34:8, New Revised Standard Version.

5 David S. Cunningham, “The Doctrine of the Trinity: A Thumbnail Sketch,” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 87.

6 Ibid., 88.

7 LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, 4.

8 John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly38, no. 4 (1994): 358.

9 Ibid.

10 Zizioulas, 358.

11 Ibid., 359.

12 Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Doctrine of the Trinity.” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics THLE 520, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, September 18, 2012.

13 LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life, 272.

14 Anne Hunt, What Are They Saying About the Trinity? (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 11.

15 Zizioulas, 353.

16 Kenneth Wilson, Methodist Theology ( London: T&T Clark International, 2011),66.

17 Hunt, 25.

18 Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 85.

19 Hunt, 12.

las Casas on the god of the Christians

Bartolomé de las Casas was a 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer and Dominican friar. He became the first resident Bishop of Chiapas (southern Mexico), and the first officially appointed “Protector of the Indians.” In his Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (published in 1552), he tells the story of an Amerindian prince named Hatuey, who had fled from Hispaniola to Cuba  to escape the brutality of the Christians. Listen as las Casas recounts Hatuey’s story:

Hatuey addressed his people: “You already know that it is said the Christians are coming here; and you have experience of how they have treated the lords so and so and those people of Hayti (which is Hispaniola); they come to do the same here. Do you know perhaps why they do it?”

The people answered no; except that they were by nature cruel and wicked.

“They do it,” said he, “not alone for this, but because they have a God whom they greatly adore and love; and to make us adore Him they strive to subjugate us and take our lives.” He had near him a basket full of gold and jewels and he said, Behold here is the God of the Christians, let us perform areytos before Him, if you will (these are dances in concert and singly); and perhaps we shall please Him, and He will command that they do us no harm.”

[Hatuey is then captured and ordered to burn at the stake. A friar tries to convert him as he is tied to the stake before the fire is lit.]

After thinking a little, Hatuey asked the friar whether the Christians went to heaven; the friar answered that those who were good went there. The prince [Hatuey] at once said, without any more thought, that he did not wish to go there, but rather to hell so as not to be where the Spaniards were, nor to see such cruel people.

This is the renown and honor that God and our faith have acquired by means of the Christians who have gone to the Indies…

Has anything really changed since then?