And Now for a Little Meat! Met. John Zizioulas and the Church


If you are not familiar with Met. John Zizioulas’ work, then you have missed some of the best writing by an English-speaking Orthodox writer. Not that having read him you’ll understand what you have just read. But the following small article was sent to my by my dear friend, the Pontificator, whom many of you know from (now-demised) blog. I appreciate the head’s up. The article was publish elsewhere

John Zizioulas (Being as Communion) reflections on his work by this title.

John Zizioulas, like de Lubac, also recovers the early church’s teaching on the Eucharist for the purpose of revitalizing ecclesiology, emphasizing that the celebration was not simply memorializing what had been accomplished. First and foremost, it was celebrating the fact that it was caught up in “an eschatological act” (21). The Eucharist constituted the being of the Church. It also helped bring together the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It could hold both the historical form and the divine reality together without confusion. The Eucharist was not simply an institution (22), but an event out of the working of the Holy Spirit to bring history into eternity with God.
Like de Lubac, Zizioulas wants to check individualism in the church.

The eucharistic community makes the Church eschatological. It frees it from the causality of natural and historical events, from limitations which are the result of the individualism implied in our natural biological existence (22).

The Eucharist cannot happen in isolation, but only when everyone is present. That is, Zizioulas has no regard for private masses because of the communal nature of the Eucharist. He characterizes the Eucharist not as a sacrament along side the word, but as

the eschatologization of the historical word, the voice of the historical Christ, the voice of the Holy Scripture which comes to us, no longer simply as ‘doctrine’ through history, but as life and being through the eschaton. It is not the sacrament completing the word, but rather the word becoming flesh, the risen Body of the Logos (22-23).

Zizioulas locates ecclesiology quite explicitly in the economic Trinity, identifying the humanity as the imago dei not within a universal human nature as de Lubac does, but only within “the work of Christ and the Spirit in history” (19).

Zizioulas bypasses the choice between a Christological or Pneumatological ecclesiology by emphasizing their unity-in-distinction. “The separation between Christology and ecclesiology vanishes in the Spirit (111).” To distinguish the Spirit from the Son, he writes:

Now if becoming history is the particularity of the Son in the economy, what is the contribution of the Spirit? Well, precisely the opposite: it is to liberate the Son and the economy from the bondage of history . . . The Spirit is the beyond history, and when he acts in history he does so in order to bring into history the last days, the eschaton (130).

It is also the Spirit that allows Christ to have a “corporate personality,” such that Christology is given a communal form – “with Christ having a ‘body,’ i.e. to speak of ecclesiology, of the Church as the Body of Christ” (131).

The two aspects of Pneumatology not only determine but also constitute ecclesiology. “[T]hese aspects must qualify the very ontology of the Church. The Spirit is not something that ‘animates’ a Church that already somehow exists. The Spirit makes the Church be” (132). This leads Zizioulas in a surprisingly premature way to the practical question to which he holds off on an answer: “what ecclesial structures and institutions exist which help the Church to maintain the right balance between local and universal?” (133). We will return to the framing of this question in our critique.

This Pneumatological Christology is significant for conciliarity. The oneness of the church is understood to coincide with its multiplicity. There is no council or synod that acts as a mirror image of the Pope for Orthodoxy. The relationship between the local and universal Church is worked out along the lines of his understanding of the being of God as a communion of persons. There is a double principal at work for Zizioulas, for on the one hand the institution has no prior existence or authority beyond “the event of communion,” while on the other hand the communion of the church cannot be prior to its unity. “The institution which expresses this communion must be accompanied by an indication that there is a ministry safeguarding the oneness which the communion aims at expressing” (135).

A Pneumatological Christology is also significant to the relationship between the bishop and the church, and the maintenance of relationship between the “one” and the “many.” “In the case of the local Church is represented through the ministry of the bishop, while the “many” are represented through the other ministries and the laity” (136). The “one” and the “many” are interdependent. In so far as the “one” is dependent on the “many,” there can be no ordination or episcopacy apart from the community. In so far as the “many” are dependent on the “one,” there can be “no baptism” or “ordination without the presence of the bishop” (137).

Finally, the ecclesial institutions of the bishop and the laity “have to be attached to the eucharist,” (138) thus emphasizing not only the communion but the eschatology of the Church. He describes the institutions as being “reflections of the Kingdom” in two ways. First, they “iconic,” in that “their ontology does not lie in the institution itself,” nor due they owe anything to “historical expedience” (138) but to Christ alone. Zizioulas does not advocate neglecting the needs of people, but he does not see these as having any fundamental structural bearing.

We turn to the function of truth in the Church. Zizioulas describes the Eucharist as “the Locus of Truth” (115). Christ is the experience of truth as the one who comes into our history and dwells within us (115). There is no truth of Christ apart from the community that we might locate within the individual mind (rationalism) or soul (mysticism). Christ is not the truth “in a community, but as a community” (115). The truth of Christ takes on a eucharistic historical form, which differentiates it from mere fact. History as such is known in “charismatic-pentacostal events” which do not submit to “a linear development” (116). Not surprisingly, this creates a new understanding of the infallibility of the Church as dependent on communion of the bishops and the community. Regarding the formulation of truth in dogmas, the aim of definition and anathema was to preserve “Eucharistic communion” (117). Zizioulas goes on: “Thus it may be said that the credal definitions carry no relationship with truth in themselves, but only in their being doxological acclamations of the worshiping community” (117).

The Eucharist reveals the renewal of creation, such that humanity is given the task of priesthood to it. Here we begin to see a characteristic blurring of divine and human agency:

Man’s responsibility is to make a Eucharistic reality out of nature, i.e. to make nature, too, capable of communion. If man does this, then truth takes up its meaning for the whole cosmos, Christ becomes a cosmic Christ, and the world as a whole dwells in truth, which is none other than communion with its Creator. Truth thereby becomes the life of all that is (119).

Finally, “a Eucharistic concept of truth shows how truth becomes freedom” (120). Whereas freedom as choice often assumes an individualist concept of being, the freedom “given by the Christ-truth to creation is precisely this freedom from division and individualization, creating the possibility of otherness within communion” (121). Those who “gather together in the eucharist realize their freedom under the form of affirmation alone: it is not the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ together which God offers in Christ, but only the ‘yes,’ which equates to the Eucharistic ‘Amen” (121).

Because this notion of freedom is so otherworldly, Zizioulas admits that it may seem impractical and unrealistic. However, he reprimands Protestants for this reaction:

You do not do justice to truth’s ontological content by implying that our fallen state of existence is all there is. The individualization of existence by the fall makes us seek out security in objects or various ‘things,’ but the truth of communion does not offer this kind of security: rather, it frees us from slavery to objective ‘things’ by placing things and ourselves within a communion-event (122).


I am on a mission trip this weekend – so read a little Zizioulas and discuss among yourselves! – Fr. Stephen

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



11 responses to “And Now for a Little Meat! Met. John Zizioulas and the Church”

  1. […] Mark Argentino wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe relationship between the local and universal Church is worked out along the lines of his understanding of the being of God as a communion of persons. There is a double principal at work for Zizioulas, for on the one hand the … […]

  2. Ad Orientem Avatar

    This essay is a definite lesson in humility. I have read it 3 times and I have from an intellectual perspective something of an idea as to how the Wright Brothers would have felt had they been buzzed by an F-14 fighter jet. I am going to have a stiff drink and come back to this in an hour or two.


  3. Athanasius Avatar

    I just finished reading it and found much to admire (the book’s reputation is well-deserved, I think). Particularly important are 1. the emphasis placed on personhood rather than substance in formulating an understanding of the Trinity which is consistent with the biblical and ecclesial experience of God, and 2. the discussion of the interplay between unity, universality, and locality in ecclesiology (the best discussion of this relationship I have read).

    —John (a different one)

  4. Stacey Avatar

    The explanation of the experience of the spirit as more than histological (unity), occurring with the physical/intellectual (individuallity) eucharist is the best I have read thus far.


  5. James the Thickheaded Avatar
    James the Thickheaded

    And I’d just written a draft note to ask you to give us a reading list of foundational orthodox writers. Clearly you read my mind! Glory to God in All Things!! Look forward to the podcasts. May God help you to keep up these proflic efforts… to our benefit and that of all God’s Holy Church and those belonging to us (i.e. everyone).

  6. maximus daniel Avatar

    I love his Eminence Zizioulas. I look forward to the podcast and this series!

  7. […] Zizioulas discussed at Glory to God for All Things. […]

  8. Anastasia Theodoridis Avatar

    Thank you for this. I KNOW it is valuable. But I, too, am going to have to have a stiff drink and come back in an hour. And do the same tomorrow. And the next day.

    ISTM all these insights are implicit in Orthodox worship and praxis, and that what Met. Zizoulas is doing is to make them explicit. Good. But part of me asks, “Why? What does the ordinary Orthodox Christian need all this for?”

    For discussions with other Christians?


  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Perhaps not needed much at all. Generations of Orthodox have entered the Kingdom without a great deal of technical Orthodoxy in their head, but much of the Kingdom in their heart.

    It’s hard to save a scholar. Much like getting a rich man through the eye of a needle.

  10. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    Once again I feel the temptation to saddle up, strap on the six guns, and ride. As a veteran of the Internet Theology Wars, I always feel an itchy trigger finger when I read material like that of the Reformed gentleman to whose column you linked earlier.

    Some are called to Beat the Bounds, and others are called to till the earth inside.

  11. Jeff Avatar

    Now I know why u always quote Maximus , he’s quite brilliant …, Zizioulas is an education in itself , I always find his work profound , not just complicated , may have to melt some gold , but it’s there

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