Zizioulas and the Church that is Communion


One of the more profound writers and thinkers in the Orthodox Church today has to be Metropolitan John Zizioulas – who has taught for years in Scotland and England – and is known to be one of the closest theologians to His Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Zizioulas [as he is commonly referred to without meaning any disrespect] is also famously difficult to read – he can pack a paragraph with insights that require days to unravel for some.

My first serious encounter with his work was in a Doctoral Seminar at Duke. I was writing a term paper on him, and thus needing to read pretty much everything he had written. I was slowly making my way through Being as Communion (reading each page three and four times) when suddenly a “coin dropped” in my mind. To a large extent what happened is that I could suddenly see what the great Cappadocians Fathers, such as St. Basil the Great, were getting at in their writings on the Trinity, and why the East was typically so different from the West in this regard.

I was stunned and found that I needed about three days to digest the thought and far more time to “rethink” a lot of thoughts. The end result was probably crucially important to my later conversion to Orthodoxy – though I did not realize it at the time.

I will do two things in this post. One is to summarize, if ever so briefly, what it is Zizioulas is saying about the Eucharist and the Church. The second will be to bring in another consideration which I will offer as compatible to Zizioulas’ writings but which will deflect many of the criticisms he faces (cf. this article if you want to read one of those criticisms).

Zizioulas, following the teaching of St. Basil in particular, notes that in Orthodox Trinitarian teaching, it is common to begin by speaking of the three Persons of the Godhead and then moving to the One Essence, rather than by speaking of the One Essence and then proceeding to the three Persons. Without repeating the entirety of his magisterial work, he presses this work of St. Basil and concludes that God exists as an eternal act of communion of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. St. Basil had said that “person is prior to being” (not speaking temporally, but theologically). Thus it is that the very names of the Trinity reveal the truth of God. The Father is not a metaphor, but a name. He is Father and this implies “a begotten.” Christ as Son, again implies begotten. The Spirit (which means breath or wind) also implies another, a source. Thus there is no speaking of the Triune God that does not include this “relational” aspect.

Zizioulas also applies this understanding of existence to human beings. Thus our biological existence, which is destined to return to the dust, is replaced, in Holy Baptistm, by what he calls “the ecclesial hypostasis” (I just love the term though it won’t preach). I existence given to us in Baptism is no longer defined by our biology, our individuality, but by our relationship to Christ (and thus to His Church).

He also removes the Church from crude institutional images and instead says its true nature is revealed and constituted in the Eucharist, in which not only the Bread and Wine become the Body and Blood, but in which also are revealed to be Christ’s Body. And just as the Body and Blood are “eschatological” in character (manifestations in time of the very End of things), so too our true existence is revealed as eschatological.

Zizioulas gets accused of having established a “pneumatological” understanding of the Church (i.e. an understanding that depends on the operation of the Spirit [pneuma] rather than on Christ – though I think such criticisms are unfair.

I will take us to a slightly different approach. The Body and Blood made manifest to us on the holy altar, which are there certainly eschatologically, and also as a gift of the Spirit [why else would be pray for the Holy Spirit to “change” the Bread and Wine] – but what is made manifest to us is nothing other than the Crucified Christ. It is, as the Fathers said, “a bloodless sacrifice,” but the sacrifice made present on the altar is indeed the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, as well as the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth.” The Church is revealed not only as Christ’s Body, but revealed as well as Christ Crucified, with whom we were united in Baptism (Baptized into his death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection). Thus the Eucharistic Community of which Zizioulas speaks cannot be merely “pneumatological” because what the Spirit reveals and makes manifest is profoundly Christological and even Cruciform.

Indeed, the Trinitarian aspects of Zizioulas’ teaching, can best be understood by going to Christ on the Cross. Though Zizioulas approaches these matters in a quasi-philosophical model (starting with the Cappadocian Fathers and the great Trinitarian debate) it is nonetheless true that it is Christ on the Cross who most perfectly reveals the character of God, and even the Trinity to us.

It is the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross, described best in Philippians 2 that goes to the heart of my point:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:  Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (5-11).

The self-emptying of Christ on the Cross is not to be confined to that one occasion. The entirety of Christ’s ministry is a self-emptying, from the Annunciation forward. The icons and feasts of the Church make it clear that the whole of Christ’s love for us is manifest in a life that has the very “shape” of Pascha. Indeed to say the “Lamb was slain before the foundation of the earth,” is to acknowledge that this revelation contained in Pascha transcends the single event of Pascha and is revelatory of Who Christ is.

Nor can we simply point to the self-emptying of Christ and say that it is a “Christological” revelation. For the Father gave His only-begotten Son, and the Spirit speaks nothing of Himself but only of the Son. There is a mutual self-emptying in the Trinity as revealed to us in Scripture. Thus the God of whom St. John says, “God is love,” is true of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Communion is nothing other than the common life of God. And it is into this Communion that we are placed in the Holy Eucharist (‘whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56).

But it is also possible, having said all this, to make the mistake of “over-emphasizing” the Divine Liturgy itself, as though other actions of the Church were not “Eucharistic” themselves (this is the kind of mistake that has been common in the “liturgical movement”). The Eucharist not only reveals the Church in its proper self-emptying character of communion, but also reveals the character of every action we take in the Church. How is the sacrament of Confession not “self-emptying.” How is it not an act of communion with the Triune God? How is Baptism not a “self-emptying” (we are “put to death” in that sacrament)? How is Marriage not an act of mutual self-emptying? Why do we crown them with the crowns of martyrs? I could go on and on.

The simple question placed at Baptism: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” Is itself an invitation to live the self-emptying Life of God. Everything we do in Church and as Christians is properly done when it is an act of self-emptying, an act of communion. There can be no communion of any sort without kenosis (emptying).

Thus although some have found fault with Zizioulas as too pneumatological (Spirit-centered) in his discussion of the Church, or too philosophical (having started with the Cappadocians rather than the Cross), I find him not guilty – if he is understood in the manner I have set forth here. Nothing in Chrisianity makes any sense apart from the Cross, for it is the Cross that shows forth the great mystery of Pascha which is indeed God’s revelation of Himself to the World. Pascha not only reveals God, but also answers the question, “What kind of God is He?” He is a good God who loves mankind.

Glory to God for all things!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


7 responses to “Zizioulas and the Church that is Communion”

  1. Joseph Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Have you had an opportunity to read this article from Fr. John Behr?


  2. jacob Avatar

    Dr. Clark Carlton, former Southern Baptist and also AFR podcaster, was greatly impacted by BEING AS COMMUNION: From First Baptist to the First Century

    I did not find it to be as difficult as Carlton had prepared me for … which tells me that I probably didn’t understand it! :^) I look forward to your explanations and illuminations.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    Behr’s article, as usual, is outstanding. I think it is a gentler treatment of Zizioulas than he is sometimes credited with, and I think an important article. What I have suggested is not dissimilar, though he has done a much better and more thorough job, as I would always expect. I’m just a blogger.

  4. stushie Avatar

    I went to Glasgow University and had the joy of being in some of Zizi’s classes. He is both a great teacher and a wonderful Christian. His lectures on the Holy Spirit were some fo the most profound that I have ever heard.

  5. Joel Avatar

    A new understanding of the Church’s infallibility was mentioned in a previous post in this series. How might one conclude from Zizioulas’ understanding of the Church that the Church, accessible to us via a local bishop, is infallible?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would have to look a little carefully at what he does with that before I could give an accurate answer.

  7. […] begins the chapter, Personhood and Being in John D. Zilioulas‘ excellent book, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church. It resonates with […]

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