person and nature in Zizioulas

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Is it only a drive to rhetorical clarity that pits person and nature so strongly against one another in the writing of John Zizioulas, or is there something more sinister at work?

Zizioulas’ major ontological theme is the primacy of personhood over nature, over necessity, over essence. Persons are free with respect to their nature—supremely in the case of divine persons and sacramentally in the case of human persons—not determined by them. Thus, God’s being in Trinity is not a fated necessity imposed upon the hypostases by the divine ousia, but represents the freedom of the Father in the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. While human persons are beholden to their natures in their biological personhood, by baptism and the eucharist human persons may be incorporated into the Person of the Son and reborn into a new mode of personhood. Zizioulas marks this transition as the movement from bondage to nature and death to a life of freedom. Nature for Zizioulas is a fundamental limitation; the connection of personhood and nature is the imposition of the necessity of death.

The caricature that Zizioulas is open to (but barely avoids) is an equation of nature with death, that the limitation of finitude is already the necessity of death. This barely-evaded equation would lead him to speak of created persons (as beings in the image of divine personhood) as entrapped within nature and awaiting release. It is clear enough that this is a caricature and that Zizioulas has a more positive view of bodiliness, finitude, and the particularity of being in a certain manner (i.e. according to a nature). But the tension only renders the strength of his anti-nature rhetoric all the more baffling.

The concept “nature” carries a double valence—nature as essence / nature as creation. My fear is that Zizioulas’ vehement differentiation and privileging of personhood finally endangers the positive theological value of both. Of course, there is a destructive and arbitrary privileging of personal freedom over “nature,” in which the power of personhood is excercised upon nature, bending it according to the will— and this is not at all what Zizioulas intends to advocate. But his theology stands open to development in that direction without additional safeguards.

Pace Zizioulas, sacramental grace does not convey a freedom from the limitations of nature, but abolishes death by engulfing its “necessity” in the illimitable communion of God’s love, where it is overwhelmed, judged, and forgotten.

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