God As Person and Trinity, Lecture 7 (Johannes Zachhuber)

The following is the seventh lecture in an eight-lecture series. The most recent one can be found here.

 The possibility that God is person has often been denied. It has been pointed out that the concept of person in order to make sense to us needs limitations which we wouldn’t not willingly ascribe to God. Thus, the early 19th century philosopher Johann Gottlob Fichte asks rhetorically:

What then do you call ‘personality’ and ‘consciousness’? Surely that which you have found within yourselves, those aspects of yourselves with which you have become familiar and to which you have assigned those terms. By paying even minimal attention to your construction of those concepts you learn that you cannot think those without limitation and finitude. Thus by using those predicates you make the divine being finite, a being like yourselves, and you have not, as you meant, thought God, but merely multiplied yourselves in and through your ideas. (On the basis of our belief in a divine governance of the world.)

This argument must not be underestimated, especially not by those who have sympathies for the apophatic tradition. Some theologians seem to be led astray by enthusiasm about the personality of God forgetting all the problems about God-talk so carefully set out in their investigations about theological language. Clearly “person” is a predicate as any other, and its application to the divine must be subjected to the same critical rules that are adopted with regard to language about God generally. God then clearly is not a person in the way human beings are personal.

This, however, does not yet answer or even address properly the question of what this means positively. The difficulties in conceptualizing God in terms of personality do not automatically lead to the superiority of a notion of God conceived of in non-personal categories, such as nature, substance, force, or the All as each of those would be confronted in their turn by analogous conceptual and linguistic problems. Whatever the difficulties inherent in any conceptualization of God and whatever the shortcomings of those attempts, somehow there must be a decision between a God who is nothing but a natural force and a God who is also showing properties that enable him to establish a specific kind of community with human beings.

It seems evident that for the God of the Jewish-Christian tradition personal elements are essential. The way the interaction between God and the world, humanity and especially his people is depicted in Old and New Testament otherwise makes no sense. Central notions such as God’s will to form a covenant with his people, his love of justice, his anger at trespassers of his commandments, his forbearance and forgiveness imply a certain personal element in him. It is certainly correct to say that the development of Christian theology is predicated on this assumption. God’s creation of the world is not just an emanation of finite out of infinite being; his providence for his creation is not simply another word for fate. His contribution to salvation history is not just the unfolding of some divine inner dialectic.

This difference is often expressed by ascribing to God freedom. Quite rightly so as freedom is one of the central marks of personality. However, one must be careful here. We often describe someone’s freedom by saying that that person could have acted otherwise. Yet it obviously makes little sense to say about God that he could have done otherwise than he did. In God there is no such thing as a difference between his being and his actions; there is no conceivable difference between knowledge, will, and power; he does not deliberate, indeed if we believe that in an important way he is beyond time he cannot be thought as looking back to something he did in the ‘past’ or be looking forward to something he may yet do in the future.

It is important to be very clear about these things from the outset because it is easy to paint a personal God in anthropomorphic colors, which then opens the whole concept up to the charges I described at the beginning of this lecture. A personal God is not a God who decides one thing today and another day tomorrow, who loves one person and hates another. ‘Could’ he not have created the world or saved humanity? This may be a way of expressing that he did this ‘freely’ and not because of some natural need to act in this and not in another way. Yet it is equally true that, in many ways, all we can say is that he has acted the way he has acted. As a matter of fact, it is vital for the Jewish-Christian tradition that God has not only acted the way he has acted, but that his future actions will be in keeping with his past actions and with the promises he has made to believers in the past.

In a sense, then, one could say that ascribing freedom to God is important primarily for human attitudes to him. A personal God inspires an altogether different response from human beings than an impersonal divine being would. There is a reason for attitudes like faith, gratitude, admiration, but also inspiration for one’s own perfection, which derives from the interpretation of divine actions as resulting from the free and personal actions of a God rather than being the natural modifications of divine substance.

It is for this reason that, broadly speaking, the strongest arguments for an idea of God as person have been developed where theology has been seen in close relationship with ethics. Pantheistic ideas are least attractive where human belief in God is seen in direct relation to human action. In his critique of the cosmological argument Kant maintains that even if the argument achieved its stated goal of proving the existence of a first cause (indeed he thought it did no such thing), this would still only prove the existence of a first cosmic principle whose identity with the Christian God was far from certain: why would a first principle of the universe be identical with the loving, caring, free God of the Jewish-Christian tradition, in other words with a personal God?

It is this precise reasoning that we find again in a major 20th century philosophical contribution to thinking about God, which is encountered in Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995). Levinas was brought up with a traditional Jewish education in Lithuania, but lived in the West, primarily in France, since the 1920s. For a long time, his philosophical writing was developed without direct reference to questions about God even though one could see theological questions standing behind his metaphysical and ethical ideas.

His most fundamental idea is developed in his first major work, Totality and Infinity, published in 1960. There are two kinds of philosophy, one is trying to capture the entirety of the world into one system, one totality. This Levinas calls ‘ontology’ (and we may well recall here Tillich’s concept of ‘essentialism’!). This is totalitarian because it claims that one’s own thinking is able to contain the world around us. It therefore leaves no room for this world to be whatever it wants to be; it does, in particular, not leave room for the other, the person encountering us to be what he or she may be. What philosophy rather ought to do is recognise the other as the other, as precisely what we are not. This means for us to accept that out there is a world that challenges us precisely because we cannot command or contain it; we must work from the premise of the utter otherness of what encounters us.

This otherness of the world around us is, of course, especially pertinent in the case of other human beings or, to use the biblical term, in the case of our neighbor whom we are called to love. Fundamental for Levinas’ philosophy is the assumption that the encounter with the other is a revelation as it exposes us radically to the reality of his difference and remoteness, but precisely because of this it then also strikes us through its nearness and similarity. In other words, when we meet another person this makes us understand the world as something that is both beyond our own understanding and control, but is yet related and in an important way like us:

The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.[1]

Distance and nearness, revelation and hiddenness are here coupled in a way quite reminiscent of the early, dialectical Karl Barth, a similarity that has often been pointed out and is all the more remarkable as there seems no easy common source to explain it (except perhaps that in a broad way they are both Kantians).

It is now important that for Levinas this metaphysics of alterity has immediate ethical consequences. For the way the other human person fulfills this revelatory role carries with it a moral obligation. The moment we are confronted with the ‘face’ of the other – a term central to Levinas’ ethics – there is a demand to which we have to conform. We are called to act on his or her behalf. Levinas even uses a drastic metaphor and says we are ‘taken hostage’ by the face of the other.

This comes importantly before we deliberate about what our rights and duties are, in a sense even before our I is constituted. This is because of the fundamental function the encounter with the other has for our interaction with the world. It is metaphysically and epistemologically central and therefore the ethical imperative that comes with it is irreducible to any metaphysical or religious idea. It is itself foundational. Ethics therefore, for Levinas, is itself first philosophy:

It is from this angle that we can see how Levinas introduces the notion of God into his philosophy and what this means for this idea. In an important section of the last series of lectures he gave in Paris in 1976 he demands to ‘think God on the basis of ethics.’

Of course, God is not simply identical with the neighbor, but it is ultimately within this specific relationship that we understand what transcendence is and in what sense God can be radical otherness – Levinas interestingly takes up the ancient Platonic notion, central to the apophatic tradition, of God as beyond being. And yet, what he intends to say is very different from the ideas of negative theology. The kind of transcendence, which at the same time is absolute nearness, is not achieved through meditation and abstraction from the more specific categories in which we know and understand the world, but in the immediate encounter with the ‘face’ of the other. It is in this way that we can also understand how God is both utterly transcendent and at the same time not remote but close at hand.

Levinas does not work much with the category of person or personality, yet we can see that and how his approach to God necessitates his conceptualization in quasi-personal categories. The point is that the idea of God is completely missed if it is approached on the basis of ontological, cosmological or natural terms. It is the encounter with our fellow human beings, our “neighbors” and the ethical demands placed upon us in this encounter, which provide the paradigm within which we can successfully hope to understand God.

It is this basic assumption more than any particular philosophical or theological doctrine that links Emmanuel Levinas with another major Jewish thinker of the 20th century, Martin Buber (1878-1965). Buber is of interest to us as one of the founders of what became known as ‘personalism.’ This for him is fundamental for both our understanding of ourselves and of our notion of God.

In his famous essay I and Thou,published in 1923, Buber argues that there are two fundamentally different ways in which we can approach and understand existence: as relationships between an I and an ‘it’ and as relationships between an ‘I’ and a ‘thou’ – another human person. It is the latter that defines meaningful existence. Buber contends that within these two paradigms – I-It and I-Thou – the meaning and self-understanding of the I itself changes:

The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use). The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genetive — i.e., without any “of” clause).

The I-Thou relationship for Buber is something special. It cannot be entered in on the basis of my own decision; it just happens. It may happen in the oddest of possible moments – when we sit side by side with a complete stranger, and it may not come to pass with someone we have known for a very long time. The important thing then is not that I-It refers to things whereas I-Thou refers to people, but that in the latter a particular bond exists between the two persons concerned:

When I confront a human being as my You and speak the basic word I-You to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, limited by other He’s and She’s, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

We see, Buber’s notion of personal encounter is in a sense much more positive than Levinas’; we might even call it romantic. The point about I-Thou relationships is that they transform our perception of and interaction with the world, they overcome our estrangement from the world, create a bond of unity between ourselves and those who are included as a Thou. And this precisely is our path to God also who is nothing other than the ‘eternal Thou’:

Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much. Certainly it is the most burdened of all human words. Precisely for that reason it is the most imperishable and unavoidable. And how much weight has all erroneous talk about God’s nature and works (although there never has been nor can be any such talk that is not erroneous) compared with the one truth that all men who have addressed God really meant him? For whoever pronounces the word God and really means You, addresses, no matter what his delusion, the true You of his life that cannot be restricted by any other and to whom he stands in a relationship that includes all others.

Why is ‘talk about God’s nature and works’ inevitably erroneous? The answer surely is that it is misleading because it defines God within an I-It relationship where God himself ultimately becomes an object of our thinking and understanding who is kept at arms’ length, whereas any meaningful notion of God must see him as the extension of I-Thou relationships in this world. There is thus (and this is again similar to Levinas) a direct link between the existence of personal relationships between ourselves and other human beings and our ability to think or speak about God – though Buber might say that more important than speaking about God is speaking to him.

This connection between worldly I-Thou relationships and the human-divine relation is so close that Buber is even prepared to admit that those who shy away from using the name of God, but who know the reality of such relationships with their fellow human beings are actually quite close to a knowledge of God:

But whoever abhors the name and fancies that he is godless–when he addresses with his whole devoted being the You of his life that cannot be restricted by any other, he addresses God.

We have thus far looked at two highly influential 20th century interpretations of God within frameworks that make his personality – whether or not this term is used – central to his being. We can easily see that in both these cases, whatever their individual differences are, this is essentially because they situate the human relationship with God and, thus, our ability to think or speak about him, firmly within our interaction with other human beings. The point of course is not to define human beings qua species as something totally different or distinct from other being in the universe, but to emphasize that our encounter with them holds the possibility of opening up or even revealing a unique quality about ourselves and about the world.

Within Christian theology the issue of God’s personality is of course further complicated by the fact that it is bound up with Trinitarian doctrine. Ever since the fourth century that Christian Church has defined that God is one being or substance in three Persons. This has had several and rather diverse consequences. On the one hand, it has often been pointed out – and quite rightly – that this development in early Christian development of doctrine in a sense sparked off theological and nontheological interest in the concept of individuality and personality. Thus, much of what we now find important about a notion such as personality has historically emerged in connection with doctrinal debates about the Persons of the Trinity or again the one Person of Christ, which supposedly existed in two natures, human and divine.

Christian theology has then contributed significantly to the conceptual development of the notion of personality. Yet this very development has also led to rather substantial complications. The Greek and Latin terms that were used for the ‘Persons’ of the Trinity in late antiquity correspond only vaguely with our own notions of person and of personality. Speaking about God within the traditional language of he trinitarian dogma thus risks damaging the notion that God is person – how could he after all if the Trinity is not one, but three Persons? It is for this reason that some major figures in 20th century theology, not least Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, have argued that the term Person ought not to be employed for the level of the hypostases’ at all so that it is clear that ‘God’ is personal.

Yet I will use the remainder of this lecture to introduce a more recent contribution by an Eastern orthodox theologian who begs to differ. John Zizioulas’ argument in his Being as Communion is that the introduction of trinitarian theology through the Cappadocian theologians of the 4th century, chiefly Basil of Caesarea, meant a revolution in ontology precisely on account of its use of the concept of hupostasis. Up until then, he argues, Greek philosophy had always emphasized the universal at the cost of the particular. Being had always been, in the first place, general and universal being. Individual being had therefore been at worst fallen, improper being or even non-being, at best second-rate. There was no way, he claims, it could have been otherwise.

It is against this backdrop, then, that the achievement of the Cappadocians becomes strikingly evident. For their contribution to the history of both philosophy and theology is nothing less than the introduction of the opposite ontological assumption. Divine being (and thus arguably being generally) is grounded in the individual Person:

Entities trace no longer their being to being itself – but to the person, to precisely that which constitutes being, that is, enables entities to be entities. In other words, from an adjunct to being (a kind of mask) the person becomes the being itself and is simultaneously – a most significant point – the constitutive element of beings.

This is because, according to them, the ground of divine being is the hypostasis of the Father:

Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the unity of the “principle” or “cause” of being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is the Person of the Father.

Zizioulas quite consciously uses not merely the term hypostasis or individual, but person. He is quite willing to claim that what the Greek fathers introduced was very much identical with our own modern concept of person. In particular, he cites the idea of freedom; it is because the relationship between God and world and even the very being of God is based on the radical notion of God’s free will. Being, Zizioulas declares, is seen as a ‘product of freedom’ by the Greek fathers.

He sums up his interpretation of Greek Patristic trinitarian theology by saying that what is important about it ‘is that God “exists” on account of a person, the Father, and not on account of a substance.’

It is out of the free and creative personality of the Father that the being of the Trinity derives, and this being is necessarily communal. Why did these theologians discover this essential truth for the first time? Zizioulas thinks that this is because they were bishops and as such had an intimate understanding of the communal character of the church and its theological significance.

The experience [of the ecclesial being] revealed something very important: the being of God could be known only through personal relationships and personal love. Being means life and life means communion.

We can here see where Zizioulas’ book derives its title from: being is communion, and this is the communion of the church as much as it is ultimately the communion of the trinity. Yet as the intratrinitarian life can only flourish and be understood on the basis that it has its source and origin within the personal life of one, namely the Father, so the Church flourishes because it has its historical and theological source and origin within one person, Jesus Christ.

The church then models its earthly existence on the eternal life of the Trinity. It emphasises community over individuality and person over abstract concepts like substance or nature, and both of these decisions determine its institutional structure as much as its ethical orientation and, not least, its theological vision.

It is doubtful that Zizioulas is right in his historical claim that this ‘ontological revolution’ can be attributed to the Greek fathers; it is much more likely that his own thinking is influenced by 20th century personalists, such as Martin Buber. Yet this does not have to be a damning critique for we may be able to appreciate his contribution better if we contextualize him within the modern debate about God.

What he seems to have contributed is a trinitarian perspective on the ongoing discussion about our relationship with God and the notion of person and personality. Does thinking God as Trinity help explain not only what these concepts mean, but also how they are related to notions of community and sociality? And how has the doctrine of the Trinity changed the ways in which people have thought about personality and community? These are important questions arising from Zizioulas’ book; they need further consideration.

Johannes Zachhuber is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of Trinity College. He earned his DPhil from Oxford in 1998 and obtained a habilitation in systematic theology at Humboldt University, Berlin, in 2011. His areas of specialization include the history of Christian thought in late antiquity and the nineteenth century; secularization theories; and religion and politics. He has authored or co-authored five books and edited or co-edited nine. He has written many articles and book chapters in all his research specializations.


[1] Totality and Infinity

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