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In Memoriam: Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas and the Journey of Theology Toward the Future

The prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas of Pergamon (Ecumenical Patriarchate) passed in Athens, on February 2, 2023.

A Brief Biographical Sketch: A Unique Academic and Ecclesial Itinerary

The prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas of Pergamon (Ecumenical Patriarchate) passed in Athens, on February 2, 2023. Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas was born in the village of Katafygio, Kozani, Greece, in 1931. He studied theology at the universities of Thessaloniki, Athens, and Harvard, and at the Graduate Institute of Ecumenical Studies at Bossey. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, he served as Secretary of the “Faith and Order” Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, emerging as one of the leading voices in the inter-Christian theological dialogue. Here, he also organized theological programs and international conferences on various ecumenical topics. In addition to his duties in the “Faith and Order” Commission, Zizioulas also had the opportunity to teach Orthodox ecclesiology and Orthodox sacramental theology every year at the Graduate Institute of Ecumenical Studies at Bossey, near Geneva, at the invitation of the late Nikos Nissiotis, who was then Institute’s director.

In 1970, he was elected Associate Professor at the University of Edinburgh, and in 1973 he was elected Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Glasgow. He remained there until 1987. In 1984, he was elected Professor of Dogmatics at the Theological Faculty of Thessaloniki University, where he taught until his retirement in 1998. Beginning in 1989, he taught classes in Systematic Theology as a permanent visiting professor at the Theological School of the University of London, the famous King’s College. In Great Britain he focused his teaching on the promulgation of Orthodoxy in the West, the comparison between Western and Orthodox traditions, and the making of a systematic attempt at an existential interpretation of doctrine. His well-known 1989 lectures at King’s College, which centered a theological approach to the ecological problem, stem from this latter period at the University of London. Based on his work and life, we can notice how Zizioulas’ theological thought was developed in an ecumenical environment, while the themes of his reflection escaped the introversion and provincialism of the Greek-speaking world, and remained in continual dialogue not only with the questions and positions of the Christian churches, but also with the humanities, natural sciences, and trends in contemporary thought.

A member of the Académie Internationale des Sciences Religieuses and the Institut des Sciences Théoriques (classe des sciences sacrées) in Brussels, John Zizioulas taught as a visiting professor at the Gregorian University in Rome and the University of Geneva. In addition, he also gave lectures at several universities in Western and Eastern Europe, as well as the Institute of Orthodox Theology at the University of Balamand, Lebanon. He also held honorary doctorates from the Catholic Institute of Paris, the Belgrade Faculty of Theology, Saint Sergius Institute in Paris, the Orthodox Theological Faculty of the University of Babes-Bolyai in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, the Faculty of Catholic Theology, University of Münster, and the Department of Orthodox Theology at Münich University. In 1993 he was elected a member of the Academy of Athens, serving as its chairman in 2002, while in 2011 he was appointed Fellow and Honorary Member of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

He has published over two hundred studies in Greek and the main European languages (English, French, German, Italian)―not including the various texts of bilateral theological dialogues, on which he worked as primary drafter―while his books and papers have been translated into various Slavic and Asian languages. There are now more than a hundred doctoral dissertations and master theses on his theological work. Moreover, there are thousands of references to his work scattered throughout the international bibliography (mainly to his now classic books, Being as Communion, 1985, and Communion and Otherness, 2006).

In June 1986, he was elected and ordained directly from the order of the laity (“athroon”) as a hierarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, serving as the Metropolitan of Pergamon, a position within which he assumed a more active role in inter-Christian ecumenical dialogues as well as representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate in ecclesiastical and theological fora. His direct ordination to active Metropolitan is the first such instance, to my knowledge, since the time of St. Photius the Great (9th century), which demonstrates the great appreciation and confidence which the Church of Constantinople had for the person and theological work of John Zizioulas.

The list of the ecclesiastical positions of responsibility that have been entrusted to him over time is really impressive:

• President of the International Committee of the official theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Anglicans.

• Co-President of the International Committee of the official theological dialogue between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church.

• Member of the Central Committee, and of the “Faith and Order” Commission of WCC.

• President of the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission for the Assembly of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches (1992).

• President of the Inter-Orthodox Committee for the Protection of the Natural Environment (1991).

• Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the General Assemblies of the WCC (Uppsala 1968, Nairobi 1975, Vancouver 1983, Canberra, Australia 1992).

• Director of the Office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Athens.

• President of the Pre-Conciliar Conference in Preparation for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.

Personhood, Eucharist, and Eschatology

It is neither easy nor simple to summarize the extensive and diverse theological work of the Metropolitan John Zizioulas. This being said, I will here limit myself to sharing just some of the topics with which he grappled, and be content to offer a few sporadic references to the rest of his work as I do so. In this section will outline three main axes that define the work of the late hierarch: Personhood, Eucharist, and Eschatology or Kingdom of God.[1]

It is probably known to everyone that the Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas, not unjustly, has been called the preeminent theologian of personhood not only in Orthodox theology, but also in Christian theology in its entirety. He, interpreting the patristic tradition in a fruitful and original way, gave modern Christian theology a comprehensive proposal for personhood by establishing in an ontological perspective a theological account of personhood which, based on the personal mode of existence of the Triune God, is realized historically in the person of Christ, and is offered at the church event, as a foretaste of the eschatological fulfillment in the Kingdom. For John Zizioulas, personhood is the most valuable contribution of patristic theology to human’s modern quest for authentic existence.

It is widely known that the place where the human being can preemptively anticipate the personal way of being is, for the late Metropolitan of Pergamon, the Eucharist, where the human being as a member of the church and an image of God participates in the very life of the Triune God. Zizioulas, already as a layman and from a very early age, highlights the centrality of the sacrament of the Eucharist not only for the life of the ancient church, but also for the life of today’s world. The Eucharist, for the Metropolitan of Pergamon, is the heart of the church and not a peripheral aspect of it.

Loyal to the fundamental theological orientations of his teacher Fr. Georges Florovsky, and aware, as few in the Greek and wider Orthodox context, of the international theological debate, the Metropolitan of Pergamon gives special importance and priority to the eschatological perspective which ultimately permeates his work as a whole. Personhood, Eucharist, and the Kingdom of God are inseparably linked in his thought.

For Zizioulas, the Eucharist is an image of the coming Kingdom, an image of the eschaton, while the church as a eucharistic community constitutes a reality that comes from the future, as the Eucharist is a foretaste of the eschaton that invades history. That is why the church is defined as an eschatological community, which moves through history and through time. Without identifying itself with history, in this way the church experiences the dialectical tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”

The eschatological interpretation of the Eucharist that he proposes, in contrast to the protological/past-centered, commemorative one, literally means that the identity of the church is not in the past, in what was given to it or in what it is now, but in the future, in that which shall be at the End. Such a perspective radically distances theology from any kind of absolutization of protology, from the tendency to consider that the genuine and authentic is always placed in the beginning, in a timeless ahistorical flight to a distant ideal past, and that salvation is nothing more than a return to an initial ideal state. This view, which is nothing more than Platonism in disguise, constitutes the permanent temptation of theology in the past as well as today.

Implications of the Eschatological Theology

The ramifications of the above are crucial. The eschatological orientation of Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ theology not only points to an eschatological ontology (announced in the forthcoming book by Zizioulas, Remembering the Future: An Eschatological Ontology), but, in addition, it protected his work from symptoms that are permanent temptations of modern Greek Orthodox theology, even in its most elaborate versions: a) the idealization of the past and the conservatism that follows; b) the sanctification and worship of the nation and the people; and c) helleno-centrism and anti-Westernism, which today is synonymous with anti-Europeanism. In contrast to the above, the late Metropolitan of Pergamon was critical toward all these deviations: he valorized the theological category of the future; he criticized the ethnocentric understanding of the church; he was a fervent supporter of the European integration of Greece.

Given his brilliant theological education and the high position of responsibility of Metropolitan of Pergamon within the hierarchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, his emphasis on the eschatological perspective should be considered as a choice with significant implications for the life and theology of the church, as eschatology inevitably leads to repentance for the past and the liberation of the future. For is it not possible for someone to imagine that a theologian and hierarch of the caliber of Zizioulas would not understand that the eschatological perspective would inevitably lead to painful revisions on difficult issues such as those of otherness, gender, anthropology, or ethics, when, for example, he wrote as early as 1968 on the controversial issue of women’s ordination that

“Orthodox theologians could find no theological reasons against such an ordination. Yet the entire matter is so deeply tied up with their tradition that they       would find it difficult in their majority to endorse without reservations the rather enthusiastic statements of the paper” (192-194).[2]

In the light, then, of this eschatological orientation, we can better understand the position he expressed from the podium of the Volos Academy, in February 2001, regarding the consequences of the eschatological ethos of the church, and more specifically his opinion that the future is not determined by the past, but that on the contrary the future liberates us from the past, just as in Christian thought and life we travel back in time: from the future to the present and the past, and therefore the future is the cause—not the effect—of the past, since the world was created for the eschatological Christ who will come at the eschaton as the union of the created and the uncreated, while the eschaton gives entity to the first, and eschatology to protology. As a natural consequence of the above, Zizioulas argued that the “Church is not what it is or what it was, but what it will be [at the eschaton].”[3]

The Legitimacy of Theological Criticism and the Plurality of Interpretations

With his life and theological work, and even with his cooperation and closeness with theological institutions—such as the Volos Academy—which are well-known for their radical criticism of established forms of theological discourse, the late hierarch legitimized the seriously practiced theological criticism and the intra-theological dialogue that is the oxygen and the necessary condition of healthy ecclesial life. Thus, he confirmed with his stance that great theologians do not fear dialogue and critique, but rather they seek it out, because they know that the critical function is inherent to theologizing, and that without it we cannot expect anything beyond a theology of repetition and praises, which often dominates the ecclesiastical milieu.

The theological contribution of Metropolitan John Zizioulas has often been the starting point and foundation for many of the younger Orthodox theological generation’s bold and radical theological ideas which have emerged in the last two decades, and this constitutes the clearest proof of the hermeneutical diversity and pluralism that accompanies the reception of his work. A work that, while the great Greek theologian was still alive, was already considered as part of the classics of theology, and as such has already come to have a life of its own independent of its creator, more and more charting its own course and inspiring a rich variety of hermeneutical attempts, not only in the field of theology itself, but also in the fields of philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences, as well as the natural sciences in general.

The discipleship in the theological thought of Metropolitan of Pergamon which is defined by its eschatological orientation, the centrality of the Eucharist, and its creative participation in the ecumenical theological discussion, has helped us, the theologians in Greece and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, to move, from cultural hermeneutics to a properly theological hermeneutics, and from a vague and abstract “pneumatocracy” to a Christocentric and sacramentally-grounded perspective. If theology in Greece and the wider Orthodox world has, in the last decades, made some tentative steps toward overcoming introversion, theological provincialism and isolationism, as well as a narcissistic theological anti-westernism, it is certain that this is due, to a large degree, to John Zizioulas and his work.

John D. Zizioulas and Political Theology

It is this legitimacy of theological criticism confirmed by the welcoming attitude of Zizioulas himself as well as the plurality of interpretations underpinned by the very nature of his work, and especially its praise and support of diversity and otherness, that allowed and encouraged some critical remarks, especially concerning the social engagement and the political relevance of Zizioulas’ theology. In relation to what has been developed in previous sections, one could remark that if the Eucharist is chiefly the remembrance of the future, an icon of the eschatological kingdom, as Zizioulas repeatedly maintains, then what about the social implications of this future reality imaged and proleptically experienced in the Eucharist? Does this future have any impact in the present social life of both the ecclesial community, and the wider community or the surrounding world? Does the future also become the “cause” of the present in the social realm, and therefore does it define the present, even partially? In other words, is there any hint of the so-called “the liturgy after the liturgy” perspective (to recall the nice formula of Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of Albania and Fr. Ion Bria) in Zizioulas’ eschatological vision? Finally, does the Eucharist exceed the liturgical context by being transformed in social praxis. In other words, is the Eucharist the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of Christian engagement with history?

In my knowledge, social praxis and radical political activity for the defense of the poor and the marginalized, alongside the victims of history is an element missing or at least not explicitly developed in Zizioulas’ theological synthesis. With the exception of his robust eco-theology developed already in his early work and further elaborated in more recent papers, an eco-theology[4] which actually derives from the cosmic dimensions and implications of the Eucharist, Zizioulas did not articulate or rather he did not work toward the direction of a comprehensive political theology or political eschatology. He does assert, however, in a relatively recent address (delivered at the occasion of the conferment of a Doctorate Honoris Causa by the University of Munich, in November 2015), that “the agenda of Theology is set by history. This was known to the Fathers of the Church who were in constant dialogue with their time. It was unfortunately forgotten at times by academic Theology.”[5] This problematic status of political theology is due to Zizioulas’ fear (and of other Eastern theologians too), that any attempt at changing history via “political eschatology” or liberation theology would mean that it is ultimately the human person itself, and not God, who then brings and realizes the eschaton into history.[6] In other words what seems to be problematic and questionable for Zizioulas, is the excessive and one-sided engagement with history which characterizes Western Christianity, even though he himself is aware of the problematic and deficient relationship of Eastern Orthodoxy with history and historical praxis.[7] At the same time, however, one could more or less detect the contours of such a political theology from his work, as is evident by the first two quite systematic attempts of an Orthodox political theology, directly or indirectly inspired by his work: the ground-breaking work by the Greek-American Orthodox theologian Aristotle Papanikolaou entitled The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy,[8] and my book on Orthodoxy and Political Theology.[9] From an American point of view, Papanikolaou tries to set an agenda for an Orthodox political theology, by highlighting the political implications of the very central axis of Orthodox tradition, that is the divine-human communion(theosis), as chiefly experienced in Eucharist and expressed in personhood, mainly focusing on issues related to the cultural left (liberal democracy, common good, human rights, political forgiveness, etc.). More concentrated on a European perspective and mainly focusing on issues related to the socio-political left, I attempt in my work to present the basic foundations of an Orthodox political theology by raising the crucial question: Why has Orthodoxy not developed a political theology in the liberating and radical sense of the term? In my book I gathered the elements and premises of an Orthodox approach to the political, mostly based on the eschatological understanding of the church and its Eucharistic constitution, as well as on the biblical texts and the patristic tradition. I also highlight the major contributions of contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians, mainly those of the Russian diaspora, while at once considering the burning issue of the legitimacy of a public role for the church and theology in the secular pluralistic societies of late modernity.

In this perspective, one could say that both Papanikolaou and I would not be able to present a first sketch of a more or less comprehensive Orthodox political theology, contributing decisively in this way to the overall discussion, without the already existent seeds and elements in Zizioulas’ work which offer an open-oriented positive reception and understanding of the surrounding reality, as being receptive of redemption from everything that negates or undervalues its divine origin.[10] The same applies to the case of the Greek biblical scholar Petros Vassiliadis from the University of Thessaloniki. One cannot perceive his attempt at highlighting the political relevance of Orthodox Christianity, without taking in account key elements of Zizioulas’ theology, i.e., the strong emphasis on eschatology, and the Eucharistic constitution of the church, which Vassiliadis further developed and radicalized in his writings.[11]

In place of Conclusion

In conclusion, the priority of the late theologian, as his tenure at the Academy of Athens proves, was to contribute with his work to a honest and open dialogue between theology and contemporary thought, science and the various expressions of art. This dialogue still remains a quest. It is, however, important that the significance and contribution of the thought of Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas continue to be discovered not only by theologians, but also by intellectuals, academics, and scientists from the secular milieu.

[1] For a more detail analysis cf. my Academic Laudatio given at the reception of Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas as Fellow of Volos Academy, October 28-30, 2011, published in the collective volume Pantelis Kalaitzidis and Nikolaos Asproulis (eds), Personhood, Eucharist, and Kingdom of God in Orthodox and Ecumenical Perspective: Synaxis Efcharistias in Honor of Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas of Pergamon (Volos: Ekdotiki Demetriados, 2016), 303-325 (in Greek).

[2] John D. Zizioulas, “Comments on the Study Paper of the Faith and Order Commission on ‘The Meaning of Ordination’,” Study Encounter 4 (1968): 192-194.

[3] John D. Zizioulas, “The Church and the Eschaton,” in Pantelis Kalaitzidis (ed.), Church and Eschatology (Athens: Kastaniotis, 2003; second edition, Volos: Ekdotiki Demetriados, 2014), 42 [in Greek].

[4] See for instance: John D. Zizioulas, “Preserving God’s Creation. Three Lectures on Theology and Ecology,” King’s Theological Review 12 (1989): 1-5, 41-45; 13 (1990): 1-5; reprinted in Sourozh. A Journal of Orthodox Life and Thought 39 (March, 1990): 1-11; 40 (May, 1990): 31-40; 41 (August, 1990): 28-39; idem, “Ecological Asceticism: A Cultural Revolution,” Our Planet 7, no. 6 (April 1996): 7-8; idem, “Man the Priest of Creation,” in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, ed. Andrew Walker and Costa Carras (London: SPCK, 1996), 178-188; idem, “Towards an Environmental Ethic,” in The Adriatic Sea, a Sea at Risk, a Unity of Purpose, ed. N. Ascherson and An Marshall (Athens: Religion, Science and the Environment, Text Publications, 2003), 93-101. Some of these articles have been reprinted in John D. Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, ed. Luke Ben Tallon (London: T&T Clark, 2011).

[5] Metropolitan Ioannis Zizioulas, “The Task of Orthodox Theology in Today’s Europe,” Orthodoxes Forum 29, no. 2 (2015): 259-263, especially 262.

[6] See Jean D. Zizioulas, “Eschatologie et société,” Irénikon73:3-4 (2000): 291; reprinted in Métropolite Jean (Zizioulas) de Pergame, L’Eglise et ses institutions, textes réunis par l’Archimandrite Grigorios Papathomas et Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P. (Paris: Cerf, 2011), 489.

[7] Cf. Zizioulas, “Eschatologie et société,” 291 = Métropolite Jean (Zizioulas) de Pergame, L’Eglise et ses institutions, 488-489.

[8] Aristotle Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012).

[9] Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Orthodoxy and Political Theology (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2012). For a critical comparison of these two works see Nikolaos Asproulis,“Pneumatology and Politics: The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Articulation of an Orthodox Political Theology,” Review of Ecumenical Studies 7.2 (2015): 184-197.

[10] Cf. Pantelis Kalaitzidis, “Eschatology and Future-oriented Hermeneutics in Contemporary Orthodox Theology: The Case of Metropolitan John D. Zizioulas,” in Reimund Bieringer, Peter De Mey, Ma. Marilou S. Ibita, and Didier Polleffeyt (eds), The Spirit, Hermeneutics, and Dialogues Leuven: Peeters, 2019), 155-180, especially 173-180.

[11] See more in Pantelis Kalaitzidis, Eschatology in the Work of Petros Vassiliadis and its Relevance for Political Theology,” in The Ecumenical Dialogue in the 21st Century: Festschrift to Emeritus Professor Petros Vassiliadis, ed. Ioannis Petrou, Stylianos Tsompanidis, Moschos Gkoutsioudis (Thessaloniki: Vanias Publications, 2013), 381-426 [in Greek]. Cf. Petros Vassiliadis, “Orthodox Christianity [and Politics],” in Jacob Neusner (ed.), God’s Rule: The Politics of World Religions (Washington, D.C., Georgetown University Press, 2003), 85-106.

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