by Mr. Michael Vas. Galenianos, Dr in Theology, Dr in Philosophy
Perhaps the most controversial person in the Church nowadays is the Metropolite of Pergamos and professor of theology Ioannis Zizioulas. His supporters recognise him as, in a way, their leader (he is after all one of the main representatives of the so-called “metapaterical” and “interrelated”(?) theology), organise conventions in his honour and write studies, even doctoral theses, referring to his theology with admiration. According to some, he is one of the greatest contemporary orthodox theologians. The (ultimate) orthodox theologian of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Others, on the other hand, see him as heretical. A “denunciation for heresis” (referring specifically to the “panheresis of ecumenism”) against him has been sent to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece by the christian association “Saint Theodoros Stouditis” and the philorthodox union “Kosmas Flamiatos”. The erroneous beliefs they impute to him, also based on relevant studies by professors of theological schools, are mainly the following: “Baptismatic Theology”, the “branch theory”, the theories of the “sister churches” and the “two lungs”, the “eucharistic ecclesiology” and the support of the teaching about the papal primacy. Apart from these erroneous beliefs, serious errors are imputed to the Metropolite of Pergamos regarding the trinitarian doctrine.
In our present article, because of its necessarily limited length, we do not consider it meaningful to deal with the above points of his theology, which are after all known and often become subjects of criticism, but with two other points, which may not be well known, yet they happen to be equally problematic. We have spotted these points in the notes of his lectures in the subject of Dogmatics in the theological school of Thessaloniki Aristotelian University, which are uploaded on the Internet (specifically on the website of the “Orthodox Team of Dogmatic Research” “with the permission and blessing of his reverence”, as mentionted on the above website.
One of them has to do with what he claims about God’s absolute freedom. He specifically states:
“God’s transcendence is constituted by his absolute freedom. And again in order to see the difference I remind you of the ancient Greeks’, the ancient Greek philosophy’s sense about God. By the tragic poets, especially Eurypides, by the Prosocratics, Heraclitus and all the Greek philosophers as well, the question was asked whether gods are free to do what they want. And the answer that was given was clearly “no”. Gods are obliged to do the right thing, and can never be unfair, do whatever is opposed to natural and ethical law. There is one natural and ethical law. There is, as Heraclitus says, this logic, the reason that holds the world together in harmony, so if something goes wrong, the whole world will disappear. But the world does not disappear, because there is this logical order and gods have to respect this logical order. And within this logical order, the ancient Greeks placed justice too. Basically Zeus, as you know, marries Themis so that it is exactly shown that Zeus is not arbitrary, he cannot act arbitrarily, he is controlled by justice. Justice is a fundamental element for the ancient Greek. And tragic poets, particularly, bring this to the surface. In conclusion, a god cannot act arbitrarily for the ancient Greek.
In the Old Testament, in the Jewish perception of God, this does not apply. It does not cross a Jew’s mind that God can be a slave to good, right and fair, as principles which lie above God Himself and must be respected by God Himself. That’s why the Old Testament God acts arbitrarily indeed. The Old Testament is full of murders, of various things which take place by order of God. Because God is not slave to ethical principles. Pay attention to this point, because it is very subtle and too difficult to get out of our mind, as we are assimilated with the Greek perception of God and we have associated God, we have subordinated God’s freedom to rules of behaviour and rules of law, which we draw on ethics. But ethics can never do away with God’s freedom for Jewish mentality, neither can for Christian mentality, as we will see. But, any way, speaking now about the specific distinction of the biblical concept of God, we have to emphasise this: God’s absolute freedom in relation not only to the world, but also to principles and ideas.”
Commenting on the above we would say, to begin with, that presenting Zeus’ marriage to Themis as an example of gods’ undergoing ethical commitments, according to the ancient Greek perception, is somewhat weird, given Zeus’ delinquency regarding marriage. The primary issue any way is not whether, according to the ancient, gods were free to do what they liked or not, but whether the biblical concept about God’s absolute freedom is opposed to our perception of God’s morality.
The fact that God is not amenable to any external or internal coercion is certainly dogmatically undoubted, as is also the fact that no one is able to judge God for His actions. Here, however, this is not said, but it is said that God despises the ethical principles of good, of right, of fair, it is said that “Old Testament God acts arbitrarily indeed” (!) and murders and various other things which take place by His order are put forward as evidence.
Ethical principles do not, of course, lie above God, as if they were self-existent and superior transcendent entities, yet they come from Him and for Him they constitute properties or virtues. That’s why, after all, in Dogmatics God’s properties of goodness, justice, reliability (or faithfulness?) etc. are referred to. Therefore, saying that God acts arbitrarily, as his reverence claims, by violating these ethical principles, is like saying that He conflicts with Himself, which is theologically unconceivable. Cyrillos of Alexandria characterises even being asked about God “if He can make himself not be good, or live, or fair” as improper (Against anthropomorphites, 13, PG 76, 1097, D-1199B).
What’s more, if God “acts arbitrarily indeed”, then he becomes totally unreliable. Still the God of the Bible is the one who contracts Testaments (= treaties, agreements) with people, He is the God who makes promises and abides by them in full, He is the God for whom the assurance is provided: “Lord is trustworthy in all His words and holy in all His actions” (Psalm 144,13a). So God’s freedom “does not mean God’s arbitrary decisions and actions. And this is because God’s sovereignty is harmonised with His qualities of most mercifulness, most holiness and justice” (N.Mitsopoulos, Subjects of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Athens 1983/2008, p. 123).
Consequently, even when lives are taken by His order, this happens within the frame of His justice and not arbitrarily. For instance, when He exterminated nearly all human kind by cataclysm, He did not do it for no good reason, but because “people’s evil actions have increased on earth” (Gen.6,5). Thus, as fr. Dimitrios Staniloae remarks, “by punishing the unfair, God upholds, to a certain degree, a balance in the world order… He created the world with justice and wants to bring it back to justice from every aspect” (The Orthodox Christian Teaching about God, translated by fr. Constantinos Coman – Georgios Papaefthymiou, Athens-Thessaloniki 2011, p.223).
Therefore, the view that God “acts arbitrarily indeed” is not theologically founded. That God’s actions may not always be reconciled with our views about ethics does not mean that God acts arbitrarily. Now if we suppose that it is not just an erroneous perception, but a deliberate distortion of things, the question is: what expediency is served by saying that biblical God acts arbitrarily as above ethical principles and ideas? Could it be ethical rules being taken for purely human creatures so that release from them would be easier?
But let’s come to the second problematic point. Referring to the “functions of the Church”, which draw elements on the “eschatological community”, his reverence says:
“A third element, which, once again, we draw on the eschatological community, is that Christ, who constitutes the centre around which God’s dispersed people is gathered, is surrounded by the Twelve Apostles and their wider circle. Why? Because the Apostles are the ones who will bear witness in the Last Times. As we see in the Gospels, in the last days, there will be some confusion as to which one Christ is. Many pseudoprophets will emerge and many will say Christ is here, Christ is there, and many will be misled, as they will not know which one the true centre is, around which God’s dispersed people is gathered. The criterion about which one the true Christ is is only provided and offered by the Twelve Apostles, mainly, and those who, in agreement with the Twelve, saw the risen Lord, that is they certify that he was indeed resurrected from the dead and, therefore, he is indeed the one appointed by God as Son οf man who will judge the world. So, the world’s judge is Christ and it is this person that the Apostles point to. That’s why the Church is apostolic. That means it is the Church which is based upon the Apostles’ testimony. That’s why one should not confine oneself to the eschatological image, to Christ’s presence as centre. What is absolutely necessary is the co-presence, the support of the Apostles who will bear witness to the genuineness and authenticity of Christ’s presence. Without the Apostles we do not know which one the true Christ is. As a result, it is impossible to gain access to Christ that does not go through the Apostles. The Apostles’ presence around Christ is a primary element of the eschatological image.”
If, in the above extract, it was simply said that Christ’s authentic teaching is the one delivered to the Church by His disciples, the Apostles, it would certainly be a theologically impeccable opinion and no orthodox would be justified to object. But here something else is said, it is said that the Apostles’ presence around Christ in the Second Coming is necessary, so that it can be proved which one the true Christ is, since only they (and some others in agreement with them) saw Him resurrected.
So, the question justifiably posed is: are the Apostles physiognomically more familiar than Jesus Christ, so that only by their testimony the genuineness and authenticity of Christ’s presence will be certified in the last times (or Ultimate times?)? That is, if a pseudochrist of the ultimate times is surrounded by twelve pseudoapostles, will their difference from the genuine Apostles be more easily perceived than the difference of the pseudochrist from the genuine Christ? And, all things considered, will Christ, who is expected to return to earth with all His glory, not be able to prove His identity by Himself?
Let’s see what the Gospels say, which, after all, his reverence adduces. After the warning that “there shall arise false Christs and false prophets and shall show great signs and wonders in somuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect”, Christ recommends that no one should be misguided by their word that He Himself is “in the desert” or “in the secret chambers” as his presence will be apparent all over the world (“for as the lightning cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the west, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be”) and as evidence of where he really is “shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”.
Afterwards, mention is made about angels’ mission to assemble the selected ones from the four winds, but not about the Twelve Apostles’ presence, in particular as a prerequisite for the recognition of the true Christ (Matt.24,23-31. Collate Mark 13, 21-27, Luk. 21,25-27).
In the next chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew, where Lord’s Second Coming and the final judgement is described, Christ appears again accompanied by the angels and not by the Apostles. All the nations are assembled before Him and He separates “the sheep from the goats” without implying difficulty in His recognition and mediation by others so that the genuineness of His presence can be certified (Matt. 25,31-46). The same image is also provided in brief in Matt. 16,27.
The Twelve Apostles’ image “in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory” sitting “upon twelve thrones” and judging “the twelve tribes of Israel”, has nothing to do with the supposed necessity of their testimony so that the genuine Christ can be recognised on His Second Coming, but with the reward they will receive because they followed Jesus Christ (Matth. 19,27-28. Collate Luk. 22,28-30).
Then, how was his reverence misguided to such a deviation from the content of the above biblical excerpts? We have the impression that the answer to this question lies in the following, which he refers to a little below:
“We said that Christ will not come alone, but surrounded by the Apostles. Saint Ignatius sees the Twelve Apostles’ image during the Holy Eucharist of the local Church in the presbyters’ persons, who surround the bishop. As you may know – unfortunately among everything else this has been lost and fallen into disuse too – in the ancient Church we had to so called co-throne (σύνθρονο). Τhe bishop was in the centre and he was surrounded by the presbyters, who were sitting on the thrones around him. This is clearly an eschatological image. You may remember Christ’s words to the Twelve that in the kingdom of God “you shall sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel”. The Apostles are those who point to Christ”.
In this extract the reason for the deviation is revealed. The necessity of the Apostles’ testimony in the ultimate times about who the real Christ is derives from the necessity of the presbyters’ testimony of a local Church about who its bishop is. “God’s dispersed people”, who gather in church, do not physiognomically know its centre, the bishop, as well as the presbyters do, yet they know the presbyters themselves and through their testimony (through the fact that the presbyters “surround the bishop”) it is certified who the bishop is.
This secular image is transferred to the “eschatological community” by the conscious or unconscious application of the proportion principle to such an extent that it would be envied by even the most ardent supporters of western scholasticism. In the case in point, that is, we have an inversion of things. While it is supposed that “the functions of the Church” draw elements on the “eschatological community”, eventually the opposite happens. Therefore, even resurrected Christ is subdued to the necessities of the, in any case, Metropolite of Pergamos’ bishop-centric (?) theology.
The two points we have examined are not the only problematic ones that we have spotted in Metropolite of Pergamos’ theology, yet they are of the most characteristic. In the first case, God’s moral properties are questioned and in the second one Christ’s ability to certify by Himself the genuineness of His Second Coming is indirectly questioned too.
After the above, nothing is left but express the query: With such blatant theological improprieties, as well as all the others imputed to him, how can the Metropolite of Pergamos be possibly characterised as one of the greatest contemporary orthodox theologians or as the (ultimate) orthodox theologian of the 20th and 21st centuries?