Zizioulas’ Pneumatology and Congar’s Spirit Substitutes

This week, one of my classmates presented on the “communion pneumatology” of John Zizioulas, a highly respected Eastern Orthodox theologian who has been active in the ecumenical movement for many years. I had previously encountered his communion ecclesiology, and his work on the Trinity in general, but this was the first time I’d engaged with his pneumatology.

My classmate reported that Zizioulas identifies the Holy Spirit as the “linchpin” between Christology and ecclesiology. That made me prick up my ears, and as the presentation continued, I kept drawing diagrams in my notes, trying to figure out how, exactly, he was relating these two areas through the Spirit.

He talked about how the Holy Spirit brought us Jesus through Mary, and also brought us the presence of the Lord in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I was familiar with this idea from Orthodox theology — it’s why there’s an icon of Mary holding Jesus over the sanctuary of every Orthodox church. Then he talked about how Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and this in fact is what made him Christos, the Anointed One; and how he breathed the Holy Spirit and how this formed, or even constituted, the Church.

So first I was thinking — if you’ll pardon the homely analogy — about the Holy Spirit as the white filling that holds the cookies of an Oreo together, where one cookie is Christ and the other is the Church. It’s the same Spirit, that transcends time, so by participation (as koinonia is sometimes translated) in that Spirit, the church participates in the reality of Christ.

But I couldn’t fit the eucharist into the same picture. Finally I drew this:



The Holy Spirit, through Mary, brought us Jesus; the Holy Spirit, through the risen Lord, brings us the Church; and the Holy Spirit, through the Church, brings us the Eucharist.

I’m still working on this diagram; you might do something like colorcode or circle the two boxes that correspond to Christ, or the two boxes that correspond to the Church. I tried a more linear diagram first, but that just obscured the role of the Spirit: so the separate columns help to identify separate historical events. And I’m quite taken with a eucharistic ecclesiology, in which the Church makes-as-in-celebrates the eucharist but the eucharist itself makes-as-in-constitutes the church, so that could go in there as well.

When we finished the discussion of Zizioulas, we moved on to Congar’s critique of the tendency in the Roman Catholic church for the Spirit to be supplanted by either Mary, the Magisterium (the hierarchy or particularly the Pope), or the eucharist: that is, properties that ought to be understood as originating from the Spirit — unity, holiness, grace — are incorrectly ascribed to one of these three substitutes instead.

And suddenly I realized I was looking at a diagram that showed exactly that!

Look! It’s as if those boxes become opaque instead of transparent, so we lose track of the fact that they are mediating the Holy Spirit. They start blocking our relationship with the Spirit, instead of enabling it.

And you could draw the same kind of diagram for the other things that may, in other Christian traditions, come to function as a substitute for the Spirit. Traditions that get caught up in a form of biblicism, for example, where the Bible becomes a sort of “paper Pope”: the Holy Spirit that “has spoken through the prophets” in their inspired writings gets blocked, and all the attention goes to the writings themselves instead. Similarly, a church that forms around a particularly gifted and inspired preacher or healer may incorrectly ascribe (whether explicitly in words, or implicitly by their actions) the unifying force, holiness, or authority that really comes from the Spirit, to that person.

The only thing I still wasn’t quite getting was how the eucharist connected to eschatology. (In this picture, anyway; I get the connection of the eucharist as foretaste and promise of the heavenly banquet, but you don’t need the Holy Spirit to get there.) Zizioulas was connecting eschatology with the experience of being drawn in to the relational life of the Trinity; so finally I drew this:

There we go!

Praise the Holy Trinity,
Undivided Unity,
Holy God, Mighty God,
God immortal, be adored!

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One Response to Zizioulas’ Pneumatology and Congar’s Spirit Substitutes

  1. Pingback: Francis, Discipleship, Fandom, and Factionalism | Gaudete Theology

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