Church HistoryCommunionTheological Anthropology

Relational Personhood, Process Theology & the Trinitarian Monarchia

So, I have been a bit obsessed with the field of philosophy/theology that is commonly labeled “relational ontology” for a few years now.  Some of the secular-ish folks also like to label it as “social construction theory” whenever it is applied on a purely anthropological level.  Everyone in the field seems to define the notion of relational being somewhat differently.  For example, should the mantra be, “I love, therefore I am,” or, “I am loved, therefore I am.”  Is my being derived from others as they relate to me or is it derived as I relate myself to others, or, is it derived from me relating myself to others as they relate to me?  While there is a wide variety of opinions on how we can define the notion exactly, the crux of it all has to do with the notion of the socially-constituted being.  All agree that personal identity is not contained within itself nor does it derive solely from itself.  Rather, being somehow comes from communion, from relationships.  In other words, I somehow exist because of my relationships, not apart from them.  Without a “you” there is no “I,” and whenever the “you” in life changes for me there is something about the “I” in me that changes as well.  

The topic has piqued the interests of philosophers, theologians and psychologists alike.  I was first introduced to it through the works of Eastern Orthodox theologians Dumitru Staniloae and John Zizioulas, as they spelled out a theology of personhood which derives from the ancient Greek Patristic understanding of the hypostatic relations in the Trinity.  From there I read what Kallistos Ware and Elder Sophrony have to say on the matter.  Ware has heralded Zizioulas’s work in particular, and I heard that Zizioulas was heavily inspired by the thought behind Elder Sophrony’s “hypostatic principle.”  After all of them, I began to feel a bit guilty that I wasn’t really reading any Reformed theologians anymore even though I was a Reformed pastor.  I felt like I wasn’t being a good Calvinist by flirting so much with the East.  So, I searched and searched and searched for a Reformed thinker who was passionate enough about Trinitarian and Patristic theology to actually care a tad about the issue.  Let me tell you, it is slim pickin’s trying to find thinkers who address the topic in the Reformed world.  I somehow managed to come across the stunningly brilliant Colin Gunton, however.  From there I mustered up the bravery to try to tackle the Greek philosopher Christos Yannara’s thoughts on relational ontology.  Reading Yannaras is a bit like going for long run.  You absolutely hate yourself whenever you are in the middle of it, but you feel surprisingly refreshed and accomplished once you are finished.  After the brain pummeling that Yannaras gave me, I discovered some youth ministry guys creatively engaging the subject of the ecclesial self as well.  One of them was Andy Root and the other Brandon McKoy.  Brandon McKoy’s remarkable book, “Youth Ministry from the Outside In,” introduced me to Kenneth Gergen, who is a popular psychologist.  He has dealt with the topic of relational being extensively over the course of his career.  Then I thought, “why not keep on going?” and I began to dabble with Jurgen Moltmann’s work and his concept of “social trinitarianism.”  I discovered that reading Moltmann as a Christian Reformed Church minister is a lot like watching Walker Texas Ranger.  You are a little ashamed of yourself for tuning in but deep down you have to admit that the guy is kind of a badass.  It is also one of those things where, with either of those men, you might feel fairly at ease critiquing them from afar.  However, you are pretty sure that if you were to have a confrontation with them on the street they would utterly destroy you.  Continuing on, if you are going to study Moltmann, of course you are going to want to read Miroslav Volf, Moltmann’s pupil.  After reading Volf, however, you realize that the apple has fallen rather far from the tree in regards to Patristic and theological acumen and you go back to reading Moltmann again.  I mean, I tried listening to Hoobastank as a teenager but their music only reminded me of a cheap knock off of Incubus.  Why buy imitation art whenever you can buy the real thing?  Why watch Stephen Baldwin whenever Alec is on the next channel?  I digress.  From the Moltmanniac camp it is just a stone’s throw away to get to the Process Theology folks, who have essentially taken the tenets of relational ontology to the extreme and applied them to the entire Godhead.  Trip Fuller and the Homebrewed Christianity guys are all about it and are heralding it as the next big thing.  We shall see.

So, all that to say: I have been quite promiscuous whenever it comes to this particular field of thought.  I’ve been around the relational ontological block a time or two.  So, you know how I said in my first sentence that I have been a bit obsessed with this field of thought…yeah.  I am just now remembering that I forgot to mention Douglas Knight (a student of Zizioulas), T.F. Torrance (yeah, he dabbles in it), Archimandrite Zacharias (a disciple of Elder Sophrony), Suzanne Mcdonald (another brilliant Reformed thinker), and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (Eastern Orthodox author).  

In my journey through the spectrum of relational ontological colors I have found little squabbles between these thinkers here and there, critiquing each other’s work.  For example, neither Zizioulas nor Gunton care much for Moltmann’s proclivity towards denying the immutability of God in his relational theologizing.  Volf and Torrance do not really care much for the basis of Zizoulas’ thought.  Volf doesn’t like Zizioulas’ ecclesiolgy, thus denying the relational thinking behind his ecclesiology.  Torrance doesn’t think that Zizoulas has actually read the Cappadocians correctly, claiming that he hasn’t paid enough attention to Gregory Nazianzen’s distinct notion of the monarchia of the Father.  And, lastly, everyone squabbles and disagrees with the Process Theology folks (praise God from whom all blessings flow).

Yet, I am glad that the field is vast and that there is some ever-increasing overlap in the dialogue.  I think that it is especially important in our day for folks to grapple with the concept of the social person and to wrestle through what this actually means for themselves and for wider culture.  In an age marked by stark individualism, we need to learn how to question whether we are as self-made as we like to think ourselves to be.  Perhaps there is more to me than what I think I am making of myself.  And, perhaps the people, ecology, and materiality around me have shaped me more than I tend to realize as I react to what composes daily circumstantiality for me.  Whenever I come to see that somehow you are contributing to my me-ness and I am somehow contributing to your you-ness, I no longer see our relationship as a comingling of completely autonomous individuals.  Rather, I see myself as having a personhood which is deeply embedded in yours and vice versa.  I begin to see life as communion.      

The blatant individualism of our day is something that I hope everyone will combat, not just theologians.  I am glad there are so many reputable Christian thinkers leading the way, however.  With that said, I am growing more and more concerned with the Process Theology camp and the relational ontological understanding that its proponents are introducing to the world.  Theirs, it seems to me, is a theological overreaction to the problems we face today, supplanting individualism completely with communitarianism.  Before I offer my critique, however, let me provide a brief preface.  I will readily admit that I did flirt with Process Theology for a hot second.  What can I say, I am a relational romantic.  I am an advocate for the notion that persons become who they are in relationship to one another.  Thus, it is not hard to conceive that God, somehow, also becomes who He is in His relationship to the created world.  If new relationships somehow shape me in new and exciting ways then God must be shaped by His encounters with me and other human beings, right?

I am not convinced.  Things theologically and ascetically run amuck whenever the constraints are taken off of how far we are willing to go in terms of reading relational ontology back into God.  It is one thing to say that God interacts kenotically with the world, humbly interacting with it.  It is a whole other thing to say that God changes as a result of His humble interactions with the world; that His personhood is somehow malleably shaped as He interacts with finite beings.  True, I may be able to find something comforting in the thought that this God changes because of how rapidly I change in my own life.  A God who is in process, who is constantly seeking to actualize Himself, would be a relatable character for me because I am on the same quest.  I would be able to empathize with Him because I would feel as though He would be able to empathize with an important aspect of my creaturely struggle.

But, then, I would realize that having a God who is just as much in process of becoming Himself as I am is rather distressing.  It means that there is no stable being, no personal eschatological fulfillment which is rushing into the present.  Christ’s words, “It is finished,” would be nothing more than, “hold on, I am still working things out.”  Furthermore, it would mean that I would not know what being fulfilled as God’s image-bearer would look like because God would still be in the process of reaching the telos of His own being.  In other words, I would have no way of maturing and no ascetical icon to strive after because God would not be able to produce such an image for me.  If God is still in the process of becoming I would have no clue as to what it means to become myself and set my life’s trajectory towards such fulfillment.

I will readily admit that I am no scholar whenever it comes to Process Theology (or anything else for that matter), nor am I particularly well read in the area.  I saw the initial attraction of it and, out of my love for relational ontology, started gravitating towards it like the proverbial moth to the flame.  Whenever I got a little closer, however, I realized that if I kept venturing on this train of thought was eventually only going to harm me.  I am certain there will be some folks from the Process fold who feel competent enough to poke some holes in my critique.  However, I firmly believe that my concerns are legitimate here.  Believing in a God who is ever-changing will only serve to destroy my anthropological telos.  Finite being needs eschatology actualized in communion with God.  It needs an icon, an image, of what is to come if it is to strive after that which it is not yet in itself.  I need the God who already stands at the end and beckons me to come forth rather than a God who comes alongside me only in the present and says, “Let’s figure ourselves out together, guy.”  I am certain that the Process people have good intentions (some at least), simply seeking to present God to people in a more dogmatically accessible way.  At first glance, a God who is still in the process of becoming Himself would seem as though He would better be able to empathize with the pesky side of my humanness which is still flailing ever onwards towards self-discovery and anthropological fulfillment.  Yet, such a God could do nothing for me because He could not show me the proper end of such endeavors.

There are those in the field who are creatively shaping modern ways of thinking around ancient Patristic Trinitarian theology (such as Zizioulas, Sophrony and Gunton…etc.).  Call it ressourcement theology, or a neopatristic synthesis, or a Trinitarian reformation, or whatever you want to call it.  It is happening.  However, those in the Process camp are seeking to reshape ancient Patristic Trinitarian theology around modern thought and modern sympathies.  They are shaping orthodoxy by modernity rather than modernity by orthodoxy.  My fear is that Process Theology is nothing much more than an unintentional rehashing and repackaging of the ancient heresy, Modalism, as it reads the extremity of the pathos of the Son’s suffering back into the entire being of the Trinity.  The problem with such a line of thought is that it conflates the ousia of God with hypostasis of the persons of God.  In other words, it blurs personhood and nature together in such a way that it dissolves the distinct particularities of each member of the Trinity.  It says that since God the Son became one of us and suffered for us, revealing His empathy with humankind, the Father and the Holy Spirit must inevitably also be able to suffer and to empathize with us because they are one with the Son.  And, since human beings are shaped by empathy for others and shaped ontologically by compassion for the suffering, God must be ontologically altered by His empathy towards us as well.  Christ’s passion and the atonement are turned into nothing much more than divine empathy and the entire Trinity is shaped by the empathetic reshaping of Christ on the Cross.  What Christ experienced in His passion towards humankind the entire Godhead also experienced, and as Christ was shaped by such an event, so was the Trinity.  Thus, the oneness of the Trinitarian ousia would suffocate the Threeness of the hypostatic reality of the persons of God.

Process Theology concerns me most of all, however, if you let it interact with the Patristic notion of the “monarchia” within the Godhead.  Even though it has been the subject of some debate these days, I tend to favor John Zizioulas’ understanding of the Cappadocian Fathers’ teaching on the “source” of being within the Trinity and how the Father relationally and ontologically causes the being of the other members of the Trinity.  The Father is the monarchia, the one who “begets” the Son and “sends” the Holy Spirit.  T.F. Torrance, claiming to favor the Athanasian view over the Cappadocian, made the claim that the monarchia belongs to all of the members of the Trinity, and not just to the one.  To him, the source of Trinitarian being is equally shared by all the members and is not just initiated by the Father.  Whatever side of the fence you seem to land on, either way the monarchia of the Holy Trinity is still contained within the Trinity.

Process Theology would drastically change this, albeit this would be an unintentional change  by some thinkers (one would hope).  They may be able to begin by saying that the source of all being is derived from the Father or from the entire Triune Godhead.  But, then, God would actually need us and the rest of creation to continue to actualize Himself.  God would need a relationship with us to help Him to fulfill His process of becoming.  If this were true, it would mean that the monarchia within the Holy Trinity would shift from the Godhead to us.  We would become the “source” of God’s ontological endeavors.  We would have come to initiate His personhood as He interacts with us in history.  Thus, God would need us in order to become Himself, to reach His own eschatological telos, making us lords of His hypostatic being.  Rather than seeking to shape our lives after His image, God would begin shaping His Divine life by ours.

Wasn’t it Voltaire who once said, “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since?”                

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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.