I’m intrigued when Orthodox friends tell me I’m getting too philosophical or analytical when I explore what it might mean to say God is three ‘persons’ or that God is ‘loving’ and ‘personal’ existence. Then I run into the likes of Orthodox theologian/philosopher Christos Yannaras who provides some pretty philosophical heavy lifting. Here (and in pdf below) is an address he gave to St. Vladimir’s in 2010 that captures one very interesting claim regarding divine freedom about which I’m still looking for clarification and over which I notice not all Orthodox seem to be in agreement. The question has to do with the nature of God’s freedom as it relates to his existence as triune.
Yannaras (and Zizioulas, and even David Hart at times) appears to claim God’s very existence and triune relations are ‘free’ in the sense of ‘freely chosen’ in contrast to being necessitated or ‘given’. The Father freely chooses to beget the Son. The Son freely chooses to affirm his personal existence in love to the Father, and thus with the Spirit.
Now, if all Yannaras means is that God’s existence (including the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit) isn’t subject to necessity in the sense of conforming to or ontologically obliging some objective standard of logic or meaning, then I don’t know any who would disagree. God doesn’t exist because he ‘has’ to, nor is the Father under some ‘constraint’ to beget the Son, etc. We agree that in fact God can’t be said to exist “because of” anything. His existence is not a reply to or conformity to necessity. There is no metaphysical ‘deep magic’ which might be said to supervene upon God’s being in or which prescribes for God that he is to exist or that the Father is to beget the Son, etc.
However, both Yannaras and Zizioulas seem to be saying much more than this, namely, that God chooses freely to exist, chooses freely to be triune, etc. But I don’t have any idea of what choice or freedom means in this case. God chooses to exist? Only what exists can choose. Or, as existing, the Father chooses freely to beget the Son? God chooses to be triune? In that case, what becomes of Zizioulas’ “being is communion” or Yanarras’ “relational ontology”?
Aristotle Papanikolaou discusses (Being with God, pp. 148-161) this very point in evaluating Zizioulas, qualifying him to a point but essentially agreeing:
“[The reason] Zizioulas does not ‘conceive of the intra-divine communion of the Trinity as the ground of all that is’ is, quite simply, Zizioulas’s rejection of linking the divine life to any form of necessity. For Zizioulas, the price for making the intra-divine communion the primordial concept is the negation of absolute freedom. God’s existence is not absolutely free if it is necessarily one of intra-divine communion.”
“Freedom, according to Zizioulas, is precisely freedom from the given. ‘Givenness’ is what constitutes ‘the greatest provocation to freedom’.”
But this seems to me to undo the very thesis Zizioulas argues, namely, that to be is to be in communion. Alan Torrance (Persons in Communion) levels the same criticism against this notion of divine freedom as well, asking “Is the freedom of the Father to be conceived as qualitatively distinct from that of the Son and the Spirit?” and “Does the ontological freedom of the arche vis-à-vis the hypostases of the Son and the Spirit parallel the cosmological freedom of the Father vis-à-vis the created order as a whole?” Torrance wonders how, if creation is the result of a freedom from the given, is divine freedom in the act of creation different from that of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit if the divine persons are also free from all relational givenness as Zizioulas argues, or indeed if God is free from the givenness of his own existence?
If as Zizioulas says “being is communion,” then you don’t get any more primordial than than being-in-relation. But Yanarras and Zizioulas both insist upon extending divine freedom to the Father’s begetting of the Son and procession of the Spirit (and the Son and the Spirit’s reciprocal freedom to affirm or reject their own being begotten and proceeding), threatening the very claim that “being is communion.” If communion is freely chosen, then being is not communion, it is rather absolute freedom to be or not to be in communion, which is not what either Zizioulas or Yannaras seems to want to say.