The "Monarchy of the Father," Vladimir Lossky, and Pseudo-Dionysius

Post by
Alvin Rapien

I propose that Lossky, despite all of his optimism that Pseudo-Dionysius’ apophaticism reinforces the claims of Eastern Orthodox theology, overlooks the implication that this type of apophatic discourse must also render the claims of Eastern Orthodox theology as subject to scrutiny, with the Monarchy of the Father under view in this article.


The “Monarchy of the Father” remains a staple Trinitarian doctrine within Eastern Orthodox theological discourse, with proponents such as Vladimir Lossky and Metropolitan John Zizioulas supporting its importance over-and-against Western theological trends, which they understand as having a tendency towards semi-modalism.  Lossky asserts the Monarchy of the Father on the grounds of defending the priority of the Trinitarian Persons contra the prioritization of an impersonal common Divine nature.  Lossky does so by supporting his claims in an apophatic manner, grounded in citations from Gregory of Nazianzus.  Yet it is well known that Lossky’s apophaticism is largely indebted to Pseudo-Dionysius, so the latter’s absence in the section on Trinity is worth noting.  I propose that Lossky, despite all of his optimism that Pseudo-Dionysius’ apophaticism reinforces the claims of Eastern Orthodox theology, overlooks the implication that this type of apophatic discourse must also render the claims of Eastern Orthodox theology as subject to scrutiny, with the Monarchy of the Father under view in this article.  I claim that the Monarchy of the Father is not free from the judgment of being a concept-as-idol that apophaticism ultimately denies is a reality of the Triune Godhead.

Eastern Orthodox Christian theology centers around the Triune God, with the Three Persons proclaimed in the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom as being “one in essence and undivided.”  The Trinity, while ultimately remaining unexplainable, is placed within a matrix of theological terms fenced with traditional articulations in order to fend off, as best as theologically possible, particular heresies: “one in essence and undivided” fends off Arianism, which subordinates the Son to the Father, as well as Macedonianism, which subordinates the Spirit to the Son and Father; the emphasis on three hypostases qua Persons steers away modalism; upholding the singular Divine nature is a safeguard to tritheism.  These accents within Trinitarian discussions are not foolproof mantras which automatically bar one from falling into some historical heresy, as an emphatic leaning into one particular view must always be dialectically maintained in order that one may mediate between extremes, especially in the case of modalism and tritheism.  For all Christian theologians who wish to maintain some semblance of historical orthodoxy, this grammar and nuance is fundamental to speech.

Yet the differing traditions within Christianity also represent and produce different trends, with the infamous filioque clause becoming a major point of theological difference between “Eastern” and “Western” Christianity.  In the 20th century, Trinitarian reflection came to the forefront with various controversies marking different trends: Social Trinitarianism, Karl Barth’s translation of hypostasis as “mode of being,” Karl Rahner’s economic Trinity as the immanent Trinity, Feminist critiques of Trinitarian titles, Kenotic Trinitarianism, among other Trinitarian discussions unveiled a whole set of issues that recapitulated early Christian theological discussions as well as articulating problems that do not explicitly appear in Patristic literature.

Throughout these trends, Eastern Orthodox theologians have dominantly maintained, with Patristic foundation, a doctrine known as the “Monarchy of the Father.”  Vladimir Lossky explains this doctrine as a distinctive Eastern Christian assertion, which insists upon the Father as the unique source of the Godhead and the principle of the unity of the three Persons.  In Lossky’s analysis, Western theology overemphasizes the common Divine Nature to such an extent that it is “above” the Trinitarian Persons, whereas Eastern theologians, by upholding the Monarchy of the Father, “were defending a conception of the Trinity which they considered to be more concrete, more personal, than that against which they contended.”[1]  Rather than the common nature being reduced to an impersonal abstraction (as in Western theology in Lossky’s understanding), the Father’s place as the “unique source”[2] of the Son and the Spirit guarantees the personal nature of the Trinitarian hypostases as legitimate, rather than merely apparent.

Lossky anticipates and neuters an important objection to this doctrine: “does not this monarchy of the Father savour of subordination?”[3]  In other words, if the Father is the source of the Son and the Spirit, does this not give “a certain pre-eminence” to the Father “as the divine person?”[4]  By drawing upon the 4th century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, Lossky passively admits that this is a difficulty that can be overcome.  Lossky cites Nazianzus’ Oration 40:

“I should like to call the Father the greater, because from Him flow both the equality and the being of equals… but I am afraid to use the word Origin [in relation to the Father], lest I should make Him the Origin of inferiors, and thus insult Him by precedencies of honour. For the lowering of those who are from Him is no glory to the Source.”[5]

Lossky does not continue to cite from this passage from Nazianzus, which is unfortunate since it solidifies his claim.  The Oration continues:

“Moreover, I suspect you are insatiable, and that taking the ‘greater’ you would cut the nature in two, using the word ‘greater’ in every sense.  For the ‘greater’ does not apply to the nature but to the cause.  For nothing of those who are one in essence is greater or less in essence.”[6]

For Nazianzus and Lossky, there is an imperative apophatic dimension that must be foregrounded when discussing the Trinity.  This mode of theological negation distances eternal notions of “origination” from temporal discourse, with the former unplagued by inequality in substance.  When language is transposed into an eternal key, they relinquish their finite implications.  Thus, one can say that the Father is the Origin of the Son and Spirit in an modus operandi aeternam, that distinguishes “between nature and hypostases to preserve their mysterious equivalence.”[7]  This apophatic approach means that Lossky can declare that God is simultaneously both One and Three, Monad and Triad, without theological repercussions that lead to Trinitarian distortions.  Lossky emphasizes that the incomprehensibility of God, the very basis for apophatic methodology, “is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity.”[8]  In short, God’s “incomprehensibility appears as Trinity.”[9]

For Lossky, the apophatic way reinforces the Monarchy of the Father by divesting the language of “origination” of its temporal elements, thereby negating any and all subsequent implications of substantial difference and inequality between the Trinitarian Persons.  This “Eastern apophaticism jealously safeguards the antinomy of the trinitarian dogma, the mysterious identity of the Three-and-One” against the “Western” formulations of the filioque and ab utroque that stress the unity of nature at the cost of the personal plenitude of the Trinitarian persons.[10]  This Eastern correction is founded upon looking to the Father as the origin of the Godhead, which here has no temporal connotations, preserving the Triunity of God.  Lossky then asserts: “The monarchy of the Father – the unique source of the Persons in whom exist the infinite riches of the one nature – is always asserted.”[11] This doctrine is a cornerstone – if not the cornerstone – of Eastern Orthodox Trinitarian theology contra “Western” Trinitarianism.

It is quite striking that Lossky defers to Nazianzus in his articulations of the Monarchy of the Father when it is no secret that “[i]f one were to name one patristic author who influenced Lossky’s theological vision most, it would be Dionysius.”[12]  Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the mysterious 5th-6th century mystical theologian, and his work entitled The Mystical Theology, is a major inspiration for Lossky’s own The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.[13]  While speculation regarding the absence of some sources and linking these speculations to authorial intent is misguided, it is worth noting that Pseudo-Dionysius does offer his own version of the Monarchy of the Father.  In a work entitled The Divine Names, Pseudo-Dionysius asserts: “The Father is the only source of that Godhead which in fact is beyond being and the Father is not a Son nor is the Son a Father.”[14]  This statement – which appears to be congenial to Eastern Orthodox conceptions of the Monarchy of the Father – is later qualified in the same work when Pseudo-Dionysius states that “the Father is the originating source of the Godhead and that the Son and the Spirit are, so to speak, divine offshoots, the flowering and transcendent lights of the divinity.”[15]  There are several interpretive possibilities when engaging Pseudo-Dionysius’ claims here in relation to Nazianzus, with two under observation: first, one may understand these passages as “straight Cappadocian triadology”[16] or, second, incongruent with Nazianzus’ “koinonial approach” which renders “the Father as the origin of unity, not as the only source of divinity, as… Pseudo-Dionysius and later theologians [claim].”[17]  Whether Lossky detected some insufficiencies with Pseudo-Dionysius’ phraseology (like the ambiguity of “divine offshoots”) is, again, speculation.  What one does note is Lossky’s fence around the Monarchy of the Father is built upon a particularly Dionysian model of apophaticism, one that permeates his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church.

This Dionysian model of apophaticism arguably goes beyond the Cappadocian approach which, while containing a distinct and strong apophatic tendency, does not yet reach the negative heights of Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology which consistently highlights not only the failure of human speech, but also the failure of conceptual negation:

“While there are produced positions and denials of those after it, we neither position nor deny it.  Since, beyond all position is the all-complete and single cause of all; beyond all negation; the preeminence of that absolutely absolved from all and beyond the whole.”[18]

At the tail end of his discussion of the importance to maintain the Monarchy of the Father, Lossky asserts that “[a]pophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity.”[19]  Lossky’s interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius leads him to claim that one approaches God “by progressively setting aside all that can be known, in order to draw near to the Unknown in the darkness of absolute ignorance.”[20]  One should not import the more Thomistic understanding of negation as a dialectical partner alongside affirmative theology into Lossky’s (or Pseudo-Dionysius’) negative theology.[21]  Lossky, frustrated with Aquinas’ aforementioned appropriation of apophatic theology, argues at length that “apophatic theology surpasses cataphatic [theology],” and it is this Dionysian “apophaticism which constitutes the fundamental characteristic of the whole theological tradition of the Eastern Church.”[22]  This apophatic ascent means that Eastern Orthodox Christians “must abandon all that is impure and even all that is pure” in order to “attain in perfect ignorance” union with God “who transcends all being and all knowledge.”[23]  By relinquishing one’s hope of grasping some tangible knowledge of the Divine, one comes closer to this perfect ignorance.

Reaching back to the Cappadocians with a Dionysian hand, Lossky refers to Gregory of Nyssa, for whom “every concept relative to God is a simulacrum, a false likeness, an idol.”[24]  These concepts-as-idols bar the reader from coming into the place of a perfect knowledge of God, with the awareness of the incomprehensibility of God as the condition for a true “experience” (albeit a qualified term in Lossky’s work) of the Divine.[25]  Concepts-as-idols ultimately limit one’s apprehension of God within some comprehensible framework or analogy, which runs counter to the goals of Dionysian apophaticism.  Lossky definitively declares that apophaticism “is, above all, an attitude of mind which refuses to form concepts about God.”[26]  Drawing a portrait of climbing a mountain – a common one among Patristic literature rooted in Philo of Alexandria’s Life of Moses – each apophatic step to the height of Divine unknowing involves conceptual renunciation: God is not stone, nor fire, nor any materiality.[27]  Such claims are obvious.  Yet, climbing further, one even disavows some classical theistic claims: God is not Being, God is not the Good, for “it is necessary to guard against making them a concept, ‘an idol of God.’”[28]  For Lossky, apophaticism is not a prelude or postlude to theology, but a “fundamental attitude which transforms the whole of theology into a contemplation of the mysteries of revelation.”[29]  Yet this approach to theology does not lead to an abyss of experiential absence, but to the summit of Trinitarian experience, where one comes before the personal, Trinitarian God of Christian theology.[30]

The fundamental question of this article emerges at this point: does the Monarchy of the Father, which claims that the Father is the “source” of the Godhead, not fall into this category of concepts-as-idols?  Even Pseudo-Dionysius, the legendary negative theologian, makes room for such a concept within The Divine Names.  Yet what if one takes Pseudo-Dionysius’ apophaticism to its end so that, along with Nyssa’s recognition of concepts-as-idols, the Monarchy of the Father itself is knocked off its conceptual, and therefore idolatrous, pedestal?  In short, what if one reads Pseudo-Dionysius against both himself and Lossky (and, subsequently, the whole Eastern tradition which Lossky claims follows Pseudo-Dionysius’ apophaticism)?  Such a risky claim is found within the implication at the end Pseudo-Dionysius’ infamous work, The Mystical Theology, wherein the Areopagite asserts:

“[God] is not kingdom (ουτε βασιλεία)… nor sonhood nor fatherhood (ούτε υίότης ούτε πατρότης)…”[31]

If one is unable, at the heights of apophatic negation, to even speak of a kingdom or sonhood or fatherhood as proper knowledge of God, then no room is left to speak of the Monarchy of the Father.  A possible objection is that such apophatic extremism goes against Lossky’s proposal, since the Monarchy of the Father is purified of its analogical and conceptual baggage through a process of apophatic gutting, removing dangerous temporal notions of origination that imply temporality.  In short, this is a concept purified by the eternal transposition of finite concepts.[32] Yet this reading does not take seriously Lossky’s own claim that apophatic discourse “must abandon all that is impure and even all that is pure.”[33] Even the most purified of concepts cannot transcend being concepts.

One must keep in mind that Lossky prioritizes the Monarchy of the Father in a polemic to safeguard against the supposed Western prioritization of the One contra the prioritization of the Three Persons.  Lossky and the theologians who follow this train of thought, such as Metropolitan John Zizioulas,[34] detect that the impersonalism of an abstracted Divine Nature designates the hypostases of the Trinity to be a lesser reality, with a tendency towards semi-modalism.  Yet this binary – to begin with the Person of the Father or to begin with the one Divine nature – is itself a false binary that arises in this conceptual polemic.  This obsession with “source” and “cause” within the Godhead makes very little sense in the larger apophatic scheme that Lossky so obsessively articulates.  Taking seriously Lossky’s claim that at the summit of the apophatic heights is the Holy Trinity, one must understand the One and the Three as a simultaneity with no monarchial concept of origination at hand.  God is Trinity, the Trinity is God.  Further articulation falls into the land of scrutiny, with moments of nature/Person prioritization becoming unnecessary schemas which fundamentally misunderstand the eternality of God.  The language of God the Father as the eternal “source,” “origin,” and/or “cause” of the Son and Spirit, even as it exists within the Patristic and Eastern traditions, is itself not immune to negation.  In fact, the language becomes so incredibly qualified that it eventually means nothing: when speaking of eternal origins when “[t]he Father as a relational entity is inconceivable without the Son and the Spirit,”[35] since the Son and the Spirit are co-eternal in every way, renders the Monarchy of the Father a questionable doctrine in light of apophaticism.  Pseudo-Dionysius claims that nothing can ultimately be spoken of God which is not subject to scrutiny, so even these sacred formulations do not capture God, for they are mere concepts and when such concepts become fundamental to theological articulation of intraTrinitarian relations (as if humans may actually peek into eternity), then such concepts become idols.

What is left when one applies such a harsh apophaticism?  Does one go on to deny the Trinity as a concept-as-idol as well?  Is such a stance on apophaticism not subject to reductio ad absurdum?  Lossky’s assertion that God’s “incomprehensibility appears as Trinity” must be understood as the foundation for apophatic discourse, as the One-Three paradox is an affront to any type of rationalist analysis.  One then comes into the question of dogma and dogmatic boundaries, questions of how to interpret the claims which define the content and contours of what one may or may not say, especially within the Eastern Orthodox tradition which has its variegated history and reception of constructive theology within its dogmatic grammar.  Pseudo-Dionysius’ apophaticism, despite Lossky’s optimism, may actually reveal some of the concepts-as-idols which may still permeate Eastern Orthodox Christian discourse, especially as some have retroactively imported conclusions of Eastern-Western discourse back into Orthodox tradition as dogmatic formulations.  This proposal is another apophatic Trinitarianism, which takes seriously Lossky’s claim that the Trinity is at the height of the apophatic summit, while also reflecting on what can be discarded in the journey to the peak of Divine experience.  To take the Dionysian claim that there is no kingdom in God, not even a purified understanding of kingdom, means that an eternal Monarchy cannot be left unquestioned.


[1] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1976), 62.
[2] Ibid., 63.
[3] Ibid., 63.
[4] Ibid.  Author’s italics.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40.43.
[7] Lossky, Mystical Theology, 63.
[8] Ibid., 64.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 240.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Paul Gavrilyuk, “The Reception of Dionysius in Twentieth-Century Eastern Orthodoxy,” Modern Theology 24:4 (October 2008), 713.
[13] Lossky, Mystical Theology, 23.
[14] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names 2.5 in Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works (The Classics of Western Spirituality), Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987), 62.
[15] Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names 2.7; Complete Works, 64.
[16] Alexander Golitzin, Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita (Cistercian Studies Series: Number Two Hundred Fifty), ed. and with the collaboration of Bogdan G Bucur (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 32.
[17] Najeeb Awad, God Without a Face? On the Personal Individuation of the Holy Spirit (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 125.  Emphasis mine.
[18] Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology V in Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite, The Divine Names and Mystical Theology, trans. John D. Jones (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University, 2011), 222.
[19] Lossky, Mystical Theology, 64.
[20] Ibid., 25.
[21] Ibid., 26.  Cf. Gregory P. Rocca, O.P., Speaking of the Incomprehensible God: Thomas Aquinas on the Interplay of Positive and Negative Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2004).
[22] Lossky, Mystical Theology, 26.
[23] Ibid., 27.
[24] Ibid., 33.
[25] Ibid., 34.
[26] Ibid., 38-39.
[27] Ibid., 40.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 42.
[30] Ibid., 43.
[31] Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology V in Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names and Mystical Theology, 221.
[32] I would like to thank Fr Aidan Kimel for raising this objection.
[33] Lossky, Mystical Theology, 27.
[34] Zizioulas does follow a different pattern of nuance, however: “…the person of the Father does not cause sameness (ousia connotes something common, i.e., sameness, within the Trinity) but otherness, i.e., personhood.”  John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 130n53.  However, Zizioulas seems to be overmining the concept of Person and imputing that to the Trinitarian persons.
[35] Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, 122.

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