A Brief Theology of Personhood

Tabor College, 23.10.2007

1. Background

A philosophical comment – “person” as a primitive term i.e. it cannot be explained by anything more basic.  In this paper “person” is used in an ontological sense, it has to do with human being.  “Personality” is a psychological/experiential term (contingent).

The development of the concept of the person in Western (and universal) history is tied to the development of Trinitarian theology.  In Graeco- Roman thought the person was always subordinated at the level of existence to a more fundamental entity e.g. state, community, soul (Platonism).  The revelation of the truth of personhood as the constitutive element of human being required a revelation of the Trinitarian God who stood outside of the closed ontology of a world of necessities.

2. Knowing and Being

In the order of knowing we may be aware first of human personhood.  In the order of being, God’s eternal tri-personhood exists prior to the creation of humanity in the divine image.  The distinction between the order of knowing and being is only overcome in the revelation of “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) as the Son of God.

3. The Persons of the Trinity

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

Western Trinitarian thought has coined the expression Persona est relatio (Aquinas) to describe the Persons of the trinity.   This means that personhood is pure relationality, relationships are what constitute the Persons.  The Persons in – exist (perichoresis) in an absolute sense, they do not exist then relate.  In more biblical terms, the Father, Son and Spirit (Rom 15:30; Col 1:8) love one another eternally and absolutely, this is the essence of their being as Persons.

4. The Fall from True Personhood

Humanity was created in the image of the personal God (Gen 1:26- 28).  Since God conveyed to Adam the whole of his personhood in his Word (Gen 2:17), the attempt to become “like God” (Gen 3:4) without God meant the loss of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). This was the death of participating in the being of God as Father through the revelation of the Word in the Spirit.

Lost humanity is without God (2 Chron 15:3; Eph 2:12), and must define its personhood by reference to its own self- awareness and volition in the realm of “good and evil”. Martin Luther spoke of the fallen nature of humanity as incurvitas in se, the circle that turns in upon itself, in action and desire and spiritual purpose: it sees no goal in its existence but itself and everything else is good only to satisfy the personal purpose. The end result of this is ultimate solitude, that is, hell.

5. Jesus as the Fully Realised Human Person

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:37- 39)

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (John 10:17)

“I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, 31 but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.” (John 14:30- 31)

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

The fully realized person would have to love as perfectly and absolutely as God loves, and under the conditions which God loves.  These are the circumstances of grace and wrath.  Throughout his life Jesus fully loved his Father and other humans.  This however could not effect a change in the fallen character of personhood outside of himself, since in his personal history he remained a confined individual and outside of the full limits of God’s love and judgement.

Jesus’ personhood is “made perfect” (Heb 2:10; 5:9) only because he completely loves his Father and humanity on the cross in the context of the destruction of the “flesh” he had assumed in the Incarnation (John 1:14; Rom 8:3).  Here he makes his self totally available (“he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” Isa 53:12) to the Father as an object of infinite judgement for mercy on behalf of God’s honour and for the salvation of humanity.  In his substitutionary death Jesus was made by the Father to be a complete world related person.  Paradoxically he dies for the world as an expression of the love of God (John 1:29;3:16; 2 Cor 5:19) and as one cut off or unrelated to the world and the love of God (Mark 15:34; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13)

The resurrection and ascension of Jesus is the completion of his personhood by the Father.  As one seated at the right hand of God he is intimately related by the Spirit (John 16:7; Acts 2:33 etc.) to all of creation over which he has authority (Matt 28:18; John 17:2; Heb 2:5- 9).  He upholds the universe (Heb 1:3) and directs “all things” (Eph 1:9 – 11;Col 1:16- 17) to the final personal goal of sharing the glory of God (1 Pet 4:13;Rev 21:11).

6. Christian Personhood

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9)

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

“And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2)

All human beings participate to a degree in the personhood of the God- man Jesus Christ because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  He is the mediator of the Father’s presence among humanity, even where this is unrecognized (Acts 17:22-31; Eph 4:6).

Christian personhood is a participation (“by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” 2 Pet 1:4) through the Spirit in the glorified humanity of Jesus Christ in his relationship with the Father.  (This is what the New Testament means by “sonship” e.g. Gal 4:4- 6.)

As the Persons of the Trinity only exist in one another, the personhood of the Christian exists only “in Christ” who is “in God” (Col 3:3).  As such their personhood is part of the new creation and eternal (2 Cor 5:17).  This reality is imparted to the believer by the Spirit through participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, both as crisis (conversion) and process (sanctification) (Rom 6:1- 14; Gal 2:20 etc.).  Through salvation a Christian is progressively transformed from self- relatedness to O/other relatedness.  The marks or signs of such a genuine transformation include love for God, other believers, lost persons and the “all things” that Christ has redeemed (Col 1:19- 20).

To be a “Christian person” is to be open to a limitless horizon, both cosmically and eschatologically.  This will outwork and deepen itself through devotion to the Word, prayer and holistic mission according to the leading of the Spirit of God.

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