By Dr Alexis Torrance
In the summer of 2016 delegations from some of the world’s autocephalous Orthodox churches met on the Greek island of Crete. One of the questions discussed was the Orthodox understanding of the human person and it became evident that widely divergent views were held. This contention had already emerged in some of the discussions held preparatory to the meeting and as a result were commented on in detail in advance of the Crete gathering in a statement issued by the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Their statement in turn referred to the work of Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos of the Orthodox Church of Greece.
To help illuminate further our understanding of this vital issue we offer here a lecture given at Holy Trinity Seminary (Jordanville, NY) in March 2013. This lecture first appeared in Orthodox Life Vols 64.3 and 64.4.
When dealing with dogmatics in Orthodox Theology, we are bound to address the concept of the person. When we solemnly confess God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided, we are affirming the centrality of the concept of person in Theology. God is Three Persons in One Nature, revealed to us in and through Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. But what is the significance of this statement of faith? What does it tell us about God and about man? These are the questions I wish to take up here. In doing so, I will try to alert you to several erroneous opinions about the concept of the person that are common in modern thought, and how the Orthodox understanding responds to these opinions. I will begin with the basis of an Orthodox understanding of the person, namely the dogmas of the Trinity and Christology. I apologize for going over ideas that are almost certainly familiar to you, but it is necessary, by way of a preamble, to deal just briefly with these two central dogmatic questions.
The Trinity and Christology as the Basis of Personhood
As mentioned, the doctrine of the Trinity is the principal basis for Orthodox dogmatic understanding of the person. The formulation whereby God is described as a Trinity of Persons (hypostases in Greek) in One Essence/Nature (ousia or physis in Greek) arose in the early church from the need to express the truth that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were each fully God and distinct, and at the same time there were not Three Gods but One God. The Trinitarian dogma is of course a great mystery, a “primordial fact” as Vladimir Lossky and other Orthodox theologians express it, and in our fallen world we cannot properly grasp it. Our fathers in the faith, however, did use some analogies from this world to help us in our understanding. One analogy is of the sun, its rays/light, and its heat: we can distinguish these three aspects of the object we call “the sun”, but we do not thereby say that the sun is three different things: the sun is one, while its aspects are three. This is a faint analogy, and the church fathers recognized that it can only go so far: if we push this analogy to the extreme, we might be tempted to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three modes of one overarching entity. This is the heresy of Sabellianism or Modalism.
The saints thus sometimes also used other analogies, like that of three men. If we consider three men, such as Peter, James, and John, we have three distinct persons, and yet they all share a common essence/nature (human nature). They may be three in one sense, but they are also one in nature. Again, however, we cannot push this analogy too far: God is Three Persons, but unlike fallen human beings, each divine person bears in full not only the nature but also the attributes or energies of the other two. In other words, while we can distinguish between Peter, James, and John as individuals on the basis of height, weight, hair color, profession, family, etc, the Trinity is not divided up into three “individuals” in this way: they share an absolute oneness of mind, will, and life. If we were to deny this, we would fall into the heresy of tritheism (i.e. that there are three gods). We thus have analogies, but they can lead us only so far. In the end, perhaps our best approach has been offered by St Andrew of Crete in his Great Canon, which we will be serving next week when Great Lent starts. There St Andrew repeatedly uses phrases such as “Light and Lights, Life and Lives, One Holy and Three Holies” to describe God: we need to hold the oneness and threeness together in our faith.