The Concept of the Person in Orthodox Theology 

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.