Icon of the Nativity of Christ

The Concept of the Person in Orthodox Theology 

I men­tioned the doc­trine of the Trin­i­ty as inform­ing us about the con­cept of the per­son, but we need also to touch on the doc­trine of Christ, Chris­tol­ogy. Togeth­er with the dog­ma that God is Trin­i­ty one in essence, the Church also affirms that Christ, the Son of God, is one per­son in two natures after the Incar­na­tion. He is ful­ly God and ful­ly man, but he is not there­by two dif­fer­ent peo­ple at once: he is always one Per­son, the Sec­ond Per­son of the Trin­i­ty, who takes on human nature, assum­ing it into his per­son and redeem­ing it through his life, death, and res­ur­rec­tion. The idea that Christ was a con­junc­tion or union of two per­sons was the heresy of Nesto­rius. We need to bear in mind anoth­er group of here­sies, how­ev­er, that of Apol­li­nar­i­an­ism, mono­physitism, monotheletism, and mono­en­er­gism. In all these Christ as one Per­son (the Son of God) is affirmed, but they each claim in one way or anoth­er that after the Incar­na­tion, Christ can­not be said to have a full and com­plete human nature. The rea­son they main­tained this heresy was that they were afraid that allow­ing a full and com­plete human nature to Christ would mean that he was two per­sons after all. This betrays a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the con­cept of the per­son. For clar­i­ty, let us take as an exam­ple one of these here­sies, monotheletism. Here Christ is said to have only one will, the divine will, and not a human will. The main rea­son for this was because they thought that if you gave Christ a human will, he would there­by become two dif­fer­ent per­sons and no longer be one per­son. By impli­ca­tion, they thus reduced the con­cept of the per­son (the human per­son at least) to the idea of the will: your human will is what makes you a person.

Here we begin to move away from the con­cept of the per­son in the Trin­i­ty alone and begin to touch on the con­cept of the human per­son. The Ortho­dox nev­er admit­ted these here­sies I have men­tioned, because they knew that the human per­son can­not be reduced to any par­tic­u­lar aspect of his nature, nor to his nature as a whole. They also knew that Christ came to heal every part of human nature: he did not leave any­thing out. In any case, what is impor­tant for us here is the idea that the per­son or hyposta­sis is irre­ducible to nature, both in God him­self as we have seen (the Per­sons of the Trin­i­ty each bear the whole of the Divine Nature, and are not reduced to this or that part of it), but also in mankind (the human person/hypostasis can­not be reduced to one part of human nature or even to the whole of human nature).

The Concept of the Person in Modern Thought 

Trini­tar­i­an and Chris­to­log­i­cal dog­ma is the Ortho­dox bedrock for approach­ing the con­cept of the per­son. How­ev­er, it is not only the Ortho­dox who have con­sid­ered and devel­oped this con­cept. In what fol­lows I will out­line some of the devel­op­ments regard­ing the con­cept of the per­son in recent cen­turies, and try to high­light where the Ortho­dox stand in these debates. 

Par­tic­u­lar­ly in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies, the con­cept of the per­son has loomed large in philo­soph­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal enquiry, espe­cial­ly (at var­i­ous times) in West­ern Europe, USA, Rus­sia, and Greece. There is a wide range of moti­vat­ing fac­tors for this, and a wide range of results. There are also some com­mon denom­i­na­tors we can bear in mind. Whether the moti­va­tion was philo­soph­i­cal, the­o­log­i­cal, or polit­i­cal, those who empha­sized the notion of the per­son and per­son­hood were wor­ried by ideas that rel­e­gat­ed or abol­ished the con­cept of the per­son and the per­son­al in God, man, and the world. In reac­tion, they made the idea of the per­son the basic axis around which The­ol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics, and so on, should work.

This inter­est in the con­cept of the per­son had some good sides, even if it did not nec­es­sar­i­ly yield a com­pre­hen­sive Ortho­dox posi­tion. Through this move­ment, empha­sis was placed on sev­er­al themes that over­lap with the Ortho­dox under­stand­ing of the per­son. First, per­son­hood was linked to the idea of free­dom. To be a per­son implies free­dom over and against any mech­a­nis­tic or fatal­is­tic process. Thus, to state that God is a per­son­al God meant that God was free and had true free­dom: He was not bound by any supra-per­son­al or imper­son­al neces­si­ty; He could not be coerced by any exter­nal force. Sec­ond, per­sons were affirmed as irre­ducible to any­thing else. To be a per­son in the image of the per­son­al God was to have an intrin­sic worth or val­ue that one could not over­ride with anoth­er inter­est or con­cern. Third, the idea of the per­son was dis­tin­guished from the idea of the indi­vid­ual: to be an indi­vid­ual meant to be alone, atom­istic, self­ish, and sep­a­rate from oth­ers. To be a per­son, on the oth­er hand, implied rela­tion­ship and com­mu­ni­ty or com­mu­nion in love. Being a per­son meant being in com­mu­nion with oth­ers, and the ful­fill­ment of per­son­hood could only be found in lov­ing rela­tion­ship (first with God, then with one’s neigh­bor), nev­er in iso­la­tion. True per­sons were thus nev­er alone.