The Concept of the Person in Orthodox Theology 

Now all this may seem a lit­tle abstract, so I will give you an exam­ple of how these kinds of ten­den­cies in mod­ern thought led to a con­crete propo­si­tion. It is in the realm of pol­i­tics. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, two polit­i­cal mod­els dom­i­nat­ed, one cap­i­tal­ist and the oth­er com­mu­nist. Those who want­ed to empha­size the idea of the per­son in polit­i­cal life turned against both of these mod­els. Cap­i­tal­ism, they said, was hyper-indi­vid­u­al­is­tic and con­sumerist. The needs of oth­ers and the com­mu­ni­ty were set aside in favor of each indi­vid­ual and his desires or wants. It was a self­ish and ulti­mate­ly self-destruc­tive path. Com­mu­nism (and oth­er total­i­tar­i­an regimes), on the oth­er hand, were just as bad if not worse because they made the per­son sim­ply a cog or gear in the wider machine of soci­ety, some­thing dis­pens­able and not tru­ly unique and irreplaceable.

What the so-called per­son­al­ists want­ed was a mid­dle way, a polit­i­cal sys­tem that affirmed the val­ue and irre­ducibil­i­ty of every human being (against total­i­tar­i­an regimes), but which at the same time main­tained that human beings could only tru­ly be them­selves in con­junc­tion or com­mu­nion with oth­er human beings (against the cap­i­tal­ist mod­el). A prod­uct of this move­ment, which you may have come across, is the UN Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights, a doc­u­ment large­ly writ­ten by these per­son­al­is­tic thinkers. 

How­ev­er, while some degree of sim­i­lar­i­ty can be seen between these ideas and what we have in Ortho­doxy, the sim­i­lar­i­ty can­not be pushed too far. We know for a start that Ortho­doxy is not about cre­at­ing a polit­i­cal sys­tem: our ‘sys­tem’ is the life in Christ, and our insti­tu­tion is the Church. But beyond this ques­tion of pol­i­tics, I would like to lay out sev­er­al prin­ci­ples of the Ortho­dox approach to and under­stand­ing of the per­son (born of its dog­mat­ic the­ol­o­gy) which can help us to dis­tin­guish the par­tic­u­lar Ortho­dox under­stand­ing from the ideas of var­i­ous non-Ortho­dox or non-Chris­t­ian the­o­rists about per­son and per­son­hood. I will begin with three prin­ci­ples that relate to Divine Per­son­hood (i.e. the Trin­i­ty) and then bring up three prin­ci­ples that relate to human personhood. 

Divine Personhood

1. First prin­ci­ple: The being of God, Father, Son and Holy Spir­it is inher­ent­ly rela­tion­al and in communion. 

Many peo­ple in the world affirm a belief in God as the Per­son­al Absolute, but the One God for them is also One Per­son. This is obvi­ous­ly the case for Judaism and Islam: Mus­lims and Jews affirm a belief in a per­son­al God, but deny the Trin­i­ty. But even peo­ple who claim to be Chris­t­ian will often speak of God as the Father and not believe in the Trin­i­ty. In the ear­ly church, when Arius put for­ward the hereti­cal view that Christ the Son of God was a crea­ture, one of the key argu­ments against him made by St Athana­sius and oth­ers was that the name “Father” implied the name “Son” from all eter­ni­ty. There was no time or age when God was not Father, and the Per­son of the Father implies the Per­son of the Son. In oth­er words, God as “per­son” or “per­son­al” implies “per­sons”, more­over per­sons in lov­ing and total com­mu­nion (He who has seen Me has seen the Father…I am in the Father and the Father in me (John 14:9,11)).

On a side note here, we should be wary of the ten­den­cy among many in mod­ern soci­ety to speak of the three “Abra­ham­ic Reli­gions”, mean­ing by this term Chris­tian­i­ty, Judaism, and Islam. There is only one reli­gion of Abra­ham: Chris­tian­i­ty. As Christ Him­self declares, Abra­ham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad (John 8:56). There is only one God of Abra­ham, and that is the Holy Trin­i­ty, Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it. Those who deny Christ do not wor­ship the God of Abra­ham. I say this because it is inti­mate­ly linked to the con­cept of divine per­son­hood. For Mus­lims or Jews (and many hereti­cal Chris­tians), the God of Abra­ham can­not be the pre-eter­nal Father of the pre-eter­nal Son: their con­cept of God as per­son will not allow it, which betrays an erro­neous indi­vid­u­al­is­tic con­cept of the per­son­al God. 

The Ortho­dox posi­tion main­tains that the per­son­al God is tru­ly one in essence, life, and ener­gy, but as per­son­al implies rela­tion (σχέσις) and com­mu­nion (κοινωνία), the rev­e­la­tion of the Father through Christ in the Holy Spir­it is the basis for our the­o­log­i­cal artic­u­la­tion of Trini­tar­i­an dog­ma. In the Church, we know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spir­it as dis­tinct yet unit­ed with­out divi­sion or con­fu­sion. Since the Three Per­sons are unit­ed in nature and attrib­ut­es, the only pos­i­tive way to dis­tin­guish them is on the basis of their rela­tions one to anoth­er. The Father begets, the Son is begot­ten of the Father, and the Holy Spir­it pro­ceeds from the Father.

This leads me to make anoth­er side note. Some Chris­tians believe it is per­mis­si­ble to sub­sti­tute the names of Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it for three dif­fer­ent names, such as “Cre­ator, Redeemer, Sus­tain­er.” Some Protes­tants and even for a time cer­tain Roman Catholics began bap­tiz­ing with these new, non-tra­di­tion­al names. Of course, we can imme­di­ate­ly reject such an inno­va­tion on the basis of both Scrip­ture and Tra­di­tion. On a the­o­log­i­cal lev­el, the inno­va­tion does not make sense either. The terms “Cre­ator”, “Redeemer”, and “Sus­tain­er” are not personal/proper names but attrib­ut­es or activ­i­ties of God, and we know that all attrib­ut­es or activ­i­ties of God are shared by all three per­sons of the Trin­i­ty. Thus all three per­sons are Cre­ator (the Father cre­ates through the Son in the Holy Spir­it), all three take part in redemp­tion (the Father sends His only-Begot­ten Son who after His ascen­sion sends the Spir­it upon mankind), and all three are active in sus­tain­ing the world. The Prop­er Names of the Per­sons of the Trin­i­ty are the Names which denote or point to the rela­tion with the oth­er Per­sons, and so they can­not be altered.