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.
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.