2. Divine Persons are not centers of consciousness.
The second principle of the Orthodox approach to divine personhood I would like to highlight relates to the idea of consciousness. In the West, the concept of the person is so bound up with consciousness and self-reflexivity that the Orthodox idea seems completely incomprehensible. Without wishing to generalize too much, the idea put forward by Boethius in the sixth century that a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature” has dominated the Western understanding of personhood. The emphasis on person as a rational individual has spilled over into psychology, where virtually all models of personality are built around the assumption that persons are centers of consciousness. But this idea is foreign to Orthodox dogmatic theology. The persons of the Trinity are not independent centers of consciousness: they share, in the fullness of love, one mind, one thought, one life in every respect. The Orthodox thus do not, as some critics assert, believe in the Trinity as “three people” who happen to get along: this is tritheism, a form of polytheism. I will leave this point here, as the idea will occur again when we look at principles of human personhood.
3. The Monarchy of the Father
The third principle I would like to mention with regard to divine personhood is the Monarchy of the Father. Μοναρχία is a Greek word that simply means single source or one source. Some non-Orthodox theologians have been attracted by the idea of divine persons in communion as expounded by certain Orthodox like Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) and Vladimir Lossky. They often dislike, however, the idea that the communion within the Trinity is still linked by the Orthodox to the person of the Father. This distaste usually springs from a politically correct desire not to over-emphasize the Father over the others (too patriarchal), and the wish to avoid subordinationism in the Trinity. Subordinationism is the idea that one person in the Trinity is better than the others, or that there is a set rank of persons (first, second, third; gold, silver, bronze).
These criticisms, however, are misguided. The insistence by the Fathers of the Church on the Monarchy of the Father has nothing to do with the idea that the Father is better than the Others, or that He has some kind of monopoly over the divine life. It is simply an affirmation of the Father’s function as personal source in God. Just because the Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father does not make them subordinate or less than the Father. A distinction of relation does not imply a distinction of rank or any inequality.
I have laid out a few principles of Orthodox dogmatic theology regarding the Divine persons, but I would like to add here that we need to be careful not to speculate about these matters beyond our feeble measure. We can take as a warning here the theology of Fr Sergius Bulgakov in the early twentieth century. His speculations regarding the concept of Sophia/Wisdom in God led him ultimately to compromise the Orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. In the end, we know the Holy Trinity through the prayer and worship life of the Church, not through our own intellectual efforts.
Let me turn now to the other side of this discussion, namely human personhood. We have spoken much about the divine persons and a little about modern and Western efforts to define human personhood. It is time to consider three Orthodox principles to help us clarify the true meaning of human personhood.
Christ is the only true person.
As Orthodox Christians, we know that there is nothing beyond Christ. Whether we want to know the measure of who God is or the measure of man, we find all our answers in Christ, perfect God and perfect man. The centrality of Christ in our understanding of human personhood cannot be overemphasized. But this might seem confusing: if Christ is a divine person, how can he be the model of human personhood? There are a few points to be made here. First, we are created in the image of Christ our God. St Nicholas Cabasilas makes the point that “the old Adam is not a model for the New Adam [i.e. Christ], but the new is a model for the old”. That is, from the beginning man was made according to the image of his archetype, who is ultimately the Incarnate Son. The Son of God made man is our access to personhood, our means to personhood. We can only fulfill the divine image and likeness within us in Him. As Christ himself tells us, no man cometh to the Father, but by me (John 14:6).
I am making this point forcefully because there are those who speak in a rather abstract way about human beings as persons after the pattern of the Holy Trinity. They speak as though human beings have a kind of innate capacity to live like the Trinity, and they use Trinitarian doctrine to create sociological or political theories. But this is misguided. Such thinking misinterprets and lowers Trinitarian theology to a human level, as if an idealized human society could compare with the ineffable life of the Godhead! No. Our world is a fallen world and it cannot save itself. It does not have the capacity for true personhood in and of itself. As we saw, divine personhood implies a total communion in which each person of the Trinity bears the fullness of the life and nature of the other persons, a life of such love that no interval can be conceived between them; the Three are One.
Human beings are indeed blessed with the image of God, and this image is directed towards the exalted goal of sharing in the life of Trinity, but crucially, this image finds its only true rest and fulfillment through filial adoption [the adoption of sons] in Christ, through being called sons by grace through Him who is Son by nature. In other words, we do not become persons by making a more just society here below, through moral progress or international peace treaties. We cannot realize our personhood through the cultivation or refinement of our natural gifts separate from Christ, whether they be scientific, intellectual, or physical gifts. We become true persons when we put off the old man and are clothed with the new, when we are reborn as children of God.