The Concept of the Person in Orthodox Theology 

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.