A Question of Personhood

I have been thinking about the issues of personhood a lot these days – mostly through Jonathan Edwards – and how one’s understanding of what a person is, and what “human” entails, often does a lot of work in one’s theology. In an attempt to feed my inquiry, Oxford was kind enough to send me Lucian Turcescu’s Gregory of Nyssa and the Concept of Divine Persons. I would like to use some of Turcescu’s reflections on Gregory to talk a bit more broadly about the concept of personhood and how it functions theologically. Taking a look at Gregory of Nyssa will hopefully prove instructive as more and more theologians scan the horizon of Cappadocian theology for answers concerning trinitarian personhood and theology.

To begin, Turcescu offers a broad definition of a person: “A person is ‘an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence.’” He, furthermore, suggests that prior to the Cappadocian work on the Trinity there was not a notion of “person” in circulation. Therefore, it is a mistake to assume modern beliefs about willing personal agents and apply that wholesale as a starting assumption. Starting with God for instance, Turcescu suggests that it would be tautological to speak of free will in God for the Cappadocians. He quotes Gregory as saying “God continually wills to be what he is and is adequately what he wills to be.” This, to our sensibilities, is a very troubling comment, but we’ll see how that develops in Gregory’s thought. As many conceive it, God is who God is in pure act, as a category of being not will. On the other hand, God’s action ad extra is usually seen to function in the register of will and not being.

Gregory functioned on the belief that humanity, and by extension, personhood, is not degreed. In other words, it is impossible to be more or less human – this, we should note – is not the case in much of modern theology and is certainly worth discussing. Trinitarian personhood is developed by Gregory through origin and “properties” related to origin. For instance, concerning the Spirit Turcescu states,

The Spirit in turn can be described as a unique collection of the following properties: has his being from the Father, that is, proceeds from the Father, and he is known after the Son and with the Son. Gregory seems to imply here that the unique collection of properties is both that by which the person is known or identified and that by which the person is constituted as distinct” (57).

Turcescu goes on to address how the divine persons are not merely collections of properties but actual persons. Gregory invokes the concept of communion to somehow bridge these ideas. How is this so? Turcescu explains: …it is the communion among these persons that makes them persons. The dynamics of communion are expressed not only in relations of origin among the divine persons but also in their love for each other, perfect knowledge of each other, perfect accord of will, and all other perichoretic activities.” In Gregory’s Ad Petrum, which is the work Turcescu initially addresses (and which our discussion has followed), Turcescu picks out five major points concerning the concept of divine persons: First, the relation of divine persons to the divine ousia runs parallel with the relation between an individual and universal; second, divine persons are understood as collections of unique properties; third, divine persons are relational entities; fourth, distinctions among the divine persons follows the delineations of origin; and fifth, the divine persons have a permanent and perfect communion with one another (60). It is only this last factor which allows them to be living persons rather than simply a unique collection of properties.

There are certainly many aspects of this account which sound familiar. Turcescu is going to turn to other treatises to look for a progression in Gregory’s work with specific reference to the concept of personhood. I’m not sure I like the use of properties in the fashion he suggests, but it runs throughout the tradition. Any thoughts about this?

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10 thoughts on “A Question of Personhood

  1. Hi,

    Here are some random, and perhaps not too relevant thoughts:

    I too am not comfortable with property talk in this context. One problem with such talk is that it seems to suggest that the divine persons are persons just like you and me but have some really neat properties added to them to turn them into divine persons.

    One way to think about this is in terms of Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of things and properties. On a Platonic conceptions the above picture may make some sense. Person is univocal. If S is a person and S* is a person, then S and S* are persons. That is, it does not matter what kind of person S or S* is. Being a person is the same for all persons.

    On an Aristotelian conception the above conditional is not necessary true (i.e. if S is a person and S* is a person, then S and S* are persons is not necessarily true). The reason is that person is not, in general, univocal, and so it may (slightly) change meaning within the conditional statement. That is, being a divine person and being a human person are not different species in the same genus of persons (genus–persons; species–divine or human or angelic or …). Instead a divine person is only analogically related to a human person. It is simply impossible to add properties to a generic person and somehow wind up with a divine person.

    So, on the Aristotelian conception the property talk is misleading since its the individual (or kind) that determines which properties the thing can have in the first place. And since the kind (if I may so call it) divine person is not the same kind as human person there is no chance of the properties of the former kind have much to do with the properties of the latter kind (if it even makes literal sense to talk of divine persons having properties at all).

    • David, those are some of the questions I was trying to point to. I think you are right, there are some serious questions here that, in my mind, end up doing a lot of work for one’s theology. If you have a chance, could you spell out the Aristotelian model a bit more? I hadn’t heard that before. Thanks!

  2. Hi Kyle,

    On the Aristotelian model (as I understand or better as I incorporate it) the notion of analogy or homonymy plays an important role. The paradigmatic example here is health. It makes sense to say that John is healthy, that the dinner is healthy and that John’s urine is healthy. But the last two uses of health are related to the first and the first is what allows or the last two to make any sense. The primary meaning or role of health has to do with properly functioning organisms. A dinner is health to the degree that it contributes to an organism’s health and urine is healthy to the degree that it reveal the health of the organism. So, the last two uses of health are derivative. The first use (John is healthy) is primary or fundamental. Because of this the following inference is invalid:
    John is healthy.
    The meal is healthy.
    Hence, John and the meal are healthy.

    It’s invalid because healthy does not have the same sense in each of the premises. No doubt all of this is so far familar. But notice that the same is likely true with respect to the following inference:

    God is wise
    John is wise
    Hence, God and John are wise.

    Just as the first inference is invalid so is this one and for similar reasons. God is wisdom, but John is not. Whenever we attribute a feature that we are familar with to God, we are almost always (I’d say always) guaranteed to run into the above kind of invalid inference. On a Platonic construal every feature has a paradigm that it is an instance of. So, the above inferences will turn out valid. But on the Aristotelian picture it’s a mistake to think that when we predicate F of a human and F of some other kind of substance, F is idential throughout. The substance of the thing transforms the Fness of that thing. For example, while it is true that humans are animals we are not animals in the same sense as cows or dogs are. Our animality is radically transformed by our rationality and our sociality. We might put it like this: our animality is saturated with our rationality in such a way that the same practices that all animals typically engage in are radically tranformed in the life of a rational animal. For example, sex and eating are comman activities animals engage in. But humans can engage in these activities in a rational way whereas bees or dogs cannot. Thus the activities themselves are different depending on the nature of the substance that engages in them.

    Here’s another way to think of all of this (and this relates to something you gesture towards in your most recent post): For the Aristotelian, various activities or features or parts of an organism must be analysed or understood in light of an understanding or apprehension of the the nature of the organism. In this way the whole preceeds the part or the activity or feature.

    Now getting to the theological stuff we have to be careful when we attempt to attribute features to God that are also features of His creatures. His nature transforms these features in such a way that they do not have the same sort of application to Him that they do to the creature. I suspect being a person is one such example. God is the paradigmatic person (or to avoid heresy God is paradigmatically personal) and all other persons are analogically related to Him.

    I hope this helps. If it doesn’t please say so. this has been helpful for me too.

  3. Hi Kyle,

    I can’t think of anything on this. What I said about persons is my own attempt to apply some of this stuff to persons. Of course, Aquinas has a nice discussion of the doctrine of analogy in ST. prima pars Q13.

  4. Kyle, just a few thoughts… You write:

    To begin, Turcescu offers a broad definition of a person: “A person is ‘an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence.’”

    I find that this definition narrows it down to much. It is true that ‘an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence’ is a person. But it’s not true that a person necessarily is ‘an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence.’ That would leave out divine and angelic persons. (And eventually rational ‘alien’ persons.)

    It seems to me that it’s better to use Boethius’ definition, found in chapter 4 of his treatise against Eutyches and Nestorius. There he considers the two greek terms οὐσία (ousia, ‘nature’) and ὑποστασις (hypostasis, ‘person’). He defines οὐσία as “the specific property of any substance” and ὑποστασις as “the individual substance of a rational nature.” A person would then be a substance with a particular/specific rational nature. Which, it seems to me, would include God and the Angels. (And eventually rational ‘aliens.’)

    • Yeah, I found his definition to be a bit odd as well. As I recall, he wanted to focus the definition in such a way that would allow for communion to be essential to personhood – although it has been a while since I’ve looked at that.

      • “As I recall, he wanted to focus the definition in such a way that would allow for communion to be essential to personhood.” This, it seems to me, would be a category confusion. In philosophy one uses precise language. So communion in a strict sense isn’t ‘essential’ to personhood. A person is a substance. But one could say that persons are destined for communion. That to be out of communion would mean to be an ‘unfullfilled person.’ But a person nonetheless. But that works fine with the old definition.

        And I fail to see how “an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity” is more open to communion.

        • Actually, there is nothing about the idea of “person” that makes it metaphysically necessary to be deemed an individual substance – particularly when you are working with trinitarian theology – seeking to define personhood from the top-down rather than the bottom-up.

          Again, as I recall, his definition is seeking to define personhood in such a way that takes into consideration the triune persons who share a common essence but have true personal properties nonetheless. I imagine that indivisible, unique and non-replicable unity are ways to try and achieve a common ground with trinitarian thought that could have meaningful import into anthropology. Doing so might seem odd, even arbitrary, but it is certainly not imprecise simply because it isn’t intuitive.

  5. First, is there any problem with the three divine persons being substances or subsistences?

    Second, my problem with Turcescu’s definition lies in the bolded part: “[A person is] an indivisible, unique and therefore non-replicable unity in human existence.”

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