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?