Volume 45 - Issue 2

Christ and the Concept of Person

By Lydia Jaeger


The concept of personhood is crucial for our understanding of what it is to be human. This article considers the ways that Christological debates in the early Church contributed to the emergence of the concept of person. It then suggests that neglect of the theological roots of this concept is the reason why modern definitions of person are unsatisfactory. The latter typically refer to particular properties of the individual, whereas the Trinitarian concept of person is relational. Finally, some ethical implications are drawn from the Christological insight that the person is a fundamental ontological category. In particular, this perspective defends the personhood of those who do not meet the criteria of modern definitions of person.

Asking what it means to be human may be as old as humankind itself.1 Many conflicting views of human nature are on offer. Philosophy of mind has occupied a significant place in the debates. Much of these debates have been shaped by the monism-dualism dichotomy and varieties of these two opposing conceptions. Although challenging arguments abound, and there is much fruitful discussion, the possibility of consensus appears remote, even among those who share the same religious worldview. The time may therefore be ripe for a change of paradigm, a hunt for new insights that could help us to move out of well-worn ruts of discussion. The present article seeks to meet this challenge, by bringing together two intellectual worlds that hardly ever meet: philosophy of mind, and patristic theology. The hope is that this endeavor might indicate fresh directions to explore in our understanding of ourselves, whilst also throwing new light on old debates.

The present article focuses on the concept of person, which is key to our understanding of ourselves as human beings. It also played a decisive role in the fierce controversies that arose concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation, early in Church history. The Council of Chalcedon’s declaration is famous for stating that “Jesus Christ … must be confessed to be in two natures, … being united in one Person.”2 What is less well known is the fact that the Church Fathers had to significantly advance the concept of person in order to achieve the fine balance of the Christological creed. If we consider this development carefully, and its thoroughly biblical basis, we may better understand what it means to be a person, which has repercussions for human self-awareness.

1. The Mystery of the God-Man

The New Testament witness to Jesus presents us with an enigma. On the one hand, Jesus is fully human. He grew from a baby to a man. He experienced fatigue, hunger and thirst. He suffered and died. His humanity was foundational for achieving salvation for humankind (1 Tim 2:5; see also John 8:40; Acts 2:22; 17:31). On the other hand, Jesus is given divine names: God, Son of God, Lord (the Greek equivalent of Yahweh). He has attributes that God alone possesses (eternity, omniscience, omnipotence). He does things that only God can do (creation, salvation, final judgement). And he is worshipped and prayed to. The assertion that Jesus is both true God and true man is therefore not an invention of the Church, but firmly rooted in biblical revelation. In response to the Bible’s teaching, the first ecumenical council held in Nicaea in AD 325 affirmed the following:

We believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance [ὁμοούσιος] with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man.3

The New Testament’s teaching on the deity of Jesus the man leads to another mystery: if the Messiah is God, there must be plurality within the one God. Just as for the two natures of Christ, the Trinity is not a theological invention. On the contrary, the doctrine was formulated to do justice to the way God reveals himself in the Scriptures. Monotheism is massively affirmed in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments (Gen 1:1; Deut 6:4; Isa 45:21; 46:9; Acts 14:15; 17:24–26; 1 Cor 8:5–6; Jas 2:19). At the same time, there are several “I”s in the one God, as evidenced by Jesus’s prayer to his Father: “Father … glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you … And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1, 5).4 Jesus even implies that he and the Father are two (John 8:16–18; compare with John 10:30, where Jesus stresses his unity with the Father). This plurality is not the result of the Incarnation. In fact, this relationship within the being of God is fundamental to the Son’s coming into the world (Heb 10:5–7, quoting Ps 40:7–9).

Without ambiguity, Scripture presents us with two mysteries concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation: God is both one and three; Christ is both true God and true man. For each of these basic beliefs of the Christian faith, the scriptural proof is beyond doubt. The difficulty lies not in the Bible’s lack of clarity on the subject—far from it!—but in conceiving how the pairs of affirmations forming these two mysteries can be true together: how can God be both one and three? How can Jesus be true God and true man?

In seeking to illuminate the twin mysteries of the Incarnation and plurality within the one God, the theologians of the early Church advanced our understanding of personhood far beyond what any Greek philosopher could have imagined.

2. Greco-Roman Prehistory

“Person” translates the Greek word πρόσωπον and the Latin persona. Πρόσωπον designates the side, the face, by which an object (for example the moon, a ship) or an individual presents itself. It can therefore be used about a presence “in person.” This usage is also found in the Septuagint, which most often translates Hebrew פָּנִימ (“face”) by πρόσωπον: “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Hide not your face from me,” exclaims the psalmist (Ps 27:8–9). The word also means mask in theater, and hence the role played, as well as the actor who plays this role. It can therefore refer to the individual in their acts and words, as well as the person in their social capacity.5

Persona also means mask in theater, and hence the role, the character that the actor plays. Latin authors saw a link between persona and persono, “I make a sound,” and therefore a reference to the voice that sounds through the mask. This etymology is unlikely; some have instead proposed a derivation from the name of the Etruscan goddess Phersipnai (the equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone), whose rite involved masks, or the Etruscan word phersu, which means mask or actor who wears a mask. From the 3rd century BC, persona came to designate the first, second, and third persons in grammar. Later the legal meaning, which was absent from the Greek term, was added: the human being is distinguished from things (res), he is a persona: humans have a special dignity and moral responsibility. The term can also be used in a public sense: the people, the senate.6 In society, a human can have several personae, that is to say, several roles in the fabric of society.7 Persona also came to designate the human individual in their particularity. This is certainly not unrelated to the legal meaning of the term: it is as conscious and free subjects, because of their words and deeds, that humans are responsible before the law and possess a specific dignity.8

While the Greek πρόσωπον is older than the Latin persona, it is in Latin that one “passed more quickly from mask to character and from character to individual bearer of a word.”9 The evolution of the meaning in Latin then spilled over onto the meaning of the Greek word. Emmanuel Housset summarizes this pre-Christian history of the person:

Christian thought did not invent the term person: the whole theological reflection started with these everyday meanings of prosôpon and persona, but brought to light a radically new sense of the person, that is neither Greek nor Latin, even if it was prepared in Greek and transmitted in Latin.10

The New Testament uses πρόσωπον according to the semantical field covered by the Greek word at this time, with the exception of the meaning “theatrical mask,” which is absent. In most NT occurrences, the word means “face.” The human face is paradoxical: it is both part of a human being’s appearance, but also the part of the body that most expresses what they think and feel in their heart. It is therefore not surprising that πρόσωπον can express either meaning, depending on the context (both are found in 1 Thess 2:17).11 In one passage, πρόσωπον probably means an individual: when Paul mentions the intercession of “several persons” (2 Cor 1:11), a meaning also attested in Greek extra-biblical literature.12 In any case, one should not confuse the word and the concept. Depending on the context, the word “person” can be used with different meanings, some of which do not include the idea of the individuality of each human being. On the other hand, the concept of the special dignity of humankind can be present, without the word “person” being used. This observation, which should encourage caution, obviously applies as much to the New Testament as to Greco-Roman literature. It would require an in-depth study of biblical anthropology, in comparison with the non-Christian literature of the time, to establish with any certainty how original the biblical authors were in this regard. But this is not our main concern here, which is to focus on the contribution of Trinitarian and Christological theology to the modern concept of the person.

3. The Union of Divinity and Humanity in the One Person of Christ

As far as we know, Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170–236) was the first to use the Greek word πρόσωπον, “person,” to express the plurality in God, more precisely for the persons of the Father and the Son. Tertullian (c. 160–230) borrows the term, translating it into Latin. He coins the expression that there is in God three persons and one substance (Against Praxeas II, 4).13 This way of expressing the interaction between plurality and unity in God would prevail in the West. Parallel to this, Tertullian says that in Christ, “we see plainly the twofold state, which is not confounded, but conjoined in One Person Jesus, God and Man.”14

After the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 had firmly grasped both the full divinity and full humanity of the Word incarnate, there still remained the task of better articulating the union between these two natures. At the beginning of the fifth century, two unsatisfactory answers highlighted the need for suitable description of the mystery of the Incarnation. The concept of person played a key role in this task and was itself refined in the process.

The first inadequate understanding of the Incarnation is called Nestorianism, named after the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius. In this view, Christ is the temple and instrument of deity. The union of the two natures is of a moral kind: a union of two wills, that of the man Jesus and that of God. The second flawed conception was adopted by Eutyches, a monk in Constantinople. He promoted monophysitism, from the Greek μόνος, “one,” and φύσις, “nature”: the human nature of Christ is deified by union with the divine to the point of no longer being consubstantial with our human nature.

The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 rejected both ideas. In contrast to monophysitism, the two natures of Christ were clearly affirmed. Over against Nestorianism, their union is assured by the unique (pre-existing) person, the Word:

This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ.15

With Chalcedon, the notion of person becomes the key to understanding how Jesus can be both true God and true man, without there being two Christs. As Augustine says: “In those things that have their origin in time, this is the highest grace, that man is joined with God in unity of person.”16

4. From Divine to Human Persons

In order to achieve the balance of the Chalcedonian formulations, its authors had to conceive the idea of the person in its distinctiveness, avoiding any definition via the nature, or essence, of a being. This was a major theological achievement, produced in response to the Bible’s teaching on divine unity and plurality, and the God-man Jesus Christ. What are the anthropological implications of this Christological insight?

The deduction from divine to human persons should not be made solely on the grounds that the same term, “person,” is used. To draw such a conclusion requires a more substantial analogy. The deduction is justified by the fact that the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, took on a human nature consubstantial to ours. Thus, although Christ is a unique being (no other human possesses two natures), his mode of existence teaches us something about humans in general. He is the man, the example of true humanity. Pilate spoke better than he knew when he brought Jesus out saying, “Behold the man!” (John 19:5).

Taking the person of Christ as our basis for a more complete understanding of what it means to be human results in a truly Christian account (rather than just a broadly theistic one). But it does not, at least not necessarily, commit what one could call the Barthian17 fallacy: trying to understand humanity solely and directly from the Incarnation. The creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 also teach us significant truths about humanity, and creation is historically (and, I would claim, ontologically) prior to the Incarnation. The prerequisite for the Incarnation is humanity’s unique relationship with God. We see this in Luke’s genealogy of Christ, where Adam’s dependence on God is expressed using the same grammatical form (the genitive) as the parental links which are followed back from Jesus (literally: “Jesus … being the son [as was supposed] of Joseph, of Heli, of Matthat, … of Adam, of God,” Luke 3:23–38). In certain contexts, human beings are called “sons of God,” or even “gods.” This analogous language implies the possibility of the Incarnation, as Jesus’s argument in John 10:34–36 assumes, when he quotes from Psalm 82:6 (“I said, you are gods”) in order to prove that his claim to be the Son of God is not blasphemous.

Jesus’s referring to other human beings as “gods” does not mean that there is no more to the Incarnation than the particular status of humanity created in God’s image. (The Jews who listened to Jesus understood this quite well, in contrast to the Arian misunderstanding of this passage.) But it shows that there are distinctives which distinguish humans from other creatures, and that these distinctives are linked to the Incarnation. It is therefore legitimate to look to the Incarnation to learn more about the nature that the Son of God took in this event.18 This in turn justifies applying the insight about Christ’s person to all human beings. In fact, it should not surprise us that the Incarnation helps us to understand human identity better. Is not the “Word which comes into the world” also “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9)?

5. The Person: A Fundamental Ontological Category

The Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément remarks, “In Christian anthropology, the fundamental distinction is not that of the soul and the body, nor of the soul and the spirit.… The true distinction is that of the nature and of the person.19 But it is quite striking to observe that anthropological discussions, both in theology and philosophy, continue to be dominated by arguments over monism and dualism, whilst paying little or no attention to the unique Christological distinction of nature and person.20 It is high time we explored the consequences of this distinction for our understanding of humans beings.

What might be gained from this consideration? The distinction between nature and person, which the Church Fathers were obliged to formulate in their efforts to understand what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ, implies that the person is a fundamental ontological category that cannot be reduced to a description of the traits of an individual. “Thus every person is unique,”21 not only in the sense that he or she is a single specimen of the human species, but that the person is an “I,”22 with inalienable dignity and responsibility, endowed with an individuality that is “incommunicable.”23 Emmanuel Levinas, in another context, expresses the specificity of the person thus: “The I is not unique like the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa. The unicity of the I does not merely consist in being found in one sample only, but in existing without a genus, without being the individuation of a concept.”24

Some additional explanations may help the reader to grasp the novelty of the distinction between nature and person. The notion of nature (or essence) refers to the set of characteristics that describe a being; it designates what a being is. The notion of nature answers the question: What is this? The person, on the other hand, is the one who bears the characteristics of a nature. The notion of person answers the question: Who is this? Prior to being confronted with the twin mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, it seemed adequate to define individuality by nature, by the features that distinguish one individual from another. Thus, when one wants to distinguish Peter from Paul, one may simply give a sufficiently detailed description of the two, to say how Peter is different from Paul. However similar two individuals are, we will always be able to find traits that make them different. On the other hand, this approach fails when one tries to identify what distinguishes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, for they are but one God. If several beings have exactly the same nature, the only remaining possible distinction is that of the person, who is defined by relationships (between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This is the understanding St. Augustine came to in his magisterial work De Trinitate, thus becoming “the first Latin theologian to use relationship in order to make the concept of the Trinity logically conceivable.”25

Without providing an exhaustive understanding, the distinction of nature and person allows us to express clearly the twin mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. In fact, they present us with two symmetrically opposite situations: in the Trinity, there are multiple persons, but one nature; in Christ, there are multiple natures, but one person.26

6. The Human Person without the Divine Persons

The notion of person has a special place in contemporary thinking about human dignity. It seems so familiar that one can easily forget that it is a historically-situated concept, forged in the course of Trinitarian and Christological debates in the early Church, before becoming secularized in modern times. Western thought has integrated the anthropological contribution of Trinitarian and Christological theology, which affirms that every person is unique. But it “tends to secularize this asset, and at the same time to alter it by returning to natural (usually psychological) traits.”27 To see how this has happened, let us look at some definitions of the person that have influenced the modern era.

For John Locke (1632–1704), the trio of rationality, self-awareness and memory constituted the person: this is “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places.”28 For Immanuel Kant, rationality and moral dignity (as a moral agent and object) are the key elements of interest: “Rational beings are called ‘persons’, because their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves.”29 We can add the paradigmatic “I think, therefore I am” (although Descartes does not use the term “person” in his Discourse on the Method): the Cogito bases personal identity on the experience, considered indubitable, of being a thinking subject.30 In recent times, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (1942–) proposes, in dialogue with the cognitive sciences, the following criteria to define the person: intelligence and self-awareness, but also the capacity to attribute intentional mental states to others, language and the fact of being “conscious in some special way,” which is not to be found in animals.31

What is striking in these proposals is the return to a definition by the nature of the individual: persons are once again defined by their traits, most often by their intellectual capacities, or even their cerebral activity. Could this be linked to the fact that the theological context in which the notion of person appeared (person as distinct from the description of a rational being32), has been largely forgotten? Of course, the status of personhood is not unrelated to the properties of one’s nature: an individual of an animal species, although capable of some relationships, is not a person. But the person cannot be reduced to the properties they possess. The British ethicist Oliver O’Donovan insists on this Christological insight according to which the person “does not point to a quality, or complex of qualities, but to a ‘someone who ….’ To a person in that sense these qualities may belong, but he is not one with them; he acquired them as events in his history.”33

Another noteworthy aspect of modern definitions is that they focus on the individual, whereas Trinitarian theology defines the person through relationships.34 The person is a being-in-communion. Admittedly, we must be careful not to reinterpret the statements of the Church Fathers from the perspective of a keenly self-aware modern subject. Thus, for example, we must not simply equate Augustine’s notion of relationship, which has strong ontological connotations, with the relationship promoted by personalist thinkers who focus on the encounter between “I” and “You.”35 Nevertheless, the person in Christian thought is not conceived of as existing in isolation. The Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the archetypal community. In particular, Augustine understands the Trinity in terms of love, and more precisely by the analogy of the triad of Lover, Beloved, and the Love that exists between them.36 In turn, the created being is constituted by their relationship with the Creator. This foundational vertical relationship is echoed in the horizontal relationships that form the person’s social world. In fact, it is illusory to try to base the status of person on who they are as an isolated individual. As we know from observing young children, nobody acquires personal traits if they are not first treated as a person by others. Language, reasoning, and self-awareness only emerge when another “I” calls me “You.” This has long been understood for the start of human life, it appears equally true for its end: there is increasing evidence that an active social life is a factor that delays the decline of cognitive abilities in old age.37

7. Being a Person without the Defining Features of a Person?

When we revert to a substantive definition of the person, one that is based on an individual’s traits, this raises the question of the status of human beings who do not meet these “personality” criteria. Why should we consider that all humans are “persons” when not all of them meet these criteria? Babies, patients with advanced Alzheimer’s, and others with severely diminished cognitive abilities are not “rational” beings, endowed with reason and self-awareness; they are not able to consciously maintain relationships or make moral choices. If we relax the criterion and grant personhood to those who fulfil the personality criteria during a phase of their life, the question remains of how to consider profoundly mentally handicapped people who will never pass the test. One possible answer would be to broaden the definition even further, granting the status of person simply on the basis of belonging to a species of which a large number of individuals have personal traits. But would we not then be guilty of “speciesism,” when we claim that members of our species have more rights than others? Would there be any more justification for such a “species-centric” perspective than for egoism or ethnocentrism? This is the accusation that the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has made against the idea of granting specific rights to humans qua humans.38 After all, an adult chimpanzee has greater cognitive abilities than a newborn baby.

Such reasoning ignores the lesson learned in Trinitarian and Christological theology, which proves so valuable for our understanding of the human being: persons cannot be reduced to their properties. In a remarkable essay on the notion of person, the Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann writes, “Human beings are a kind of creature whose nature it is to ‘have’, not simply to ‘be’ its nature. The human being, the being that ‘has’ its mode of existence, is ipso facto a mystery, never merely the sum of its predicates.”39 This fact manifests itself particularly in love: “Love or recognition directed to a human being is not … directed merely to personal properties.”40 Otherwise, the relationship would not merit the term “love.” In the end, it would only be a utilitarian relationship.

Blaise Pascal understood this: “If one loves me for my judgment, memory, he does not love me, for I can lose these qualities without losing myself.”41 We can see how far this is from the Greek concept when the Symposium states that love concerns the qualities of a person: “Noble in every case is the acceptance of another for the sake of virtue”;42 and: “With deformity Love has no concern.”43

In bringing out the irreducible character of personhood, the severely disabled have a specific mission, says Spaemann. By the very fact that such persons lack physical and psychological capacities to act for the good of others but rather depend on their care, they offer us an opportunity to understand what it is to be human. “Their existence is the acid test of our humanity.”44 By entering into a relationship with them that treats them as fully human, we become more deeply aware that humankind’s humanity shows itself in the very fact that it cannot be reduced to any property human beings possess:

The disabled person may lack such properties [that allow us to grasp that a person is there], and it is by lacking them that they constitute the paradigm for a human community of recognizing selves, rather than simply valuing useful or attractive properties. They evoke the best in human beings; they evoke the true ground of human self-respect. So what they give to humanity in this way by the demands they make upon it is more than what they receive.45

8. Love Is the Only Way to Discover a Person

Persons cannot be reduced to any of their qualities. They are not even the sum of their qualities. For this reason, no empirical test can decide whether an individual is a person. The scientific endeavour tries, as much as possible, to distance itself from personal aspects. As a result, it only detects what is measurable. “It looks for appearances and it finds appearances.”46 But the person is the one who lies beneath appearances. That is why “we discern persons only by love, by discovering through interaction and commitment that this human being is irreplaceable.”47 The truth that the other is a person is not observed, but discovered through personal commitment, by entering into a person-to-person relationship.

Moreover, it would be contradictory to grant an individual the status of a person on the basis of certain “personal” traits, because these only develop in a child if they are treated as a person. Note also that there is evidence of a disposition to personal relationships in very young children, although they do not yet have the faculties often associated with persons. John Macmurray, in his 1954 Gifford Lectures, drew attention to the fact that the mother-child relationship is, from the start, a personal relationship; not only on the mother’s side, but also on the child’s, since they are driven by the desire to communicate (one that is admittedly still implicit and unconscious).48 Psychological and neuroscientific research provides additional evidence: less than thirty minutes after birth, newborns show more interest in the movement of face-like figures than in other objects of similar complexity. In addition, a region of the cortex appears to be specialized in facial recognition. Other regions of the brain do not seem to be able to perform this function when this facial-recognition area is damaged. The fact that some patients have difficulty recognizing human faces, whilst being able to recognize complex objects, or even sometimes animal faces (a disorder called prosopagnosia) provides further evidence that recognizing human faces is a specialized task. All these signs show that humans are “wired” to enter into relationship with other persons.49 It would therefore be wrong to consider that there is an animal phase, followed by a phase where the child acquires personhood. From the start, humans develop as human.

Of course, these scientific studies do not prove that the newborn is a person. The innate ability to distinguish between people and objects might just as easily be an adaptation inherited from our evolutionary past, advantageous to a species that is as social as humankind is, but which might not correspond to a difference that truly exists.50 The fact that the scientific data is ambiguous should not come as a surprise. The person, as we have seen, cannot be defined by the nature of a being. For this reason, personhood cannot be determined by empirical examination. It cannot be detected by scientific experimentation, which seeks to distance itself as far as possible from subjective elements. As O’Donovan writes: “To know a person, I have first to accept him as such in personal interaction.”51

9. A Person from Beginning to End

The distinction between persons and their properties, which we owe to patristic theology, is particularly crucial at the beginning and the end of human life. For if personhood is not reduced to properties but lies beneath them, it is wrong to consider that the person emerges via a gradual process and later dissolves as cognitive faculties wane.

Concerning the beginning of life, the attitude of Jews and early Christians was in stark contrast with the habits of their Greco-Roman peers. Abortion and infanticide were widely practised, especially when the child was deformed or would be a financial burden. Jews and Christians, however, gladly received every child as created in the image of God. As the Roman historian Tacitus noted, among the strange customs of the Jews, “they regard it as a crime to kill any late-born child.”52 And from very early on, Christian sources unanimously echo the Jewish condemnation of abortion and infanticide. Thus, the Didache (2:2) explains that the prohibition of murder implies that “thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born.”53

In contrast to the way children were unconditionally welcomed by Jewish and Christian families, fathers in ancient Rome had the right to grant or refuse the legal status of child, and therefore of “person,” to their newborn offspring. As Spaemann points out, this power of life and death exercised by the head of the family is proof that “the Romans had not discovered the community of persons, in which no one is obliged to anyone for his rights, but every one is sui juris. Which can only mean, a member from birth”54—and one could add: from conception.

What is true for the person at life’s beginning is also true for its end: “The person cannot die before the human being, for the person is the human being.”55 The long-standing consensus that “the dignity of man is inviolable” (in the words of the German constitution) has recently been challenged; a generation or so ago for the early stages of life, and today for its final stage. In the light of the concept of person’s Christian roots, these societal changes are an indication that the Christian view of humanity has been forgotten (or worse, rejected), and the most vulnerable in society will pay the highest price.

10. A Single Criterion for Being a Human Person: Filiation

Embracing the Incarnation’s perspective on the human condition leads us to accept all human beings as persons. If one does not need to obtain a certain score in any “personality” test to claim the dignity of personhood, what criterion can be used to discriminate between persons and non-persons? Only one remains: “biological membership of the human race.”56 Are we not, however, guilty of speciesism when we claim that humans, inasmuch as they are humans, have rights (and responsibilities!) that other living beings do not? At this point, we have to grasp the nettle and accept the accusation. Yes, from a Christian perspective, humanity does have special status, owing as much to creation as to redemption. The first creation account grants image of God status to man and woman alone (Gen 1:26–27); the second emphasizes that no animal is fit to be man’s partner (Gen 2:18–24). In the economy of salvation, God chose to enter into his creation by taking human nature. Acknowledging humanity’s unique status in God’s plan in no way justifies the exploitation of the rest of creation. Indeed, the creation mandate given to humanity is to rule over the earth following the example of the Creator, who does not exploit creation but enables it to fulfil its potential. The goal of redemption is to reunite the whole of creation under Christ, and this includes the non-human elements of creation, both heavenly and earthly (Isa 11:6–8; Eph 1:10; Col 1:20).

It should be noted that the criterion we have arrived at is not qualitative, based on the individual’s capacities, but relational: it is the entering into humankind by filiation that confers on someone the status of person:

“Humanity”, unlike “animality”, is more than an abstract concept that identifies a category; it is the name of a concrete community of persons to which one belongs not on the basis of certain precise properties objectively verified, but by a genealogical connection with the “human family”.57

The protohistory of Genesis highlights the fact that being created in the image of God gives humans the privilege of begetting other beings in God’s image. Immediately after the reminder of Adam’s creation “in the likeness of God” (Gen 5:1), we read that Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (v. 3). The mystery of procreation—a corporeal act that brings a new ontological entity into existence, a person with an eternal destiny—may well be linked to the scriptural restriction that limits the legitimate use of sexuality to marriage. The incommunicable individuality,58 the uniqueness of the “partner” as person is only recognized if the sexual act takes place inside a lifelong monogamous (heterosexual) relationship, which combines the different spheres of human existence (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and economic interaction and interdependence). It is thus the only setting in which the sexual act can fully live up to the Creator’s plan and provide the appropriate context for the coming-into-being of a new person, the child.

Human beings exist in two kinds of relationship. The first, which is constitutive, is our relationship to the Creator: we are not only created beings but also images of God, capable of communion with him. But this vertical relationship is echoed in horizontal relationships with other people, especially parents. The mystery of the Trinity is not far away. For the Father-Son relationship in God is the archetypal relationship of human filiation: it is from the heavenly Father that “all fatherhood59 in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:14–15).

Belonging to the community of persons is part of the biological order. Indeed, the constituent relationships of a person are objective relationships and not simply intersubjective ones. Since human dignity is a consequence of every human being created in the image of God, it does not depend on the parental intent. Parents are not creators, but pro-creators. Their action is secondary to God’s. Thus, the legal and spiritual status of the child does not depend on the plan the parents may or may not have had for them. Obviously, one hopes that the bodily act of begetting is guided by love—between the two partners and for the unborn child. But even when parents separate what God has joined together, God’s plan remains foremost. For this reason, the transmission of the status of person is part of biological and material reality, and does not depend on parental intent. In the words of Emmanuel Housset: “Being a person means demonstrating one’s filiation, and in particular the reality of being a son of God, open to relationship with others.”60

[1] This article is based on a talk given at the Christian Doctrine Study Group of the Tyndale Fellowship Conference, 25 June 2019; I wish to thank the participants, and in particular Thomas A. Noble, for fruitful discussions. An earlier and fuller treatment of this subject exists in French: Lydia Jaeger, “Christ et l’identité de la personne humaine,” in L’identité humaine, ed. Micaël Razzano (Charols: Excelsis, 2019), 105–39. Cf. Lydia Jaeger, “Comprendre la personne humaine à partir du mystère de l’Incarnation,” Les Cahiers de l’Institut Biblique de Nogent 184 (June 2019), 3–8. My thanks to Rachel and Jonathan Vaughan and Janet Johnson for helping with the English translation. I am also deeply indebted to Henri Blocher for his teaching and our many discussions on Christology.

[2] Philip Schaff, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils (NPNF 14:264–65).

[3] Schaff, Seven Ecumenical Councils (NPNF2 14:3).

[4] Unless otherwise stated, Bible texts are quoted from the English Standard Version.

[5] Information in this paragraph is taken from Emmanuel Housset, La vocation de la personne: L’histoire du concept de personne de sa naissance augustinienne à sa redécouverte phénoménologique (Paris: PUF, 2014), 36–37; and Paul McPartlan, “Personne,” in Dictionnaire critique de théologie, ed. Jean-Yves Lacoste (Paris: PUF, 2007), 895.

[6] Information up to this point in the paragraph is taken from Housset, Vocation de la personne, 38–40.

[7] McPartlan, “Personne,” 895.

[8] Housset, Vocation de la personne, 40; Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), trans. J. S. Bowden, rev. ed. (London: Mowbray, 1975), 126 n. 65, based on M. Nédoncelle, “Prosopon et persona dans l’antiquité classique: essai de bilan linguistique,” Revue des Sciences Religieuses 22 (1948): 297–98.

[9] Housset, Vocation de la personne, 41. (All quotes from Housset are translated by Jonathan and Rachel Vaughan.)

[10] Housset, Vocation de la personne, 41.

[11] Walter Bauer, Kurt Aland, and Barbara Aland, Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch: zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur, rev. ed. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1988), 1443–45.

[12] Texts in Greek literature that use πρόσωπον in the sense of “person, individual” include works by Polybius (c. 206–124 BC), Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BC), Plutarch (c. 46–125 AD), Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD), according to Bauer, Aland, and Aland, Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch, 1445. In addition, the Greek πρόσωπον was influenced at the beginning of the Christian era by the Latin persona, so that the range of its senses was enriched (Housset, Vocation de la personne, 37).

[13] Housset, Vocation de la personne, 42–44.

[14] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 17 (ANF 3:624). This formulation anticipates the Christological formula of Chalcedon, although the latter does not derive historically from Tertullian. Tertullian does not develop much further the question of the nature of the one person of Christ.

[15] Schaff, Seven Ecumenical Councils (NPNF2 14:264–65).

[16] Augustine, On the Trinity 13.19 (NPNF1 3:181).

[17] The term “Barthian” is not meant to make a historical claim about Karl Barth’s theology, although there is certainly some continuity between the construction of his anthropology and the fallacy (or what I take to be a fallacy) critiqued here.

[18] Note that this is not abstract speculation on the basis of an event in salvation history, namely the Incarnation. We need Scripture in order to interpret everything rightly. This general truth is even more salient for any event in salvation history. We first learn from the Bible that Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human, and that he is such without there being two Christs, without any duplication of his personality. We then draw (cautious) conclusions from the Incarnation to general human nature.

[19] Olivier Clément, Questions sur l’homme (Paris: Stock, 1972), 35–36 (translated by Jonathan and Rachel Vaughan).

[20] It is no coincidence that this observation comes from Olivier Clément, who is an Orthodox theologian. Other thinkers in the Eastern tradition have drawn attention to the anthropological contribution of the nature-person distinction, as for example Vladimir Lossky in his Essai sur la théologie mystique de l’Église d’Orient (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1944); English translation: The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London: J. Clarke, 1957), particularly ch. 6 (I am indebted to Thomas A. Noble for this reference); and John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, ed. Paul McPartlan (London: T&T Clark, 2006).

[21] Henri Blocher, La doctrine du Christ, rev. ed. (Vaux-sur-Seine: Édifac, 2002), 160. (All quotes from Blocher are translated by Jonathan and Rachel Vaughan.)

[22] This way of formulating the individual person as a subject that says “I” is probably more modern than patristic. But it is supported by the scriptural passages that show the divine persons in dialogue with each other.

[23] Term used first by Boethius (c. 480–524) in his commentary on the treatise of Aristotle, De Interprétatione, to designate the specific property that makes the man Plato to be Plato (Philip A. Rolnick, Person, Grace, and God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 40–41). The term is then often included in discussions about what the person is, especially by Richard de Saint-Victor (Rolnick, Person, Grace, and God, 51–57).

[24] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991), 117–18.

[25] Note by Sophie Dupuy-Trudelle, in Saint Augustin, Œuvres III, Philosophie, catéchèse, polémique, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade 483 (Paris: Gallimard, 2002), 1196 n. 2 (author’s translation). In private communication (27 June 2019) Thomas A. Noble pointed out to me that Gregory Nazianzen had already employed relationship to escape the Arian charge that the terms “Father” and “Son” must either refer to a difference of essence or to a difference of mere accident, both of which would annihilate the Trinitarian dogma (Orat. 31.9).

[26] The symmetry should not be pressed too far. The distinction between person and nature is a conceptual distinction and does not imply distinct entities. In particular, when speaking of the two natures of Christ, we have to remember that the divine and the human are not commensurable; thus any crude understanding of the Incarnation as the “sum” of the divine and the human nature is excluded. Christ can be one person with two natures in so far as God is not the Wholly Other for his creation and as humanity is created in God’s image.

[27] Blocher, Doctrine du Christ, 160.

[28] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 335.

[29] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals: A German-English edition, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 85.

[30] Such, in any case, is the canonical interpretation of the Discours de la méthode. Descartes’s concession that clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed true only if God exists could make this foundation less indubitable than it is often admitted (cf. my “What Place Is There for God in Cartesian Doubt?,” Churchman 125 (2011): 315–30.

[31] Daniel Dennett, Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978), 270, quoted in Martha J. Farah and Andrea S. Heberlein, “Personhood and Neuroscience: Naturalizing or Nihilating?,” The American Journal of Bioethics 7 (2007): 37,

[32] In the theological discussion of Antiquity, this term is not to be understood in the restricted modern sense of rationality. Without excluding the modern meaning, it “refers to the spirit as the finest point of the soul, the spiritual capacity where human nature opens itself to the Spirit” (Clément, Questions sur l’homme, 35 [author’s translation]).

[33] Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 58–59. The title of the book is an allusion to the Nicene Creed which speaks of the Son as “begotten, not made.” O’Donovan offers a very perspicuous treatment of IVF: when we imagine ourselves “making a baby,” we do not respect its inalienable dignity as a person, which stems from the fact that it is of the same human nature as us.

[34] Both shortcomings of modern definitions of person (the return to defining characteristics and the accent on the individual) are already found in Boethius’s classic definition, which dominated much of later Western thought about the person: Persona est rationalis naturae individua substantis (“A person is an individual substance of a rational nature”). See Rolnick, Person, Grace, and God, 39–46.

[35] Johann Auer, Person: Ein Schlüssel zum christlichen Mysterium (Regensburg: F. Pustet, 1979), 21. On the different versions of personalistic philosophy, cf. Thomas D. Williams and Jan Olof Bengtsson, “Personalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Summer 2018 Edition), The best known version is Thomist personalism, defended by authors like Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson and Karol Wojtyła (who became John Paul II).

[36] De Trinitate 8.10; 9.1–4 (thanks to Thomas A. Noble for drawing my attention to this point at the study group). See also Rowan Williams, On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 191–206.

[37] Miia Kivipelto, Krister Håkansson, “A Rare Success against Alzheimer’s,” Scientific American 316 (April 2017),, quoted in Bryan C. Auday, “Loving God with All Your Mind, and Alzheimer’s,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 69 (2017): 197 n. 33.

[38] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals (New York: Random House, 1975).

[39] Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between “Someone” and “Something,” trans. Oliver O’Donovan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 243.

[40] Spaemann, Persons, 244.

[41] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: Dutton, 1958), 5.323 (p. 90).

[42] Plato, Symposium, 185B, trans. B. Jowett,

[43] Plato, Symposium, 197B; cf. 201A.

[44] Spaemann, Persons, 243.

[45] Spaemann, Persons, 244.

[46] O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?, 60.

[47] O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?, 59.

[48] John Macmurray, “The Form of the Personal,” in Persons in Relation (London: Faber & Faber, 1961), 2:28–29, quoted by John Aves, “Persons in Relation: John Macmurray,” in Persons, Divine and Human: King’s College Essays in Theological Anthropology, eds. Christoph Schwöbel and Colin E. Gunton (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 124–25. (This collection of essays offers a range of stimulating essays on personhood in the context of trinitarian theology, for example on Augustine and John Owen and from an orthodox perspective by John D. Zizioulas.)

[49] Cf. studies cited in Farah and Heberlein, “Personhood and Neuroscience,” 40–44.

[50] This is the line taken by Farah and Heberlein in the article above. They consider this illusion to be very useful for daily life (it makes us talk to babies, for example, which is necessary in order for them to acquire the characteristics of a person), such that one should not try to get rid of the illusion (Farah and Heberlein, “Personhood and Neuroscience,” 46).

[51] O’Donovan, Begotten or Made?, 60.

[52] Tacitus, Hist. 5.5.15 (trans. Clifford H. Moore).

[53] Translation J. B. Lightfoot. (The same double prohibition is found in Epistle of Barnabas 19:5. Cf. Erkki Koskenniemi, “Can a Mother Forget a Baby at Her Breast? Child Exposure Among Jews and Christians,” Whitefield Briefing 10 (April 2005); and John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death: Human Dilemmas in the Light of Christian Faith (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009), ch. 6. A specialist on rabbinical sources linked with the NT, David Instone-Brewer considers that, in light of rabbinical sources, the third prohibition in Acts 15 given to Christians of pagan origin was aimed at infanticide (πνικτός, “what has been strangled,” Acts 15:29). For non-Jewish believers still had to grasp the repercussions of their new faith in this area, while this was obvious to every Jew (“Infanticide and the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15,” JETS 52 [2009]: 301–21).

[54] Spaemann, Persons, 240.

[55] Spaemann, Persons, 247.

[56] Spaemann, Persons, 247.

[57] Spaemann, Persons, 240.

[58] Cf. p. 7, n. 23 above.

[59] In Greek πατριά, “family.” I follow here the translation suggested by the ESV footnote to highlight the lexical link to πατήρ, “father.”

[60] Housset, Vocation de la personne, 141.

Lydia Jaeger

Lydia Jaeger is lecturer and academic dean at the Institut Biblique de Nogentsur-Marne, France, and associate member of St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, England.

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