How might we apply the trinitarian notion of ‘Person’ to mere humans?

Keywords: person, nature, self, relationality, singularity, semblant


The theological concept of ‘person’ and its complementary notion of ‘nature’ were developed through early church teaching on the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. Persons in this case referred solely to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit while ‘nature’ expressed the unity of the Godhead and encompassed those attributes which were shared by the divine Persons. The later history of this theologically derived notion of ‘person’ took a different turn, moving away from the early complementarity of nature and person in order to embrace the notion of human person for which complementarity seemed ill fitting. In this new conception, ‘person’ was subsumed under the category of ‘nature’. A human person came to refer to the full human reality, body and soul, while a more general notion, aimed at accommodating both divine and human personhood, as famously expressed by Boethius, thought of a person as an individual substance of a rational nature.

One might ask, however, whether it is possible and fruitful to develop the initial, complementary concept of ‘person’ in a different direction, that is, so that it covers not only divine Persons but also mere humans. Does it give a coherence to the area of theological anthropology beyond that afforded by the classical, nature-based concept of ‘person’? Here I attempt to set out a conceptual framework for the application to humans of the concept of ‘person’ as it was developed with the theological controversies of the early Church – or at least according to one reading of that process. I first take note of the features of the theological notion of personhood and test whether human persons might be understood in the same or similar terms, taking into account the difference between divine and creaturely existence.   I then draw comparisons with the traditional concept of ‘person’ as it has been applied to human beings to show that the former version is to be preferred. I conclude with comments which draw out some of the implications of this theological notion of person.


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