Person, Nature, and Personhood Theology


by Doru Costache

For contemporary Orthodox theology, irrespective of the terms used throughout the centuries, ecclesial anthropology focuses on the mystery of personhood. This amounts to saying that Orthodox anthropology, with its markedly spiritual and/or ascetic dimension, is person-centered and not nature-centered. Building on the distinction without division between person and nature, this focus shows a certain preference in the representation of an otherwise complex reality. The sphere of personhood is likewise prominent in the Orthodox representation of the Holy Trinity and Christ. Personhood theology is therefore at the heart of contemporary Orthodox theology. In all three cases, traditional ideas and concepts are currently given personalist, existential, and phenomenological connotations. In so doing, personhood theology does more than to undertake a work of conceptual translation; it circumscribes the mysteries of the faith from viewpoints specific to the Orthodox experience in contemporary world. Given recent commotions about these developments, a question must be asked: cui bono? For what purpose?

In order to answer this question, I propose that behind personhood theology there are discernible two perennial factors of the ecclesial tradition. First, it is the natural dynamic of theological reflection, which, ever led by the Spirit towards the fullness of the truth, moves asymptotically upwards and downwards along the endless spiral of the faith’s mysteries. Personhood theology fits this schema perfectly. Second, it is the missionary and pastoral imperative, which requires that ecclesial theology addresses contemporary issues in the spirit of tradition—for the life of the world—and not merely repeat old sentences. Personhood theology is an excellent way of conveying the ecclesial wisdom to contemporary audiences. In what follows, first I expand on the two imperatives and then I turn to the ecclesial bonum (good) of the Orthodox personhood theology.

Whilst claiming faithfulness to patristic terminology, the deniers of personhood theology reject the mandate of contemporary theologians to convey the ecclesial wisdom to the audiences of today. Since the saints of old have worked towards the salvation of the world, not a terminology, this denial betrays a disturbing lack of historical information, traditional mind, missionary vision, and pastoral sensitivity. Personhood theology treads the path of tradition by adopting ideas and terms pertaining to our own cultural context in order to promote the ecclesial message. This precisely was the approach of the saintly theologians of old when they have adopted from their contemporary culture the central terms of personhood—namely, hypostasis, signifying the person in its ontological aspect, nous, signifying the rational and contemplative parameters of the person, and prosopon, signifying the person in its relational dimension. Demanded by the Church’s adherence to Scripture, liturgy, and prayer, these classical terms have become, through successive refinements, signposts of a new understanding of the divine and human realities. They have become, furthermore, building blocks of a theological vision able to articulate the culminating experience of the divine-human encounter, pointing to the apophatic horizons of deification. In addition to speaking the language of our time, personhood theology remains faithful to the ecclesial presuppositions of the saints of old, serving the missionary and pastoral goal of facilitating the conveyance of the Gospel to the world we live in. By the grace of God, it is this aptitude to operate both in the spirit of tradition and contextually that determines the missionary success of the contemporary Orthodox theologians of the person, who relaunch the apostolic kerygma within the world of today. For this wounded world they translate the richly spiritual message of our theological anthropology in terms of personhood, freedom, responsibility, conversion, transformation, and holiness, giving new hope to myriads of people, particularly in lands which for centuries have developed outside the Orthodox commonwealth. In denying the call of theology to develop ways of disseminating our wisdom in terms intelligible today, the fundamentalist deniers do not just display lack of historical, traditional, missionary, and pastoral insight; they offend the venerable tradition of the saintly theologians of the past, in whose name they wage war on Orthodox theology.

The detractors of personhood theology, such as Metropolitan Ierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos, claim that the Orthodox discourse on the Holy Trinity, Christ, and the human being should be promoted in the ancient language of nature or being. In the past, positions similar to these have been associated with modalism and monophysitism. The common denominator for these two strands of thinking was the centrality of nature. The first trend represented the Trinitarian persons as modes of manifestation of God’s nature, denying their uniqueness and permanence. The second trend insisted on the terminology of nature only (physis monon, wherefrom ‘monophysitism’) in relation to the mystery of Christ, rejecting hypostatic theandricity as an articulation of this mystery. In construing the person as reducible to nature—or the status of individual specimen of a nature—both strands anticipated by centuries the modern perception that nature dictates the character of a person. Currently, in the name of nature or one’s genetic makeup many vices, sins, and crimes tend to be easily justified, given the general perception that one cannot fight his/her nature. This, precisely, is why the views of the detractors become untenable from a rigorous Orthodox perspective. If the person is reducible to our psychosomatic being, if the person is an epiphenomenon of human nature and not a reality of a different (yet not separated) order, and if there is no other will or energy within us than that of nature—a naturalist monoenergism and monotheletism that falls under the same anathemas pronounced against their hypostatic counterparts in the seventh century—there is no way in which our traditional axiology, ethics, and spirituality can be maintained. If the person is exclusively conditioned by its nature, asceticism becomes impossible and we are reduced to eating, surviving, and breeding beasts. Indeed, neither sin nor holiness are possible if there is no free will at the personal level. Vice and crime are no longer blamable. Virtue cannot be praised. But nature does not make saints, neither does it make sinners. So, how could the patristic distinctions between person and nature or personal will (boulē) and instinct/natural will (thelēma) or, finally, freedom and necessity, be denied in the name of Orthodoxy?

If there is a traditional way in which ecclesial wisdom can be aptly conveyed to contemporary audiences, for the life of the world, this is personhood theology with its distinction between person and nature—not the detractor’s unecclesial naturalism.

Protopresbyter Doru Costache (ThD, Bucharest 2000) lectures in patristics at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, a member institution of the Sydney College of Divinity, Australia.