“Man has been endowed by God with the gift of being a person, with personhood, which is to exist in the same mode in which God exists” (Elements of Faith, p. 58). At first glance this statement seems uncontroversial. Personalism of one sort or another has dominated Western philosophy and theology for decades and in some circles for centuries (see, e.g., Hans Urs von Balthasar, “On the Concept of Person“; Thomas Williams, “What is Thomistic Personalism?“; Wolfhart Pannenberg’s encyclopedia article on “person”; and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). One could argue that the divine personhood reassumed center stage in the Western Church five hundred years ago in the preaching and commentaries of Martin Luther. Eschewing the metaphysical categories of the schoolmen, Luther vividly declared the living God who speaks, promises, judges, and elects. The human being does not exist as self-contained substance but as the Imago Dei dialogically constituted by the eternal Word. Or as Robert W. Jenson puts it: “Because God speaks with us, we know he is personal. As we answer him, we too are personal” (Systematic Theology, II:95).
It’s difficult to know where to place Christos Yannaras within this tradition (but see “The Early Development of the Thought of Christos Yannaras” and R. D. Williams, “The Theology of Personhood“). We may also question Yannaras’s contention, relying on John Zizioulas’s reading of the Cappadocians, that he is merely articulating in contemporary idiom the personalism of the Church Fathers. A growing number of patristic scholars have vigorously criticized Zizioulas and others on this point (see, e.g., John Behr, “Personal Being and Freedom“; Lucian Turcescu, “‘Person’ versus ‘Individual’“; also see Michel Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology” and “DeRegnon Reconsidered“). But while Yannaras should probably be considered very much a modern philosopher, this in no way diminishes his importance, nor should it lead us to overlook his proposal. We must reflect a bit more on his claim that to be person is to exist in a divine mode:
God is God since he is a Person, that is since his Existence does not depend on anything, not even his Nature or Essence. As a Person—that is freely—he constitutes His Essence or Nature; it is not his Nature or Essence which makes his Existence obligatory. He exists, since he freely wills to exist, and this willing is actualized as love, as a triadic communion. Therefore, God is love (1 Jn 4.16), his own Being is love.
And God has imprinted this same possibility of personal existence on human nature. Human nature is created, a given; it is not the personal freedom of man which constitutes his being, which makes up his essence or nature. But this created nature exists only as a personal hypostasis of life; each one is a personal existence which can hypostasize life as love, that is as freedom from the limitations of his created nature, as freedom from every necessity—just like the uncreated God.
Still more schematically: God is a Nature and three Persons; man is a nature and “innumerable” persons. God is consubstantial and in three hypostases, man is consubstantial and in innumerable hypostases. The difference of natures, the difference of uncreated and created, can be transcended at the level of the common mode of existence, the mode of personal existence—and this truth has been revealed to us by the incarnation of God, by the Person of Jesus Christ. For man to be an image of God means that each one can realize his existence as Christ realizes life as love, as freedom and not as natural necessity. Each can realize his existence as a person, like the Persons of the triadic Divinity. Consequently, man can realize his existence as eternity and incorruptibility, just as the divine life of triadic co-inherence and communion is eternal and incorruptible. (p. 59)
Question: Is Yannaras attributing the word “person” univocally to God and humanity? Yes, I think he is. Does “person” mean the same thing when applied to God as when applied to mankind? Yes, I think for Yannaras it does. I have yet to come across a passage which expresses an apophatic or analogical qualification of the word. Why is this important? Because if it is being used univocally, then it comprehends divinity and human beings within a single category or class. I do not know if this is significant or not—some would suggest that it compromises the divine transcendence and reduces God to a being—but it does entail the oddity that on this point St Thomas Aquinas ends up being more apophatic than a Greek Orthodox philosopher. I’m confident that Aquinas would identify the attribution of personhood to the Creator as a form of analogical, not univocal, speech. We appropriately call God “good,” “loving,” “wise,” “just”; but we do not presently know what these words mean when applied to God. We will only achieve understanding when we come to share in the divine self-knowledge in the beatific vision (see Gregory Rocca, Speaking the Incomprehensible God). But perhaps one might argue that the iconicity of humanity authorizes the univocity of our language for God, at least as it pertains to personhood.
In its philosophical form, classical theism has typically taken as its starting point the cosmological contuition of deity: if the world is finite and radically contingent, then how should we characterize the One who brought it into being? On this basis it deduces the divine attributes—self-existence, incomprehensibility, immutability, aseity, infinitude, simplicity, omnipotence, and so forth. Yannaras, on the other hand, begins with the foundational biblical-doxological-ecclesial apprehension of God as personal: because God is person, he is God. Personhood is divinity. The divine attributes are thus ways of speaking of the divine personality: God is self-existent because he freely wills himself to exist. God is eternal because he “constitutes the beginning and end (purpose) of his Being” (p. 35). God is uncreated because he is “an Ego of existential self-consciousness free from any predetermination” (p. 35). God is infinite because “the personal mode of his existence is the continuous community of love” that freely wills to communicate itself in “uninterrupted closeness” (pp. 35-36).
Yannaras’s existential approach has an immediate attractiveness and plausibility. It connects us to the biblical narrative and the trinitarian experience of the Church. But I stumble when he talks about God choosing to exist. I have no idea what this means. I understand why his commitment to absolute freedom within his personalist framework compels Yannaras to make this claim—its negation would imply that God is trapped in an existence from which he cannot liberate himself—but it still feels to me like a misstep flowing from his rejection of the older metaphysical tradition. Did any of the Church Fathers say such a thing?
(Go to “The Fall of Humanity“)