Persons in Communion

Karl Barth famously made the decision to speak of “modes of being” (Seinsweise) rather than persons when speaking of the Trinity. There are several reasons why Barth decided not to adopt “person” language. For example, Barth was concerned that the term “prosopon” too closely implied a form of Sabellianism, where persons were like masks of some quartum quid. He is also concerned that modern connotations of the word would too easily creep into the meaning of the term. This seems to be Barth’s major concern; if we take seriously Barth’s concept of revelation, then we cannot move from concepts of personhood that are derived from human experience and impose them upon God. The term Seinsweise – although not perfect – carries significantly less baggage and thus is preferable.

Although Alan Torrance identifies with the Barthian project, he rejects this move away from the use of “person.” He explains that “Barth underestimates the extent to which the language of Seinsweise risks sterilizing rather than communicating an appreciation of the dynamic, perichoretic, and participative presence of the Triunity.” (232) Moreover, the rejection of “person” language builds on a false understanding of how human language works. Torrance explains, “It is inappropriate, not the least in theology, to dissociate the meaning of a word from its ‘performative’ effect, its conditioning of the apperception of the theological community. A false condition is a false communication and thus sematic distortion.” (232)

According to Torrance, one of Barth’s failures is that he doesn’t take seriously the fact that God commandeers our language and that the meaning of that language is socially conditioned (i.e. the meaning of language is it’s use). Barth should have recognized that revelation captures and transforms, or to use a term that Torrance uses throughout the book, “commandeers” human language so that human language, for example language of personhood, isn’t defined by common practice, but through its use in the church.

Torrance’s description of how language is commandeered for revelation is cyclical. God reveals himself as he is, yet he does that to us in history. The fact that it occurs in history means that words and concept in use are “drawn up into the communion constitutive of God in and through our being.” This language is then reconfigured in light of revelation. An example of how this cycle works is the language of God the Father and God the Son. Torrance explains that these concepts already exist, and that God commandeers these concepts in revealing himself, this commandeering redefines these concepts in light of revelation. Something similar happens with the term “person” when spoken of about the Trinity. God, in revelation, commandeers the language of persons. Thus, rather than having to use “modes of being” we can continue to use “person” so long as we remind ourselves that God himself redefines what we mean by the term person.

What then is a divine person? Here Torrance turns to Zizioulas for inspiration. Like Zizoulas, he wants to think of personhood in dynamic terms, personhood should be conceived in terms of perichoretic participation. However, Torrance is very critical of Zizioulas’s ontology. He points out that Zizioulas’ conception of the monarchia of God being identified with the Father creates a form of subordinationism and instead opts for T.F. Torrance’s notion that the monarchia is the Trinity itself. Another problem that Torrance identifies is that Zizoulas account of personhood makes it difficult (if not impossible) to describe human beings who have not experienced salvation (by communion in the church and by baptism and the Eucharist) as being fully personalized. Recall that in Zizioulas’ system it is through baptism that humans are incorporated into the filial relationship that constitutes Christ’s personhood, and thus humans participate in a person constituting relation. This Zizioulas identifies as Ecclesial personhood. Torrance summarizes this well when he says that “Personhood is ultimately a transcendence beyond biological constraints which is conceived eschatologically and which takes place in such a way that there is a perichoretic communion of persons participating in the triune, personal life of God.” (301) Now Torrance himself doesn’t fully develop an account of human personhood, yet it is clear that Torrance would also apply a relational account of personhood. Rather than making the ecclesial community the basis for personhood, I’m inclined to think that he would appeal to the vicarious humanity of Christ as having some import for saying why all humans, not just those in the church, can be persons. How we are personalized in light of the vicarious humanity of Christ (a very Torrancean theme) is a topic that I will need to further explore in my chapter on personhood.




Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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