Trinitarian Personhood

William Ury is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary, Trinitarian Personhood is the published version of his dissertation undertaken at Drew University. Part of the reason Ury undertook this project was because he noticed a “bankruptcy of modern thought with regard to personhood.” (4) He attributes this bankruptcy to a lack of “proper theological anchoring.” (4) Most reflection on what it means to be a person devolves into views which focus too much on “rational individuality,” or “psychological experience,” and “consciousness.” Ury recognizes that these elements are important, and practially adequate, but that a view of personhood that emerges from a lopsided focus on these features results in a notion of self-determination which ends up with isolationism. He identifies this as one of the major problems of the modern world.

In light of these problems Ury suggests that we ought to rethink our definitions of personhood in light of the doctrine of the Trinity. He claims that “preserving analogically heuristic categories of a relational trinity promises a substantiation for both the worship of a self-giving God and the wholeness of human persons offered by the church.” (4) Thus, Ury’s burden is to establish that relationality is central to a proper understanding of divine persons. Throughout the book he claims that cognition and volition—two typical properties—are constituent of but not necessarily equivalent to a complete concept of personhood. The way that he establishes this thesis is through a historical study of Trinitarian theology of divine persons. He surveys the etymology of prosopon, persona, hypostasis, ousia, prote ousia, deutera ousia, and substantia. His survey of Eastern theologians leads him to believe that the mutual indwelling of divine persons is the groundwork for the notion of a Trinitarian hypostasis. He also reinterprets Augustine’s trinitarian theology and argues that his theology possesses relational categories, thus the difference between the east and the west—while real—is overexaggerated.

While the Greek Fathers and Augustine are lifted up as being relational, Ury places the blame for a static understanding of personhood at the hands of Boethius. In his attempt to confront Nestorianism and Eutycheanism—two heresies that stemmed from the identification of person with a nature—Boethius developed his famous definition of a person. Boethius says,

Wherefore if person belongs to substances alone, and these rational, and if every substance is a nature, and exists not in universals but in individuals, we have found the definition of person: The naturae reationabilis individua substantia. [an individual substance of a rational nature] (203)

Ury rightly points out that the Trinitarian persons cannot carry this kind of personhood or else you end up with something like Tri-theism, therefore, those who follow this tradition will need to claim that “the divine Persons really are nothing other than the divine essence itself.” This is, in fact the move that most theologians in this tradition make. They argue that the plurality which defines the “three” of the Trinity is plurality of relations and that persons and attributes are identical with the divine essence. This line of thought gets picked up by Aquinas who says that a “divine Person ‘signifies what is distinct’ in the nature of God.” (221) Therefore, a person is actually a substistent relation. Aquinas himself says that “Person means that which is most perfect in whole of nature, namely what subsists in rational nature.” (221) Ury finds this line of thought very problematic, he goes as far as to say that those who hold to such a view “ought not to claim to be Trinitarian.” (272) According to Ury, the person who rescues the notion of personhood was Richard of St. Victor who defined a person as a rationalis naturae incommunicabilis existential. Ury summarizes Richard’s view by saying that for Richard a Person is an “incommunicable existent both producing and receiving the love which is the substance of the Godhead.”

Although the burden of Ury’s book is to establish that Triniatarian persons are relational, he does make some comments for our understanding of human persons. He explicitly claims that “in a relational definition of person there resides the premise that for both divine and human spheres to be personal – they must be interpersonal. By its very nature the relational definition critiques the modern viewpoint of sociality; that of a collection of individuals who do not really have anything to do with one another but a mere truce of co-existence, hopefully peacefully. (280)

By the end of the book I wish that Ury had spent more time “investigating the implications of [the] relational definition.” Although he argues that relationality is essential to Trinitarian theology, he never investigates the implications of his findings! The implications of his study are relegated to several paragraphs in the conclusion of the book.


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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