A Theology of Personal Being

In a short essay titled “A Theology of Personal Being,” John Macquarrie makes three assertions about what it means to be a human being. First, “a human person is a being on the way.” (172) Humans are “unfinished” – this is in contrast with traditional views that regard human nature as some sort of fixed object. Macquarrie believes that the dynamic nature of human nature is the biblical teaching. He cites 1 John 3:2 for example, which says that we are God’s children but it does not yet appear what we will be. He also cites eastern theologians who thought that God’s image was a kind of potentiality that would eventually be realized. The view that human persons are “beings on the way” is confirmed by Marxist and existentialist philosophers. For example he says “Sartre’s view of the human being as surging up from nothing and then making himself recalls the story of Abraham going out into the wilderness.” (174) The notion that human nature changes is further confirmed by our use technology. He says, “The big differences between ourselves and the animals is this: that animals have bodies that are pretty much determined… but we add extensions to our bodies…They have become natural in some sense, part of what it is to be a human being.” (175)

Second, a human person is a “being in the world.” (176) By this he means that humans are embodied. Humans are not simply spirits; to be a human person you need a body. This is affirmed in the doctrine of the resurrection.

Finally, human persons are “beings with others.” (177) Macquarrie explicitly draws on Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” concept. No person exists without relationships to other persons.

A few questions came up in my mind as I read this essay, primarily concerning the use of the term “nature.” He claims that part of what it means to be a human is to have a nature that can change. The traditional view, however, affirms a static nature. Yet, the traditional view in fact affirms that people do change, just not at the level of nature. I’m not sure why the definition of nature needs to be changed in order to accommodate the fact that humans change in significant ways. The only reason why I imagine why Macquarrie might say that significant changes to a person change a nature is that his understanding of “nature” or “essence” tracks more with an existentialist understanding of nature. This wouldn’t be surprising since Maquarrie is known as an existentialist theologian.

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