Christian Theism and the Concept of a Person

In our modern world, says Adrian Thatcher, “the credibility of theism suffers from a close association with Cartesian Dualism.” (180) Thus, Thatcher’s goal is to show that the Christian concept of God and the Christian concept of human persons does not require dualism.

Thatcher begins his argument by outlining six different uses of the concept of a “person.” First there is the theological use, which is illustrated by Augustine’s use of persons for the three of the Trinity. Second, there is the “ontological” uses, where a person is defined by their essential difference from non-persons. Third, there is the psychological use, which refers to the particular character that a person acquires. Fourth, there is a moral use, which understands humans as ends and not means. Fifth, there is the existential use which sees a person as what they make of themselves. Finally, there is the social uses in which “persons are constituted by their mutual relationship to one another.” (181) God cannot be conceived of as a person according to any of these six uses, yet Thatcher says, God has been called a person by philosophers, theists, and atheists. This, he calls the “personalist consensus.” (181) The personalist consensus primarily ties God to the “ontological” use of person, moreover this ontological use rarely makes reference to embodiment.  Thatcher finds this non-embodied use of “person” problematic because of the way that the Bible talks about persons and the emphasis that the Bible places on resurrection and ascension.

Thatcher argues that we can reject the dualism that underlies much of the personalist consensus and still maintain that God is a person. The way to do this he says is to appeal to ever changing understandings of matter. Matter is open, emergent, and fathomless, it is inclusive of form and mind, so we can say that God is in a real sense corporeal or material (as long as we don’t have Cartesian res extensa in mind). The conclusion is that God can fulfill the requirement of being embodied, thus, God can be personal.

God, however, is personal in more ways as well. Christ is God incarnate, the incarnate Christ who is homoousios with the Father can fulfill all six notions of personhood. This allows us to call God a person in an even fuller sense. It also has the implication that God becomes a person. Without entering into social relations by means of embodiment with other persons God lacks the relation to others that defines personhood. So, “God can become a person, in this [social] sense only as he creates some community of rational agents in relation to which his own perfection can be expressed.” (190)

Thatcher’s essay is interesting because it attempts to apply changing understandings of matter to theology. However, I must admit that I don’t feel the force of the necessity of saying that God must be embodied. This is certainly true of human beings, the Bible doesn’t suppose that humans are meant to be disembodied beings. Moreover, I don’t feel the force of the “personalist consensus.” Among those whom he cites as supporting this consensus is Richard Swinburne who says that “God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism.” (182) This might be true of theism in general but not of Trinitarian theism. God is one nature, three persons. The proposals that Thatcher makes does not line up with creedal Trinitarian theology. Moreover, the suggestion that God becomes a person in the fullest sense only when God creates other rational creatures undermines the classical doctrine of aseity.


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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