Are the Divine Persons Persons?

The “personalist” understanding of the Trinity, articulated most influentially in the work of John Zizioulas, has fallen on hard times. Recent scholars have attacked Zizioulas’s idea that Cappadocian Trinitarianism represented an ontological revolution, hammering on the distinction between divine and human personhood. Michel Barnes’s conclusion is the most drastic of the lot: “If the word [person] disappeared entirely from English and other modern languages our reading of patristic trinitarian writings would be greatly improved.”

In his contribution to the recently-released collection, The Holy Trinity in the Life of the Church, the book’s editor Khaled Anatolios acknowledges that the critics have a point but argues that they have not made the case they have claimed. “Person” in modern parlance is not simply identical to its ancient meaning, but no one, Anatolios claims, has come close to mounting an argument to prove “that the differences are such that there are absolutely no lines of continuity between the two sets of meanings.” The classic notion of analogical predication applies here: “Difference does not negate likeness, and likeness does not cancel out difference.”

Anatolios defends three theses concerning Cappadocian (and other patristic) Trinitarianism: 1) the Father, Son and Spirit are “agents of mutually referring speech-acts”; 2) each person possesses “intentionality and agency within the unified agency of trinitarian coactivity”; and 3) the persons enjoy a “personal communion that can be appropriately characterized as a perichoretic circle of delight and mutual glorification.” Anatolios’s claim is not only an historical one, that the Cappadocians affirmed these three points, but a theological one: These three claims are consistent with orthodox Trinitarian faith, and he hints that they are necessary to a Trinitarian faith that is attentive to the revelation of the persons in the gospel.

To say the persons are persons is to say that each is capable of saying “I.” Quoting extensively from Tertullian’s adversus Praxean, Anatolios argues that one cannot reduce the conversational and “dramatic space” shared by the Father, Son and Spirit without losing the persons themselves. Tertullian rewrites several passages of the gospels in modalist form, showing how they turn into absurd monologues: “My Lord spoke to Himself: I am my Son; this day I have begotten Me.” There is a great deal at stake here: “we have to do nothing less than jettison the intelligibility of the biblical narrative if we are not willing to accept that Father, Son, and Spirit are such agents [of conversation]. If we are going to let the trinitarian economy lead us into God’s very being, we have to conceive of the trinitarian persons as agents of speech and conceive of trinitarian communion as a conversation between Father and Son through the Holy Spirit.”

Here Anatolios’s argument overlaps with that of Matthew Bates, who has expounds on the “prospological” exegesis of the fathers in his The Birth of the Trinity. Bates points to Romans 15:2-3 to illustrate. There, Paul quotes Psalm 68:10, attributing it to Christ: “the insults of those who were insulting you fell upon me.” In Bates’s view, “Paul reads these words as spoken in the past by David, but nonetheless as containing a real future conversation between the Father and the Son as facilitated by the Spirit that looks backward in time on the crucifixion.” Read from this angle, this passage shows that “the Son loves the Father so much that the Son, speaking via the Spirit in the past tense as if the cross is a fait accompli, tells the Father that he voluntarily bore in the passing the reviling insults by which the godless cursed the Father. . . . the Son is willing to suffer intensely here not because of his love for humanity per se, but because he loves his Father so much that he wants to should the hostile words aimed at him.” More generally, prosopological readings reveal “a Father, Son, and Spirit who are characterized by relentless affection and concern for one another. . . . prosopological exegesis affirms and further develops the notion that for the earliest Christians the God of Israel had revealed himself as apersonal God” (7).

More controversially, Anatolios defends the notion that each of the Persons is an agent “of willing and acting.” In short, “Father, Son, and Spirit each distinctly have a personal will.” For some, the claim that God has a single will, undifferentiated in any sense, is of the essence of orthodoxy. It is argued that will is an attribute of essence, and since there is only one essence in God, there can be only one will. Any deviation from this strict affirmation trends toward tritheism.

Anatolios points out that this doesn’t match the biblical account, and that the argument betrays an error concerning the function of Trinitarian language: “This fallacy is the understanding of the difference between language of unity and language of distinction as delineating different areas of the divine being. But, in fact, the co-incidence of unity and distinction in the Trinity is such that there is nothing of the divine being that is singular without also and at the same time being diversified and there is nothing that is diversified without also and at the same time being unified.” In the end, the argument is not internally coherent. God indeed has one essence, but that essence only exists tripersonally. Thus, if will pertains to essence, it must by definition also be tripersonal. To say otherwise is to imply that there is some essence in excess of the three persons, and that this essence is the location of the will of God. That is a decree most horrible.

As a matter of historical fact, the Cappadocians don’t teach the rigid one-will position. “Basil describes the trinitarian unity of operations as not an undifferentiated unity but a unity that is structured by and composed of the tripersonal distinctions. The bishop of Caesarea typically presents the common work of the Trinity in ways that highlight the distinct appropriation of that unified agency by the hypostases, each of whom remains a distinct agent within the common agency of the Trinity.” Unity of action “does not at all preclude that each is in himself an intentional agent.” Basil points, for instance, to 1 Corinthians 12:11, which affirms that the Spirit distributes gifts “to each one individually as he wills.” Gregory of Nyssa makes the same claims in his Catechetical Orations, which lay out “a strict line of association between the Word’s hypostatic existence, his goodness and power, and his intrinsic possession of intentionality. Gregory has no trouble applying the language of human willing (boulema; proairetikos) to characterize the distinct personal existence of the Logos.” According to Gregory, “to say that the Word and Spirit are hypostatic is to say that each is possessed of the power of willing, each is an agent.”

This doesn’t mean that any of the persons does any actions that are not done by the others, or that they first have separate wills that need to be harmonized at some later moment. It is simply to apply a Trinitarian pattern of thought to God’s agency and will: “just as each of the persons possesses the common essence according to a particular modality, so each of the persons enacts the common action of the three according to his personal modality.” Basic and Gregory arrive at these positions not by a projection of human personhood onto God, but by “sublimating analogically our conceptions of the perfections of human personhood.”

Like the conclusion that the Persons are speakers and intentional actors, the notion that they enjoy a life of personal communion is consistent with the economic revelation of God in the biblical narrative. Drawing on Athanasius, Anatolios argues that this is necessary if we are going to affirm God’s independence from creation: “If we deny the attribution of interpersonal communion to the Trinity and yet are constrained by the biblical narrative to say that God rejoices in his communion with creation, then creation would be adding to the divine glory instead of simply participating in it.” This personal communion is a communion of “mutual glorification.” As Basil argues, “the Spirit is glorified through the communion that he has with the Father and the Son as well as through the witness of the Only-begotten.” In a lovely passages, Gregory speaks of a Trinitarian “circle of glory”: “You see the circle of glory revolving among those who share a likeness. The Son is glorified by the Spirit; the Father is glorified by the Son; again the Son has his glory from the Father; and the only-begotten thus becomes the glory of the Spirit.”

One of the key points throughout this essay is that dogmatic formulations have to be seen in continuity with the biblical presentation of the Trinity. Scripture is the touchstone of orthodoxy, because it is only in the economy that the ontological relations of the Persons are revealed. If the revelation doesn’t actually reveal, we are left with no idea of the character of God. That too is a decree most horrible.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis

A version of this article originally appeared on First Things.