Saturday, January 6, 2018

Is God a Person?

In recent months, I have seen the question come up numerous times of whether it is correct to say, “God is a person.” Many Christians do not care nor think much about this. For most believers, it probably boils down to one of those “not a salvation issue” deals. But I think this issue is important. It speaks to one’s conception of God and His nature. And the nature of God is something every Christian should care and think about often.

I have argued that it is incorrect to say that “God is a person.” At least, one errs in using such phraseology in almost all contexts in which it is said. In the absence of extensive qualification that for all practical purposes eliminates the basis by which we might use “a person,” Christians should not say “God is a person.”

It is, of course, unproblematic to say "person" of God if by that you mean “God the Father is a person,” or “the Person of the Holy Spirit is God,” or “there is the Person of God the Son.” But when someone says, “God is a person,” they are making a statement about the Divine Essence itself. If you say, “Socrates is a person,” you mean that Socrates is an individual substance of a rational nature (or pick any definition of person you want). But when we press “a person” onto God, we run into myriad problems.

It is not incorrect to attribute “person” to God in the sense that He is one (not divisible) subsistent, and rational. Naturally, this is dependent upon whether you affirm such a definition of person. But even on other views of “person,” most Christians would say that God is one, that He is self-existent or exists necessarily. To say that He is subsistent means that His very nature is to exist. To say that He is rational is to predicate reason, intelligence, and so on. [I will leave the problems I see with other theistic conceptions of God relating to divisibility and subsistence for another time.] 
As alluded to above, there is a major theological issue in the question of whether we should say God is a person. The Christian faith holds that God is three Persons. What God is, as revealed to us from the pages of Scripture, just is three eternally distinct yet cosubstantial Persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians claiming that “God is a person” must reconcile this position with Trinitarian doctrine on pain of heresy. And I wonder in what sense a Christian holding to orthodoxy can essentially say “God is a Person that is three Persons.” This seems like a flat contradiction. For example, on my preferred definition of person, one would say “God is a subsistent individual of a rational nature that is three subsistent individuals of a rational nature.” Or, on a different view, you might say “God is a continuous center of consciousness that is three continuous centers of consciousness.” The main problem might be in the univocal predication of “person.” So, perhaps we should take “God is a person” and “God is three persons” in an equivocal sense. But this seems to kick the can down the road. For, which statement is making a true predication of the Divine Essence? If we say “both,” the difficulty remains.

Consider the idea of saying, “God is a person” and “God is three persons” in an equivocal sense. In so doing, one would affirm that “God is a person” and “God is three persons” mean completely different things. Like “my car is red” and “Enron was in the red.” This is a different issue than reconciling various anthropomorphic depictions of God in the Bible (e.g. that God has arms, hands, feet, etc.). The question here pertains to the Divine Essence, not descriptions of God’s activity in human history, man’s relationship to God, etc. It just does not work to make a direct predication or description of the Divine Essence in completely different senses. Either one says something about the Divine Essence and the other does not, or neither says anything. And the Christian must say that "God is three persons - a trinity." What, then, of the other statement "God is a person"?

Perhaps one could say that the statements “God is a person” and “God is three persons” should be understood analogically. That is, in a basic sense there is something similar and something different in the term “person” between the two statements. Returning briefly to what was said above, “person” is undivided, subsistent, and rational. To say that God is these things is true. But can we really say that these things are different between the first and second statement? I do not think so. There is no way to deny these predications in any meaningful sense to either side; to what level and in what way would they be partially the same and different? And if this is the case, it seems the analogy option goes away, or is muted for practical purposes.

It seems that a major compilation, or perhaps even the root of the whole issue, concerns the article in “God is a person.” When the indefinite article “a” or “an” is used it signifies an instance of a kind. To say, “Socrates is a person” or “Euthyphro is a person” signifies that Socrates and Euthyphro are species (man) within a genus (animal). We know that problems arise when somebody tries to tell us “a house is on fire.” To which we reply, “which house!?” It is implicit in the term “man” that we signify an instance of a kind. And in any other term preceded by “a” or “an” we are faced with the same conclusion. “Rocky is a dog” means that Rocky is one of many (however you cash out the problem of the one and many). Yet, in what way might God be an instance of a kind? I submit there is no way if we want to maintain a correct view of God.

God cannot be an instance of any kind without reducing Him to an inferior ontological status. To say that God is an individual requires one to say what kind He is an individual of. And this at least in principle places God alongside other things, even if a different order of magnitude. Christians should reject this notion; God is not one among any others.We can say that God is individual (i.e. He is apart from all else, He is indivisible, etc.) but not an individual. Instances of kinds have properties, are composite (of at least act/potency, existence/essence, etc.), can fit within a taxonomy, and so forth. None of these things can be said of God, though they may be said of lesser deities or other substances.

We must drop the article to maintain a correct view of God. Thus, what seems to be left is to say, “God is person” and “God is three persons.” But the first of these does not make much sense. There needs to be an article, plurality, or complete change for it to be intelligible, and we have just seen that the article fails. We can say, for example, that “God is personal.” Such a statement is true and reflects conclusions from both revealed and natural theology. Yet, this is radically different than saying “God is a person.”

I understand that many Christians object to the classical view of God that I am defending. One primary objection is that such a depiction does not square with the Bible. But nowhere does Scripture maintain that “God is a person.” God is described and reveals Himself to be personal, and in fact tri-personal. Each Divine Person acts in human history in perfect harmony. If Christians believe that the Father sends the Son in the power of the Spirit, then they should reject the statement “God is a person” unless they are merely trying to describe God’s personal activity or His loving nature. To describe the Divine Essence as “a person” should be avoided. 

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