(From Dennis F. Kinlaw's"Let's Start With Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology", chapter three, "Personhood and the Concept of God.")
The term personhood was developed by the early Church to define the uniqueness of the three persons of the Godhead and their relationship to each other. It is the words of Christ, the second person of the Godhead, that was the most significant factor in defining the term, especially His words from the Gospel of John. Here are the first four characteristics of divine personhoood which determined how the Church defined personhood:
1. Consciousness of Identity- Jesus had a clear consciousness of His own identity as the Son of the Father as well as a clear sense of His own distinctiveness from the Father and from the Spirit. His relation to the Father as His Son was the difference between Himself and all created persons. Jesus knew not only a different sonship in relation to His Father than the disciples knew toward their earthly fathers but also a different sonship than the disciples experienced after their being born again. Jesus' words to Nicodemus demonstrates His sonship was ontological, not spiritual. He speaks of the Father as one other than Himself. He speaks of the Spirit as a gift seperate from Himself. Yet He insists upon the oneness of God. He is not the Godhead, but one person of the Godhead. And "If Jesus is an example of a person, then a human person should have a similiar awareness of his or her own unique individual incommunicable personhood." (Kinlaw, p. 79) Individuals are only fulfilled in self-giving love and one cannot give one's self away unless they are first in possession of their own selves. Jesus knew His identity, His mission, His purpose. This certain knowledge enabled Him to give Himself away to others.
2. Created For Webs of Relationships- If Jesus is the human prototype and He is explained in terms of His relationship to both the Father and the Spirit, then persons never exist alone. Jesus was not self-originating (He was begotten of the Father, born of Mary), does not have life in Himself (His life is drawn from the Father), is not self-explanatory (His identity is through the Father), is not self-fulfilling (He came to do the Father's will out of love for the Father). Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, annointed by the Spirit, led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Jesus acknowledges power from the Spirit (It is the Spirit that gives Him power to cast out demons), Jesus's words are not His own (His words are from the Father through the Spirit). Jesus offered Himself in our place on the Cross through the Holy Spirit's power. (Heb 9:14) In light of this, the search for the self in isolation is futile. The quest for the self in isolation indicates a lack of understanding of what it means to be a person.
3. Created for Reciprocal Relationships- The three persons of the Trinity exist for giving of themselves to each other and receiving from each other. The early Church Fathers developed the word "perichoresis" to describe this inner life of the Godhead. They formed the word from two Greek words: chora (space, room, to make room for) and peri (around, about). Perichoresis came to express how one person can be open to another. It became the key linguistic tool for the Church's development of the Trinity and of the personhood of the three persons of the Trinity. Gregory Nazianzuz used the word to explain how Jesus can be God and man at the same time without diminishing either His divinity or His humanity. Jesus' divinity and humanity co-indwell each other. The Athanasian Creed describes this co-indwelling this way: "One: not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh...not by confusion of substance: but by unity of person." (Kinlaw, p. 82) John of Damascus used Jesus' words in Jn. 14: 11, "Believe me when I say I am in the Father and the Father is in me..." (NIV), to describe how each member of the Godhead dwelt in the other two perichoretically. "In showing us what an original divine person is, he also revealed what a human person was meant to be and-through Christ's atoning sacrifice-can be..." (Kinlaw, p. 83)
4. Created to be Free- Jesus did His Father's will, not His own, freely. He was fulfilled in doing His Father's will and longed that we experience the same freedom. (Jn. 8:36) Jesus was free in His Father's love. (Jn. 10:18) Jesus lived to give Himself away. Jesus shed new light on how we view sacrifice and diety. Other religions before and since Jesus' sacrifice view God, or the gods, as demanding sacrifice to appease them. Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for us before accepting sacrifice from His worshippers. (Jn. 15: 9, 12-13) True freedom means freedom to give, not just to receive.
The next four characteristics of divine personhood will be covered in the next post.