Sunday, April 2, 2017

Proper Biblical Understanding of the Word, "Person"

We cannot possibly overemphasize the importance of word understanding. There can be no meaningful discussion on any topic, especially theology, unless all participants are on the same page in definition of terms. I cannot think of any other single thing that has brought as much confusion to the Lord’s church as the different applications of the word person. To Westerners the word person brings to mind a very clear and definite image. An example is found in the very first words of the definition of “person” in the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (principle copyright 1973):  “a human being regarded as an individual.” Further down in the definitions, along about #4 is this: “bodily appearance, the body of a human being.” To most people, this is the mental image of the word person. So, then, when the Pluralists say that God eternally exists as three co-equal, co-eternal, separate and distinct persons, the image is three separate and distinct individual sentient beings, with their individual centers of intellect, volition and emotions—and yes, even separate bodies. Such Trinitarians as Finis Jennings Dake, and like theological midgets, take just such a position, which is nothing short of tritheism. 
What is the best way to think of the term person, in relation to God? Well, it is best to avoid its use completely. However, the term is so rooted in Godhead theology that that may not be practicable. Karl Barth asks, “Why should we cling to the concept of person which invariably obscures everything?” Then he presents J. Pohle as responding to his question, “The terminology has been fixed ecclesiastical and theological usage in such a way that it can no longer be discarded.”
  So, in view of that, we should be educated on the word, and come correct in its theological use. 

The English word “person” is from the Latin persona; which comes into the Latin from the Greek prosōpon. Prosopon is a word from  the Greek stage. It means mask or face; as one actor would use different faces or masks to represent different characters. It is interesting that the English dictionary we referenced above, does, indeed, give this definition for the word person; but by the way we use and understand the word, hardly anyone would know it.  In fact Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary states the following for the word person: “Latin, persona, actor’s mask, character in a play, person, ... ;” then definition #2. A character or part in or as in a play: GUISE; definition #3. one of the three modes of being in the Trinitarian Godhead as understood by Christians (underlining, mine). Then there is definition 5. The individual personality of a human being: SELF. Please note definition #3, from above: “one of the three modes of being... .”
Any theological study of the term “person,” as it relates to God, must come from the Biblical use of the word prosōpon, rendered in our English Bibles as person. Joseph Henry Thayer says concerning prosōpon: “Hebraistically, the appearance one presents by his wealth or poverty, his rank or low condition; outward circumstances, external condition; so used in expressions which denote to regard the person in one’s judgment and treatment of man... .”  Prosopon is rendered “person” in the following scriptures, which have the persona of power, wealth, and/or influence of an individual (or individuals) in view—not the physical being: 
Matthew 22:16 “And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.” 
Mark 12:14 “...thou regardest not the person of men, ...” 
Luke 20:21 “neither acceptest thou the person of any, ...” 
2 Corinthians 2:10 “To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ;”  
Galatians 2:6 “God accepteth no man's person.”  
Jude v16 “These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men's persons in admiration because of advantage.” 
While the above list of Scriptures establishes our point, a text that sweeps all clouds from the sky is Matthew 16:2-3. Here, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees and Sadducees for not recognizing the “signs of the times.” He says to them: “When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. 3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?” Jesus referenced the appearance (persona) of the sky on any given occasion as the “πρόσωπον τοῦ οὐρανοῦ” “face of the sky.” The Greek “πρόσωπον” (prosōpon) is translated as “face.” The sky can have many different “faces” or “persons.” In this biblical sense, “person” has its basic and primary meaning of “mask.” One would do well to consider the words of Barth. “It is obvious that the ancient concept of person, which is the only possible one here, has now become obsolete.” (He is speaking of the Trinity.) “It is also obvious that the only possible definition of the matter in question is not a definition of this ancient concept of person. At the point where earlier dogmatics and even modern Roman Catholic dogmatics speak of persons, we preferred to call the Father, Son and Spirit of God the three distinctive modes of being of the one God subsisting in their relationships one with another.” (Bolding, mine.)

We may add to the lists of scholars Anglican priest and theologian Alister McGrath: "The word ‘person’ has changed its meaning since the third century when it began to be used in connection with the ‘threefoldness of God’. When we talk about God as a person, we naturally think of God as being one person. But theologians such as Tertullian, writing in the third century, used the word ‘person’ with a different meaning. The word ‘person’ originally derives from the Latin word persona, meaning an actor’s face-mask—and, by extension, the role which he takes in a play. By stating that there were three persons but only one God, Tertullian was asserting that all three major roles in the great drama of human redemption are played by the one and the same God. The three great roles in this drama are all played by the same actor: God. Each of these roles may reveal God in a somewhat different way, but it is the same God in every case. So when we talk about God as one person, we mean one person in the modern sense of the word, and when we talk about God as three persons, we mean three persons in the ancient sense of the word. ... Confusing these two senses of the word ‘person’ inevitably leads to the idea that God is actually a committee" (Alister McGrath in Understanding the Trinity pages 130-131).

The Modalist may, to the tritheist’s dismay,  speak of God being manifest in three persons—knowing as he does that prosōpon (person) means persona or mask, or modes of the same individual Deity. This is even recognized in the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary’s definition of person when associated with the Deity: #3. “one of the three modes of being in the Trinitarian Godhead as understood by Christians” (Bolding, mine).  This, “modes of being” as a definition for “persons,” is most certainly a Modalistic interpretation of the term. 
We can, therefore, speak of the different faces, or masks, worn by the Deity throughout Holy Scripture as His prosopa (persons).

The Many Prosōpa (Faces, or persons, of Jesus)
The opposition to Modalism fails to acknowledge the different roles (offices, administrations, manifestations, modes) performed by Jesus (often at the same moment) throughout the economy of God. At times these different modes are diametric to each other.  The following is but a sampling:

Jesus is the Judge: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” —2 Corinthians 5:10.  Yet, Jesus is the Advocate who pleads the case before the Judge: My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:” —1 John 2:1.

Jesus is the Lamb of God: The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” —John 1:29; see Revelation  5:6. Yet, Jesus is the Lion of Judah: “And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof” —Revelation 5:5.

Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness: But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall” —Malachi 4:2. Yet, Jesus is the Morning Star: “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star” —Revelation 22:16. The Sun and the Morning Star occupy the same sky at the same time—the Morning Star remains in the sky AFTER the Sun appears.

Jesus is the Yahweh of Battles: “Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” —Psalm 24:8. Yet, Jesus is the Prince of Peace: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: ... and his name shall be called ... The Prince of Peace” —Isaiah 9:6.

In Relation to Redemption
Jesus is the Shepherd, (John 10:14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.)
 Who goes through Himself the Door to the Sheepfold, (John 10:7 Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.)
 and chooses Himself the Lamb, ( John 1:29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.)
 to be Himself the Sacrifice, (1 Cor 5:7 ...For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:)
 which He delivers to Himself the High Priest, (Heb 3:1 Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus;)
 Who lays Himself upon Himself the Altar, (Heb 13:10 We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.)
 which is located in Himself the Temple, (John 2:19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.)
 where the blood of Himself is carried through Himself the Veil, (Heb 10:20  By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;)
 and sprinkled upon Himself the Mercy Seat, (Rom 3:25  Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [mercyseat] through faith in his blood, ... (Literally: ἱλαστήριον διὰ [τῆς] πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι  There is here an unmistakable identification of Jesus with the Mercyseat.  Both are termed the “hilastēron,” namely, the propitiation.)

In Relation to God
Jesus is the Father, ( Isa 9:6  ... his name shall be called ...  The everlasting Father, ...)
 Who Himself is the Son, (Matt 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, ... Jesus: )
 Who Himself is the Holy Spirit, (John 14:17-18 Even the Spirit of truth; ... for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. 18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. See 2 Cor 3:14-18; Col 1:27.)

There is no wonder Paul could write: “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col 2:9).

Apostolically Speaking
☩ David Ignatius

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