Friday, July 27, 2007

God is not a person

Blow my doors off.... why didn't this jump out at my more forcefully in grad school?

I'm rereading She Who Is for the discussion I'm leading in August. I stumbled on these lines and just had to post them for your comments. Johnson is talking about the justification for using extra-biblical language to talk about God (of course building to her point which is women's experience ought to be equally sufficient in the naming of and characterizing of God as men's has been for two millenia). She begins with Aquinas (a giant in her Catholic world).
In one of those myriad interesting little discussions that Aquinas carries on in the formal framework of the quaestio, he deals luminously with the legitimacy of this historical development. The question at hand is whether it is proper to refer to God as "person." Some would object that this word is not used of God in the Scriptures, neither in the Old Testament or in the New. But, goes the argument, what the word signifies such as intelligence is in fact frequently applied to God in Scripture, and so "person" can be used with confidence.
I had no idea that the word "person" is never associated with God in Scripture. Mind-blowing.

I should have caught that at some point in four years of grad school. It just reminds me again how easy it is to think we know things that we honestly don't know.

Did you know that God is never identified as "person" in Scripture? If so, how do you feel about using that kind of language for God? How would it change how you see God if you removed the identification of "personhood" with God? How does the idea of "person" shape our view of God (after all, person in our times has to do with rights, identity, individuality, personality, will... it's more than human being, isn't it?)?

I'll be interested in what you all think.


Chuck said...

I guess I've never really been comfortable with the notion of superimposing human characteristics on God. In fact it has always seemed rather egocentric on our part. And I would extend that egocentricity to sacred scriptures of all ilks.

I'm sure it is much easier to have a theology built around a "personal relationship with Christ" if indeed God does have characteristics in common with persons. But I see it as just a metaphor or device of convenience, rather than an expression of ultimate truth.

While on vacation recently I was a part of an interesting discussion. Some folks were describing their involvement with an organization that focused on character education among junior high and high school students. While their own convictions were of an evangelical nature, they kept particular expressions of faith out of the curriculum - largely because they wouldn't be allowed into the schools otherwise. I applaud their efforts and willingness to detach their theological slant, in order to challenge students to be more caring and accepting of those on the fringes of the teenage culture. But I found it interesting that for themselves, they still directly equated these characteristics with the nature of a personal God. And I couldn't help but think that those characteristics were only part of the picture painted by the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It seems that God's jealousy and wrath were just as prevalent in those depictions, but we can easily filter out the characteristics we don't think fit. I prefer to not have my image of God (or perhaps hope about God and the nature of the universe) anchored so tightly around documents such as scripture that seem products of cultural circumstances rather than "revelation".

Dcn Scott Dodge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dcn Scott Dodge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ish Engle said...

I agree with Chuck that the personhood of God is "just a metaphor or device of convenience, rather than an expression of ultimate truth."

However, another thing that clouds this issue is our understanding of the word "person". Just as 100 years ago most people would declare they were "gay" and not entertain any sexuality thoughts, the word "person" has morphed its meaning.

Person -- c.1225, from O.Fr. persone "human being" (12c., Fr. personne), from L. persona "human being," originally "character in a drama, mask," possibly borrowed from Etruscan phersu "mask." This may be related to Gk. Persephone. The use of -person to replace -man in compounds and avoid alleged sexist connotations is first recorded 1971 (in chairperson). Personify first recorded 1727. Personable "pleasing in one's person" is first attested c.1430. In person "by bodily presence" is from 1568. Person-to-person first recorded 1919, originally of telephone calls.

The point -- person described a character. It was a useful, early understanding of the trinity to think of 1 actor with three masks (roles or characters) for God (One God in Three Persons). As we tried to "personalize" God, we morphed the meaning. Above shows the change.

In the end, though, I think that Chuck is spot on that it is a metaphor for God, and not the ultimate truth.

Just my $0.02.

PS -- Thanks for the always stimulating (if sometimes frustrating) thoughts on theology, life and everything.

Ish Engle said...

By the way, the etymology for person was found at

thechurchgeek said...

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to talk about the triune God, if we cannot talk about the personhood of the three.

I'm not sure what other options there are if we cannot refer to the three using the language of persons?

TiaDavidandourLittleChickens said...

I wonder if it's a protestant idea...God as "person". I remember as a baptist and preby we said the term often. But I'm straining to think if I've *ever* heard that term in Orthodoxy.....

personally, I don't think I think of God as "person"; it feels like a much too small box.

Rebecca C. said...

I'm confused. (Not unusual, lol!) In what different way would God have to be referred to in the Bible to have it be a reference to God as a person?

A moment of reflection tells me that perhaps this a more urgent question if the phrase 'personal relationship with God' was ever part of one's theology?

julieunplugged said...

Scott, why did you remove your posts? I thought they were greatly helpful to the discussion.

julieunplugged said...

I still haven't reflected on this enough to give meaningful support to any ideas.

What I think person conjures in the 21st century if really different than the ancient world, for one thing. So there is the danger of retrojecting our concepts of personhood (with rights, personality, individuality) onto God...

But I mostly found it astounding to realize that the word "person" isn't in the Bible with reference to God, just like it astounded me the first time to realize free will and trinity weren't either.

Rebecca C. said...

Ok, another stupid question. Is the word person in the Bible at all?

(I trust, btw, Julie, that you are familiar enough with my operating style to know I'm just curious, not carrying a agenda here.)

jmdewey said...

Tons of uses of the word person in the Bible.
The Nicean Council that decided the trinity liberaly uses the word person to describe God, and so, make it not true.

Anne McCrady said...

I have always felt that thinking and speaking of God as a person (and moreover a male person) limits spirituality: God is in our image rather than the other way around. In fact, it is interesting to consider the many ways we person-ify and so limit God: that he/she/it gets angry, sad, proud, jealous, etc. This is all underscored when, as Chuck noted, we describe spirituality as "a personal relationship with Christ." I find "spirit" a more freeing concept, and, if we draw from other faith traditions, Buddhism offers no "being" at all-just a life-affirming oneness we experience when self gets out of the way. I hope we are moving toward a time to reconsider Western Christian framing of our "image of God." All this can inform and expand our sense of life and spirituality!