Personhood According to Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg is one of the most accomplished theologians of the twentieth century. His skill as a rigorous doctrinal thinker is well served by his mastery of historical materials on every Christian doctrine. Pannenberg’s first major publication was in 1963 (a multi-author set of essays entitled Revelation as History), and he completed a three-volume Systematic Theology in 1993. Along the way, he wrote a lot of other important books on Christology, metaphysics, science, and anthropology.

That anthropology book, the somewhat sprawling Anthropology in Theological Perspective, weighs in at over 500 pages. One of the key claims Pannenberg makes in his theological anthropology is that we must trace the notion of personhood itself back into our conception of God. To argue in this direction is to move in the opposite of our default sensibility: we tend to think of ourselves as persons and of God as somehow analogously a person. But Pannenberg marshals psychological, historical, and social-sciences arguments for moving from divine to human in the definition of personhood.

The argument is complex, but a sketch of it can be found in at least one place: Pannnenberg wrote the encyclopedia article on “person” in the German reference work Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 

At some point in graduate school, I made a rough translation of the key parts of the article for my own benefit. Recently a colleague asked me to recap Pannenberg’s argument, and I sent him this excerpt.  I thought others might be interested also, so here it is.

What is designated today by the word “person” was first made accessible to humanity through Christianity. Antiquity did not differentiate person from (spiritual) individuality (so , Latin persona indicates the mask and later the role of an actor, hence also social roles and character).

The identification of personhood and individuality brought about considerable difficulties in the understanding of the Trinity and the union of God and man in Jesus Christ: The thought of three divine individuals must lead, at least for Aristotelian thought, to the acceptance of three substances. When, on the other hand, the divine-human unity in Jesus Christ came to be understood, by way of the Alexandrians and Chalcedon, as personal unity, the conclusion appeared unavoidable that the human nature in Jesus was not individual, and the Antiochenes not unjustly saw in this an abridgement of the Incarnation, the participation of Jesus in all things human. In spite of these difficulties the ancient church was not able to fundamentally overcome the identification of person and individuality. Therein, for the most part, is the coherence of the remaining aporias of its doctrine of the Trinity and Christology. The famous and influential definition of person by Boethius characterized it as rationalis naturae individua substantia (MPL 64, 1343 C).

The apprehension of personhood as spiritual individuality remained operative into the modern era, especially in Humanism and the Enlightenment. The latter saw the kernel of spiritual individuality in self-consciousness. It was customary to think of God too as person in this sense, until in 1798 J.G. Fichte established that if God were infinite he could not be personal: Self-consciousness always presupposes the existence of another, in distinction from whom one is conscious of self. God, therefore, is neither infinite nor the creator of all, if he is personal. Since Fichte’s attack, the “personhood of God” has become the battle-cry of the struggle against German Idealism and its supposed Pantheism (actually present only in Schelling). Whenever German Idealism has been attacked under this banner, personhood has been understood as spiritual individuality (self-consciousness): In theology following Kant, both along rationalistic lines as well as on supernaturalistic lines leading to Ritschl, and likewise in the speculative theism of mid-century, which–in dependence on Kant–bound the reality of God’s personhood closely to that of humanity. Beyond Germany, this personal metaphysic has reached to Sweden, France, and America, becoming the philosophical basis for a personal humanism in the sense of spiritual individuality and freedom.

The Christology of the ancient church had already attained the goal of understanding personhood as relation; the personhood of Jesus is constituted as an enhypostasis (Leontius of Byzantium) through its connection with the Logos. This relational character of personhood as relatedness to God was first precisely comprehended in the course of the wider history of the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine had already understood the Trinitarian persons as relations: The Father is only Father in relation to the Son, the Son is only Son in relation to the Father. Richard of St. Victor, in the 12th century, was the first to draw out the consequences for the understanding of personhood in general. By reason of the relational character of personhood, he defined it as existentia: a Being (sistere) which is apart from (ek) another. Only in this opposition is the person irreplacable (incommunicabilis); only in relation to the Father is the Son Son and not another (De Trinitate IV, 12; MPL 196, 937f.). Duns Scotus substantially deepened Richard’s conception of person, primarily with regard to the ontological and anthropological problems. In opposition to Thomas Aquinas, who, based on his distinction between esse and essentia, considered the act of being to be the constitutive moment of human personhood, Duns Scotus understood only the relationship to God to be constitutive for humans as persons. For Duns Scotus, a human could be a person in two ways: In autonomy from God or in devotional opening to God.

The 19th century seems to have won back, through its own approach, the concept of person as relationship. The idea of Fichte that self-consciousness only originates from self-differentiation from an outer world, was formulated personally by Jacobi: “Without a ‘You,’ an ‘I’ is impossible.” This situation was rediscovered as the basis of the concept of person by Hegel in his philosophy of religion, significantly once more in connection with the Trinitarian problem. The objections of the understanding against the impossibility of a triad’s unity were answered by Hegel with the idea that it is the essence of a person to surrender himself to another, and precisely in the other to receive himself. The unity of God is to be understood as the unity of love, brought to its fullness in the mutual submission of the three persons. Thereby Hegel overcame Fichte’s argument that God could not be personal, through a deeper understanding of personhood; and that not only in the doctrine of the Trinity, but also with the similarly emphasized thesis that God is subject. Theology did not appreciate this service of Hegel’s. Instead, misunderstanding him as a pantheist and thus an adversary to the idea of God, theology nevertheless did not itself find a satisfying answer to Fichte’s argument. The young Hegelians, meanwhile, mistook this idea of Hegel’s for a compromise with church doctrine. Feuerbach reduced Hegel’s Trinitarian statements to their anthropological content, retaining the relationship of submission between I and You as a basic human relationship. Feuerbach influenced Ebner and Buber, who blazed the trail for the understanding of person as relation in the 20th century. The idea has spread quickly in philosophy (Cohen, Rosenzweig, Litt, Löwith, Grisebach, Marcel, Jaspers) and in theology, especially on the protestant side (Brunner since 1924, Gogarten since 1926, Heim since 1931) but also in Catholic thinking (Guardini, P. Wust, Th. Haecker) since the first World War, and is public property today.

A human is first a person in finding himself face to face with God as person. God is a person, not a thing, because as the unknown power over existence he is essentially incomprehensible. Not by accident did ancient man–and children even today–personify everything important to them, which is not thoroughly known, and therefore has a hidden, inner side. Whatever is at least in principle entirely available becomes a thing. Therefore, the Deity remains personal, as long as it is not dissolved into a cosmic function. The Biblical God is essentially personal, because he always brings forth new contingent events, constantly behaving unforeseeably, thereby proving the infinitude of his freedom. That God in the unity of his essence is personal lays the foundation for the personal character of both the distinction of the Son from the Father and the Spirit at work in the Church.

God makes the human being a person. God, being indeed almighty without us, has mankind at his disposal and can deal with humans as things. But in so far as God enters into a history with humanity, to reveal himself to them, he takes them as a “You”. Because the will to revelation and therefore to condescension are characteristic of the eternal being of God, God grants to humanity personhood, not just for show, but from eternal faithfulness. This matter has found expression–Biblically inspired–in the theology of an Augustine, a Duns Scotus, a Luther.

Humans are persons through their orientation to God. The openness to the world which distinguishes humans from all animals, and whose full meaning should be understoood as openness to God, constitutes personhood. This is realized, as Duns Scotus discerned, either as attentive openness to God or as sealed independence from God, which as such (which Duns Scotus did not perceive) has the character of sin. Therefore the human being is not a person on account of a spiritual capacity he possesses, however understood, but on the contrary: He is only to be understood in his individuality as a spiritual being, from his personhood, from his essential openness.

Humans exist as persons in relation to other humans. The co-human relation of I and You is not the basis for personhood, but flows from it: In other humans the I meets with a being which, just like the I, is distinguished by a constant determination (openness to the world!). The other human, therefore, is not at his disposal, and cannot be entirely turned into a thing. Further, this human determination for God, since it is in all people just as it is in the You, can never be the aim of isolated individuals for themselves. Personhood tends to this great extend toward community and the arrangement of every particular in the entire community. Personhood is fulfilled in the act of loving surrender to the particular other and at the same time to the entire community: In the duality, which does not just seek to satisfy itself, but to bless the society, in the calling to serve not just its own state, but to recognize international responsibilities.

In individual life-histories the personal attains form as personhood. From birth, every human is a person by virtue of his determination. Every one must first become a personality through the posture he takes in view of his human determination, through the answer he gives with his life to the question of his determination.



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