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).

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