What Is a “Person”? [Questions That Haunt]

What Is a “Person”? [Questions That Haunt] October 29, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity comes from Mark, and he gets right to the point:

In the context of Biblical Christian theology and humanity (not God), what is a “person”, and when does that “personhood” begin?

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below:

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  • Appears to me the scriptures define a person is a nefesh or psyche, a living soul. As opposed to an inanimate, nonliving object. If you can consciously interact with someone else, you’re treated as a person.

    When does personhood begin? Whenever God installs that soul. As to when that is, or whether the soul is extinguished at death (lots of Christians would like to believe it’s not, ’cause they don’t know the difference between soul and spirit), it’s debatable. Before abortion became a big deal to Christians in the 1970s, and many of us chose to define that point as conception, most of us assumed it was when a baby drew its first breath, since the Lord installed Adam’s nefesh by breathing it into him. (Ge 2.7) Nowadays it’s all, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” (Jr 1.5) which—since the Lord says before he made Jeremiah—doesn’t imply conception, but the pre-existence of the soul, like the Mormons believe. Not that I believe God was trying to make a statement about personhood; he was talking foreknowledge.

    Speaking for myself I prefer the idea it’s when brainwave activity starts. But that’s just me, not bible.

    • Craig

      In your view, when a mouse first begins to have brainwaves, is this because God has also “installed a soul” in it? Or, if there can be brainwaves without souls, do you suppose that this can ever happen with human beings?

      • I only said I prefer the idea. I don’t have an entire theology constructed round it. That way lies madness.

        • Craig

          Critically reflecting on your preferred idea doesn’t require you to construct your entire theology around it. If the idea has mad implications, that’s a good reason not to prefer it.

          • It’s not that it has mad implications. The madness is in trying to turn things which aren’t divine revelation, into things we embrace with all the fervency of divine revelation. That’s why sometimes it’s not a good idea to get too invested in favorite ideas; we’ll make golden calves of them.

            But if you want to take a few pokes at the idea, go for it.

  • Craig

    In these sorts of discussions, the terms “person” and “personhood” are often used as moral categories (sometimes also as legal categories). That is, to call something a “person” just is to say that it is an entity to which we should ascribe the kinds of moral claims ordinarily belonging to 5-year-old children, teenagers, passing strangers, etc.–as opposed to non-human animals, trees, simple robots, etc.

    So if the interest is really in the usual moral controversies (about abortion, euthanasia, etc.) we will avoid a great deal of confusion if we instead ask questions that entirely avoid the term “person.” Ask this, for example: “Here’s a living entity, when and why does it begin to have the sorts of moral claims we associate with a newborn child?” To answer, “When it becomes a person” typically betrays conceptual confusion, if not sophistry.

    • NateW

      I agree. This question is meaningless in and of itself unless the goal is simply to write a dictionary definition. In truth, the subtext behind the question is “Who’s needs am I obligated to treat as of more importance than mine?” In other words, “who is my neighbor?”

      Even this question is wrong-headed though.

      It’s tempting to abstract these questions so as to remove responsibility from ourselves. We assume that knowledge of the other is a prerequisite for action when in fact it is action towards the other (love) that makes knowledge of them possible.

      Look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question asked of Jesus is “who is my neighbor?” But at the end of the parable Jesus asks, “which one of these proved to be a neighbor to the injured man?” He completely shifts the focus away from the original question and forces the questioner to examine his own role.

      To ask “who is a person?” is to ask the wrong question. The Question that would be profitable for us to each ask is “am I?”

      If we must deliberate as to who is our equal, who are we obligated to love as we would want to be loved, the “biblical” answer, I think, can only be this: “the least.”

      • Craig

        Thanks NateW. Of course, the answer “the least” presupposes a great deal of agreement about the relevant class of entities (the biblical directive is worthless if we start wondering whether tadpoles shouldn’t be prioritized over orphaned children, who are, in some sense, “greater” than tadpoles).

        I’m on board with your suggestion that other lines of inquiry would be far more incisive, morally speaking.

        • NateW

          Thanks Craig. I always appreciate your clarifying questions.

          ‘m not sure though that “the least” presupposes any sort of objective biblical class structure. See, I don’t think of “the least” as being an abstract class label but as a moment by moment understanding of who/what is the “least” within my realm of influence in this very moment. There are just too many factors at play to fit within any taxonomic system.

          Sure, in the abstract on might say that tadpoles are of less concern than orphans, but an orphan may still need to be scolded for maliciously stomping tadpoles for no good reason (silly example to be sure!)

          I want so badly to be able to figure these things out, to gain enough knowledge to be prepared for any moral situation, but more and more I’m coming to understand that it isn’t knowledge that prepares me to act, but, as Insaid above, faithful action (ie Love) that enables me to truly know.

          • NateW

            As I think more, I get what you’re saying. If I have to choose to save a tadpole or a kid, I certainly hope I’d choose the kid every time.

            My dog caught and injured a squirrel the other day. I had to put the poor guy out of his misery and couldn’t get his little face out of my head for days. But I’ll crush every tick that I find on my pup in a second, especially since he’s fighting through Lyme’s disease right now.

            So, there’s certainly an assumed order to animals, etc., but I’m still not sure that it’s an objective taxonomy that can be predetermined. It’s still a moment by moment sensitivity, openness, humility, and faith in the Spirit of Christ’s self-emptying Love.

            • Craig

              Right. About your last paragraph, I would rather put it this way: it is a mistake to think that we can discover or codify rules that would provide complete moral guidance through mechanical application in every circumstance, or for every moral question. Legitimate moral principles must be vague, narrowly applicable, or allowing of exceptions, the range and variation of which precludes comprehensive enumeration. So, in moral deliberation rules can take us only so far. There’s an ineliminable need for judgment that’s sensitive to the peculiarities of the specific circumstance. This is a fact about morality, whether with divine guidance/inspiration or without it.

              • NateW

                I don’t necessarily mean to appeal to divine guidance/inspiration as it is often thought of (that is, I assume passivity until some kind of voice tells me what to do). I like what you say here, but there must be some deeper principle by which these moment by moment decisions are made or, rather, some particular form/way/spirit of being that must be actively stepped into in every moment. I see Christ as the embodiment of this. The ultimate moral principle, not in words, but in being.

                • Craig

                  At least in this regard, moral deliberation might be a lot like other kinds of deliberation–the deliberation of a baseball catcher, e.g., when deciding which pitch to call for. There are guidelines that could be narrowly applicable (“don’t call for an in-the-dirt sinker with a base-stealer on first”). There are also general, but vague guidelines (“don’t overuse the fastball”), but he’s inevitably left with a lot of room for judgment. How does he manage? We might say a lot of things in response to this question, but at least with baseball deliberation maybe we’ll be less tempted to think that there must be some deeper principle, or way of being that is special in kind (obviously baseball deliberation is different than moral or culinary deliberation, but one type of deliberation plausibly isn’t more deeply mysterious or spiritual than any another).

                  • NateW

                    The difference though, I think, is that the desired end is crystal clear and concretely defined in baseball (win the game by scoring more runs than you allow), but in ethical/moral dilemmas this just isn’t the case. Every decision we make assumes faith that one end is to be desired over another. Which end is the one that each moments decision propels us towards? A choice must be made (whether consciously or not) prior to every decision and no decision can be made that is not made in accord with (to the best of our understanding) the end that we serve.

                    The end towards which or deliberations are employed is our God.

  • Scott Paeth

    The way the question is framed it assumes that there is a “Biblical” answer to the question, though there emphatically isn’t. But however the question is answered, it would seem to need to make reference to the Hebrew concept of “nephesh,” the totality of the human being.

    I’d suggest that theologically the key elements of personhood would be integration, self-reflection, and relationally. A person needs to be understood as an integrated totality of body, mind, and spirit, needs to be capable of thinking about themselves and their own action in the world (or be capable of developing that capacity), and have the capacity to relate to others.

    A human being without these characteristics is still a human being, and we may refer to them as a person in the sense of being a human being, but that’s less precise than necessary from a philosophical perspective.

    Of course, this is all off the top of my head, and I reserve the right to revise it on further reflection.

    • Craig

      What’s at stake in the question of whether something (or even some human being) is a “person”? (Your answer to this might help us understand what you mean by calling something a “person”.)

      • Scott Paeth

        Hm. I’m not sure I’ve thought about it precisely from the question of what’s “at stake,” though clearly depending on how you conceive of the question it is applicable to a broad array of questions surrounding justice, equality, and the proper treatment of people in situations “at the edges of life,” to borrow Paul Ramsay’s phrase.

        Let me try to a frame the issue this way: Just because a being isn’t a “person” doesn’t mean we don’t have moral responsibilities with regard to it, but those responsibilities attach to US as agents, they aren’t the property of the being we’re responsible to.

        In the movie “Short Cuts” a group of men on a fishing trip find a dead woman in the river by which they’re camping. It would take hours for them get the police, return and deal with the fall out. It wold ruin their trip. Since the woman is already dead, they decide that they’re going to continue with their fishing trip, and tell the park rangers and police when they return.

        When one of the men tells his wife after returning home, she’s horrified at him, at his callousness, and what she perceives as his moral failure. And as the audience, I think we’re expected to agree with her. What they did was monstrous. But why? After all, she was dead, and their trip would have been ruined. As a dead body, she’s clearly NOT a person. But she HAD ONCE BEEN a person. And we as moral agents owe respect in that kind of situation, not to the corpse, but to the person the corpse once was.

        That doesn’t necessarily tell us what we SHOULD do in that situation, but clearly staying and fishing instead of alerting the police is a failure to respect our own obligation to the, what shall I call it, “honorary” person represented by the corpse. But that’s something that’s because of the kind of person we are, rather than because of the kind of being the corpse is.

        Similarly, a person in a persistent vegetative state may not be capable of fulfilling any of the criteria of personhood I lay out above, but still, because of who WE are, we are obligated to treat them with respect and dignity, in part in honor of the person they had once been. Its’ the same reason we don’t drop off dead bodies in at the dump but bury them with ritual and ceremony.

        With regard to a fetus, which has clearly not developed those capacities of personhood that I describe, it then becomes a question of the relative good and well-being of the fetus and the mother. Just because the fetus lacks those qualities doesn’t mean that whether one chooses to abort is a question of moral indifference, but the question of whether it’s right or wrong in a particular set of circumstances depends on the way in which the relative good of mother and fetus are determined.

        Every parent who has gone through pregnancy knows that you instantly start referring to the fetus as a “baby” and imputing characteristics to it. You anticipate the future child that is currently gestating. But that gestating fetus is not a “person.” And if the good of the mother is better served by having an abortion, I think that, given the proper reflection and consultation with her doctor and family (which is ultimately a question of the woman’s discretion and should be legislated), the woman should be permitted to do so. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something morally important at stake, but it’s not rooted in the personhood of the fetus.

        Sorry to run on so long, but this is what was sparked in me by the question of what’s “at stake.”

        • Craig

          Just because a being isn’t a “person” doesn’t mean we don’t have moral responsibilities with regard to it, but those responsibilities attach to US as agents, they aren’t the property of the being we’re responsible to.

          It strikes me as plausible that certain non-persons (many non-human animals, e.g.) make claims upon us simply because they are capable of a significant kind of suffering. These claims certainly give us responsibilities, but the claims originate in a property of the animals, the entities who hold the claim against us (not to be gratuitously abused, e.g.). It’s obviously true that such claims apply to us “only because of the kinds of things that we are,” but this is just because we are not like rocks, trees, and gophers–we have the capacity to respond to moral reasons. Some people think we shouldn’t abuse animals only because of something that such behavior would do to us. I find this idea a bit repugnant. This is why I think that calling something a “person” often means that the thing in question makes certain kinds of moral/legal claims on us (the sorts of claims we associate with prototypical persons–5-year-olds, teenagers, passing strangers, etc.).

          So, regarding the living human fetus, the choice is not between moral significance and moral indifference (corpses, ecosystems, and art may have moral significance). The choice is also not whether moral claims, originating in the fetus, apply to us. I plausibly owe it to a rabbit not to brutally torment it.

          I entirely agree that the issue of personhood should be largely set aside in exploring these moral questions about fetuses–but not precisely for the reasons you give.

          Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

          • Scott Paeth

            And I would agree that the question of suffering is an important moral consideration when we’re determining our responsibilities. Though again, is that because the being to which we are causing suffering is “entitled” do something from us, or because we’re “obligated” to act in a particular way as a matter of our own moral self-conception. That’s the bit I can’t quite crack.

            • Craig

              On reflection, the main point of my reply has two parts: (1) we don’t have to settle that question if the significance of the personhood attribution lies elsewhere (as I suggest it does). (2) To suppose otherwise (to suppose, i.e., that answer to the issue you can’t quite crack is internal to the concept of “person”) strikes me as entirely dubious. We’re dealing with a substantive moral question here, one that’s not plausibly settled by definitional stipulation or linguistic reflection.

    • Scott, I was hoping you’d chime in on this one.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      The Apostle Paul, would confirm that a person is a triune spirit, soul, body (in that order), by way of 1 Thess. 5:23. It’s important to note, that he is speaking of the ontic state, of a person, whilst in its Earthly, mortal form.

      • Gary in FL

        For my part, I agree that’s what Paul means/thinks, but I don’t think he’s right. In any case, the discussion so far has tried to keep “personhood” (however we end up defining it) fairly distinct from the concept of soul.

    • Gary in FL

      “A human being without these characteristics is still a human being, and we may refer to them as a person”

      A very necessary caveat. For a moment you seemed on the verge of defining personhood in way that excluded comatose patients. Nice recovery, even if it was off the top of yer head. 😀

    • Scot Miller

      Thank you. I was going to say, the premise of the question is mistaken (i.e., that there is such a singular thing as a “Biblical” answer). At best, there are ambiguous passages which may or may not be relevant to the question of personhood. Indeed, I would guess that there are biblical answers, and some of them may conflict with each other.

    • Craig

      The question doesn’t necessarily assumes that there is a biblical answer. Interpreted more charitably, it merely assumes, more modestly, the possibility that “Biblical Christian theology” can helpfully inform or influence our understanding of what a (human) person is and when the (human) personhood of an individual begins.

      That doesn’t mean there isn’t a mistake. But the mistake is perhaps more fundamental (and more widespread): assuming that there is some one unified and coherent thing that is captured by the term “person” or “personhood”, so that we even know what someone is asking when he asks “what is a person?” and “when does personhood begin”?

      This is why I’ve tried to shift the question from “What is a person?” to “What do we mean when we call something a ‘person’?” Or, more simply, “What’s at stake?”

  • CurtisMSP

    Personhood exists when that status of “person” is granted to an individual by others.

    Significant examples:

    People of African decent were not guaranteed “person” status in the U.S. until the 14th amendment was ratified in 1868.

    Prior to a 1971 Supreme Court decision, women in the U.S. were not guaranteed “person” status as it relates to the 14th amendment’s “equal protection” clause.

    35 states in the U.S. currently have laws making it a crime to commit an act of violence against an unborn child, granting personhood status to fetuses.

    So you are a person if and when someone else says you are.

    • Craig

      About the legal status of personhood, you may be in the ballpark. But personhood as merely legal status probably isn’t of primary interest here.

      • CurtisMSP

        True enough. But these laws didn’t just drop out of the sky. These laws were created by a society steeped in judeo-christian biblical ethics. It is likely that a majority of contemporary biblical theologians have agreed with these definitions at one time or another, even as the definitions have shifted through the years.

        Many people, at one time, held Bible-based views about why blacks are not people, even as today a majority of Bible-believing people would hold that blacks are people. Biblical Christian theology changes over time.

        • S_i_m_o_n

          Really? I think if you dig deeper you would find that the views were not Bible-based but instead found outside of the Bible and then proof-texted (quite poorly) to give them legitimacy. It’s not like they searched the scriptures Berean-style and came to the conclusion that Africans were not human. Instead they came to that conclusion and searched the scriptures for anything that could be viewed as Divine validation for this view.

          • CurtisMSP

            You are absolutely right. That is the way the Bible has always been used, and continues to be used today. It is impossible to not project our worldview onto our reading of the Bible.

            That is my point. Mark is asking for a Bible-based definition of personhood, and my response is that the Bible-based definition will be whatever people think the Bible says, and it will change over time.

    • Mark Kirschieper

      I really like your last sentence! I’m going to guess, you probably wouldn’t mind, if I modify it just a bit, and say: “So, you’re a person, if and when God says you are?” (After all, I did couch the question, in the context of Biblical Christian theology…)

      • CurtisMSP

        I like the phrasing Ric mentions. You are a person when you are known by God.

        After all, personhood involves more than what others think of us, it also involves what we know about ourself.

        I really like the way the 12-steps phrases it

        “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out.”

        Our personhood is an intermingling of our understating of God, and God’s understanding of us.

    • Ric Shewell

      In a biblical world view, a person is a person when they are known by God. This seems pretty consistent with the psalms and the prophets.

      • Mark Kirschieper

        Ric, I like your answer. It would support the idea, that a person can be a person, perhaps even BEFORE they become physically mortal, in human terms. This idea is consistent with the standard orthodox belief, that all three persons of the Trinity, were indeed persons, even BEFORE mortal human persons, came to be. (Even Christ’s incarnation.) Are you OK with human personhood, prior to their mortal formation? I am. In other words, something like, we’re a person, in the Divine consciousness, even BEFORE we’re mortally conceived? Christ was.

        • Ric Shewell

          Good question. I would not be so sure that God knows us before we are physical. In my reading of the Old Testament, God limits Godself from knowing the future for love’s sake. I think God is so faithful at limiting Godself that God will not and cannot know the future. So in that sense, God knows us when we actually become. When is that? Clearly the psalmist says that God knows us in the womb, but at what point in the process? Who knows, but at a certain point it get ridiculous to try to ask the question.

          I also assume that there are pro-life/pro-choice concerns behind the question. That changes the way the question is asked and the way it’s answered.

          • Mark Kirschieper

            Hi Ric, Thanks for the reply. Sounds as if you’re into process theology? Part of my past working career, was acting as a professional residential designer. The process of becoming a house, starts in the mind of the designer. It’s sort of a hypothetical deliberation, and visualization process, by use of counterfactuals. (Yes, theologians might call this Middle Knowledge.) However, in the mind of the designer, the house becomes known by the very act of the creative process. The house to be, actually is a house to come, in my mind. However, as the designer, I knew that it was going to be a house, and even an exceptional form of a particular house, prior to its construction. The only thing that changes, or you might say “processes”, is the ontological format, of my exceptional house. It starts in the ontic state of ideation, it then processes to the ontic state of architectural drawings on paper, it then processes to the ontic state of a physical house standing on a street, and perhaps eventually processes into a heap of junk, to be hauled away. I would argue, that the house was a house, all the way in the beginning, and totally known by the designer to be an exceptional, particular house, due to the very intrinsic nature of the creative process. So, I’ll have to respectfully disagree, that God does have a prior knowledge of a particular person, to be, even before that person become mortal. Go ahead and call me ridiculous, for asking the question. It’s easy for me to be ridiculous, guilty as charged!

            • Ric Shewell

              Good thoughts, Mark. I do not adhere to process theology, but I can see how that might come across with what I said. Process gets really rigid about God’s freedom and runs into real problems with christology, mind/body issues, and eschatology. Anyway, that said, I do think that God has covenanted with creation in such a way to preserve its (our) freedom. In order to do this, God must limit Godself. The difference between God/creation and your designer/house analogy is the freedom of the created thing. The designer of the house knows the house and thus has predetermined the house. In my reading of Scripture, God has not predetermined creation. God is genuinely surprised by what God has created, unlike a designer of a house. If God knew a person before the person existed, then the person (and God, I suppose) would not have the genuine freedom to relate.

              • Mark Kirschieper

                Honestly, that’s why I’ve been so drawn to the concept of Middle Knowledge, in the past few years. For me, it seems to be the most logical approach, to deal with the age old question regards the sovereignty of God, vs. the free will of humans. I was reaching a logic blockade, with your model for the time sequence, regards the beginning of human personhood. It seemed as if you suggested that human personhood just spontaneously appears ex-nihilo, at some point in time, without any a-priori knowledge, by anyone? It’s very difficult for me to understand, how any created thing (human person, or house), could just somehow begin, without some sort of a-priori thought, or ideation.

                • Ric Shewell

                  It’s nice that we are being honest, because I struggle with it too! I am committed to freewill and that God is growing, changing, and authentically surprised by creation. I think that’s the best reading of the Old Testament. But I suppose we’re looking at a spectrum of possibilities: the extreme on the one side, God predetermined everything before its physical existence, there is no freedom because there is no alternative possible futures; and the extreme on the other side, God knows nothing about creation before creation begins, allowing total freedom of creation and relationship between God and creation — God and creation experiencing the future simultaneously as partners. I try not to be on either extreme. I try to be in the middle leaning toward God not knowing the future. But I agree, God must know something of creation before it actually becomes.

    • S_i_m_o_n

      It seems to me you have described exactly what is wrong with allowing other people to grant personhood.

      • CurtisMSP

        good point

  • Here are notes from a long email conversation with a friend over when personhood exists and what it is. I pulled this research from many online sources, feel free to fact check or improve my sources, or offer other views:


    Scriputre tends to use blunt words to describe the person or living being. Things like Naphesh (often translated either soul or being) and which from my understanding simply means “breathing body.” In the NT they tend to use “psyche”
    but this seems to be used in place of the Hebrew “naphesh” when they cite OT verses, and seems to be an euqually broad synonym.

    As to when a Human Person exists: prolife leaders have used as proof-texts that Personhood
    begins at conception (Psalm 139, Is 44, Gal 1, Jer 1) really don’t
    speak to this question, though they say other good things about other
    topics — such as God’s calling and foreknowledge of the future, etc.

    Scripture such as Exodus 21, might show that an miscarriage is not
    punished as severely as murder, or it might not, if the unclear text is
    that the woman’s child was born prematurely but lived. So that chapter
    doesn’t help. Folks advocating the “miscarriage” translation however,
    show how it mirrors a pagan law that clearly WAS describing miscarriage.
    But who knows?

    Ultimately, Scripture does not give us direct guidance on the question.

    2. TRADITION: here I showed that there has not been a single unified traditional view across Christian and Jewish history.

    Jews traditionally believed that Personhood
    began when the head of the child exited the mom at birth. Before then
    the fetus was alive, but morally alive similar to a part of the mom’s
    body. If there was a problem at birth that put the mom’s life at risk,
    morally they required abortion.

    For Jews traditionally the embryo was not considered to be of the
    same moral status of “water” or “fluid” until the 40th day of pregnancy
    for male fetuses and 80th day of pregnancy for female fetuses. (Yevamot 69b) and (Mishna
    Nidda 30A)


    From the earliest days Church positions were in two or so camps.

    a. IMMEDIATE ENSOULMENT: where Personhood begins at the moment of conception and

    b. DELAYED ENSOULMENT: where Personhood begins sometime later, often several months after fertilization, when the fetal body is fully formed.

    For most of Church history, some form of delayed Personhood was the norm.

    Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, the
    Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in
    Philadelphia writes
    “Interestingly, ensoulment has been
    discussed for centuries, and
    so-called delayed ensoulment was probably the norm for most of
    Christian history, with immediate ensoulment gaining some serious
    momentum of its own beginning in the 1600s…”


    even in the 1974 Catholic Church statement on abortion
    and ensoulement,
    they honestly say as much that their declaration “expressly leaves
    aside the question of the moment when the spiritual
    soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and
    authors are as yet in disagreement.” The Declaration on Procured
    Abortion (from the Sacred Congregation for the
    Doctrine of the Faith),
    published in 1974

    True. Here are some key thought leaders in Christian tradition held that Personhood did not occur till one or more months after conception:

    Augustine: (400) St. Augustine writes that “the great question about the soul is not
    hastily decided by unargued and rash judgment; the law does not provide
    that the act abortion pertains to homicide, for
    there cannot yet be
    said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation when it is not
    formed in the flesh, and so not yet endowed with sense.”

    and elsewhere: “unformed fetuses are like seeds which have not
    fructified.” Aborting an “unformed emboryo” should be punished by a
    fine, not as if it were murder, Augustine wrote.

    Constitutions (Collection of Church law, written in Syria 400 AD)

    Maintained that the ensoulement occured upon to formation of the fetus:

    ” …Everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God,
    if it
    is slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed.”

    jerome: (400)

    “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion]
    not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their
    external appearance and their limbs…”

    St. Anselm of Cantebury: (de conceptu virginalem 1100)

    no reasonable man accepts that a foetus has a rational soul at the
    moment of its conception.”

    Thomas Aquinas: (1200)

    He said ensoulment
    occurs at about 4 to 5 weeks after fertilization, or at the
    “quickening” when mom’s feel the fetus move. Before that abortions
    (although wrong) were not homicide because:

    “one cannot say there is a
    living soul inside a body that lacks sensation…the flesh has not been
    formed, and thus does not have the capacity to feel.”

    He compared the
    process of fetal development to passing through three stages: “vegative”
    – alive, but analogous to non-sentient plant life – “animal” – alive,
    but not unlike the moral status of nonhuman animal life – and finally
    “rational” or capable of thoughts and feelings.

    To Aquinas, only in the last rational stage did a fetus become ensouled
    and become a full Person.

    Pope Innocent the III (1216)

    He wrote a letter which ruled on a case of a Carthusian monk who had
    arranged for his female lover to obtain an abortion.
    The Pope decided
    that the monk was not guilty of homicide if the fetus was not

    Council of Vienne (1311)

    Affirms the view
    that the soul is not immediately created at conception, but rather later
    when the body is fully formed.

    Archibishop Antonius of Florence (1450)

    later given the title Saint by the Catholic Church:

    Specifically said that there were extreme cases where abortion
    allowed, but only if the soul had not yet be infused into the fetus.

    As did Pope Gregory XIV (1591):

    Again, the Quickening is when ensoulement occurs. which he determined
    happened 116 days into pregnancy (16½ weeks).

    He issued Sedes Apostolica, which advised church officials, “where no
    homicide or no animated fetus is involved, not to punish more
    than the sacred canons or civil legislation does.”

    This papal pronouncement lasted centuries, until 1869.

    Philipp Melanchthon, (1550)
    Theologian, one of the key leaders of the Reformation, in his de Anima
    (or Commentary on the Soul) expressed belief in the ensoulment after
    the fetus was formed.

    Menno Simons, Founder of the Menonite Anabaptist Church (1560)

    leader of the Reformation times, he founded the Anabaptist
    church, which later became the Mennonite church. Also held to a view of
    the soul needing a formed body to exist.

    i think we left things there. Scripture doesn’t speak to it, and
    Tradition shows us two camps to choose from that past saints, popes, and
    leaders of the Reformation have all taken.

    So to me that leaves us with no clear Scriptural direction, and with divided tradition.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Good summary post. IMO on this topic, as in many things, one will not be able to content themselves with a straight “biblical answer” because one doesn’t exist.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Greetings all! Let me offer up this assertion: Modern man equals scientific: Homo sapiens sapiens (actually a subspecies, of its immediate extinct progenitor, Homo sapiens idaltu),which is equal to: OT adam (Strong’s #120, specifically not #121, which is a proper name), which is equal to: NT anthropos (Strong’s #444).

    • Craig

      What’s the link between any of these categories and personhood?

      • Mark Kirschieper

        God, as God is a person, with attributes of personhood.

        • Craig

          Okay, so the equivalency obviously doesn’t extend from any of your categories (Homo sapiens sapiens, etc.) to personhood. So we’re still missing a characterization of personhood.

          • Mark Kirschieper

            All the categories would be equivalent, or would correlate, because all are subsumed, in the Divine. Theologically, all the categories would therefore emanate from the Divine, yet not exhaust it. Science itself does not totally reject the notion of “Y chromosomal Adam”, and “mitochondrial Eve”, either. So, even from a more naturalistic perspective, there could be some correlation. (IMHO, liberal and progressive theologians are too quick to dismiss historical Adam and Eve. That could be tossing-out an incredibly useful theological tool, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of original sin.) Wouldn’t you agree that Homo sapiens sapiens, the OT word adam, and the NT word anthropos all emanate, from the Divine Triune Godhead?

            • Craig

              Rocks, tigers, and trees might all “emanate” from the Godhead. It doesn’t mean they’re equivalent, much less does it mean that they’re all correlates of “persons.”

              • Mark Kirschieper

                OK, Sounds like you strongly disagree, with my original assertion! I can handle rejection. (he-he) It was merely a starting point, for me. Can YOU offer up some beginning definition of “person”, in the context of Biblical Christian theology, or are you just here to be negative and disagreeable, with all other persons?

                • Mark Kirschieper

                  PS Craig: There is a rather obvious equivalency/your “link”, which my three categories DO share…They’re ALL human.

  • Guest

    What is a "person?"
    Well, let’s start small. Multicellular organisms can loosely be divided into two categories:

    One type establishes order among cells through their internalized patterns of action and their individual relationships. This type of multi-cellular organism usually doesn’t move much (plants, trees etc…).

    The other type has the previous type of order, but also has a centralized source of order. A unifying experience emerges out of the experiences of the cells in some part of the organism–this requires a central nervous system and a brain.

    (Now keep in mind, these categories are loose approximations. There are, of course, always disputable instances to be found).

    Biblically speaking then, I like a lot of the answers given so far in the comments. As Scott Paeth suggests, I would say the concept of "nephesh," or psyche, is synonymous with "personhood."
    When does "personhood" begin?
    I think it should be made clear that the understanding of "personhood" or "psyche" or "soul" (I’m using these terms interchangeable here, in case you didn’t notice) should not be considered unique to human beings because the psyche commonly appears in the animal kingdom. And, on top of that, every living cell has value in and of itself and for God, and therefore, should be respected and valued.
    All that being said–since we’re talking about humans–it could be argued that the Human "psyche" doesn’t become uniquely human until it starts doing uniquely symbolic human things, which hardly starts before language develops.
    So, if we say that personhood involves the formation of the "psyche," then, to quote John Cobb, the term "can be applied when there is a succession of unifying occasions each of which derives extensively from its predecessors and contributes extensively to its successors. Of course, each also derives from cellular occasions and contributes to them. The relative importance is always a matter of degree. Hence there is no one point at which the “soul” or “person” comes into being."
    You see, Human Beings would better be described as Human "Becomings."

  • Jesse

    What is a "person?"
    Well, let’s start small. Multicellular organisms can loosely be divided into two categories:
    One type establishes order among cells through their internalized patterns of action and their individual relationships. This type of multi-cellular organism usually doesn’t move much (plants, trees etc…).
    The other type has the previous type of order, but also has a centralized source of order. A unifying experience emerges out of the experiences of the cells in some part of the organism–this requires a central nervous system and a brain.
    (Now keep in mind, these categories are loose approximations. There are, of course, always disputable instances to be found).
    Biblically speaking then, I like a lot of the answers given so far in the comments. As Scott Paeth suggests, I would say the concept of "nephesh," or psyche, is synonymous with "personhood."
    When does "personhood" begin?
    I think it should be made clear that the understanding of "personhood" or "psyche" or "soul" (I’m using these terms interchangeable here, in case you didn’t notice) should not be considered unique to human beings because psyches commonly appear in the animal kingdom. And, on top of that, every living cell has value in and of itself and for God, and therefore, should be respected and valued.
    All that being said–since we’re talking about humans–it could be argued that the Human "psyche" doesn’t become uniquely human until it starts doing uniquely symbolic human things, which hardly starts before language develops.
    So, if we say that personhood involves the formation of the "psyche," then, to quote John Cobb, the term "can be applied when there is a succession of unifying occasions each of which derives extensively from its predecessors and contributes extensively to its successors. Of course, each also derives from cellular occasions and contributes to them. The relative importance is always a matter of degree. Hence there is no one point at which the “soul” or “person” comes into being."
    You see, Human Beings would better be described as Human "Becomings."

    • Craig

      A lizard is a person? Birds are people too?

      • Elisabeth M

        Yes. Not in the same style as are human people. But all manner of living things possess a personhood that is unique to their nature; in my view, even a tree has a particular type of personhood. It has needs and goals, so to speak, and ways it goes about meeting those. It has a particular self.

        This is how I understand things, but I must add, this doesn’t mean that all “people” by this definition are supposed to be treated identically, or that their qualities are synonymous.

        A cat has thoughts – not human thoughts, though. Cat thoughts. A whale has emotions. Not human emotions: whale emotions.

        I feel comfortable recognizing the personhood of these myriad creatures because I’m not attached to the idea of human exceptionalism. I think we humans are different from animals, insects, plants, etc, in some pretty important ways, but I’ve also found that any time one tries to articulate a complete and ultimate difference – a hard line – between us and everything else, it has a way of dissolving upon scrutiny.

        We are one of many. If you want to put it in theological language, we are a part of the very fabric of Creation.

        • Craig

          Thanks, Elisabeth, for the thoughtful expansion of this line of thought. In this case, personhood certainly doesn’t provide the moral touchstone for settling the typical controversies. I’m on board with that.

          I’m also on board with your skepticism towards hard lines. In nature, hard lines are rare. Perhaps folks are hoping that God has stipulated some hard lines for the purposes of our own moral deliberations (much as our laws sometimes stipulate hard lines between adulthood and childhood, or between intoxication and sobriety).

          • Elisabeth M

            Thanks Craig. Yeah, moral deliberations are easier with hard lines. One idea I come back to, when it comes to the differences between how we treat humans (no eating them!) and how we treat animals (meat tastes great!), is that to me, it makes sense for one type of creature to prioritize its own concerns over those of another. Our first obligation is to our kin. Animals do this all the time – carnivorous species that don’t eat their own kind, for example.

            Then again, given that we humans have some pretty far-reaching powers of reasoning, I believe we’re morally accountable to consider the impacts of those actions. (“With much power comes much responsibility, Peter Parker!”)

            So, unlike rats, which are an invasive species outside their native habitat and regularly drive other species to extinction wherever they’re introduced, we have the capacity to understand the big picture consequences of such things, and therefore bear a responsibility to respect those consequences… in this case, not to eradicate the plants and animals we live near.

            As for the theology involved in these ideas… I don’t see the answers to these questions delivered to us fully-formed in the Bible (as Athena stepped full-grown from the head of Zeus). Rather, the Bible offers a value system which provides the groundwork for us to draw the lines ourselves. From the Bible I learn justice, compassion, the goodness of creation, the value of redemption, etc. Then I take those values and, through careful reasoning, apply them to these moral questions.

            Of course different people will inevitably come up with different answers based on the same values, and all argue that their paradigms are biblical. I don’t see that as a problem, if their reasoning really does sprout from that good and wholesome groundwork. I think there’s much to be learned from one another.

            • Larissa Moss

              Elisabeth, do you have a blog? I like you. =)

              • Elisabeth M

                Oh thanks! yeah, I do. It’s ramblersjournal dot wordpress dot com.

          • Mark Kirschieper

            I can easily agree with Elizabeth’s last sentence “…we are a part of the very fabric of Creation.” However, if animals are persons, and plants are persons, then we would be killing persons to eat (assuming we’re omnivores). That would be one unavoidable conclusion, to this line of thinking. Although other species are certainly other valid ontic categories, that does not necessarily mean conditions of personhood apply. I did frame the question in the context of humanity. Elizabeth, if I go with your premise, could you please elaborate, on the type of personhood, that is then unique to the nature of human persons?

            • Elisabeth M

              Hi Mark. I didn’t see your comment before I replied. Part of my answer to your question is below, in my second reply to Craig.

              I do acknowledge that my viewpoint allows for the killing of persons. However, so does a more conventional view, in which we justify war and capital punishment for rational reasons. “Whom are we allowed to kill?” is sure to remain an important question no matter where we draw the lines of personhood.

              Let me reiterate, too, I’m not saying that to recognize the personhood of every living thing is to suggest that all their faculties are synonymous, or that they should all be treated the same way. Rather: it’s that they should all be treated with respect according to their nature.

              You asked if I could identify what’s unique about human personhood. I don’t think I can articulate differences between one type of personhood and another. Really, part of the purpose of using a single word (personhood) to umbrella them all is to highlight what they share, not how they differ.

              But articulable or not, the nature of human personhood is knowable, because we’re living it. We’re each having a human experience. How to describe that experience (as novelists, poets, philosophers and so on have been doing with more or less success for thousands of years) is a much larger question.

              My question is, how should we treat each other? How does acknowledging something’s personhood place responsibility on us? When and how is it possible to justify things like killing or exploitation, given a broader definition of persons? Instead of, “How are humans unique,” I’m more interested in, “What does it mean to respect the various personhoods of a lizard, a tree, an ant, a human?”

              • Mark Kirschieper

                Hi Elisabeth, Thanks for the response. I’m curious, could you affirm, that Christ is a unique ontilogical expression of human personhood?

                • Elisabeth M

                  Not sure. I can see those words meaning a few different things. Do you mean that Christ embodies human personhood in a manner unlike any other human before or after? (i.e., that Christ is the son of God?)

                  Or are you referring to something else?

                  • Mark Kirschieper

                    Yes, wonderful; your words are better than mine! I acknowledge you, as a gifted wordsmith. So, your phrasing will more than suffice, for purpose, of my question. Thanks

                    • Elisabeth M

                      Thanks. Somehow I feel hesitant to weigh in on that. On one hand, it’s a standard theological position to take, and a simple confession of faith. On the other, I don’t have the vantage point to speak about the ultimate nature of Christ’s personhood… it feels presumptuous. I sort of feel that’s between Christ and God.

                      At this moment, I’m content to treat it as a mystery, with reverence.

                      In any case, ontologically speaking, it doesn’t deeply matter what my answer is. The ontology of Christ’s nature is what it is, with or without my commenting on it.

                      I have to ask, what makes you raise the question? I don’t see how it relates to what we were talking about.

                    • Mark Kirschieper

                      Honestly, it was is your hesitancy to commit to any sort of unique characteristics, regards the specific nature of human personhood. I was seeking some sort of mutual consensus. I was hoping that if you were to acknowledge the unique human personhood of Christ (yes, that would have been a statement of faith, or confession), we could develop a personal “share”, some might say a “stake”, in our relationship with the person of Christ, that could be logically extended, to likewise offer some unique input regards the definition of the nature of human personhood. Thanks for your engagement, I really do appreciate that!

                    • Elisabeth M

                      That makes sense. I will say this though – it’s not that I’m unwilling to commit to any unique characteristics regarding human personhood. It’s just that I’m unable to describe those characteristics in words. That may change someday… you know. It’s a journey.

              • Jesse

                Beautiful answer, Elizabeth.

        • Jesse

          Great answer Elizabeth.

    • Elisabeth M

      Thank you. I was going to try to broach this, but you beat me to it.

  • A lot of commenters are looking at the topic from the perspective of yesterday and today’s issues. End-of life is important, too: when does person-hood end? Looking to the future, what if?:

    * suppose medical science advances to the point where a fetus can pass its full period of gestation in an artificial womb, without the uncertainties associated with pregnancy: when will that become a person?

    * suppose cloning manages to bring a Neanderthal man into the 21st century. There’s every possible that that being would be able to walk, talk, work, love. Would it be a person?

    * what if it were to be possible to download someone’s consciousness to a computer: would person-hood be preserved?

    * what if a fully artificial intelligent life is created? will that be a person?

    These are reasonably far-fetched, but the kind of thing that the next century or two of science could bring forward. Painting theology into a corner by presupposing that such questions will not arise would be short-sighted.

  • A moral definition: A person is an entity such that, if you deliberately kill him or her, without justification, you are a murderer.

    An ontological definition: A person is an entity that has the being that I have, or have had, or will have, or may have.

    Strictly speaking, the interrogatory pronoun appropriate to “person” is not “what,” but “who.”

    • Craig

      You seem suited for a career in politics.

  • Andrew Dowling

    A philosophical answer may be to declare that personhood is defined by
    self-awareness and possessing relational and self ‘consciousness.’ Problem is, more and more evidence
    is showing we are not the sole proprietors of self-awareness or the
    ability to “relate” to others/act out of empathy in the mammalian

    • NateW

      I wonder though, if we are the only creatures with the capacity to truly love an enemy, to give oneself up for their good?

      I don’t think that personhood consists of self-knowledge, but rather of self-forgetfulness.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Didn’t we have this discussion on SM’s blog? 🙂

        How many human beings sacrifice for their enemies? 0.0000000000000000000001%? That’s not a common characteristic of our species.

        And other mammals do risk their lives for others (in rare instances, for other species) in situations which confer no benefit to the one risking themselves, so that is also not unique to homo-sapiens.

        • NateW

          Haha, yeah, maybe we did. Sounds familiar. : )

          I’m certainly not saying that self-sacrifice is a common characteristic among humans and neither do I mean to say that literally dying is the most common form.

          There’s a saying that it’s not easy to die for someone else, but that it’s nearly impossible to spend your life living for someone else. That’s what I mean (or rather what Jesus means) when he says that whoever would follow him must take up his own cross daily. He allowed himself to the the scapegoat, a pawn in the game being played by the Jewish leaders and the occupying Romans. He was abandoned by all of his friends and even forsaken by the God who he had served faithfully. And yet in the midst if all that he still called out to God to forgive those who hurled insults at him as he lay dying.

          This image, Christ on the cross, naked and alone, forgiving those who put him there for no justifiable reason even as they insult Him–this is what I think is the ultimate manifestation of what it means to be wholly human.

          I will never live up tho this. I let my loved ones down every day, fail to give up my own comfort for their good. But I endeavor to keep getting up and trying again because I have faith that the forgiveness that Christ extended to those who hate him, despite their ignorance, also covers me in my failures.

          • NateW

            In other words, Christ has give me my personhood by allowing his own to be taken away by others. And so I endeavor to do the same.

    • Scott Paeth

      I’m actually fine with the idea that, say Dolphins or Gorillas may be “persons” in the sense you’re describing (and which I used above). Similarly, if martians from Neptune come from Alpha Centauri and plant their spaceship in Central Park, and display those characteristics, I’d be happy to say that they too qualify as persons.

      • Andrew Dowling

        I applaud your logical consistency! 🙂

  • Mark Kirschieper

    My personal assertion, for Wednesday: A human person becomes a human person, only by the creative intent, design and decree of God. Therefore, human personhood exists even prior to any biological expression, of it. It could be said, that human personhood does have a sequential ontology, and does not lose its personhood status throughout the expression of those various ontic states. The ontic sequence could be something like conceptualization, or ideation by God (aka “creation”), mortalization by means of biological conception, and then immortalization by means of mortal death. Immortalization may not always be eternal, depending on a particular persons free will choices and attitude towards God. For example, since hard core atheists are expecting personal annihilation, they may indeed get what they’re expecting. If a person in the ontic state of immortality, is a willing agent, it is possible, that the person becomes joined to the Divine, by means of theosis. The ontic state of our resurrected Christ, may be an absolutely perfect example/metaphor, for that potential personal theosis.

  • LoneWolf343

    I personally define a person as a being that has self-awareness, and has sufficient mental capacity for reason and to comprehend its existence. Unfortunately, this seems to rule out some living, breathing humans.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Theology Thursday: I know Tony Jones views the Bible, as a theological document, and so do I. He and I are on exactly the same page, in that regard. So, let’s try to use it as a tool, available to us, as a gift from God. I know it’s controversial, and admittedly very subject to personal understanding, and interpretation. But why avoid it, if one is trying to do orthodox Christian theology? Therefore, I see the words foreknow/foreknew (Strong’s 4267) used 5 times, and the word foreknowledge (Strong’s 4268) used 2 times, in the NT. I suggest we deal directly with these. It’s certainly plausible, that God may have an a-priori acquaintance, with human persons prior, to their mortal incarnation. I would assert, that even if a human person is only a Divine thought, or concept, it is still a human person, just in an earlier, or different ontic state.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Interesting trivia, and/or perhaps Divine revelation: I was free range Googling regards human characteristics…I came across this website http://www.livescience.com/15689-evolution-human-special-species.html I was then dumbfounded, when I came upon unique human characteristic 3. Apparently, humans are the only known specie, that can blush. Charles Darwin himself agreed with that. I found his quote: “Blushing is the most peculiar and most human of all expressions”, from his writing entitled, “The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals”. I then went back to my Tues. premise, that the OT word adam (Strong’s 120) is synonymous, with Homo sapiens sapiens. Again, I did deeper research, to discover, that the most literal idea behind that Hebrew word adam, would be “ruddy”, or “red-faced” person. Again dumbfounded, but I’m easily amused. Here’s another website, with even a bit more scientific approach, to unique characteristics, of human persons: http://www.metaprimate.com/unique-to-human/ Enjoy!

  • Mark

    A person is a human being. Humans are:
    – created in God’s image
    – have souls

    – exist at conception

    Having studied philosophy, which includes a BA from a public university, more and more I have come to appreciate the amazing, relevant simplicity (and veracity) of the Bible.

    Amazing how God could communicate the whole of human existence so beautifully to us. Encourages me to worship Him more.

  • Mark Kirschieper

    Perhaps a bit of an epiphany, for me today, as I was still considering my question…Perhaps a human person, is the “intellectual property”, of the Sovereign God. We all know, that intellectual property, can and does exist in concept, or idea form, whether it becomes materialized, or not. An example, there are probably thousands/millions of valid patents, for objects, or processes, that may or may not be materially produced. However, the idea still exists, and is real, in some form, even before any potential production. In fact, the patent/intellectual property, has legal protection.

  • Larissa Moss

    I just had this conversation with a few girl friends. I think we decided that when life begins and when humanity begins are two different things, which adds something interesting to this whole conversation. Most of us agreed that humanity exists with a heart beat, since we (my friends and I) can’t measure our babies brain waves to find out exactly when they start having human-like brain activity. That said, we all decided we were comfortable with taking the morning-after-pill, but we wouldn’t ourselves get abortions (after implantation). One girl said she was fine with abortion before a heart-beat. We talked about how biblical people believed life began at the first breath, because there were no such thing as an ultrasound at the time (maybe not even such a thing as medical abortion). And yet none of us feel good about saying a late-term abortion is morally okay. Personally, I don’t feel okay with judging anyone else’s behavior at all. I believe in a circle of life. Life and death exist together. I eat meat, I pull living carrots out of the ground to feed my family. I have taken The Pill, had an IUD, spent years only using condoms and now my tubes are tied. So this is complicated. My answer is, it depends on your circumstances. What’s your story?