The Human Person According to the Holy Fathers

Apostle Rodion of the Seventy

Apostle Rodion of the Seventy

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

Apolytkion (Dimissal) Hymn of Saint Nektarios, Bishop of Pentapolis
First Tone

O faithful, let us honor Nektarios, divine servant of Christ, offspring of Silivria and guardian of Aegina, who in these latter years was manifested as the true friend of virtue. All manner of healing wells forth for those who in piety cry out, "Glory to Christ who glorified you; glory to Him Who, through you, wrought wonders; glory to Him Who, through you, works healing for all."


By His Eminence Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos (Source: The Person in the Orthodox Tradition)

As I begin to take up the topic "the human person according to the Holy Fathers," I am reflecting on the gravity and the responsibilities of it. We are dealing with a delicate problem but one that is essential for our time. It is delicate because it has many aspects and extensions to things which have to be faced with responsibility and discretion. Yet it is necessary for our time, because there are numerous religious, philosophical, political and social systems which have a distorted teaching about man, because they regard him as a simple biological monad and nothing more. I want particularly to emphasize all the hinduistic systems, all the religious interpretations concerning man which are coming to us from the East and have turned man into a simple biological monad, not seeing him as a person.

In spite of sensing the crucial and delicate nature of the topic, I shall undertake to formulate some thoughts, because it is essential for our time. But our spiritual integration and the development of a true spirit of humanity depend on how we stand on this subject. All the religious, political and social principles can be sustained on this proper foundation.

The Theology of the Person

It must be said from the very beginning that the Holy Fathers used the term 'prosopon", (person), first and foremost in referring to God, and particularly the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. A whole process had to be gone through in order to arrive at the formulation that the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are particular Persons-Hypostases, but have a common essence or substance. The common substance does not remove the particularity of the Persons-Hypostases, and the Persons-Hypostases do not remove or break the oneness of the substance.

In ancient Greece the word 'prosopon', which now means 'person', had more the meaning of the mask which the actors used to play different roles on the stage. There is a whole history surrounding the development of the mask into a person. Through a long process the word that was used to mean 'mask' finally came to mean not simply something that one puts on, but what makes one a real human being.

The Holy Fathers did this work chiefly in the fourth century, in their effort to confront various heretics who, in using Greek philosophy, were distorting Christ's teaching about the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus we can say that real orthodox theology is experiential an ascetic, while dogmatic theology is mainly "polemic", which means that the Fathers applied various terms from philosophy, not in order to understand and increase or improve the orthodox faith, which is revelation, but in order to express it in the terms of their time and to protect it from various distortions.

In what follows I would like us to take a look at how the Holy Fathers came to apply the term 'Prosopon' to the Trinitarian God.

Various philosophizing theologians, in their attempt to clarify the relationship between the Father and the Son, ended in a variety of dangerous and heretical teachings. In opposition to the gnostic polyarchy there developed two 'monarchian' parties: the patropaschites and the adoptionists. The former teach that the Son is identical with the Father, while the latter deny the divinity of the Son or Logos (Word). The heresy of the patropaschites was shaped and developed further by Sabellios, who maintained that the Christian God is one, but at times he took on a different prosopon, a different mask. So in the Old Testament as Son and in the period of the Church as Holy Spirit. In reality Sabellios was identifying the substance with the hypostasis. This teaching overturns and distorts the revealed truth about the Trinitarian God. And if it had prevailed, it would have had dreadful consequences for theology, the Church and for man's salvation.

The Holy Fathers confronted this heresy, which confused the hypostatic characteristics of the Persons of the Holy Trinity and in effect broke up the Trinitarianness of God. I should like to refer briefly to the teaching of Saint Basil the Great on this subject so as to show the process by which the theology of the person was settled.

In his texts Saint Basil the Great refers many times to the teaching of Sabellios. He writes that Sabellios regarded God as one, but transformed by different maks: "...that the same God, though one in substance, is transformed on every occasion according to necessary circumstances, and it spoken of now as Father, and now as Son, and now as Holy Spirit". Thus the persons of the Trinitarian God are really without substance, they lack ontology. Commenting on this, Saint Basil the Great observes: "For not even Sabellios rejected the non-subsistent representation of the Person". Also in other texts of Saint Basil the Great we can find this teaching of Sabellios which regards the person as a mask which is not connected with the hypostasis...

"...A 'person' according to the teaching of Saint John of Damaskos, is "one who by reason of his own operations and properties exhibits to us an appearance which is distinct and set off from those of the same nature as he", that is to say a person is one who appears as somebody in particular among the many of his kind. And Saint John of Damaskos mentions two examples to make it clear. The Archangel Gabriel who appeared to the Panagia (All-Holy Mother of God) and talked with her, while he was one of the Angels and belonged to particular species, was at the same time a particular individual "distinct from the Angels consubstantial with him". Likewise we have the other example, that of the Apostle Paul. When the Apostle was speaking to the people, "while he was one among the number of men, by his characteristics and operations he was distinct from the rest of men". While he was a man, at the same time he was distinguished from the other men by the particular gifts and merits which he had.

It must be emphasized that, according to Saint John of Damaskos, hypostasis, person and individual are the same thing. At one point he says: "One should know that the Holy Fathers used the terms 'hypostasis' and 'person' and 'individual' for the same thing."

Person and Man

For man the Holy Fathers mainly used the term 'anthropos'. They did not speak so much about a person, but about man. All the patristic passages refer to the great value of man, who has been created by God in His image and likeness, is the crown of creation and has a special purpose: to attain theosis (deification) by grace. The term 'man; is scriptural and refers to the first chapters of Genesis.

Saint John Chrysostom exclaims: "Man is God's profound animal". Saint Gregory the Theologian says: "He fashions man a single living being out of both--the visible and the invisible nature". Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes: "That great and precious thing, man". Saint Basil the Great writes: "A man thou art, but the only one of the animals to be deified".

"...In another case Saint John of Damaskos ascribes the terms hypostasis and person to man. He writes: "Since men are many, each man is a hypostasis: Adam is a hypostasis, Eve another hypostasis, and Seth another hypostasis. And so on. Each man is a different hypostasis from other men, and each ox is a hypostasis, and each angel is a hypostasis. So they all have nature and form and essence and they have consubstantial hypostases, but they also have an individual and personal and partial hypostasis, that is to say each of those contained in the same species". It is seen from this passage that man too is a hypostasis and, since the hypostasis is identified with the person, the term 'person' is applied to man as well...

"...Today we use to satisfy the term 'person' and 'personality' for man. Special care is needed, because there are many person-centered systems which give this term an abstract character, limiting the ontology of man to this self in itself, to the person of man. Furthermore there are psychological schools which speak abstractly about man's personality and think that this means simply his freedom, which also approaches anarchy. However, in the orthodox teaching we believe that the ontology of man is to be found in his Archetype, in the God Who created him, since man is made in the image of God. Thus "biological existence does not exhaust man. Man is understood ontologically by the Fathers only as a theological being. His ontology is icon."

"...I think that we can use the term 'person' also for man with great care, when we make certain distinctions. One of these is that, as in the case of the term 'man', according to the Holy Fathers we cannot simply apply it to all those who are living, but chiefly to those who partake of the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God, and so we can use the term 'person' to refer to those who are on their way towards (deification) by grace and are being deified. Just as 'in the image" is potentially likeness and "in the likeness" is actually "image", so also man by his biological existence is potentially man and person. He will become a real man when he partakes of the uncreated energy of God. As God is Person, it means that man becomes a person when he unites with God.

Likewise today a distinction is made between the person and the individual. The term 'person' is used to mean the man who has freedom and love and is clearly distinguished from the mass, and the term 'individual' characterizes the man who remains a biological being and spends his whole life and activities on his material and biological needs, without having any other pursuits in his life.



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George