Individual or Person? – Stuart Johnson

How often have we heard the catch cry, “I am an individual!  I have my rights . . . .”  It is the hallmark of our Western thought.  It has also had a huge impact on how we perceive the gospel and the implications of how it plays out in our lives.  Individualism brings with it a truncated gospel that is far removed from what the gospel according to the Trinity really means to humanity as a whole.  Trying to understand the Trinity in individualistic terms is fraught with problems.  If I say I am an individual then I am also saying, ‘I am in division from everyone else.’  If I say I am an individual and that is how I see my wife, then I am in division from her, an isolated entity.  If that is how I see my parents, then I am in division with my parents.  If this is how I see my children, then I am in division with my children.  What we find is the belief we are individuals is in conflict with how we actually engage with our parents, our spouses, our children and the wider community.  This belief in the modern Western world is out of touch with reality.

If I overlay this onto the Trinity then there is immediate conflict with what I believe of myself and what I believe of the Trinity.  We cannot say the Father is an individual member of the Trinity of which two other individuals, the Son and the Spirit are the other members.  The only way we can understand the Trinity is in relational terms.  It is in relationship that we begin to understand the Trinity as a whole.  It is in this relationship we move from individual to persons.  You might notice here the term for individual is singular and the term for person is in the plural.  As in the Trinity, no person can be defined without their relationship with the other.  The Father is the Father of the Son in fellowship with the Spirit.

In the Trinity we have unity of Persons, not a unity of individuals.  Our modern understanding of Person bears little resemblance to how it was understood in the ancient church.  A person today is regarded as having a self-consciousness.   Now if we can understand the nature of this one person as an individual, then we can work out how all people work.  This cannot work if we ignore that a particular individual we choose has life experience, life changing events and circumstances as a result of either a positive or negative relationship.  However this may have impacted the person we study may not be true of all other people.  One of the biggest mistakes people make is to try and impose our way of thinking onto another.  Generally speaking this is what happens when we try and define the Trinity within the individualistic mindset.  We restructure it in such a way that fits within the individualistic frame.  So we have to look at the how we understand person in an entirely different way.  Person in the ancient Christian context stands opposite to what we understand today as the individual.

To be a person in the ancient Christian context is to understand them in relationship rather than as an isolated entity.  A person has a face and truly establishes their identity in their face-to-face relationships with others.  It is to see and be seen.  We need each other in order to be ourselves.  Thus our selfhood is social.    If we incorporate the Latin understanding of persona, included in this relationship is the literal meaning of persona, sounding through, in the form of engagement and reciprocal interaction.   We grow and develop as we participate in counsel with others.  When we isolate ourselves from others then this fracture can have a detrimental impact on how we see ourselves.  In addition, our attachment to our parents/carers can have a positive or negative impact and govern the way we see ourselves and others around us as we grow into adulthood.  If the impact is negative such as in abusive situations, then our relationships might be governed by fear, hiding and paranoia rather than love, affirmation and assurance we pick up in a positive family unit.  As problems and hurts arise as a result of relationships, solutions and healing are also found in relationships that facilitate healing.

Behind the ancient understanding stands the one true Person who is not only the touchstone and the source for all the ways and works of God, but is also the touchstone and the source for understanding what it truly means to be a person in the ancient context.  Jesus Christ is in the bosom of the Father who engages and speaks with Him as the One in whom the Father delights in.  Here there is a unity so close we have an overlapping of beings and distinction between the two in face-to-face interaction as Persons.  These two persons of the Trinity have such closeness that one knows the other inside out.  There is open gift and exchange without any desire to hold back and without any fear of being exploited.  All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you  (John 16:15).  In turn, the Son with the Father’s blessing sends the Spirit and gives all that belongs to Them and makes it known to us without fear of loss and exploitation.  They do this because they want to.  Their express will is they be known through the Son.  The Son enfleshes our humanity and brings us into face-to-face relationship with the Triune God.  The greatest benefit God has given to us is the Gift of nothing less than Himself.  The Good News is we are in the bosom of the Father with and in the Son.

The Personhood of the Father, the Personhood of the Son and the Personhood of the Spirit penetrates deep within us redeems, sanctifies and transforms our personhood enabling us to experience true personhood.  One might say, “That is all very nice but what does it really mean to me?”  Because we have such a Western way of understanding relationships that when we look at how the source and the pattern for all human relationships in the Trinity, our minds tend to short circuit.  Individualism fights tooth and nail to isolate us from those around us so that our fears and guilt will not be exposed and thereby suffer rejection by God.  The love of God could not possibly reach so far down into my messy black pit, or could it??

These fears can create a division between ourselves and God as well as those around us.  When we judge people around us in church we are looking for reasons to exclude just so we can feel better about ourselves.  This we often do passionately as a service to God so we can show Him that we truly love Him.  Whole sermons can be built upon this foundation.  At the same time, we cannot be true to ourselves along with the pain and hurt of our past experiences because we believe we have to repent our way to God’s approval.  We hope He might overlook these niggling problems in our lives that continually rear their ugly faces from time to time.  We can be so deceived that we truly believe it is the Holy Spirit who is bringing the skeletons out of our closet to our attention.  This spills out of the church as we enter into the wider community to  share this guilt ridden gospel with people we encounter.  Then we are so surprised to find that most people don’t buy it.  This further cements the division so we end up believing we Christians are the only ones who can hear from God.

The consequence of individualism is we place enormous limits on what the love of God truly means to us and to those around us.  We even reach into God and restructure Him in accordance with this mindset so that we do not truly believe Jesus has any resemblance to the Father.  When we begin to see each other and God as persons, we start to see a different gospel take shape.  Seeing Jesus Christ as a Person means that His being overlaps with the being of the Father making the two one.  When the Word becomes flesh, the being of Jesus Christ overlaps our being while His being is still overlapping the being of the Father making us all one.  When Jesus Christ carries out His ministry on earth, He truly expresses the heart of the Father in all that He says and does.  At every point of the human life, from the zygote to the grave, the humanity of Jesus Christ overlaps our human life, redeems and sanctifies it and brings it back into fellowship with God.  The implications must abandon the individualistic mindset and embrace ancient personhood.  When we understand the Incarnational event from the context of Jesus Christ as the True Person then we can only see this as having implications for every person.  The Personhood of Jesus Christ means every person regardless of what we think or it means nothing at all.

Individualism often has conditions placed to meet the requirements of salvation in a manipulative or controlling way.  This means nothing at all.  It undermines both the divinity of Jesus Christ as something less than the Father and the humanity of Jesus Christ as not quite connected to our humanity.  If we see Jesus in the true light of His divinity as of the same being with the Father and His humanity as of the same being with us then we can truly see Him as we ought to.  When we see Him in this way, then we see ourselves in Him.  It is His love that give us assurance and affirmation and addresses our fears and insecurities like a healing balm.  His Personhood means every person or it means nothing at all.  We no longer see anyone from a worldly point of view (2Cor 5:16f).  Our humanity and our personhood is grounded in Jesus Christ so we begin with the truth of Jesus Christ as regarding every person.  If we narrow it down to a truncated individualistic gospel then it means nothing at all.  It is mythology.

The Spirit is poured out on all flesh and the love of God has been poured into our hearts so that we can begin to see from the point of view of Jesus Christ that this Good News applies to every single human being on earth.  Our repentance is not turned inwards as a means to bring good favour from God.  Repentance is the realisation that God is far closer to us than we are to ourselves.  It means God is already speaking and teaching those we previously thought could not hear from God.  The Good News is a declaration of what the Spirit is already teaching.  Those who have ears to hear, let them hear (Mark 4:9).  It also reflects the New Covenant promise They will all know Me (Hebrews 8:11).  It abandons the individualistic logical, cause and effect bridge to God to one that people begin to intuitively know for themselves the truth of God without control and manipulation.

When we understand the Triune God as Persons we truly understand love that is gift and exchange.  It is not mutual but shared.  It is a circle of life and love that is opened up to embrace and include the human race to be a part of their fellowship.  It not only embraces our humanity but the whole sphere of life and its activity with the affirmation of the everlasting arms of the Triune God lie beneath us and holds our hearts together.  When our eyes are opened to the truth of our personhood then we see all persons in the light of Jesus Christ.  This is the reality of our existence that needs to be declared.

If you want a more detailed and indepth explanation highlighting the differences between the individual and person, we recommend an essay by Kallistos Ware titled The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity.  Much of what I have written here is drawn from this wonderful paper.