Human Beings or Human Persons?

by Paul Ladouceur


Met. Hierotheos (Vlachos) and Met. John (Zizioulas)

One of the liveliest exchanges at the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in June 2016 concerned which Greek words should be used in Council documents to refer to humans: anthrōpos (“human being”); or anthrōpino prosōpo (or simply prosōpon) (“human person”). The main protagonists in this debate were, in the anthrōpos corner, Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), and in the prosōpon corner, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), supported by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). While this episode may seem to be an intra-Greek linguistic spat, the theological stakes are very high.

Prior to the Council, in May 2016 the Church of Greece, at the urging of Metropolitan Hierotheos and others, accepted that all references in Council documents to “human person” should be changed to “human being.” Vlachos advances two reasons for rejecting references to humans as persons. First, the ancient Fathers attributed the term person (prosopon) to the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and used the biblical term human being (anthrōpos) (LXX) for humans. He dismisses the significance of the occasional patristic use of the more abstract term hypostasis for human beings, also employed for the Persons of the Trinity. For Vlachos, it is unacceptable to identify and name humans as persons, since this appears to put them on the same level as the divine Persons. So humans must be thought of simply as anthrōpoi (human beings); they do not, in Christos Yannaras’ terminology, have a personal “mode of existence” analogous to the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

This insistence on strict adherence to the letter of patristic terminology assumes that Orthodox theology stopped some time in the distant past, perhaps with St. Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century, but in any case certainly no later than May 29, 1453 (the fall of Constantinople). In this view, Orthodox theology since then consists in restating what the Fathers said, in effect writing footnotes or glosses to patristic texts. Orthodox theology is thus static, frozen in time, not dynamic and living theology.

In today’s world, a refusal to attribute personhood to human existence downgrades humanity. This is not fidelity to patristic anthropology, but rather its betrayal. The Fathers sought to elevate humanity by stressing that humans are created in the divine image, with the potential for union with God (theosis), and not mere pawns subject to impersonal and implacable destiny or the gods. If the notion that all humans are persons is not acceptable, still less acceptable would be the idea that humans are individuals (atoma), since this gives rise to selfish individualism, contrary to commandment of love. If humans are neither persons nor individuals, they are mere anthrōpoi, interchangeable and expendable specimens of homo sapiens. This is a reductionist view of humanity: humans as solely anthrōpoi are not unique persons of infinite value, as they are considered in Orthodox anthropology and Orthodox personalism. This theology, contrary to the spirit of patristic anthropology, plays into the hands of contemporary secularists, for whom humans are nothing more than intelligent animals.

The second reason that Vlachos invokes against the notion of humans as persons is, he claims, that this idea is derived from Western personalism, which he misrepresents: “In modern philosophy existential personalism has developed, which deviates from patristic tradition by identifying nature with need and sin, and desire-volition with the person.” One has only to glance at some basic texts on personalism (for example, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) to realize how distorted is this caricature of Western personalism.

In attributing personalism solely to Western philosophy, Metropolitan Hierotheos disregards the long history of personalism in modern Orthodox thought. Orthodox personalism can be traced to the Russian Slavophiles in the mid-nineteenth century and to their successors during the Russian religious renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially Vladimir Soloviev, Nicolas Berdyaev and Sergius Bulgakov. From them, personalist thinking passed to Vladimir Lossky, and through him to contemporary Greek theologians, especially Christos Yannaras and none other than John Zizioulas, and to other leading Orthodox theologians such as Olivier Clément, Dumitru Staniloae and Kallistos Ware. Although linkages between Orthodox and Western personalism have not been fully elucidated, Orthodox thinking on the human being as a person followed its own evolution in pre-revolutionary Russia, among Russians in exile, and in contemporary Orthodoxy. Orthodox theology of the human person is a golden thread stretching over a century and a half, one of the glories of modern Orthodox thought.

Anti-personalism assaults human rights, unfortunately reinforcing the widespread impression that Orthodoxy opposes human rights. Orthodox who criticize human rights place themselves on the same side of human rights as every tyrant who ever walked the face of the earth, who ever persecuted his own people or others for personal or national glory or enrichment, or in the name of anti-personal philosophies motivated by theories such as ethnic superiority (Nazism), social ideology (communism), or religious fanaticism (ISIS). Strange bedfellows indeed.

The most powerful arguments against atrocities associated with such movements are based precisely on human rights. Orthodox are understandably upset by the invocation of human rights to support morally unacceptable practices such as abortion or same-sex marriage. But they should not allow their indignation over moral issues to lose sight of the wider importance of human rights in the protection of human life and dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is one of the greatest triumphs of Christian culture. Even if it is far from universally honored, it sets a very high standard for human behavior. Orthodox should take pride in the fact that Charles Habib Malik, an Orthodox philosopher and diplomat from Lebanon, was a key person in the drafting and adoption of the 1948 Declaration.

The refusal to consider that humans are persons also has consequences in legal philosophy. In most legal systems, persons have rights and responsibilities, a notion extended to various types of associations, considered legal persons. This becomes critical, for example, for the unborn. Following anti-personalist reasoning, if human adults are not persons, then they cannot claim the civic rights attached to persons. And much less so the unborn. A fetus may indeed be human (anthrōpos) – everyone will admit this – but since it is not a person, it cannot have any rights – including the right to be born. By denying that humans are persons, anti-personalists undermine a key argument against abortion, that the unborn fetus is indeed a person and has the rights of a person.

Many of the references to “human person” in the Crete documents were changed to “human being” even prior to the Council. Pending the publication of the proceedings of the Council, we can only reconstruct the debate from published remarks by participants. While there was some support for deleting all references to person, at the end of the day, according to Diary of the Council by Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic) of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Church of Greece withdrew its motion to delete the remaining seven references. This may have settled the issue at the Council, but anti-personalism remains an important feature of Orthodox neo-traditionalist thought. Orthodox anti-personalists should reconsider their theology in the light of patristic anthropology, modern Orthodox thinking on the person and the contemporary world scene.

*I am grateful to Dr. Athanasios Giocas and Fr. Theodore Paraskevopoulos for comments and suggestions on this essay.

Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).