Did you know that the word “person” comes to us through Catholic philosophy and theology?
|Theatrical masks of Comedy and Tragedy, Roman mosaic, (2nd c.).|
It’s true, although the word existed before Christianity in a different context. Etymologically, the word “person” originally comes from a Latin word meaning “sounding through” (personare), which referred to actors speaking through a mask in the theater. In other words, the character in the play was a “person.” “Persons,” in the theatrical sense, weren’t just extras, but characters with speaking parts. From this, the word came to denote an individual of rank or dignity (a connotation still preserved in the word “personage”).
Later, this word would be expanded to all humans. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, since “subsistence in a rational nature is of high dignity, therefore every individual of the rational nature is called a ‘person.’” Put another way, our rational natures make each of us “persons,” in the sense of having been imbued with God-given dignity and nobility. We’re not stage props or even extras in the drama of salvation history. Rather, each and every one of us is an important character (with “speaking parts,” if you will), and in whom the Director is keenly interested.
The word “person” took on all of its modern connotations during the Trinitarian and Christological debates in early Christianity. We needed some way to describe the distinction and relation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we needed a way to describe the relationship of the Divine and Human natures in Jesus Christ. But all of this terminology is a theological development that took centuries. Aquinas acknowledged this, explaining why the word “Person” should be applied to God, even though it is not found applied to Him anywhere in Scripture:
Although the word “person“ is not found applied to God in Scripture, either in the Old or New Testament, nevertheless what the word signifies is found to be affirmed of God in many places of Scripture; as that He is the supreme self-subsisting being, and the most perfectly intelligent being. If we could speak of God only in the very terms themselves of Scripture, it would follow that no one could speak about God in any but the original language of the Old or New Testament. The urgency of confuting heretics made it necessary to find new words to express the ancient faith about God. Nor is such a kind of novelty to be shunned; since it is by no means profane, for it does not lead us astray from the sense of Scripture. The Apostle warns us to avoid “profane novelties of words” (1 Timothy 6:20).
As Aquinas notes, we must use non-Biblical language, when the Biblical language is being interpreted heretically (the alternative being to define the Biblical word with itself). So, for example, a lot of Catholic-Protestant debates have important terminological disputes: what St. Paul means by “faith” and “works,” for example. By Aquinas’ logic, it may be helpful to clear up these disputes by using word other than “faith” and “works,” to try to get at what we mean in clear and precise language that hasn’t been clouded by heresy.
|Giovanni Battista Tiepolo,
Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity (1738)
So why do I bring this up? Because it has important implications for how we understand the relationship of Scripture to the faith. All orthodox Christians accept the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that there is One God Who is Three Persons. But to accept this requires accepting the ability of the Church to develop doctrine and refine terms, even using non-Biblical language, in order to preserve the Biblical truth.
But this is a concession that quite a few Evangelicals stumble over. I’ve heard more than a few sola Scriptura-believing Protestants argue against Catholic doctrines on the basis that the wording or phrasing isn’t Biblical: some variation of the argument, “Where is the word ‘Purgatory’ in the Bible, anyhow?” But you cannot have it both ways: if “Purgatory” is out for lack of an explicit mention, so are the Three “Persons” of the Trinity.
With that in mind, consider the first two prongs of the US National Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith:
- We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.
- We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I mentioned on Monday how different these confessional statements are from the ancient Creeds, since “unlike every Protestant statement of beliefs that I know of, there are no references to Scripture in the early Creeds.” Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed follow a basic pattern: they start with the Father, and proceed to the Son, then to the Holy Spirit, then to the Church, and then to any specific doctrines. That order makes sense. The Father sends the Son, who sends the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church, who defines and declares doctrines. It’s top-down, from God to the Church to us. We trust in the Church’s doctrines because we trust in the Church; we trust in the Church because we trust in the Triune God.
In contrast, the above Statement of Faith begins with a declaration of faith, not in God, but in Scripture. The authority of Scripture, whose canon and authority cannot be proven but through the Church, is simply accepted as a starting assumption. This statement even goes so far as to describe Scripture, rather than Jesus Christ, as the only “Word of God.” Contrast that claim with John 1:1, 14, Revelation 19:13, Hebrews 11:3, etc.
But the point of the first prong of the Statement of Faith is to cut out a need for the Church: you can get everything you need from the Bible, so the Church needn’t be infallible. But this exposes an absurd irony.The first prong undermines the authority of the Church, while the second prong relies upon the authority of the Church, and upon Her ability to develop, define, and refine doctrinal issues. Without that development, definition, and refinement, you can’t get to “there is one God, eternally existent in three persons.” It’s easy for the US National Evangelical Alliance Statement of Faith, but only because the Catholic Church did the work for them.
In describing God as Three Persons, they’re using precise Catholic theological language, just as much as they would be if they called Him Three Hypostases in One Ousia. In trying to cut out the role of the Church (to affirm “the only infallible, authoritative Word of God,” Scripture), they end up cutting out the branch they’re sitting on.
For more on the role of doctrinal development within Catholicism, check out this post: Su Doku and the Development of Doctrine.