Individual Substance of a Rational Nature


A month and a half ago I was inspired by my brother’s foray into the burgeoning world of auto-tune theology (which, no doubt, is suffering from an over-population problem) and decided I would make my own attempt. However, as the market for auto-tune theology is surely quite crowded, I went a slightly different, albeit related, route.

Listen to the auto-tune track here.

The text for this auto-tune comes from Boethius’ Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, II & III and is as follows:

Individual substance of a rational nature
Individual substance of a rational nature

Since Person cannot exist apart from a nature and since natures are either substances or accidents and we see that a person cannot come into being among accidents, it therefore remains that Person is properly applied to substances.

Persons are in substance

Individual substance of a rational nature
Individual substance of a rational nature

But of substances, some are corporeal and others incorporeal. And of corporeals, some are living and others the reverse; of living substances, some are sensitive and others insensitive; of sensitive substances, some are rational and others irrational.

Persons are in substance

Individual substance of a rational nature
Individual substance of a rational nature

Individual, not universal
Individual, not universal
Individual, not universal
Individual, not universal

Individual substance of a rational nature

This auto-tune was not simply a matter of “find a random philosophical text and make an auto-tune out of it in an attempt to be mildly clever.” Rather, I’ve been reading and studying a lot about being and the concept of person, particularly within Scholastic thought.

The theological and philosophical concept of person (as opposed to the merely colloquial) has a rather complicated history. To begin, the concept of person is nearly entirely a Christian concept (at least in origin) that found its philosophical grounding as a result of the theologizing of the Church. As Cardinal Ratzinger remarks:

It did not simply grow out of mere human philosophizing, but out of the interplay between philosophy and the antecedent given of faith, especially Scripture. More specifically, the concept of person arose from two questions that have from the very beginning urged themselves upon Christian thought as central: namely, the question, ‘What is God?” (i.e., the God whom we encounter in Scripture); and, “Who is Christ?”[1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Notion of Person in Theology; Communio 17 (Fall 1990)]

The term person itself (from the Latin persona) has an interesting history- it began without any philosophical meaning whatsoever. (And even if it did, it was never utilized in this manner) The word person as first used theologically was the Greek word prosopon, which in and of itself simply meant role, and referred to the mask an actor would wear when performing, the mask indicating the character or role the actor intend to portray. Thus, it might at first glance seem odd that when Tertullian coined the phrase una substantia-tres personae, (one substance in three persons, persona being the Latin equivalent, to some extent, for prosopon) which would set the stage for later theological and philosophical articulation, he would use a word that, on its face, would seem to contradict his understanding of the Trinity. After all, if God is one being in three roles, (prosopon) would that not agree with his opponent who urged that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were simply phenomenological modes or roles of the One God?

Rather, Tertullian (and those following him, both chronologically and theologically) seems to have used persona according to what Ratzinger refers to as prosoporgraphic exegesis, which was a methodology employed by literary scholars of late antiquity.

The ancient scholars noticed that in order to give dramatic life to events, the great poets of Antiquity did not simply narrate these events, but allowed persons to make their appearance and to speak. For example, they placed words in the mouths of divine figures and the drama progresses through these words. In other words, the poet creates the artistic device of roles through which the action can be depicted in dialogue. The literary scholar uncovers these roles; he shows that the persons have been created as “roles” in order to give dramatic life to events (in fact, the word prosopon, later translated by persona, originally means simply “role,” the mask of the actor). Prosopographic exegesis is thus an interpretation that brings to light this artistic device by making it clear that the author has created dramatic roles, dialogical roles, in order to give life to his poem or narrative.[2. ibid.]

That is to say, early Christian thinkers followed in the footsteps of this manner of exegesis in approaching the Scriptures. The reason for this was not merely an appropriation of a literary methodology, (even though there is evidence that such an approach was also present within rabbinic exegesis) but was prompted by the very reality upon which the Christian faith was centered- the Incarnation, the fact that in Jesus was the fullness of the divine nature, the fullness of the divine communication. To the early Christians, the scriptures were thus not merely a compilation of data to be sifted through, but were first and foremost a form of self-revelation of God’s nature, of God’s self. It was, as Ratzinger goes on to say, conceived of in dialogical terms- God is not simply to be contemplated, but God is in dialogue with his creation. Ratzinger points to a text from Tertullian that underscores this point:

Take note how even the Spirit as the third person speaks of the Father and of the Son, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies at your feet.’ Likewise through Isaiah, ‘The Lord says these words to my Lord Christ.’. . . In these few texts the distinction within the Trinity is dearly set before our eyes. For himself exists the one who speaks, namely, the Spirit; further the Father to whom he speaks, and finally the Son of whom he speaks.[3. Adv. Prax. 12,l-3; Corpus Christianorum Il, 1172f.; Andresen, 10-21]

Thus, person is set primarily within a framework of dialogue, within the understanding of ‘relation.’ The idea of Jesus as the Word captured this idea for the early Christians, as the nature of a ‘word’ is to be from someone and to someone. Thus, word exists as relativity. It is not closed in on itself but is rather ‘existence that is completely path and openness.'[4. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Notion of Person in Theology; Communio 17 (Fall 1990)] In this way we begin to see the foundation of person begun to be laid- person is found in relation. However, the point that began to cause division within theology and that led to the further articulation of the idea of person was in how person relates to being.

This use of prosopon/persona within theology was real- that is, the ‘persons’ of the Trinity were not mere manifestations of the same God or different ways in which God worked in the world. At the same time it was evident that neither were there three individuals who each had a divine nature over and against the others. Rather, the persons of the Trinity are distinct as relations. To be person is to be related. However, it is clear that relation is not something that is tacked on to being, but is the actualization of being. As Ratzinger states:

In God, person is the pure relativity of being turned toward the other: it does not lie on the level of substance- the substance is one- but on the level of dialogical reality, of relativity towards the other.[5. ibid.]

Thus, while being (substance) answers the question “What is this?”, person tells us “Who is this?” Here theology offered philosophy the category of relation and thus allowed the concept of ‘person’ to take shape. It began with God as person(s), but eventually made its way down to humans as persons. As Ratzinger points out:

I believe a profound illumination of God as well as man occurs here: the decisive illumination of what person must mean in terms of Scripture: not a substance that closes itself in, but the phenomenon of complete relativity, which is, of course, realized in its entirety only in the one who is God, but which indicates the direction of all personal being.[6. ibid.]

It is this turning point that eventually leads us to Boethius and the quote from which the auto-tune was derived. The concept of ‘person’ inevitably caused division theologically, for it began to touch upon the substance of faith, which was the person of Jesus Christ. No sooner had the Arian controversies ended (at least in the conciliar sense) than new controversies arose. At Nicea it was articulated that Jesus was truly God, and as such the later disputes arose as to the precise interaction between the divine and human natures. The Council of Chalcedon articulated that in Christ was the totality of 2 natures (substances) in 1 person:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.[7. The Chalcedonian Definition. Agreed at the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451.]

As such, person, though humble in origin etymologically, came to be of immense significance theologically and the philosophically. In the passage from Boethius, (who lived subsequent to the Council of Chalcedon) we find what would come to be the classical definition of person: an individual substance of a rational nature.

For Boethius, person is grounded in substance. As he states at the beginning of this passage, person cannot exist apart from a nature. (substantia prima) For example, one cannot conceive of Boethius as a person without that which makes Boethius a human being. One might mentally abstract what Boethius is (a human being) into a universal; (substantia secundo) that is, humanity as what it is irrespective of its individual actualization, but one cannot do the same with Boethius as a person. For while Boethius is a human being and I am a human being, our being as human is common to us both yet the actualization of ‘to be a human being’ as Boethius or as Jason is certainly individual, and thus it is this actualization as relation that constitutes the individual ‘who’ from the common ‘what.’

Boethius goes on to state that person cannot come into being among accidents. In his terminology, accidents refer to ‘that whose being is to be in something else.'[8. Joseph Pohle, The Divine Trinity, p. 221] Although it’s not in the auto-tune, Boethius goes on to state: “for who can say there is any person of white or black or size?”[9. Boethius, Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, II & III]

Thus, accidents are those properties that are not essentially constituent of the substance or nature in question. But one might offer the objection that I am genetically distinct from Boethius, (and one would be right) and thus that is the ground of our difference as persons. However, Boethius is not speaking physically, but metaphysically. These differing characteristics are not the substantial elements of what makes us human, for if those distinguishing features (genetics, etc.) were the ground of the substance of Jason as Jason or Boethius as Boethius, there would no longer be any reasonable grounds for stating that Boethius and I are both human beings. Rather, those sorts of characteristics are seen to be accidental, and thus I as a person am not rooted in those accidental properties but rather in the sense that I am an individual instantiation of what a human being is. That is not to say that those sorts of characteristics are not related to me as a person, but flow from my personhood instantiating human nature rather than my personhood being grounded in the accidental properties.

This will flow into the later Scholastic expansion of Boethius’ axiom to included the idea of tota in se– complete in itself. This includes the notion of incommunicability- I as a complete person cannot be said to share the person-hood of another- I as who I am and Boethius as who Boethius is are distinct as it relates to the totality of myself as myself and Boethius as himself. We have the same substance, the same ‘what,’ yet the ‘who’ is in relation to that what renders it complete in and of itself. I am the act-er in relation to and possessor of all my actions, Boethius in regards to his. If I were to lose a hand, I would not cease to be a human being, for the hand in and of itself is not an instantiation of a human being, any more than my skin color or height is determinative of what constitutes a human being as a human being. Were I to be born without a hand, the same would hold true. Even if I were to donate a kidney to Boethius, I would not cease to be Jason as a person, for I would still be the possessor of all my actions, and Boethius would not become me, for he would still be the possessor of his actions.

Ratzinger sees Boethius’ understanding of person as a beginning, but not as an end. In his view, Boethius’ definition must be criticized as ultimately insufficient, for it basically leaves the concept of person on the level of substance, and as such cannot really clarify anything regarding the Trinity or even Christ. Ratzinger finds later Scholastic thought which further developed the concept of person as insufficient as well, for while it was able to clarify some things about the Trinity and Christology, it didn’t really expand these further to treat of humanity robustly. As he states:

The second great misunderstanding is to see Christ as the simply unique ontological exception which must be treated as such. This exception is an object of highly interesting ontological speculation, but it must remain separate in its box as an exception to the rule and must not be permitted to mix with the rest of human thought.[10. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Notion of Person in Theology; Communio 17 (Fall 1990)]

While I have Thomistic sympathies, I am somewhat inclined to agree. The end of theology and philosophy is not to be interesting or speculative, but to allow the results of theology and philosophy to profoundly affect that way we will now approach not only our relationship with others but also with God. When Chalcedon clarified that Jesus had two natures in the union of the divine person of the Word, it was surely not meant to be left there as a theological definition with no meaningful attachment to the existential reality of life and faith. Rather, as Ratzinger states:

This is the meaning of Christology from its origin: what is disclosed in Christ, whom faith certainly presents as unique, is not only a speculative exception; what is disclosed in truth is what the riddle of the human person really intends. Scripture expresses this point by calling Christ the last Adam or “the second Adam.” It thereby characterizes him as the true fulfillment of the idea of the human person, in which the direction of meaning of this being comes fully to light for the first time. If it is true, however, that Christ is not the ontological exception, if from his exceptional position he is, on the contrary,the fulfillment of the entire human being, then the Christological concept of person is an indication for theology of how person is to be understood as such.[11. ibid.]

We see in the Trinity that God is relation, God is the eternal self-donation to another. The relations of the persons are not an abstract theological notion but rather describe the very essence of God as to be oriented to the other. While I am an individual complete within myself, unless there is a relation of me as a person to another person, my personhood cannot exist for person finds its ground in relativity towards the other. In Jesus we see that to be truly human is to have absolute relativity and openness to God- in the garden we see Jesus’ human will desiring not to die, but nevertheless submitting to the divine will. The free act, this complete openness to God is not a diminishing of Jesus’ humanity, but instead constitutes its fullness.

Jesus as the second Adam sets humanity on a new path. It is interesting that sin is classically defined as ‘privation of good (being.)‘ In the garden narrative Adam and Eve existed naked before God, completely open. In this openness and relativity towards God and each other was the ability to transcend self, so to speak, in that they could have harmonious communion because the self was not closed in on itself but was ultimately oriented towards the other. In the Fall, the self began to close in on itself. Instead of the relativity towards God, there was an attempt to hide from God, to hide some things from God. Even the relationship between humans became closed, as the freedom and innocence (as evidenced in the nakedness) had to be covered even in their relation. What was promised in the assertion and elevation of self was freedom and fullness, what resulted was a diminution of being, for person closed in on itself loses the ability to exist relative to the other, which is the grounding of its very existence.

Jesus points us in a new direction. To be a person is not to simply be an individual instance of something, but is to transcend the tendency to shut the door and rather open it wide in relativity to God and to others. It is to realize that I am most myself when I am completely with God. To be completely with God thus works itself out into the grind of our lives- if I am completely open to God, my will must be completely open to his will, as Jesus’ will was obedient to the Father’s will. If truly being human is to transcend the tendency of my self to close in on itself, to assert itself over against others, then I must find that I will heed the words of Christ who said that “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”[12. Matthew 20:28 NIV] and, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”[13. John 14:23 NIV]

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Jason Watson

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