That good ol’ confusion between person and nature

I’ve been following Jonathan Prejean and Dr. Eric Svendsen silently on their debate over Christology, and I can’t help but notice how much of the conversation sounds like an interaction between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite. Where Svendsen appears to represents a Palamite paradigm that revelation is the sole starting point for answering theological questions, and Jonathan Prejean thinking that we need to get our “philosophy” straight before we understand revelation. Though I think much of Dr. Svendsen’s critique of Roman theology can often be polemical and bitter because he sees as a corrupt institution, he is undoubtedly right about his insistence on the primacy of revelation as this is probably the main point that also divides Orthodoxy from Rome. The ecumenical councils in the East are considered by the Orthodox Church as a long divorce from Gnostic and Hellenistic principles introduced in the East by Origen of Alexandria (as Alexandria ran deep with Middle Platonism and then later Neo-Platonism), as we celebrate in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy an anathema of the philosophers and those that follow their [dialectial] methods to solve theological questions. To make a short story long (pun intended) theology is not a science as Thomas Aquinas thinks, and I have reservations that the Reformed and conservative protestant exegetes are truly divorced from this principle inherited from Carolingian/Medieval Catholicism, as their grammatical-historical method seems to turn theology into a science too, rife with dialectics, divorced from the lived and liturgical experience of the Incarnate Christ. Nonetheless, Svendsen’s approach to the question at hand and insistence that divine revelation be the paradigm is far more acceptable of how an Orthodox approach these questions. However, it does seems that much of their discussion seems focused on philosophical paradigms. I will discuss briefly, from an Orthodox perspective, where I think they both confuse person and nature.

Jonathan Prejean remarks:

“A “person” is nothing other than the real instantiation of a nature, so this says nothing other than “something is what it is.””

What is wrong with this here? Does an “instantiation of a nature” pick out something that is absolutely and irreducibly unique? No it does not. Jonathan is still picking out general concepts that fall on the side of “nature” because they are things that we have in common and can be demonstrated and compared to other things that we experience in the world. At this point, you are still defining ‘person’ based on properties that are shared in common among one or more persons, since this is easily demonstrated. Ergo with Svendsen, though I much appreciate his somewhat silence for the biblical mystery, he does the same thing when he asks the question of Jonathan: 

If he has a human body, human emotions, a human intellect, a human mind (the biblical “nous”), a human, spirit, a human soul, a human will, human understanding, human wisdom, etc., what, pray tell, is lacking for this to be a “human person”?”

Again, these are all things that fall on the side of nature, because they are properties that are shared in COMMON to persons. Why start with general categories and work to the particular? How could any of these things be unique when they are first considered apart from asking the Questions: “Who is He? and What is He doing?” Why focus on abstract properties like “human spirit,” “human intellect”? Why not consider first the Person and what He does and then make deductions about the content of abstract properties of spirit and intellect based on the type of acts of said Person that are being done? Svendsen seems to be trapped in that good ol’ Augustinian mindset of essence–attributes–persons in which a Christian doctrine of person will never be found. General concepts are started with, and persons in the final end are still defined by generalities. It is only when we first consider this ‘Who’ (the absolutely unique and particular) can we say that ‘intellect,’ ‘will’, wisdom, and such are given their uniqueness and particularity because each of us expresses this property uniquely and irreducibly. Dr. Svendsen, why the lapse into being ‘philosophical,’ where is the primacy of revelation at this point? Does revelation consider a ‘Who’ as defined and constituted by all these general categories? One of the things I’ve always felt intuitively about sola scriptura is that it wished to restore that primacy of revelation before doing what medieval theologians considered to be “natural theology.” Perhaps this is another part that should be further investigated. Likewise, with Jonathan defining a person as an ‘instantiation of a [rational] nature’ is not surprising given his presuppositions and does seem to prove Dr. Svendsen’s point about Jonathan being too rational and philosophical, because the very nature of the speculation built upon [fallen] human reason very well could be wrong. If something is speculative based on reason, how could it possibly be of any dogmatic value? 

Moving along.

If “a person is nothing other than the real instantiation of a [rational] nature,” and Christ has two natures (human and divine) as Jonathan confesses, then I would like to know how he doesn’t escape the same Nestorian charge. There is just no definition of a person that is categorized by natural properties or things that are considered to be in common. This is what makes Christianity so radically different from Hellenism. 

St. Cyril’s problem was that he did not always employ a consistent set of terminology to be faithful to the content he wished to express. This can be seen from his use of physis to designate the single subject (the WHO), which for him meant hypostasis and hypostasis meant person. From a ‘Cappadocian’ stand-point, where a consistent set of terminology had been used, the use of physis for hypostasis (= person) is unacceptable. It should be noted, however, that Cyril never used ousia to designate what is the single subject, and his compromise with John of Antioch in 433 for other formula usage shows his flexibility that his successors (i.e. Dioscoros, who I consider orthodox in content) did not have. I think it would help Dr. Svendsen if he gave Orthodox sources a shot and not take someone’s word for what they say.

Fundamentally, Hellenism—whether Aristotelian or Platonic—does not have a [christian] doctrine of person, and that is one of the things that makes Christianity so divorced and so unique from Hellenism. Philosophy is precisely not the hand-maiden of Theology and Athens does not supply the philosophical content for Jerusalem. St. Athanasios once remarked that opposite properties are reconciled in a single person (i.e. Christ). This is foolishness to the Greeks.

40 Responses to That good ol’ confusion between person and nature

  1. Joseph P Farrell says:

    …Yikes! I just read the above comments on this thread. I have to agree with Fr. Oliver on that score. I, too, had a mentor, and he focussed my attention on certain areas very well, and for that I am grateful. But what I took from him was mostly the spirit of being able to think for myself, and to trust – within limitations that any Christian must embrace – my own mind. More than anything else, that’s what I hope and pray my theological works would do: create a climate for people to be able to discuss ideas in full freedom and respect, and to think theological questions through for themselves. This site is really good on that score, and I’ve enjoyed everyone’s comments and thoughts.

  2. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    Thank you for your honesty on this. It helps me understand your motivations and actions a bit more. We all have certain people we have intellectually “submitted” to in a way and since we’re Orthodox, some are contemporaries and others are saints we’ve canonized. Sometimes, they are neither, as in the case of one who may be influenced by a modern Orthodox theologian now dead, but not yet canonized, like Fr. Alexander Schmemann. I think this is perfectly natural and good, but I’ve learned it can be a two-edged sword. I sometimes have to ask myself–is this really the case or have I indebted myself too much to person “x” in this instance? No, I’m not turning this into a debate over Farrell. I’m just making a general observation based on my own experience.

    God bless you!

  3. I know that you have something to offer. But on this subject about the two natural wills, I’m so skittish, I probably wouldn’t take correction unless Farrell came on here. I know him personally, so I have a huge amount of trust there, so much that I think he has a better grasp of theology than any Orthodox theologian I’ve read.


  4. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    I do so without hesitation. I warn you, though, I leave open the possibility that I may comment not as one needing to be instructed, but as one who has something legitimate to offer! 🙂

  5. Apology accepted. Please, accept my apology for jumping on you.


  6. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    Well, I jumped on this morning to see if there are any changes, but perhaps you have not yet had an opportunity to read my latest comments. I see I was also sarcastic, calling you “almighty Photius.” I apologize for that as well. I was simply frustrated at what I honestly considered a very arrogant response (which is why I said I found it to be “wrong and offensive”), but that was my own consideration and should not have been responded to with such sarcasm. I am sorry for that. So, I ask your forgiveness both for misconstruing the way I wrote of three wills and heresy (for I mislead you into thinking I categorically considered you a “heretic”) as well as my sarcasm.

    I hope that silence is not the response, but even if so, the door shall always be open on my side.

  7. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    Simple–I misunderstood your post. Alas, that was not my reason for commenting #32, to continue the debate. You have ignored my reason for commenting, choosing instead to prove yourself right. That is not why I commented. I tried, Photius, but if you refuse to take on the misunderstanding and our sinful (yes, sinful) exchange, I know not what else to do. If we could rectify things and have a healthy exchange, I may be willing to revisit some of it, but not at this point. Your reaction to me was wrong and offensive. Nonetheless, I, too, was imprecise and did not think carefully about how I was using “heresy” and I still hold out my hand asking for forgiveness on that one. So, the ball’s in your court, my friend. Forgiveness and apologies coming my way or no?

  8. The sole purpose of the “ambiguity” of some category “will” in my statement was to highlight that the “will” is not either personal or natural in an exclusive sense, but a both/and dialectic to Mr. Richards. Your criticism would only be valid if I didn’t clarify what I meant INITIALLY, which I did in the same post in which I made that statement. Even if I didn’t clarify the will as the mode of willing and the will as the natural faculty of will or the third type of will as the objecting of willing, your criticism still doesn’t hold because the statement has a specific context and that’s about the dialectical relationship of the will between person and nature. It can only be considered “sloppy” if imported from THAT context into a dogmatic context. And finally, you focus solely on “three wills in God,” which I also state in the same breath “one will in God,” which breaks apart my statement into pieces to analyze (dialectical opposition). The sole purpose of that statement was to crassly state–in an almost in your face, shocking style to Mr. Richards–the both/and dialectical relationship of the will. In other words, there is no reason not to boldly claim that there is three wills in God, just as there is one will in God. Immediately after that in the same post is that statement strongly refined into what will we are talking about for person and nature. Why you go on to try and “correct” me when my statement is already “corrected” in the same post, I have no idea.


  9. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    Well, I don’t know if anyone is reading this, anymore, but I simply wanted to take the time to say to Photius that I apologize for not wording things more carefully. I gave you the impression that I believe you to be a heretic. That is not what I said and certainly not what I intended to communicate. I had simply thought you were mistaken at worse, sloppy at best, and so I simply pointed out that “three wills,” in the Godhead would be heresy. You clarified what you meant, saying “three modes of willing” or three operations of that one will. That’s completely Orthodox, obviously, so there’s no problem there.

    Although I think David has a point, if we slow down and look only at what his stated concerns are, that is neither here nor there at this point. Reading through these exchanges, up to comment 31, it looks to me like the following happened:

    You say something “ambiguous,” which you admit in comment 31. I respond by noting that an aspect of that ambiguity results in heresy. Now, please understand that I have no way of knowing that you’re being ambiguous. All I knew was that you didn’t accord David any legitimacy to his point and looked academically/theologically sloppy. You respond by saying, “Whatever. You’re wrong and don’t know what you are talking about. If you want to learn and take some instruction, then by all means go ahead.” Then you clarify what you mean, which only proves that there is something to my contention, which you must take seriously. Still, as it stands, I am apparently taking a risk in commenting at all because I am not falling at the feet of the almighty Photius. [I do hope you don’t delete these comments, but I cannot prevent you from doing this. I also really hope you haven’t kicked me off your blog unless I’m willing to be entirely passive.] You even raise the concern of “ordor theologiae” in a later comment, a concern I hope was not directed as me, as I was quite true to the Economy in comment 20.

    Photius, Orthodox will miscommunicate. We simply will. Further, we will emphasize different aspects of the same issue at times. Take Ss. Basil and Athanasios the Great, for example (and no, we are nowhere near them, but please allow the analogy).

    What I see going on here, is that you comment on something ambiguously (perhaps deceptively) and then get angered when it comes back to haunt you a bit. Please don’t be deceptive and angry. Please don’t think that an Orthodox priest educated at SVS, who is a candidate in historical theology and published, does not know of what he speaks. Certainly, don’t assume that. I, in turn, will strive to improve how I say things so that I don’t come across as calling you a heretic. I take full responsibility for wording things poorly, ask your forgiveness for having done so, and promise to strive to improve that, I assure you.

    God bless you!

  10. Mick,

    You’re right on the money.

    I was purposefully ambiguous earlier when I stated: “There are three wills in God, and there is one will in God.” Namely, being ambiguous about a category “will,” because I want these folks to grasp FIRST the ordo theologiae and do some thinking. I saw the movement by some posters towards an either/or dialectic, whether or not the will is hypostatic or natural in their critigue of Svendsen that is wrong headed. Neither was Maximos’ answer. The will is first off hypostatic, because in our investigation, it is always a PERSON THAT WILLS. I want my readers to assume a little bit of ignorance here before going right to the conclusion. Use your tools, use the ordo theologiae. After we consider the Person that wills and the type of act that is being done, we then compare the act with other Persons. Are they the same type of act? If so, we conclude it is a property of the nature. With respect to human persons, we all can say that we have a human will (albeit using it in different ways), THEN we conclude that the will is rooted in the nature as a natural faculty.

    Good point about the gnomic will too, which “will” means here in this case, mode of willing.


  11. Mick says:

    As Farrell said, “There had to be a distinction between the will as a property of nature and the equally real mode of using and employing the will which was a property of the person.”

    Clearly there is but one will in God as a “property of nature.” Yet there are Three Divine Persons who each have personal “modes” of willing, of “using and employing” the one natural will. If there was only one Person employing the one natural will then we would be Sabellians. But since there are three Persons with one nature, there are three personal modes of using and employing the one natural faculty of the will. Hence there are three wills (personal modes of willing) in God and one will (natural faculty) in God.

    Perhaps it would be helpful to recall the gnomic will by which Maximus certainly was not referring to a second natural facultiy of will but referred to a personal employment of the will.

    If this was at all helpful, great; if it was not helpful, please don’t allow it to confuse. (Photios, if I went off track at all I trust you will correct me).

  12. Yeah that’s right. Nice correction too, because the identity of the object of will and the natural faculty of will is what Thomas Aquinas and Origen think due to their conception of divine simplicity. For Maximos the will as the “object of will” is the logoi or rational principles of a nature, which for the Trinity is infinite in number.


  13. Fr Patrick says:

    Just to amend my terminology a little: the last sentence should read three faculties not objects of will because one faculty may present many objects. Also, earlier it should read only (faculty) not (object/faculty). I was thinking that each object of will is one from the Father as its source from the one faculty.

  14. Fr Patrick says:

    Forgive my intrusion into this discussion but I would like to check my own thoughts on this matter in light of what you have both been saying.

    As I see it the one will is enhypostasised in the three hypostases of the Trinity. This enhypostasis is such that the will is owned distinctly and completely by each Person of the Trinity; there is no substance “in-between” them for something to exist between them. Within each person the one will is contextualised to that Person, so the Father wills as Father and the Son as Son and the Spirit as Spirit. Hence, there are three wills (modes of willing) in the Trinity, one of each Person, which are one will (object/faculty) from the Father. I understand every aspect of the Trinitarian nature is similarly one and three. I think to claim three objects (faculties) of will would be heresy and to deny three modes of will would also lead to heresy because it would confuse the distinct Persons of the Trinity.

  15. Then you aren’t reading carefully what was said here sir!

    The following paragraph in that statement clarifies what 3 “wills” in God means and what 1 “will” in God means. I go through great pain to try and detail that out for you or anyone else reading, only to find out that you either didn’t read carefully or you’re eager to jump to conclusions: “Photios said there are three wills in God. Three wills in God is heresy. Photios is a heretic.”

    Oh and btw, Maximos statement that “If there are two natures, then surely there are two natural energies…” is a rhetorical argument and not indicative of an Augustinain ordo theologiae. He wouldn’t know if “energies” were truly unique and particular or in common among persons unless He started with considering the Person and what He does. For WHY he’s able to make that [rhetorical] argument, you have to keep reading on later in the Disputation when He discusses the different types of activities Christ DOES in which designate a different nature.


  16. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    Sounds like you have but one second for perceived BS. Your clarification suggests to me that what I’m saying is not BS. The opening lines puzzle me in light of your clarification. Happy blogging!

  17. Whatever. You’re wrong and don’t know what you are talking about. If you want to learn and take some instruction, then by all means go ahead. But I’m not going to sit here and be accused of heresy, when I know Farrel’s teaching not only from his books, but face-to-face. I got about two seconds of patience for BS in my life these days.

    Any decent person would recognize that when I say, there are three wills in God, there are three modes of willing in God because there are three persons, and when I say there is one will of God, there is one faculty of will because there is one nature.


  18. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    Well, Photios, we may have to agree to disagree at the moment, though I often don’t like doing that on such substantial issues. I have read Farrell. Read him back in 1999, intially, I believe, and used him later at seminary at SVS and still have the books on my shelf, so I’m more than aware of his material. Generally speaking, I like his two works on St. Maximos very much. Yet, even he notes how Maximos goes from “energy from nature” to see that monoenergism is wrong and there are lots of statements in his book where it is clear there is one will in the Trinity–that of the one God (i.e. the Father). He also cites (in a positive manner) St. Sophronios’ observation that each person in the Trinity “enhypostasizes” the “one will” of God (even noting that the one God is the Father for Sophronios when he says this). So, I don’t see how you can say “three wills.” Sorry. That’s heresy. You can say three enhypostasizings of the one will. I’ll go with that, and would even argue for that, but not three wills. I’m not sure what to do about this at this point. Mr. Richards has clarified his comments and his clarification is how I understood them originally. If you say the natural qualities are actually located in the “person,” then you have a serious dilemma. That’s all he was saying. And on that, he’s right.

  19. David Richards says:

    Photios, sorry but I am not sure where you are coming from. I did not mean to claim that the will is exclusively natural, but St. Maximos does seem to ground it in nature in his Disputation with Pyrrhus. Also, I do not deny that there is a personal mode of willing, and my only point was to say that if we locate the will solely in the person (as Svendsen at least *seems* to do) then of course we end up with problems. That Svendsen refers to more than just the will being personal is indicative of the problem I think. If desire and emotions are personal for example I have a hard time seeing how Christ as a divine person could have them. At any rate, I would love to pick up Free Choice to clear up my thinking on some of these issues but unfortunately I have been looking for it for quite some time now to no avail. For the record, I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve said. My point was the deficiencies in Svendsen’s own understanding of person and nature.

  20. I don’t agree with what you still intend to convey because the will is not grounded in either person or nature in an exclusive sense: otherwise from a christological perspective apokatastasis results. Farrell talks about this in the middle of Free Choice. You might want to reference those sections.

    There are three wills in God, but there is also one will in God.

    What Maximos says is that the will cannot be solely personal, otherwise there would have to be different types of natures for each will (Arianism) or just one will and one nature and sabellianism results. Maximos distinction is that it is the person that is willing, the will as the mode of will, and the natural will that presents ‘objects of will’ to the person, this is the will as the faculty of will. When Person and Nature are in harmony, the Person cannot sin for example Christ. When Person and Nature are in dialectical opposition (e.g. a person tries to instantiate something that cannot and can never have substitence, something that our nature does not present as object of will: dialectical opposition or DEATH), one cannot help but sin. The Incarnation was to recapitulate and bring back this harmony. Christ holds these opposites together and destroys death:

    Psalm 139:7-8 (KJV)
    Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
    If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.


  21. Fr. Oliver Herbel says:

    David, I, for one, fully agree. Even if we start, as we Christian must (but many don’t) with the Economy, we end up proclaiming (via the Spirit) things divine and things human of Christ, which is two natures and as soon as we do that, your concern applies. To say that qualities are not natural is to conflate person and nature and that’s a serious, serious dilemma. Frankly, I find it insane, but people have been doing it and will continue doing it. So, Photios is correct to say “start with the Economy” (if I may paraphrase), but I think you’re also correct and your point still holds.

    That’s how I see it, for whatever it’s worth.

  22. David Richards says:

    Photios, all I meant to convey is that if we ground these qualities in the person rather than in nature, then this seems to create problems for Triadology and Christology. I’m not dissing the Orthodox order of theology which moves from persond to the operations and finally the essence, rather I’m pointing out how Svendsen views these “attributes” (among them the will, soul, and emotion) as “comprising” persons rather than being grounded in nature. I don’t see how he can do that without ending up with some absurd results. The will for example cannot be grounded in hypostasis because as St. Maximos points out this would mean there are three wills in the Godhead! So I’m not really sure what the problem is with my comment…

  23. No, no…we first predicate properties about PERSONS, not natures. Remember the ordo theologiae…Persons—> Operations —> Essence. We first consider Who and what it is He is doing, so the first part of the Ordo Theologiae goes hand-in-hand: We predicate properties about the Person who we are considering. When we predicate the properties about the Persons, we ask a few questions. Is this a property that can be said of more than one Person? If so, is it something that constitutes these persons or is it an accidental property (e.g. death)? If it constitutes the persons, than we conclude the property is rooted in the NATURE (e.g. the human soul, human will, human intellect, divine intellect, divine will, etc.) If not and truly unique to that Person alone, than it is a unique, irreducible personal property (e.g. the Father is unoriginate). Makes sense? About the back-half of the Disputation with Pyrrhus is a good example of this in practice.

    It seemed to me anyway that Svendsen saw the implications I was drawing out and in his latest post was moving in the right direction.


  24. David Richards says:

    I wanted to comment to Svendsen’s latest response to Prejean, but since his blog apparently he doesn’t support that feature, I will ask him here:

    Svendsen said, “If Prejean wants to refer to “nature” all the attributes that most people recognize as comprising a “person”–mind, will, soul, spirit, desire, emotion, etc.–I suppose that’s his prerogative.”

    Mr. Svendsen, how does your view that these qualities are grounded in the person rather than nature map on to the Trinity and the Incarnation? For if the will is taken to be personal rather than natural, for example, then are there three wills in the Godhead, one for each person? And from where does Christ receive a rational human soul, if He is a divine person who assumes human nature? Doesn’t being a single person imply that He has a single spirit, desire, emotion, etc? If He has a single spirit, then does He lack a divine spirit or a human spirit? If He has a single desire or emotion, this would imply that He is not a divine but rather a human person since it is not proper to ascribe desire/emotion/passion to the impassible God. In Gethsemane, when Christ said, “Not my will but Thine [the Father’s] be done”–was Christ indicating that the will of God the Son is different from that of God the Father’s such that the Son can will something which the Father doesn’t? I don’t see how we can escape some unpalatable not to mention absurd conclusions if we predicate these qualities of persons rather than nature.

  25. acolyte says:


    I was referring to the Ph.D. What was your dissertation? Was it peer reviewed? How long was your defense? When did, if it did, the school become accredidted? In response to your comments that I am a “third rate” philosopher, that much might be true in some possible world, but not this one. And in any case, you are certainly not in a position to judge since it is obvious that you can ‘t grasp the simplest philosophical distinctions and you are completley unaware when the views you advocate are straight out of Greek philosophy.

    Secondly, Dr. Obvious, I didn’t write this entry, Daniel Jones did. As for Saint Louis University, I don’t expect you to be sending your children to the University, seeing that we just beat out Oxford and Notre Dame in our area of specialization in Philosophy and are ranked 1 in the English speaking world. The pot should not be complaining about my research methods. I know of whom you speak but I didn’t get my information from the Catholics. And I don’t rely on popular handbooks by non-specialists when it comes to historical theology. Harold Brown’s work is hardly a standard reference work among patristic schools silly goose.

    And as much as I disagree with Jonathan, at least he knows and grasps the philosophical and theological concepts. It isn’t Apollinarian to speak of appropriating human nature. It only follows if we presume that natures are persons, in which case the divine person would replace the human nature. Basic Trinitarian theology should teach you to distinguish between person and nature. Jesus is a divine person and persons are not intellects, wills or any other faculty. Since you won’t listen to me, I suggest that you read James White’s article on Chalcedon where he says the same thing regarding Jesus being a person.

    “Again, though Christ died in human terms, it is the divine Person who is said to have been crucified. No hint is given whatsoever of two persons in the one Jesus; rather, Christ is one Person composed of two natures.”

    I guess James White is an Apollinarian Romanist too, eh?

    The irony is that your expressed views are far more crassly Platonic than Jonathan’s are. He may be wrong, but he is talking far past your abilities.

  26. Craciun Lucian says:

    May I have Your atention, please, everyone!

    I have a very serious and thoughtful, deep and profound, theological question to address You, something that could maybe change the world as we know it, the way we normally look at things, and the way how we usually understand history! And here it is:

    PREJEAN wouldn’t be a Romanian name, now, would it?

    Craciun Lucian.

  27. Guys,

    The discussion isn’t about diploma mills and academic credentials. I used the salutation out of benefit-of-the-doubt and courtesy. Other than that, I ‘m interested in the truth of the matter. Thanks.


  28. ochlophobist says:

    A mutual friend of ours in St. Louis sent me this link. Perhaps it pertains to what you mean by “diploma mill”

    When I use the phrase diploma mill, which I frequently do, I refer to many if not most undergraduate programs in fields such as business, or other “vocational” degrees, and some graduate programs, such as some MBAs and those MDiv programs offered at places that 40 years ago were unaccredited Evangelical Bible Colleges and the like which are not really academic but merely handing out pieces of paper to those who pay (which is not, of course, to say that all MBAs and Evangelical Protestant MDivs are worthless – that depends on the program). This is different than getting a degree out of a Cracker Jack box. In such cases you might prefer the phrase, “…since the man obtained his degree from the magic diploma fairy.”

    I once went to a Bible college. My Intro to NT prof had us sing the Apostles Song and do the motions in order to memorize the names of the twelve apostles. I am not kidding. And this for a kid whose father (not happy about my Bible college decision) had him read Barth and Bonhoeffer from age 15. Fortunately, there were two decent profs there who taught me where to go to learn serious academic theology (which was, of course, elsewhere). One of them had been an old drinking buddy of the founder of the Bible college (whose followers would have been scandalized if they knew he had had a taste for whiskey) and after retirement from Brown and the U of MN came to this Bible College for shits and giggles. Thank God for him. But enough about me….

  29. Perry Robinson said: “. . . since the man obtained his degree from a diploma mill”

    And which diploma mill would that be, Mr. Robinson?

  30. William B says:

    PS: You two are missing out on some intriguing happenings witihn blogdom:

  31. William B says:

    “Why not consider first the Person and what He does and then make deductions about the content of abstract properties of spirit and intellect based on the type of acts of said Person that are being done?”

    Can you offer an example of what this would look like in practice? Let me explain how I understand it and you can correct me if I am wrong. First, we start with this or that Person acting or employing their natural faculties, on the basis of those actions we make abstractions/deductions concerning the capacities/properties of their nature. I cannot attempt to form general concepts of (for example) sight or thought apart from persons doing those things.

    The problem I have is that appears that the possession of some general concepts or knowledge or principles of classification is a necessary condition of reasoning or thought itself. What would be a patristic approach to this problem?

  32. Jack says:


    That which makes a thing unique is that which makes it *this* something. “Thisness” can only be witnessed or lived, it can never be logically articulated. A human person is not unique in his or her uniqueness. Every thing is uniquely itself. The lack of this is the faint blasphemy that the mass produced exudes.

    A thing’s thisness is also its “one-ness,” that which makes it “this one.” Every one is an image of the One, one logoi of the One Logos. A thing’s “oneness” is also its wholeness which is also the peculiar shape of its holiness. But holiness isn’t sheer particularity, isolation, separation. It is not “person over nature” because particularity is never in opposition to essence or commonness. Fido’s doggy nature is not in opposition to his Fido-ness. He doesn’t have to deny his dogginess to realize himself.

    To fall into a “dialectics of opposition” between particularity and commonality, person and nature, is to fall into the false choices, the false identities, the reductiveness of modernity. It is not an either/or. To reduce something to sheer uniqueness is to denature it, to reduce it its nature is to depersonalize it. Think of the romantic attempt to overcome nature or the rationalistic attempt to depersonalize it.

    Every single thing is wholly common in the properties in which it participates, and thus it and its fellow participants are completely one thing in essence. And yet every single thing is entirely unique in its “one-ness.” Every one is a messenger of the One.

    I don’t see how these reflections require Christian revelation. It is not the revelation of a concept but of the Body of Christ, the reopening of Paradise, the realization or telos of personality and nature. We are only persons and only natural in the person of the Word of God. All else is unnatural and depersonalized.

  33. Jack says:


    Your last comment brings to mind something Behr said about the Cappadocian use of “hypostasis” in his history of Christian thought (V. 2, 2, 308). Behr notes that, for St. Basil, it is impossible to add up the divine hypostases for it would then be common and thus essential. The concept hypostasis only attempts to signify that which is peculiar and unique, e.g., what makes the Son Son and not Father. “It is, therefore, impossible to give a general definition of hypostasis, or claim that such a notion is the Cappadocian contribution to the development of Christian revelation.”

    Is this what Daniel and Perry are alluding to? I have to admit that I don’t really understand. I, for one, do not see how this distinguishes Christianity from Neoplatonism once one admits, as Plotinus feels that he must, in the existence of forms of individuals. An individual form is a particular instantiation of a nature, but the key word here is *particular*. The particular or purely “personal” is that which distinguishes us from others and, for Plotinus, what this is is not simply “matter” but rather that which informs our sensible manifestation. The fact that it is a formal property does not render it any less unique.

    I’m not sure that this leads to a dialectic of opposition. I guess I don’t quite understand what Perry and Daniel are getting at. Rather, it seems that for Neoplatonism created persons are one in nature but not one in person. We have natural or essential communion but personal distinction. One in essence while undividely distinct. To be “not you” does not make us opposed but personally different while essentially identical. One mustn’t neglect this dialectical tension.

    The separation and isolation, as opposed to simple distinction, that we experience is the result of our fallenness. In other words, I can see why this concept is important to Christianity but I don’t see how it is uniquely Christian. What is uniquely Christian is the mystery of Christ.

  34. Jonathan Prejean says:

    Oh, I see. I was talking about the concept “person” as I was putting it to use, not making an ontological claim as to whether those concepts can comprehensively or completely define the referent. As an example, I might say “a bachelor is nothing other than an unmarried man” even if I believed (and I do) that there is no real bachelor “existing in a vacuum,” purely abstractly. It’s a necessary and sufficient condition to be in the class of things I am talking about, but I’m not making any claim stronger than that. If I were going to be more specific, then I would appeal to the concept of “existence” or “reality” more directly, but for purposes of the discussion I was having, it seemed to far afield. It’s sufficient to show where I think Svendsen is in error that one distinguish the concrete reality from the abstract nature.

  35. Perry Robinson says:


    The answer from the scholastics and Protestants was simple-creatures are really related to God (dependent on him) but he is not dependent or has no real relations to them. God knows creatures in knowing himself.


    I don’t think that Jonathan’s comments can be saved since he clearly says “nothing other than” which indicates necessary and sufficient conditions. Substituting “being” doesn’t help matters since it still treats persons as things.

    As for Svendsen, I would remove the “Dr” since the man obtained his degree from a diploma mill.

  36. What happens if general concepts are started with? Persons are subsumed and defined by even more generalities. You’ve essentially done nothing. General concepts are answered with more general concepts. What did John of Damascus say that led the heretics astray?

    What’s so unique about a subsistent relation?


  37. William B says:


    What happens if someone takes the “omniscience, omnipotence, goodness, wisdom, love, justice, etc.” of God to be characteristic features/attributes of an ESSENCE, rather than first and foremost as ACTS the Persons of the Trinity DO? It would seem to make God dependent upon his creatures in order to make manifest or possess these essential attributes. I have in mind alot of the Protestant systematic theologies I read a long time ago. What of the view that the Persons of the Trinity are “subsistent relations”?

  38. I think I remember in writing my paper on Gregory of Nyssa that he believed that the majority of the Eunomian problem was that they started with abstract philosophical principles instead of scripture.

  39. Okay, but I can only go on by what you say. When you say person is “nothing other than….,” I think you can see why I would think that is a definitional understanding.

    On the other hand, do you believe “existence” grasps ‘a Who’ in the radical way that the biblical and patristic theologians thought. Yes persons exist, but is it absolutely unique and irreducible in character?


  40. Jonathan Prejean says:

    I think you’re reading more into my definition of “person” than is there, or perhaps I am simply being careless in my use of terms. I would prefer “reality” or “existence” in the definition of “person,” but my use of “person” here is to show exactly what Svendsen appears to be denying: that the “person” is not merely a “bundle” of attributes. On the contrary, the attributes are real because they are personalized. Certainly, my definition of “instantiation” is not intended to be limiting; it is not saying that “person” is ONLY an instantiation of a nature, but that personal existence REQUIRES instantiating a rational nature. Anything that does not instantiate a rational nature is not a person.

    But I can’t disagree with you about my method including getting the philosophy straight (or more to the point, the logical affirmations about Christ straight) before being able to deal with any concrete situation. When heterodoxy or cacodoxy rears its ugly head, one first meditates on Christ, and then the answer to the heresy is clear. What is inconsistent with holding the reality of Christ must be rejected. Because there are so many aspects to that reality, sometimes philosophical inquiry is required, sometimes historical, but they are persuasive only by their coherence. For those who depend on them to show Christ, Christ will always elude them.

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