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A constructive attempt to develop a theological model of

personal relationship, personhood and the Trinity

Chapter 1 Introduction Page 2

Chapter 2 Models of the Trinity: Page 2

2.1 One substance: A Western perspective
2.2 Three persons: An Eastern perspective Page 4

Chapter 3 Towards a clearer understanding of personhood Page 8

Chapter 4 Personal relationship: Page 10

4.1 Existential problems of ontologising personal relationship
4.2 Personal relationship as a process Page 13
4.3 Relationship as ‘in’ Page 15

Chapter 5 A concept of unity and its relevance to the Trinity and Page 16
personal relationships:
5.1 Oneness
5.2 Trinity Page 18
5.3 Trinitarian relationships Page 20

Chapter 6 Conclusion Page 22

Bibilography Page 24

1. Introduction

If therefore I am changed into God and He makes me one with Himself, then, by the living God, there is no
distinc1tion between us […] Some people imagine that they are going to see God, that they are going to see God
as if he were standing yonder, and they here, but it is not to be so. God and I: we are one. By knowing God I take
him into myself. By loving God, I penetrate him. 1

The words of this 13th century mystic provide a picture of the direction that this essay takes. Despite
initial appearances, this essay does not head towards a form of mystical pantheism, but is instead an
attempt to construct a view of personal relationships, personhood and the Trinity that is attentive to
the relationships between these concepts. The view presented will involve a synthesis of a variety of
theological, philosophical and sociological ideas in order to form a coherent model that can be
tested against our human experiences.

The question of whether there is sufficient reason to accept the doctrine of the Trinity is one which
this essay does not engage directly with. Its aim is instead to test the usefulness of Trinitarian
models and language in relation to our experience and explore how it may further our understanding
of G-d and humanity. Central to this investigation is then an endeavour to avoid abstraction based
primarily on a priori deductions from scripture and philosophy, by relating the conceptual journey
made to human experience.

By first assessing two models of the Trinity, which shall to an extent be considered representative
of the Western and Eastern traditions, a background will be provided from which the central
assertion of this essay will be presented. By framing models of the doctrine in Eastern and Western
terms my contention is not that there exists a dichotomy or concrete division between these
traditions, as there are indeed many similarities between these traditions which transcend this
division. The decision to discuss Zizioulas as representative of the Eastern tradition in itself
demonstrates the artificiality of any definite boundary between east and west, as whilst the origins
of his thought lie clearly in the Eastern tradition, his ideas have become widespread and highly
influential in Western contexts and have served to significantly blur the distinction between the two.

From this background, a description of personhood and personal relationships will be constructed.
Utilising this description, the focus will then return to the doctrine of the Trinity to suggest how the
unity of the Three can be better comprehended. Finally, there will a brief exploration of how this
view of personal relationship and unity may enlighten our understanding of how humanity stands in
relation to G-d and what implications this has for Christian personal relationships.

2. Models of the Trinity

2.1 One substance: A Western perspective

The description of the Trinity as being ‘one substance, three persons’ developed in the first
centuries of Church history, and has since generally been considered to be the orthodox position in
theology. Models of the Trinity can be understood as an attempt to make sense and draw
implications from this claim of three being one. This ‘problem’ of the Trinity is however crassly
represented as a logically absurd claim of 3=1. It is instead better understood as an inconsistency
arising from our individualistic concept of the person.
Eckhart von Hochheim, Meister Eckhart, trans. R.B. Blakney (New York: Harper & Broters, 1941) p.114

Descartes’ famous attempt to prove the existence of the world from the premise I think therefore I
am provides an interesting demonstration of this individualistic nature of our concept of the self. In
his argument, that which constitutes the self is merely one’s self awareness and ability to think. 2
The implication of this is that the self is something that can exist without reference to anything or
anyone else, and that any such relations are merely contingent to the self’s existence. Gunton
recognises how this has been extremely influential throughout the modern period, as it has affirmed
the idea that a person’s existence is entirely self-contained within one distinct and separable source
of thought. 3 It seems reasonable to deduce from such underlying ideas about the self that where
there are three persons, there must necessarily be three sources of thought in existence. The doctrine
of the Trinity thus appears incomprehensible to Western thought as three selves cannot become one
in this framework.

In addressing the question of how this unity of three is to be explained, the Western tradition has
typically made the ‘one substance’ claim the foundation. In doing this, the personhood of the Three
is generally undermined to the point that, to use Moltmann’s language, the persons become mere
aspects of the one absolute subject. 4 In these contexts, the term ‘person’ does not apply to the Three
in the sense that it refers to three centres of willing or thought sharing the same divine substance.
The self-aware, willing centre of G-d instead only arises fully through a sum of the three parts.
Moltmann argues that in such cases it may be more accurate to describe the Trinity as being “one
divine subject, three different modes of being.” 5 Rahner presents one such model in which the
Three are denied any separate personality or consciousness in this manner. 6

Rahner describes the Three as “distinct manners of subsisting” 7 , which are closer to distinct aspects
of G-d that perform different roles or functions than our concept of person. This has a considerable
suggestion of modalism (the view that G-d is not really three, but merely appears as three masks or
roles) as these ‘manners of subsisting’ could be interpreted as distinct masks in which G-d appears.
Rahner defends against such claims by asserting the necessity and eternal nature of these ‘manners
of subsisting’ through appealing to his starting premise, that the revelation we have of G-d as three
through salvation history is not “a copy or analogy of the inner Trinity, but is the Trinity itself” 8 .
This is crucial as it means that this picture of G-d in three we are able to attain is not a series of
transient masks or a temporary expression of him/her self, because in salvation history “G-d really
gives himself, and really appears as he is in himself” 9 . It then follows for Rahner that the roles of
the Three are not only distinct but necessary; such that it is only possible for the logos alone to be
incarnated. 10 It is thus clear that Rahner is not talking of masks, but of a distinct and eternal
tripartite structure of G-d’s internal being.

This idea of the one divine subject is problematic for a number of reasons. Aside from allusions in
scripture that Jesus had a separate will to the Father (eg. Luke 22:42), it seems that in this model
one cannot talk of any personal relationship or love within the Trinity. With this absolute unity in

René Descartes, Meditations, trans. D. Clarke (London: Penguin, 1998) pp.23 - 25
Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997) pp.84-85
Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM, 1981) p.18
Ibid. p.139
Karl Rahner, The Trinity (London: Burns & Oates, 1970) p.107
Ibid. p.110
Karl Rahner, Mysterium Salutis II, cited in Patrick Burke, Reinterpreting Rahner (New Yok: Fordham University
Press, 2002) p.76
Catherine LaCugna, God for us. The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) p.136
Rahner, The Trinity pp.83-87
thought and will, the idea that the Father could act in a self-sacrificial way (that might be called
loving) towards the Son seems impossible, as the Son is not other to the Father to any real extent.
Rahner actually recognises this and accepts that there can be “no mutual love between the Father
and the Son” 11 . He in response attempts to redefine love in an inter-Trinitarian context as “loving
self-acceptance” 12 . This response leads to the serious concern that what Rahner is describing could
lack any meaning or comprehensibility. If love necessarily entails an aspect of sacrificing the self
for the other then Rahner’s ad hoc redefinition of this love as something that has nothing of this
quality would be a somewhat dubious move. One could similarly bring into question whether his
concept of ‘distinct manners of subsisting’ is something which anyone can really grasp or
understand, given that it seems to bear no relation or be analogous to anything in our experience.
Indeed, Rahner himself admits that the Son is distinct from the Father only in a vague sense. 13

There is thus a considerable concern that what Rahner is describing is neither an accurate
representation of the Trinity revealed in salvation history, nor in fact, a coherent and meaningful
representation of anything at all. Moltmann, making a number of similar criticisms, also points out
that what Rahner takes as meaning of the word ‘person’ shows no recognition of modern discussion
and usage of the term. 14 Whilst it has been increasingly recognised that personhood can only arise
and be understood in relation to the other, Rahner seems to cling to an Enlightenment view of the
person, characterised by individualistic freedom and possession. Rahner thus misses the possibility
that the unity of the Trinity could be understood as arising through the personal relationships of the
Three. By describing Trinitarian relationships as lacking any aspect of social or personal
relationship, there is little that we can infer from the Trinity about our social and personal

With this formulation of the Trinity there is thus the achievement that G-d truly seems to be one
whilst the distinctiveness of the Three can still be affirmed. However, the cost seems to be that the
Trinitarian relationships become something incomprehensible and effectively useless in obtaining a
fuller understanding of either G-d or our own relationships. In light of this, it seems appropriate to
reassess Rahner’s individualistic treatment of personhood and the self.

2.2 Three persons: An Eastern perspective

In contrast to Rahner’s individualism, Zizioulas expounds a relational concept of personhood which

he uses to provide insight into both the Trinitarian relationships and the state of humanity. His
central assertion is that the ideal model of existing as persons in relation visible in the Trinity is
significant as it is this type of existence that mankind seeks to obtain, and can begin to do so by
entering in relationship with G-d. I shall argue that this attempt which affirms the Three as distinct
centres of willing and consciousness, whilst evidently insufficient under scrutiny, is valuable in that
it brings a number of important issues into question.

Whilst Zizioulas does not lay out a definition of personhood explicitly, it is apparent that in his
view, personhood describes a centre of being in personal relationship with others, capable of free
willing, thought and communication. In addition to this, to be a person does not follow from one
simply being able to enter into personal relationship, such that one can say one is a person because

Ibid. p.106
Ibid. p.106
Ibid. p.111
Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of G-d, p.145
they are, for example, human. Instead, it is only by being a unique, unrepeatable and particular
human that one can be said to be a person. It is this existence as a unique being in relation that is
central to Zizioulas’ usage of the concept of personhood.

Zizioulas explains that this concept of personhood arose out of the attempts of early Cappadocian
theologians to talk of the Trinity with the inadequate language of the Graeco-Roman world. In
ancient Greek thought, the essential being of a human was fully constituted by the soul which
served to rule and command a body, and in the thought of Plato could be attached to any number of
bodies in reincarnation. 15 Gunton argues that the resulting view of the body as a merely contingent
addition to real being (the soul) made it impossible to attribute any real sense of uniqueness and
particularity to a person as that which we most clearly distinguish by (the body) is attributed no real
significance. 16 With Greek monism, particularity and uniqueness were thus seen as a transient
facade of real being. Consequently the term ‘person’ was used in reference to the temporary masks
worn in theatre. 17 In Roman thought the word persona again appeared, yet with Roman focus on
social and political organisations it was similar to the Greek view, in that persona only referred to a
role played in the higher reality of the state rather than the unique existence of an individual. 18

These Graeco-Roman concepts proved problematic for the early theologians in their attempts to talk
of G-d as a unity of three persons. Specifically, stating that G-d is of one essence and has three
persons was understood as meaning one G-d who appears with three different masks or roles. Given
the difficulties of associating any ontological content with these masks, it again seemed difficult to
assert anything other than modalism. To resolve this, the Cappodicians influenced a shift in
understanding of personhood through proposing that instead of personhood being an attribute or
mask added to a pre-existing being, it is in fact identical to an entity’s being or substance 19 . With
this identifying of personhood as being, the Trinity could then be reinterpreted as three
ontologically real and distinct persons who’s unity, instead of being dependent on shared substance,
could be understood as arising through the relationships of the Three.

It is important to recognise in the application of the term ‘person’ to describe the divine, that its
usage is metaphorical and does not imply that G-d is a person in an identical sense to a human
person. As McFague points out, all language used to describe G-d is indirect and can only refer to
G-d by capturing meanings from that which we understand in our direct experience. 20 In this case
however, the use of the same term for divine and human is significant as it both suggests that the
Three are in free personal relationships, which unlike Rahner’s model are analogous to ours, and
that the Three exist as distinct and unique centres of willing.

This raising of personhood to an ontologically primary status is a central feature of Zizioulas’

model. However in affirming this, one encounters the philosophical problem of how to give
ontological priority to the particular over the universal. To summarize this problem crudely, the
disposition of philosophy to search for reality and truth in the general and universal (as opposed to
the contingent and particular) makes the attributing of ontological priority to the particular
problematic. In this context, the problem is realized as instead of presenting G-d’s existence as
being necessary due to his divine properties, G-d’s existence as personal becomes dependent on the
Henrik Lorenz, The Phaedo’s Theory of the Soul. 2003. Stanford University. 25/07/08.
< 3/10/2003>
Colin Gunton, The One, The Three, and the Many (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) pp.48-49
John Zizioulas, Being as Communion, (New York: St Vladimir’s, 1985) pp.31-33
Ibid. pp.33-34
Ibid. pp.36-390
Sallie McFague, Models of God, (London: SCM, 1987) pp.33-34
particular and as such can no longer be understood as a universal or general category. This
disposition to the universal in philosophy, according to Zizioulas, was causative of the inability of
Greek philosophers to achieve an ontology of personhood, and has prevailed since in western
philosophy. 21 It is in light of this issue that the significance of construing the Son and Spirit as
willed processions of the Father becomes apparent.

With the interpretation of the Father as the source of the Trinity, the Father wills the existence of
the Son “only in and through the particular” 22 . This is apparent, as if the Son were not willed as
other to the Father then the Son would arguably still be the Father and not the Son, as there could be
no real distinction between the two. It is thus in his particularity and otherness to the Father (and
Spirit) that the Son exists, as opposed the Son’s existence being found in some general property or
attribute which could be used to derive the Son’s status of his being. In the Son’s existence as
uniqueness and particularity, particularity can be seen as ontologically primary and is his being
itself. Whilst Zizioulas does not deny the Three substance, 23 because the existence and nature of the
Three is a result of a contingent willing of the Father, substance cannot be seen as the defining
ontological property of G-d as the personal will of G-d has authority over it. Particularity in relation
(and thus personhood) can therefore be seen as primary to G-d’s ontological status. This
interpretation of the Trinity stands in clear contrast with the presentation of G-d typically assumed
in Western thought. Whilst philosophy would generally see G-d’s actions as a contingent
consequence of a being with various universal divine properties, this reverses this causation and
presents G-d’s being and properties as a contingent causation of the actions and decisions of the

This model of ideal personhood shown in the existence and free eternal relationships of the Trinity,
not bound to substance or universal categories, is significant in Zizioulas’ view for humanity as it is
this level of free existence as a person that humanity desires to attain. However, this desire to exist
as a unique and particular being is always thwarted, as mankind is inescapably subject to death,
which negates this personal existence and destroys the particular. In effect death stands as a
demonstration that humanity’s existence is defined primarily by the universal rules of biology, as
the personal stands existentially as reliant on the body and not their own uniqueness. It would seem
therefore that while philosophy may now hold a concept of personhood, mankind’s state is still in
many ways akin to the situation in ancient Greek thought, as the universal constrains of human
biology reduce the particular existence of a person to a temporary state. Man’s personhood appears
to be constitutive, yet death reveals that its appearance was a mask created by the underlying
biological reality which in fact is what determines the being.

The model of personhood in the Trinity does not merely stand as a demonstration to humanity of its
lack of ontological freedom to exist in full personhood. Instead Zizioulas’ claim is that this model
gives hope for humanity in their biological existence through the opportunity G-d gives to
participate in the personal life of the Three. In this participation described as “divinization”, 24
mankind through relationship with G-d can attain something of the same being as personhood in
which G-d exists, and experience freedom from the ontological necessity of substance and nature.
The proclamation of this is found in the incarnation, in which Christ exists both tied to the

John Zizioulas, ‘On Being a Person: Towards an Ontology of Personhood’. In Schwöbel & Gunton (eds.), Persons,
Divine and Human, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991) pp.36-37
Ibid. p.43
Ibid. p.40
Zizioulas, Being as Communion pp.49-50
biological in his incarnation and as the person of the Son in the Trinity. It is this combination of
the two natures that stands as a demonstration to humanity of the freedom from a primarily
biological existence.

Zizioulas interprets baptism as the means by which one enters into this new mode of being, which
derives its existence in relationship to the Trinity through adoption by the Father and in then in
relation to the church. The use of the names Father (for G-d) and sisters and brothers (for other
Christians) becomes significant as it demonstrates how one’s being is no longer dependent on one’s
biological relations, but has been transformed into a new personal existence in which one exists in a
network of personal relationships not tied to substance. 26 The unavoidable fact that the baptised,
like the rest of humanity still bound to a biological existence, will still experience death is obviously
not a trivial concern for this anthropological model. The response is an appeal to eschatology, in
which whilst the baptised can truly have been said to experienced something of a transition to a
person-centred existence, it will not be fully realized until death (as the final enemy) is defeated.
When this occurs, it will be one’s personal existence, formed through participation and relationship
with G-d that eventually defeats death. 27 The Trinity is thus a model of true personhood, and the
hope for humanity to obtain it through entering into relationship with G-d.

It is my opinion that Zizioulas has made a helpful contribution to Trinitarian theology through his
discussion of personhood as an ontologically significant concept. However in doing so he displays a
tendency to use concepts of personhood and personal relationship as if they required no significant
exploration or definition before being handled. The impression is then that Zizioulas has largely
helped himself to his detailed conclusions without sufficient justification.

The inadequacy of Zizioulas’ under-defined concepts is particularly apparent in regards to personal

relationship and humanity’s personal relationship with G-d. By interpreting baptism as being a
singular, constitutive act that transforms one’s existence into relation with G-d and the church, he
seems to be presenting the entering into relationship with G-d and full personhood as more akin to a
contractual agreement or a binary transformation. His levels of personhood thus appear to be almost
static, universal properties. In reality we don’t come into any personal relationship with others in
any singular act, but in a dynamic process over time through events of varying significance. It thus
seems distinctly impersonal to suggest that this change of being occurs in one act, as opposed to a
more blurred temporal process in which one comes to know G-d and increasingly involve oneself in
him/her. If one is to take seriously the process of divinization as a result of personal relationship, I
would suggest that it would be more constructive to view the act of baptism as symbolic of a
developing relational process and change occurring in the life of the person, rather than a
constitutive event. 28

Another serious concern is that Zizioulas implies a considerably negative view of substance and the
physical. Other than for his obvious loyalty to the Orthodox confession of three persons, one
substance, I would argue that it has rightly commented, “his entire attitude to the ousia is so
negative that it is difficult to see that he can actually support the one ousia […] that he quotes.” 29 In

Ibid. p.56
Ibid. pp.56-57
Ibid. p.64
This would similarly apply to a corresponding idea more common in evangelical contexts; that the event of uttering a
‘sinner’s prayer’ is constitutive of conversion. If conversion is a process rather than binary switch then any binary
opposition between the categories of ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ must surely be blurred.
J. Wilks, ‘The Trinitarian Ontology of John Zizioulas’, Vox Evangelica 25 1995 p.82, cited in H. Nelson, The
providence of God : a Trinitarian perspective (Perth: Murdoch University, 2005) p.111
regards to the Trinitarian relationship, Zizioulas’ inclusion of substance seems to be no more than a
superfluous by-product of personal relationship as there seems to be no obviously inferable
implications of its inclusion into his model. In terms of his anthropology, he seems to depict
substance (the body) as primarily the negative aspect of human existence. It is the body that
“hinders the hypostasis from becoming a person” 30 according to Zizioulas, and whilst recognizing
the body’s role in communicating, the implication is that is almost some form of necessary evil
which in an ideal situation could be dispensed with. It seems that he is almost setting up a dualism
in which the body represents only the necessary or negative aspects of personhood, whilst the mind
or soul is where one truly exists as a person. Such a dualism is not only a poor representation of our
existence as humans, but also creates difficulties for understanding the environment, body and
sexuality within a theological context.

Finally, due to a lack of appeal to our human experience in his explanation, it seems fairly unclear
in what sense the Three whilst distinct as persons are united, and how the Christian’s ontological
relationship to the church is experienced. Despite these concerns, I intend to draw a number of ideas
from Zizioulas’ discussion. Specifically, I wish to take seriously his ideas of personhood as an
ontologically significant concept, the assertion of the particular over the universal and Christian
relationship with G-d involving ‘divinization’.

3. Towards a clearer understanding of personhood

To develop a more useful explanation of the Trinity, I shall proceed by exploring personhood and
personal relationships before returning to the Trinity with the intention of overcoming the
difficulties I identified with Zizioulas’ model. In doing this, I shall be focusing first on our
experience of human experience of personal relationship, then by looking at the theological
language available to us in scripture, see how this can be applied to the Trinitarian relationships.
Some justification of this methodology is required due to the common theological belief (as
Moltmann for example argues) that it is generally accepted that knowledge of both self and G-d are
closely linked, but the correct order is to deal with knowledge of G-d followed by knowledge of
self. 31 A vertical move from humanity to the divine, as I will be making, is usually treated with this
suspicion due to ideas of G-d being ‘wholly other’ to humanity, meaning his/her nature defies
attribution of our self projections and expectations onto him/her. 32

It is my belief that this move is defensible, as when talking of G-d we only have those terms and
concepts which we have formed from our human experience. To suggest that one can start by
talking purely of G-d is then to ignore that one has already made something of a move upwards in
using our inherently human-coloured language. Whilst some have attempted to coin new terms to
refer to G-d (Rahner’s ‘distinct manners of subsisting’ for example) these attempts, as I have
argued, have resulted in a breakdown of meaningful talk and a descent into esoteric abstraction.

I am also making this move in light of the doctrine of Imago Dei; that man is created in G-d’s
image. Traditionally, G-d’s image was thought to be found in certain attributes man possessed
(typically rationality of free will). However, it has been increasingly speculated that something of
humanity’s relational nature may image G-d’s being. Bonhoeffer makes an interesting observation
supporting this view of imaged relationality, highlighting the specification in Genesis 1:27 that man

Zizioulas, Being as Communion, p.51
Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel & Jürgen Moltmann, Humanity in God (London: Pilgrim Press, 1984) p.90
Rudolf Bultmann, in Robert Johnson (ed.), Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era (London: Collins, 1987) p.48
was created in the image of G-d not as just man, but as both male and female . The thought is that
humanity can only fully image G-d by being in relationship with one’s most distinct other, echoing
an intrinsic relationality in G-d’s being. With this idea, Grenz suggests that humanity’s creation
with this innate otherness can be seen as a design that instils a desire for connection and union and
describes sexuality as the dynamic that draws persons into relation. 34 If humanity do share some
form of common relationality with G-d, intended in humanity’s creation, it then seems justifiable to
then discuss what might be true about G-d from discussion of our relational experience.

As in the example of Zizioulas, when dealing with these concepts of personal relationship and
personhood, it must be recognised that despite their frequent utilisation in Trinitarian discussion,
there is rarely significant effort to examine the nature of these concepts in depth. There is perhaps
the assumption that when we talk of personal relationships we have a sufficient grasp of this
concept as to be able to employ the concept with ease in theological hypotheses. It is my opinion
that failure to explore this concept more fully has contributed significantly to the problems
associated with understanding the Trinity. In the following chapter I will therefore be attempting to
form a description of personal relationships. However, I shall first attempt to lay out a brief concept
of personhood that this view of personal relationship can be understood in relation to.

The view of the self as a centred, sole foundation of being and moral and cognitive function
assumed in modernist thought has largely been deconstructed due to the influence of postmodernist
thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida. 35 Whilst his position oscillated frequently, Foucault
influenced a change to viewing mental life as something prefigured by discursive practices of
culture, and so absorbed into cultural matrices that individualism is dissolved. 36 Whilst I shall not
be ascribing to the view that the self has entirely dissolved, the idea that the self has become
locatable as a subjective space in opposition to an isolatable and contained subject 37 is in my view
crucial to defining personhood.

Fiddes applies this idea of the decentred self directly to the Trinitarian persons, and suggests we
view the Three not as subjects in relationships, or those subjects at the end of a relationship, but as
the relations in themselves. With this view of G-d being an “event of relationships” 38 it becomes
easier to conceive of how the unique persons of the Trinity could be understood as a unity.
However, despite this perhaps forming a helpful picture, it is not clear what it would mean for
relationships to exist without anything with which to relate. Without a clear analogy from our
experience, it seems then necessary to go further than this idea of decentring in understanding
personhood (divine or human).

McFadyen’s study of personhood and the forming of personal identity provides a helpful means by
which to relocate the decentred self. In opposition to the individualistic view of one’s engagement
in society being extraneous to the internally formed / constituted self, McFadyen proposes that
identity is something developed through a series of events and relationships that form the person as
unique yet inseparable from the social structures and networks in which the person has participated

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: a Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3, trans. J.C. Fletcher (London:
SCM Press, 1959) pp.35-38
Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self (London: John Knox Press, 2001) pp.276-278
John Webster, ‘The Human Person’. In K. Vanhoozer (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp.221-223
Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) pp.21-22
Calvin Schrag, Communication Praxis and the Shape of Subjectivity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)
pp.137-138; cited in Paul Fiddes, Participating in God (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000) p.48
Fiddes, Participating in God, p.36
in. This process is vividly described by McFadyen as a sedimentation of significant relationships
and encounters. 40 Rather than a property, the self is better seen as a theory one has of one’s
existence, which allows one to see one’s history of relations and communication as a continuous
and dynamic structure of identity. 41 As Grenz describes, this view stands between collectivism and
individualism in that a human is to an extent centred, yet this centring only arises through a unique
history which has shaped one’s attitudes and ways of acting in relation to the other. 42

From this basis one can understand the inherent uniqueness and individual nature of existing as a
person, yet maintain that the identity that constitutes personhood is fundamentally related to social
matrices. Again related to the philosophical problem of the universal/particular distinction that
Zizioulas engaged with, Bonhoeffer highlights how viewing personhood as dynamic and
continually being recreated over time is in distinct confrontation to analytic philosophy’s attempts
to handle such concepts as universal properties. 43 In light of this I think it appropriate to view
personhood, in contrast to these philosophical categories, as a description of “continuing particular
narratives” 44 as opposed to some collection of universal human properties. In this way, I am then
affirming Zizioulas’ attempt to associate personhood primarily with the particular.

The central view I am forwarding is an association of personhood with the idea of a temporal and
dynamic identity (or narrative) which whilst inherently relational, is formed as unique and
individual through interaction within particular social matrices. 45 Whilst this more relational
concept of personhood gives initial clues to how the unity of the Three may could be
comprehended, it is my view that before making that move one must also obtain a deeper
understanding of that which constitutes existing as a person: personal relationships.

4. Personal relationship

4.1 Existential problems of ontologising personal relationship

If the existence of humans is associated with their identities as persons it would appear to follow
that personal relationships must have some form of existential significance. We must then ask in
what sense can we talk of a personal relationship as an ontological reality? Before an answer is
suggested in the following two sub-chapters, one must pre-empt the philosophical problems
associated with this attempt.

It is my opinion that our secular culture generally finds attributing personal relationship with a full
ontological status problematic. Whilst our accepted fields of psychology and sociology are engaged
in the task of studying the personal sphere (by which I mean consciousness, thoughts, social
interaction, relationships etc.) as an entirely real phenomenon, the predominant view (at least in
science and philosophy) is that this sphere cannot be attributed with the same degree of reality as
material objects, such as a bus or a raisin. This difficulty, rooted in the materialism of empiricism

Alistair McFadyen, The Call to Personhood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) pp.69-72
Ibid. p.72
Ibid. pp.100-101
Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self, p.13
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio (London: Collins, 1963) pp.30-33
Terry Martin, Loss and Bereavement (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) p.35
Whilst I have and will be talking mostly in terms of social behaviours and what might be considered personality, I
wish to define this identity as existing on multiple dimensions / levels of explanation, such that the body is included in
this concept of identity.
and the enlightenment, finds its expression in the ‘Mind-Body Problem’ of philosophy and
specifically the ‘Identity Theory’ of the mind, dominant in our intellectual and scientific thought.
Smart summarizes this theory as being the proposition that the “states and processes of the mind are
identical to states and processes of the brain.” 46 Such a view that reduces the mind to essentially
biochemical processes allows a sense of reality to the personal sphere, yet only as an almost
illusionary façade of physical processes (which is what actually exists). The experienced ‘reality’ of
the personal sphere is then whilst available to study as a phenomenon, only secondary to what is
actually exists (the physical).

The Identity Theory is not however unproblematic. For the sake of my argument, I will represent
the world as consisting of a hierarchy of mutually interdependent ‘levels of reality’, which can be
recognised as being of a distinctly different nature from those above or below and explained or
governed by apparently very different rules and constraints. In this framework, we can represent the
mind and personal sphere in the top level of reality (dependent on constrains of human interaction
and thought). The argument from Identity Theory is that this level of reality does not have
existential content in itself, as it is really found in the level below: the biochemical processes of the
brain in the system of the human body. However the same question arises: does the human body
really exist, or is there something below it that causes it to appear to exist? Such a level of reality
does exist below that: the interactions of atoms in a level of reality dependent on the laws of
physics. This level of the body now has the same artificiality in relation to atomic matter that the
mind had above the body, and it seems that if we really want to talk of the reality of the body, we
should be talking of the workings of atoms and molecules, as these are what are giving the
appearance of the level above. Again, this chain could continue, and we would have to talk of the
sub atomic level of energy and quarks (ignoring ideas from String Theory) as being the true
existential reality.

My point is not that attributing existential reality to the top level yet not to the level below is
philosophically unjustifiable. Whilst we can show how the personal sphere, whilst functioning to an
extent as a system in itself, is clearly dependent on something that exists below it, there is nothing
to stop us showing how the material (whilst seeming to function as a system in itself) is similarly
dependent on an atomic system below and is only appearing to exist in itself. For the same reason
why we rejected the mind as being an illusionary grouping we have made of the level below, we
cannot justify the level below as not being a similarly artificial illusion of the level below that. By
making this move once, one commits to making it again, and reality can then only be found at the
bottom of the chain. This results in the absurd implication that in talking of the existence of
emotions we should only accurately be referring to systems of quarks. Any level of reality above
the quarks whilst real, does not exist in itself as nothing in a level can properly claim the property of

This cannot even be restricted to just the mind, as with this reasoning the mind-body problem
entails a wider ‘object-matter’ (or perhaps ‘matter-energy’) problem. As with the mind, the isolation
of the object would only be a pragmatically useful yet essentially illusionary practice. By not
attributing the mind with existential reality one is thus rationally committed to not only denying that
buses and raisins have genuine existential reality (at least as buses or raisins), but perhaps even
accepting a form of monism in which all genuine existence is one, as neither the object, mind nor
the self can be ontologically significant.

John Smart, The Identity Theory of Mind. 2000. Stanford University. 01/11/08.
In order to counter this claim that all can be reduced to the lowest level of being and reassert the
ontological status of the person, one needs to demonstrate that the upper levels of reality have
exclusive meaning and significance. Christian theology can achieve this through examining the
ideas of creation and of a G-d who enters into personal relationship with humanity. If humanity is
created as an image of G-d’s relational nature, it can be argued that a primary characteristic of our
existence is this personal sphere and mind that relates with humanity and the divine. Our material
existence can then be viewed as a medium or a mechanism that enables us to realise and express
this relational centre of our being. Rather than the mind arising as a consequence of the material,
there is thus a sense in which the material arises (through an intended creation) from the personal
sphere and mind.

Whilst the purpose of my argument here has been to suggest that these levels of reality must be
integrated to properly understand existence as persons, there is a danger here particularly in my
usage of the phrase ‘top’ level of reality, in that it still suggests a form of the mind-body dualism I
wish to dispel. Whilst it may be helpful to affirm this level of thoughts as ontologically significant
(particularly as it is a level in which we perhaps most strongly relate to G-d’s personal existence),
naming it the ‘top’ level may lead to the material being viewed as an awkward by-product of our
relational existence. I wish to forward instead the idea that one cannot prioritise the mind over the
body as our personhood exists also on a physical level.

Traditionally, in Christian theology there has been the underlying assumption that humanity’s
relationship with G-d is centred around our thoughts (typically whether we have made certain
decisions and have a faith in G-d). G-d’s election (or choice of those she/he wishes to be in relation
with) is then based on the minds of persons, as this is where the relationship exists. However, as
Wyschogrod highlights, G-d’s election of Israel was one specifically related to the body, through
circumcision and physical descent from Abraham. 47 Whilst often damaged, this relationship did not
dissolve when Israel turned away from G-d’s commands, as it was first a physical one. This
suggestion that G-d enters relationship with, and loves both body and mind means that Christian
theology must understand the body as an indispensable aspect in the concept of human personhood.
From this, it can also be suggested that our physical desire for the body of another must not be seen
as inherently negative or ‘carnal’, as it is a reflection of our desire to be in relation to their
personhood, and thus image G-d.

It should also be noted that this integrated view of human existence should also result in an
awareness that personal relationship does not exist only on the level of our minds and ways of
communicating. The shaping and sedimenting of identity that takes place in social interaction also
exists and takes place physically in our bodies. Our relation to a specific network of relations will
inevitably be reflected in our physical body; whether that be through overt cultural practices such as
tattooing, circumcision and piercing, or through more subtle influences such as the society’s ideal
body image pushing someone to obtain a specific form, or injuries from conflicts in a broken and
war-torn society. Our personal relationships then exist not only in our minds but in our bodies also.

With the philosophical considerations addressed we can begin to address the highly complex
question of what actually is a personal relationship.

Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004) pp.49-50
4.2 Personal relationship as a process

I would first suggest that it is necessary to recognise any given relationship as having the nature of a
dynamic and temporal process. Over time, a relationship between persons can never provide
permanence in any given state as personal identity is constantly in flux. Encountering the other will
thus to a lesser or greater extent affect the relationships one exists in, and equally a lack of
encounters will slowly redefine relationships. Even when two people may have been in stable, close
relationship for most of their lives, their relationship can never be seen as static, as new experiences
always confront the persons, and fresh knowledge of the other can always be gained due to the
unfathomable complexities of human persons.

In this recognition of relationship as a process, the question of whether there is something taking
place, common to all personal relationships, which we can describe must then be raised. Given the
multitude of possible personal relationships and various positive and negative dynamics present
within them, it is by no means my assumption that we should be capable of finding some form of
unifying language to encompass all personal relationships. Such reductionist attempts can however
be useful if they capture a significant aspect of personal relationships. With this in mind, I would
like to suggest that in personal relationships, one can view the process that occurs as a sharing of
self. Whilst being aware of the many other dynamics that may form the phenomenon of personal
relationships, it is my hope that this language captures something significant and relevant to
personhood and the Trinity. Exactly what I am trying to represent with this phrase should become
clearer as I discuss the issue further.

It is my first premise that in encountering or interacting with another, one is always exposed to
something of the other’s identity (or self). This is to say through communication and encounters,
one is always confronted with some aspect of the other’s identity (whether or not the other’s
behaviour/intention is interpreted correctly or not). The sociologist Goffman proposes a helpful
analogy to describe these socially exposed identities, by describing a person’s social behaviour as
akin to a series of masks, projected to meet external expectations of society and to achieve and
defend one’s own objectives. 48 These masks learnt from social interaction form an implicitly agreed
system of conduct and presentation in which the individual identity exists.

An initial objection is that with these projected identities that constitute the person, we very rarely
glimpse the actor behind the mask. 49 The thought is then that we don’t really experience the actor
(or person), but primarily a number of aspects of our society imprinted on them, as any attempt to
view the self leads more towards the social ‘stage’ and other actors than to the sole performer. 50
Akin to Foucault, the individual seems to have again been lost into the collective identity, as the
individual’s masks are unknowingly forced upon them in social development. However, underlying
this objection is again, a concealed allegiance to the Descartes’ preoccupation with associating the
self with conscious thought. If one relinquishes this underlying principle of “It thinks me, therefore
I am not” 51 , one has no reason to think that that which is a product of a subconscious or socially
determined process is not the ‘true’ self. As described previously, our integration with society
results in the individual being formed as a unique centre of communication in a shared social
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self (London: Penguin, 1969) pp.19-25. Interestingly, one could link this to
Genesis 3:7, which could be interpreted as suggesting the introduction of clothes was what provided a means to disguise
one’s intentions and create social structures as after the fracturing of human relationships in the Fall.
Ibid. p.168
Ibid. p.245
Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi and Eugene Rochbert-Halton, The Meaning of Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1981), p.12
context, and despite the temptation to see social determination as a homogenizing factor, in reality
people are so different genetically and experientially that community develops individual identity
rather than undermines it. 52 In addition, what is common to one social group individualises all of
them in relation to other social groups.

From this initial idea, it is my proposition that in encountering the other, one is not only
unavoidably exposed to their identity of the other, but also unavoidably opening up one’s own
identity to being shaped to a lesser or greater extent by the other’s identity. McFadyen’s analogy of
sedimentation is again helpful here to describe this frequently slow and imperceptible process in
which identities interact and impact each other. The process I am trying to describe is by no means
a simple transfer or absorption of aspects of the other’s identity. As different and unique identities
interact, the influences one will have on the other can be realized in a plethora of ways, determined
by an immeasurable number of factors. Obvious factors in this would include the duration, intimacy
and significance of any encounter or relationship, and the strength and openness of the existing
identities. As a result, this process is most apparent and observable in significant, sustained
relationships and perhaps the clearest example is in a child’s relationship with her/his parents. As a
child has yet to develop a stable identity and exposure to the identities of her/his parents (in
communication and observing their actions) is generally of a considerably prolonged and significant
nature, one can see a very clear process of internalising aspects of their identities through personal
relationship. This is however, rarely a simple process of direct transfer or imprinting of identity, but
will be an interaction with a child’s existing character and identity. 53 As a person ages and develops
a stronger identity, this interaction and internalisation of identities becomes an increasingly more
complex process as the influence of the other becomes expressed within their more complex
identity. This sharing of identity then characteristically involves not just an exchange of identity but
also an element of creativity, as interaction has the potential to develop the individual identity in
fresh ways and further define the individual person’s identity as unique.

This process of being gradually influenced and shaped by the identities of those we come into
contact is in my opinion, unavoidable if one is to engage in anything but entirely trivial
relationships. Whilst it is clearer when we have been shaped by or acquired aspects of one’s friends’
identities (such as their opinions, thoughts, masks, attitudes and ways of acting), this process is still
present even in the transient and insignificant social exchanges we experience with strangers. In
these apparently insignificant and brief observations and exchanges we constantly engage in, we
arguably come to form and cement our perception on what ‘normal’ behaviour is. In forming this
picture of normality, aspects of this collective social identity are shared and becomes an aspect of
each person’s self, affecting how each person thinks they should behave in society.

A process of gaining aspects of the identity one relates with may also be seen in terms of identity
damage in distorted relationships and encounters. In his investigation of the doctrine of sin,
McFadyen offers a detailed description of the dynamics of sexual abuse of children. Significantly,
through abuse the abused child will frequently come to display corresponding identity problems
relating to trust, vulnerability, self worth and distorted perception of sexuality as those identified by
McFadyen as typically characteristic of abusers. 54 In this case, whilst the child may not go on to
adopt abusive behaviour, it seems reasonable to argue that the aspects of the abuser’s identity can
be shown to have been imprinted on the child’s identity in a concrete process.

Ibid. p.11
Whilst it is not of great significance to my argument, I am assuming that children are born with a degree of individual
Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp.73-76, 114-115

To summarise, entering into personal relationship entails in my view, a process of opening one’s
own identity to being shaped by the other, through assimilating aspects of their identity and
realising such aspects in one’s own unique identity (in a manner which will be different to theirs)
and being shaped by significant encounters with the other. This is obviously neither a simple, nor a
uni-directional process, as by being in relationship, one becomes ‘other’ to another ‘I’ and identities
are shared through a complex interaction.

As I am not attempting a psychological or sociological study into relationships, I will not go further
into more examples to support (or contradict) my proposition. It is my hope however, that in these
few and relatively superficial examples I have offered some explanation of the process I am trying
to capture and at least some support for viewing the process of relationship as a sharing of self.
Thus despite the inadequacies of this view which would not be difficult to highlight, I will proceed
with my argument with the hope that in this, some justification for the usefulness of this move will
become apparent.

Utilising this view of personal relationships being characterised by the process of a sharing of
identities I presented, I wish to now propose how we can talk of the existential significance of
personal relationships. To do so, I will propose an interpretation of the ‘in’ language of John’s
gospel, and that this idea of in can be used to represent that which comes to exist as a result of
personal relationships.

4.3 Relationship as ‘in’

In John’s gospel, this mysterious in language is used at various times by Jesus, such as 6:56 and his
prayer in 17:20-26, in talking of both G-d’s internal relationship and of man’s relationship to G-d.
This association of being in and relationship can be also be seen throughout scripture with the idea
that G-d’s spirit can dwell in people who G-d is in relationship with (1Corinthians 3:16 or Exodus
31:3 for example). Indeed, there are a number of suggestions in the New Testament (eg. Romans
8:9) that G-d’s spirit living in a person is almost synonymous or constitutive of being in personal
relationship with G-d. This being in also seems not to be restricted to only G-d’s relationships, but
seems to be more widely applicable, with the idea that demons can exist in people (eg. Mark 5:1-
20). The question that then arises is how we can understand the meaning or nature of this being in.

I propose that we interpret this in as closely related to the sharing of identity I described previously.
With the extent to which we are shaped by or internalise aspects of the identities of those we engage
in significant personal relationships with, I believe it becomes true to say that something of the
other exits in us. Whether this be something of the other’s opinions, social masks or humour for
example, such aspects of their person that are acquired in sustained relationships can come to exist
as part of one’s own identity. It is thus in this sense of aspects of the persons in relation’s identities
existing in each other that we can talk of the existential nature of a personal relationship.

Continuing on the theme of breaking down spirit-body dualisms, this existing in is also clearly
observable on the physical level of our relationships. On the level of sexual personal relationships,
there is the obvious physical realisation of one taking the other into one’s own body. In light of
creation, this connection of a physical being in and one of the deepest ways in which humans can
relate need not be seen as merely coincidental, but could perhaps be a profound aspect of G-d’s
design. What is more significant is that this physical realisation of being in potentially results in a
physical realisation of a sharing of identity. In procreation one can see a genetic sharing of self, in
which the physical identities of the two persons are merged into the existence of the child. This
example also provides a clear demonstration of how a sharing of identity is not a static process, but
one which through a sharing gives rise to something more and new. This is apparent as whilst the
child’s physical identity consists of the shared identities of its parents existing in its genes, the child
is not merely the mid-point between the two parents, but is created as a unique and unrepeatable

Comprehending the nature of personal relationships in this way can perhaps give us insight into
humanity’s relationship with G-d. If one takes seriously the idea that G-d enters into personal
relationship with humanity in a real and meaningful way then there must be a sharing of identity
taking place. This is to say that in entering into and experiencing personal relationship with G-d,
one would begin a process of internalising and being shaped by aspects of G-d’s character. In this
way, one can slowly see an increasing reality of G-d being in the believer. Biblical support can be
found for the idea that this process of acquiring and exhibiting G-d’s character is an inescapable and
fundamental aspect of relationship with G-d, such as 1 John 3:6-4:8 which suggests that those who
don’t display G-d’s characteristics do not have a relationship with G-d.

The Eucharist can be interpreted as symbolic of this process. Firstly, the idea of eating the body of
Christ has the obvious sense of having putting Christ in one’s self. Furthermore, the significance of
food representing Christ is perhaps in that we slowly become the food we eat in a sense, as the food
we eat nourishes us and over time becomes our very substance. This can be seen as symbolising the
process of being in relationship with G-d and over time increasingly gaining his identity, and Christ
becoming in the self and increasingly constitutive of our identity. Cunningham similarly draws
particular attention to this bizarre idea of eating G-d’s body and highlights the considerable
intimacy represented in the drinking of blood in the Eucharist. 55

The indwelling of G-d described in this way could perhaps be more enlightening than merely
describing it as a mystical presence experienced by the believer. Particularly it may allow us to
better understand the reason for the call to community as a church. If the Christian relationship with
G-d is characterised by an acquiring of G-d’s character, each person in a community of believers
would thus have aspects of G-d in their identity. By entering into personal relationships with other
believers, one would thus be experiencing G-d’s identity in the believing community, and having
one’s identity further shaped by this experience of G-d through them. If this is the case, a
Christian’s relationship with G-d would not exclusively be a communication between G-d and one’s
inner self, but must be understood as a relationship with G-d through encountering his/her identity
present in others in the church. This idea would be in contrast with Augustinian ecclesiology, which
conceives of an invisible church as being somehow ontologically prior to the actual experienced
relationships of individuals and G-d in the church community. 56 It is also in this way that I am
suggesting Zizioulas’ use of the term ‘divinization’ can be expressed.

5. A concept of unity and its relevance to the Trinity and personal relationships

5.1 Oneness

Progressing with this theme of in, one finds a Biblical concept of oneness arises in close connection
to the in language in Jesus’ prayer (John 17:21-23, and also 10:30 with 10:38). This leads to the

David Cunningham, These Three are One (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) p.176
Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p.74
question of what the nature of this oneness or unity is. The interpretation of verse 21 (“[I pray that
they] may be one Father, just as you are in me and I in you”) I shall take in order to address this
issue, is that Jesus is implying that oneness arises through a mutual indwelling.

It is my proposition that this Biblical idea of oneness can be understood as the consequence of the
ongoing sharing of identities in meaningful and healthy personal relationships. I want to suggest
that when one maintains a sustained and close personal relationship with another (particularly
where lives are shared and lived together, such as may be apparent in marriage) that those aspects
and differences of identity which differentiate between the persons can become diminished. For
example, in close relationship, our otherwise unique past experiences and memories can become
very similar to the other’s, as moments and difficulties are experienced by both persons in the
relationship, and as such, that which defined a person is shared with the other and reduces the
barrier between the two.

This can also be expressed in terms of individual willing. Lossky suggests that it is our inclination
as humans to exclude the other and affirm one’s own will and objectives against that which is ‘not
I’ that individualises ourselves. 57 One’s will can thus be seen as serving to define the self as that
which one’s will seeks to further. However, when we love another, the objectives and well being of
the other person increasingly become part of one’s will also. In loving we thus bring the other into
one’s own will and include them in what we define as our self, and realise a sense of oneness. When
there is a deep love and understanding between the two present, this effect is noticeable in how one
can no longer fully experience emotion as an individual, as the pain or joy of one would be felt to
some extent by the other. Similarly, feelings of attachment to, or possession of the other may reflect
how we feel their identity is becoming part of one’s self, and their identity to some extent, is
becoming also our own. Cunningham describes the same idea, arguing that in mutual participation
in each other’s lives, the modern individualistic sense of personhood must be abandoned as the
distinction between persons becomes blurred. As a result, he proposes that the idea of a “pure
subject” or “pure object” can no longer be properly isolated when talking of those in close
relationship. 58

This process of bringing the other into the self and becoming increasingly united is perhaps even
more strongly demonstrated in reality in experiencing loss and pain when the two are separated
(through death or relationship break down for example). Whilst there are many emotional responses
possible, I would argue that a significant one is not merely feelings of a loss of the other, but a loss
of self. I believe that what many people may experience in this situation is a feeling that a
significant and real part of their own identity has been lost. C.S. Lewis for example likens his
personal loss to amputation of his limb, and talks emphatically of how he felt stripped of aspects of
his identity which were shared with his wife. 59 I want to suggest that such pain demonstrates the
reality of the sharing of identity and oneness that can develop between persons.

It is important in this to recognise the distortions that are inherent in all human relationships, and
that one cannot idealize even the most profoundly felt and deep relationships. As such, whilst there
may be a very real unity and blurring of identities, two people still retain their own centres of being.
A strong objection is that whilst two people may be in each other to a great extent, one never
actually experiences what the other is experiencing from their perspective; there always remains
two distinct consciousnesses. As Bonhoeffer describes, “the other may be experienced by the I

Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God (Oxford: St Vlaidimir’s, 1974) pp.106-108
Cunningham, These Three are One, p.167
Clive Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber & Faber, 1966) pp.43,48
simply as Thou, but not himself as I” . Whilst this is an important consideration, it is perhaps
rooted in the modernist tendency to prioritise, as Descartes did, a person’s inner thoughts as
constitutive of the self. If one looses this arguably unjustified prioritisation, then it becomes
apparent that there is a vast array of aspects of the self that to a very real extent can be shared
deeply, and can only be understood by talking of another person. If even one’s inner thoughts and
ways of seeing the world can be changed and influenced by communication with another, then even
the idea that consciousness, whilst experienced only by one, can be seen as intrinsically relational
and open to sharing with another.

My conclusion is that the oneness found in the Bible is not talking (to borrow a phrase from
Bonhoeffer) “in the sense of a mystical fusion” 61 , but is an observable reality open to being
experienced by humanity. The idea of becoming one represents a highly complex process that
operates on multiple levels, particularly through the sharing of identities resulting in a blurring of
divisions between persons and the bringing the other into the self in love. It is interesting that whilst
one can indeed never experience the Thou as an I, in talking of his relationship to the Father, there
is no suggestion of Jesus experiencing the Father in this way, but in contrast there is the implication
that the consciousnesses and wills of the two, whilst for each other, are still distinct (Mark 13:32
and Luke 22:42). Jesus describes himself and the Father as one even though they remained distinct
in terms of consciousness.

5.2 Trinity

Whilst I shall not be presenting a full model of the Trinity, it is my view that it may be beneficial to
attempt to understand the Trinity based on the view of personal relationships that I have been
expounding in previous chapters. I wish to argue that if one takes seriously the idea that G-d created
man as a primarily relational being in the image of his relational nature, then the form of
relationship we experience is, whilst a distorted image, of essentially the same type of relationship
that the Three participate in, and not some wholly other type of relationship. This proposition can
also be supported by Jesus’ suggestion that humanity can be in each other and one, “just as you are
in me and I in you” (John 17:21).

My view is that one can indeed take seriously the personhood of the Three, as was argued by
Zizioulas, yet their oneness can be better explained using the principles and dynamics present in our
human relationships that allow us to unite with others. Whilst the depth of realisation of these
processes is perhaps different from what we can experience, I believe that the Trinitarian
relationships are structured in a way closely analogous to our relationships. G-d’s oneness is thus
not something wholly mystical and unknowable, but is something imaged in our personal and
physical relationships.

In the context of the Trinitarian relationships, one can see three identities so closely intertwined
through an undistorted mutual sharing of each other’s identities, mutual love, blurring of divisions
of identity, and eternity of shared experience and history, such that one can appropriately describe
them as one. This unity does not however dissolve but affirms the Three as unique and distinct
centres, as it is based on a sharing of identity, and not a crossing of the I-thou boundary. In this
way, it can be shown that the Trinitarian unity is not related to a numerical ‘one’, such as the Three
perhaps having one substance or shared divine essence, but are united through personal relationship.

Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio p.33
Ibid. p.123

This view could help us to understand the incarnation and the Christological claim that Jesus was
both fully G-d and fully man. Rather than try to formulate a cosmic or ontological explanation, we
could see Jesus’ divine nature as a result of Jesus as a man, living so closely to the Father that he
fully shared his identity with the Father. Thus as a man, Jesus had the identity of the Father in his to
such a degree that who Jesus was, was both man and G-d. Crucial to this idea is the thought that
‘divinity’ is not a universal property attributable to any being on the ontological level of the
Trinitarian G-d, but is perhaps only applicable to those particular aspects of G-d’s character and
identity. This is to suggest that when utilizing terms such as ‘G-d’ and ‘divine’ we should consider
them closer to proper names than predicates. This concept of ‘divine’ is then really only a
description of the particular identity of the G-d known through salvation history, and not a
description of various omni-prefixed properties. Perhaps in the same way that the concept of
personhood was inadequate as a universal predicate, Jesus’ status as ‘fully G-d’ needs to be
reinterpreted as a description of Jesus being part of the identity of G-d (as a unique and particular
history rather than a property). Presenting Jesus’ divinity in this way, I believe, can express the idea
of the fully human son of G-d as a meaningful reality we can understand.

It is important to recognise that personal relationship does not occur as a one-way process, but
involves a sharing and a mutual in-ness. Therefore it was not just the Father’s identity in Jesus but
as John 17:21 states, Jesus’ identity was in the Father’s. By being in relation with the Son, the
Father then opens his identity to being shaped by the life of the Son and the Son’s interaction and
relation with humanity. This is no more apparent than in the crucifixion. To borrow from
Moltmann, the cross must be seen as a distinctly Trinitarian event in which the Father experiences
separation from the Son, and a change in the very being of the Trinitarian G-d. 62 The cross event is
then the physical negation of immutability through Jesus’ life as a human, which showed that in
relationship to humanity G-d opens his identity.

The incarnation then becomes an immeasurably significant event, as through it Jesus demonstrated
not only how G-d can be in us, but how we can participate in G-d and be in G-d. Jesus showed that
his relationship with the Father was not centred on some cosmic shared property, but through a
sharing of identity in a real personal relationship expressed in his physical existence. Thus we as
people, through entering into personal relationship with G-d may live with him/her as part of G-d’s
identity, and with her/him as part of ours. Such an idea can also be seen in the metaphor of the body
of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) or vine (John 15:1-6), in which the actions and lives of
Christians are directly related with the being and life of the Son. This is not to suggest some form of
pantheism, as in relationship, whilst we may become closer in identity to the other, the barrier
between the two persons in never ultimately crossed. The divine persons through their interaction
with humanity whilst not unchanged, remain ‘centred’ as persons. Equally, this does not entail that
in allowing us to affect his identity that his character becomes significantly like ours. However, if
one is to attribute to the idea of the Father and Son existing in each other as significant to their
identities, then it seems inconsistent to ignore exactly the same claims made by Jesus in relation to
humanity; that they “may be in us” (John 17:21) and “I in them” (17:23).

This claim that such a transcendent and higher being as G-d would allow humanity to be a part of
her/himself would be rejected as heretical by many. This is perhaps not surprising given that the
predominant metaphors for G-d in the Bible generally represent the relationship of G-d to humanity
through authoritative terms such as Father and Lord. However, Rob Bell draws attention to another

Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. R Wilson & J Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1974) pp.243-245
analogy used by G-d in relation to his people: that of a husband. Unlike that of a Father to a child
or a monarch to a subject, this analogy implies a mutual relationship in which persons meet on an
equal level and a profound sharing of selves occur. 64 This suggestion that G-d may relate to
humanity on a mutual basis would be even further from traditional conceptions of G-d. The concern
is that it would either reduce G-d to a creature or raise humanity to Gods. Plesher identifies this
concern with our faulty perceptions of what power is. Rather than power being related to
dominance, Placher reads the narrative of Jesus’ life as the negation of forceful messianic
expectations and a demonstration that power is instead in lowering one’s self and becoming
vulnerable. 65 To suggest that G-d encounters humanity with a degree of mutuality thus does not
deny G-d’s power or status, as it may be an intrinsic characteristic of G-d’s identity that was clearly
revealed in Jesus.

5.3 Trinitarian relationships

So far my discussion has primarily revolved around an attempt to understand the nature of personal
relationships, the Trinity and humanity’s relationship with G-d. The question that naturally arises is
then what are the implications of holding the view I have presented in Christian practice?
Theologians have suggested a far reaching range of applications for social models of the Trinity,
including our relation to the environment, politics and ecclesiology. It is however beyond the scope
of this essay to explore such avenues and as a result I shall restrict my discussion to the topic of
personal relationship.

To recognise the significance of the Trinitarian relationships for us we must again look at where
humanity stands in relation to these relationships. Drawing again on the doctrine of Imago Dei, if
humanity stands in our relational nature as an image, albeit a distorted one, of G-d’s relationality,
then in looking at the Trinity we can see a demonstration of idealised relationship. Thus what we
can know about these Trinitarian relationships can show us something of our “intended or authentic
humanity.” 66

In looking at the Trinitarian relationships, we can observe undistorted relationship, in which

through deep sharings of self, unity is realised. Crucially, whilst this sharing does involve a blurring
between identities and a sense of decentring of self, these Trinitarian relationships do not result in a
dissolving of individual identity or personhood. Instead we find that the individuality of the one is
found only in relation to the other. The Son is then unique, but identified primarily in contrast to the
Father, 67 and the Spirit is not just a Spirit but the Spirit of the Father: as McFadyen describes, “the
individuality of the Trinitarian Persons is not achieved through a private discreteness from relation,
but through this Trinitarian process of existing in and for the others.” 68

We thus find the significant truth that it is only in experiencing the other truly as an other, or as
Buber suggests, as a ‘thou’ as opposed to an ‘it’, that the ‘I’ is formed and finds its existence. 69 Our
personhood is then only realised in relation to the other and our individuality is not found by

Rob Bell, Sex God (Michigan: Zondervan, 2007) p.134
Whilst Hosea 2:16 and Revelation 19:7-8 admittedly imply and eschatological realisation, this metaphor at least
demonstrates the possibility of G-d opening and sharing him/herself with humanity.
William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994) p.14
Douglas Hall, Imaging God (New York: Eerdmans, 1986) p.128
McFadyen, The Call to Personhood, p.40
Ibid. p.29
Martin Buber, I and Thou (London: Continuum, 2004) pp.28-29
isolating ourselves, but in opening ourselves into relationship with the other. This was apparent in
my earlier discussion of McFadyen’s view of the self, in which he described how our identity is
only created and developed through our histories of response in networks of relations. The
Trinitarian relationships thus demonstrate an idealisation of our intended humanity, which is to be
united in personal relationship such that brings about an affirmation of the particularity and
personhood of the individual.

One does not however have to look far to recognise that our distorted being in relation so often does
not lead us into this idealised state. We must recognise that it is only in encountering the other in
love that this is possible. However, so often even our feelings and attempts at love can so often be
distorted too. The psychologist Fromm describes our frequent confusion with what we believe we
experience as love and genuine love. Fromm describes a ‘symbiotic’ love in which we merely enjoy
what we gain from being in relation to the other, such as a foetus or baby’s connection to a mother
who feels the mother exists solely to provide the baby with its nourishment. 70 This love is often
merely repeated in adult form when we form exclusive relationships in which we feel no significant
love for people in general, but focus all our emotion of drawing one lover into the self. Whilst we
experience a unity and connectedness, we really only experience the other as a source of gain
despite our self-delusions of it being a self-giving love. Had we genuinely loved and valued the
other as an other and a particular person, and not just for what they provide in relation to oneself,
we would have felt love for other particular persons.

To feel genuine love is then not merely the desire to connect and engulf one other and destroy all
boundaries, but to connect and unite with the other as an other and maintain integrity in each
person’s identity. 71 Love is found in loving the other’s indissoluble uniqueness and through the
sharing of identities will develop the personhood of both. This form of mature love cannot be
realised exclusively with one person, as a desire for the particularity of the other cannot arise in
isolation from one’s general attitude towards humanity. As such, when one does have an exclusive
and genuine love for their lover, they will naturally have an attitude of love to humanity. Buber
expresses a similar idea, explaining how love is not necessarily a feeling, but is the way in which
we encounter the other. To experience the other not as an ‘it’ (that is, as an object or collection of
properties which we may or may not desire), but in love as a ‘thou’, we encounter them as a unique,
valuable wholeness and as the insurmountable other to our ‘I’. 72

Between Fromm’s and Buber’s views, we can see how through viewing and experiencing the other
as a ‘thou’ we can enter into relationship with them, and develop a oneness with them that both
maintains and develops the personhood of both. In rejecting a purely exclusive love, there is the
danger that one may interpret love as something that exists on a universal level. Such a love has
frequently been attributed to G-d, who is frequently seen as loving persons on a level of a universal
property, for example, he loves you because ‘you are human’, ‘his creation’ or ‘a sinner’. McFague
raises this issue in relation to the general dislike of describing G-d with the ‘lover’ metaphor I
previously mentioned. McFague rejects such a disinterested love, in which G-d has no desire for the
individual, but describes G-d as instead loving and thus valuing the unique, particular person and
not a universal property they represent. 73 To describe Trinitarian inspired love, we are thus stuck
with the inseparable tensions of love being both exclusive and having a sense of universal, and love
being both a feeling for individual and an attitude to humanity.

Fromm, Erich, The Art of Loving (London: George, Allen & Unwin, 1974) p.19
Ibid. pp.20-21
Buber, I and Thou, pp.19-20
McFague, Models of God, pp.125-128

It is perhaps for this reason that G-d does not say merely to love him/her with all one’s heart. Such a
love would merely be related to a symbiotic leeching from G-d. Instead this call to love G-d is
intrinsically related and overflows into the command to love your neighbour. The result of a
significant relationship with G-d is then for this relationship with G-d to overflow into our
relationships with our neighbours and to love each of them as a ‘thou’. In the context of church, this
call means trying to develop a unity not based on homogeneity but in difference, such that the
identity of the individual is not undermined. Specifically one must love the other in their difference
and openly participate in the shared lives of the church.

Before descending into an idealistic fantasy, it must be recognised that in reality opening up one’s
identity to the other in love will often, and perhaps inevitably result in pain and disappointment
rather than an agreeable state of unity. Drawing on his interpretation of the Fall as an expression of
how humanity’s relationships have been fractured, McFadyen notably rejects over-zealous
celebrations of ‘relationality’ by drawing attention to the naivety of the idea that personal
relationships can be entirely free from distortion. 74 Merely opening oneself up to the other and
celebrating their particularity will unfortunately, in our often distorted networks of relations, not
result in the positive development of persons that was intended. Jesus’ attempt at engaging with the
downtrodden and outcasts and resulting death provides a paradigmatic example of this truth.
However, rather than suggesting one strive to avoid such negative consequences, Jesus actually
presented suffering as a necessary cost of relationship with him (Luke 14:27). Central to the
Christian call is then perhaps, as Moltmann suggested, to participate in the suffering of Christ. 75
The question is then how a Christian is to live in this way of love yet succeed despite the negative
consequences that one will face as a result. In doing this it is as Fiddes said, “not enough to merely
imitate the Triune life,” 76 one must participate in it.

McFague provides a means by which we can understand how participation in the Triune life can
address this pain which practising loving relationships brings. McFague describes G-d as a source
of healing who is able to restore those in relationship with him/her. 77 The Christian can thus work
towards G-d’s desire for the world to be healed in one’s personal relationships with others and face
the inevitable pain this will sometimes cause with the knowledge that by being in relationship with
G-d they will always be able to rely upon G-d to heal this pain and receive unfailing love. The
Trinity does not then just provide a model of ideal relationships, but through being in relationship
with G-d, one has a “comforter” (John 15:26) to facilitate this calling. The Christian’s participation
in G-d’s existence then not only shapes one’s identity such that they are opened to loving their
neighbour, but serves to sustain and restore one in living the Christian life.

6. Conclusion

The conceptual journey I have made in this essay began with an overview of Rahner’s model. My
critique highlighted a failure to obtain useful understanding of the Trinity due to an individualistic
concept of personhood. This led me to Zizioulas’ attempt to assert being in communion as the
ontologically significant key to comprehending the Trinity and anthropology. Despite his distinctly
under-defined utilisation of complex concepts and negative view of the physical, by bringing to the

McFadyen, The Call to Personhood, pp.41-43
Moltmann, The Crucified God, pp.51-56
Fiddes, Participating in God, p.50
McFague, Models of God, pp.146-150
foreground the topics of personhood as ontologically significant and the resulting prioritisation of
the particular over the universal, Zizioulas provided a useful point of departure.

Exploring the issues in which I argued Zizioulas’ failed to properly investigate, I attempted to
define concepts of personhood and personal relationship. Influenced by postmodern thinking on the
decentred self and McFadyen’s investigation into the forming of personal identity, I proposed that
personhood should be seen as a description of particular, continuous narratives or identities as
opposed to a term predicating various human properties. With my description of personal
relationship as characterised by a ‘sharing of self’, I argued that this process resulted in an
existentially significant sense of being ‘in’ the other.

Turning to the issue of unity in the Trinity, I suggested that it is based upon a mutual ‘in’ of identity
and through orienting one’s willing for the other that oneness is realised. The implications for
personal relationship I drew from this approach were, similarly to much of the recent theological
discussion of the Trinity, centred on the example of diversity in unity in the Trinitarian
relationships. Specifically this was the idea that despite a profound sharing and unity, particularity
was affirmed, rather than lost. From this model it could be inferred that to achieve this diversity in
unity, one must participate in open relationship with the other and learn to encounter him/her as a
‘thou’ and not an ‘it’.

In relation to the original aims of this essay, this model has successfully provided a means by which
the interrelations between personhood, personal relationship and the Trinity can be understood. In
many aspects a reductionist approach has been taken in light of the complexity of the topics
considered. Such simplifications have however been a necessary cost to ensure that this model, by
drawing heavily from our human experience, could successfully avoid abstraction. In addition, this
attention to avoid abstraction has been fruitful as implications for our experience and practice as
relational beings could reasonably be drawn.

Returning to my initial quotation, this essay has by describing the process of encountering G-d in
personal relationship, provided an interpretation of the initial words:

God and I: we are one. By knowing God I take him into myself. By loving God, I penetrate him. 78

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