Is Jesus a Human Person

Wednesday, May 14, 2003



I firmly believe in the divinity of Christ, and already posted a Scriptural argument for the divinity of Christ in my post entitled Is Jesus God?

What I am about to propose will be deep, and also very technical. The importance of using technical language will hopefully become clearer as we progress. I am trying to use very precise philosophical and theological categories to convey an idea that is debated – sometimes heatedly – by progressive and conservative theologians. The language is heavy laden with jargon that may be difficult to follow, but it is well worth the effort.

In a debate with a conservative Roman Catholic with a Masters in theology, I had stated that the Second Person of the Trinity became a HUMAN PERSON in the incarnation.

To many people, this may not sound like a radical proposition, but my feet were certainly held to the fire on this. My opponent wanted me to say that the Second Person of the Trinity became MAN.

The debate started with a question of whether Jesus was omniscient in his humanity. Both the conservative and I agreed that a case can be made that Jesus was not omniscient in his humanity. I will discuss this further below after determining if we can say Christ was a human person.

My opponent maintained that it would be heresy to say the God became a human person. Originally, he tried to base his argument on Thomas Aquinas’ argument that in the incarnation, personhood is not assumed, because then Christ would be two persons in one person (see Tercia Pars, Question 2, Whether the Son of God Assumed a Person).

I responded that I was not trying to argue that the Second Person of the Trinity assumed another person on top of his divine personhood. Rather, I was trying to argue that by assuming a human nature, a human mind, and a human will, the Second Person of the Trinity became a human Person.

Think of it like this: a person who is a child becomes a person who is an adult. It is still the same person, but the descriptive has changed. Indeed, not only is it the same person, but we are still talking about same nature or being – a human being!

I was arguing that a divine person became a human person with no loss of divine nature. This is important for two reasons:

1) I am emphasizing the humanity of Christ as being a full immersion in human experience (except sin).
2) I am also laying part of the groundwork why women can be ordained.

My opponent provided the following justification for his point of view. My opponents words are in red, and his supporting documents are in blue.

The official Catechism of the Church does not explicitly address the issue of a possible "human person" for Jesus - however, the popular catechism, "The teaching of Christ - A Catholic Catechism for Adults", (2nd ed., Our Sunday Visitor, 1983), by Lawler, Wuerl and Lawler does, on p. 89:

"Not as Human Person"

Catholic teaching states that Jesus is one Person, and that a divine Person, "one of the Holy Trinity." Thus Jesus is "not a human person."

When we say that Jesus is not a human person, we are using the word "person" in a precise sense, important to the faith. In some senses it might be true to call Him a human person. This person, Jesus, is human. Certainly He is a perfect man, possessed of striking traits, most capable of being loved and cared about. But when we say He is not a human person, we are using the word "person" in its technical meaning of "distinct intelligent being." Jesus is not a being distinct from the Person who is the Son of God.

The point here is Jesus is not divided. There is no human person "Jesus" who would be other than the Person who is the eternal Son of God. In fact, devotion to the humanity of Jesus grows with full strength and force from an understanding that this Man Jesus is my Lord, and not a different person, somehow related to the Lord.

The bold was provided by my opponent. I have read Wuerl and Lawler’s Catechism, which was published long before the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, I have met both Wuerl and Lawler in person. While I respect these gentlemen as brothers in the Lord, I completely disagree with their definition of “person”.

A “person” cannot be a “distinct intelligent being”, because this confuses the philosophical categories of personhood and being. If we maintained that there are three beings in the one being of God, we become tritheistic (polytheist who believe in 3 gods).

I would also like to point out that even Wuerl and Lawler in the passage above do admit there is a sense that we can refer to Christ as a human perosn - and it is my intent to demonstrate that this is a critical theological point that they too easily gloss over.

In my own post entitled On the Trinity, I defined personhood as an identity that is formed and completed on the basis of relationship, and I provided some quotations from The Catechism of the Catholic Church to support this definition – something my opponent above admits he was unable to do.

According to my definition, personhood can only determined in an “I-Thou” relationship. The Father is the Father only in relation to his Son. I am the person of husband to my wife, but I am not the person of husband to my brother! When both my wife and my brother are in a room with me at the same time, I am both husband and brother simultaneously (two persons in one being).

Certainly, we can speak of a “person” in the act of being intelligent – or self aware in some sense. Yet, personhood cannot be defined as an individual “being” in the sense of denoting nature, substance, or essence.

In order to avoid modalism, which is the heresy that the persons of God are modes of his relationship to us, I state that the identity formed and completed on the basis of relationships within the God-head are identities formed in their own relationships. In other words, the Father is not only OUR Father, but the Father of the Son. Even if humanity did not exist, God the Father would be the person of Father to God the Son. Yet, they are one being.

Of course, the human mind immediately begins to try to comprehend this, and starts to think of God as one with multiple personality disorder, which is not the case.

Though I am a distinct person as husband to my wife, and as brother to the son of my father, I do not experience myself as divided when sitting in a room with my brother and wife. Furthermore, I can speak of my own subjective consciousness and self-awareness as personhood unto myself! Yet, I do not become another being in the act of becoming self-aware.

It is true that none of us are aware of ourselves simultaneously as three distinct persons unto ourselves, and such self-awareness is a mystery to us. Yet, in Scripture and Tradition, God reveals himself as three distinct persons in relationship with one another, and we believe that who God is for us is who he is to himself. Here are some helpful quotes from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

236 The Fathers of the Church distinguish between theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia). "Theology" refers to the mystery of God's inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and "economy" to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologia illuminates the whole oikonomia. God's works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works. So it is, analogously, among human persons. A person discloses himself in his actions, and the better we know a person, the better we understand his actions.

The “oikonomical Trinity” is who God is to us. The “theological Trinity” is who God is to himself. The Church professes that who God is for us is who God is in himself.

251In order to articulate the dogma of the Trinity, the Church had to develop her own terminology with the help of certain notions of philosophical origin: "substance", "person" or "hypostasis", "relation" and so on. In doing this, she did not submit the faith to human wisdom, but gave a new and unprecedented meaning to these terms, which from then on would be used to signify an ineffable mystery, "infinitely beyond all that we can humanly understand".

Words such “substance”, “person” and “relation” have very specific meanings that were defined by councils that met over 1,000 years ago and who spoke a different language than we do. We need to be very careful not to pour our own modern English meanings into these words. A person is not the same philosophical category as a substance.

By the way, the paragraph does say “person or hypostasis” because these two words DO mean the same thing. The Greek word prosopon, rendered as “persona” in Latin, and “person” in English originally was a word used for the mask worn by the actors in the theater. In Trinitarian language, it is used to convey the notion of a character of God – or an identity in relationship to another!

In order to avoid the heresy of modalism, which I already mentioned, the fathers began to use hypostasis, which means “that which stands upon” to describe what they meant by “person”. They wanted to distinguish personhood from “being” or “substance” by saying that it arises out of being and stands upon it!

252 The Church uses (I) the term "substance" (rendered also at times by "essence" or "nature") to designate the divine being in its unity, (II) the term "person" or "hypostasis" to designate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the real distinction among them, and (III) the term "relation" to designate the fact that their distinction lies in the relationship of each to the others.

Do you see that what I am saying seems pretty well confirmed by the official Church teaching in this paragraph?

Now, my conservative opponent asked for help at this point, because he was bent on proving me wrong. Another conservative offered a critique. He stated that if I was right about the definition of person as an identity formed in relationship, then the Father is a person to the Son, and another person to the Spirit, so that we wind up multiplying persons from 3 to 6 (each one having two relationships).

In response, I appealed to a notion that I cannot reference from memory, but it comes from Augustine and Van Balthasar. The Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. This is very speculative theology, but I believe I am speculating within the pale of orthodoxy here and standing within the tradition of the fathers and doctors of the Church.

The Son is generated from the Father in an eternal act, like heat generated from a flame. This is an eternal act, since God is outside of time and the creator of time. Thus, God becomes the Father in the act of total self-emptying into the Son. The Son becomes the Son in the act of complete and total self-offering back to the Father. The two persons in complete and total self-offering to each other form a sort of nuclear explosion in between of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. The Spirit is directed outward of the God-head, spirating from the other two persons.

This is extremely hard to visualize or conceptualize, because we are talking about the mystery of Absolute BE-ing (I AM WHO AM) that is God. However, what I am pointing out is that we cannot conceptualize God statically (like a triangle). We must think of God as pure Act – dynamic personal power. God is love (see 1 Jn 4:8). Love is not merely a feeling, but a decisive action of a person giving of themselves to another - total self emptying. Since God is infinite, the act of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in complete self-giving is infinite in its capacity.

Now, put this in the temporal sphere of earth. The Father generates the Son by emptying himself eternally and infinitely into the Son, and becomes the Father in the process of doing so. This occurs in time and space in the incarnation. The Son, Jesus Christ, offers himself totally back to the Father culminating on the cross. The Holy Spirit spirates out of this loving relationship and creates and sustains the universe in the process.

In a very real sense, none of us would exist if the incarnation did not occur. We are created and sustained in existence by the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son out of the incarnation event.

The universe and all that is in it is created from the middle of time outward from God’s perspective! Adam does not come before Christ. Rather, the past before Christ is created from the act of incarnation! Even if Adam had not sinned, the incarnation would be necessary for our very existence. This is why we say "Through Him, with Him and in Him" at every Mass.

The notion of individual human personhood – with individual dignity, rights, and responsibilities – even with self-awareness - was not an idea that existed in OUR history as we perceive time before the time of Christ. Indeed, the first autobiography in human history as we understand history is Saint Augustine’s Confessions.

The term “person” as it relates to the Trinity is not based on the concept of human personhood. Indeed, the term was used to describe the persons of God BEFORE the idea of human personhood had developed. Our notion of human personhood is based on Trinitarian doctrine, not the other way around! This is how Christianity is the ultimate form of humanism. Without the incarnation, we remain members of the tribe, but not unique human persons capable of entering into loving relationships freely chosen with other persons!

The Councils of the Church define that God is only one BEING (ousias) – meaning substance, NATURE, or essence. This is the answer to the question, “What is it?”

In that one BEING, there are three PERSONS (prosopon or hypostasis) – meaning an identity formed and completed on the basis of relationship. This is the answer to the question, “Who is it?”

The Councils also go on to say that the one BEING that is God has one and only one MIND (soul) and one and only one WILL (phystis).

Yet, the Councils also say that Jesus of Nazareth has two natures and two minds and two wills. When the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate, the divine nature assumed a human nature, a human mind, and a human will in addition to his divine nature, mind and will. This event, from the moment of his conception into his resurrection is perfect hypostatic union in one person! This is summed up nicely in The Catechism as follows:

That Christ assumed a human nature:
461 Taking up St. John's expression, "The Word became flesh",82 the Church calls "Incarnation" the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it. In a hymn cited by St. Paul, the Church sings the mystery of the Incarnation:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

That Christ assumed a rational human soul (Mind):
471 Apollinarius of Laodicaea asserted that in Christ the divine Word had replaced the soul or spirit. Against this error the Church confessed that the eternal Son also assumed a rational, human soul.

Christ had a human will:
470 Because "human nature was assumed, not absorbed", in the mysterious union of the Incarnation, the Church was led over the course of centuries to confess the full reality of Christ's human soul, with its operations of intellect and will, and of his human body. In parallel fashion, she had to recall on each occasion that Christ's human nature belongs, as his own, to the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it. Everything that Christ is and does in this nature derives from "one of the Trinity". The Son of God therefore communicates to his humanity his own personal mode of existence in the Trinity. In his soul as in his body, Christ thus expresses humanly the divine ways of the Trinity:

The Son of God. . . worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is heavily footnoted with Scriptures if there are any Bible believing non-Catholics out there who want this all proven with Scripture. I also provided several Scriptures in my other two posts: Is Jesus God? and On the Trinity.

Yet, where I am going here is to say that it is more proper to say “The Second Person of the Trinity became a human person” than to say that “The Second Person of the Trinity became man” because the former gives us a better clue of the subjective expereince of Jesus of Nazareth!

Jesus had a human mind and a human will – just like our own. In modern English, we tend to think of personhood as human subjectivity, and Jesus possessed fully human subjectivity. How is this possible?

In our own human experience, we have all had the experience of seeing a familiar face, but not quite being able to put a name to the face. In a like manner, the human mind of Jesus was not omniscient. Rather, Jesus – like any other human person – grew in his self-knowledge and self-awareness in a process similar to recalling a name to put with that familiar face. In addition to his human mind, he does always have a divine mind, but the access of the divine mind was blocked by the limitations of being fully human!

Rather than saying that Christ is both God AND man, we could say that Christ is the divine as human, and the human as divine. God speaks to us in our language. Because of our own human limitations, the only access we have to the divine character is through human experience. Jesus, as one who is fully human, is the human face of God. Throuhg his human character, we come to glimpse the divine character!

The Catechism says it this way:

472 This human soul that the Son of God assumed is endowed with a true human knowledge. As such, this knowledge could not in itself be unlimited: it was exercised in the historical conditions of his existence in space and time. This is why the Son of God could, when he became man, "increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man",101 and would even have to inquire for himself about what one in the human condition can learn only from experience.102 This corresponded to the reality of his voluntary emptying of himself, taking "the form of a slave".103

101 Lk 2:52.
102 Cf. Mk 6 38; 8 27; Jn 11:34; etc.
103 Phil 2:7.

The New Testament tells us Jesus was tempted in all things. His temptations were human temptations! Satan is a non-coporal being, and Christ likely experienced temptation subjectively like we do – almost as a voice coming from within.

One of my favorite verses of the New Testament is John 11:35 “And Jesus wept.”

Christ wept at the funeral of Lazarus, and in doing so, these were real human tears of real human sadness in the face of real human death! Yet, because it is divine person doing these real human acts, our own human tears of real human sadness in the face of real human death have been sanctified!

Christ grows angry in Scripture (flipping over tables, such as in John 2:15-17), he argues with people (See Jn ch 8, and Mt 23), he has beloved friends (Jn 13:23), he eats, sleeps, drinks, used the latrine (see Mk 7:19), is troubled at times, feels pity and compassion, and so forth. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus feels real human fear and agony in the face of death (see Lk 22:43-44). He is not "play-acting", but experiencing the full human condition. Furthermore, his faith in his own resurrection is real human faith - granted, perfect faith untainted by sin - but faith, nonetheless! Even his ability to fortell events would be real human intuition - perfect human intuition - but intuition nonetheless!

In every way, he is fully human and experiences his humanity in the same subjective manner we experience being human (except sin). He openly admits his own ignorance at times (see Mk 13:32). We can even say he was culturally conditioned by his Jewish upbringing, and Scripture scholars are uncovering more and more how Jewish Jesus was in his day (see Fr. John P. Meier's A Marginal Jew series). So long as we are not suggesting that Jesus sinned, there is no way we can exaggerate the fullness of his humanity!

What is so remarkable to me is that even if we speculate that Jesus did not fully know he was God throughout his entire life, his disciples came to recognize his divinity through his very way of being in the world! Indeed, I would speculate that even if the Jesus Seminar folks are right in suggesting that the real and historical Jesus behind the texts of the New Testament never claimed to be God, it is remarkable that his disciples came to such faith in his divinity that they died to defend this faith! This fact speaks more to me of the truth of Christ’s divinity than whatever he actually said about his own self identity.

Furthermore, the quest for the historical Jesus is a necessary task of the theologian, because it is through the humanity of Christ that we human beings have access to the character of God. If we approach Jesus with preconcieved notion of who and what God is, and try to force those preconceptions upon him, we run the risk of idolatry. We need to allow the human person of Jesus to speak to us about who God is for us!

In my opinion, to say that the Second Person of the Trinity became man and oppose saying he became a human person runs the risk of saying Christ was merely God in a human body – that he assumed our nature, but not our full human condition! This borderes on the heresies of Apollinarianism referenced above in paragraph 471 of the CCC.

When the Logos became human, God became fully human, meaning God shared so completely in the human experience that we can even go so far as to say God forgot himself! God loves creation so much that he joined it, and through creation, as a human person, the Son of God offers himself back to the Father drawing us with him into relationship with the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit proceeding from both.

Having emphasized that calling the incarnate Christ a “human person” conveys this better than merely saying he was “man”, it is also important to state with the Cappadocian Fathers that “what was not assumed is not saved”. If we emphasize Christ’s maleness in articulating our theology of incarnation over and against his humanity, we are implying that women cannot be saved.

What I am trying to say is conveyed better in the Latin rendering of the Creed of Nicea repeated at every Mass. In the Latin, we say that he became "homo" rather than "vir". The former refers to humanity as a whole, where the latter refers exclusively to males. The issue is important to women's ordination because God did not become a man to the exclusion of women. Rather, God became a human person, including male and female persons, so that in Christ, there is no longer a distinction between male and female (Gal 3:28).

Well, I've written enough, and this post should have people thinking…..If interested in further reading, you may wish to explore On the Trinity or Is Jesus God?.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:01 PM

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