David K. Bernard on the Term “Person”

David K. Bernard is currently the General Superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International, which is perhaps the largest Oneness Pentecostal organization that exists today. Bernard has been a monumental writer in the Oneness movement, and just a couple of years ago earned his doctorate. I have engaged academically with Bernard’s work, and I plan to do that more in the future.

Is God a Human?

I am currently working on a paper/presentation for the Society for Pentecostal Studies that I will deliver on March 2. In that paper, I address something that Bernard says in The Oneness of God about the term “person.” In that work, Bernard carefully avoids using the term “person” of God, unless that term refers to God in the Incarnation. The explanation that he gives for this practice is the following:

Speaking of God as a person does not do justice to Him. The word person connotes a human being with a human personality—an individual with body, soul, and spirit. Thus, we limit our conception of God if we describe Him as a person. For this reason, this book has never said there is one person in the Godhead or God is one person. The most we have said is that Jesus Christ is one person, because Jesus was God manifested in flesh as a human person.

Speaking of God as a plurality of persons further violates the biblical concept of God. Regardless of what persons meant in ancient church history, today the word definitely connotes a plurality of individuals, personalities, minds, wills and bodies. Even in ancient church history, we have shown that the vast majority of believers saw it as a departure from biblical monotheism.
The Oneness of God, p. 287

In one respect, Bernard’s point here is well-taken. The meaning of the term “person” has shifted throughout history, and because of its meaning today, it might be a good idea to avoid using the term of God irrespective of the Incarnation. Theologians ought to avoid using terms that somehow denigrate God, and it seems that, for Bernard, that’s what the term “Person” now does. Nowadays, using the term “Person” of God is the wrong way to go.

(Before I go on, note that I use the capitalized term “Person” for truly divine Persons, and the lower-case term “person” for all other kinds of persons.)

Bernard’s Flawed Understanding

However, there are at least three reasons to think that Bernard’s argument here is flawed. First, Bernard’s take on the contemporary understanding of the term “person” is arguably a non-essential one. Here’s a classic illustration to get at what a non-essential versus essential definition is. If one says that “human” means “featherless biped,” that’s true of all humans. But it isn’t what humans essentially are, since we could (and I don’t recommend it) pluck all of a chicken’s feathers and turn it into a human. “Featherless biped” doesn’t capture what all and only humans are essentially. However, Aristotle’s famous definition, “rational animal,” does seem to do this. All and only humans are “rational animals” by their very essence.

Now return to what “person” means, and think of angels. It sure seems to me that angels are persons, but are obviously in a natural kind (or “species”) of their own. Angels aren’t rational animals (i.e., humans), but they are still persons. For Christians, then, does the “word person [connote] a human being with a human personality—an individual with body, soul, and spirit”? Not at all. What I just said shows that Bernard’s implicit conditional statement (if “person,” then “a human personality”) here is false.

Second, let’s suppose there is some essential definition of “person.” Furthermore, let’s stipulate, following the medieval definition of “person,” that the term means “rational supposit.” But what’s a supposit? We can think of a supposit as a sort of “greatest unified whole” of a thing that is the subject of predication. When we say “Socrates is wise,” that predicate “wise” applies to the subject “Socrates,” who is a rational supposit, or person.

Timothy Pawl provides an excellent discussion of what supposita are in his book In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay (pp. 30-34). In my opinion, anybody interested in Christology should read Pawl’s book.

Suppose that on Oneness theology God is a “person” on this essential definition. God is (I take it, by definition) a qualitatively infinite being that is worthy of worship. God is a truly divine Person. On this understanding, it’s not obvious that “we limit our conception of God if we describe Him as a person.” God is a Person, but one who is worthy of worship in the fullest sense. How does this limit God?

Third, suppose that “ancient” monotheists thought the term “Person” was not apt (or true) of God. Unless they had an essential definition in mind, rather than a non-essential one like Bernard is supposing, this does nothing to show that the term is a departure from “biblical monotheism.” Also, even if the biblical writers never use the term of God, this doesn’t show that “Person” in an essential sense isn’t apt of God.

Here’s an analogy. Suppose that Solomon gives instructions to his architects for building the temple. Furthermore, suppose that Solomon gives a complete description of the building, but fails to predicate the term “rectangular” of the temple. When the temple is built, one might aptly call it “rectangular,” on an essential definition of what a rectangular, material object is. But the fact that Solomon never uses the term of the temple, or perhaps thought some other meaning for “rectangular” diminished the glory of what the temple was supposed to be, does nothing to show that “rectangular,” on an essential understanding, is a predicate apt of the temple. It also does nothing to show that Solomon doesn’t assume an essential understanding of “rectangular” when he gives the instructions to his builders.

In a similar way, even if ancient monotheists thought some non-essential definition of God departed from “biblical monotheism,” and even if none of the biblical writers use the term “Person” of God, this does nothing to show that a proper, essential understanding of “person” isn’t apt of God, nor that the term isn’t assumed by the biblical writers as they talk about God.

Why do I bring all of this up? Because on my way of understanding the dialectic between inconsistent theologies, I claim that some say (or assume) that there is only one divine Person. Yet, as I’m well aware, there are some that will decry the use of “Person” with relation to God. Bernard is one of them. If what I’ve argued above holds water, though, there’s simply no reason to think that the Oneness Pentecostal (or some other unitarian) can’t say that God is a divine Person.

4 thoughts on “David K. Bernard on the Term “Person””

  1. Hear are my two cents:

    God said “Let us make man in our image [tselem], according to our likeness [demut]” (Gen 1:26), Maybe the plural hints at the “heavenly court”, maybe not, but this is not so important, because, in any case, bot only “God is spirit”, but also the “heavenly court” would be comprised of spiritual beings, so it is reasonabme to assume that neither tselem nor demut had anything to do with phyisical aspects, but, as it is immediately said in the same verse, with the ability to rule over creation. In other words, it refers to a spiritual character given to humans.

    What is this spiritual character given to humans, that enables them to rule over creation? Why, I claim that it is a complex character, that includes self-consciousness, reason, will and freedom to decide. In other words, extending a bit the definition of Serverinus Boethius, persons. God, making humans “in our tselem, according to our demut“, made them persons.

    That is why it is appropriate speak of God as Person. Not “persons”, even less “masks” over an impersonal self.

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    1. Hi villanovanus,

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t really have a comment policy yet, but please note that I prefer discussions to be respectful and academic. I once blogged pseudonymously, so I understand using a screen name. You sound sensible, so I only mention this for the future: I will be less forgiving of critical comments from anonymous sources should they turn from being professional.

      By the way, I hope to do some analysis of Servetus’ views in the future. Oddly, his work seems neglected, even by those sympathetic to his views.

      Anyway, is your argument the following?

      1. Humans are made in God’s image.
      2. Humans are each one person.
      3. If (1) and (2), then God is one Person.
      4. Therefore, God is one Person.

      If so, I concede (2). I dispute (1), and therefore the antecedent of (3), to show the conditional at (3) is false.

      If by (1) you mean humans are made in God’s image in quality, I could agree. (Assume being made in God’s image has to do with natures and perhaps function, rather than function alone.) So, humans have intelligence because God is intelligent, etc. If this is all you mean, it’s hard to see why one should accept (3), and therefore the conclusion of the argument.

      If by (1) you mean humans are made in God’s image in quality and degree, the Trinitarian will disagree. For it is a part of the Trinitarian framework that God’s nature is communicable (shareable). If you want to stipulate that because human natures are incommunicable God’s nature must be as well, this seems to be question-begging. Again, the Trinitarian might say that God’s nature, by virtue of being infinite, is communicable. If you build incommunicability into (1), this misrepresents what some Trinitarians might want to say.

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  2. Hi Skylar D. McManus,
    and thanks for letting me comment, and for your prompt reply. As this was my first comment at your blog, I suppose I could have been more ceremonial. Quite frankly, though, I wonder what you mean by saying, “I prefer discussions to be respectful and academic.” Seems that you are implying that my comment lacked in both respects. I simply reject the former criticism, however implicit. As for the latter remark, you will have to explain if only academic theologians and/or philosophers (preferabbly of the analytic brand), are welcome here.

    I will add a rejoinder to your reply only once this unwarranted unwelcoming salvo has been cleared.

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    1. Those were general notes about commenting. I can see why you might think by “academic” I meant something narrow, like “only those with academic credentials can comment.” Seeing how I only currently have a B.A. degree and I’m working on a Master’s (as you might have seen if you visited my CV), I obviously don’t mean this. I’m not a professional academic (yet).

      What I meant then, and mean now, is that discussions follow in the spirit of (ideal) academic discussions. Namely, they should seek to move conversations forward, make definite arguments, etc. It’s odd that you have taken my comment there personally, as I sought to charitably reconstruct your argument, and I engaged with that reconstruction. If I thought your point was as dumb as you seem to take me as saying, I wouldn’t have done either of those things. There was nothing unwarranted, nor that I intended to be unwelcoming, about what I said.

      I welcome your response.

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