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Orthodox Anthropology: human beings or human persons

12 June 2017

There seems to be a theological dispute among bishops which has me rather worried since I read about it in this article Human Beings or Human Persons? | Public Orthodoxy:

One of the liveliest exchanges at the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church in June 2016 concerned which Greek words should be used in Council documents to refer to humans: anthrōpos (“human being”); or anthrōpino prosōpo (or simply prosōpon) (“human person”). The main protagonists in this debate were, in the anthrōpos corner, Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), and in the prosōpon corner, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), supported by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). While this episode may seem to be an intra-Greek linguistic spat, the theological stakes are very high.

For me, the main theological points are these:

For Vlachos, it is unacceptable to identify and name humans as persons, since this appears to put them on the same level as the divine Persons. So humans must be thought of simply as anthrōpoi (human beings); they do not, in Christos Yannaras’ terminology, have a personal “mode of existence” analogous to the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

The position of Metropolitan John Zizioulas and Metropoluitan Kallistos Ware, however, seems to be this:

…a refusal to attribute personhood to human existence downgrades humanity. This is not fidelity to patristic anthropology, but rather its betrayal. The Fathers sought to elevate humanity by stressing that humans are created in the divine image, with the potential for union with God (theosis), and not mere pawns subject to impersonal and implacable destiny or the gods. If the notion that all humans are persons is not acceptable, still less acceptable would be the idea that humans are individuals (atoma), since this gives rise to selfish individualism, contrary to commandment of love. If humans are neither persons nor individuals, they are mere anthrōpoi, interchangeable and expendable specimens of homo sapiens. This is a reductionist view of humanity: humans as solely anthrōpoi are not unique persons of infinite value, as they are considered in Orthodox anthropology and Orthodox personalism. This theology, contrary to the spirit of patristic anthropology, plays into the hands of contemporary secularists, for whom humans are nothing more than intelligent animals.

And it is their view that I find myself most in sympathy with, perhaps because one of my first teachers of Orthodox theology was Father John Zizioulas, before he was raised to the episcopate, back in 1968 at a seminar or Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students.

Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos and Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon

Now I find this all very confusing, not least because I read a book by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos called The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, and if this article is correct, I must have completely misinterpreted it, because I interpreted it in the light of what Christos Yannaras, in his book The Freedom of Morality, said about the human person.

I’m not a Greek language fundi, and part of the argument seems to be about the meaning of Greek words, which I also seem to have misunderstood. I took the Greek anthropos to mean the same as the Zulu umuntu, which means a human person. The English word for that is man, which has to do double duty, because it is also used to translate the Greek aner and the Zulu indoda, which mean an adult male human person. Some feminists and Western theologians would deprive us of the first meaning, saying that it is impermissible, which means that there is no English equivalent for anthropos or umuntu, and if I read this article correctly, there is no Greek equivalent for umuntu either, because anthropos means something less than umuntu..

Here follows a rather large chunk of my doctoral thesis on Orthodox Mission Method, in which I tried to explain Orthodox anthropology and Orthodox ecclesiology (in part for the benefit of my Reformed promoter). But, if I have read the article correctly, it will probably need substantial revision in the light of what these bishops are saying. Is it heretical, or based on mistaken linguistic premisses, or what?


Orthodox ecclesiology sees the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In the West, “catholic” tends to be understood as meaning “general” or “universal”, whereas in Orthodox ecclesiology it is understood more as meaning “whole”. In Roman Catholic ecclesiology “the church” tends to be seen as monolithic, as a single body throughout the world bound in unity through the Pope of Rome. The local church is part of the whole, it may be described as a certain part of the single monolith, but is not at all separate from it.

In Congregational ecclesiology “the church” is essentially the local church, and the “catholic” church is the sum of all the local churches — the whole is the sum of the parts. These two images of the church, as a monolith or as a pile of pebbles, are not the only ones in Western Christendom. There is the “connexional” ecclesiology of the Methodists, the “presbyterian” ecclesiology of many Reformed churches, and the “episcopal” ecclesiology of the Anglicans. There is also a tendency to see the term “church” as referring to a denomination or sect, so that one can speak of the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and so on, as if these were all parts or “branches” of the universal church.

All this is foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology. In Orthodox ecclesiology, and indeed in the New Testament, there is no conception of the church as a “denomination”. The term “church” refers either to the local church, or to the universal church. The relationship between them is not seen either as that of a part to the whole (and therefore incomplete if separated from the whole), nor as a pebble in a pile of stones, independent, complete in itself, and self-sufficient.

A more accurate image is that of holography, pictures created by laser technology, where if the picture is divided into two, one does not have two half pictures, but two whole pictures. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the completeness of the whole resides in all the parts. One could almost say that the part encompasses the sum of the wholes. The local church, led by its bishop, is “catholic”, that is, whole and complete, yet it is not independent, as in the congregational model, but interdependent with the other local churches.


In Orthodox anthropology too, this holistic understanding is found. In Western philosophy, theology and politics, a distinction is often drawn between the individual and society. In liberalism, for example, the individual is seen as primary. The law and society should be structured in such a way as to protect the rights of the individual. Larger groupings, such as “society” or the state, are simply made up of collections of individuals. The whole is the sum of the parts. In fact in Western individualism the whole is sometimes seen as being less than the sum of its parts. There is a kind of nominalism, in which the collective bodies are seen as less real than the individuals that make them up. But there have also been philosophies and worldviews that have seen the individual as simply a part of a larger whole. Society, or the state, have been seen as primary. In totalitarian ideologies, such as fascism and communism, the welfare of the individual must be subordinated to the welfare of the whole. The larger group is primary, and the individual is simply a part of the whole.

In Orthodox anthropology, however, neither the individual nor society has much meaning on its own. Orthodox anthropology distinguishes strongly between the individual and the person. A person is more than an individual, a person is in relationship to other people (see Lossky 1973:121f). It is these relationships that make up society, as a larger whole. The “isolated individual” is incomplete. Eastern Christianity is communal: “it is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Eastern Christianity sees the Church and the person as a reflection of the relationship between the Persons of the Divine Trinity (Bajis 1991:6). As a Zulu proverb puts it: Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of people. Yannaras (1984:22) notes:

In everyday speech we tend to distort the meaning of the word “person”. What we call “person” or “personal” designates rather more the individual. We have grown accustomed to regarding the terms “person” and “individual” as virtually synonymous, and we use the two indifferently to express the same thing. From one point of view, however, “person” and “individual” are opposite in meaning. The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person, the attempt to define human existence using the objective properties of man’s common nature, and quantitative comparisons and analogies.

Chiefly in the field of sociology and politics, the human being is frequently identified with the idea of numerical individuality. Sometimes this rationalistic process of leveling people out is considered progress, since it helps to make the organization of society more efficient. We neutralize the human being into a social unit, bearing the characteristics, the needs and desires, which are common to all. We try to achieve some rationalistic arrangement for the “rights of the individual” or an “objective” implementation of social justice which makes all individual beings alike and denies them personal distinctiveness.

This view of man in numerical, quantifiable terms is in many ways a characteristic of modern urban and civilised society. The very size of cities makes it easy for people to be anonymous, to disappear into the crowd, and to relate to people only in a functional way. In small towns and villages, and even more in rural tribal society, people may have multiple relationships to each other. I might know the name of the person who works at the check-out counter at the supermarket, not merely from a label attached to their clothing, but because I meet them in other settings and situations. A recent job advertisement in a newspaper called for a “Human Resources Superintendent” for an industrial company. The implication is that people have simply become another “resource” in the production process, and such dehumanising terminology is scarcely questioned (Sunday Times 1995-07-24).

In Orthodox anthropology, persons relate to one other in much the same way as local churches relate to the universal church. The person is not an individual, a numerical unit, the smallest unit or component of society, which cannot be further divided (Vlachos 1999:16-17). The person, the hypostasis or prosopon, is the bearer of human nature, and thus in a sense represents the whole as well, without losing personal distinctiveness.

The truth of the personal relationship with God, which may be positive or antithetical but is nevertheless always an existential relationship, is the definition of man, is mode of being. Man is an existential fact of relationship and communion. He is a person, prosopon, which signifies, both etymologically and in practice. that he has his face (ops) towards (pros) someone or something: that he is opposite (in relation to or in connection with) someone or something. In every one of its personal hypostases, the created nature of man is “opposite” God: it exists as a reference and relation to God (Yannaras 1984:20-21).

When God gave the ten commandments to Moses, he did not hide his identity or that of his audience behind a string of impersonal passives, like our constitutions and statutes. The commandments do not say “Adultery is not to be committed”, but “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.

If you accept the ten commandments, you are not accepting one code of principles among many, you are not acquiescing in a general disapproval of murder; primarily you are committing yourself to a God who has a purpose and a judgment and who reveals that purpose to his people, part of which purpose is that you should not deny your neighbour’s God-given permission to live. Accepting the ten commandments is an act of faith in the living God, not of approval of an ideal way of life. They are not man’s idea of what God wants; they are God’s own word, addressed to man, second person singular (Davies 1990:2).

When God spoke to Moses, he spoke not to Moses alone, but to the whole people of Israel. Moses, as a person, could nevertheless represent other persons. “The person is not an individual, a segment or subdivision of human nature as a whole. He represents not the relationship of the part to the whole, but the possibility of summing up the whole in a distinctiveness of relationship, in an act of self-transcendence” (Yannaras 1984:21).

It is in the light of this that Orthodox ecclesiology must be understood. In the Divine Liturgy, the priest as a person represents the community to God and God to the community. The priest is the ikon of the community towards God, and the ikon of Christ to the community — not in the Western sense of being a “mediator”, as something apart from both the community and God, but as a person who is a person because of people. In English, something of this is retained in the word “parson” that is sometimes used for the parish priest — a word that is etymologically related to “person”. In Orthodox theology the bishop thus not only “leads” the local church, but represents it. “Where the bishop is, there the church is”, said St Ignatius.

In some African societies, this conception of one person as a representative of the community is also found — even to the extent that a single person is regarded as a community (Ogbonnaya 1993:120). There is a sense in which the king is the people. The king is the king because of the people. This is very different from the Western concept of absolute monarchy, which developed in the early modern period, in which the king was set over the community he ruled. It is also different from Hitler’s “Führer principle”, which has the connotation of a car and driver — the driver being different in quality from the car. In Zulu society, for example, the inkosi (a word that is variously translated into English as “king”, “chief” or “lord”) is a member of the community, and its representative. He is part of that which he represents.

When Christianity stopped being persecuted, Christians tried to transform human society into an image of the kingdom of God. The institution of the Roman emperor was to be transfigured, so that the emperor was to represent the people, to be the one person who stood for the people, the Tsar was to be the “little father”. The extent to which this transformation was achieved is a matter of debate among theologians. The point here is that it is related to the Orthodox understanding of the human person.

This view of human nature, of Christian anthropology, is almost incomprehensible to many Western theologians. This can be seen, for example, in a tutorial letter sent out by the Faculty of Theology of the University of South Africa to students, instructing them to avoid the use of the word “man” to mean a human being of either sex, but to use it only to refer to male persons (Saayman 1995:2). The concept expressed by the term “man” is missing from the consciousness of most Western theologians. Western theology has no need of a singular term for a human person that can also represent the plural, and therefore sees no harm or incongruity in censoring and suppressing that term, and insisting that is must be used only to refer to males. Such attempts to impose Western theological categories by such bodies as the World Council of Churches are seen by many Orthodox Christians as arrogant cultural imperialism, though those who participate in such ecumenical bodies are often too polite to say so, or express their criticism in guarded terms (see e.g. Veronis 1990:269). Others, however, use it to illustrate their understanding that “ecumenism” is a heresy, and a device for destroying Orthodoxy.

A human person is not simply a part of a greater whole, nor an individual in isolation apart from the whole, but contains within himself or herself the whole. A person is always a person in community, is a person because of people.


So much for my thesis, in which I even quoted Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, though I apparently misunderstood him entirely.

So I’m hoping for some comments from Orthodox theologian friends — where to from here? And where did I go wrong?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Salaam Yitbarek permalink
    12 June 2017 1:58 pm

    I don’t know much, but from what I know, Metropolitan Hierotheos has good judgement.

  2. Rangjan permalink
    13 June 2017 9:14 am

    “Some feminists and Western theologians would deprive us of the first meaning, saying that it is impermissible” – I fail to follow your logic here since the term “man” has another meaning, and we have the term “human person” so have been deprived of nothing. In any case as with all language, context makes meaning rather than individual words.

  3. Jeff Moss permalink
    21 June 2017 6:43 pm

    Take the insight about the communal nature of humanity to the next level: Just as a person is a person because of people, a word is a word because of words. Analyzing “anthropos” by itself, “prosopon” by itself, can be misleading: everything depends on the context, as Ranjan commented above.

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