Personhood, Personal Identity, and Christianity What does this mean?19 min read

What is personhood?

The word Personhood comes from joining ‘person’ with the suffix ‘-hood.’  -Hood is, “the state or condition of being.” Simply put, personhood is the state or condition of being … a person. What is a person? It’s a human being, right? What is a being? It’s the condition or state of existence. So a human being is a human who exists. Personhood is the state or condition of being a human who exists. Seems easy enough, right? If you are human, you exist, and therefore you are a person. 

Personhood, in philosophy, is a technical term though and encapsulates this question: What is the nature and constitution of the condition of being a person? That is, personhood is a whole concept comprised of what, exactly? Think of it this way. What constitutes the human body? Arms, legs, torso, head …. Blood, nerves, muscles, etc. So if personhood is a whole, what are it’s parts? And not only what are those parts, but what are the extent of those parts. For example, you can look at your hand and see where it begins and ends, but where does your will (or consciousness, or mind) begin and end?

Talking about personhood is like talking about Peter Pan’s shadow; you know it’s there, but is it really separable from the body? Can we understand the concept apart from our body, experiences, behaviors, etc? Is our person trapped in our physical body (or sown by needle and threat to our foot)? Is it necessarily human? Can non-humans be persons? Or maybe it’s all a fairy-tale?

Why is this an issue? Aside from the fun and exciting dynamics of metaphysics (OK, I think they’re fun and exciting), the implication for non-philosophers is that there must be non-human persons and potentially human non-persons. This implication is usually relevant to the field of ethics. Who (or what) deserves moral consideration? All humans whether persons or not? All non-humans who are also persons? Anyone who are not persons?

I don’t want to get you too far down the rabbit hole here, but if you’re interested, you can see more about the personhood debate in philosophy here, and why it’s not so cut and dry here.

What is personal identity?

Personal identity arises from your personhood. That is, first, you are a person, then, incidental to the fact you are a person, you have an identity that distinguishes you from other persons. So where personhood categorizes you into a broader group, based on particular criteria that everyone in the group has, personal identity is a unique set of characteristics that each individual has in the group apart from each other. This would be everything from physical characteristics and personality, to more abstract things like beliefs, goals, talents, etc. So personhood brings individuals together, identity distinguishes individuals from each other. 

How might Christians think of personhood and personal identity?

First, what does the Bible say about persons?

John Calvin explains how knowledge of God and of ourselves are mutually connected. Calvin is not merely saying that Scripture tells us something about personhood. For example, Proverbs 31 is not describing the state or condition of being a woman (ie. womanhood), it’s poetically delineating some characteristics you might find in a אִשָּׁה חַיִל, ish·shä’ chayil, or ‘woman of valor,’ often translated ‘virtuous (or excellent) wife.’ In fact, these are really features of personal identity, not qualities of personhood, and if we’re honest, men can have the same features as the woman in Proverbs 31. No, Calvin is saying that to understand the constitution of our personhood, we must understand the constitution of God’s personhood first. (See? Nonhuman person(s) 😉)

What all humans understand of personhood, we understand through our experiences as persons. This experience has caused us to ask questions and formulate potential answers about the nature and constitution of personhood. The theories, classifications, and methodologies concerning personhood are informed by our worldviews. Our worldviews come from our ground motives – that is our fundamental motivations for acting in this world. Our ground motives are ultimately determined by our religious commitments.

I’m not going to conjecture too much here, but this is where the crux of the personhood problem rests – that is, the unambiguous demarcation of what is and what is not personhood rests in what we believe about God (this is true whether you’re a theist or not). Calvin is essentially saying that in order to answer questions of ourselves accurately, we must be oriented correctly through our religious commitments. Stated another way, to understand personhood, we need to understand our archetype. 

Our religious commitments are very basic to us. You can see this manifest in debates between theists and atheists. But it also manifests when Christians debate other Christians on differences of doctrine. This is also why religious disagreements can be so volatile – they can attack the very foundation of a person’s identity, because they are the foundation of a person’s identity – even if a person doesn’t realize it.

So now you should have a relative understanding of the complexity of the personhood debate. And if theories are ultimately derived from our religious commitment, then perhaps you can see why it’s not so easy to define personhood. (And subsequently, why we should not allow the state to define it).

How do we understand the relationship between personhood and personal identity?

Our identity arises from our personhood. And while identity is certainly related to the nature and constitution of our being, identity is what distinguishes individuals from each other. We may take these distinctions and voluntarily segregate and congregate into groups – or communities – according to common distinctions. So, the church is a good example. These communities exhibit shared distinctions, but are still comprised of distinct individuals with un-shared, uncommon traits as well. So, within the church, you still have individuals distinct from one another despite the traits they have in common. These communities will often form shared worldviews which influence how we interact with the world.

Our individual identity cannot be reduced to a single thing, and this is where most people screw up.

Another technical term in philosophy is “reductionism.” This is the concept that a complex idea can be reduced to a single one. A popular alternative, especially in Christian circles, is to reduce to two ideas, or a dualism. You know this quite well. For the ancient Greeks, everything could be reduced to form and matter. For scholastics, it was nature and grace. For the enlightenment, it was nature and freedom. Americans like to reduce politics to left and right, and some Christians will reduce it to church and state.

In Reformational Philosophy we affirm a different technical term: non-dualism. That is, the aspects of the created order are complex and cannot be reduced to a single or dualistic aspect. A popular dualism in the personhood debate is to reduce personhood to a strict distinction between body and soul.

What does this have to do with personal identity?

Simple, our personal identities are not something that can be reduced to a particular feature, characteristic, or aspect. You can’t reduce identity to gender, sexuality, vocation, cognitive ability (or inability), and so on. So, for example, we reject the notion of ‘gender identity’ which is to subsume the entirety of one’s identity into your gender. So the transgendered person insisting their identity is wrapped up in some anomalous variant of male or female, is false. But likewise, wrapping up an individual’s personal identity in so-called “manhood” or “womanhood” is also false. Believe it or not, transgenderism does the same thing complementarianism does – reduces identity to the confines of gender. Where complementarianism adopts a traditional view of gender, transgenderism adopts a non-traditional view, but they both do the same thing. They are both reductionist. 

Why is this an error for Christians?

If we follow Calvin on this, then we have to first look at the nature and constitution of God. This is one benefit of studying systematic theology. Look at Louis Berkhoff’s Systematic Theology:

Part One: The Doctrine of God

The Being of God

I. The Existence of God

II. The Knowability of God

III. Relation of the Being and Attributes of God

IV. The Names of God

V. The Attributes of God in General

VI. The Incommunicable Attributes

VII. The Communicable Attributes

VIII. The Holy Trinity

The Works of God

Part Two: The Doctrine of Man in Relation to God

Part Three: The Doctrine of the Person and the Work of Christ

Part Four: The Doctrine of the Application of the Work of Redemption

Part Five: The Doctrine of the Church and of the Means of Grace

Part Six: The Doctrine of the Last Things

Bibliography

I’m not going to delve into Berkhoff right now (though I highly recommend you do it – here’s a free and legal copy of his systematic theology), but if we can only understand ourselves by understanding God, and God is a being who cannot be reduced to one aspect of himself, and we are images of God (that is, we reflect God’s image), then we ourselves cannot be reduced to one aspect either. The Christian view of personhood and personal identity is not reductionist, and it’s not dualist. It’s complex! 

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you don’t want to follow a pagan philosophy, you can start by avoiding reductionism and dualisms in your thinking.

Personal Identity and Identity in Christ

Should Christians pursue understanding their personal identity?

This actually brings me to my motivation for writing this piece. Rachel Hollis recently published a book called, Girl, Wash Your Face! It’s been a NY Times bestseller for 14 weeks now. Two popular podcasts (Theology Gals and Sheologians) explored Hollis’ book and found it unbiblical and released their objections. I’m not going to evaluate their reviews, but while they generally agree Hollis’ book is unbiblical, they disagree on the biblical response. Another publication came out from Rachel Jankovic, one of Doug Wilson’s daughters, which serves as a timely rebuttal to Hollis’ book. It’s called, You Who? Why You Matter and how to Deal with it. Rebekah Womble wrote a review of Jankovic’s book and I recommend it.

Womble’s review brought out these terms, personhood, personal identity, identity in Christ, philosophy, etc. This is partly due to the fact that Jankovic discusses these things, specifically in the context of existentialism and Sartre’s concept of self-determination. But Womble’s review reflects an ongoing problem that I’ve seen, particularly in conservative Christian circles when it comes to the question of personal identity.

I think it’s quite easy for humans to hear a term used in a manner with which they disagree, and then begin associating their disagreement with an entire concept. “Identity” is a very popular topic in more liberal Christian circles, and is often associated with sexual and gender identity – viz homosexuality and transgenderism. Prior to this, identity in feminism predominated the divide between liberal and conservative Christians, with discussions on the nature and function of the women in Scripture, and what it means in modern times. This was the ground motive for the architects of Complementarianism – John Piper, Wayne Grudem, et al – to formulate their doctrine against the feminist movement. 

In an almost predictable way, conservative Christians inevitably steer women clear of “embracing” or “determining” who they are and what their identity is, and instead insist on proclaiming to women that their “identity is found in Christ.” Now, I don’t object to this on it’s face. A Christian’s identity is indeed found in Christ. But my inner Lutheran catechumen is screaming, “What does this mean?!” Sure, I know what this doctrinally means: that though we are all image bearers of God, we’re fallen in sin and corrupt; that through Christ’s death and resurrection that the elect are justified by faith, given a regenerate heart and inclination and affection toward the things of God, that we sojourn the rest of our days in a process of sanctification, being made into the image of Christ, and that finally, in the end, we will be glorified with God with new bodies in the consummate Kingdom. Right! Being in Christ, is a consequence of the Gospel …. but …. What does this mean?!?!

An Identity Crisis

Conservative Christian women have heard these phrases:

“our identity is in our husbands … you cannot know what your calling is until you know who your calling is. Until you are married, you are not tied to a specific person … it is your calling to help your husband by raising these little people.”

“Your identity (after being a child of God created in God’s image) will be bound up in being a wife and especially a mother.”

“It sort of helps to see the foolishness of wives seeking their own glory and identity…”

and confusing “identity” with “the calling of women” (which is to be a wife and mother).

“….her identity … her life, her constitution, her nature, [is] rooted in and derived from the life, constitution, and nature of the man.”

“Boundaries are gone… The game now is self-discovery and self-realization.” 

“I could die to my desire to protect myself from getting hurt again”

This messaging sends two signals to Christian women:

1. You cannot realize your identity in Christ if you are not married and have children.
2. If you love God, you will not realize any conception of personal identity apart from your labor as a wife and mother. (There is an implicit command of obedience made here.)

I will have an opportunity to review Rachel Jankovic’s book very soon, but this question of obedience came up on one of Rachael’s Facebook posts, and it’s the first quote I’ve listed above which comes from one of Rachel’s other books. What she implies in her overall message is, “if you love God, you will obey his commands. God has commanded that your personhood is as a wife and mother, and that is the entirety of your “identity in Christ.” For you to explore your identity beyond your status as wife and mother, is pagan and therefore exploration of your identity is disobedience to God. Therefore, if you explore who you are apart from your labor as wife and mother, then you must not love God.”

This is a problem! Because as Christians we know there is a place for obedience in true doctrine, but has Rachel correctly identified it’s proper place? I’ll answer this question when I go to review her book. In the meantime, Rachel is part of a larger cast who are currently speaking against the SBC and reformed circles correcting their views on racism and abuse, and identity plays a key role in this. Victims of racism and abuse both experience a loss of personal identity. This is a psychological phenomenon that turns out to be detrimental to the whole person

The Vanishing Self

“People with ‘vanishing selves’ have only a blurry sense of their own identity, where they begin and end, whose needs they feel and fill, and what values are central to their core. Does this describe you? This button is both a cause and a consequence of being the victim of ongoing manipulation. The longer you allow yourself to be the pawn in other people’s games, the less clear your own identity will seem to you and to others who perceive you. You will know if this button applies to you if you can agree with the statement that you do not know who you really are and what you really stand for outside of the things you do for other people. Some people with a diminished sense of self describe the experience as feeling invisible—unseen and unrecognized by others as having a set of needs and characteristics that stand independently of others. You even may experience dreams or waking sensations of shrinking or literally diminishing in size.”  Who’s Pulling Your Strings? Harriet Braiker, PhD (Emphasis mine)

When you have absolutely no clue who you are, you are set up for manipulation and psychological abuse. If you allow yourself to lose who you are, in favor of someone else’s identity, you become a victim. This is true of anyone – men and women, adult and child – you must have a sense of who you are. On the one hand, there are genuine conservative Christians who want to unburden you from the pressures of worldly identity standards and free you to who you are in Christ. On the other, there are legalistic impostors who would prefer that you make yourself a soft target to their abuse.  And in between are a great deal of well-intentioned people both impostor and not.

Christians, and women in particular I think, need to understand what makes us persons according to Scripture. We need to understand how sin affects our identity in the fall, both in the abstract (doctrinally) and in the concrete (practically). But more than this, we need to understand how Christ affects our identity in regeneration and sanctification. 

But our identity is in Christ, so we know who we are, right? 

We aren’t a monolith. We do not exist in a vacuum. We exist in reality. The status of unregenerate persons is real. It is both the cause and consequence of our sin. What is our sin? It’s failing to do what God has commanded, and doing what God has forbidden. There is human action involved. Our actions affect the world; Adam and Eve’s sin didn’t just change the status of humanity, it changed the status of all of creation. Our affect on the world, results in an effected world. Cain’s sin against Abel was real; Cain affected Abel and Abel was effected. Who was Cain? What was his identity? Who was Abel? What was his identity?

Likewise, the status of regenerate persons is real. Regeneration causes us to be new creations. It inaugurates in the individual the process of sanctification – being made into the image of Christ! Christ’s image is real. It affected our world, and our world was and is effected. There was/is action involved. So if we are changed through regeneration; that is, if we are no longer our old identities, then who are we in our new identities? How do we affect the world? How is the world effected by us? 

What does this mean?

I’m not going to answer this question in this article; the answer deserves it’s own article, but my hope is that you see there is indeed an unanswered question here. Saying “our identity is in Christ,” and either leaving that meaning ambiguous, or prescribed by the standards of a small group of people, is not satisfactory. We can have a head knowledge of the abstract doctrinal implications, and even be correct about them. But at some point we need to wrestle with practical application. 

Our personhood is important! It comes from God. Our identity is important! It is in Christ. Christ made us new. We are dead to sin and alive in Christ! But ….. what does this mean? 

More to come!

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