Fall 1990

Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology

Joseph Ratzinger Benedict XVI

"Relativity toward the other constitutes the human person. The human person is the event or being of relativity."

The concept of person, as well as the idea that stands behind this concept, is a product of Christian theology. In other words, it grew in the first place out of the interplay between human thought and the data of Christian faith and so entered intellectual history. The concept of the person is thus, to speak with Gilson, one of the contributions to human thought made possible and provided by Christian faith. It did not simply grow out of mere human philosophizing, but out of the interplay between philosophy and the antecedent given of faith, especially Scripture. More specifically, the concept of person arose from two questions that have from the very beginning urged themselves upon Christian thought as central: namely, the question, "What is God?" (i.e., the God whom we encounter in Scripture); and, "Who is Christ?" In order to answer these fundamental questions that arose as soon as faith began to reflect, Christian thought made use of the philosophically insignificant or entirely unused concept "prosopon" = "persona." It thereby gave to this word a new meaning and opened up a new dimension of human thought. Although this thought has distanced itself far from its origin and developed beyond it, it nevertheless lives, in a hidden way, from this origin. In my judgment one cannot, therefore, know what "person" most truly means without fathoming this origin.

For this reason please forgive me because, although I was asked to talk as a systematic theologian about the dogmatic concept of the person, I will not present the latest ideas of modern theologians. Instead, I will attempt to go back to the origin, to the source and ground from which the idea of "person" was born and without which it could not exist. The outline flows from what was said above. We will simply take a closer look at the two origins of the concept of person, its origin in the question of God and its origin in the question of Christ.


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