Theology & Spirituality

Finding Your-Self in Communion, Part 3

“There are no individuals if by that we mean isolated individuals, completely detached from each other.  What does exist however, is persons, people who realize their humanity in the encounter with others.  Humanness is always fellow-humanness.”1-Hendrikus Berkhof

This is the last post in my three part series.  Part one can be found here:

Part two can be found here:

This has been a series where I have sought to wrestle with the implications of Trinitarian theology for the church today.  In part one I argued against individualistic notions of the self.  While we truly are uniquely ourselves and we truly do make our own decisions in this life (for the most part), we also do not exist in a vacuum.  As Henrikus Berkhof says above, “There are no individuals if by that we mean isolated individuals, completely detached from each other.”  We come into existence in and we continue to exist within a network of relationships.  We are never so isolated from our relationships that we can think of our selfhood as being untouched by them.

In part two I sought to articulate how Trinitarian theology shapes our understanding of relational ontology, and sought to show that we are relational creatures because God Himself exists as a relationship.  The Holy Trinity is communion, and we are God’s image bearers.

In this last section we are going to look at the concept of personhood that the church adopted and modified to articulate this notion of relational being.


Prior to the Church’s usage of the term, “person” simply meant “mask.”  It was the term in Greco-Roman culture which depicted the mask of an actor who acted in ancient plays.  There literally was no concept of the person as we know it today until the Church began to elaborate upon it in light of the Trinity.  The Church began to teach that God existed as “one substance, three persons.”  The term “person” was used to depict the separate members of the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and “person” was a different concept than “substance.”  In our day, we tend to think of ourselves as persons in a biological way, in terms of our substance.  To us, we are persons because of the human stuff that we are made of.  So, to us personhood is primarily, if not solely, physical.  It is viewed as another way of depicting our physical nature.

This was not the case with the ancient Church.  The Person did not depict our substantial reality or, put another way, the stuff that we are made of.  Rather, it depicted the concrete and unique entity which is produced through relationships.  To put this more simply: you and I share a common “being” which is our physical human nature.  All human beings share a common human nature or “substance.”  You and I are both human beings.  However, you and I are not the same “person.”  Our difference in personhood is not primarily due to our physical make-up.  If we thought this way we would be confusing the theological notions of “personhood” and “substance.”  Rather, you and I are different because you are uniquely you and I am uniquely me.  I embody the common human substance in my own personal way and you do the same.  We are both uniquely who we are because of how we encounter and react to the relationships and influences of the people and the world around us.  Without the significant relationships within your life you would not be who you are today.  The same is also true of me.

To give you a more concrete example of what I am talking about, the church that I am currently a pastor at, Trinity Christian Reformed Church in St. Louis, has had a decisive hand in forming me into the me that I am today.  Without the people of the church in my life I literally would not be the same person that I am today.  My selfness has had to engage with and respond to the other unique selves that exist in our congregation.  I have had to make decisions about myself, about who I am and who I want to be, in the context of them.  Had I never had these interactions with these very specific people I never would have been shaped in such specific ways.  I may have been shaped differently but not in the exact same ways.  I have a whole new outlook on life and I function differently as a person because of my time with the people of this congregation.  

I have learned that I am a concrete, unique and unrepeatable person because of my engagements with and my reactions to the people who are around me throughout the course of my life.  I am a person because nobody else is me and nobody else ever will be me, and in my interactions with other people this becomes all the more evident over time.

Even though this illustration is not without its flaws, I think it is still a worthwhile picture to help us to think more in terms of what it means to be a concrete person who is shaped by relationships.

Think of a team, any team.  On a team each person has his or her role to play and that person embodies their role in ways that are specific to them.  Now, here’s the deal: your role on a team is only significant because of its relationship to the rest of the team.  It is only in harmony with the team’s other positions that your own position is significantly felt.  Without the other positions on the team your position would be incomplete.  A coach is incomplete without her players.  Defensive lines on sports teams are incomplete without offensive lines.  Everyone needs everyone for a team to function properly and different positions are important only if there are other positions on the team to juxtapose them with.  We could also point to the Apostle Paul’s body language as another example.  The hand needs the foot, and vice versa.  Different body parts differentiate one another.  The diversity of all the members draws out the uniqueness of each one. Each part is needed for all to have their being.  


In conclusion, it is not enough for us to simply reject notions of isolated individualism, or to seek to be more Trinitarian in our thinking, or to acknowledge that we are relational creatures who are made in the Trinity’s image.  We must learn to relate rightly.  We must let our personhood be shaped by the most ultimate of relationships.  We must find our-self in communion with the Triune God.  

In its opening, the Heidelberg Catechism asks us: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”2 It asks how all of our longings for fulfillment and desires for wholeness can be satiated.  It asks about the very source of how the self can be comforted in its living and in its dying.  Those of us who hail from the Dutch Reformed tradition profess the wisdom of the Catechism and confess, along with it, the Triune and communal reality that God has brought us into.  Christ, in the providence of God the Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit, has wakened our relational sense and has brought us out of our sinful isolated individualism.  We profess that our only comfort in life and in death is that:

           “I am not my own,

            But belong—

            Body and soul,

            In life and in death—

            To my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”3

In other words, the fullness of our being is found in relation to Jesus.  We only find comfort and fulfillment through a relational reality.  It is only through my communion with Jesus that I find my only comfort in my living and in my dying.  I find my-self in communion with Christ.  Later on in that same Lord’s Day we profess that Christ “watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven” and that the Holy Spirit both “assures me of eternal life” and “makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready…to live for Him.”4  Again, salvation is the work of the entire Triune God and He wakens in us the reality of communal being.  In Christ’s relationship to me He brings me into relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit as well.  In salvation the entire Triune God draws out the relational image in which we are made.  We learn to commune as God Himself exists in communion.  God the Son, sent by the Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit, entered into the hell of our isolated individualism so that He could ascend us to the communal way of the Holy Trinity.  Or, as Irenaeus once so eloquently put it:    

The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.5 -Irenaeus of Lyons

View Sources
TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

Previous post

Does Apophatic Theology Denature Christianity? Part I

Next post

Jesus Prayer Rope