The Problem of Personhood

Intellect, will, and emotion.  Whenever the subject of personhood comes up, and more specifically as humans trying to make sense of how we are fashioned “in His own image” (Gen 1:27), these three terms find a key place in the discussion.  And they do make for a tidy way to sum up important distinctions about human life from other life forms, and illustrate a very important Biblical concept for us.  Namely, that God has uniquely given to the human race of His own communicable attributes—essential qualities that relate man to God and distinguish man from animal.

As is often the case with summaries, there is danger inherent in the use of the summary at the neglect of a more complete development of the idea.  The use of clichés and stunted explanations yields clichéd Christianity (i.e. hokey and vapid) and stunted Christians, ill-equipped to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3), let alone to “[destroy] speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God…” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

“Intellect, will, and emotion” is a nice summary, but it is incomplete.  Not only is it lacking in the sense that it doesn’t fully develop the idea in terms of what composes the imago Dei in human life, but more importantly, it doesn’t speak to the all-important fact that personhood, as an essential component of human life, does not depend upon the presence of its attributes.  Or to put it another way, to correctly define personhood is to understand that it is not the display of intellect, or will, or emotion that makes a person a person.  Rather, these attributes of personhood are merely evidences—the normal outworking of existence as a human being.

Maybe you’re already quite familiar with this idea, or perhaps it sounds foreign to you as it applies to the personhood of the unborn, or even the personhood of people who have reached full maturity for that matter.  Regardless our level of awareness as it pertains to the subject at hand, this same type of thinking is foundational to so many subjects found in Scripture that it warrants our careful consideration.  Off hand, I can’t imagine the discussion of a single metaphysical concept that doesn’t occur in the same fashion, but I know of many that do.  For instance, we could consider the problem of knowing a person’s spiritual state.  The reason that this is a problem at all is that there is no way to directly examine the state of intangible things.  That is the very nature of intangibility.  So instead, we are left to make our assessments based upon the evidence, or outworking.  Or, to use the more poetic Biblical term, “fruit.”

Matthew 7:15-20, emphases mine, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?  So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  So then, you will know them by their fruits.

If it were possible, why wouldn’t Jesus have simply told us to examine their motives, or to conduct a series of tests on their souls?  This sounds just as absurd as it is.  Our experience tells us that this is impossible, and is such a fine teacher that we instantly dismiss such a notion as the stuff of nonsense.   Jesus instructs us to discern the false prophet not by inspecting the heart directly, but by examining its produce.

We may at this point consider some examples of other spiritual things that are discerned in a similar vein.  For one, there is teaching on spiritual things in general.  We find instruction on this in 1 John 4:1-6.  In verse 1, the clear command is given to “not believe every spirit”, and to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God”.  And the test?  The latter part of verse 2 reads, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”  John is telling us that the recipe for knowing the source of a spirit is indirect observation of its outworking.

While both of the texts above clearly teach that the state of the immaterial is found in the end results, or observable physical outworking, there is a detail that should be mentioned in this, which is that in order for fruit to be borne, there first must be a tree.  That is to say, chronologically speaking, we can never expect to find ripened fruit the moment after the seed hits the soil. We might keep this in mind as we study one more example.

Narrowing the focus down from the broader scope of the church at large to the individual level, we even find this same problem in ourselves.  Just a little later in 1 John, in Chapter 5, verse 13, we read a purpose statement for the apostle’s letter:  “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”  Without going into detail, I offer this simple observation, that for John to be offering proof of the rebirth in them, it must be assumed that someone could call their own salvation into question.  And indeed, this is a typical experience for Christians, most of us at one point or another calling into question our standing before God.  But rather than leaving us to wallow in our misery of doubt, God desires for us to be confident of our faith, and graciously provides ways for us to test the credibility of our profession.  And what are these assurances?  While it is granted that at least some examination takes place within the individual, as he or she reflects upon their own belief in the person and work of Christ (1 John 4:15; 5:1), yet most of the proofs supplied in Scripture are the observable, external evidences of the Spirit’s work in the life of the regenerate soul.  Even the internal evidences themselves are the fruits of regeneration, and not the life-giving sap of the vine.

Why all this consideration for the second birth as we discuss what is happening in the months leading up to the first birth?  One point of application is simply this, that if we, as enlightened people of God with new hearts and regenerated minds can suffer from a spiritual identity crisis over our adoption as sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, how much more does the natural man who is actively “suppress[ing] the truth in unrighteousness” fail to comprehend the essence of metaphysical things that escape all our attempts at direct examination?  Even the horrific insanity of the genocide of unborn humans made in the image of God with souls fully intact becomes a tenable position to one who is “give[n] …over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder…” (Romans 1:28-29).

Though it may seem a small thing, it is a vitally important aspect in our preparation for battle to settle our minds on the reality that a person is always a person, regardless of the presence or absence of the fruit that personhood brings.  In this way, we can strip away the flawed rationale, expose the sin, and plead for repentance.

Let us be sober in our understanding that though this may sound in our ears to be little more than academic exercise, tragically, it is very practically a matter of life or death to countless unborn children whose executioners have concluded that their lives are inferior to others, justifying their deeds by basing them on a demonic definition of personhood.

Jon Feuerborn serves as a lay elder at New Life Fellowship Church in Grant, Nebraska.  His passion is to study and live by the Bible, and teach it to others.  Ezra 7:10

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