The Personalist Synthesis of Platonism and Christianity

Although the Trinitarian and Christological usage, in which the three hypostaseis of the one divine nature came to be designated by the term personae, lacked many of the distinct dimensions of signification that were subsequently added, the connection between the term person and the central, concretely historical and individual reality of Christ strongly contributed to the further growth of the concept, as did the evident avant-la-lettre personal traits of the Old Testament God, of God the Father.

If the speculatively elaborated differentiational experience of the Greeks had reached the concept and the impersonal determinations of the absolute, the religious differentiational experience of the Israelites came to be seen, in the synthesizing metaphysics that now developed, to have disclosed the further, moral, volitional, and personal determinations. These additions were not unimportant. For as we shall see, it soon turned out that impersonal transcendence was difficult to retain as transcendence. Ultimately, it may in some respects or in some connections have been the conception and experience of the personal dimension of transcendence that saved the conception and experience of transcendence as such.

In the course of the medieval establishment of Western civilization through Christianity which preserved as a time capsule the legacies of Israel, Greece, and Rome and added the new focus on the Incarnation, a rich and complex concept of the person was gradually worked out, which corresponded to the differentiational experience and insight. It synthesized the element of the individuality and singularity of the finite human being and the individual soul, on the one hand, with the universal yet inseparable element of the essential human nature, of createdness in the image of God, and of the general capacity for spiritual communion with God, on the other.

The work of St Augustine displayed many of the new, characteristic Christian experiences that account for the felt necessity of developing the new concept. [See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989), ch. 7.] Throughout the medieval period, thinkers kept elaborating on and refining, in the light of such experiences, the Boethian definition. Through further meditation on the concreteness of the Incarnation, new dimensions were added not least by St Francis, and it was, I am inclined to think, quite as much in the Franciscan school of medieval thinkers – which in some respects continued the Augustinian and early scholastic line – as in the Dominican one that the most significant deepening of the understanding of personhood was achieved in the medieval period. [See Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (1993), 38-9.]

For all the weaknesses of medieval Western society, this unity of Christianity and personalized Platonism, taken together with the practices of Christian spirituality, perhaps represents the apogee of the West as a spiritual culture: the notion of the higher reason, the understanding of the soul’s knowledge of God, the revision of Plato’s theory of forms, the redefinition of form as the principle of individuation, the rejection of the sharp distinctions between the soul’s faculties, the insistence on concrete, individual reality on various levels against onesided, abstractive conceptual realism (stopping short of radical nominalism), the emphasis on the personality of God, on God being in at least one aspect such that man can stand in a personal relation to him, and on individual providence, and, finally, the perhaps most important development in the line of the Israelite version of differentiational experience, strongly reinforced by the teaching of Christ, the philosophical insights into the importance of will (stopping short of pure voluntarism).

All of this, as developed within the parameters of the differentiational tension, must be said to evince many of the key elements of personalism, of a systematic philosophico-theological worldview determined primarily by the understanding of the nature of personality.

1 Response to “The Personalist Synthesis of Platonism and Christianity”

  1. 1 bhavasindhu June 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Thank you, Jan Olof, for this summary of the development of the Person. A very enlivening read.

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