God in Three People? image

God in Three People?

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I've often joked that there are only three contexts in which the plural of person is persons. The first is the Trinity: "God in three persons." The second is a lawcourt: "wilful murder, by some person or persons unknown." And the third, for reasons passing understanding, is a lift: "maximum load must not exceed eight persons." Everywhere else in the English-speaking world, the plural is people. What is that about?

I’m assuming that the lawcourt thing is simply arcane language, and the lift thing, though harder to fathom because lifts are relatively recent inventions, is an attempt to sound official by invoking bureaucratic legalese. (There may be a far more prosaic explanation, and if anyone knows it, I’m all ears). But I realised recently, while reading Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s Christian Dogmatics, that the use of “persons” rather than “people” when it comes to the Trinity is actually very important, has nothing to do with invoking bureaucratic legalese, and carries a lot of theological freight. Even if it sounds linguistically awkward.

One of the perennial problems of teaching the Trinity is that the English word person doesn’t mean quite what the Latin word persona means, which in turn does not mean quite what the Greek word hypostasis means. So most English people, if they were to hear that there was “one God in three people,” would assume that meant there were three distinct centres of consciousness, three distinct wills, three distinct minds, and so on. This, of course, is heresy - and the fact that it is, as an aside, has been a significant factor in the recent Trinitarian debates - but it is easy to see how it would emerge, quite naturally, from using the word “people.” Heresies have emerged from much less.

Using the word “persons” does not, of itself, protect us from that mistake. But it does two things which really help. The first is that, by sounding official and arcane and even odd, it creates the impression that we are talking about something that needs to be thought through and articulated carefully; I don’t want to overread an English word, but it seems to me to carry with it a sense of mystery when you use a word you would never normally use, and it invites us to consider it in more depth. And the second is that it ties the word to the Latin persona, with its slightly different resonances (person, mask, character, and so on), and eventually back to the Greek hypostasis, of which persona was an early translation. Combined, these help preserve us from the idea that God is somehow comprised of three individual centres of thought, and help us recognise the unity of the three, and the threeness of the one.

That said, those lift manufacturers should really stop being so pretentious.

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