The word personal has a commonplace meaning in English. If I have personal knowledge of an event, it means that I was actually there and saw what took place. Personal knowledge of another person, means that we have actually met, spent time together and shared information. Difficulty arises when this commonplace use of the phrase is mistaken for its theological meaning.
The word person, is pretty much a Christian invention, or certainly comes to a place of importance through its use in Christian theology. In Greek, it is the word prosopon, which originally meant the face, while in Latin the word was persona, which originally meant a mask. In both cases the words were taken up to do service in the efforts of early theologians’ to give expression to the Christian understanding of the Triune God. Person, in its various forms, came to be used for the more technical Greek term hypostasis, and referred to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in their unique aspects. Thus we had three persons in one being.
The word was also used as the Church sought to give expression to what it knew of Christ. Thus we learned to speak of the person of Christ who was both human and Divine: one person, two natures.
In all of these early uses, the term carried far more weight than its commonplace meaning today. Today we mean little more than individual when we say person. To apply that meaning to the persons of the Trinity would be to fall into serious heresy.
And to a degree, to apply that same commonplace meaning to human beings is at the very least a disservice, if not outright error. For there is something about our existence as persons that is precisely linked to our creation in the image of God and the truth of our existence of which the commonplace meaning knows nothing.
Fr. Sophrony Sakharov says that to be created as person is to be created potentially and not actually. That is to say, there is something very “open-ended” in our existence as persons. It is not a limiting term but a term which describes something of infinite capacity. We are created potentially, because we are not yet what we shall be. We are commanded to be conformed to the likeness of God – and this is our goal in Christ. This is far more than moral perfection, but has an ontological meaning as well. Indeed, when Scripture speaks of this aspect of our destiny it generally does not speak in moral terms, but in terms of knowledge and relationship.
“Then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
“We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
That capacity of knowledge – which is another way of speaking about the fullness of our communion with God – is also a way of speaking of our capacity for love. It is the gift of personhood that we are (by grace) capable of loving everyone and everything. We would not be commanded to love even our enemies were it an impossible thing. Apart from Christ we cannot become what we were created to be – but we were created to love in just such a manner – for to love less is to be less than the image and likeness of Christ.
Our commonplace language, even in our faith, speaks of a personal relationship with Christ. It is correct to do so, and even to mean by it that you have “first-hand” knowledge of Christ. It also speaks of mutual obligation which is again correct in the covenantal relationship that God has given us. But it is also true in a less commonplace sense that we have a personal relationship with Christ – in that the nature of our relationship is that between persons. As such it has an infinite capacity and is open-ended. It will grow and become far more later than it is now. It will also mean a participation and a communion, a knowledge that is inherent to personal existence, even though we frequently are not aware of this capacity that is ours.
It is only in knowing the Triune God that we become what we are meant to be – that what it means to exist personally is fully revealed in us. A short quote from Fr. Sophrony:
The Person is He Who alone and genuinely lives. Aside from this vital principle nothing can exist: ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men’ [John 1:4]. The fundamental content of this life is love: ‘God is love’ [1 John 4:8]. the personal being realizes himself through loving contact with another person or persons.