What does it mean to say that the Christian God is a personal God?
I am not using the word “personal” here to mean “private”, of course, as we do when we say “personal hygiene” or “personal trainer”.
But what do we mean when we say it?
The God of the Bible is not a force.
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It helps to clarify the question if we ask why we Christians would reject the idea of God as “impersonal”. The God of the Bible is not a force. Without hesitation, Christians have always spoken about – and to – their God in a personal way. The Bible records that he has characteristics, such as intention and love and wrath, which sound pretty personal. We speak of having a “relationship” with God, something which would not be possible if the divinity were not personal.
But there’s still a certain lack of clarity here. What is a person, after all? If we call God “personal”, are we reducing him to a human level in some way – making God in our own image? And what is more, theologians have spoken of the Trinity as one God in three persons. Can the one deity be “personal” and be constituted by three “persons”? Does that make any kind of sense?
The trouble lies with the word “person” itself. Of course, it is very difficult for human beings to imagine non-human persons, and so we tend to assume that a person and a human are the same thing. Dictionaries tend to define “person” as “human being”. Sure, there are fictional descriptions of “personal” aliens, animals and robots. Writers use the technique of “personification” when they make cats or rabbits wear clothes and speak to one another. Think of Little Peter Rabbit or SpongeBob Square Pants (but not for too long).
A person is someone who expresses his or her intentions in words and acts, and responds to the words and actions of others.
The Latin word persona referred in the first instance to the masks that performers in the ancient theatre wore to represent different characters. A persona was literally a role; a part played by someone in a drama. Of course, when you are acting you simply pretend to be someone else. You might wear a costume, or fake an accent. But everyone knows that this isn’t who you truly are.
The early Christian theologian Tertullian (160-220) was the first to adapt the term “persona” for use in Christian theology. Later, great theologians like Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) admitted that this language made them squirm a bit, because quite clearly the “persons” of the Trinity were not merely masks that disguised the real God. God isn’t an actor masquerading in a play. How he acts is who he is.
By “person” Augustine meant someone who speaks and acts – especially in the great story of salvation. Now, we moderns know of machines that “speak” and “act”; so we might want to qualify this a little in terms of intentions and the will. A person is someone who expresses his or her intentions in words and acts, and responds to the words and actions of others. They are able to think about what they are doing (which is not what animals do). They are a self-reflective agent of communication, we might say.
The God of the Christian gospel is not a single person chopped up into three persons. And he isn’t a single being who puts on three different masks when he wants to talk to us in different way.
This definition immediately shows that we are talking about an individual within a web (or potential web) of relationships. To apply the notion of “personhood” to God means that God is a being who says and does things, and in saying and doing them, does them to and for others. God also in some sense responds to human persons.
This is a God with whom we can have a relationship in a somewhat similar way that we might have a relationship with a human being. And the Bible certainly uses the language of interpersonal relationships as a model for our relationship with God. The biblical ideas of reconciliation, justification and redemption are all words drawn from the spheres of human relating. So it makes sense to think of God as personal, since it is these personal ideas that are at front and centre of how we are to think about what the Christian gospel brings about.
That’s pretty much the bottom line: a person is a being who can love.
But it hasn’t cleared everything up for us. To describe God as “personal” doesn’t mean that we can call the three persons of the Trinity together a “person”, as if there was a fourth person to add to the three. The God of the Christian gospel is not a single person chopped up into three persons. And he isn’t a single being who puts on three different masks when he wants to talk to us in different way. There’s something else going on here. There are three “persons” united in the one being. And this is where we start to learn some very significant things about being a person – from the way these persons relate to one another.
And what would we say most of all characterises them? “God is love”, says 1 John 4:8. Jesus himself explains to his disciples that “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9). He goes on to say to them “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”
It’s love. The Father loves the Son, and the Son freely chooses to keep his Father’s commands and so remain in the orbit of his love. C.S. Lewis wrote in his classic Mere Christianity: “Love is something that one person has for another person”.
That’s pretty much the bottom line: a person is a being who can love. That’s the difference between something and someone. You can’t be loved by a something.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, shows us what it is to be a person by living a life – and dying a death – which is for the sake of other persons.
And we aren’t merely indulging in speculation here, or allowing for a waffly, greeting card definition of love. We get a concrete example of what this loving is in the death of Jesus for us. As John says, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).
This is how we learn what it is to be a person, right here. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, shows us what it is to be a person by living a life – and dying a death – which is for the sake of other persons. At the same time, because of who he is, fully God and fully human, the Lord Jesus shows that God is personal. Out of the great love they have for one another, the persons of the Trinity work to build a community of persons for us, bound together by love.
You may well be asking by now: why does it matter that God is a personal God?
It matters in the first instance because it tells us that our creator is not one who merely created us by necessity, or by chance, but one who made us deliberately, for a purpose. An impersonal force cannot create with purpose. Knowing ourselves as the creations of a personal God, we know we have been made intentionally and purposefully. And a great part of the purpose for which we were made is to relate personally to the personal God.
It shows that not only do we think of God as personal but that – more remarkably – he thinks of us as like him in this.
We long for it to be this way – for God to know us and to be known by us. But tragically, our longing for personal interaction with God, like all things, is corrupted by sin. This means that we often create our own ways of relating to God that actually avoid meeting him in person. That’s idolatry.
It is only Jesus Christ who is the true representation of God’s character (Heb 1:1-4) and only in him is personal contact with God truly personal. It also matters because by understanding ourselves as persons we can see how often we fall short of the purpose for which we were made.
We can see, too, how our inability to be these things or to perform these functions does not mean we have lost our personhood. This is by contrast with some modern accounts of personhood, such as that of Australian ethicist Peter Singer. Singer argues that a person is a being with the capacity for enjoyable experiences, for interacting with others and for having ongoing preferences about continued life. It is hard to see how Singer can offer the dignity of the word “person” to human beings whose ability to perform these functions has become limited.
That God is personal is nowhere more ev0ident of course than in the prayers of Christians. Our unique way of praying is to address the Father in the name of the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It shows that not only do we think of God as personal but that – more remarkably – he thinks of us as like him in this. We can know God, as persons know other persons, because through the work of the Father sending the Son we are known by him.