Chalcedonian Personalism

Rethinking the Human

by Colin Patterson (Author)
Monographs XX, 380 Pages


We all have a sense of what it means to be a person, but how do we conceptualize that intuition? What is the connection between a person and their human nature? Where does mind fit in to the picture? This book draws upon the work of Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar, both of whom developed a perspective on these questions that is grounded in the early Church’s teaching on Christ and the Trinity. The possibilities of that teaching for understanding human personhood were generally lost for about fifteen centuries, but Ratzinger, in a bold assertion, believes that its retrieval has the power to challenge and reshape the whole of human thought.
The first part of the book offers an account of how von Balthasar and Ratzinger arrived at their theological understanding of personhood, paying particular attention to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century personalist thought. The second part draws out a number of the implications of this work and, in doing so, makes use of recent psychological theory. Finally, as a means of bringing into the picture the related philosophical notions of self, freedom and the soul, the book introduces and explores the concept of a «semblant».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introducing the Theme
  • Part I: Chalcedonian Personalism
  • Chapter 1: Personhood: Beginning with Christ
  • Chapter 2: Sources of Contemporary Personalism
  • Chapter 3: Key Expressions of Personalist Thought in the Twentieth Century
  • Chapter 4: Chalcedonian Personalism: Its Emergence and Shape
  • Part II: Chalcedonian Anthropology
  • Chapter 5: The Anthropology of Personhood: An Introduction and Overview
  • Chapter 6: Human Nature: The Foundations
  • Chapter 7: Human Nature: Its Motivational Structure
  • Chapter 8: Semblants, Nature and Persons
  • Chapter 9: Case Study I: Free Will
  • Chapter 10: Case Study II: The Soul
  • Chapter 11: The Scriptures through the Lens of Chalcedonian Anthropology
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →Acknowledgements

This work is the result of many years of reflection on questions of personhood, and has necessarily drawn upon the writings and thinking of a large number of scholars past and present. In this regard, I have been greatly blessed in being associated with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. To its faculty and support staff I owe a great debt.

Parts of the book have benefitted from faculty discussions and I am thankful to Tracey Rowland, Nicholas Tonti-Filippini (deceased), Gerard O’Shea, Adam Cooper and Conor Sweeney for what they contributed by way of challenges and reassurance. To the latter two scholars I offer special thanks for providing specific feedback on particular chapters, and engaging in helpful conversations on key themes of the book.

My brother, Don Patterson, read the whole manuscript and found many points where it needed correction. Its final form owes much to his comments, and his encouragement has been invaluable.

My contact with Christabel Scaife, Liam Morris and Jasmin Allousch at Peter Lang has been unfailingly positive. Their timely and helpful communications have been much appreciated.

Finally, I wish to acknowledge the long-term support for the writing project given by my wife Carol, soul-mate of many years, and sharer in the work of raising a family. I am immeasurably indebted to her, and it is to her that I dedicate this book.← ix | x →

← x | xi →Abbreviations


Acta Apostolicae Sedis


The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vol., Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981/1880–1883.


Acta Sanctae Sedis


Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edn. Strathfield, NSW: St Paul Publications, 1997.


Corpus Christianorum Series Latina. Turnhout: Brepols, 1954-.


Heinrich Denzinger, Peter Hünermann, eds, A Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations of the Catholic Church, 43rd Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012.


English translation.


Loeb Classical Library (various publishers), 1912-.


Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2. New York: Christian Literature Press/London: Parker & Co., 1886–1900.


Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Graeca. Edited by J. P. Migne. 162 vols. Paris, 1857–1866.


Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina. Edited by J. P. Migne. 221 vols. Paris, 1844–1864.


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Norman Tanner SJ, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. 1, Nicaea I to Lateran V/Vol. 2 Trent to Vatican II. London: Sheed & Ward/Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Latin text and English translation. 60 Vols. Trans. English Province Dominicans. London/New York: Blackfriars Edition, 1964–1981.← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii →Introducing the Theme

This book represents an attempt to put into ordered and written form my thinking on some key theological questions to do with the idea of “person.” Since all of us are persons, one could imagine such a work dealing with abstract notions of mostly boring generality. I have endeavoured to avoid that approach by couching much of the text in narrative terms and by devoting quite a few pages to questions which the educated person-in-the-street, or perhaps pew, might think about. Scattered throughout the text or in the footnotes are brief comments pointing to how the ideas being argued for might make contact with other important theological or philosophical issues, but in order to keep the work within reasonable bounds, I have left to the attentive reader some of the task of thinking through the ramifications.

The book is centrally about Chalcedonian personalism and its implications for a theological understanding of humanity. The phrase calls for some explanation not only because of its novelty – as evidenced by zero instances from a search on Google, an admittedly fallible indicator – but also in view of the fact that neither “Chalcedonian” nor “personalism” are everyday terms.

Personalism, as is often repeated, is not a unitary philosophical theory, and especially during the twentieth century self-described “personalists” cropped up in many places. One cannot even say that they belong to an identifiable current of thought. Some observers have attempted to provide lists of features typical of personalist thought, but my preference is for an inclusive description: personalist philosophical works are those which place foundational importance on the notion of “person” and go to considerable lengths to protect their concept against interpretations that would see persons as reducible to some form of the impersonal whether that be atoms, biological structures, substances, ideas or even subjective experience.

The personalism proposed in this work is qualified by the adjective “Chalcedonian.” This refers to the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, held in AD 451 in the small town of Chalcedon just over the Bosphorus strait ← xiii | xiv →from Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. What was important about that Church council was its description of how the human and divine were united in Jesus Christ. Among its formulations was one stating that the human and divine natures in Christ formed a union which is “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Furthermore, the union was in fact the Person of Christ, distinct from his natures. The full statement issued by the Council fathers is the remarkable product of an extended period of reflection and debate within the Church, a product which has at its core a particular concept of “person” and it is this concept, or at least the boundaries enclosing the “concept,” which serves as the guiding notion of this book.

Having said that, I need to qualify it a little by noting that the Council of Chalcedon is to be understood as a stage along the way in the Church’s efforts to shape a notion of “person” and its relation to that of “nature.” Preceding ecumenical councils made their own contributions, and those following Chalcedon further refined its positions. For this reason, I am using the term “Chalcedonian” as a pars pro toto, as representative of the process as a whole. As it is understood in this work, then, Chalcedonian personalism is a form of theological/philosophical theory which places persons at its centre, but is particularized in that it draws for its inspiration upon the doctrinal development of that concept as epitomized but not limited by the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon.

The book has two parts. Part I deals with Chalcedonian personalism as it arises out of reflection on the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and especially on the Person of the Son of God incarnated in human nature. The material set out in this part provides the basis for Part II, which applies its principles, along with significant additional ideas, to an understanding of non-divine persons, specifically human persons. It is in Part II that most of the new theoretical work is to be found.

Describing Part I in more detail, we find there first of all a brief account of how the notion of “person” developed in the early Church and how it expressed itself in dogmatic conciliar pronouncements. The story is extended to describe how the notion was dealt with by theologians in that vibrant intellectual period of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. What we find is the notion of “person,” which was once a critically central concept ← xiv | xv →in Christian thought, fading away during the course of the Middle Ages so as to enter an intellectual cul-de-sac and thereby losing the power to exercise influence in the beginning of the modern era of Western society.

And yet, the story continues, in the middle of the twentieth century, two German-speaking Catholic theologians, the Swiss Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) and the Bavarian Joseph Ratzinger (1927-), later Pope Benedict XVI, were able to retrieve, at least for the Catholic tradition, a Chalcedonian concept of personhood by re-examining Church Council teaching of the first millennium in a new light. What they achieved is quite noteworthy. And the question that arises is, what was it about the intellectual climate in which these two theologians operated that allowed them to accomplish a retrieval which had to wait so many centuries to occur? Beginning with the intellectual ferment of the late eighteenth century, the pathways are traced up to and including the twentieth century that led to a Catholic intellectual environment conducive to the rediscovery by von Balthasar and Ratzinger.

At this point the narrative element is set aside and a theologically articulated account of divine personhood is presented, based closely upon the thought of these two theologians. Key themes in my description of divine persons are those of the uniqueness of persons, persons as fundamentally distinct from nature and persons as relations. This approach stands in marked contrast to that which has become traditional within mainstream Catholic thought, even though elements of it surfaced from time to time within theological history.

Part II, in its turn, might be called Chalcedonian anthropology. Theological anthropology, that way of studying mankind which feeds into the broader project of theology, as it is presented here, draws on the idea and, indeed, the teaching of the Catholic Church that “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”1 That is, our fullest understanding of man is to be achieved only through a serious reflection on the mystery which is the God-man, Jesus Christ. If that is the case, then what was said about the Person of Christ in Part I ← xv | xvi →must be translatable to the rest of humanity. Furthermore, how we do this is of profound significance for the way we end up viewing mankind in its entirety. A major section of Part II is given over to an attempt to relate person and nature in humans, drawing, for an understanding of the notion of “nature,” upon more recent scientific theory. The complexities of that relation prompt me to introduce the concept of a “semblant” as a way of conceiving how two seemingly unrelatable ideas – person and nature – might be linked together.

The last three chapters of Part II endeavour to draw out some of the implications of Chalcedonian anthropology. First, its impact on our thinking about human freedom is explored. Contrasts with the major directions of philosophical thought in this area are described. The second theme I have chosen is that of the soul. This concept has an illustrious pedigree in Christian thought and, yet, in its traditional form it is dogged by problems of coherence. In the light of the earlier work on person, nature and semblants, some suggestions for a revised notion of the soul are offered. Finally, I address the question of how a Chalcedonian anthropology might relate to the Scriptures. If it is true that the Bible is indeed the very soul of theology, then one would expect that major revisions in how theological anthropology is conceptualized should touch upon the way the Scriptures are read as both illuminating and being illuminated by the theory. I argue that this is indeed what happens.

This work makes contact with a range of matters and, given its length, one can be guaranteed that for many of them it does so with a light touch. It is chiefly, then, a work of integration or, as the Italians are wont to say, it is written in modo sintetico. Such a broad-brush approach cannot help but draw comment from the careful reader along the way about this or that unsupported or questionable statement. Yet my invitation to those who take the trouble to read this work is to treat it as a product of intellectual imagination which, I believe, possesses a coherence and a newness that is persuasive as a whole. Still, painted on a large canvas, there is much detail that demands further work. Thus I wish to emphasize to the reader that what is being offered here is a pathway to a new mode of thinking, rather than a full description of the intellectual terrain. The call, then, is to test the path to see where it might lead. As an endeavour, in the wake ← xvi | xvii →of theological giants, to more fully ponder “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rm 11:33), the preparation of the book has led me to be frequently reminded of something Ratzinger once wrote.

In a much referenced article prepared and presented in the 1960s as an address to students of education, he discussed the notion of “person” in theology.2 In it he traces the history of the notion of “person” in theology to the point where he is able to contrast a substantialist with a personalist approach to reality and concludes this section of the piece by suggesting that the “achievement” of the Church in discovering a notion of person in relation to Christology and Trinitarian theology has not led to its application to human beings other than Christ. Referring to this incomplete task, Ratzinger notes the following:

The contribution of Christian faith to the whole of human thought is not realized; it [i.e. the notion of person in Christ] remains detached from it as a theological exception, although it is precisely the meaning of this new element to call into question the whole of human thought and to set it on a new course.3

Now we know that Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) is not a man who speaks or writes rashly. For him to say that something new is in a position “to call into question the whole of human thought,” with the word “whole” italicized, is a remarkable thing. My question in the face of this affirmation has been, what can he have meant? In what precise sense can it be said that the notion of “person” as shaped within the Christian tradition under the ← xvii | xviii →guidance of the Holy Spirit can have this power, a power that has not yet been fully realized? The present work can be seen as an attempt both to offer some opening responses to that question and to contribute to the task of setting out “on a new course.”

I must also mention a subsidiary purpose for this book. In Part II the reader will note the efforts taken to connect the theological anthropology being presented with literature of a more empirical character. Work in particular areas of psychology is especially referenced. In fact, this is not typically the case with anthropologies based on more traditional approaches. In them the interest is on the essence of humankind, rationality, rather than on the changing particularities (accidents) of those things which are the concern of scientists. It will become apparent, however, that my orientation, clearly influenced by my own earlier studies in science, is different. For me, the engagement between theology and science is one of the great conversations of the present age, touching and often unsettling the inner worlds of innumerable educated Westerners. Of Darwinism, for example, the American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, has written that it is like a “universal acid; it eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view.”4 We theologians cannot afford to insert into the middle of this conversation a bulky set of philosophical concepts such as “essence” and “substance” as a kind of protection against the power of scientific theories to challenge our theological understanding. The truth about the material world, just like that of history, must directly connect with the revelation given through Jesus Christ. If this is the case, then the result might well be that the constellation of traditional philosophical concepts has to endure a haircut of the kind that Ockham’s razor can provide. This present work, then, is offered as a small contribution to this end.5

← xviii | xix →Not all the chapters of this book will be of equal interest to the reader. Most of the intellectual legwork is done by the material presented in its second part and this will doubtless be where the book’s challenges will be most keenly experienced. Although Part I contains essential foundations for the discussion pursued later, sections of it might be skimmed over or even skipped. Those readers who have less interest in the intellectual history of contemporary Western notions of personalism might consider leaving aside Chapters 2 and 3. However, without Chapter 1, the essential background to the work, and Chapter 4, which contains an account of the seminal work of von Balthasar and Ratzinger, Part II would make little sense.← xix | xx →

1 Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 22, in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, ed. Austin Flannery, OP (Northport, NY: Costello, 1996), 185.

2 Joseph Ratzinger, “Concerning the notion of person in theology,” Communio 17 (1990): 439–454. This version contained footnotes with comments updating, in a few respects, his thinking on the matter. According to an editorial footnote, the English translation was based on a chapter that appeared as “Zum Personenverständnis in der Theologie,” in Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma und Verkündigung (Munich: Erich Wewel Verlag, 1973), 205–223. Elsewhere Ratzinger cites the publication details of the original address as the following: “Zum Personverständnis in der Dogmatik,” in Das Personverständnis in der Pädigogik und ihren Nachbarwissenshaften, ed. Josef Speck (Münster: Deutsche Institut für wissenschaftliche Pädagogik, 1966), 157–171. See Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 130n31.

3 Ratzinger, “Concerning the notion of person,” 449.

4 Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and Meanings of Life (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 63.


XX, 380
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (July)
Person Human nature Christocentrism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XX, 380 pp.

Biographical notes

Colin Patterson (Author)

Colin Patterson teaches at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne. His work covers the areas of moral theology and theological anthropology, with a focus on the intersection of theology with psychology. His doctoral studies, carried out in Rome, examined the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. Since then he has published on bioethics and the science/theology interface. Prior to being received into the Catholic Church in 2004 and the commencement of his academic work, he worked as a psychologist and as an ordained minister of the Uniting Church in Australia.


Title: Chalcedonian Personalism