How would you define a person? You ask people that question and you might notice that personhood looks a lot like them. That doesn’t surprise me since there’s some basis of truth undergirding that presupposition, but I have to wonder about the priorities that come to the fore when defining personhood.
Maybe, you’d say, personhood is defined on account of the ability to think. But is a person any less a person because they’re mentally handicapped and unable to think the way you do? Are you less a person if someone comes along and notes that you are incapable of thinking the way they do?
Or maybe, others would say, a person is defined by the biophysical1: like the ability to run, have sex and process food. But is a person any less a person because they can’t use their legs, penis or digestive system? Can we peel their biophysical layers away and hit a point where we can say “okay, this is no longer a person”?
In a world that is increasingly focused on solely the biophysical, the lines of personhood are drawn by those in charge of the pencils. Personhood is ascribed and removed with impunity, and always includes the persons doing the defining (how very lucky for them). “Of course,” says the person outside of the womb “the person in her womb is not a person”. “Of course,” says the person who needs the bed “the person in that hospital bed isn’t a person.” Auschwitz’s innkeepers applaud.
No, personhood has been established beyond finite whim; it’s just been ignored.
God decided to make humans as a reflection of Him: personhood defined by a creative (he made us), social (he interacted with us), generous (he wasn’t obligated to make us), omniscient (he knew everything about us), omni-benevolent (he loved us) and infinite (he transcends us) Master (he made us to be with Him). As sovereign by fact (since everything is contingent on Him creating) he then willfully (his care at work) hands over co-regency to his Children. The first people were Persons, in a community, rightly under God, ruling rightly over (God’s) creation while discovering every facet of (God’s) creation and exemplifying the reflection of the person (their master, The Lord God) who made them.
Every person is made in God’s image making every act against fellow image-bearers exponentially potent. You’re not only ending a life; you’re destroying a reflection of God who made you. You’re not only destroying a reflection of God; you’re stating that you are the final arbiter (a right that belongs solely to God) of anyone’s right to bear that reflection at all.
This is true in every aspect of life. Sex is not solely because parts fit and its fun; rather it depicts God in such a way that necessitated opposites working cooperatively. Art is not merely a lucky additive that lends color; rather it is a reflection of a God who creates under the purview of God who grants aesthetics. Music is not merely a happy accident of sound; we’ve been equipped with the vocal chords and sense of sound to communally blend in our adoration as he provides the very basis for music. Community is not merely people being knit together; it is the image of God corporately gathered under the Lordship of God.
There is not one stage of a Person’s life, not one aspect of a Person’s being, that should be abrogated to the unimportant, reduced to its own importance, or be compartmentalized as separate from all others. They are all irreducibly humans-in-God’s-image and properly expressed only when under God.
There is a reason why Christ came as a man, obedient to God, and not a dog or a Martian obedient to self. He came reflecting the image of God perfectly, what man was supposed to look like, and then allowing rebellious image bearers to do what they saw fit with him; we hated him, we took him and we pinned him on a tree to be laughed at as he died, obedient to His Master until the end.
We define the Personhood any which way because we hate what the image keeps telling us: we’re doing wrong by ourselves and by God. What we think about God is reflected in the way we treat his image. So we compartmentalize, we trim down, we finagle, we ignore, we redefine until hopefully (yet ironically hopelessly) we’re left condemning ourselves.
No, we shouldn’t try to define Personhood (who is or isn’t a Person); we should be thanking God for being Persons in His image already. Every human, at every stage of existence, bears this honor whether he likes it or not.
Verses that undergirds my thinking: Gen 1-6, 9:6; Isa 40; Rom 1, 8; 1 Cor 11; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 4; Col 1; Heb 1; James 3.
1 Obviously I’m not using the word biophysical in the same sense it is properly used to refer to biological and physical (as in physics) elements in any given environment. I’m using it to refer to the combination of biological processes and physical dimensions of the human experience.
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