Canary Wharfnew

With links to my Sheldon Genealogy pages and Whole Person Medicine



Return to YWAM MA Index

YWAM MA Resources 1


A critical view of personhood as developed by Alistair McFadyen

Dr Michael G Sheldon

For many years two opposing models of personhood have been championed in different cultures. On the one hand societies have opted for a mainly individualistic conception of human beings, what Turner calls the “anarchic plurality of the many, in optional relationships with no overarching system”, and on the other hand a social model of humanity has been espoused, which Turner calls “the unitive, integrative plurality of the one and many, in constitutive relationships within an overarching system”. (Turner, H Deep Mission to Deep Culture” in Flett, J. ed Collision Crossroads p 32).

Over the last few decades there has been a growing understanding amongst theologians that there is a third way which is more biblical. Here the person is constituted at the most fundamental level by his or her relations, both to others and to God. Christians have traditionally grounded their affirmation of human dignity and personhood in the creation of man in the image of God, yet what it means to be made in the image of God has been much debated. (Vanhoozer, K. Human being, individual and social in Gunton, C.E. ed The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine p 163)

In the Augustian tradition a person was construed in their own relationship with themselves. Thus we began by “knowing our own mind”. However within theological study there has recently been a shift towards the understanding of the importance of relationships in the development of personhood. John Macmurray proposed a complete change of standpoint from the primacy of the cogito to the primacy of the self as agent and constituted by his relationship with another person. (Aves, J. Persons in Relation: John MacMurray in Schwobel, C. & Gunton, C.E. eds Persons Divine and Human p 123).

In his book Persons in Relation MacMurray has said “The self is constituted by its relation to the other; that is, it has its being in its relationship; and that this relationship is necessarily personal”. (Macmurray, J. Persons in Relation p 17).   The being of God, in whose image the Bible says we are made, is understood as a Trinity, in order to exhibit a relationship within the Godhead. (Zizoulas, J.D. Being as Communion p 17).   In creation God made us in his image, and then calls us to be in relationship with him.  The broken relationship consequent upon the Fall and man’s sinfulness, is then redeemed through Christ’s work on the cross. (McFadyen, A. The Call to Personhood p 43)

The understanding of man as a relational being is one of the main themes of the work of Alistair McFadyen and is developed in his book The call to personhood.(McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood  1990) McFadyen argues that each person can only be understood in social terms, thus “we become the people we are through our relationships with others”.(McFadyen, A.I.  The call to personhood p 9)  After describing the two common models of personhood (the models of individualism and collectivism as described by Turner, quoted above), he suggests a third way in which a relational model of personhood is developed which does justice to personal freedom and autonomy whilst simultaneously acknowledging the role of social relations and institutions.  From the outset he stresses that this model does not just encompass inter-personal relationships but also includes social, cultural, historical, political and moral relationships.

McFadyen’s basic concept of a person is both dialogical (formed through social interaction, through address and response), and dialectical (never coming to rest in a final unity, if only because one is never removed from relationship). (McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood  p xi)  Talk of how human beings have their being in our society has been so completely secularised that we find it increasingly difficult to talk of humanity with reference to God in a way which is meaningful in our contemporary situation.  It is my belief that this missing dimension makes a real and important difference to our theoretical understanding and to our every day practice and mode of living. (McFadyen, A.I.  The call to personhood p 10)  The two major theological components in McFadyen’s argument are first the concept that human beings are created in the image of the trinitarian God and secondly the understanding of personhood in the call of Christ.

The imago Dei can be understood in two dimensions, the vertical dimension where human beings are constituted through their relation to God, and the horizontal dimension where human relations produce an understanding of the person “in social categories in which relations between the sexes are of primary importance”. (McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 17).  McFayden points out that creation is essentially about the relationship of God to his creation.  Importantly he defines relationship – “A personal relationship is essentially an encounter between two or more partners who are different, who have some independence and autonomy in the relation and who may therefore engage with each other on the basis of freedom rather than coercion.” (page 18)  Personal relations are therefore characterised by call and response, the gift and return of dialogue.  “What is distinctive about the human relation to God in creation is that God’s creative and sustaining activity elicits, enables and deserves a free and thankful response”. (page 19).

The human being made in the image of God is therefore to be described as a “being-in partnership” with God.  The understanding of dialogue means that, on God’s side, there is respect for freedom and independence and an absence of over-determination.   McFadyen stresses that we are free in our response to God, our correct response being a thankfulness which is free. “The intention of dialogue-partnership contained in and guiding God’s communication establishes an ontological structure of freedom which is, as such, the precondition for any human response”. (page 21).  Mankind must respond to God’s word to be whole, although the dialogue is a matter of grace where the human is free to offer a response of acceptance or rejection. We need to “be-in-gratitude”, involving a recognition of the incapacity to live from individual or communal human resources alone. This is the primary human, vertical relationship.  We are both free and responsible, but the freedom we have is to respond – we are not truly free if we don’t respond with thankful acceptance.

In addition to the vertical dimension of the image of God, McFadyen argues that there is also a horizontal dimension. Our response to God involves a social element as we relate between persons. This is not however an optional extra, but an essential part of this image. The trinitarian nature of God’s being and self-communication is determinative for a Christian understanding of human being in God’s image.  Thus McFadyen argues that a theory of human nature analogously informed by the nature of God as trinity will lead to a specific understanding of human being in God’s image. (page 24).  “The fullness of the image consists, then, in the fact that the structures of divine and human being both contain a dialogical encounter between separate but intrinsically related beings.”(page 31). “Dialogue is a bipolar process involving both distance (individual discreteness from the relation) and relation. Distinct identity is impossible except through relation, and relation only possible through the distance which separates the partners”

McFadyen stresses that if we are to unravel the meaning and structure of human life in God’s image we should first focus on our gender differentiation.   “Gender differences and relation is the paradigmatic case of structural distance and relation in human being.”(page 31).  “Using sexual differentiation as a paradigm for humanity points to the fact that what is intended by existence in God’s image is not only distinction (individual or communal discreteness) but relation”. So Adam is considered incomplete without Eve.  Humanity is not equated with either individuality or masculinity.  “Humanity is fully in the image of God only when it is a lived dialogical encounter”. (page 31)

McFadyen argues that “the essence of dialogue is that it is an encounter based on the independence, freedom, and uniqueness of the partners.  Because they are different, they cannot be adequately understood by the other unless they actively participate in the relation as an ‘I’ as well as a ‘Thou’”. (page 32). He goes on to say that “their relation is a continuing relation process in which their identities are formed together as distinct though related”.  Thus he says that “Eve’s designation as a helpmeet must be understood in terms of this dialogical relationship.  A helpmeet is not a subordinate assistant but a help-corresponding-to-him, denoting the closest physical and spiritual mutuality”. (page 33)

McFadyen notes that “Adam and Eve’s mutual acceptance, as the conjoining of distance and relation, symbolises the basis for all human life in God’s image”.  Thus he concludes that persons are what they are for others or, rather, the way in which they are for others.  The human being is essentially a relational structure (the ontological aspect), and we are defined by the form our relationships, and therefore our individualities, take (the ethical aspect). (page 40)

The second theological component of McFadyen’s relational understanding of personhood concerns the call of Christ. Sinfulness and the fall of mankind both disrupts and distorts our relationships as we attempt to live apart from God and each other. The redemptive significance of the call of Jesus re-establishes our proper relationship with God and therefore also our proper relationships with others. McFadyen says that “Redemption restores the conditions of creation but, in doing so, also exceeds them”, so that we have a transformed orientation within a world which remains fallen. (page 46).  He goes on to say that  “to be fully in God’s image, to make a right response to God and others, is therefore to be conformed to Christ”.  Thus God’s address to humanity through Christ opens up the dialogical relation with God and with one another.

The conformity to Christ is not a once and for all situation, rather it is a dynamic process worked out in a discipleship relationship as we follow Christ in our lives.   McFadyen’s contention is that the call of Christ is an event which reconstitutes a person in relationship. The call asks us to stand out from the crowd, to distance ourselves from our culture, and re-orders our priorities in relation to God and in service to our fellow humans.  McFadyen uses the many occasions in the Bible when someone is called by God or Christ and then given a new name to indicate the new relationship they have entered into. Thus Abram becomes Abraham, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon becomes Peter. The change of name marks the calling of God upon the individual and indicates a new state of restored personhood.

McFadyen sums up “Discipleship, then, in itself means this orientation out of oneself in the service of others. The individuality recreated by the call is an ex-centric (outwards orientation) towards the call of God and service of others”. (page 58).  This re-orientation is not just an ethical decision, but is the ontic transformation of life where new life in Christ is the formation of a relational being in the image of God.

There are several important new emphases in this work by McFadyen. His arguments accord with the scriptural account in the New Testament of the dialogical account of man’s relations with the Trinitarian God.  He gives a new emphasis to the understanding of human social relationships and their importance.  McFadyen says – “persons have to be understood in social terms – if only because they are somehow the product of their relations”. (page 18).    Thus there is a real connection between the quality of our relationships and our personhood.  In the discussion about our freedom he points out that our freedom is only to respond to God – if we don’t respond we are not free.  “We can refuse to enter into dialogue, we cannot, however, avoid being in relation to God”.  Our freedom is limited to determining what form that relationship is to take.  Thus the imago Dei within us cannot be lost but only distorted, it is through dialogue that we become true subjects and share a personal existence. (page 23). 

In summary we acknowledge with McFadyen that being created in the image and likeness of God indicates that reality implies a child-father relationship to God as we seek to become children and heirs of God, and also a necessity to be-in–relationship with all other human beings. As John Donne expressed this truth “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a part of the main, a piece of the whole”. (Donne, J. Meditation No 17 Now, This bell tolling softly for another, saies to me, Thou must die in “Devotions upon emergent Occasions” ed. Raspa, A. (Montreal and London, McGill Queen’s University Press, 1975  pp 86-90)

However I would like to suggest that there are some areas where it may be argued that McFadyen has either over- or under-stated his case. The first of these for me is the fact that he seems to play down the importance of the internal processes within a person as they lead to personal development and therefore over-emphasises the importance of communication. Thus he says – “The centred way in which we organise ourselves as persons does not arise out of internal processes or out of any qualities or attributes which we hold individually - rather, it takes shape through our communication  and relation with others”. (Mcfadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 113).  Later he says – “We are called into being as persons by the expectations others have of us”.  I recognise the importance of dialogue, but I wonder whether such relations on their own constitute our formation as persons.  It may be added that we are created by God in material bodies, with gifts and abilities which perhaps exist, at least in potential, prior to the development of our relations, although of course they are formed, influenced and improved by our relations.

When talking about our relations much of McFadyen’s terminology reminds me of psychological theories, especially the theory of Transactional Analysis (TA). Here our communications are described as falling into three types - adult, parent and child. In a similar way McFadyen describes three states of human relationships of manipulation, being manipulated and truly seeking each other. (McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 122). These are similar to the TA states of personal relations (Nelson-Jones, R. The theory and practice of counselling psychology p 70), and I believe that further elucidation of these aspects of relationship in contrast to existing psychological theories would have been helpful.

Thirdly, whilst recognising the place of institutional and societal relationships, he maintains that – “large-scale (institutional) relations cannot become a substitute for personal interactions … and it is from interpersonal relations … that we draw our understanding of ourselves as persons”. (McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 256-7).  I would maintain that a significant amount of our development as persons is also drawn from our cultural and societal surroundings, and our relations within the institutions in which we find ourselves has a large bearing on our development. True this is the situation in a fallen world, but our redemptive calling may well be argued to involve relations within  institutions as well as personal relationships.

Finally I would agree with Vanhoozer, who in supporting the importance of relationships in personhood, says - “From the perspective of Christian faith, there is no self-knowledge apart from the knowledge of God in Christ. To know oneself … is to accept gratefully one’s vocation as a responsive and responsible communicative agent who exists in covenantal relation with oneself, with others and with God.” (Vanhoozer, K. Human being, individual and social in Gunton, C.E. ed The Cambridge Companion to Christian Theology p 184)

References and Bibliography


Aves, J. Persons in relation: John MacMurray in Schwobel, C. & Gunton, C.E. eds. Persons Divine and Human 1991 Edinburgh, T&T Clarke

McFadyen, A.I.  The Call to Personhood   1990  Cambridge, Cambridge University Press  ISBN  0 521 38471 0

Macmurray, J. Persons in Relation  1961  London, Faber & Faber Ltd.

Myss, C.  Anatomy of the Spirit  1996  New York, Three Rivers Press
 ISBN 0-609-80014-0

Nelson-Jones, R. The theory and practice of counselling psychology 1982  London, Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Stevenson, L. and Haberman, D.L. Ten theories of Human Nature  1998  Oxford, Oxford University Press  ISBN 0-19-512040-X

Thatcher, A.  Truly a Person, Truly God 1990  London, SPCK  ISBN 0-281-04446-5

Torrance, T.F.  The Soul and Person of the Unborn Child  1999  Edinburgh, Handsel Press  ISBN 1 871828 47 3

Turner, H.  Deep Mission to Deep Culture  1998  in Flett, J. ed Collision Crossroads  Aukland, NZ  The DeepSight Trust  pp 14-33   ISBN 0-9582012-0-X

Vanhoozer, K. Human being, individual and social in Gunton, C.E. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine  1997 Cambridge University Press

Yu, C.T.  Being and Relation  1987  Edinburgh,  Scottish Academic Press
 ISBN 0-7073-0521-7

Zizoulas, J.D. Being as Communion  1997  Crestwood, New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press   ISBN 0-88141-029-2