Letter to Timothy

Dear Timothy, 

After a rather long break, I want to resume our correspondence on the subject of the relation between pastoral work and Biblical psychology. It was almost a year ago that we interrupted our discussion of these things, but we did break off the discussion at a point where we can now pick up a new subject. 

The subject I want to discuss with you in this letter is the subject of the personality. While it is possible to become very technical in such a discussion and while I want to avoid such technical discussions, there are certain aspects to the question which are important as a pastor in the Lord’s flock comes to grips with the problems which he faces in his congregation. 

The question of the “person” is, from many viewpoints, an important question. I recall that Rev. Hoeksema used to insist in class that it was always better to make a distinction between the “person” and the “nature,” and that, indeed, this distinction was more important and more significant even than the very common distinction between “body” and “soul.” By way of illustrating this point, he would often remind us that the doctrine of Christ could only be understood in terms of the distinction between “person” and “nature” while the distinction between body and soul had little importance in understanding the incarnation. 

It is true that in the controversies which plagued the early church over the doctrine of Christ, there was at least one controversy in which the distinction between body and soul was important. I refer to the so-called Apollinarian heresy according to which Apollinaris believed that Christ in our flesh possessed a human body, but not a human soul. He taught that the soul of Christ was divine. Nevertheless, when the Council of Chalcedon finally formulated for all time the Scriptural doctrine of the incarnation, it did so in terms of a distinction between person and nature. And, because we believe that Christ entered into our flesh and became like us in all things except for sin, the distinction between Christ’s person and nature is important for us also. Christ did not have a human person such as we do; but He did have a nature such as ours in every respect except sin. 

It is clear why Rev. Hoeksema considered this distinction so very important. 

It seems to me that it is not far from the truth to say that when an infant is conceived in the womb of its mother the nature of the child comes from its parents, while the person is directly formed by God. We cannot, I think, be sure about this formulation of the idea because we know so little about the conception and birth of a child. But there seems to me to be no doubt about the fact that at the moment of conception, God impresses the individual mark and stamp of the person upon each nature. Certain it is that the child conceived in the womb is a person from the moment of conception. This is clear enough from many different passages of Scripture. David, e.g., says in Psalm 139, in speaking of his own conception in the womb of his mother: “For Thou hast possessed my reins: Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise Thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are Thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from Thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being imperfect; and in Thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps. 139:13-16). This passage so clearly teaches that personality is part of the infant from the moment of conception because David speaks throughout of himself as “I.” And that “I” is a reference to his person. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” “I was made in secret.” 

Those who favor abortion of unwanted infants deny all this. They do not want to read the text the way it is in Scripture. They would read these two passages somewhat along these lines: “A mass of protoplasm which after four or five months or more in the womb became me is fearfully and wonderfully made.” You see the point here. If an infant is a person from the moment of conception, then induced abortion is always murder because a person is deliberately destroyed. Those who favor abortion and want to get away from the charge of murder have got to insist that up to a certain point that babe in the womb is not a person. But this they can never do in the light of Scripture. Just one more passage. God says to Jeremiah in 1:5: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee. . . .” It ought to be clear that persons are sanctified: not trees, not animals, not blobs of protoplasm. If Jeremiah was sanctified before he was born then obviously he was also a person. 

But we digress a bit. 

The personality of a man is unique to man. Trees are not persons. Flowers are not persons. Animals are not persons—not even the highest of them. Only man is a person. That is probably why we do not even speak of the “face” of an animal. Probably the face of a man most clearly reveals his personality, his personhood. Animals do not have faces. They have snouts and muzzles. They have mouths and jaws, noses and ears and even eyes. But they do not have faces, and we do not use the word “face” to describe the front of their heads. People have persons. People are persons. 

The person is that “I” in a man which is the subject of all the activity of the nature. That person, formed by the, delicate and almighty power of God, remains essentially unchanged from the moment of conception to all eternity in heaven or hell. The nature changes as Iam born, grow up, live my life, and finally die. The nature changes both in body and soul as I am educated, acquire a certain amount of knowledge, learn from experience and pass through the whole of life. But that deepest core of man’s being which is his person remains the same always—even through the resurrection and into everlasting glory. That unchangeable “I” is the subject of all that one does. I am born. I cry. I eat. I learn to walk. I am angry. I love or hate. I am a sinner. I am redeemed. I am justified. I am sanctified. I marry. I grow old. I die. I go to heaven. I live forever with God. Whatever happens to the nature has as its subject the person, the I. 

Now this person is a marvelous creation of God. It is very difficult to say enough about this. 

For one thing, you will recall that when we are discussing the nature of man we talked about the fact that man has a rational and moral nature. That is, he has a nature with a mind and a will. He has a nature which can think and know, which can desire and want. He has a nature which can know the difference between good and evil and which can do the good and evil. Now it is important to understand that only arational and moral nature can also be a personalnature. That is why a star or a rose or a centipede or a chimpanzee cannot be a person. None of these creatures has a rational, moral nature. Man was given such a nature and only man can be a person. 

Yet when God forms the person at the moment of conception He does so in such a way that the person exactly fits the nature. Every man’s nature is different. It is, of course, essentially the same. Every man has a body and soul. Every man has a mind and a will. But this nature differs with every individual. It differs in appearance—in color of the hair and eyes, in facial and bodily features, in size, shape, and color. It differs in power of the mind—in ability to memorize, to do mathematics, to compose music, to write and understand poetry, to play the piano, to speak, to understand and comprehend, etc., etc. This list of differences goes on and on and on. These are all differences in the nature. But when God puts the stamp of the personality on the nature at the moment of birth, that personal stamp exactly fits the nature. The work of God is not of such a kind that the person is created apart from the nature, arbitrarily and mechanically attached to the nature, and assigned a given nature through which to function. That is absurd. The person is formed along with the nature itself, but in such a way that God stamps that nature individually with a personality that exactly fits the nature with all its characteristics and gifts. In this way the person and nature are so formed by the hand of God that the individual is one, perfect, unified whole. 

And yet each person is also different. 

I can remember being told as a child that every snowflake is different from every other snowflake, that every leaf on the tree is different from every other leaf—on that tree and on every other tree. This was a very great wonder to me and impressed me greatly with the almighty power of God. But the same is true of persons. There are living now and have lived over the course of history billions of people. Consider all the throngs and multitudes which populated the earth from the first moment of time. Consider all the babies that died before the moment of birth or soon after. Consider the masses of humanity which populate the earth today. Of all these billions, there have never been and there will never be two persons alike. They are all different. God makes each one different. And only God can do this. 

But I must bid you farewell for the present. We shall come back again to this in the future. 


H. Hanko