Fr. Sophrony on Personhood

england-trip-293The incarnation of the Logos of the Father – Jesus Christ – furnishes a solid foundation for our knowledge of God. Actuated by love for Him, we undergo a profound transformation of our whole being. Christ’s infinite life is transmitted to us. Our spirit finds itself on opposite poles – in both the black depths of hell and the Kingdom of God illumined by the Sun that never sets. The content of our being expands ineffably. In urgent prayer the soul aspires to this wondrous God but it is a long time before we apprehend that He Himself is praying in us. Through this God-given prayer we are united existentially with Christ – at first in His searchless Self-emptying and descent even into hell, and then in His Divinity. ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3).

The Persona-Hypostasis in Divine Being cannot be a limiting principle. And in our creaturehood the hypostasis [person] is the principle that assumes infinity into itself. When his spirit enters into the world of Divine eternity man is struck by the majesty of the vision opening before him. At the same time the universe undergoes a certain alteration in its destinies: ‘A man is born into the world’ (John 16:21) – an event that communicates to all creation a new unfading value. Man as hypostatic spirit belongs to eternal ontology. Those who are saved in Christ – the saints – receive Divine eternity as their imprescriptible possession though they immutably remain created beings.

From We Shall See Him As He Is


There is probably nothing more important in the writings of the Elder Sophrony Sakharov than his work on the “hypostatic principle” the role of personhood in Christ and in humanity. It goes to the very core of his understanding of prayer and the salvation of human beings.

He says nothing new – but brings together understandings from various patristic sources in such a way as to shed brilliant light on the importance of personhood. It stands at the very heart of our faith.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






12 responses to “Fr. Sophrony on Personhood”

  1. Katia Avatar

    Father Bless,

    The last 2 days i ve been struggling to understand your last two postings, because with my simple mind i can not understand theology, not grown up enough to run, just learned how to walk, but i did try to find some explanation but still not sure if this is what you meant, with the following conclusion from Bishop Chrysostomos:

    “…In conclusion, I should emphasize that the therapeutic path towards the restoration of personhood in Christ is, and must be, focused, of course, on the life of the Mysteries, which are the very life of the Church and which cannot be separated from the Church in any manner whatsoever: among other things, the emptying-out (kenosis) of sin through confession and the infusion into our hearts, joints, and reins of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The spiritual faculty of man, the noetic faculty, having been displaced from its natural place in the heart, as St. Gregory Palamas teaches us, must be brought back into the heart, back to its natural place, so that the human person can be restored and, cleansed by the Mysteries, rise above his own nature, attaining what is above nature, transcending human nature through union with Christ. As a result of this, the human being transcends even his own person, his restoration in Christ touching on all mankind. Gaining the gifts of the Spirit, he sees all things clearly, not only for himself, as St. Gregory writes, but revealing what he sees to others, and thus helping them to gain their salvation through the vision of God.6 In this sense, Christ is not only our personal Lord and Savior, but He is also the Universal Person, Who renews us each individually and, so made manifest in us, reveals to us a far greater dimension of personal salvation than we can imagine.”

    From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVII, Nos. 2 & 3 (2000), pp. 28-34.

  2. Epiphanist Avatar

    Thank you as always. I am enjoying this theme and the emphasis on existentialism.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    Bp. Chrysostomos’ comments are very much in line with Fr. Sophrony and St. Silouan. I can tell from the number of views on these two latest articles that they were difficult for many (including the lack of comment). It’s a very difficult topic – theologically – and yet utterly essential to the life and work of both Fr. Sophrony and St. Silouan. I was familiar with them for many years before I became aware of and understood this aspect of their teaching. I think, as a writer, I am still struggling to find simple language to give expression to what they have taught.

    I think one of the tasks God has set for me in my writing is to write in such a way that clarifies things that might otherwise be obscure. But it’s not always easy. Usually, and likely in this case, it means that I haven’t finished digesting something properly myself. It’s not good to write from my head and not my heart and I’m not always clear which is which. I deeply appreciate your comments and the quote from Bp. Chrysostomos.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for your comment, Fr. Stephen. And Katia, thank you for your quote from Bp. Chrysostomos. The original posting was “above my head” and so I didn’t struggle much to understand it. After reading these comments I went back and read the original post and so it has some meaning to me now. It is a blessing. I see that I am still too much a child and expect to “feel” certain things “at all times” and I am not patient in and with possession of God given prayer, among many other things mentioned here. Still I feel encouragement, thank you.

  5. Katia Avatar

    Father Bless,

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, it is easier now to understand it, when i was reading this morning, something made me think that this is relevant to your articles, but again i need your word on, it it is from 2 Cor 13-4:9:

    For though he was crucified through weakness,yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are week in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you.
    Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates. Now i pray to God that ye do no evil; not that we should appear approved, but that ye should do that which is honest, though we be as reprobates.
    For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.
    For we are glad, when we are weak, and you are strong: and this also we wish, even your perfection.

    With love in Jesus Christ

  6. Katia Avatar

    Father Bless,

    Glory to God for All Things!!!

    “….The human person is the hypostatic manifestation of the human essence, the realization of who a human being is as an individual: being, again, common in his essence but individual in his hypostasis or person, as St. Gregory Palamas affirms. It is primarily the human person to which the therapeutic and salvific methods of Hesychasm, as the spiritual teachings of Palamas are called, are directed. The cleaning and enlightenment of the individual human mind, the purification of the human heart, and the restoration of the passions (which have been misdirected and perverted, as a result of the Fall) constitute the Hesychastic way of life. And the way of life that effects these things leads to the restoration of the individual, the human person, who freely turns from a life of sin to one of synergy with God. In short, one can say, though risking theological difficulties in overstating this point, that the restoration of the human being in Christ centers on the person, on the restoration of the person, and on the cure of the process of disease which separates the individual from the full realization of his potential in Christ.

    In the purest anthropology of the Fathers, expressed perfectly in the Hesychastic teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, we come to understand that the essence of man, his being, has been restored through the divinization of human nature by the Incarnation of Christ, Who, in His Resurrection, lifted human existence above what it was even before the Fall. The personal salvation of the human being lies in his free acceptance of the potential for restoration in Christ, his ascetic struggle to free himself from the taint and illness of sin, and his restoration of the human person, his hypostasis, through the vision of God. And this vision of God, according to St. Gregory Palamas, is communion with God, the divinization of the human person (theosis), and his union in energy with Christ. In this divinization by Grace, man comes to an intimate knowledge of God. His mind cleansed and enlightened, his heart purified, and his passions cleansed and directed towards the love and attainment of holiness, man finds salvation.

    And once more, this salvation is personal, centered on the distinct human being who draws on his essence—renewed in Christ—and who, in his person, becomes a small Jesus Christ within Jesus Christ, to quote one Church Father. So it is that Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and our Savior. In this profound sense of the personal, and in an apocalyptic encounter with redemption (for salvation is closely united to spiritual vision and to the noetic revelation and knowledge of God), we find, through experience, what the more fundamentalistic Protestant Evangelicals understand only in empty form. We know through the attainment of true personhood in Christ, which is the enlightenment or salvation of man, what these seekers know only intellectually and in terms of a theology of affirmation and commitment crippled by the unrestored senses and passions….”

    Person and Personality in Orthodox Teaching
    Concerning the Concept of a “Personal Lord and Savior”

  7. […] Mercy Part III: The Tender Heart Posted on March 21, 2009 by Mark Epstein Actuated by love for Him, we undergo a profound transformation of our whole being….but it is a long time before we apprehend that He Himself is praying in us. Father Sophrony  […]

  8. Mark Epstein Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I hope you do not mind my linking to your posts from time to time. Like others that have commented here, I find myself not throughly understanding the complex theological concepts. However, I am encouraged by your stated aim “to write in such a way that clarifies things that might otherwise be obscure.”

    Thank you for blessing us with your writing.


  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Please feel welcome. I had an idea this morning of a possible approach on personhood that may clarify some things. I try in the next few days.

  10. Boris Avatar

    I read and heard that some orthodox theologian (most of them russian but also bishop Kallistos Ware and others) disagree with some of the theologies of Elder Sophrony and against some points of “his” theology of personhood. But I don’t know what exactly should be wrong, because I never read a clear explanation of this critiscm….can somebody help?

  11. dinoship Avatar

    I have also heard these criticisms in the past but instantly brushed them off (and therefore cannot recall where they came from) as I have done with other criticisms of Elder Sophrony. I do remember though, that they were said by people who had a far more “second hand” knowledge of God than the Elder did. His understanding sprung up from his first hand encounters with God and his extremely profound comprehension of theology, though possibly rationally influenced by other theologians to a limited degree, was far more a result of his total immersion in Grace many times in his long life.
    I have heard of a great deal of criticisms of most of the great Elders of our time in fact, but they all remind me of those who criticise St Paul or St. Symeon the New Theologian…

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    He pushed the boundaries of what had been previously done with the concept of personhood. It is perhaps “creative” (a word not commonly found in Orthodox theology). Most of his work was not what I would call “rational.” He was not taking an idea and developing it. Rather, I think he was searching for a way to describe something experiential. The problem is that “person” and “personhood” have a fairly distinct theological and dogmatic function (both in Trinitarian and Christological teaching). How well his use of the word for his purpose fits the traditional use of the word is where the problem comes. I do not think there are problems with his teaching – though it would possibly benefit with more attention to language. Such things can seem “picky,” but language is all we have to work with. Fortunately, English has the largest vocabulary in the history of the race (though still deficient). Hope that helps.
    I could get more specific, perhaps.

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