What Makes a Person a Person?

So once again it’s been a few months between posts 🙂 And so rather than continuing to try and build up a full post, I wanted to stop waiting and get this out while it’s fresh on my brain. Over the past 7 weeks, I’ve been reading a fantastic book by Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body. I’ve been reading it as part of the Center for Parent/Youth Reading and Discussion Group, where 300+ youth workers, parents, teachers, and many other types of people who minister to teenagers are reading and discussing 6 books together over the course of 2019. You can find the Facebook group here, and while we’re wrapping up this particular book, we’ll be starting a new one in March (Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller). In my opinion, CPYU is one of the best organizations in the youth ministry world today and deserves more attention than it gets. So join that group, or check out their website!

Personhood Theory

But, I’m not writing this post to just point to that group. I want to briefly discuss a theory that’s at the center of Pearcey’s book: personhood theory. I had never heard of personhood theory before reading Love Thy Body, but can now see how pervasive it is. In a nutshell, personhood theory is an ethical framework for deicing what is and isn’t a person. Pearcey explains how, since the time of Rene Descartes, there has been a dualism separating body and mind, the material and the immaterial. In today’s culture, the physical body is given less value, it resides in a “lower story”, while the immaterial mind, intellect, etc. is given more value, residing in an “upper story”. Personhood depends on the upper story, the mind and consciousness, and simply because someone is physically human does not mean they are a person.

This separation of body and person is the same basic philosophy as the Gnosticism that several New Testament letters address. Pearcey explains how this dualism actually devalues the body and who we are as humans, instead of elevating the body like we might think. Our culture doesn’t think too highly of our bodies – rather, it thinks too little. In contrast, Scripture has a high view of the body. We cannot separate who we are physically from who we are as people. We are embodied souls, and our worth as God’s created beings does not depend on a certain level of mental function or consciousness. The fact that Jesus became incarnate in a human body alone shows how much the Biblical view values our bodies – as well as the numerous passages that address how we treat our bodies as important.

The astounding thing about personhood theory is how much it undergirds so many areas of our culture where we would want to push back. If our bodies are just shells that the “true us” lives in, then we can separate our sexual actions out from the emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual and treat them as simply physical acts. If true personhood depends on barometers of mental and intellectual capacity, then the issues of abortion and euthanasia are up to subjective definitions of who deserves protection. Pearcey also addresses how personhood theory impacts modern thinking on homosexuality and transgenderism. In all of this, she doesn’t pull punches in regards to truth while also emphasizing the love and grace that is needed to interact with real people in the midst of these issues.


I may return on a later date to explore personhood theory more, as it’s really gripped my mind. It’s also been incredible timing, as I’m working through a series on sex, marriage, and gender with our high school group – it’s cool how God times things like that, isn’t it? I hope this article can be an open door into thinking more deeply about the philosophies that affect everyday issues. And if you have any thoughts on personhood theory let me know in the comments below!

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