What is A Person?

by Graham McFarlane & Pete Moore

read : What is A Person? (Part 1)

Some Biblical Comments on The Nature of Human Life
The Bible makes no explicit statement about the timing of the start of life or its conclusion. However there are some verses that people point to as giving guidance in the issue.

Genesis 1 and 2
Christians agree that the Bible teacher that God deliberately created the Universe, the world and all living creatures. Within that planned environment he formed a special relationship with human beings, saying that they are created in his ‘image and likeness’ (Genesis 1:26)
Genesis 9:5-6
God states that he considers human life to be of extreme value because it has been made in his image.
Psalm 139
The psalmist tells of his experience of a God whose love knows no bounds. There is nowhere you can hide from it, it has no beginning and no end. With this in mind he considers his own life and sees God’s protection and care extending back to life in the womb. Many theologians say that it is right to assume that the author’s intended meaning was that this extends to the first moment of life – the moment when sperm and egg combine.
Luke 1:41
In the New Testament two pregnant women meet. Mary is carrying Jesus, and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. The gospel writer Luke records that, ‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Many take this fetal leap as an indication that the growing babies were people capable of responding to each other’s presence.

Discussion of Personhood

Many people have tried to break down the issue of what constitutes a person into a set of the attributes of a living being that endow personhood. Others attack this approach, saying that it allows two separate descriptions of one person–it allows us to consider the body and the person as being two distinct elements. This gives permission to enquire whether we could ever have a living body that wasn’t a person.

The Bible claims that people are separate from the rest of creation because we have been made in the ‘Image of God’. The Bible, however, does not explicitly state what this means. Theologian Louis Janssens, addresses the issue by presenting a set of seven characteristics that describe aspects of what it is to be a person:

  1. a subject: A biblical understanding of personhood starts with the acknowledgement that human beings exist as creatures who are under the rule of God their creator. They are subjects of his authority. Our personhood therefore resides principally in our relationship with God.
  2. an embodied subject: As subjects, human beings are also defined by having a human body. Historically philosophers have tried to separate the body from the mind and spirit, but there is now a consensus among contemporary Christian theologians that the elements are intrinsically united.
  3. part of the material world: The first chapters of Genesis place humankind firmly within the created world. God created the world, took a fragment of that world-the dust-and breathed life into it. This breath (Hebrew rwuah) is common to human beings and non-human animals (Genesis 6:17). Similarly the Hebrew word translated as ‘living soul’ (nephes) is used for all living animals.
  4. inter-relational with other persons: In Genesis, God recognises that Adam is insufficient on his own and creates a companion, Eve. The rest of the story of the Bible relates to the way that relationships between different people develop.
  5. an interdependent social being: Personhood expresses itself in the way that we relate as social beings. An interdependent society recognises the need to care for each other. Christian theologians believe that Jesus is the perfect human being and point out that, when on earth, he did the things that God the Father wanted, and was supported in his actions by The Holy Spirit. Therefore Jesus showed us an interdependent concept of relationship.
  6. historical: Individual people exist within a historical framework and are intrinsically interested in their forebears. Our personhood expresses itself within cultural historical contexts.
  7. Equal but unique: Each person has equal rights, despite economic, educational or psychological differences- yet we are not all the same. Again theologians point to their understanding of God as a single being composed of three equal though different persons-Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  8. called to know and worship God: One feature of a person is his or her ability to know and respond to God.


Answering questions of personhood demands that we consider physical, spiritual and relational issues. While many Christians conclude that a person’s life starts at fertilisation, others adopt a gradualist position that places this later in development.

However, the answer will profoundly affect the way we view each other and make medical decisions.

All Christians agree that every person is made in God’s image, loved by him and so of extreme value. Adopting this attitude will foster a society that takes seriously the task of caring for everyone, especially the weakest and most vulnerable.

Further Reading

  • McFadyen Al (1990) The call to personhood. Cambridge University Press.
  • McCarthy B (1997) Fertility and faith – the ethics of human fertilization. IVP.
  • Janssens L (1980) Louvain Studies
  • Jeeves MA & Berry RJ (1998) Science, Life and Christian Belief – a survey and assessment. APOLLOS.
  • Jones DG (1999) Valuing People – Human value in a world of medical technology. Paternoster Press.
  • Wyatt J (1998) Matters of life and death – today’s healthcare dilemmas in the light of Christian faith. IVP.

Dr Graham McFarlane is a lecturer at London Bible College, and Dr Pete Moore is a freelance writer/editor who works at the interface of medicine, science and ethics.

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 08, 1999