Orthodox Anthropology : Implications For Human Stem Cell Research And Cloning


This paper addresses the question of the moral status of the human embryo, and more specifically whether we should attribute to it the quality of “person.” In theological language: Is the pre-implantation human embryo a being endowed with full and unique hypostatic identity?

We take as a point of departure Metr. John Zizioulas’ notion of “being as communion,” according to which “communion” is the ground of being that takes the form of love. In this perspective, the “person,” whether human or divine, constitutes the ontological content of one’s existence. This implies that personhood is ontologically prior to being, that the hypostasis transcends nature and is free of nature’s constraints. Accordingly, the person – and not nature – is the ultimate ontological category that can be applied both to the Holy Trinity and to human beings.

There is no abstract human being or nature (ousia) apart from personal existence. Nature may be defined as the content of our existence, and it includes our unique genetic identity, which is established by fertilization, the uniting of the parental gametes. Since nature is necessarily “enhypostasized,” given its existence by the person (hypostasis), the person – one’s unique hypostatic identity – must also exist from fertilization. This can be expressed as a kind of syllogism:
– All nature must be enhypostasized (expressed in and through a person);
– Human nature exists from fertilization (manifested by genetic individuality);
– Therefore the human person exists from fertilization.

We conclude, therefore, that from syngamy (fertilization), a human being must be considered to be a personal existence with its own unique hypostatic identity. As a bearer of the divine Image and the object of divine love, the human embryo, even at the pre-implantation stage of its existence, is a person in communion with God.

This conclusion needs to be given full consideration in any discussion of the moral acceptability of harvesting embryonic stem cells and of creating embryos by nuclear transfer (cloning), even when the intended ends are therapeutic rather than reproductive.



The subject of anthropology is very much in vogue today: in feminist circles; in the political arena with debates over gender and sexuality, abortion and gay marriage; as well as in the churches and theological academies. In our Orthodox context, we are particularly indebted to Metropolitan John Zizioulas for awakening our theological consciousness to the vital importance of anthropology in a world in which human embryos and human lives in general are increasingly manipulated and destroyed for utilitarian purposes. Over the past forty years Metr. John has produced an impressive number of studies on ecclesiology, ontology and the human person. His most well-known contribution was published in English in1993, as the first chapter in the book Being As Communion. There he developed an ontology of personhood and attempted to integrate it with Orthodox ecclesiology.

His conclusions have been widely and rightly accepted by Orthodox and non-Orthodox scholars alike. Nevertheless, Prof. Lucian Turcescu, president of the Canadian Society of Patristic Studies, has criticized Zizoulas’ reading of the Cappadocian Fathers, arguing that he makes an exaggerated and misleading distinction between the notions of “individual” (atomon) and “person” (prosôpon). Turcescu also rejects Zizioulas’ assertion that “person” or “hypostasis,” in the Cappadocian perspective, is a category that is ontologically prior to “substance” or “nature” (2002, 2006).

This is a difficult and technical debate that may seem rather abstruse and irrelevant. It employs a large number of philosophical terms that may sound like mere jargon. Nevertheless, the debate is both important and relevant insofar as it can help us to appreciate the status – the ultimate and eternal value – of the person from the very earliest stages of human development, that is, the person in the womb, the person as embryo. The primary question we want to address, then, is this: Can we or must we consider a human embryo to be a “person,” a being endowed with full and unique hypostatic identity? This is the question I will try to answer in what follows.

In Zizioulas’ perspective, the human person is an “ecclesial being,” a “eucharistic being,” who exists most fully in communion with God and with others. To present the Orthodox view of “man” (used generically), however, it is necessary to begin with the meaning of “person” or “hypostasis” in the framework of trinitarian theology. This requires first of all that we note an important difference between Latin and Greek approaches to the mystery of God’s inner life.

Generally speaking, Latin theology sees the unity of God as grounded in the one divine substance, such that “person” is a quality merely added to that substance. It is the divine substance or nature that is conceived to be the ontological principle or “cause”of God’s being. Among the Greek Fathers, on the other hand, personhood – both human and divine – is to be understood as the ontological content of one’s existence. Orthodox trinitarian theology holds that the ontological principle of God’s existence is not nature or substance (ousia), but rather the person (hypostasis), which transcends nature. Consequently, God is free from “ontological necessity,” which is associated with nature and imposed by it.

The divine hypostasis, dwelling in perfect freedom, is the mode of existence by which God subsists as divine nature. In Lossky’s terms, “The nature is the content of the person, the person is the existence of the nature” (1976, p. 123). Person, therefore, is logically prior to being, since being (ontology) is grounded in the person. Nature derives from hypostasis. In Greek patristic thought, the very Being of God is identified with the person, the hypostasis. It was the genius of the Cappadocian Fathers to transform the term hypostasis from a synonym of “nature,” ousia, into a technical expression signifying “person,” and to provide the notion of person with ontological content. This resignification of “hypostasis” allows Orthodox trinitarian theology to preserve the familiar formula mia ousia, tria prosôpa or mia ousia treis hypostaseis, affirming that God is a communion of three divine Persons, united in a single divine Essence or Nature. It thus enables that theology to avoid the Scylla of Sabellian modalism and the Charybdis of tritheism.

Zizioulas points out, however, that the term “hypostasis” properly characterizes God the Father – the Archê or First Principle, the ultimate Source and Cause of all being, created and uncreated – who eternally generates the Son and from whom the Spirit eternally proceeds. In His personal, hypostatic existence, God is “ecstatic” or relational, rather than solitary: “His being is identical with an act of communion” (1993, p. 44). That communion is an expression of divine freedom, which by its very nature takes the form of love, what Zizioulas terms “the supreme ontological predicate” (1993, p. 46). This quality of love, like the hypostasis that grounds it, is identified specifically with God the Father, who, by the acts of generation and procession, “hypostasizes” the Son and the Spirit, providing them with their personal reality and attributes. Through personal freedom, exercised as a perichoresis or exchange of mutual love, the three divine Persons transcend nature, the divine ousia.

Hypostasis or personhood, once again, is logically prior to nature. In Zizioulas’ terms: “the nature does not determine the person; the person enables the nature to exist” (1993, p. 57); thus, he affirms, “Person is now the ultimate ontological category we can apply to God” (1983, p. 36).


What can be said of God, on the basis of His self-revelation, can also be said of human beings, created “in the divine image.” Distinguishing again between Eastern and Western approaches to the mystery of the person, Orthodox theologians note that the Latin tradition begins with man’s being in order to grasp something of the being or substance of God. Augustine, for example, uses well-known psychological analogies in an effort to move from the characteristics of human existence towards an understanding of the divine substantia. In this Western perspective, Zizioulas contends, a given human being is conceived as an individual, “endowed with intellectual, psychological and moral qualities centered on the axis of consciousness” (1975, p. 405f; quoted in Turcescu, 2006, p. 314).

Greek tradition, on the other hand (represented, for example, by Gregory of Nyssa) begins with God’s self-revelation, in order to discern those characteristics in human beings that correspond to the divine image (Lossky, p. 115). As in the case of God, Eastern theologians understand personhood, rather than nature or substance, to constitute the ontological content of human existence.

Orthodox anthropology tends to begin with the divine fiat of Genesis 1:26f, where God declares, “Let us make man (anthropon, human beings) in our own image (kat’ eikona) and likeness (homoiôsin).” Originally these terms, “image” and “likeness,” were used as synonyms, following the laws of Hebrew parallelism. Early patristic tradition (beginning perhaps with Irenaeus in the late 2nd century, Adv. Haer. V.6.1; V.16.2) tended to distinguish between the two, referring the notion of “image” to human nature, and “likeness” to the hypostasis. The “image of God in man” is a natural quality, proper to every human being. It is ineradicable, indelible, even if it is tarnished or obscured by sin. However much one may sink into the depths of depravity and rebellion against God, the divine image remains intact. (The notion of “total depravity,” even in the original sense Calvin intended it – not that all things are wholly depraved and evil, but that all is tainted by sin – is an idea foreign to Orthodoxy.) The “likeness of God,” on the other hand, refers to one’s personal quest for holiness and for eternal communion with God. In other words, “image” refers to one’s created state of being, while “likeness” signifies one’s vocation, the end of which is the actual participation in divine life known as theôsis or “deification.”

Every human being, therefore, is created in the image of God and bears that image into eternity. As we know, the Fathers were not at all of one mind when it came to specifying the content of that image. Lossky rehearses any number of possibilities (1976, p. 115ff). The divine image refers variously to human dignity, to man’s lordship over the world, to his spiritual nature or soul, or to his free will and self-determination. For Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Palamas, the divine image includes the body as well as the soul, both the material and the spiritual aspects of human life. Clearly, the Fathers wanted to understand “image” not only as a function of nature, but holistically, signifying a communion of love between the Creator and the creature that embraces man’s entire being: body, soul, and spirit (virtually identified by Irenaeus with the Spirit of God, Adv. Haer. V.6.1; see Meyendorff, 1974, p. 138ff).

Like God Himself, humanity consists of a plurality of hypostases existing in a unity of nature. Nevertheless, a human being is potentially free from the constraints of nature, free from “ontological necessity,” since as person, as hypostasis, he or she possesses the self-transcending quality of openness to God. The purpose and end of that openness is that a human creature come to know God – not through rational deduction but through personal experience – and to enjoy eternal communion with Him. Such knowledge and communion are inaccessible to (fallen) nature and can be achieved only hypostatically, as the fruit of a relationship of love between divine and human persons. Accordingly, as Zizioulas declared with regard to God, we can affirm that “person” is the ultimate ontological category that can be applied to human creatures.

The human vocation to assume the “likeness” of God is realized by a gift of grace. Only God can save us; we cannot save ourselves. The ascetic quest to attain the divine likeness, therefore, involves us in an a-symmetrical “synergy,” a cooperation with God in the work of salvation, in which God retains the full initiative and power. Our role in the cooperative effort consists only in what we may call “hypostatic openness,” manifested as a continual return to God through repentance. God responds to this openness, this surrender, with an outpouring of saving grace, the sanctifying operation of the Holy Spirit.

Salvation, then, is not the result of any moral transformation we might achieve, nor is it attributable to some property of the human substance or nature. Salvation consists rather of a radical transformation of the “Old Adam” into the “New Adam,” a transformation which depends directly upon baptism, our incorporation into the Body of Christ. “Salvation,” Zizioulas declares, “is not a matter of moral perfection, and improvement of nature, but a new hypostasis of nature, a new creation” (1993, p. 58, n. 53). Such a new creation occurs within the Church, the eternal realm of God’s love made manifest within human history. It is the fruit of a new birth, a “birth from above” (anôthen, Jn 3:3ff), by which the human hypostasis is enabled to participate in the divine hypostasis, that is, in God’s personal existence.


With this emphasis on baptism as the means by which hypostatic transformation occurs in human experience, Zizioulas raises an issue that concerns directly the question of the status of the human embryo. Toward the end of his essay on “Personhood and Being” (1993, p. 27ff), he distinguishes between two orders of hypostatic existence: between the “hypostasis of biological existence” and the “hypostasis of ecclesial existence.” This is a convenient distinction that fits well within his overall argument. It raises difficulties, however, insofar as it could be interpreted to mean that those who are not baptized have not experienced transforming “new birth” and are by that very fact deprived of divine grace and the gift of salvation. (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus is a conclusion Orthodox theologians are very hesitant to accept, other than in the qualified sense expressed by Bishop Kallistos Ware: “Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” [1993, p. 247]. Judgment regarding the ultimate fate of the non-baptized is to be left in the hands of God.) This distinction between biological and ecclesial hypostases also raises the question as to whether “hypostasis” can be predicated at all of sheer biological existence. Or are the non-baptized limited to a purely “natural” existence, deprived of the quality of authentic personhood?

By the hypostasis of biological existence, Zizioulas does mean basically what could be called “natural man,” the human being bound by ontological necessity and characterized by individualism, separation, sin and death. This he contrasts with the hypostasis of ecclesial existence, created by the “new birth” of baptismal regeneration. “Baptism as new birth,” he asserts, “is precisely an act constitutive of [ecclesial] hypostasis.” Jesus Christ is our Savior, he continues, “because He realizes in history the very reality of the person and makes it the basis and ‘hypostasis’ of the person for every man” (1993, p. 53f).

Pressed to its logical conclusion, this distinction between biological and ecclesial hypostases would exclude not only the unbaptized but also the unborn from participation in the regenerative life of the Church and consequently from communion with God. To the mind of some of Zizioulas’ readers, this calls into question his most basic proposition: that “person in communion” is the ultimate ontological quality – the defining attribute – we can attribute to human beings. Catherine LaCugna, for example, notes this problem in her book, God For Us. She accuses Zizioulas of a one-sided “heteronomy” that makes “relation” or “communion with others” the primary determinant of personhood. Referring both to Zizioulas’ writings and to John Macmurray’s thesis that the self is primarily an “agent,” a “doer,” she says: “The unborn is not an ‘agent’ in Macmurray’s sense, nor is it baptized in Zizioulas’ sense. The unborn may ‘exist’ before anyone (mother; physician) is even aware of it and consciously in relation to it. If persons are constituted entirely by their relations, or entirely by their ecclesial incorporation, this would theoretically at least make it possible to justify the position that a woman who refuses to be in relation to an unborn is refusing to endow it with personhood. In that sense since the unborn would not ‘exist’ as a person, abortion would not be immoral because it would not be the killing of a person. This astonishing conclusion is one of several reasons that heteronomy needs to be balanced with autonomy…” (1991, p. 310, n. 77).

This “astonishing conclusion,” that the self has no intrinsic value apart from what other people attribute to it, is nevertheless a widespread conviction that raises the most serious and fundamental question regarding the ontological and moral status of the human embryo. Does a mother have the right, or even the possibility, to deny “personhood” to the child growing in her womb? A strict interpretation of Zizioulas’ position would lead inevitably to the conclusion that she does. In France today a debate is raging over what is called a projet parental. If a pregnant woman decides that she does not want to give birth, there is no “parental project,” no intention to receive, welcome and nurture the growing child. Without that intention, neither the parents nor society have any responsibility toward the child. Consequently, in the eyes of many people there is no moral objection to aborting that child, since the projet parental alone confers on it the status of person. In other words, the child possesses no “autonomy,” in LaCugna’s terms, no inherent ontological status that is independent of its parents’ intentions or desires.

Of course, Metropolitan John would not agree with this conclusion. It can nevertheless be construed as a logical consequence of too radical a distinction between nature and person, between biological and ecclesial hypostases. What does preserve human autonomy in Zizioulas’ writings is his insistence on the priority of person to nature, despite Turcescu’s claim that the notion derives more from modern philosophy than from Cappadocian theology (2006, p. 324). This view of the priority of person to nature is faithful to the biblical image of the human creature (the Son of God “assumed human nature,” after all, in order to save persons), and it comes to expression in the Cappadocian reinterpretation of the ancient term “hypostasis.” Nature, once again, is the content of the person. There is no independent human or divine nature. Rather, to borrow a Christological expression of Leontius of Byzantium, nature is enhypostasized: the nature exists only within the person (see Meyendorff, 1975, p. 63-68) Yet the person remains free from the constraints and limitations of nature. In his or her quest for the likeness of God, the person constantly transcends nature by relating to other persons in a communion of love.


Where does this leave us with regard to the status of the human embryo? There is no question among microbiologists that the embryo possesses unique genetic identity from the point of syngamy, the combining of parental DNA through fertilization. Genetically speaking, therefore, a new human being exists from the time of conception. Yet the question remains as to whether we can affirm the same thing with regard to “hypostatic identity.” Perhaps we can address the question this way:

There is no abstract human nature apart from our personal existence, the hypostatic reality within which that nature comes to unique expression. You and I share a common human nature, which includes our genetic makeup. Yet that nature is not some uniform substance that is divided up among us. It is the very content of our person and thus is itself unique. We share a common nature; but that nature exists and manifests itself in and through the uniqueness of each individual hypostasis. Without that hypostatic reality, the nature cannot exist. Now since nature includes our genetic identity, since it comes to expression as common human nature yet in a unique way with the fusion of the parental gametes, then that uniquely expressed nature must exist from the time of conception. We don’t “become human beings” at some later point in the gestation process. We are human beings from the very beginning of our existence.

If our anthropological vision is correct, however, this means that the person, the unique hypostatic reality of the newly conceived being, must also exist from the very beginning, from fertilization. Over the centuries, Roman Catholic theologians have debated whether the soul is “infused” into the embryo at conception or at some other point in the life of the embryo and fetus: at implantation, at quickening, or even at birth. This materialistic notion of “soul,” envisioned as a kind of (preexistent?) substance that is at some point infused into a growing embryo is misleading. It comes dangerously close to Origen’s notion of preexistent souls, which “incarnate” themselves in material bodies once those bodies come into existence. As I have insisted elsewhere, it is much more in keeping with the biblical view of man to say not that we have or possess a soul, but that we are souls (Gen 2:7). This implies that “soul,” the dynamic principle of human existence, is present and active within the embryo from the very beginning, from fertilization with the establishment of genetic identity.

Soul, however, like nature, cannot exist apart from the person, from a particular hypostasis. To argue the contrary would lead inevitably to a non-biblical dualism, a notion that is irreconcilable with Orthodoxy’s holistic conception of the human hypostasis. Soul, like nature, must be “enhypostasized”; it can only exist within a hypostasis. Neither nature nor soul can exist independently of the person or hypostasis that supports it. And conversely, the person cannot exist without nature and soul, without its ontological content and the principle that animates it. Since a new and unique expression of human nature exists from fertilization – from the creation of a genetically unique individual – the ensouled person who enhypostasizes and supports that nature must exist as well. Again, just as there is no person without nature, so there is no nature without person. If a new ontological identity, a unique expression of human nature, exists from syngamy, the uniting of the parental gametes, then the hypostasis or person must exist from that point as well. The only conclusion we can draw, then, is that personhood itself exists from fertilization, from the moment a unique genetic identity comes into being.

Consequently, we need to affirm that the human embryo, from conception, is a personal being, a living hypostasis, created in the image of God and constituted of a unique expression of the nature common to all of us. If we accept Zizioulas’ notion of “person in communion” as the most basic definition of the human being, then we must consider even the embryo to be a person à part entière, a hypostasis in the fullest sense. This is the case even if the mother is unaware that she is pregnant. Granted, no conscious relationship exists between the mother and the newly created child she is carrying. But this does not mean that the embryonic child is not in “relationship.” That child, from conception onward, is known and loved by God, whose divine image he or she bears. It is this relationship with the Creator that makes of each of us – from conception – a “person in communion”: in communion with the God who alone bestows upon us our unique and eternal hypostatic identity.

This conclusion has immense significance for the way we regard the human embryo. Biologically, it means that personal human life, full hypostatic existence, is determined by the process of fertilization, the fusion of the nuclei of the parental gametes. In theological terms, it means that personhood is determined not by social convention or utilitarian need. Personhood, unique hypostatic identity, is determined by God, who bestows that quality on human beings through the act of creation itself, that is, through the biological process that brings into being a unique individual. The object of that creative act bears the divine image from the very beginning of its existence. Just as we have to say that at no point other than fertilization is this new being “ensouled,” so we have to say that at no other point is this being a “person.” Personhood, like ensoulment, is conferred by God at conception, which means that a newly formed embryo must be accorded the status, not only of human being, but of human person from that point in its existence. It means as well that aborting a fetus or destroying embryonic life in order to harvest stem cells carries the same moral weight as infanticide or adult homicide. In each case we are taking the life of a person, a unique hypostasis, normally existing in relationship with others, and always existing in communion with God.

Once again, the most basic and crucial question for determining the morality of manipulating embryos and of destroying them by harvesting their stem cells, is this: Is the embryo, or is it not, a human person? If the anthropological perspective I have sketched out here is correct, meaning that the pre-implantation embryo itself is created in and bears the Image of God, then the answer to the question can only be affirmative. The human embryo, at the very earliest stage of its existence, is endowed with the divine Image, and from that point onward the newly created person is called to pursue a trajectory toward the Likeness of God, which will lead it through earthly existence and into eternity.


LaCugna, Catherine Mowry, God For Us. The Trinity and Christian Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), ch. 8, “Persons in Communion.”

Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1976), ch. 6, “Image and Likeness.”

Meyendorff, John, Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), ch. 4, “Man.”

Meyendorff, John, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1975).

Turcescu, Lucian, “’Person’ versus ‘Individual’, and Other Modern Misreadings of Gregory of Nyssa,” Modern Theology 18, no. 4 (Oct. 2002), 527-539; reprinted in C.Badilita and C. Kannengiesser, Les Pères de l’Église dans le monde d’aujourd’hui, (Paris: Beauchesne, 2006), 311-326.

Ware, Kallistos, “‘In the Image and Likeness’: The Uniqueness of the Human Person,” in Personhood. Orthodox Christianity and the Connection Between Body, Mind, and Soul (J. Chirban, ed.; Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1996), 1-13.

Ware, Timothy (Bp Kallistos), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993).

Zizioulas, (Metr) John, “Personhood and Being,” in Being As Communion (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1993), 27-65.

Zizioulas, (Metr) John, “Human Capacity and Human Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood,” Scottish Journal of Theology 28/5 (1975), 405ff.

Zizioulas, (Metr) John, “The Teaching of the 2nd Ecumenical Council on the Holy Spirit in Historical and Ecumenical Perspective,” in Credo in Spiritum Sanctum I, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983), 29-54.