Can a Social Identity Approach Shed Light on the Relationship Between Personal Identity and Identity in Christ?

D. T. Everhart
Wednesday 12 January 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

The transformation of human identity in union with Christ is of central importance to the Christian gospel. In Christ, the believer receives a new identity, so that the question, “who am I?” has new meaning in relation to who Christ is. The nature of this transformation, however, has been a matter of debate in recent theological and exegetical work. Christology, specifically the Christology of the Apostle Paul, raises questions about the eschatological identity and distinguishability of individuals who are “in Christ”, especially as in this new identity, the believer comes to have, “the mind of Christ.” In particular, many theologians and biblical scholars have debated whether the Apostle Paul, in stating that the believer shares in a new identity in Christ and shares in the mind of Christ, proffers an eschatological cessation of the identity of the individual who is in Christ. While there is much theological speculation about the nature of identity and mind, little of that speculation has engaged the actuality of the cognitive and psychological processes by which humans form identity and share mental states with one another. What little has been done has thus far been limited to the particular use of joint attention, by which agents can share mental states with one another, in developmental psychology. Further scientific engagement is essential to asking the question, “who am I in Christ?” as a human creature with a human social psyche. The theological puzzle of Christian identity requires such further inquiry.

Social Identity Approach (SIA), a methodology operative in the psychology of group behavior which combines Social Categorization Theory (SCT) and Social Identity Theory (SIT), argues that shared identity is the basis for personal identity rather than something which would undermine or eradicate it. Does the Social Identity Approach rule out any readings of shared identity in Christ and does it offer any new resources for constructing the relationship between personal and shared identity?

It is the hypothesis of this author that, rather than undermining either shared identity or personal identity, SIA provides a conceptual hinge between individuals in which individuals can be clearly delineated while sharing central aspects of their identity with one another. This provides a broader psychological framework for understanding theological uses of joint attention, offering a more nuanced and clear delineation between individuals sharing mental states. If my hypothesis is correct, then persons who are in Christ share together in a group identity—the communio Dei—that is primarily informed by the personal identity of Christ. Sharing in this group identity provides a psychological basis for the sharing of members in the mental states of Christ. Such a model opens up new ways of thinking about our having the mind of Christ and having a new identity in Christ.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Pauline Identity in Christ

At the centre of this theological issue is the theological and exegetical interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s writings. It is in Paul that we find these interesting conundrums about identity, mind, and transformation in Christ. If personal identity is shared, am I as a member of the communio Dei now indistinguishable from Christ since I share in his identity? If I have his mind, is my agency identical to Christ’s? Some Pauline scholars argue explicitly that this is the case. One passage commonly interpreted in this way is Galatians 2:19-20. In it, Paul claims that he has died and now it is Christ who lives in him: “not I (ἐγώ), but Christ who lives in me.” This interpretation, predominantly held by radical apocalyptic interpreters of Paul, understands this passage to mean a cessation of the existence of the “I”, so that all become the single person of Christ.[1] Beverly Gaventa, as one such interpreter, has argued vehemently that, for Paul, identity in Christ is “singular in that it is all-consuming: there is no more” (Gaventa 2014, 195). The sharing of identity and mind is so absolute, on this reading of Paul, that we cease to be distinguishable individuals in union with Christ. Any sense of distinguishability between Christ’s consciousness and our own is lost so that all may become “I” in Christ. Radical apocalyptic interpretations emphasize the psychological experience of consciousness, especially consciousness of others in relation to the self. Framed in this way, the radical apocalyptic interpretation of Paul collapses all psychological experience into Christ’s own psychological experience and consciousness.

Yet this reading of Paul is not obviously true. Many Pauline scholars and theologians have challenged this reading, pointing to Paul’s recognition of individuals as distinct from Christ and one another despite sharing in Christ’s identity. Simeon Zahl’s work on Paul’s soteriology repudiates the competitive way individuals and groups are conceived of by such scholars (Zahl 2021). Susan Eastman, a prominent Pauline scholar, writes in her work on Paul’s view of persons, “the power of God [in union with Christ] works in [Paul’s] life without obliterating his ‘self’…the power of God frees Paul to be an agent, an acting subject” (Eastman 2007, 60). Thomas McCall, approaching the subject from an analytic and theological perspective, raises several concerns with reading Paul as claiming a cessation of his own (and therefore, the Christian’s) identity in union with Christ. He not only points out Paul’s consistent reference to believers as individual agents, but also problematizes thinking of our agency, which is sometimes sinful, as being conflated with the agency of Christ (McCall 2020, 15-17). Instead, McCall proposes that we think of a transformation of Paul’s “I” that comes about through interpersonal relation to Christ’s “Thou.”

If McCall’s assessment is correct then these radical apocalyptic interpreters have conflated the conditions for numerical identity, the sense in which I am the same subject across time and change, with a descriptive sense of personal identity by which I am identified as that particular subject which I am across time and change. Such a conflation would have dangerous consequences. For one, if the descriptive sense of personal identity, which changes over time as we partake in new relationships, becomes identified with new social groups, and so on, is the same as the conditions for numerical identity over time, then every change in personal identity would constitute a cessation of being and the occasion for the creation of a new being with new conditions for numerical identity. This seems like an odd sort of claim to make; intuitively we would like to say that we are the same person or same being over time even as we grow and develop in “who” we are. This is all the more true for our transformation in Christ. At least at some level, each of us want to be able to say that “Christ saves me”, as opposed to Christ saving something else and me ceasing to exist. For this to make sense, the “I” prior to my union with Christ must be the same “I” which is now in union with Christ even as Christ transforms that “I” into his image. The fact of numerical identity is assumed, even as the personal identity which refers to that particular being changes over time.

Not only does this conflation call into question the continuity of Paul’s selfhood before and after union with Christ, but it seems to conflate Christ’s identity with Paul’s identity. To account for the sharing in a new identity in Christ and sharing in Christ’s mind, we must also be able to maintain the kind of ontological distinction between persons consistent with numerical identity. Conflating our personal identity with Christ’s personal and numerical identity results in the conflation of persons in radical apocalyptic interpretations of Paul. This is the identity problem I would like to address. How does the “I” share in the “Thou” without becoming “Thou”, but instead remaining a distinguishable “I”?

One way in which theologians have attempted to answer this question of the sharing of identity and mind is by drawing on recent accounts of joint attention and second-personal knowing of others in union.[2] The theological appropriations of joint attention are well rehearsed and defended, and so I will only summarize them briefly for the purposes relevant to this puzzle. On Stump’s account, for instance, the unitive love between persons “is reciprocal, and requires mutual closeness” (Stump 2018, 17). By sharing in close second-personal presence made possible by joint attention, persons can empathetically share second-personal knowledge of one another, so that “one person has within herself something of the mind of the other” (Stump 2018, 130). The kind of knowing these accounts aim at is the knowledge of persons, often called interpersonal knowledge or second-personal knowledge. This is the sort of knowledge at play in personal identity by which we can distinguish one person from another: “for mature subjects, interpersonal knowledge typically brings with it some knowledge-who by which the known person can be individuated” (Benton 2017, 824-825). When persons attend to each other in joint attention, they can read and take on one another’s mental states through the sharing of interpersonal knowledge.

Stump uses this to describe union with Christ, so that Christ can take on our mental states on the cross in the cry of dereliction and we can take on Christ’s mental states in the reconciliation of our minds through the atonement (Stump 2018, 164-166). McCall helpfully summarizes this use of joint attention for the aforementioned Pauline passages: “Paul and Christ know one another to such an extent that Paul and Christ come to share the same affections and intentions. Thus, Paul comes to know—even if imperfectly, yet more and more—what Christ values, what Christ loathes, and what Christ loves” (McCall 2020, 20). This extends from diadic to triadic joint attention, as McCall notes, to include further persons in, so that Paul can participate in Christ’s relationship with his Father by attending to Christ’s affections and intentions towards his Father (McCall 2020, 20-21). This provides a way of thinking about Paul having the mind of Christ and having a new identity in Christ without Paul ceasing to be a distinguishable agent through interpersonal knowing. By sharing his mental states, specifically those which relate to his relationship with the Father, with Paul, Paul partakes in Christ’s identity as the Son of the Father. Rather than Christ assuming and replacing us, he becomes a part of our networks of relationships to constitute “a new system of self-in-relationship…embedded and bodily enacted in the new relational matrix generated by belonging to Christ” (Eastman 2017, 105). Our networks, so to speak, are still distinguishable, even though they overlap in the sharing of identity and minds through relationship.

Such usage of joint attention in theology assumes this distinction between overlapping networks; where this distinction occurs, however, is not made clear. More specifically, it is not clear where Christ’s mental states end and where Paul’s mental states begin. Diadic joint attention assumes, at some level, a distinction between Paul and Christ’s first-person perspectives, but this does not distinguish explicitly between Paul’s internalizing Christ’s mental states as he comes to love precisely what Christ loves and Christ’s own first-person knowing and loving of the Father. Insofar as Paul internalizes Christ’s mental states and comes to love, value, and intend the same things as Christ, it is conceivable that Paul’s having the mind of Christ could eventually transform his first-person perspective to be exactly identical to Christ’s. While this is clearly not intended by these theological accounts of joint attention, it is nevertheless a possibility and leaves open still the identity problem which I have in mind here.

2.2 Social Identity Approach

It is at this point that I shall turn to the resources of group psychology to better understand the human psyche and its capacity for relationality in groups of persons. Psychology is such a helpful tool at this point because it is precisely in our human ways of knowing and relating to one another that God relates to us, becoming incarnate and taking on a human network of interpersonal relations in order to restore our relations with God and one another. In looking at agency and co-action in Social Identity Approach (SIA), a more nuanced distinction can be drawn between discreet agents who share some crucial aspect of their respective identities. This will give us clear language to describe the Christian’s sharing in the incarnate Christ’s identity and mind in a human way that does not collapse our personal or numerical identity into Christ’s.

One approach in psychology to explaining human social behaviour and shared features of identity has been SIA. This is a combination of Social Identity Theory (SIT) and Self-Categorization Theory (SCT). “These theories are linked by their concern with the processes which surround the way that people define themselves as members of a social group – which, here, is the meaning of the term ‘social identity’” (Reicher et al. 2010, 45).

Rather than presuming philosophical categories of identity and agency a priori, this approach draws on the actual functions of groups in society, offering practical insights applied to a number of different kinds of groups including elective groups, physical and psychological crowds, and work organizations (Reicher et al. 2010, 46). This approach understands identity and agency as bound up together in socialized ways; individual persons influence, persuade, lead, and model for one another in ways that constitute a salient basis for both group and individual actions. Important, therefore, to this approach is that the identity and agency of the group cannot be reduced to a sum of individual identities and agencies, nor can individual identity and agency be reduced to a shared group identity. Rather, this approach to social identity “provides substance to the notion of a socially structured field within the individual. It thereby explains how large numbers of people can act in coherent and meaningful ways, by reference to shared group norms, values, and understandings rather than idiosyncratic beliefs” (Reicher et al. 2010, 48). The appeal of this approach, then, is both in its broad application to a variety of kinds of human social groups and its practicality in accounting for individual agency within those groups. Being able to saliently account for both individual and group identity (especially in relation to agency) indicates a way forward in delineating distinctions between persons that share together in some identity.

SIT contributes to our understanding of personal identity, “a bridge between the individual and the social and how it allows one to explain how socio-cultural realities can regulate the behaviours of individuals…social identity provides a psychological apparatus that allows humans uniquely to be irreducibly cultural beings” (Reicher et al. 2010, 50). SIT was based on a series of studies on group behaviour in which arbitrary groups were formed in order to understand individual identification in relation to group identification and the impulse to act in accordance with group interest (Tajfel 1972, 58). As distinctive group behaviour became apparent in these arbitrarily formed groups, Tajfel concluded that “people come to define their selves in terms of group membership… break[ing] with the traditional assumption that the self should only be understood as that which defines the individual in relation to other individuals, and to acknowledge that, in some circumstances, we can define ourselves through the groups to which we belong” (Reicher et al. 2010, 48). The development of SIT led to positive understandings of what groups contribute to the identities of individual members, seeing groups as a part of the formation of personal identity.

This usually occurs in two ways. Comparatively, we can identify ourselves according to features common to other members of our groups. Contrastively, we can identify ourselves as distinct or different from members of other groups, defining ourselves by what we are not in relation to social groupings (Reicher et al. 2020, 49). Social identification, in this theory, is about how we as individuals see ourselves (and don’t see ourselves) in terms of our social groupings (Neville et al. 2020, 2). Personal identity is thus both individual and social at the same time. As Reicher et al. put it: “on the one hand, my social identities – ‘I am a woman’, ‘I am a Scot’ or whatever – speak in a fundamental way to who I am in the world. But what any of these memberships mean cannot be reduced to my own or indeed anybody else’s individuality…social identity provides a conduit through which society inhabits the subject” (Reicher et al. 2010, 48). Therefore, the parts or features of personal identity are drawn and informed by our participation in social groups. In social identification, we define ourselves as individuals in relation to other persons and social groupings. What the content of these identifying features is, however, is not wholly defined by self-identifying individual.

SCT is employed to fill in this gap between self-identification and the socialized content of that identification. SCT is used to describe how a group gets its identity and how that shared identity contributes saliently to the personal identity of group members. Said differently, SCT accounts for how the “I” comes to understand itself as a member of the “we” and what the content of “we” is with respect to “I.” SCT was developed to clarify “the distinction between social identity and other aspects of the self concept, to explain how the self system is organized and what makes any one part of this system psychologically active in a given context” (Reicher et al. 2010, 51-52). This protects the distinguishability of individual persons within a group by maintaining that the shared identity is not the totality of personal identity. Rather, it is a part of personal identity, interacting with every other aspect or part to constitute the individual person’s identity.

As the name indicates, SCT concerns our categorization of ourselves, but also of one another. SCT is our individual recognition that we are members of a given group and the recognition by others as members of that group (Neville 2020, 5). Social identity, seen through the lens of SCT, is not purely subjective. The identity of the group, as well as my personal identity in relation to the group, is not wholly defined by my conception of myself (nor, it is argued, does self-conception occur in a social vacuum). Rather, it is a summation of members categorizing the group and categorizing each other with respect to the group category that constitutes the content of the group’s shared identity (Neville et al. 2020, 4). A group’s shared identity, therefore, is recursive with respect to the personal identity of its members. Shared identity contributes something salient to personal identity of group members, and individual members continue to shape the shared identity of the group in virtue of their personal identity. The identifying features of a given group grow and transform as new members are added or as current members change in their understanding of the group’s identity. Some of this change will come about as a result of changes in that group’s shared identity. This leaves us with a relational feed-back loop in which groups transform the identity of members, members transform the identity of groups, and so on.

When combined, the resultant SIA to personal identity conceives of the self, while distinctive and discreet, as identified in relation to others in social groups. John C. Turner, an early proponent of SIA, clarifies that the self is known in comparison and contrast to others at various levels of abstraction; one is sometimes identified as a member of this group versus that group and sometimes as this particular group member as opposed to that one (Turner 1982; Turner et al. 1984). This identification can be performed at numerous levels of abstraction, but we can never, on this view, so thoroughly abstract the self-concept so as to isolate an identification of the “I” from relation to others. SCT grounds the content of social identity in our participation in and socialized identification with various social groups. Thus, the personal identity of discreet agents is distinct from but also inseparable from shared social identity and group action: “(inter)personal behaviour is not simply underpinned but also made possible by a salient personal identity, just as (inter)group behaviour is both underpinned and made possible by a salient social identity” (Reicher et al. 2010, 52). Reicher et al. summarize SIA to personal identity in this way:

It stresses the sociality of the construct in at least three ways. First, social identity is a relational term, defining who we are as a function of our similarities and differences with others. Second, social identity is shared with others and provides a basis for shared social action. Third, the meanings associated with any social identity are products of our collective history and present. Social identity is therefore something that links us to the social world. It provides the pivot between the individual and society. (Reicher et al. 2010, 45).

The joint attention literature which the above theologians are drawing on has long held that human beings depend on relationship to one another for the cognitive and psychological capacities which we generally attribute to agency and identity (Sipsova and Carpenter 2019, 60-61). What SIA tells us is that this more often than not occurs within socially structured groups in ways that allow for demarcation between those social influences and the self. A certain mental state, for instance, can be shared by an individual with the group in a way that changes the group’s identity and how that group understands itself. In doing so, that mental state is shared with other group members who can internalize the mental state and make it their own in a way that saliently transforms their personal identity. It is clear on this description how the mental state is shared, what it contributes to the identity of individuals, and how the sharing and shared-with individuals are distinct in relation to the content of the shared mental state. The group, and its shared identity, provides a conceptual hinge between persons within the group who are sharing mental states with one another. This provides a way for us to describe our sharing in one another’s minds and identities using the language of shared identity.

3. Discussion

With regard to identity in Christ, it appears at least intuitively that my initial hypothesis was correct. SIA neither undermines personal identity by collapsing it into a shared identity between persons, nor undermines the possibility of the sharing of identity between individual subjects. Rather, personal identity is inherently socialized, constituted at least partially by participation in the shared identity of groups. This shared identity undergoes change when the personal identity and mental states that contribute to the shared identity change. Likewise, changes to that shared identity can lead to changes in what that shared identity contributes to individuals. Throughout these changes in shared mental states and features of identity, the respective identity of individual members who share these features remain distinguishable because they hold these features and mental states in virtue of their identification with the given group. Because the group is not reducible to the sum total of individual agents that make up its members, and because the identity of the members is not reducible to the shared identity of the group, the group identity is distinct from the personal identities that it contributes to, and therefore those features and mental states shared among group members are distinguishable from the total features and mental states of any given member. Because the shared identity of the group is a distinct conceptual hinge between group members, even a situation where group members share all identity features and mental states would not result in a collapse in the personal identity of the two members. The two members would remain distinct as this member versus that member of the given group.

Christ, as fully human with a presumably human psyche, can therefore share features of his identity with a given group as a member of said group. When he does so in a way that saliently changes the identity of the group, for instance by sharing a mental state with the group that significantly changes the group’s self-categorization or the group’s categorization by non-group members, Christ changes the features of the identity that is shared among the group’s members. Because the way that the group’s shared identity came about, other members and even non-members could identify the new or changed feature as coming from the personal identity of Christ. Thus, it could be said that Christ’s identity transformed the identity of the given group. By transforming the group’s identity, what that shared identity contributes to the personal identity of individual members is also transformed, resulting in the transformation of personal identities by Christ’s identity. Because one way this is done is by sharing mental states with the group, the individual group members could also be said to share in group mental states that are Christ’s, sharing in the mind of Christ as a group.

In this model of sharing in the mind of Christ, personal identities of individual members of the given group are transformed by Christ’s personal identity. In Pauline fashion, we will identify this group that shares in Christ’s mind and identity as the body of Christ. However, it is clear from the model given where the distinction between Christ’s identity and Paul’s, between Christ’s mind and Paul’s, exists. Christ is the one who contributes the given mental state to the shared identity of the body of Christ. Paul’s mind, which was once at enmity with God such that he was identified as “against God”, is transformed by sharing in the body with which Christ shares his mind. Within the body of Christ, and specifically within the transformation happening to the group’s identity and shared mental states, Paul and Christ have distinct roles. Christ is the one guiding the formation of the body of Christ; it is his mental state of the Son’s love for the Father that becomes a new feature of identity for the group. Theologically, we might want to point to Christ as the firstborn of the new creation, or perhaps his lordship over the Church, or even his being the one in whom the New Humanity is founded as the basis for this unique role. To whatever we might want to attribute Christ’s role, it is clear that his role within the group holds some sort of primacy or particular power to share his identifying relationship with his Father to the group in a way constitutive of the group’s shared identity. Paul, on the other hand, serves a different role or function. He, in the first place, is being transformed by this new shared identity feature. When he internalizes that identity feature, knowing himself to be a child of God, his role is not primarily to share his own mental states or identity with others, but to point to a sharing in Christ’s identity and mind. So even if we were to posit, as radical apocalyptic readers of Paul often do, an eschatological absoluteness to the sharing in Christ’s mind and identity, there would remain a distinctiveness in the roles that each individual plays within the body of Christ, especially with respect to sharing mental states and social identity features. Christ is the head of his body; it is his personal identity that primarily (or on some ecclesiologies, exclusively) determines the shared identity of the group. Paul, no matter how much of Christ’s shared identity and mental states that he internalizes, can never serve in that role.

4. Conclusion

The model of identity in Christ offered here can give a robust and clarified answer to the identity problem posed by radical interpreters of Paul. While such a model can maintain the extremity of being “in Christ” which seems to motivate apocalyptic interpreters, we need not collapse the numerical identity of Paul (or other believers) into the personal and numerical identity of Christ. Rather, SIA allows us to maintain the distinction between Christ and those who share in his identity and mind by appealing to the group, the body of Christ, as a conceptual hinge between Christ and his people. In doing so, we may still have the robust sense in which Paul comes to know and love the Father as Christ does, but without requiring that Paul cease to exist as Paul and be subsumed into Christ.

To conclude this puzzle, I will note some key features of the model which are due for exploration in future work following this puzzle. For one, participation in Christ’s identity and sharing in his mind seem to be a group or corproate reality, not merely a series of individual ones. Paul does not share in Christ’s mind on his own, but does so as a member of this particular group, the body of Christ. The fact that the group, constituted by many members with different roles, acts as a conceptual hinge between Christ and individuals sharing in his identity means that group membership and relation to other believers are indispensible features of identity in Christ. Further, the relationship of individual members of the body to each others personal identity warrants further exploration. Can, for instance, a member of the body who is not Christ, and thus not having his role of headship over the Church, still contribute to the shared identity of the body of Christ in non-primary ways? What, if anything, do these contributions look like? And finally, do these contributions have the potential to influence Christ’s personal identity as conceived of by SIA? While we might want to resist this last question, as it pushes towards an open theistic understanding of Christ’s divine identity, we need not commit ourselves to such a position in order to integrate SIA into our understanding of identity in Christ. Rather, we might want to talk about Christ “becoming sin” or taking on the sinful features of our identity in the atonement in order to put our sinfulness or the sinful features of our identity to death on the cross. Unfortunately, such explorations will need to be saved for future work. While SIA offers an interesting way forward in theological and exegetical debates about identity in Christ, there are still further theological questions to be answered about the implications of this model.


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[1] See, (Campbell 2009, 848; Hampson 2001, 237-241; Barclay 2002, 143). This is similar to a problem raised by J.T. Turner, who argues that abrupt transformation entails a cessation of being: (Turner 2017).

[2] See, (Eastman 2018, 157; Stump 2010, 113-119).

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Everhart, D. T. 2022. “Can a Social Identity Approach Shed Light on the Relationship Between Personal Identity and Identity in Christ?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 5).

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