Let My People Think

It’s often asserted that at a general level, humans consist of spirit, soul, and body. Interestingly, there is only one passage in the entire Biblical canon that lists the three side by side (1 Thess. 5:23). Even then, that passage has nothing to do with teaching human anthropology. Rather, the Scriptural anthropology teaches humans on the most general level consist of spirit and flesh. These two parts are directly compared, contrasted, and juxtaposed on in dozens of passages – as opposed to just one reference pulled out of context. (Yes, I know that I am going against the orthodoxy here – and I am quite comfortable doing it. Run your own keyword search on the Bible and see what you come up with).

It’s also often asserted that soul is “mind + will + emotions”. Interestingly, this equation originates from Hellenistic theories of the soul, directly traceable to pre-platonic / Pythagorean and early platonic theories of the soul. See Plato’s “Phaedo” (a.k.a. “On the Soul”) and “The Republic” to see where system of thought originated from. Plato’s theory of the soul presented in “The Republic” is:

“Soul = reason (mind) + appetites (emotions) + spirit (will)”.

Plato's Soul - Unscriptural Hellenistic Philosophy

According to Plato, spirit is that which mediates between a more orderly reason and more unruly emotions, mapping it into what we today would refer to as “will”, rather than the Scriptural notion of a spirit being life-giving breath of God. Plato’s pupil was Aristotle, who in turn developed a similar theory of the soul. Aristotle’s disciple Alexander the Great conquered the known world in mid-300s BC, and created the Greek empire, infusing the conquered people with Hellenistic (Greek) language and culture. A couple of centuries later Romans tool over Alexander’s empire, largely leaving the language and the culture intact.

Ancient Israel, the birthplace of Christianity, was under the political and cultural yoke of Rome when this happened. Greek culture and philosophy influenced and overshadowed many Hebrew ideas that are attested in the Scriptures. Some of the most significant corrupting influences were: in the area of human anthropology (which I discuss in this article), the innate mortality / immortality of a human being on a transcendent level (a.k.a. “(im)mortality of the soul”), the nature of afterlife, the nature of “heaven” and “hell”, the question of physical resurrection, and more generally – dualism between the physical and the spiritual realm.

In Hellenistic thinking, soul was the only surviving incorporeal component of human anthropology. In the Scriptures, that incorporeal component is referred to as “spirit”, or simply “breath” (breath of life, given by God). The “soul” is Scripturally described as a holistic unity of spirit and flesh, beginning with Genesis 2 onward. The Scripture makes no claims regarding human soul as being “mind, will, and emotions” as is often popularly stated. Again, that’s Platonism, and it’s not found anywhere in the Bible. Rather, those functions are typically attributed to what the Scripture refers to as the “heart”, throughout in hundreds of places throughout the Bible’s pages.

I have heard people say that “we are a spirit, we have a soul, we live in a body”. That’s an interesting opinion, but unfortunately not a Scriptural one. This ideology and phraseology are firmly rooted in ancient Greek philosophy. In Genesis 2 it states very clearly that God took Adam’s flesh, breathed into him the breath (spirit – same word) of life, and he BECAME a living soul. True, Adam was IN the flesh. So were we. After our new birth, our inner man got trans-located, and we are now IN the spirit. (We aren’t spirits – we are IN the spirit. Big difference there – you still need your body to make things work.)

Soul, or a living being (i.e., person, in the case of humans) is not simply “spirit + flesh”. A living person can’t be deconstructed to its constituent parts in a reductionist fashion, except for purely analytical purposes. God-designed personhood a holistic unity of both the flesh and the spirit, reflecting the image of God. (Of course, God took on human flesh as well in the person of Jesus 2000 years ago, and for Jesus that transformation is permanent). That’s precisely why you can’t speak of the salvation of the soul without paying attention to the body. Interestingly, the word “body” in Greek is “soma”, which can be translated as “tangible expression of one’s entirety / wholeness”. Body is very important in Biblical anthropology, and therefore divine healing and bodily resurrection form a crucial part of New Covenant theology.

This changes the theological playing field to include one’s physical body as an equal player in the creation, in the salvation, and in the glorification. As far as redemption is concerned, we have provision for divine healing and health. In the next life, it’s not really so much “going to heaven” as its final destination in a disembodied state. That idea is not derived from the Scripture, either. Our old friend Plato has a lot more to do with that belief than does the Bible. (I know that it may sound controversial, but the belief in eternal disembodied existence is solidly rooted in ancient pagan beliefs. A world-class Biblical scholar N.T Wright ably documents this in his books “Surprised By Hope” and “The Day The Revolution Began”, both of which I have read with great interest).

Rather, our the ultimate destiny is our bodily resurrection at a time when heaven and earth at last fully intersect. That was our ultimate destination according to Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. – life in a new body on the renewed earth.

Lastly, I will say a couple of words about what the Scripture refers to as our “heart”. Heart is very much romanticized and poeticized, but it’s very much an ignored component of human metaphysical anthropology in Bible and spiritual studies. And yet, it’s a key part of us that critical to successfully entering into and sustaining a personal connection with God and his kingdom. It includes (roughly) at least these components: beliefs, will, mind, emotions, imagination, intuition, intimacy center (that’s not just emotions), and God-resonance (sort of a tuning fork).

Our metaphysical heart directly interfaces with the spirit. Human spirit is only reachable via heart’s faculties. It may bear a stronger relationship to the eponymous physical organ, but the evidence that I’ve collected for that is rather spotty, so I won’t put my money on that horse just yet.

That’s the understanding that I’ve arrived at about 3-4 years ago, which really helped me immensely with subsequent research into the deeper things of God. I hope this understanding will do the same for you.

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Comments on: "Hellenism, Plato, and the corruption of Biblical anthropology" (11)

  1. This is a big topic, because we’ve been so indoctrinated into the reductionist. Hellenistic model by the church, so it’s hard to break out of that paradigm. What you are essentially describing ,then, is that spirit and body together make up the soul, and it’s a holistic totality that can’t be separated except for academic, analytic purposes. This seems to have the most bearing on the body as healing and health should be a very real and integral part of our redeemed state. It also changes the notion of the disembodied afterlife. Are there any other significant aspects of this that should rock the paradigm 🙂 Besides N.T. Wright are there any other resources that would be helpful? This is so timely because tonight I was going to a refresher course on “Spirit, Soul, Body.” I think the timing of your post is more than a coincidence!

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    • Thank you for your feedback Chris! What you said is exactly it – yes, this is an irreducible holistic complexity, and yes – bodily well-being is just as important as spiritual one. Harold Eberle specifically documents how these ideas crept from Greek philosophy into early Christianity in his book “Christianity Unshackled”. I arrived at this semi-independently, when things didn’t add up and I began to dig deep.

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      • Yes, things definitely don’t add up in a lot of areas of current Christian thought.. Unraveling all this is daunting but so worth the effort. I will have to check out Eberle’s book.Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. In the New Testament, the “flesh” is often used metaphorically, as the unrenewed mindset ignorant or in opposition to God’s rule; whereas, the “walking in the spirit” is allowing God’s Spirit to inform our spirit-man. The two stand in opposition. Basically it comes back to, we’re either metaphorically “eating” from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or eating from the Tree of Life.

    To your point on the resurrection, it’s interesting to me that so many Christians still don’t understand the bodily resurrection, which is a central tenet of the Christian faith! That ignorance is definitely the influence of Plato and Gnosticism in church history.

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    • Thank you for your feedback Mel! Great points about the flesh and the spirit. Yes – bodily resurrection is the central idea for Christianity as testified by the resurrection of Jesus. Instead, disembodied existence in heaven is often promoted as a final destination for Christians.

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  3. I keep coming back to this and chewing on it. Do you think the heart is in the spirit or part of the spirit? Do you think it may be the connection between the body and spirit?

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  4. What are your thoughts on Hebrews 4:12 in relation to this. The word of God is able divide between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and knows the heart. It looks like 4 parts. Also, do think God could have given Plato revelation which of human makeup which was not found in scripture?

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    • Sure, regular psuche-life can be separated from life in the spirit, that’s what the word does. Joints and marrow, I see those as a comparison to support the main point. Thoughts and intentions of the heart is yet another point about the word being living and active.

      By the way, this passage is taking about cosmic Christ, rather than the Bible. In other words, the surrounding world reacts to the origins of our thoughts and to what our heart emits, and it reacts accordingly.

      I do believe Plato has some good points to his theory, and he is using the word “soul” in a similar sense as “spirit” is used Biblically. But either way, it’s only spirit and flesh – so, two things only. Biblical revelation is a lot more comprehensive though.

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  5. Sorry for all the comments, but mostly I get questions. Do you think the terms soul and heart could be interchangeable?

    Liked by 1 person

    • No problem brother! There’s a lot of similarity between those. Heart is the center of all interior activity, and soul is the human being in his or her entirety. So if you talk about one’s interior life, heart is the best and the most precise term to use, but soul would include those things also.

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