No Dualisms! Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Bookstore

The book display at the Jubilee 2015 conference that I recently spoke at was organized and staffed (as it is every year) by bookseller extraordinaire, Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Books.

When I say “book display” I should put that in the plural; there were multiple tables with an amazing array of works in theology, biblical studies, ethics, and topics on how faith relates to every aspect of culture and society.

Byron has an encyclopedic knowledge of good books, both classical and contemporary, and he has done a phenomenal job over the years introducing many Christians to a depth of life-transforming knowledge that they otherwise would not have known about.

The book displays also featured works written by speakers at this year’s Jubilee conference, including my own recent eschatology book, A New Heaven and a New Earth (plus all my other books!).

In fact, Byron has written two reviews of my eschatology book, one extended, the other briefer—to accompany his naming it as biblical studies “book of the year” (given the number of books Byron reads, that’s quite an honor).

Byron recently posted a comment on his Facebook page about one of my blogs (from about a year ago) that addressed the relationship of my own eschatological vision to that of New Testament scholar Tom Wright (via Brian Walsh).

Here is Byron’s post:

I have often noted how N.T. Wright dedicated his first big “Origins” book (“The New Testament and the People of God”) to Brian Walsh. Brian tells a bit about his studying Colossians with Wright in his and Sylvia Keesmaat’s “Colossians Remixed” and how he pressed Tom to more fully proclaim the full-orbed redemption the text insists upon. (And what a joy to have a back cover endorsement blurb right next to Tom on that extraordinary book!)

Here, the co-author of Brian’s “Transforming Vision” (one of my all time favorite books) J Richard Middleton shows the connection between TV, which they were writing even while Brian was engaging Tom Wright with a more comprehensive view of God redeeming all things. Now that Richard has written the definitive book on wholistic eschatology (“A New Heaven and a New Earth”) — and spoken about it at Jubilee last week — I thought I’d share his rumination on this little story.

Three cheers for their phrase “no dualisms” which CCO used to have printed up on staff tee-shirts! Three cheers for Tom, Brian, Sylvia, and Richard. I am thankful to know about such significant authors, and to praise God for these generative friendships.

Well, I couldn’t find a picture of the T-shirt that Byron mentions, but I did find this:

Byron, thanks for all your work for the kingdom!

Paul on the “Soul”—Not What You Might Think

Many Christians throughout history have thought that the “soul” was an immaterial part of the person, and of more importance than the body. Moreover, the “soul” has often been regarded as the immortal or eternal part of the person.

Plato versus the Old Testament on the “Soul”

We have now come to understand that this view of the “soul” ultimately goes back to Plato. In Plato’s anthropological dualism, the human person is constituted by body (partaking of mortality, change, and impermanence) and soul (the higher, eternal part of the person; in some sense, the true person). Plato understood soul (psyche) as essentially mind and regarded it as divine (he called it “the god within”).

Plato’s anthropological dualism (the split in the human person) corresponded to his broader ontological dualism (the split in the nature of reality). He thought that the finite, changeable realm of physical existence, along with sense perception and bodily desires, was manifestly inferior to the divine, immaterial realm of rational intelligibility (the “Forms” or “Ideas”), which existed eternally and without change.

In contrast to the Platonic view is the Old Testament vision of a good creation; God made the cosmos (including materiality) and pronounced it “very good” (Gen 1:31).

Likewise, the Old Testament understanding of nephesh (the Hebrew word typically translated “soul”) is very different from Plato’s idea of the soul. It’s core meaning is simply organic life (the semantic range of the term includes other uses, but this is basic). This core meaning shows up in Genesis 2:7, where God creates the first man to be a “living soul” (that is, a living organism).

Paul on the Contrast of “Flesh” and “Spirit”

But doesn’t the Apostle Paul have a contrast between flesh and spirit? Isn’t this an anthropological dualism, a contrast between two parts of the person?

It is true that Pauline language about “flesh” and “Spirit” can sound dualistic. But when Paul uses “flesh” in the negative sense (he also uses it positively) he means the power of corruption in the world and in human life, and does not mean the body per se. Likewise “Spirit” refers to the power of God to transform our lives, including our bodies at the resurrection. So “flesh” and “Spirit” are contrasted as two powers that can affect every dimension of life; they are not two realms or two parts of the human person. And they lead to two different ways of life.

Paul typically contrasts following the way of Christ (led by the Spirit) and following the values of this corrupted world. The key here is that God’s good world has been infected by sin (the world is not the way it was meant to be), so we need to resist the present order of things and follow Christ’s way. Since Christ’s way is a radical alternative to this world, it will involve denial and possibly even suffering.

But the ultimate result of suffering for Paul is glory—the resurrection and the age to come. The end point is the world redeemed from its corruption. So, while Paul is brutally honest about the real ethical and religious distinction between good and evil (which he sometimes terms spirit and flesh), he does not identify the created order with evil. Indeed, he affirms that creation will be redeemed.

“Soul” Is Not the Opposite of Body for Paul

Interestingly, “soul” (psyche) is never contrasted to the body in Paul.

Soul isn’t part of Paul’s typical anthropology. He doesn’t think of a human as body and soul; he does speak of the inner person and the outer person, which is more phenomenological, since we experience an inner and an outer of our life, but he doesn’t treat them as separable pieces of the person.

In one place (1 Thessalonians 5:23) Paul mentions spirit, soul, and body, meaning something like lock, stock, and barrel (he is not giving us his theoretical anthropology).

Beyond that, both the word “soul” (psyche) and the adjective “soulish” (psychikos) show up in Paul as value-laden terms. The latter is translated “natural” in English versions, and its value is overwhelmingly negative. Let us look at two main examples of this Pauline usage.

“Soul” and “Soulish” in 1 Corinthians 15

The first example is from 1 Corinthians 15, which describes our present mortal/corruptible body as a psychikos (natural) body, in contrast to our future immortal resurrection body as a pneumatikos (spiritual) body. When Paul says “spiritual” he doesn’t mean immaterial. Platonists have often read this as a reference to an immaterial body, whatever that means. but Paul means a body enlivened, empowered, and transformed by God’s Spirit.

This is clear from his contrast in the same chapter between Adam and Christ. Drawing on Genesis 2, he says that Adam was created a living soul (we saw that “soul” in Hebrew usually means a living/breathing organism). So Adam is a psyche/soul. He does not have a soul. The point is he is a mortal organism.

But Paul says that Christ was raised a life-giving Spirit. Is Paul denying the bodily resurrection?

Not at all. He means that Christ’s resurrection, which came about by the vivifying power of God’s Spirit, has the potential to impart the same life to us also (this is a central theme in Paul’s letters)—both in the present (to enable us to live a new life) and in the future (when even our bodies will be redeemed).

But my main point in referencing 1 Corinthians 15 is that Paul contrasts not soul and body, but soul (mortality) and (God’s) Spirit (the power of new life). These are not two realms or two parts of the person, but more like two powers (or one impotent reality and one powerful reality).

“Soulish” in 1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4

The second example requires us to go beyond most current English translations, back to the King James Version (KJV) or the American Standard Version (ASV), which are more literal (but the current translations are not wrong).

In 1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4 Paul addresses the wisdom of God (which is from the Spirit of God, and which we can’t grasp unless we have God’s Spirit) with the folly of the world. Here he contrasts “the Spirit who is from God” with the “spirit of the world” in 2:12.

Then Paul goes on to distinguish those who are spiritual (pneumatikos; 2:13, 15; 3:1), who have God’s Spirit, from 1) those who are psychikos (the “natural man” in KJV; 2:14) and from 2) those who are sarkinos (the “carnal man” in KJV; 3:1, 3).

When I heard this passage preached from the KJV (long, long ago), the distinction was made between being spiritual, natural, and carnal (three levels of spirituality, if you will).

Pretty much all modern translations now (correctly) identify psychikos (soulish/natural) with sarkinos (fleshly/carnal) and often translate them the same, sometimes with “unspiritual” or “natural.” They correctly treat soul and flesh as equivalent here.

So living according to the flesh means living as one who accepts the ordinary, fallen world (= soul) as normative (both flesh and soul are contrasted with living according to God’s Spirit). Living according to soul/flesh is equivalent to living according to the “spirit of the world” (2:12).

“Soul” (psyche) and the adjective “soulish” (psychikos) are overwhelmingly negative terms in Pauline theology.

What About the “Salvation of the Soul”?

That phrase is found in 1 Peter 1:9 and in Hebrews 10:39 (neither written by Paul), and in both cases “soul” means the whole person (as a living organism); soul is not contrasted with body (compare modern translations to see this).

But Paul himself could never speak of the “salvation of the soul”!

In contrast to Plato (and the Platonic worldview that the church has often inherited), Paul doesn’t think of “soul” as a part of the person. Rather both “soul” and “soulish” designate for Paul the corrupt world that is passing away.

The Church’s Mishandling of the Gospel—Living with Unanswered Questions, Part 2

In my last post, I raised some of my questions about what the Bible teaches—especially where this teaching seems to contradict human experience, modern science, or other things the Bible teaches.

But not everything the Bible teaches is difficult to understand. Some of my questions have to do with why the church distorts biblical teaching that seems to be quite clear.

To put it another way, why do Christians do such a terrible job of living out the gospel, or even of grasping what the gospel is about? This leaves me utterly perplexed.

The Church’s Reduction of the Gospel to the “Spiritual”

To start with, there is the common reduction of the gospel to some small “spiritual” area of life, as if our faith doesn’t embrace the entirety of life in the world God has made. This other-worldliness in the Christianity I was raised with (this division between the “secular” and the “sacred”) makes no sense, given what the Bible teaches.

The Bible teaches that this world is God’s creation and he loves and cares for it, despite the sinful brokenness we humans have introduced. In fact, he loves the world so much that Jesus came to die on the cross for our sin, and now forgiveness and new life are offered to all who want a part in the restoration of the world.

The Church’s Blindness to Present Evil in the World

But the sacred/secular division not only blurs our vision of this good world, it often leads to our ignoring—or even buying into—the present evil in the world (in the so-called “secular” area), since it offers us no resources for challenging that evil on the basis of how the world should be.

One egregious example of this is the unholy mixing of the gospel, especially in the United States, with secular ideologies. This results in sincere people who claim to be disciples of the Crucified One advocating military action and even torture against people whom they think of as their enemies (without any pangs of conscience or struggle about how this relates to the teachings of Jesus).

It is paradoxical that the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1980s put out a position paper on war, in which one of the positions they rejected as “sub-biblical” was labeled the “love your enemies” position! It just doesn’t make sense to use Jesus’ own words to label a position you think is unbiblical.

Perplexed but Not Despairing

But I guess I’m in good company with my questions.

The writer of Ecclesiastes long ago had “applied [his] mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth,” including “all that God has done.”

Yet he ended up with the conclusion: “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17; NIV)

Questions like the ones I’ve mentioned leave me quite perplexed, and even confused. But not in despair.

In my next post I’ll explain why I haven’t given up on my quest for answers.