I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the soul, the body, and what I understand about Gnosticism. Though early in our Church history the Gnostic perspective was deemed a heresy it still moves, alive and well, in Christian thought. It is the understanding, according to Lauren F. Winner in her book Mudhouse Sabbath, that Spirit (which they understand as immaterial) is “separate and superior to matter” (p.74). It is played out in the Christian world of evangelism. We so often ignore what we deem as “material” as unimportant and, therefore, ignore the physical in order to save the spiritual. We focus on the salvation of the soul and leave the body drowning in depravation. But can we emancipate the physical from the spiritual?
In his book Theology for the community of God, Stanley J. Grenz informs us that the “soul” and/or the “spirit” may mean something totally different that we usually think of it today. He writes “Recent exegesis yields the conclusion that in the scriptures the terms ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are neither designations of two constituent elements nor synonyms for some immaterial substance. That inheres in the physical body. Rather, both words can stand for the human person as an undifferentiated whole” (p.161). The Soul, therefore, is the whole person. To emancipate the soul from the body, the spiritual from the material, as the Dichotomists or Gnostics do would be to part from a Biblical understanding of the Soul.
The Hebrew words “Ruach,” for Spirit or Breath, and “Nephesh,” for soul have divergent yet overlapping definitions. It is indicated to us in Genesis 2.7 that we are “living souls” because God breathed His breath of life in us. This word soul, as revealed in Genesis, is corporeal in nature. It is not some floating spiritual entity which is encased in a body but it is the very thing which is essentially us. We are “living souls,” flesh and all. “Ruach” is revealed to be like in nature to “Nephesh.” When God promised the flood to annihilate “everything with breath (ruach) of life…” (Genesis 6.17) He was referring to the Spirit or breath of life in man and animal. Spirit here is, again, physical (Grenz p.161).
The corresponding Greek terms “psyche” and “pneuma,” as Grenz goes on to explain, have equivalent definitions as well. According to Anthony Hoekema, in his book Created in God’s Image, “pneuma… may often be used to designate the whole person; it like psyche, describes an aspect of Man in his totality” (p. 214). Once again the New Testament refers to the soul and the spirit with a holistic approach. It is not unbound to the body, rather, it is the whole person. The Soul is not encased in a body, as some evangelicals might assert, but the body is of the Soul. As Lauren Winner says it: “bodies are not mere trappings, they are the very stuff of us” (Mudhouse Sabbath p.74).
So what does this say about our tendency to want to save the soul separate from the body? Can it be done? Our physical needs, in this light, become quite spiritual and vice versa. We cannot save someone’s soul and leave their body in Hell. God’s plan is to save all of us, every part, down to our guts. And so, therefore, we are to love God with all of us, with our heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6.4). Every part of us belongs to God.
Many people are intimidated by this assertion. It suggests that there is equality of importance between feeding a hungry man and bringing Him to knowledge of Jesus. It may intimidate but it may also be freeing. You are no longer feeding the homeless of building a house in Mexico as a medium to get to something more important. You are not wasting your time giving a blanket to a homeless man; you are ministering to his very soul.