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.
I remember the day I was sitting in my "letters of Paul" class (just after sitting through a rigorous and difficult lecture in my philosophy of religion class) and realizing that I was a modern day Gnostic. I was shocked. I had been pushing, pulling, fighting and manipulating the scriptures into a false doctrine -a heresy.
Suddenly, after 31 years of living, about 9 years of coming back to faith, and 3 1/2 years of Bible school, I was starting all over again.
Now I struggle to have and maintain fellowship with dualists. We are constantly heading in different directions. And, though this may not be true of all dualists, I have never met one I was convinced had really thought his/her position through critically. And likewise, I believe I am right and they are wrong.
But the struggle is what to do about that. Do I stop loving and/or associating with dualists (modern gnostics)? When I realized I was one, I firmly concluded that I had been a heretic, in some degree. If that was accurate, then aren't those who still hold such views heretics as well? And how should I treat a heretic? How would I want to be treated? In fact, what kind of treatment actually led me to truth in this regard? I am not sure, but I know that my teachers in school had patiently put up with a lot of dualism from me before I was convicted and repented.
For starts, I do not second guess those who claim Jesus as Lord. They can miss a lot of important questions on any test I might think was necessary, but if they make that claim, I treat them as bro/sis's, and I ask for such from others with regard to myself. And even dualists can do that.
But I think you are hitting one of the most difficult points of communal faith today. And I figure this post has the potential to really stir up contraversy among your readers.
Let me suggest that it is modernity, that once bought into, leaves no room for faith to embrace the material physical creation. And modernity is responsible for the state of liberal and fundamentalist wings of faith. The one thing both wings have in common is that they attempt to serve both masters, Jesus and modernity, at the same time and wind up hating one of them.
If post-modernity has bequeathed anything of value, it is in exposing the idols of modernity. But as people of faith, we must move into the next step. After straighening the house and sweeping it clean, we must fill it with Jesus, His Spirit and love, or else more demons will come in the back door.
Nevertheless, I struggle. Just because I hold some insights does not mean I have it all figured out.
Thanks for sharing.
Wes, thank you for the posting.
You make an excellent point about assisting those who are in desperate material straits. Material well being is an important aspect of a healthy and complete life.
There is a flip side of that coin. I've encountered a great number of people who have tremendous material assets, but who lack spiritual wealth. In fact, they buy stuff simply to fill a void in their life that could be satisfied in a more economical way. Their spending is a substitute for a spiritual existence.
Living in luxury can be just as unhealthy and degrading as living in destitution.
That's a great story. I realize that it's a controversial subject. I hope I've shown some grace in presenting my case. I think you have a great perspective and great insights.
Beautiful post Wes. Amen and Amen!
Very good point. I think Jesus understood the flip side. Maybe that's why He asked the rich man to sell all he had and follow Him. for two reasons, 1) He understood the poverty of His people and that the man was hoarding his wealth instead of giving it to the people who were in need. 2) He understood that the rich man was also poor, with a spiritual poverty, and none of his riches or wealth was actually benefitial to him. The only thing which would satisfy his spiritual need was the descipleship of Jesus.
Our biggest problem in America may not be material poverty. It may, instead be, a spiritual poverty and a lack of generosity. Maybe God is calling us to sell all that we have.
Thanks for the awesome thoughts.
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