Below is a letter I sent to a friend who had a question about the relationship of body, soul, and spirit with respect to human nature. I offer this letter as a post, for a few reasons: it’s been too long since I have posted anything, it provides some clarity regarding a subtle aspect of human existence, and I found that in the process of writing I experienced some grace for myself, and I hope that it might provide grace for others.
Dear Ms. R,
Regarding your response to Beth Moore’s presentation of the tripartite model of human nature, I think typically it is not the most biblical way to understand human nature, as it owes more of a debt to Greek philosophy than it does to the Scriptures, but neither is it completely off, or outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in fact, it is sometimes a helpful model to use. Before continuing, let me say that theological language is analogical in nature, and so when we talk about spiritual things we are always going to construct models to represent the reality as it is in-and-of-itself, however, this representation means that there is some functional semblance between the models we use and the reality they point to, and this furthermore means that some models will be better, and in our case, more biblically sound, than others.
Going back to Beth Moore’s presentation, I think it is helpful to make this distinction, particularly in a pastoral setting, when we can help people understand that their emotions, which the tripartite model equates with the dynamics of the soul, is not the touchstone to determine how things are in one’s relationship with God, who is Spirit. One could have feelings of elation and yet not be in union with God. Likewise, one could be in the dumps emotionally, and yet be in a state of gracious union with God. Again, our emotions are not the touchstone in discerning this. However, this does not mean that emotions should be ignored. We are, after all, not Stoics, and so, emotions should be addressed, but on the right foundation, which most essentially is the grace of God uniting us with God through the Cross by the Spirit. Our emotions reveal our perceptions, and patterns of thought about such things as our identity, the nature of God, and the nature of the world in which we live, and often our patterns of thinking are diseased, sometimes horribly so. (Can I get a witness?!?) So, a part of maturity requires that we address these patterns and perceptions, and allow the Spirit of God, who works at a level deeper than our thinking (spirit to Spirit) to renew our minds through the Word of God, as it leads us into the gracious ministry of the Living Word.
Now that I have communicated a little about how this model can be helpful, let me address where it can go wrong. In short, under the influence of Greek metaphysics, this tripartite model can lead us into thinking that human kind is some kind of composite of three substances: body substance, soul substance, and spirit substance, that are somehow integrated yet, when push comes to shove, completely distinct. From better biblical minds than my own, I have heard that the Scriptures tends towards a model of human nature that has been referred to as holism, where these three parts of human existence are more a matter of angles of approach than substances. Humankind is one unified, holistic reality that can be viewed as body, as soul, as spirit, and each of these factors of human existence are essential to human being. Teasing this out with you, I posit that we could say that the body is the surface and empirical dimension of the soul, and the soul is the depth, and intangible dimension of the body, and the words “body” and “soul” are useful in referring to different perspectives of a singular whole. Likewise, the spirit is depth dimension (can I say depthest dimension?), but specifically denotes that aspect of human existence that is capable of communion and union with God. This is why the spirit is dead when the person is alienated from God, because the meaning of spirit, from a biblical perspective, is that relationship with God: we have ourselves in relation to God, and outside of that relationship we don’t have ourselves. Instead what we have is something we call the self that is really the sum total of biological and socio-cultural forces, with the spirit, such as it is, making limited choices within a closed and constricted system that is perishing. This is why, outside of Christ, we perish with the world, we literally lose ourselves, because in a real sense we never had ourselves.
After all this, you may be thinking, “Okay, fine, I get the difference, but how does it matter with respect to effective Christian living?” Even if you aren’t thinking this, I am still going to address it, because as you know, ideas have consequences. First let me say that it is not completely clear to me what are the consequences in failing to make this distinction between the tripartite model and the model of biblical holism. Rather, I think we, on principle should go with the model we best perceive in Scriptures, and trust that our understanding of the consequences will follow. That said, one critical, indeed very critical, issue that comes to mind is that the significance of the Resurrection is more clearly seen in the holistic model, for in this model Jesus’ bodily resurrection means our total salvation. In the other model one could think, “I accept that Jesus was bodily raised, but what does that have to do with righting my soul, and bringing life to my spirit?” Keep in mind, however, that this question can only be asked in the tripartite framework, for in the holistic framework body, soul, and spirit are different facets of one whole. Thus, to raise the body is to heal the soul, and this resurrection is the sign that the spirit is in communion with the Spirit of God.
Now my mind is racing, and there is so much more I want to say about sacramental realities, incarnational spirituality, and the sanctified senses and imagination, as well as how all this ties into cultural engagement and culture making, but grades are pressing, and I think enough has been said for the present moment (Jesus, help me live in the present).
Peace be with you.