An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human? This question has perplexed philosophers, theologians and all those on the "Clapham omnibus" for centuries. It is a deceptively complex question. There are as many answers – probably more – than there are worldviews.

For Protagoras we are ‘the measure of all things’; for Socrates we are the centre, the pivot of all that is worth thinking about; for Plato we are immortal souls locked in the prisons of the body and the world; for the Gnostic we are strangers living in a flawed world; for Darwin we are civilised animals driven by survival instincts, trousered apes; for Marx, we are an alienated working self-creation; for Nietzsche, a ‘rope fastened between animal and superman – a rope over an abyss’; for Freud we are sex-obsessed bipeds, victims of heredity; for Dawkins we are gene survival machines; for strong artificial intelligence we are trousered computers; for Satre and existentialism, we just exist, we have no meaning, we have to decide what to make of ourselves; for new agers, we are part and parcel of the divine cosmos, potentially divine. For most people we are a product of matter plus time plus chance.

We can break down the composition of our body into:
65% Oxygen 18% Carbon 10% Hydrogen 3% Nitrogen 1.5% Calcium 1% Phosphorous 0.35% Potassium 0.25% Sulphur 0.15% Sodium 0.15% Chlorine 0.05% Magnesium 0.0004% Iron 0.00004% Iodine
and also a few trace elements. These cost less than £2. But our most valuable asset is our skin at almost £2. Though perhaps we could get more for our working organs as transplant materials.

As Christians, how do we respond to the question?

The first thing to note that all the above are reductionistic and inevitably pagan. They reduce humanity to one (or two) aspect(s) of reality. This aspect of reality they then deem self-existent; thus attributing to it the status of divinity: paganism divinises aspects of creation (cf Clouser 1991).

One common (mis)understanding is that ‘we are a spirit, with a soul in a body’. One proof text that does seemingly being support such a view is 1 Thess 5:23

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our lord Jesus Christ.
Watcham Nee is a well-known advocate of this position. For him the body is world consciousness; the soul is self-consciousness – here we have thinking, willing and feeling (hence the negative term soulish); and the spirit is God consciousness – this includes conscience, intuition and communion.

However, one text such as 1 Thess 5:23, does not make a doctrine. What about Mark 12:30?
… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Does this mean we should adopt a quadrite view? But notice here that soul and mind are both included as if they were different – not what the Watchman-Nee-view advocates.

This view owes more to Jung and Plato than the scriptures. It may be a useful model but it is not biblical. The scriptures never split us up – we are a unity, not a set of different compartments. Nee is not the first to platonise Christianity. Justin Martyer did much to synthesise biblical Christianity with Greek thought; he described Plato as a Christian before Christ. At root is an untenable matter/ spirit dualism. Spirit is placed over matter; spirit over body. Scripture continually affirms the goodness of creation. Nothing in creation is intrinsically evil; it was created good although it was distorted and tainted by the fall. Dualism is a pagan Greek heresy and is incompatible with a thorough-going biblical Christianity. Seeing humanity as the image of God is the antidote. Scripture does not cut humanity into parts: it deals with whole persons.

This view is that it plays down the body and mind. At the resurrection we are not disembodied spirits! Jesus’ resurrection was a resurrection with a physical body.

Another common view among Christians is a dualistic view – we are body and soul. There are two parts of us. Again this view serves to split up humanity. We are not schizophrenic!

As Berkouwer puts it: ‘we can never gain a clear understanding of the mystery of man, if in one way or another, we abstract mere components of the whole man’. (1962, p 194). We are many faceted.

Many terms are used in the scriptures to describe humanity. However, as Berkouwer (1962: 31) notes there is not a biblical "anthropology" as such, only biblical teaching regarding humanity. The Bible is not a textbook or encyclopaedia, it is a confessional book (cf Olthius 1987). It is in this light that we must read the scriptures.

Humanity is a whole person; we are not the sum of our parts: we are a unity. The absence of any unifying theme or concept is markedly absent.

Old Testament terms
The emphasis in the OT is of humanity as a creature, the creation of God, and their dependence upon him.

Heart (lebab; LXX Kardia) This term appears over 800 times. It designates the religious centre of humanity (Little Kittell 1985: 415). In the NT it is seen as the seat of "physical vitality".

Nephesh (soul) Occurs around 80 times. It is used as a synonym for life. It is never used to distinguish one part of a human from another (Berkouwer 1962: ch 6). We do not have a soul, we are a soul. Animals are also referred to as having the "breath of life" in them (Gen 1:30), the very thing that made humans become a "living being/ soul" (Gen 2:7).

Body parts A range of body parts are used to describe humanity: kidneys, bowels, liver, blood, belly, womb, loins. Each term it seems denotes an activity of the whole person.

New Testament terms

Body, soul, spirit, mind, strength, flesh, body are all used in the NT to denote aspects of humanity.

Flesh (sarx) reflects the whole physical existence particularly focussing on human weakness (Rom 6:19). It does not denote an inherently evil part of humanity; Jesus became flesh! It becomes sinful only with orientation (Little Kittel 1985: 1005).

S(s)pirit, focuses on the whole person energised by God and living in communion with him; hence to be spiritual means to be led of the spirit.

Ridderbos makes a useful comment:

Flesh (body) and Spirit do not stand over against one another here as two "parts" in the human existence or in the existence of Christ (1977: 66)

Body (soma) refers to our creaturliness, the place where we live and breathe. It is our bodies that will be resurrected. There is no hint of Platonic or Gnostic ideas of the body being a prison of the soul (cf Cullmann 1958).

Soul (psyche) is the whole person focussing primarily on feelings and emotions, liveliness (hence death is its absence) and appetites.

From the foregoing we can conclude with Berkouwer that each of the varied terms refer to the whole person viewed from a particular perspective. They do not denote separate parts, but each refers to the whole person from a specific viewpoint in relation to God.

Body – this is humanity in visible embodiment, as seen from the ‘outside in’.

Soul – this is humanity as a living, breathing being. It points to the inner person.

Spirit – this is the guiding and motivating power of existence, as seen from the inside out.

Flesh – this is humanity as weak, fragile and mortal.

Heart – humanity in the deepest core of existence, the religious concentration point of our selfhood.


C G Berkouwer 1962. Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
Oscar Cullman 1958. Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (London: Epworth press)
Roy Clouser 1991 The Myth of Religious Neutrality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press)
James H. Olthuis 1987. A Hermeneutics of Ultimacy: Peril or Promise? (Lanham: University Press of America)
Herman Ridderbos 1977. Paul: An Outline of His Theology (London: SPCK)

See also the bibliography here.

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