(Of course, you may want to argue that we’re three parts; body, soul and spirit. But that’s a debate for another day! What’s important to me at this point is whether we’re primarily made of one or more than one part.)
Today, dualism is often written off as being a Platonic concept, which has unhelpfully and unthinkingly been absorbed into Christian thinking. But I would want to question this, by offering three thoughts:
1) Platonic Dualism ain’t good!
Platonic dualism draws a sharp distinction between the body and soul, often with the result that the body is seen as evil, dirty, or unspiritual, and the soul is held as being of primary importance. I don’t think this stacks up with the biblical texts, as we shall see in a bit.
This kind of dichotomy has historically caused hugely damaging social and cultural attitudes and practices, such as strict asceticism and the rejection of physical pleasures; the depreciation of marriage, with sex even between wedded couples being seen as dirty; the imposition of celibacy upon clergy… and so on. Not to mention the Christological problems that arose when the physical humanity of Jesus (yuck!) clashed with the disparagement of the body.
No. Platonic dualism is problematic…
2) Platonism has influenced Christian thinking
The influence of Platonic thinking upon Christian anthropology is not hard to see. The likes of Justin Martyr and Augustine were Platonists before conversion to Christianity, and arguably failed to thoroughly eradicate Platonic philosophy from their thinking. Whilst Augustine criticised Platonic views of the uncreatedness of souls and innate wickedness of the body,1 he still ‘identifies the essential self with the soul rather than the body-soul composite, and conceives of the soul as operating the body’.2 Origen argued for the pre-existence of souls,3 and Cyprian’s view was typical of many,
‘Since we possess the body from the earth and the spirit from heaven we ourselves are both earth and heaven […] there is a daily strife as they disagree one with the other.’4
Later theologians, such as Calvin, were explicit in their indebtedness to Plato, saying that of the ancient philosophers ‘hardly one, except Plato, has rightly affirmed its immortal substance.’5
So Plato has certainly been influential in shaping Christian thinking. But…
3) Not all dualism is Platonic dualism
Just because someone wants to make a distinction between the body and the soul, doesn’t mean that one is making a value judgment between them. Not all forms of dualism are equally damaging, and if we’re not careful we can rashly start hunting out all forms of dualism out of fear that making any kind of dichotomy is naturally going to lead to Platonic conclusions. John Cooper labels this ‘dualophobia’6 and I can’t help but wonder (semi-facetiously) if the biggest ‘dualophobes’ aren’t scared that if they start down that road, they might end up having less sex…
To my mind, the Bible teaches a form of dualism that avoids the negative pitfalls of Platonism. I do think that the Bible speaks about man as a combination of elements. But at the same time, I think the OT teaches what might be called ‘holism’; the idea that man is fundamentally to be considered a single unit. Holism, or holistic dualism, is distinct from monism because it affirms that there are multiple parts to man: man is not simply body, but body and soul combined. But those parts are not to be picked apart as in Platonic dualism.
The Old Testament regularly suggests dualism. Take, for example, the verses that talk about death. Some speak of the body corrupting whilst the soul sleeps (Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 115:17;Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 10; Isaiah 14:9-11) or experiences disembodied glory, (Psalm 16:8-11; 73:18-20, 23-27; 49:14) before awaking to resurrection (Dan 12:2-3; Isaiah 26:19; 53:9-10; Hosea 6:1-2; 13:14; Ezekiel 37:1-14). These verses, by positing an existence for the soul apart from the body, demand dualism and exclude monism.
In the New Testament, Jesus says ‘Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul’ (Matthew 10:28; cf. Mark 12:30) and Paul prays for the ‘whole spirit and soul and body’ to be kept blameless (1 Thess 5:23). These sorts of verses, in addition to those that suggest an intermediate state (eg. Phil 1:22-23) presuppose a form of dualism. At the cross Jesus surrendered his spirit (pneuma), which some have taken to be idiomatic for breathing his last. But in Luke’s account the crucifixion is followed by Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, who thought him a ghost (pneuma) (Luke 24:37) and Jesus reassured them ‘a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ (Luke 24:39). Luke at least interpreted Jesus’ death and resurrection in dualistic terms, with pneuma referring, not to simply breath or life, but a discarnate person.
But at the same time, the Bible often doesn’t draw hard lines between the ‘parts’ of man and assign distinct roles to each part. Instead it prefers to see them as being united. In the OT, the various anthropological terms (Nephesh, Ruach, Basar, Qereb and Leb) appear to be interchangeable, and there is no systematic distinction between physical and spiritual organs. We see the same sort of thing in NT texts like Hebrews 8:10; 10:16, in which the heart and mind switch places. This implies holism, since the author makes no firm distinction between which organ is responsible for which aspect of human function. They are to be seen as a united whole.
This combination of holism and dualism suggests that man is made of two parts, but affirms the functional unity and integration of the whole, without making Platonic value judgments between the two parts. We might define between two types of holism:
Functional Holism, in which the soul may exist without the body, though deprived by the loss.
Ontological Holism, in which the existence of the whole is a necessary condition for the existence of the parts, such that if the whole were to break up, the parts would cease to exist or become something other than what they were.
I think the former fits with what I consider to be a biblical view of man. We were created to be whole beings: body and soul united. When the two are separated (as the texts above seem to suggest is possible) the parts do not cease to exist, but we are somehow deprived and less than we were intended to be. But this is to anticipate the next post…
1. Augustine The City of God, xix, p. 3.
2. Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting, (2000), p. 10.
3. Origen, First Principles, 1.6.2, in ANF, 4, p. 609-611.
4. Cyprian, Treatise, 4.16 in ANF, 5, p. 1049.
5. Calvin, Institutes, I, xv, 6, p. 192.
6. Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting (2000), p. 26-31.