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Posted by on Sep 11, 2014 | 0 comments

Body and Soul, Baby!

Body and Soul, Baby!

Humans beings are self-transcendent creatures made of body and soul/spirit. This has been the long-standing Christian view, explains J. I. Packer, in the second of three overview theology courses offered at Regent College: there is our body, and there is our soul, that is, our conscious self. This view is not unique to Christianity; David Bentley Hart, in his book The Experience of God, explains that this view was part of the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, as well as that of the Hellenistic Jews.[1] For them, “the soul was the source and immanent entelechy of corporeal life, encompassing every dimension of human existence: animal functions and abstract intellect, sensation and reason, emotion and ratiocination, flesh and spirit, natural aptitude and supernatural longing.”[2] There are important differences, of course, because Christian and Jewish teaching denies the immortality of the soul (which is part of the Platonic tradition, and, some scholars argue, the Aristotelian tradition as well). The Christian tradition has also, by and large, denied the Platonic dualism, which held that the pure and immortal soul was sullied by its association with the flesh.


But what of the spirit? According to Packer, our spirit is our conscious self (same as the soul) looked at from a different point of view. “When the Bible speaks about the soul, the nuance is of self as a personal entity. And when the Bible speaks of our spirit, … the nuance is that we are personal selves whose life is sustained by God. … When scripture talks about the human spirit, it is regularly in the context of relationship.”[3] This is contrary to a tripartite view of the human person, common among Charismatics and Pentecostals. In the Charismatic view, person is body, soul, and spirit. Spirit is not merely another name for soul; whereas the soul is the place of the intellect, the spirit is the place of relationship with God. The spirit is latent and inactive until the person is “born again.” Communion with God happens in the spirit, and in many veins of this thinking, one must switch from the soul to the spirit (i.e. stop thinking) in order to meet with God. This is not, Packer holds, what the Bible teaches. Verses like 1 Thessalonians 5.23 and Hebrews 4.12, which mention both soul and spirit, are not differentiating the two, but are emphasizing the one (using rhetorical pleonasm).

In a book on bioethics and the beginning of life, Edwin Hui describes a third view, that of Karl Barth: the ensouled body has a spirit. “Unlike the soul and body, the spirit is neither a third constitutive “component” of the human person, nor a capacity or an ability of the human’s own nature; rather it is “foreign to his nature which has come to it from God.””[4] Sans Spirit “man cannot in any sense be man, nor in any sense soul of his body. As he has the Spirit from God, he lives, he becomes and is soul, his material body becomes and is a physical body, and he is soul of this body.”[5] Thus, “the Spirit may have created the human soul and taken up residence in it, but the Spirit is not thereby transformed to become the human soul.”[6] It seems to me (and the capitalization of Spirit helps indicate this) that it is the Spirit of God to which Barth is referring, and not the human spirit. This human spiritual soul is not a two-part entity, but rather Barth’s position is an expression of the ability of the soul to have relationship with God, and the dependence of the person, the ensouled body, on God. Thus, I believe that Barth’s view is not a tripartite view of the human person, but rather a bipartite view that emphasizes the dependency of humans on the creating and sustaining Spirit of God.

J.I. Packer has already pointed out that the tripartite view is not in line with Scripture. I have a further concern. The Christian tradition has managed to hold a bipartite view without necessarily falling into dualism (though that mistake has been made). It is hard to see how a tripartite understanding of the human person could avoid a similar problem. It seems to invite the degradation of the body and intellect, because it is only with the spirit that God communicates; the soul/mind and body have little participation with divine relationship. If the human spirit is the only part of the person that communes with God, then it must be more highly valued. Not only that, but because the spirit can only be activated when one is born again, there seems to be a hierarchy not only within the human person, but between persons (those who are able to commune with God vs. those who are not able).

In the end, I’m with Packer: the tripartite position is a well-meant mistake.


[1] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). 168.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J.I. Packer, Theology 606 Lecture, Regent College.

[4] Karl Barth, quoted by Edwin Hui, At the Beginning of Life: Dilemmas in Theological Bioethics (Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002), 40.

[5] Barth, quoted by Hui, 40.

[6] Hui, 40.

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I come from a land of big skies, big mountains, and comparatively low provincial tax. I like books, beer, and being outside. Also wine.