Every Thursday morning I meet with our hispanic Pastor Tony to read and discuss Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. We are presently in chapter 23 covering “The Essential Nature of Man.” (Feel free to join us, Starbucks on Ethanac at 7:30 am).
What does the Scripture mean by “soul” and “spirit”? Are they the same thing?
Typically the discussion has centered on whether man is made up of one, two, or three parts (monism, dichotomy, trichotomy). The monists (man is made up of only one part) say that what we call the soul/spirit is simply a function of the body and that there is no existence outside of the body. This view is held by liberal theologians and materialists (agnostics and atheists). The other views (dichotomy and trichotomy) are views that are held and debated by believers.
The argument stems from the fact that the Scripture seems to speak of the soul and spirit as interchangeable and synonymous terms in some passages (John 12:27 & 13:21; Luke 1:46-47; Hebrews 12:23/1 Peter 3:19 compared with Revelation 6:9 & 20:4) and seems to distinguish them in other passages (1 Thessalonians 5:23, Hebrews 4:12).
I think the best way to view this issue is to use the broader terms “material” and “immaterial” to talk about “body” and “soul/spirit”. One of the challenges of Systematic Theology as a discipline is that the Bible was not written as a “systematic” theology. When we gather the different verses of Scripture to put them into a systematic expression of doctrine we find ourselves with different kinds of data. Some of the data is in the form of a prayer, a parable, a description, a commandment etc. Each piece of data has different value in the discussion and the data must be evaluated individually and then put into the hopper of evidence. When we take all the differing data and treat them as if they are contextually equal, we find an unnecessary tension.
But let’s start with the terms material and immaterial (I recognize that these are not in the Bible). The material part of us is easier to talk about, so let’s start there. The material part of man is generally referred to in the Scriptures as the “body”, but sometimes it is referred to as flesh (there is another discussion about a unique usage of flesh in Romans with regard to sin – sometimes flesh in the Bible can refer to the physical and Paul uses it to refer to the “sin” which resides in the flesh – and he has something more in mind than simply the body). The body is not part of this controversy; most theologians simply accept that the body is “one” part. But really it isn’t simply one part. My body is made up of several different parts. We can talk of the different organs, skin, arms, legs, brain, eyes, etc. We don’t feel the need to divide the body into multiple parts we simply view all the parts as contributing to the whole.
If we use that same kind of approach to the immaterial part of man it seems to me that the problem with the Scripture’s description is diminished. The immaterial part of man is sometimes described as soul, spirit, heart, mind, etc. It is not necessary to make the different parts (or ways of describing the whole) to mean that there are multiple immaterial parts.
The dichotomist understanding of the nature of man is the best explanation of man’s nature.
Some of the interesting discussions that come as a result of this doctrine are: Do animals have souls? Where do our souls come from? Is our soul a separate and unique act of creation in each instance of conception, that is does God create each soul and put that soul into a person at some point after conception (creationism) or is our soul simply passed on to us by our parents in conception as our other characteristics (traducianism). Some believe in the pre-existence of the soul (Mormons, Muslims, some evidence that some Jewish thought holds that all souls were created at the time of the creation of Adam,), but this has generally been rejected by Christian theologians.
One of the most important conclusions that should be held to by all Christians as a result of this discussion is that the nature of man is clearly intended to be body and soul and that is the nature of our resurrection existence. Although we may exist temporarily apart from the body, it is not the intention of God to have us remain without a body. The doctrine of the resurrection has to do with the body of man. It is our body that dies, it is our body that is resurrected. It is united with the immaterial part of us (spirit/soul) at resurrection. Many Christians fail to connect this dot and have a picture of eternity in heaven consisting of “spirits” existing forever. But we don’t believe in an eternal bodiless state, it violates this doctrine that man is composed of two parts, material and immaterial; body and soul.