In the early 20th century, a great schism occurred in America between liberals who advocated the social gospel and fundamentalists who advocated the personal gospel.  Liberals looked to the Bible and religion to address systemic issues causing poverty, becoming more dismissive of the authority of scripture on personal matters.  Fundamentalists countered this by standing for the personal implications of the Gospel, and rejecting the social gospel.  In their own ways, both were right, and both were wrong.  Often when one movement reacts to another, the greater truth of the big picture is missed.

A similar thing happened with the Scopes monkey trials when a schism pitted those with faith in the Bible against science.

Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries pitted the physical against the spiritual.  Although rejected as a heresy by various church councils, Greek gnosticism made a lasting impact on Western culture in our tendency to compartmentalize and separate spiritual things from physical matters.  This compartmentalizing tendency found a good friend in the liberal / fundamentalist schism of the early 1900s.

By contrast, Hebrew culture in biblical times was Eastern.  Eastern philosophy and spirituality does not compartmentalize life as much as we do in the West.  For example, it would be more common for an Eastern people to evaluate a philosophy or a course of action as a community rather than as an individual.  It would also be more intuitive to consider the holistic impacts of a course of action.  In this sense, it is perfectly logical for an Eastern person to think Christianity has a physical as well as a spiritual impact on a community, because these are intrinsically inseparable realities.

To describe holism more clearly, consider a piece of bread.  It is made of yeast, sugar, water, and salt.  Yet simply putting these ingredients in a bowl will not give you bread.  Similarly, you cannot take a piece of bread and simply tear out the sugar, the salt, the yeast, or the water.  Why?  While they are all present in the bread, the bread is not compartmentalized into sugar, salt, water, and yeast segments.  Rather, they are part of an inextricable whole.

How does this apply to how we look at the Gospel and scripture?

Mark 2: 1-12 describes Jesus healing a paralytic at his home, which we learn from the earlier chapter was Peter’s home.  Does Jesus just heal the man’s inability to walk?  Does he just forgive his sin?  The context reveals that he healed the whole man.  The only prerequisite was that there was adequate faith, and he and his friends had enough faith in Jesus to have the boldness to tear through the roof of Peter’s house!  Jesus heals the whole man as Jesus, who Himself is the Gospel, is holistic.

There are numerous other examples where Jesus heals holistically and addresses the whole person, and even whole communities.  At times, however, he just fed people, or just healed people.  Some people only followed him for physical bread, and He acknowledged this.  Only one of the ten lepers came back to thank and worship Him.  Sometimes whole communities rejected Him, while other regions were rather fruitful.

Furthermore, holism also impacts how the bible views people.  Orthodox Christianity has recognized for centuries that people are holistic.  Jesus mentioned loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, while most the Old Testament refers to a person in terms of a spirit and a body.  To the Hebrew, these are not separate distinctions as much as ingredients well integrated into a whole.  Therefore the soul is interwoven with the body, and the body with the soul.  Millard Erickson, author of Christian Theology, affirms that orthodox Christianity recognizes that people consist of a body and soul, noting that the soul and spirit are used interchangeably within the bible. The soul is the unity of the spirit and flesh in Gen 2:7.  It is often used to describe the non-physical aspects of humanity (Matt 10:28).    Furthermore, The soul is used in various ways throughout Scripture as referring to life in the body” (Mt 6:25; 10:39; 16:25-26; 20:28; Lk 14:26; Jn 10:11-18; Acts 15:26; 20:10; Phil 2:30; 1 Jn 3:16).  The thing to keep in mind though, is that these are integrated concepts all discussed in context of a whole person.

What about trichotomy?  This is the belief that people have three somewhat distinct parts to their nature, a soul, spirit, and body.  First, the New Testament twice refers to body, soul, and spirit in the same thought, but makes no consistent use of these terms as three separate compartments. 1 Thes 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12 are often used by trichotomists to defend a strict division of the spirit, soul, and flesh.  But 1 Thes 5:23 is no more an argument for trichotomy than Luke 10:27 is an argument for a four-part human constitution.  The emphasis in both scriptures rather is on the whole person.  Hebrews 4:12 properly analyzed in the Greek is not referring to the soul and spirit being separated from one another as though separate entities, but rather affirms the ability of God’s word to shape and organize our being.  Whether you call it soul or spirit, the author is saying the scripture can properly divide and discern it.  Last, a spirit, soul, flesh trichotomy was not used by Jesus who spoke of the heart, mind, soul, and strength.

I have heard trichotomists say that the spirit is the part of you where Christ lives, that the soul is the mind, will and emotions, and the body is the physical component of a person.  In contrast to the holistic Eastern perspective, this is very compartmentalized.

However, suppose one accepts trichotomy.   The fact remains that the scripture with no consistency defines the soul as the mind, will and emotions.  Scripture simply does not affirm these speculative definitions often attached to this term.   In the same sense that you cannot easily extract sugar from bread, you cannot simply separate the emotions from the mind, from a body, in a person.  Are they all in there?  Yes, but not in separate compartments.

A holistic understanding of people also concurs with recent science that locates emotion, love, and spiritual awareness in the brain and systems of the body.  In this sense, we can no longer separate the emotional from the physical, nor the spiritual from the physical.  They are an integrated whole.  While they may be separate concepts, they are intrinsic to our being.

Trichotomy is Platonist Greek in origin and was rejected as heresy by the early church from the time of Apollinaris onward that correctly regarded it as a key ingredient of Gnosticism.  The overwhelming testimony of scripture is that the terms for soul and spirit are used interchangeably, and that God is concerned with the whole person.  The emphasis on the spirit to the denial of the soul is a theme in some ministries that I believe has gotten off base from orthodox Christianity.  Deny self, yes.   Deny the old creation, yes.   But to equate this with denying the soul caves to the Gnostic tendency to equate most if not all human emotion and thought with evil, not recognizing that these are part of the very heart where God himself lives and has raised to life.  In some of these circles, becoming emotionally mature becomes irrelevant, and critical thinking is dismissed as being part of the soul-life, leaving people very susceptible to the power of suggestion.  Of course not all thoughts and emotions are of the Lord either, but to say they are all evil or all of the old man is to deny parts of our own raised humanity.  But don’t take my word for it-simply do some research on this topic and you will see that trichotomy does not have the same advocates among orthodox theologians as it does now in some ministries.

The most obvious implication of this is in how we regard fellow brothers’ and sisters’ thoughts and emotions.  Are they to be valued or dismissed?  Is listening to them a part of our spiritual journey, or are they rubbish associated with the old man?  When we place little value on thoughts and especially emotions of others, the whole notion of “God loves you,” no longer means much.  The some times general insensitivity people perceive from Christians is entirely incompatible with loving the whole person, each other, and the world.  Granted, not every thought or emotion is God-given or God inspired, but some are, and the scripture certainly affirms that God demonstrates His love in loving sinners.  In short, devaluing thoughts and emotions is entirely counter-intuitive to baring one anothers’ burdens and listening in such a way as to love others.

Am I talking about dualism?  Isn’t that just as gnostic?  A holistic view acknowledging the scripture’s descriptions of body and spirit is still quite distinct from a dualistic view that emphasizes their distinctions. I am saying these are inextricable.  Gnosticism, by contrast says they are quite able to separate.  I am also saying that God is not opposed to healthy emotions and making use of critical thinking.  I see this as important as compartmental tripartism is the bedrock of groups where critical thinking is dismissed and emotions are considered something to die to as part of the old man.  Last, recognizing the soul and body does not exclude that there could be many parts to the human constitution.  The main idea is that all that we are is included in our soul and body, in our whole being.   Overall, the idea is focus on the whole person, the bread, not on the parts to the exclusion of others.

Simply put, if people are whole, in ministry we are to love the whole person.  This is what Jesus did.

Last, if people are whole, this points to why resurrection is considered so important to the Christian faith.  The body dies in death, but a soul without a body is simply not how we were created.  Jesus did not simply rise from the dead as a spiritual, disembodied being.  Neither did Lazarus, nor the Roman Centurian’s daughter.  They were resurrected to life, fully present physically and spiritually.  Similarly, our eternal destiny is to be fully resurrected to life, having a body and spirit.  In sum, our destiny is wholeness.


4 Responses to “Holism”

  1. John White July 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Excellent article, Steve! Well reasoned from Scripture and well articulated. I’m glad you are doing this blog. Your voice is needed!

    • Sean Anthony Hyatt November 7, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

      I believe God is redeeming my view of my inner man – bringing me full circle… A few years ago I read Watchman Nee’s The Spiritual Man, much to my benefit. Now realizing that a hefty piece of what he outlines in that book is fallacy, also much to my benefit… This is important, because our generation desperately needs a true, balanced, clear, and yet deeply transformative teaching on how to find victory over the flesh, how to manage the inner man, and what walking in the Spirit and abiding in Christ truly looks like.

  2. Russell July 17, 2012 at 5:11 am #

    Beautifully put, and clearly Spirit inspired. You have an artful way of firmly and confidently presenting what the Lord has given you, yet in peace. It is very winsome and does you and the Lord credit. I was a tacit subscriber to the views you took aim at here, simply because that is what I have been taught. But I have been convinced otherwise by you and the Lord himself through prayer. In short, I was moved to love our God more after reading this.

    We miss you and love you down here in Gainesville, my brother. Many blessings to you and your family.

    • Steve July 17, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

      I am glad the Lord used it with you, Russell, and appreciate your kind words. We miss you guys all as well. Love to You All, Steve

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