The Bible and Dualism

“Luther departed from all religious anthropologies that divide the person, whether it be into body and soul; body, soul, and spirit; flesh and spirit; or inner and outer. For Luther, the person is always the whole person. . . . Flesh and spirit do not designate parts of a person but refer to the whole person’s relationship to God. Living according to the flesh means the whole person in rebellion against God. Living according to the spirit means the whole person in confidence in God’s grace.” Lindberg, European Reformations, 68 (Cites LW 35: 371-2).

I like how it ends, and it is a reliable source. Lindberg, however, overstates his case. Not only is his beginning problematic (as if Luther could not make a distinction without creating a division), he claims, for example, that Luther is more “biblical and theological” which is simply to beg the question. The contrast is “dualistic and anthropological,” which poses the odd distinction between the Bible on one hand and dualism on the other. I believe Lindberg has at this point smuggled in an assumption. It is the question I would like to pose: is this the case? Is not posing two realms (flesh and spirit), two principles, two anythings at all by definition dualism? It is Scripture that poses them, after all. How can there be a distinction without at least two parts to be distinguished?

Scripture has to be understood. It has to be interpreted so that we understand what exactly it means by flesh and spirit. Is the flesh literally our muscles and skin? Probably there’s more to it. Some tell us spirit means the Holy Spirit, always. I’m skeptical of precise limiting of the meaning of words in such an absolute way. It goes the opposite direction of saying flesh is muscle and skin, and I simply do not think the communication of Scripture is precise in the sense of providing a technical manual in which objectivity is the main criterion.

Why not, can’t the Spirit of God who inspires the text achieve that? No doubt he can. The problem is whether he would be expected to. It expects that the writings of Scripture are like modern scientific manuals on matters of theology. The assumption is that modern scientific manuals provide certainty in what they address, and that this kind of certainty is not only to be expected of Scripture, but is the best and surest. My question is, can its first readers be expected to have shared this assumption? Can anybody until very recently?

I know how heretical it sounds to question the conventional wisdom of our age, but I like to live on the edge. Anyway, these are the assumptions we base our interpretation on. Because we have to interpret, because the interpretation is important, it is perhaps worth questioning them in an attempt to come to grips with what exactly it is we are doing, don’t you think? We tend to think that applied science, because it deals so surely with the empirical phenomena of creation, has figured out the way to approach every question of knowledge. You know what proceeding on that assumption will get you? Richard Dawkins.

Theologians of limited philosophical exposure, who are set apart from their peers because they have any philosophical exposure at all, tend to prefer the hylomorphism of Aristotle. Man is a hylomorph, he is a composite substance of flesh and spirit, distinguishable but not separable items. Materialists deny the spiritual component: man is just reasoning matter, somehow. Neuroscience speaks of the brain thinking, as if the brain could do what only mind can: that is a materialistic assumption. Platonism, on the other hand, denied the material portion as essential. Can man be man without a body? Man is more man when he is disembodied, in terms of the physical shell, Platonism would say. He has a greater, more real, more adequate body when it is purely formal. Substance, Plotinus argued, refuting Aristotle, is formal and in no way dependent on matter. To Aristotelians, that is an absurdity because body is a substance and always requires some kind of matter. So Aristotelians bang on about hylomorphism.

Clearly, Luther was not a Platonist. But the Platonist way was preserved in the Augustinian approach which believes the body is somehow tainted. Today’s youthful theologians, of course, tend to repudiate such an approach. They avoid preservatives and enhanced food, they work out, they value the good of physical health. They value it so much that one often gets the sense they value it as much as they value the good of spiritual health. The Gospel, we are told, seeks to minister to both spiritual and physical needs.

It is there that the problem manifests itself for me. I do not, as a Christian Platonist, deny the good of physical health. With Plotinus I condemn the Gnostics who despise the physical creation. It is good, and it contains many goods because it is informed, after all, by the greater forms, from which any good it has is derived. Derivative good is still good! But physical goods, the good of physical health for example, are an inferior good to the good of spiritual health. Spiritual health is infinitely to be desired, even at the cost of physical health. In fact, having undergone the Fall, we know that physical health derives from spiritual health and not vice versa. Also, what good does it do you to have all the world’s good and lose your soul? There is a hierarchy of goods and it is of the greatest importance that you understand something of this hierarchy. You have to value good things because they are good, but you also have to learn to distinguish between those which are better and more worth having. This is the biblical dualism of flesh and spirit.

If you walk according to the flesh, you do not necessarily walk according to things that are positively evil or strictly speaking of the body. You are walking according to a distorted or an uninformed and not sufficiently discriminating approach to the various goods to which you have access. You may live moderately, love oatmeal, drink water, exercise naturally and regularly and aspire to nothing but a smooth, comfortable, healthy existence on this planet. If that is all you want, you are doomed because you can’t have these things indefinitely and you will never have them long. You are looking for resignation, and really what you want is annihilation, but that is not an option. Wonder is on the cards. To walk according to the flesh is to worship lesser things as if these are ultimate, to value them not for the good they derive from something greater, but as if their goodness were intrinsic. It is to pretend satisfaction with things that never can satisfy; it is therefore perverse. To walk according to the spirit is to understand that there are greater goods and to be devoted to these. To walk according to the spirit is to live according to the Spirit which indicates to the believer that all goods derive their good from the Good, who is revealed to us in Christ whom we possess by that spiritual apprehension called union, which is participation—to speak in Platonic terms.

And in this Luther and Lindberg are right: the point is not a division of the human being, but a hierarchy of values. Is this more biblical and theological? Of course it is, but that has to do not with having less dualism and anthropology, but with having better philosophy: the concept of properly ordered values. It is a biblical dualism.

Dualism, after all, is the most basic component of the kind of order that hierarchy provides.

, after all, is the most basic component of the kind of order that hierarchy provides.


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