Science in Christian Perspective




Dualism or Holism?: A Look at Biblical Anthropology, Ethics, and Human Health
Graduate School of Psychology
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, California 91101

From: JASA 35 (June 1983): 80-83.

The dualistic doctrine of human nature (soul separate from body) stems from an established philosophical tradition dating back to Plato. But both the Old and New Testaments posit a holistic alternative by viewing humans as unified wholes, Although biblical anthropology thus appears to reject dualism, the historical Christian church has often adopted soul/body schism, thereby encouraging human alienation from self, others, and nature. Holism from a biblical perspective is offered here as an alternative. Special attention is focused upon the many complex psychological and social realities as addressed by a renewed ethic for the whole person.

Of what do humans consist: two separate essences, physical and spiritual, or only one? Are we "ghosts in machines," as the dualists suggest? It is certainly true that many people are accustomed to considering the mind (or its theological counterpart, the soul) and the body as distinct entities. This dualistic doctrine of human nature, in which soul (the .1 ghost") and body (the "machine") exist separately and yet interact with each other, has found such illustrious proponents from history as the following selected list of representative thinkers. (a) Plato viewed the body as "only an outer garment which, as long as we live, prevents our soul from moving freely and from living in conformity to its proper eternal essence" (Cullmann, 1958, p. 19), and, in the Timaeus, blamed "disorders of the soul" on the "badness" of the body (c. 390--348 B.C./1952, p. 474). (b) Augustine, in the City of God, regarded the soul as an immaterial spiritual substance that reigns supreme over its inferior counterpart, the despicable body (c. 413-426/1952, pp. 379-380). (c) Calvin, in the institutes, referred to the human being as consisting of a physical body in addition to a soul that he described as "an immortal, yet created essence ... which rises above the world" (1559/1949, pp. 203-204). (d) Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, equated that which is purely spiritual with the mind, which exists separate and apart from the material realm of physical substance (1637/1952, p. 60).

A conflict has arisen, however, as those who study the Bible have discovered within the language of the Scriptures certain basic assumptions about human nature, assumptions that seem to contradict the dualistic hypothesis. Among biblical scholars there is a burgeoning consensus that biblical antbropology presents homo sapiens not as two distinct "substances" but as a unified whole. Painstaking examination of both the Old Testament Hebrew concepts and the New Testament Greek terminology has pointed toward a more unanimously accepted picture of holistic, not dualistic, humanity.

Although it is true that many within Christian circles, particularly the academic-theological community, have turned away from traditional philosophical/anthropological formulations (due to the apparent lack of biblical relatedness of such doctrines), such metaphysical conceptualizations of personhood, primarily emanating from Platonic dualism, remain deeply entrenched within religious thought. As Norman Pittenger (1980) notes,

A good deal of so-called "religious" discussion has been conducted on altogether too highly a spiritual plane, as if human beings were really nothing but angels who for the time being happened to be resident in a physical abode (i.e., the idea of an eternal "ghost" in an ephemeral "machine"). Such a view would be more appropriate for proponents of ancient gnostic theories, come alive in our day, than for those who profess a biblical basis for their religion. None the less, much that has been taught and preached in the Christian churches has resembled this heretical theorizing. (p. 23)

In fact, it is this traditional concept of soul-body separatism that has come to be viewed by the general populace as the Christian understanding of humans. Although not intending to discount the worth of dualistic speculation on the philosophical level of striving for greater anthropological understandings, nor attempting to deny the consideration of metaphysical dualism as "a" religious view of humanity, I nevertheless contend that this essentially unbiblical construct is not the Christian understanding of human nature.

In this discussion I seek to demonstrate three ideas. (a) 10:33--34; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:18-19).
Exposition of key word-concepts in the Bible shows that the scriptural understanding of humans is far removed from the dualism of not only Greek philosophy, but also much of subsequent Christian speculation. (b) The historical cleavage between a human's soul and a human's body, particularly within the bounds of religious ethics, has served to encourage a host of unbiblical actions as well as attitudes among dualistically-oriented Christians. (c) A thorough-going anthropology based upon biblical holism serves as a practical, as well as theoretical, basis f or a renewed Christ-like emphasis on ministry to the whole person.

Biblical Anthropology

In my conceptual exposition of numerous Old and NewTestament passages, particularly focusing on I Corinthians 15:35-58, 1 have reached several key conclusions (Weathers, Note 1). One primary insight deals with Paul's use of soma (or body) always to indicate humans as indivisible wholes as contrasted with human beings existing in parts. Gerhard Kittel, the editor of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1971), elaborates by declaring the following:

In fact (to Paul) soma means man in his confrontation with God or sin or fellow-man. Soma is the place where faith lives and where man surrenders to God's lordship. It is thus the sphere in which man serves
The I, then, cannot be divided up into an inwardness of soul, affection, or understanding on the one side and an outwardness of the body in which one draws or neglects the consequences therefrom on the other. (p. 1066; italics added)

Paul equates the holistic anthropos (or human being) with soma. In opposition to the "spiritual" emphasis of his peers (no less applicable to a similar phenomenon today by those who overemphasize the transformed, "spiritualized," inward nature of humanity without accompanying corporeal witness) Paul, in such pertinent passages as 11 Corinthians 5:1-10; Romans 6:12-14; Romans 8:12-14; Romans 8:11f.; I Corinthians 4:14f; and Philippians 3:21, calls for humans to live their faith out not only in an intellectual or emotional manner, but in the comprehensive arena of "somatic" existence. This willingness, to bear bodily witness to God's salva- 
tion, most adequately defined in Isaiah's Old Testament depiction of the Suffering Servant (cf. Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), is best exemplified in the New Testament by the "life-giving spirit" himself ... Jesus (cf. Mark 10:33-54, Acts 8:32, I Peter 1.18-19.

Another important word, psuche (cf. nephesh in Old  Testament), or soul, represents in both testaments the individual being in totality. Paul, resisting attempts to equate the psuchikon human (or person "possessing" a soul) with some  extracorporeal metaphysical vision of a spiritualized entity,  posits psuche in a sense that is best epitomized by the modern  term "self."

In the Bible then, humans, as holistic vessels, possess no  "immortal" inner part that guarantees heavenly life.
Humanity's destiny is determined not by its nature, but by its relation to God and to its fellow human beings. Salvation, seen through this perspective, is not representative of a human initiated retreat from one's "somatic" nature into the "spiritual." Rather one's bodily activities are drawn into a functional relationship of responsible complementarity with one's mental activities, thus leading to a unified expression of life in relationship to God. God redeems humanity, not by abolish ing its human wholeness, but by calling the holistic person into unison with his/her Creator (cf. Gatch, 1969, pp. 43-44; Hick, 1973, pp. 99-100; Hick, 1976, p. 278).

Dualism and Religious Ethics

In contrast to this biblical concept of anthropological holism, or psuche-soma indivisibility, stands the steadily increasing impact of dualistic considerations upon much of the Judaeo-Christian heritage. The impact of dualism on the historically evidenced ministry of the Christian church can most profitably be analyzed on three interrelated levels of alienation: (a) alienation from oneself, (b) alienation from one's fellow person, and (c) alienation from creation as a whole (Ruether, 1972, p. 255).

Drawing from Gnosticism's renunciation of this world and man's presence in it, the early Christian church sometimes "fostered a dualistic tendency in Christian anthropology by identifying man's true humanity as something outside history" (Childs, 1978, p. 20). From this understanding it was but a brief step to the position that "whatever is a threat to my body is not a threat to me" (Evans, 1977, p. 104). This self depiction of the Suffering Servant (cf. Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; alienating view of reality came to epitomize the classical

Robert S. Weathers is completing his doctoral studies in Clinical Psychology (with a masters in theology) at Fuller Seminary. He received his B.A. with a double major in psychology and Christian ministry from Fresno Pacific College (California) in 1979. His current interests include transpersonal approaches to psychology as well as Eastern and Western contemplative traditions. Bob wishes to thank Mr. John Fast and Dr. Al Dueck (both of Fresno Pacific College) and Dr. Clint McLemore (Fuller Seminary) for their support and helpful advice in bringing this project along to its current stage of development. He currently resides with his wife Tammy in Pasadena, California.

Christian breed of spirituality.

Salvation came about through repression of the body: the sensual appetities and feelings, and a flight to an inner spiritual self. Eating, sleeping, even bathing, the delights of ear and eye, and most of all, sexual pleasure, as the most intense bodily pleasure, were the seat of the "enemy." This constituted literally a "death ethic" in which life-long "Mortification" gained fulfillment in the separation of the "soul" from the body. (Ruether, p. 255)

Just as asceticism under the guise of Christian servitude has led irrevocably to self-alienation, so have the characteristic forms of individualism (Dueek, Note 2) and dogmatism (cf. Fowler, 1981, pp. 9-15). Here the words of a great Old Testament prophet ring clearly:

I hate, I spurn your pilgrim-feasts; I will not delight in your sacred ceremonies... Spare me the sound of your songs; I cannot endure the music of your lutes. Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21, 23, 24-New English Bible)

It is this traditional concept of soul-body separatism that has come to be viewed by the general populace as the Christian understanding of humans.

In fostering social alienation, body-soul dualism has manifested itself in Christian ethical attitudes and practices toward sexism, anti-semitism, class polarization, anti-black racism, and colonialist imperialism (Ruether, pp. 256-257). Quebedeaux (1974) poignantly summarizes the inadequacies of the dualistic separation of personal and social gospels,

Holders of the Orthodox position (based upon the aforementioned dualistic presuppositions) have been guilty of neglecting the social dimension of the Gospel entirely-seeking the salvation of souls but allowing bodies to go to hell (p. 16).

As is evidenced today in such glaring crises as fuel shortages, carcinogenic radiation from malfunctioning nuclear reactors, and choking fumes from all sorts of human-made atmospheric pollutants, alienation in its third form, from God's creation, is likewise an undeniable reality-yes, even for (possibly, most especially for) the church of Jesus Christ. By now it is apparent to the reader that a "dichotomy between matter and spirit is not only anti-biblical but ecologically fatal" (Stagg, 1973, p. 59). As Stagg remarks, 

if philosopby or religion teachers us to despise the material (a la dualism), counting it worthless or even evil, the next step is to neglect it, abuse it, deplete it, pollute it (pp. 59-60).

Christians, working more often than not from a dualistic conceptualization of themselves in relation to God's universe, have helped to perpetuate many of modern man's fallacious assumptions and self-destructive behaviors in relation to the material realm, including "God's good earth, the larger 'body'or 'house' ('ecology' is from oikos,'house') in which we live" (Stagg, p. 59).

Human beings who accept a dualistic view of themselves are indeed alienated from everything: themselves, their fellows, and creation as a whole. Never before has there been a time in which the need for courage and introspection was greater. The great question of our age is: "What changes are necessitated in order for humans to once again focus on accepting the gift of wholeness from God?"

Human Health

The changes we accept in our ways of talking and thinking about human nature are related to the problems we have to solve (Dueck, Note 3). Reverting to the biblical model of understanding human beings as whole units in relation to God is imperative to the resolution of the problems that have emanated from the dualistic milieu. only through a renewal of emphasis upon the holistic person, who is called into God's salvific covenantal family, can expectations for genuine renewal by concerned Christians be realized within the churches.

Biblical holism as an alternative to anthropological dualism opens the door to human casting away of the bonds of self-alienation. Redefining repentance is seen by some as an integral part of the process of people getting back in touch with both themselves and their Creator. As one author puts it:

Repentance means . . . return(ing) to that true body-self in community with our fellow persons and creation in an aspiration for that 'good land' of messianic blessedness which makes all things whole (Ruether, pp. 253-257).

just as biblical holism affects one's body awareness (by teaching one to accept, be good to, and attentively listen to one's own body), such a view of human nature also shapes the Christian view of sex. In his efforts to "demythologize" sex within the context of biblical holism, Bruce Larson discusses " sex not as an entity unto itself but as one dimension of life which cannot be separated from the other aspects of human personality" (Quebedeaux, pp. 103-104; underlining added). More recently, Cliff and Joyce Penner (1981) assert a similarly holistic alternative to traditional Christian conceptions of sex. The Penner's explicate the Bible's "prosexual message" in careful detail. When the Bible speaks of human sexual experience, it is "talking about that mystical union between husband and wife that includes the emotional, physical, and spiritual-the total person" (p. 41). As such, sex is to be celebrated!

These last comments serve as a natural transition into a discussion of biblical holism as a reply to dualism's inevitable alienation of persons from their fellow human beings. just as self-alienation is such a direct corollary of dualistic notions within religion, dualism also unquestionably "ignores (the) social-cosmic character of sin" (Ruether, p. 252). Artificially separating persons into two or more mutually exclusive spheres of activity, which is exactly what dualism has propounded throughout history, has resulted in a marked tendency within Christianity to repeatedly fail to address social complexities.

That "conversion, discipleship and social concern are inextricably linked together" seems to be a foregone conclusion of the biblical writers (Quebedeaux, p. 81). As one example of the very real implications involved in a holistic view of man, consider biblical holism's response to the dichotomy between church and state. A properly holistic view suggests 

that the doctrine of separation of church and state has, in fact, been misinterpreted, that it really pertains to the prohibition of government interference in church affairs and does not forbid the churches to speak and act prophetically when the state fosters political or social unrighteousness (Quebedeaux, p. 99).

Holism's response to a pervasive anti-black racism (constructed on a foundation of religious dualism) has been well articulated by William Pannell and Tom Skinner. Pannell (1970) declares that "the sin of Evangelicalism is not that we are un-American. It is rather that we are more American than Christian" (p. 31). Pannell posits a tentative solution (not inconsistent with holistic conceptualizations), as well as acknowledging the difficulties presented, even promulgated, in today's church.

Here we clearly need to preach a Christ who moves alongside of contemporary man, helping him to affirm his individuality and personal worth. Unfortunately, He (Jesus) often comes through as Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, suburban, Republican. Black young people simply cannot identify with that kind of Christ in a racist society (p. 31).

Biblical holism opens the door to the church's realization of the following rendition of Galatians 3:28: "In Jesus there are no 'niggers' or 'whiteys,' no 'freaks' or 'straights,' no male or female because we are all one in Him" (cited in Quebedeaux, P. 110).

Living out a holistic gospel is of necessity often demanding upon the committed disciple. Such demands can be adequately met only by the one whose roots remain firmly implanted in the redemptive acts of God. This form of Christian radicalism is best summarized in the powerful message of black evangelist Tom Skinner (1971):

You will never be radical until you become part of that new order (God's kingdom) and then go into a world that is enslaved, a world that is filled with hunger and poverty and racism and all those things of the work of the devil. Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised, go into the world and tell men that are bound mentally, spiritually and physically. 'The liberator has corne!' (pp. 208-209).

Although the problems of self-alienation and alienation from one's fellow humanity are indeed severe in the modern church, perhaps the most pressing urgency lies in contemporary human interaction with the natural environment. Lynn White, Jr. has described the etiology of the ecological crisis.

Finally, concluding on a more positive note, Henri Nouwen directs the holistic Christian to a deeper appreciation of humankind's undeniable relatedness to all of, creation. "The closer we come to nature, the closer we touch the core of life when we celebrate. Nature tells us that life is precious not only because it is, but also because it does not have to be" (1971, pp. 104-105). As God's people, committed as a church to right the many wrongs to be associated with philosophical and practical roots of dualistic anthropology, we collectively reject all forms of the "cheap grace" that Dietrich Bonhoeffer so detested. Rather we seek, in God, the truly transcendent foundation for humane ethics and wholesome personhood.


1Weathers, R.S. Dualism or Holism? A Look at Biblical Anthropology and Practical Implications. Unpublished senior research thesis, Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California, June 1979. (Available from author upon request.)

2Dueck, A. Individualism. Paper Paper presented at the meeting of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, Badger, California, June 1980.

3Dueek, A. "Is Mennonite Mental Health Services Mennonite?" Mennonite Quarterly Review, in press.


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