The human person according to Paul

By Brian Edgar

What exactly is meant when there is talk of a person being made up of ‘body and soul’? Are there two parts to a person? Can they exist separately?  Does the soul live on after the death of the body?  Discussions of the Biblical understanding of the person inevitably lead to the question as to whether the person is best understood  as unified whole (monism)  or as a integrated dualism of body and soul/spirit.

In recent history the idea that the parts can be dealt with separately – with a disembodied soul being the way we live on after death – has been dominant. But monism is becoming more popular.  In his article ‘Scripture and the Human Person: Further Reflections’ Joel Green put forward the modest proposal that anthropological monism is at least consistent with several New Testament passages which have often been interpreted in dualist fashion.

This present article takes this discussion a step further and interprets the Pauline data in the light of Paul’s soteriological  purposes. The conclusion is that Paul deliberately varies his anthropological ontology in order to defend more central anthropological themes. It is argued that following Paul’s anthropology means more than to accepting his ontological conclusions, it means adopting a method.  This is shown to have implications for the contemporary use of biblical ontologies of the person.

This article appeared as ‘Paul and the Person
’ in Science and Christian Belief (2000) Vol. 12, No.2, 151-164.

The introduction to the article follows:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in an admirable burst of economy, A.B.Davidson announced a reduction in the number of component parts of the human person from three to two. In direct opposition to the dominant anthropological trichotomy (body-soul-spirit) of the nineteenth century he argued that the Old Testament, “gives special prominence to the fundamental dualism of man’s nature.  He is a compound of matter and spirit….  It is impossible to eliminate …the belief in the dualism of human nature.”  By the middle of the twentieth century economic processes had continued their work and the two component parts were reduced to one. It was by then generally accepted that humanity was best understood in terms of a fundamental unity. The many biblical words used to describe the person were all there, as J.A.T Robinson expressed it, “to express the unity of the personality”.

Theologians handled this ontological reductionism from three to two and then to one in different ways. Many felt that it was a positive move. Edmund Hill said, “Our culture has been shifting back to a dominance of the ‘unitary’ self-experience… I think this is a good thing; it is certainly an inevitable thing.  We cannot live for ever with that Rylean sneer, ‘that ghost in the machine’.  Should we then scrap the word ‘soul’?  I myself think it would not be a bad idea; there are plenty of good substitutes, ‘self’, ‘person’, even ‘personality’.” But others wondered if the process had not gone too far, to the point where the essential self completely disappeared and so they bemoaned the ‘loss’ or the ‘death’ of the soul in morality and philosophy.  Biblically, monism did not have all its own way either, as the dualist option has retained scholarly support. R. Gundry concluded “that Paul, along with most Jews and other early Christians, habitually thought of man as a duality of two parts, corporeal and incorporeal, meant to function in unity but distinguishable and capable of separation” and John.W.Cooper devoted his Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate to defending dualism. Many others have also added their names to the dualist cause.

Other evidence that monism has not been able to completely sweep dualism away is found in the way that even convinced monists have to explain the historical appearance of anthropological dualism as a Christian option. It is generally put down to the corruption of an holistic Hebrew anthropology by the influence of Greek philosophy. These dualisms, it is argued, are then read back into the Old Testament as well.  There remains though, a  certain level of disagreement as to exactly where these influences are found and how intentionally they are adopted. Monism’s inability to completely capture the scene can also be observed in the modest claims of monists like Joel Green in a recent edition of Science and Christian Belief.  Green says that those holding to a monistic anthropology view can at least be “assured that this position actually places them more centrally within the biblical material than has usually been granted over the past two millennia”. He only claims the possibility of consistency between monism and biblical teaching in certain passages traditionally interpreted dualistically. His proposal does not  either definitively disprove dualism or prove monism.

This paper examines the way Paul uses ontology and argues that the diverse interpretations of his theoanthropological material can be explained by reference to his overall theological method which does not begin with ontological presuppositions and move to deductions concerning anthropological and soteriological themes but which rather moves from the necessities of discipleship and ethics back to an appropriate ontology, or even ontologies, of the person. This calls into question the common procedure of assuming that there is such a thing as complete ontological consistency and then taking Paul’s ontological conclusions as definitive and prescriptive for use in contemporary theological and ethical discussions such as genetic engineering, cloning, euthanasia and mind-brain interaction. This process fails to account for either the variation in Pauline ontology or the theological method he uses. I argue that following Paul means more than accepting his specific ontological conclusions, it means adopting a particular method and embracing a reflexive approach to theology which gives priority to soteriologically related themes rather than to ontology.

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