The Hebrew word nephesh, translated as "soul" or "life," is often coupled with other, more concrete words, especially with basar (flesh) and lev, levav (heart). The Hebrew has no distinct word for "body" as does the Greek (soma). Nephesh is often used in parallel with basar (flesh), never in contrast. The terms are not used as a natural contrast such as "body and soul," but are often virtually synonymous, being two ways of referring to the self in both its physical and non-physical existence. (Ray S. Anderson 1982:209, Hill 1984:100).
Ruach (spirit), unlike basar (flesh), is never used as a practical synonym for nephesh, but is frequently employed in contrast to the nephesh. Non-human creatures (animals) also were created as "living souls" (Genesis 1:20, 21, 24). The Bible even speaks of the "spirit" (ruach) of beasts (Ecclesiastes 3:21). Humans are differentiated from the animals not because they have "soul and spirit" (nephesh and ruach), but rather because of the special orientation of the human soul/spirit life in relation to God.
Whereas nephesh means "life," ruach means "vigorous life," or an inspired life. God will often take away the spirit from a person and give another spirit, for better or for worse (I Samuel 10:6, 16:13, 14). In particular, God will give his own spirit to a chosen person and even be asked to bestow it upon one who seeks it (Psalms 51:10-12).
Heart (lev) commonly signifies the seat of intelligence, cunning, good or wicked thoughts, pride, humility, joy, but never compassion, tenderness, or intense feeling. The Israelites expressed feeling through terms relating to the bowels, or entrails, not the heart. Consequently, when Jesus rebuked his disciples for hardness of heart, it was their lack of insight, or sheer stupidity, he referred to, not their callousness and lack of feeling. The heart is the center of the subjective self. It does not constitute a third dimension of the self alongside the body and soul, but is the core of the self as personal being.
When Moses directed that a census be taken of the Israelites (Exodus 30:11), it was the number of "souls" (nephesh) that was to be counted, never the number of spirits (ruach). More than one spirit can be within a person, but only one soul. While soul and spirit may be distinguished from one another (Hebrews 4:12), this is said to be a discernment made by the Word of God, not by human self-reflection.
Those whom Paul describes as "fleshly" (sarkikos) are also "soulish" (psychikos). Paul never used the body and the soul as contrasts for the spiritual and the unspiritual, or for the mortal and the immortal, as did the Greeks. Instead, he used these terms to designate qualities of life expressed through both the physical and non-physical life. "Spirit" and "spiritual" signify a divine quality of life, received as a gift from God and having a share in God's Spirit. "Flesh" and "carnal" do not signify merely a natural or physical quality of life but a corrupt, self-centered and mortal kind of life. It is not human nature that is the enemy of the spirit, but distortion or corruption of that human nature.
When we introduce the concept of "spirit," are we then committed to a three-fold division of the person into body, soul and spirit? This question was debated by early church theologians and the view that we are continues to be held by some today.
Those who hold to this three-part division are called "trichotomists," while those who view the human being as essentially "body and soul" are called "dichotomists." The early Church was confronted with these issues in the christological debate with Apollinaris of Laodocea in the fourth century. Influenced by Platonic dualism, which posited a gulf between the worlds of body and spirit (nous), Apollinaris became convinced that the soul performed the function of mediating between these two poles. The soul was thus not understood as either purely physical or mental. This trichotomist view was condemned at the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 869-79 ce.1
Despite this, some continue to hold to a three-fold division of the human self due to the New Testament use of these terms. Hebrews 4:12, for example, speaks of a "dividing of soul and spirit," and Paul prays for the preservation of "spirit and soul and body" (I Thessalonians 5:23). In other passages, however, soul and spirit are used as synonyms of the self as a unity. Luke records Mary's song as expressing this when she says, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46-7). Here it is clear that there is a single subject which is expressed alike in the terms "soul" and "spirit" (Barth 1960).
While persons have "spirit" as the basis of their individual and personal spiritual life, theologian Karl Barth (1960:354) says that this does not constitute a "third entity" alongside body and soul. "Man has spirit, as one who is possessed by it. Although it belongs to the constitution of man, it is not, like soul and body and as a third thing alongside them, a moment of his constitution as such. It belongs to his constitution in so far as it is its superior, determining and limiting basis."
Scripture never says "soul" where only "spirit" can be meant, but it often says "spirit" where "soul" is meant. From this we can conclude that the constitution of a person as soul and body cannot be fully described without thinking first of the spirit as its essential core.
The human spirit is unique in its orientation of the body/soul unity toward God in a special relationship determined by God. The whole person is expressed in the spirit, since the spirit is the principle and power of life in its relation to God.
Theologian Helmut Thielicke (1984:446) says that the function of spirit as essential to the life and power of the person is consistently depicted in the Bible as that of a life force that issues out of the "heart," or the inner life of the person. One cannot cut away the life of the spirit as a "religious appendix" that serves no necessary function. "This means that the spirit must be distinguished from the soul or psyche, it must not be psychologically or psychopathologically derived from the psyche."
Spirituality, therefore, is at the core of our human nature as personal beings, endowed with spiritual life, expressed in a unity of body and soul. Spiritual self-identity, as used theologically and in biblical terms, is contingent upon the Spirit of God both as to its formation and as to its growth.
If a biblical anthropology is determinative for a Christian view of the human self, then a strict dualism between body and soul as well as a trichotomy between body, soul and spirit can be rejected. What is distinctive about human beings is not that they have a "soul" which animals do not possess, nor that they have a "spirit" which other creatures do not possess, but as "besouled body" and "embodied soul," the "spirit" of that existence is opened toward God in a unique way as the source of life. The whole of human life, body and soul, is thus oriented toward a destiny beyond mortal or natural life. It is this orientation which constitutes the spiritual life of the self. At the same time, this orientation is contingent upon a spiritual reality which is external to the self but which approaches, and summons a response from, the self. What interests the Bible, says Barth (1960:409), is a person's perception with regard to encounter and relation with God. It is this and not autonomous rationality, which marks humans off from the animals and the rest of creation.
The human "soul," as contrasted with the soulish life of animals, represents the whole person as a physical, personal and spiritual being, especially the inner core of an individual's life as created and upheld by God. The uniqueness of human persons as contrasted with non-human creatures is solely due to the encounter, relation, and destiny of humans contingent upon relation with the Spirit of God as the source of earthly life and the possibility of eternal life.
In continuing to use the word "soul" as referring to this inner core of the self, theological anthropology refers to the personal and spiritual dimension of the person. Soul is the life of the person, says Barth (1960:370). "To call man [sic] 'soul' is simply to say in the first place that he is the life which is essentially necessary for his body." Thus, the phrase "body and soul" is not intended to suggest that the soul is something which is merely "in" the body, or separate from the body, but the whole person with both an interior and an exterior life in the world.
The role of theological anthropology is to speak to the deeper yearnings and struggles of human existence as much as to bring to those existential human concerns a Word from God. Despite the ambiguity of the biblical terms which refer to a human soul or spirit, an indissoluble core of meaning persists in the biblical material, which points to the inner core of the whole person, including the body. It is in this sense that theological anthropology speaks of the "soul" as referring to the entirety of the self as personal, spiritual being.
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