Man as body, soul, and spirit

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This is what Edward Fudge has to say about the subject:

The Bible is not crystal clear about this topic although the dogmatism of some teachers might suggest otherwise. For that reason, I like to begin with the scene described in Genesis 2:7, which says: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”

If we close our eyes and visualize this little story of 26 words, we get the picture. We watch as God scoops up clay from the ground like a potter.

Next he shapes it into the form we recognize as a man’s body. Then, bending over the face of that lifeless clay form (“body”), the Creator infuses his breath (a synonym for the word usually translated “spirit”) into the clay man’s face and the clay form becomes a living being (“soul”). This language is not philosophical or scientific but poetic. It does not explain as much as it impresses. It addresses our hearts more than our minds. It reminds us of our relationship to the rest of creation and of our total dependence on God.

This story portrays man as a clay body animated by breath of life. He is (not has) a living “soul.” (The Bible sometimes describes a person’s death as a “soul” dying (Num. 23:10; Ezek. 18:4, 20). We would not know it by reading most English translations, but to the author of Genesis a “living soul” can be either a human being (2:7) or an animal (2:19). As “living souls” we are part of this creation, with bodies made from elements of the earth, enjoying life second-by-second through the Creator’s gift of living breath. The New Testament uses the words “soul” and “spirit” in more nuanced ways but it never contradicts what we have seen already in Genesis.

The New Testament generally uses “soul” (Greek: psyche) for a “person” or “self.” This word speaks of a person as a unified, whole being with emphasis on life or vitality. To “save” or “lose” one’s soul is to save or lose oneself (Mark 8:35-37). This is essentially what we found in Genesis 2:7 in Part 1 of this two-part gracEmail. Sometimes “soul” (psyche) stands in contrast with “body” (soma), in which case it refers to the inner and invisible aspect of the person instead of the outer and visible aspect (but not to an invisible part — which some have referred to as “the ghost in the machine”). On the other hand, the “natural” or “unspiritual” person in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 is literally a “soulish” (psychikos) — almost “animal-like” — individual, as contrasted with the “spiritual” (pneumatikos) individual who is enlightened by the Spirit of God.

Paul speaks of “body, soul and spirit” in writing the Thessalonians (5:23), not to focus on distinctions but rather to underscore a person’s entirety and wholeness which God can sanctify. This text reminds us of Deuteronomy 6:5 where every Israelite is commanded to love God with all the “heart,” “soul” and “mind.” That simply means undivided, uncompromised love. Similarly, Hebrews 4:12 does not suggest a clearly-defined difference between “soul” and “spirit”; indeed, God alone is able cleanly to divide between those two aspects of our totality.

The words most commonly translated as “spirit” in the Scriptures of both Old (Hebrew: ruach) and New (Greek: pneuma) Testaments are also the words for “wind” and “breath.” When someone dies, the “spirit” (breath, life-force) returns to God who gave it (Psalm 104:29-30; Acts 7:59). There is no reason to suppose from this that the disembodied “spirit” is conscious or even self-consciousness — certainly not that it is death-proof/immortal. (On the other hand, the Risen Jesus Christ lives in believers by his Spirit, leading some scholars to expect a conscious “intermediate state” for them between death and the resurrection.) In Paul’s writings in particular, the human “spirit” sometimes refers to the godly impulse resulting from God’s indwelling Holy Spirit and contrasts with the “flesh” or sinful impulse resulting from the Fall (Romans 8:4, Galatians 5). Jesus also contrasts “spirit” with “flesh” with similar meaning (John 6:63).

This subject is one about which many believers have (they believe) clear ideas, make absolute distinctions and teach with uncompromising vigor. After 50 years of Bible study, I still find it inhabiting a largely gray area of Scripture teaching. These differences of opinion will surely remain until we all understand fully and see God face to face. Nor is the subject one of central importance. The fuzzy gray understanding is adequate for a saving relationship with God and for maturing in the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Edward Fudge has a doctorate in Jurisprudence as well as degrees in theology. He practices law for a living, but his first love is his preaching and teaching of the word of God. He has published several books and scores of scholarly articles on Christian subjects.

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