Class Three – Living as Whole Persons

Sean Mortenson / October 11, 2017
classes, knowledge of self, spiritual formation

What ‘parts’ make up a human being?

“Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” – Genesis 2:7

There are a few different dominant theories for how many “parts” make up a human being. The “bipartite” view suggests that we are made of essentially two parts: material and immaterial. People like Augustine and Calvin have held this view. The “tripartite” view suggests that we are made of essentially three parts: body, soul, and spirit. We can see this is verses like 1 Thess 5:23-24.

Beyond that, theologians will also point to other parts of our humanity that are worth delineating, such as our emotions and social/relational nature. All of this to say, in the Christian tradition, the human being is understood to be comprised of multiple parts or aspects. We are complex.

Our parts work in concert to form a whole.

We may be complex, but our parts make up one whole person. That may seem like an obvious point, but we do not want to slip into the error of viewing ourselves as disconnected, disjointed parts. A human being is a singular entity, formed and knit together by the Creator.

All of our parts, however we want to delineate them – mind, body, spirit, soul, emotions – influence one another. Consider how being hungry affects our emotions. Consider how our emotional state affects what we want to believe or not believe. Consider how emotional wounds affect our spiritual state. These are always working in concert, impacting one another in countless ways.

But again, as these work together they form a complete whole. J.I. Packer uses this illustration (from a bipartite view):

“Suppose, under proper laboratory conditions, I mix some sodium with some chlorine and the mixture becomes salt. Salt is not one of the elements : it is the name of the compound. So also in Genesis: God took some clay, breathed his spirit into it, and the combination was a living soul. In the Old Testament the term soul designates the combination as a whole, not just one of the components.”

Ignoring any part has destructive consequences.

There are NOT inherently good and bad parts of a human. We are holistically corrupted by the Fall and holistically made new in Redemption. To elevate or diminish any of our parts (that our working in concert) is to fall into error.

Historically, there has been a dualistic error that viewed the immaterial as good and the material as evil. We might blame Plato for the idea that the “body is a prison of the soul”. This dualism leads to the a false understanding of Christianity that sees the goal as escaping our bodies and the physical world to become pure souls floating on clouds in some spiritual heaven. But that is not the picture the Bible gives us. In Revelation we are told that the endgame is a meeting of heaven and earth and the forming of a new heavenly city. Once again, the spiritual and the physical in harmony with God. What’s more, Jesus foreshadows this with his physical resurrection body and bodily ascension (Acts 1). The physical world, and subsequently our bodies, are not disposable. They are a part of our reality and will be a part of the Kingdom.

In application, this should lead us to be attentive to each part of our humanity in a desire to see them collectively re-formed. Just like ignoring our physical bodies would have destructive consequences on our physical health, ignoring our emotions, our thought life, or our bodily practices would have destructive consequences on our spiritual health.

Discipleship must be holistic.

Discipleship then is a holistic re-formation of every part of who we are. It is re-orienting each part to God and his purposes. It is becoming attentive to where each part is unhealthy and seeking healing in Christ.

We are accustomed to talking about renewing our thoughts (Rom 12:1-2). But consider how becoming attentive to something like our lack of physical health can lead us to a more holistic re-orientation. Perhaps we are unhealthy because we consume more than we need and fail to recognize our limits and drive ourselves too hard in pursuit of idols. Recognizing these things can drive us to pursue a lifestyle that recognizes how God made us, what he has called us to, emotional wounds that lead to unhealthy patterns, spiritual idols we put above God, etc., etc.

So discipleship – growing to become more like Jesus and who we are meant to be – is not just about acquiring more information. It is about living as whole persons who have every aspect of their humanity renewed in Christ. This is a hugely significant point as we move into a discussion of spiritual disciplines in the spring.


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