Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Yesterday I started writing about John Calvin's view of the sacraments with a view in mind to somehow view the natural world in a decidedly Christian way, emphasizing the importance of both the physical reality and the meaning or purpose of things.

As much as I love the passage I quoted yesterday, equally do I dislike the following passage (from the Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 14, Section 3):
From the definition which we have given, we perceive that there never is a sacrament without an antecedent promise, the sacrament being added as a kind of appendix, with the view of confirming and sealing the promise, and giving a better attestation, or rather, in a manner, confirming it. In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. For, as Chrysostom says, (Hom. 60, ad Popul.) "Were we incorporeal, he would give us these things in a naked and incorporeal form. Now because our souls are implanted in bodies, he delivers spiritual things under things visible. Not that the qualities which are set before us in the sacraments are inherent in the nature of the things, but God gives them this signification."
With all due respect to both Calvin and Chrysostom (pictured to the right), I disagree with the words I've italicized in a fundamental way.

I can't deny that this is the classic Christian position, which most Christians today would probably agree with--"our souls are implanted in bodies." But I have two fundamental problems with this. First, I see no scientific reason to agree with this statement. Second, I see no theological reason to agree with it.

Scientifically, we are constantly discovering more about the brain, which explains in deeper and deeper ways how it is that we have the capacity to do all those things which seem to distinguish us as "human."

This is an exciting thing, and it hasn't been until probably the last century that we've understood so much about the brain, intelligence, emotion, and consciousness. We should be celebrating this progress of science, but instead I constantly hear (and even used to make) abstract philosophical arguments designed to block classic Christian doctrines from being affected by science.

As I said yesterday, science can have theological consequences; why wouldn't it? But those theological consequences don't have to be frightening to Christians. Indeed, I see no theological reason to believe in the "soul in the body" picture.

The brilliant Reformed pastor and scholar Greg Bahnsen wrote a great article on the mind/body problem from a Christian perspective, in which he defends the idea that "man is a substantival monism, a material body which is special for reason of its capabilities (not its added substantival ingredient)." In other words, a person isn't a soul in a body, but that doesn't make him or her any less important in a theological sense.

I agree with Bahnsen, and moreover I think it's sad to see Calvin reason that God "accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual," as if being physical beings distracts us from being spiritual.

In Genesis, God created the physical universe, including human beings, and there is no reason to believe he didn't create us as physical creatures. Our physical nature was no result of the fall. Therefore, what business does any theologian have in saying that God "condescends" to give us physical signs of His promises? Would He not rather rejoice to give us physical signs? Does He not love created things?

I think there's this false notion of spirituality that slips so easily into Christianity. It says that through the practice of religious activities (whether it's worship, prayer, or even good works) we can somehow transcend the physical universe and find some deeper truth beyond the created world. Many Christians, of course, emphatically believe this is true, but I disagree.

The picture of true spirituality I get from the Bible and from reason is that we ought to help care for the created world around us in such a way that there is harmony--that is, so that all things fulfill their purpose in God's sight.

In the Old Testament, sin polluted the land, not just our souls (as in Num 35:33). In the New Testament, it is the creation that longs for God's salvation, not just our souls. (Rom 8:19)

I think these ideas matter. Classic "soul in the body" Christianity will constantly seek to improve people's souls. But this could be damaging, especially if it's nothing more than an illusion. If humans are, after all, simply physical beings (which is not to say unspiritual) then it is frankly a waste of time to try to think of ways to improve one's soul as if it is distinct from the body.

On the other hand, if human beings are physical creatures created by God for a physical purpose, namely to care for His creation and to know Him more intimately through His creation, then we ought to be thinking of ways to do this.

In religious life, this may have something to do with the use of the sacraments, but I'm thinking in broader terms here. I'm thinking of a Christian spirituality that focuses in large part on the environment, living modestly (not consuming too many of the earth's resources), creating art and music, and thinking seriously about economic questions (as economics is the study of how to allocate the earth's resources).

The separation of these seemingly "secular" issues from "spiritual" issues is, for me, a contradiction, because these are all spiritual issues. They deal with the nature of things and the purpose for which they exist, and as such they are inherently spiritual.

I think this could have all sorts of practical consequences, but this is just one post, and I have to continue thinking about the details much more than I have. But I also think there is something just inherently more beautiful about not despising the body.

God created us as physical beings, and it is a good thing. Every tasty meal, every beautiful song, every breathtaking experience in nature, and every feeling of accomplishment after a hard day's work acts as a word from God's mouth, just as I feel that also mathematics and science are windows into His mind. If nothing else, this philosophy of life just makes life more satisfying.

Dualism probably appeals to most Christians in that it appears to separate us humans as unique. But I think the uniqueness of human beings lies in our purpose, and not in our substance, and I truly believe that if humans stop looking inward at an imagined soul in the body, we will be delighted to look outward at the world we truly live in, and discover in it a purpose for our lives that is beautiful, dignified, and even sanctified by the God who created this world.


  1. My friend Lisa directed me to your blog. I agree wholeheartedly with your statement, especially in that I see little evidence for dualism in the Old Testament; particularly in it's usage of the Hebrew word "nephesh" (soul). Dualism in Christianity seems heavily influenced by pagan philosophy.

    Great blog! I'd be curious as to your interpretation of the creation, being that you probably oppose Calvin's 6 literal 24 hour days.

  2. Thanks for reading my blog! The issue of interpreting creation is a sticky issue for me, being a member of a conservative Christian denomination but also being part of the scientific community (I think math grad student counts). Personally, my view of the creation story is that it is a starting point for thinking about the world in relation to the purpose for which God made it. The story tells us that creation is good, yet subordinate to God. It is meant to be used for what is right, and cared for diligently. The six days of creation, plus a day of Sabbath rest, are echoed in the Jewish calendar, signifying that the work we do ought to mirror God's work of creation. I think these fundamental ideas about the meaning and purpose of creation, not the scientific particulars, are the valuable things we gain from Genesis.

    I respect people who revere the Bible (because they revere God) enough to believe it word for word no matter what science tells us. But I'm with Francis Collins when I say that there are many things in science which, if the Bible is held to a strict interpretation, would seem to make God out to be a liar. I can't accept that God is a liar, so I just let the Bible say what it says without trying to learn science from it.

  3. Agreed. These issuesof literalism and faith have always been pressing for me as well because my father is a physicist as well as all the males in my family, and I grew up appreciating advances in science. I've read Calvin's institutes and much of his philosophy is grounded in theory and not practical application. It's not that I worship science, but historically, religion has greatly impeded technological advancement.

    These days, Christians trust doctors to deliver their babies and prescribe insulin, but the very mention of carbon dating shuts them down. I always wonder why God would allow his world to appear older than 6 thousand years, if he had wanted to convey a Young Earth concept. Is God tricking his people?

    I still keep somewhat of an open mind on this issue, but I sway more in the direction of Old Earth.


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