Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 16

More Than Just “Stuff”

Why Creation Means Transformation for Our Bodies, Our Selves

Steve Wilkens

Scholars are supposed to avoid nostalgia. Getting attached to old notions, conventional wisdom tells us, breeds a reluctance to test them and discover something new. Nevertheless, I’ve become nostalgic for an idea that held sway for centuries: the belief that nature cannot be truly understood apart from the category of creation. In fact, the progressive decoupling of “nature” from creation has caused us to think different thoughts when we hear the word nature, and I fear that those thoughts create significant problems in our quest to be spiritually attuned with God.

Today, nature is equated with raw matter, physical stuff that can be used and discarded or compounded into new configurations to be broken down later into simpler structures. Matter itself is neither good nor bad; it just is, devoid of meaning or purpose. For these reasons, hereafter I will refer to nature under this definition as “mere nature.” According to this model, it is impossible to describe mere nature as spiritual. At best, it can be used for spiritual purposes by a nonmaterial entity.The obvious point here is that worldviews that reduce all reality to mere nature will lack the categories for understanding the spiritual as anything other than rather odd results of material process.

So why does subsuming nature under the umbrella of creation make any difference? The word creation carries with it two different meanings. The first is that something is made. Okay, but making is important only in the context of a second, often less noticed, implication of creation. We create on purpose and for a purpose.The reference to “without form and void” in Gen. 1:2 is often overlooked as a significant aspect of God’s creative process here. The point of creation is not simply that God can make stuff, even out of nothing if God so chooses, but that he loving gives it form, fullness, and purpose. We don’t just make stuff; we make stuff for a reason. Such reasons vary widely; we create artifacts to sustain life, save time, express love, appreciate beauty, or any one of a myriad of reasons. But these reasons always involve a goal; they separate creation from accident.

If my definition is close to correct, it means that created entities are never understood apart from the intent of the creator.While Aristotle’s metaphysics has its shortcomings, our view of science has been profoundly impoverished by the fact that the fourth of his causal categories (the final cause) has disappeared from consideration within the sciences. Unless we can speak of the purpose of natural processes, we lack any understanding of why we should engage in scientific activities in the first place. This is where the older definition of nature, the one for which I’m nostalgic, comes in. To the extent that something achieved its creator’s purpose, it fulfilled its nature. In other words, in old dictionaries, nature referred to an ideal. It did not refer to how things are, but to how things should be. If you like big words, nature, because it circled within the orbit of creation, was a teleological concept. It had a purpose, a telos, gifted to it by a purposeful Creator. When it fulfilled that goal, it could be described as spiritual. Under this definition, even bodily activities as mundane as eating and drinking can glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31).

01.  The Bible and Creation

The first verb we run across in the Bible is create. Here we are told that God created what we now think of as “mere nature”—“the heavens and the earth,” with a more detailed inventory of created entities that follows in short order. However, upon creation, that which we frequently perceive as mere nature functions according to its intended nature because the refrain “it is good” recurs at each new phase of creation. Things are in sync with God’s purpose.

This is the case also when God creates human beings in his image, an image I suppose to be properly described as spiritual. The first human being, Adam, is made from dirt (Gen. 2:7), so he shares continuity with other physical things. Eve is also tied in with the physical world; she comes from Adam’s body (Gen. 2:21). By emphasizing that humans are created nature, Scripture signals that materiality is not accidental or peripheral, but something intended by a Creator with a spiritual purpose for creatures. Moreover, the portrait of these people prior to their rebellion, as natural in the au naturel sense (Gen. 3:7), speaks of a harmony between the inner and outer expressions of their being. In short, nothing in Scripture suggests that humans became distorted and denatured when or because they became physical. They were spiritually unified with God in the beginning when all was good and very good.

In short, God had a purpose for the physical universe and its inhabitants, a purpose that includes materiality. Even if language about Adam’s creation from dust or Eve’s construction from Adam’s spare parts is taken as metaphorical, if God intends to exclude our physicality from what is good about creation’s goodness, I think it’s safe to say that less misleading metaphors could have been found.

02.  Plato and Creation

Scripture is not the only ancient source with a doctrine of creation. Plato, like many other Greek thinkers, offers an influential version of this idea. To be sure, he has no view of making ex nihilo. Members of his three categories of reality—Forms, souls, matter—are eternal, both into the past and the future. His creation is really about things fulfilling a purpose.

Forms are divine, eternally and perfectly manifesting their telos. On the other hand, matter, which makes up bodies of all types, is never something with purpose in itself. It is mere nature that can be used by a soul or Form to strive toward a purpose, but that purpose is never proper to matter itself. In fact, the material is problematic in the quest to achieve a telos.

The real creation battleground in the Platonic paradigm is the soul, what Plato considers the real self. When I say “me” or “mine,” it is solely the soul to which I refer. In Platonic thought, to speak of my body as “me” is a mistake. I am a soul; I have a body in the same way that I might have a suitcase. The soul has a nature, but is corruptible. It overcomes the pull toward corruption when it focuses on the perfect, eternal, immutable, and spiritual. In Plato’s mind, none of these words properly describes a material body, which is only an inert substratum lacking an ideal. A good soul, recognizing its divine telos, may overwhelm the body and coerce it into service toward that end. However, the soul’s ideal is to be free of mere nature and return to its natural, disembodied state. In short, the soul is the “I” that participates in creation when it pursues the divine good resident in the world of Forms. The physical stuff of the body is disposable. Thus, freedom from embodiment does not stop me from being me. In fact, shedding the merely natural body allows me to be truly me, to achieve my genuine nature.

03.  Corporeal Re-creation

I bring up Plato because many Christians throughout the centuries have adopted his body/soul dualism. My students express it in numerous ways, but never so clearly as when they talk about another side of creation: the re-creative event of resurrection. Quite often, they slip into language of an immortal soul breaking free of a corpse when they speak of the Christian’s hope for the afterlife. This runs into a couple of problems. First, there is no need of a resurrection (anastasis, which literally means “to stand up again”) if someone (which, in Platonism, means the immortal soul) is not dead. Second, Paul specifically includes the idea that it is a body (sōma) that is resurrected.

Paul’s life after death “body language” would have been shocking to any Platonic lurkers checking out his Corinthian blog. First, he speaks of our resurrection hope as a sōma pneumatikos (1 Cor. 15:44), usually translated as “spiritual” or “supernatural” body. Christians resonate with Paul’s assertion that resurrection life will be spiritual, and usually this is sufficient to cause us to gloss over the “body” word in this phrase. But we shouldn’t skip this so quickly. It would have scandalized any Platonist and should be sufficient to puzzle any Christian convinced that bodies are indifferent or an obstacle to our spiritual telos.

Further mucking up matters is Paul’s description of what is left behind when we receive our spiritual body. He identifies it as the sōma psychikos, usually translated as “natural body.” However, psychikos is the adjectival form of the noun Plato uses to refer to the soul, the psychē. Thus, if we read Paul through Platonic filters, everything goes crazy. Plato’s soul (the “I”) gets left behind, and the body (the “not I”) participates in the eschatological grand prize. As if to drive the dagger home even deeper, the sōma psychikos is later described as “perishable” (1 Cor. 15:53). For Plato, to speak of an immortal soul as perishable was the ultimate oxymoron. No wonder this stuff is “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). However, if we think like Platonists, Paul’s concept of the resurrection will sound like foolishness to many Christians as well.

My reason for highlighting Genesis’ body-laden language and Paul’s language of re-creation by resurrection is twofold. First, if we seek models for our spiritual telos, they can be found at those places where sin either does not yet exist (creation) or no longer exists (recreation). My intent, then, is simply to note the body’s prominence at two such places. Adam is from dust, but communes with God in the Garden. The sōma that is resurrected and described as spiritual gives every appearance of referring to a whole person, not simply a resuscitated corpse. Of course, the same emphasis on embodiment appears in the link connecting creation and resurrection—the incarnate Second Adam, who is bodily resurrected on Easter morning. Once we get into the sin-permeated time between creation and re-creation, spirituality becomes a messier affair.

The second reason to focus on creation and eschaton is that the body’s prominence in our spiritual union with God stands in stark contrast with the ideas of Plato, whose dualism offers no room for a spirituality of the body. While Plato’s corrupted souls still can find spiritual redemption, bodies are irredeemable (and not damnable) because they are mere nature, and thus nonparticipants in creation. For this reason, dualism, at least Plato’s version of it, seems extremely difficult to square with Christian spirituality.

04.  Reading Scripture With the Wrong Question

Despite my reservations about Plato’s dualism, I believe it is almost impossible to frame a workable, coherent Christian spirituality without using “soulish” language. And this difficulty explains why we feel the tug toward Platonic anthropology.

Plato, like Christianity, acknowledges the spiritual dimension of human existence, both awareness of fallenness and the longing for redemption. When we reduce human beings to a collection of physiological interactions, it is difficult to account for this. After all, mammals share the same fundamental biological components and processes as those located within our bodies, but the range of human activities is so much greater. This “so much greater” is not just a matter of quantitative difference, but one that allows human beings qualitatively distinct capacities— aesthetic sensibility, moral judgment, reason, volition, and so on. Plato’s explanation for these qualitative distinctives is the existence of a qualitatively distinct something within us—a soul—that facilitates these capacities. Of course, under his dualism, carving out this spiritual aspect of the person comes at the expense of the body, which is reduced to mere nature.

Plato was certainly not the first to recognize the spiritual nature of human existence, nor was he the first to describe it in soul language. Soul words run throughout Scripture (e.g., Deut. 13:3; Matt. 11:29; Mark 8:35; 1 Thess. 2:8).It should be noted that “soul” can often refer to an entire person, an entity that can be counted or held accountable for laws (Ex. 1:5; Lev. 5:1–4; Acts 7:14). The difference, however, is in how this language is used. To understand what Plato is attempting to do with his language about the soul, we need to remember what sort of question he was attempting to answer. I take it to be a “how” question. He is not just interested in the mere fact that human beings are qualitatively different from critters. He wants to know the mechanisms by which this happens.

Attempting to identify the mechanism of rational, spiritual, and moral capacities isn’t a bad question. In fact, it is a great philosophical question. It just doesn’t seem to be one the Bible is interested in pursuing. Instead of concerning itself with the means by which we express the full spectrum of human activities, Scripture focuses on a theological question. How is it that we human beings, with our dazzling variety of dimensions—physical, spiritual, moral, cognitive, relational, aesthetic, economic, volitional, psychological—feel in our whole being that we reside somewhere east of Eden? Why do we feel in every facet of our existence that we have failed to achieve the telos of our creation, that we fall short of our very nature?

Because Scripture strives to include every dimension of human life in our desire for spiritual union with God, it should not surprise us that it employs the body and soul words that we find sprinkled throughout Plato and other dualists. Scripture adds to the Platonic lexicon by speaking of a mind (Mark 12:30) and a spirit, terms we usually have little difficulty integrating into language of spiritual activity. However, the Bible makes a non-Platonic turn when it attributes spiritual activities to organs, the most obvious example being the heart (e.g., Jer. 17:9; 2 Thess. 3:5; Mark 12:30; Rom. 10:6–10). Of course, Scripture’s human authors (not to mention the divine author) were well aware that the heart is a physical organ that can be visibly observed, measured, and touched, although the circumstances associated with this actually occurring are usually unfortunate. It is every bit a body part, yet our most profound spiritual endeavors are often wrapped in cardiac language. Likewise, compassion (“bowels of mercy/compassion” [Col. 3:12; 1 John 3:17] ) and desire (“yearning bowels” [Matt. 9:36; 14:14] ) are pictured as coming from our guts. References to seeing and hearing do not refer just to the sensory capacities of our eyes and ears (e.g., Mark 16:7; Rom. 2:13), but are metaphors for our potential for spiritual sensitivity and awareness (e.g., Isa. 50:5; Matt. 11:15; John 10:16; Ps. 34:8). In short, then, I think it is preferable to view Scripture’s language about soul, body, bowels, spirit, heart, and other terms as metaphors that describe the entire range of human life and experience.For resources that offer more complete examinations of Scripture’s anthropology and how the various terms are used, see Hans Walter Wolff, The Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974) and Robert H. Gundry, Soma in Biblical Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1987).

05.  Metaphors of a Mystery

Attempting to avoid a body/soul dualism while maintaining soul language looks like a treacherous path, and it is if we project Plato’s “how” question onto the anthropological language of the Bible. However, Scripture seems content to allow this “how” question to remain within the realm of mystery. Mystery is not a comfortable place for a person like Plato, so he attempts to crack the code of human spirituality. However, it isn’t clear that he actually solves the mystery. Instead, he gives it a name—soul—a name that the Bible eagerly embraces and places among other metaphors to speak of our spiritual capacities.

Mysteries can be frustrating, but often they are better vehicles for truth than answers that appear to shed light on a question as long as we do not look too closely. Thus, we may convince ourselves that we have unraveled the mystery of our spirituality by claiming a transcendent soul that is the “real me.” After all, if we can speak of “my body,” there must be a real me that stands outside the body and can regard it as a disposable appendage. However, we often accidentally reawaken the mystery of our existence when we say, “my soul,” a contradiction if the soul is the only component of the person that is a “me.”

06.  Why Does This Matter?

Language about the body reminds us that persons are embodied; i.e., we just don’t do anything apart from our bodies. Here and now, spiritual activities are embedded within meat, bones, and glands. Yet the richness of the biblical vocabulary, the soulish language of our cognitive, volitional, and spiritual dimensions reminds us that we are set apart from other embodied creatures by our rebellion against or participation in the union God seeks with us. Thus, the somatic character of Jesus’ resurrection, not to mention Paul’s description of the resurrection state (“spiritual bodies”), points toward a spiritual state in which corporeality is not accidental to personhood. Without language that accounts for our bodily dimension, our experience becomes incoherent.

Second, if we superimpose a Platonic dualism on Scripture, Scripture’s language about sin and salvation appears confused and incoherent. While Plato offers a neat schematic that maps the pathways of spiritual activity and keeps them separated from the circuitry of merely natural functions, Scripture speaks in existential terms that draw entire persons into the drama of creation, fall, and salvation. In doing so, it employs the entire array of human experience, from spirit to guts, to describe it.

Finally, viewing the self as a soul with a spiritual nature chained to a material body, a merely natural entity without partnership rights and responsibilities, causes spiritual fragmentation. Instead of viewing the self as an integrated but multidimensional person whose inward dispositions are reflected in deed and action, bodies become video game avatars—external personae divorced from our true spiritual characters and changed at whim.

We are a mystery to ourselves. This should not surprise anyone who takes seriously the biblical claim that we are made in God’s image. After all, we cannot speak of God rightly apart from the category of mystery. This mystery is manifest in our inability to comprehend the mechanisms of our spirituality. Plato was pretty certain that we had two separate and distinct components—body and soul—with the latter capable of spiritual activity. I am highly sympathetic to the reasons behind this hypothesis. It captures half the mystery of how a particular species of God’s creation knows that it has a spiritual nature, a telos in God’s economy.

However, by reducing our bodies to mere nature, dualism overlooks the other half of this astounding mystery. The problem is that Scripture knows nothing of mere nature. We may mistakenly impose this newer meaning of nature onto the material realm, but a God-infused nostalgia draws us back to creation and forward to resurrection, in which all our physical and soulish dimensions unify in glorifying our Creator. God elevates the physical into the realm of the spiritual. Mere nature is transformed by God’s creation mandate into that which shares in the horror of the Fall and the joy of salvation. I don’t claim to know how it all works, but I celebrate it every time I hold bread in one hand and the cup in the other. That which, to many eyes, is mere nature reminds us that our true nature is found in the body and blood of the resurrected Christ.


Steve Wilkens lives in Monrovia, California, with his wife, Debra, and two children, Zoe and Zachary. He is professor of philosophy and ethics at Azusa Pacific University. author or coauthor of eight books, his two most recent publications are Hidden Worldviews and Everything You Know About Evangelicalism Is Wrong (Well, Almost Everything).