Dueling with Dualism

by Nancy Scott

How did the apostle Paul see his world? If we are to correctly understand Paul’s writings in the New Testament, we must determine whether he held the Greek view of the dichotomy of spiritual and material. History reveals that the Hebrew mindset was quite different from the Greek mindset. The Hebrew view of the world was grounded in the earthy, material reality in which they lived, and yet it was overshadowed at every point with spiritual truth. In contrast to the Greek view that the highest human experience was knowledge, to a Hebrew scholar like Paul, moral beauty and righteousness was the highest human experience. There was no need to separate experience into spiritual and material, as everything they did or thought, from their perspective, included both. The process of broken humans being transformed into the glory of holiness, to which we would ultimately be completely conformed in the Kingdom, was the hope of Paul’s gospel.

When interpreting the Bible, then, the question to ask is this: “What did the author intend for his original audience to hear when he wrote his words?” This is the meaning inspired by God. To understand how the author of the biblical text saw his world is suddenly quite important. Whether he saw a strict dichotomy between the spiritual and material worlds will greatly influence how and why he wrote what he did. If we, two thousand years later, impose a view of the world onto the text that the author did not hold, we are likely to interpret what he was saying incorrectly.

For example, Paul quite often writes about the ‘flesh’ and the ‘spirit’. If he held the Greek dualistic world view, Paul might mean by ‘flesh’ the lower, material side of life: hunger, lust, desire for significance, all the facets of living in the material, fallen world; a place in which God is not interested in dwelling, a place which is thus separated from His presence. And Paul might mean by ‘spirit’ the higher, spiritual side of life: the loftier pursuit of the knowledge of God and being in His presence; the place where communion and fellowship is possible in a way not possible if we are living in the material world of the flesh. This is in fact how modern evangelicalism interprets much of Paul’s writing about flesh and spirit.

By contrast, if Paul rejected the competing Greek view of his age, and held to his traditional Hebrew upbringing, perhaps he meant something different when he talked about flesh and spirit. A clue is found in Romans, chapters three and four, where Paul contrasts the approach to God through the Law with God’s grace as the basis of salvation. He goes on to use ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ to describe and to contrast these two approaches to God. In the flesh, we are compelled by our own self-effort toward gaining righteousness based on the Law. In the spirit, faith is reckoned as righteousness, and we are given the free gift of salvation. God’s grace in giving us the free gift is the basis of our salvation. For Paul, the flesh and the spirit are not two different realms of knowledge or experience, but rather two different routes by which to attain moral goodness, the highest goal of human experience.

The clash in the first century between the Greek and the Hebrew world views was familiar to Paul. He wrote from a strongly held Hebrew world view. Therefore, the Greek separation of the spiritual and the material world, which was imported into Christianity after Paul wrote his epistles, provides an incorrect interpretive grid for understanding Paul’s writings. And since much of evangelical Christianity assumes Greek dualism, we bring an incorrect framework to our reading of Paul’s epistles.

How does the difference between Paul’s Hebrew perspective and the Greek dualistic world view impact our view of faith and reason? Is faith intellectual assent to a set of propositions? In today’s common view influenced by Greek dualism, faith is a mystical, non-rational thing, not related to reason. It is the act of believing something, of holding to a set of propositions, despite evidence that may contradict it. How “hard” we believe something becomes a measure of the strength of our faith. According to this view, questioning one’s beliefs is seen as doubting, and is strongly discouraged. The act of believing something becomes morally virtuous, and to risk rejecting one or more propositions is seen as risking one’s faith. The intellectual or mystical knowledge of God becomes the focus of our salvation. Faith, therefore, is seen in opposition to reason.

If there is no dichotomy between spiritual and material from Paul’s perspective in the Bible, faith and reason are inextricably intertwined; they are not in competition. Instead, faith is a posture of the heart toward God. It may include believing certain things, but it is not primarily that. It is what God changes in me at the very heart of myself that I cannot reach. It is acknowledging the reality of my sin and my need for God’s perspective. It is facing God instead of stiff-arming Him. It is an intangible quality of my heart that only God can change. Reason is the gift of thinking, which God gives to validate my faith by making sense of my experience. Faith and reason are different, but they are not opposites. Faith is not asking me to believe something my reason cannot accept.

Clarifying this imposed dichotomy between spiritual and material is crucial to clarifying the gospel. If knowledge of God is the ultimate goal of human experience, then the tenets to which we hold are of utmost importance; the facts that I believe, the knowledge that I possess or experience, these are the central issues. But the gospel addresses a different issue altogether. With moral goodness as the highest human experience, my state of moral bankruptcy leads me to the grace of God and the gift of salvation He has promised. It is moral bankruptcy which the gospel addresses. This is the area of my greatest need, and the greatest gift that can be given is to free me from the paralysis of the will that is my sin. Were knowledge my greatest need, then the path to salvation would be altogether different.

Given this alternate definition of faith, that it is a posture toward God, it should be said that the heart of the believer will seek knowledge of God at some level. Knowledge is not irrelevant. But it will be an outworking of the heart of faith rather than a prerequisite for it. The primary issue of the gospel is the problem of moral bankruptcy and God’s deep grace that reaches into the heart to change its natural posture. And only this change will allow us to seek and to embrace truth. Our moral problem is deeply involved with our willingness (or unwillingness) to seek and embrace the truth about ourselves and about God. This focus of the gospel is altogether different than that of the Greek mindset.

There are other, if secondary, implications to assuming Greek dualism. The dualism of the Greeks is, thanks to Augustine, the grid through which many Christians today see their world, mostly unconsciously. In case we are tempted to think that this is a purely academic discussion, and that it really doesn’t matter what Augustine believed, let’s look at some more ramifications of holding his view.

Practically speaking, how does holding a Greek mindset differ in everyday life from holding a Hebrew mindset? I spoke in the beginning of the fragmentation of the college student’s world. To separate our experience into spiritual and material, leads us to place value on the pursuit of “spiritual” things over the pursuit of “earthly” things. For the Christian college student, her pursuit of literature and the arts becomes “fleshly,” which is “less than” a spiritual pursuit. Since God is not in “the flesh,” the most valued vocations for her as a Christian are those involving spiritual things. For the Christian mother, tending to the needs of her children becomes “fleshly,” and perhaps frustrating to her, when she would rather pursue loftier, “spiritual” things. She may consider ministry, Bible study, and church activity the “better” things to do; when in reality, loving her children the best she can is the higher task.

If instead we carry with us an integrated view of the spiritual and the material worlds, we are free to pursue the plethora of options God has laid before us. If the highest human experience is moral beauty, then it matters less what I do (non-moral) and more how I do it (moral). I can pursue expressing myself in the arts, literature, or science as a joyous expression of the creature God created me to be. The college student can firmly embrace her studies on the campus, while thinking critically about the ideas presented. She can choose the vocation for which God has given her a desire, and see His hand in whatever she chooses to do, without the fear that anything can turn her heart away from the posture she has before God. God is the one holding her heart, and He is faithful.

The fragmentation fostered by Greek dualism ultimately breaks down any relevance for Christianity in the post-modern world. Because Christians are called to live “spiritual” lives, our dealings with the material world become less and less relevant to us; we separate ourselves from our neighbors, our co-workers, and our culture at large. And we will have little impact on our world because we have little contact with it. As a Christian sub-culture, we have abandoned the arts, literature, films, music, and science to post-modernism. And we have called this abandonment spiritual.

Integrating our view of the spiritual and the material world might have far reaching consequences. Perhaps we can reclaim in the arts and sciences the beauty of creative expression for which God created us. We can cease to frame everything as either/or, and enjoy the many gifts God has given us in our earthly, material world. Perhaps we will value more firmly the creation itself, and become better stewards of the natural resources God has given. We can better see that the material world is imbued with the splendor and majesty of its Creator, and we can rejoice in His presence in all these things. But most of all, perhaps we can have a voice to communicate the relevance of the gospel to this dying generation. Martin Luther put it this way, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

Copyright July 1993 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Nancy Scott