Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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“That’s The Spirit!” Or, What Exactly Does Spiritual Formation Form?

Introduction: A Working Hypothesis

“That’s the spirit!” is a common rather than a Christian idiom, something you might say in order to encourage someone to persevere in some endeavor. Generally speaking, people are much more comfortable using such expressions than explaining what spirit actually means, or in specifying that to which it actually refers. Pastors do not have this luxury. They need to have some idea of what the spirit is in order to engage in spiritual formation: spiritual formation without ontological presuppositions is impossible. Hence my central question: what exactly does spiritual formation form?

What we think spirit is will invariably orient what we do in our spiritual formation. This essay, on the nature of the human spirit, ought to be of interest to pastors and theologians alike inasmuch as it attempts to spell out the theological assumptions, often unstated, that fund our pastoral practices.

My working hypothesis is that we will get nearer to the ontological core of the human spirit if we follow the way the (biblical) words go in speaking about it. J. L. Austin, the ordinary language philosopher, viewed words as highly sensitive  instruments for describing reality and discerning differences between things––able even for “piercing to the division of soul and spirit” (Heb 4:12):

“The fact is … that our ordinary words are much subtler in their uses, and mark many more distinctions, than philosophers have realized.”[i] Ordinary language is not a blunt conceptual instrument, but rather, for those who have the ears to hear it, a finely tuned precision tool.[ii] In following the way the biblical words go, my hope is that we can turn the water of ordinary discourse about the spirit into the wine of theological concept, and thereby attain faith’s search for understanding.[iii]

We begin, then, with a sampling of how “spirit” shows up in ordinary discourse, both contemporary and biblical. I then examine “general” human pneumato-logy, that is, attempts to explain or express the human spirit from the humanities and the human sciences. I turn next to “special” human pneumatology, namely, a survey of how Christian psychologists and others involved in spiritual formation define or identify the human spirit. In what follows I stake some constructive theological claims that synthesize and focus the discussion by providing four “theses on the human spirit.” I conclude with some suggestions for how to apply my proposed theological understanding of spirit to the pastoral practice of spiritual formation.

The way the words go: “spirit” in ordinary and biblical discourse:

Ordinary discourse

Consider the expression, “a spirited horse.” This is an anthropomorphism that refers to a horse’s energy and determination. The adjectival form often describes a prevailing or typical quality of human persons too (e.g., “Ebenezer Scrooge was mean-spirited”). As to the nominative form, the first entry in the Oxford English Dictionary under “spirit” is “the non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character.” Together, these two uses illustrate the baseline meaning: spirit is the typical or prevailing disposition displayed by a person’s bearing and behavior.

Not only persons but seasons too have certain qualities. Towards the end of his story, Scrooge displays the true “spirit of Christmas,” which for Dickens meant displaying generosity and good cheer. There’s also “spirit week,” a time for young people to show enthusiastic support for their schools’ activities. This use touches on one of Anthony Thiselton’s pet peeves. He objects to the way “spirituality” has migrated from its original reference to the work of the third person of the Trinity to a way of talking about “excited” human experience. If only speakers respected this distinction, he laments, we might not make the mistake of thinking that people are divinely gifted for church ministry simply because they are full of enthusiasm.[iv] As Fred Sanders puts it: “Not every tingle you feel is the Holy Ghost! Sometimes it’s just the good old animal spirits getting riled up.”[v]

Biblical discourse

According to Nancey Murphy, a nonreductive physicalist, “there is no such thing as the biblical view of human nature insofar as we are interested in a partitive account.”[vi] By “partitive” account, she means one that views human beings as made up of different parts, like body and soul. The question, then, is how to interpret the Bible’s references to human spirit. To recall our primary question: what exactly does spiritual formation form? To take but one scenario: if humans are essentially individual souls who just happen to have bodies, we might conclude that the body is of no concern to spiritual formation.

Old Testament

J.A.T. Robinson dents our high hopes of letting ordinary biblical language be our guide: “From the standpoint of analytic psychology and physiology the usage of the Old Testament is chaotic: it is the nightmare of the anatomist when any part can stand at any moment for the whole.”[vii] Herman Bavinck is more realistic, and in keeping with ordinary language analysis, in admitting that the Bible no more gives us a scientific psychology than it does a scientific account of astronomy: “Holy Scripture never makes use abstract, philosophical concepts, but always speaks the rich language of everyday life.”[viii]

Genesis 2:7 depicts human beings as dust from the ground into which God breathes life so that Adam becomes “a living being” or “soul” [nephesh]. Animals have nephesh too, for they also are living beings that breathe. The LXX translates 600 of the 755 occurrences of nephesh in the OT by psyche, from which we get our term “psychology.” Nephesh appears frequently as the seat of emotions: it is troubled (Ps 6:3), depressed (Ps 42:11 NET), angry (Judg 18:25), weeps (Jer 13:17), and rejoices (Ps 35:9). According to Hans Walter Wolff, nephesh “is never given the meaning of an indestructible core of being, in contradistinction to the physical life.”[ix] It is not that humans have nephesh, as much as they are nephesh.[x] The idea of an immortal bodiless soul only turns up in later Jewish authors such as Philo: “It is indebted to Plato rather than to the Bible.”[xi]

The Old Testament Hebrew term for “spirit” is ruach. Ruach means wind power, both when it refers to God’s Spirit moving over the face of the waters (Gen 1:2) or when it refers to the lesser human spirit/wind––our breath. God gives his own Spirit to certain individuals to perform certain tasks (Judg 3:10). Ezekiel 37:1–10 describes how God breathes into a valley of dry bones to bring them to life. Yet it is also possible to speak of the human spirit, which appears to be the seat of emotion, will, and intellect (Prov 18:14 “A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear”; Num 14:24 “But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land”; Proverbs 17:27 “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit [ruach] is a man of understanding”). According to the Psalmist, when our breath departs, so do we (Ps 146:4). In sum, ruach “empowers humans to do whatever they were created to do.”[xii]

The Old Testament employs many more terms to speak of human beings, including basar (“flesh”) and lev (“heart”), but most scholars agree with H. Wheeler Robinson’s judgment that “The final emphasis must fall on the fact that the four terms [nephesh, ruach, lev, and basar] … simply present different aspects of the unity of personality.”[xiii] According to Richard Averbeck, “ruach can refer either to an immaterial element of the human person … or to the whole of the immaterial person.”[xiv]  Interestingly, Scripture describes God as spirit, but never as soul.

New Testament

There are some forty New Testament instances of pneuma denoting the human spirit.[xv] It is the presence of pneuma that enlivens a body: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).[xvi] While all human persons have pneuma, Paul sees it as taking on “a new character and a new dignity” in the regenerate thanks to their fellowship with the Spirit of God (Rom 8:10).[xvii] Paul does not view human beings as essentially spiritual or immaterial, for he exhorts Christians in Rome to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1).

The situation is different with flesh (sarx). Whereas Paul cannot imagine human existence without a body, he contrasts living “according to the flesh” with living “by the [Holy] Spirit” (Rom 8:12–13). Flesh here is not a physical but an eschatological notion, a way of referring to human existence in the present evil age.[xviii] The Christian hope for the last day is for a “spiritual body,” that is, “a physical body wholly belonging to the new age, wholly like Christ, wholly under the Spirit’s direction (Rom 8:11, 23; 1 Cor 15:44-49).”[xix] As to the difference of spirit and soul (psyche), New Testament scholars detect a subtle yet significant distinction. George Ladd comments: “Spirit is often used of God; soul is never so used. This suggests that pneuma represents man in his Godward side, while psyche represents man in his human side.”[xx] Moises Silva concludes his analysis of pneuma with these words: “Thus the spirit is that aspect of our human nature through which God most immediately encounters us … that dimension whereby we are most directly open and responsive to God.” [xxi]

Susan Eastman’s Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology deserves special mention in connection with this last point, particularly as it relates to Paul’s claim that “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16). To this point, the concept “person” has been conspicuous by its absence. Eastman argues that Paul did indeed think about persons, not as individualized thinking subjects, but “as relationally constituted agents who are both embodied and embedded in their world.”[xxii]

She is particularly struck by expressions that take the form “I no longer [verb] but [subject plus verb] in me,” as in “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).[xxiii] Such expressions suggest that a person is never on his or her own “but always socially and cosmically constructed in relation to external realities that operate internally as well.”[xxiv] Eastman self-consciously adopts a “second-person hermeneutics,” that is, an approach based on second-person encounters rather than first-person (i.e., self-referential) or third-person (i.e., objectifying) accounts. Her key insight: if we want to understand persons, we must begin with the self in relationship to another. This will prove to be a key point when below I present spiritual formation as a dialogical relationship that gives pride of place to the Holy Spirit’s witness to our spirit. [xxv]

Is spirit a part or aspect of a person? Monism, dualism, and trichotomy

Thinking of the human spirit in terms of an immaterial substance raises the pastoral concern of dualism, which distinguishes the spiritual from the secular and relegates the body to the latter, making one’s interior life the exclusive focus of spiritual formation. Nancey Murphy, a critic of such dualism, wonders whether church history would have gone differently if a physicalist anthro-pology had prevailed instead. At the very least, spiritual formation would not have been reduced to soul care.[xxvi] What conclusions, then, should we draw from the biblical discourse about the human constitution? What exactly does spiritual formation form?

Spirit as part of human being

Monists like Nancey Murphy reject the picture of immortal souls temporarily housed in physical bodies, insisting instead that we are our bodies: complex physical organisms in relationship to other humans and to God. She claims that Scripture teaches a holistic view and that dualism came later, with Plato, and citing James Dunn in support: “while Greek thought tended to regard the human being as made up of distinct parts, Hebraic thought saw the human being more as a whole person existing on different dimensions.”[xxvii]

Dualists view soul and spirit as roughly synonymous, insisting they denote an immaterial part of human being that lives on after the death of the body. It is noteworthy for present purposes that dualists tend to speak of the two parts as body and soul (rarely spirit). Dualists are on strongest biblical ground with regard to post-mortem, pre-resurrection existence, arguing that the soul exists in an intermediate state after death until it is reunited with a resurrection body. A key text here is 2 Corinthians 5:8: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 

Trichotomists maintain that spirit, soul, and body, mentioned together in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, refer to three separate human elements. Franz Delitzsch quotes Luther: “Scripture divides man into three parts …. The spirit is the highest, noblest part of man, wherewith he is fitted to apprehend intangible, invisible, eternal things; and it is briefly the house within which the faith and word of God dwells.”[xxviii] Witness Lee similarly distinguishes soul/mind from spirit: “When you go to school to study, you have to use your mind. But when you come to the church to contact God, you have to use your human spirit.”[xxix] Such sharp distinctions provoke concerns about dualism in the Christian life, where only certain experiences or activities are deemed spiritual–– apparently to the detriment of thinking, which is not one of them.

There is conclusive biblical evidence against trichotomy. Scripture often uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably.[xxx] Sometimes body is linked to soul (Matt 10:28), at other times to spirit (1 Cor 7:34). Human emotions like grief can be ascribed either to soul or spirit (e.g., John 12:27; 13:21). Finally, Scripture describes dying as the departure either of the soul or spirit (Gen 35:18; Eccl 12:7).

Spirit as aspect of human being

I am less interested in taking side in these debates than in articulating some common concerns and finding common ground.[xxxi] First, almost everyone affirms the unity of human being: “Monists and dualists agree that body, soul, spirit, heart, mind, and will––whatever their metaphysical nature and relation––are diverse but interdependent, interactive, and integrated aspects or parts of living, active humans.”[xxxii] Biblical scholars agree that “such terms as body, soul, and spirit are not different separable faculties of man but different ways of viewing the whole man.”[xxxiii] John Cooper draws an important practical implication: “all of life images God, is a gift from him, and should be lived for God … All of life is religious or spiritual.”[xxxiv]

Second, everyone affirms the diversity of human being, as Cooper notes: “Dualists hold that God has integrated metaphysically distinct ingredients …. Monists counter that God has elicited the interconnected diversity from a single primordial ingredient. But neither group can declare victory or disqualify the other on the basis of the biblical data.”[xxxv] Cooper grants this as a convinced “holistic dualist” who has written a book defending his position.

In sum: we can affirm the unity of human being without falling into monism and the diversity of our constitution without succumbing to dualism: “Man is one person who can … be looked at from two sides,” as a “psychosomatic duality.” Some prefer to speak of “psychosomatic holism” out of a concern that duality “implies that the distinction between soul and body is more basic than its unity. The important point is … the ‘real self’ is the whole self––body and soul.”[xxxvi]

What is noteworthy is how these developments enable monists and dualists to become positively chummy. They still disagree over the basic constitution of human nature––one lump or two?––yet both affirm holism. Nancey Murphy, a leading nonreductive physicalist, speaks of humans as psycho-physical unities, and John Cooper, a dualist, now concedes that “dualistic holism” is an equally acceptable expression of the biblical picture of the human constitution as “holistic dualism.”[xxxvii] Even the Eastern Orthodox want to get in on the diplomatic action. Kallistos Ware notes that the Greek Fathers use “heart” to designate “the human being as a psycho-somatic whole.”[xxxviii] Such holism also coheres with the consensus outside biblical studies: “Developments in biology, psychology, and the neurosciences all tend toward the conclusion that humans are much more of an organic unit of soul/spirit and body than has been traditionally thought.”[xxxix]

I usually find myself on the side of the peacemakers, happy to help theologians resolve longstanding disputes. Yet, in this case, where the lion of monism can lie down with the dualist lamb, I’m not so sure. The good we have gained is our embodied souls, yet we appear to have forfeited our spirits. Whichever way one cuts holism, the privileged terms are “soul” and “body,” leaving no place for pneuma in the psychosomatic inn.

“General” vs. “Special” human pneumatology

I am not yet ready to give up the ghost (i.e., the human spirit). I here examine what for lack of a better term we could call “general” human pneumatology––what people in the humanities and human sciences are saying about the human spirit on grounds other than explicit Christian faith. This detour into the humanities unexpectedly yields a precious insight into what spiritual formation forms.  

“General” human pneumatology:

What culture cultivates

“Generic” as opposed to Christian spirituality pertains to how human thinking and behavior are partially formed through a person’s social relationships. If proverbial wisdom is correct––that we can know a person by the company she keeps––then it is equally true that we can know a person by the culture she inhabits. Culture is that complex whole whose values and practices inform the shape of social life, indeed, the very atmosphere one virtually breathes. Whatever else we say about spirit, it is that in a person which gets partially formed and informed by culture. We can therefore get a better handle on what spiritual formation forms by asking, what does culture cultivate?

Beyond the nature/nurture divide:

Evolutionary cultural studies

Human development involves nature and nurture. However, according to the new academic discipline of cultural evolutionary studies, evolutionary processes are at work in culture and biology alike.[xl]Humans are a combination of biological genes and cultural memes (i.e., inherited packets of culture), and the ability to transmit culture is one of the most distinctive things about the human species. We learn to think and act in large part from the communities of which we are members. And, just as certain genetic pathologies can adversely affect our bodies, so some culturally transmitted diseases can have a deleterious effect on our souls, especially when they go viral (e.g., the ice bucket challenge, dancing babies, or “the most interesting man in the world”).[xli]

Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Strawn critique dualism precisely for overlooking the role of social relations in spiritual formation: “We are formed into mature, virtuous, and wise persons, but by some disembodied mystical process, but by life together in a body of persons.”[xlii] The cultural company we keep is perhaps the single most important formative factor in what I am calling general human pneumatology.

Shapes of freedom

Culture cultivates, grows things, and what culture grows is the “spirit of an age” or Zeitgeist. Think of culture as the petri dish of the human spirit. The philosopher Hegel examines the development of civilization as Geist’s progressive realization of freedom in the laboratory of human history. Shapes of freedom is the operative concept.[xliii] Hegel says why: “Just as gravity is the substance of matter, so … freedom is the substance of spirit.”[xliv] The natural sciences explain physical events by causal laws; the human sciences strive to understand shapes of freedom. Hegel views the history of human civilization as evidence of Spirit’s progress: ancient civilizations had limited notions of freedom, whereas democracy only flowered in modern times. We don’t need to buy into either cultural evolution or Hegel, however, to appreciate the central point that communities and civilizations cultivate spirits, that is, specific shapes of individual and communal freedom.[xlv]

To the extent we are modern, we have probably been formed, at least to some extent, by the prevailing secular Zeitgeist. Modern culture trades on a particular “coming of age” story. The spirit of modernity throws off the shackles of tradition and authority in order to reason for itself. If modernity had a bio, it would surely be an emancipation narrative. To be modern is to have a liberated spirit whose aim is to liberate those who are still captive to various forms of oppression. Modern culture forms autonomous individuals: consumerist, self-entitled shapes of freedom. This, too, is spiritual formation.

“Special” human pneumatology: Christian psychology and spiritual formation

What do Christian counselors and spiritual directors assume about the human spirit? Is it significant that the term psychology derives from psyche (“soul”), not spirit? Assuming both groups accept some form of dualistic holism, what place, if any, does the notion of the human spirit play in their respective theological anthropologies?

Christian psychology

John Coe builds on Kierkegaard’s understanding of human being as spirit (“a relation that relates itself to itself”[xlvi]) and calls for a retrieval of “a psychology that is grounded in the [Holy] Spirit and a radically relational view of the person.”[xlvii]The Christian’s most important relation is with the Holy Spirit: “the ultimate end of human existence is union of the human spirit with God’s Spirit.”[xlviii]

Coe highlights the Bible’s use of spirit “to represent the core or innermost elements of the person.”[xlix] He describes human persons as “subsisting spirits … which are embodied or joined as spirit-body holistic organisms and centers of motion.”[l] The human spirit has a nature that is common to other human persons (Coe calls this “spirit-as-nature”), but is also a unique entity as the core of personal identity (“spirit-as-agent”). Spirit is a relation because there is a dialectic between the observed–I (spirit-nature) and the observing–I (spirit-agent). The self is only fully itself, however, “when in absolute union with God in the core of the self.”[li] Coe goes so far as to say that a self that is not indwelt by God is “not a fully realized self, but a sort of half-person.”[lii]

Spiritual formation

Dallas Willard defines spiritual formation as “the process of transforming the person into Christlikeness through transforming the essential parts of the person.”[liii] What are these parts? The body is one of them: “You are a nonphysical reality with a physical body.”[liv] As to the nonphysical part, Willard defines the heart as “the will or the spirit … the executive center of the self”[lv] and the soul as “the deepest part of the self.”[lvi]  Christian spiritual formation “is the process through which the embodied/reflective will or ‘spirit’ of the human being takes on the character of Christ’s will.”[lvii]

The main reason that spiritual transformation does not automatically accompany preaching and teaching is that these means do not involve the body in the process of transformation: “Spiritual formation is never merely inward.”[lviii]

J. P. Moreland is broadly sympathetic with Willard’s approach but wants to “tweak” his understanding of the human person. When Willard speaks of “parts” of persons, he doesn’t really mean it. He sees the body and soul as internally related, such that the soul could exist without a body, while a body without the soul is just a corpse. Although Willard is technically a substance dualist, he takes the person as “the fundamental unit of analysis in that the person is a substance and the other [faculties] are seated in or dependent upon the person.”[lix] Accordingly, spirit is not a part but an aspect of a person, as is the body. This is crucial because, for Moreland, Willard’s “treatment of the nature of the body and its role in spiritual formation may well have been his most important contribution.”[lx] Willard states that “a person is his or her body,”[lxi] and goes on to compare ingrained personal habits to “grooves” in one’s body.

Evan Howard helpfully distinguishes the aims of spiritual formation (Paul’s “until Christ is formed in you”––Gal 4:19) from its principal agents: the Holy Spirit, ourselves, and those who provide spiritual direction. As to human spirit, it refers to our heart, “the core of our own human personality,” which implies that “a transformation of spirit is not merely a change of a few habits but a renovation of our character.”[lxii]We experience ourselves as embodied souls, and we play an active role in our own formation, enabled by the Holy Spirit to form our lives into shapes of finite freedom that display the mind of Christ.[lxiii]

Christian spiritual formation ultimately concerns the human spirit’s participation in the Holy Spirit’s work of cultivating finite shapes of freedom that display the mind of Christ and thereby glorify God. It is the process of being formed into the particular freedom for which Christ has set us free: free to be mature in Christ (Col 1:28) and more like Christ (Phil 2:5).[lxiv] The Holy Spirit is the primary agent of new life in Christ, a communicative agent able to share or “make common” God’s own light and life, which is to say, Jesus Christ (John 8:12; 11:25).

A dogmatic proposal: human spirit as agent, center, and pattern of communication

To this point, we have established that Scripture speaks of human persons as ensouled bodies or embodied souls in a variety of ways, so much so that we had to ask, in connection with biblical studies and Christian psychology alike, whatever happened to the human spirit? We now move from exegetical to dogmatic reasoning in our attempt to provide a conceptual representation of what we have learned from following the way the biblical words go.[lxv]

The human spirit and the Holy Spirit

Spiritual formation involves the testimony of the Holy Spirit to our spirit, “that aspect of the human person that relates directly to God.”[lxvi] Spirit is that aspect of the human person with which the Holy Spirit communicates: “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16).

While generic spirituality may indeed be a matter of the cultural company we keep––the other persons to whom we are in close relation––genuine Christian spirituality is a matter of our relationship to one person, even Jesus Christ, a relation enabled and deepened by the Holy Spirit. Christian spirituality as “the study and experience of what happens when the Holy Spirit meets the human spirit.”[lxvii] The Holy Spirit lives for this: to witness to Christ, conform people to Christ, and in all things to glorify Jesus Christ. Today, however, many confuse true spirituality––conformity to Christ by the Holy Spirit–– with “excited” religious experience.

What spiritual formation forms: Four theses on human spirituality

Spiritual formation forms human not parts but aspects of human persons. Can we be more precise? The following four theses set out exactly what spiritual formation forms. The first two specify the nature of human persons, the third defines human spirit, and the fourth draws out implications for spiritual formation.

1. A human person is a subject of communication, one able to call (upon) others and to be called (upon) by others. To be in personal relation is to enjoy “the gift and return of dialogue.” [lxviii] In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s words: “Man was created to be a hearer of the word, and it is in responding to the word that he attains his true dignity. His innermost constitution has been designed for dialogue”[lxix]––especially dialogue with the triune God. God’s address to human beings “determines the structure of human being as response.”[lxx] Our “personhood is fostered … through relations which take dialogical form.”[lxxi]

2. A human person is neither an autonomous individual not a cog in a collectivist system but a center of communication, a psychosomatic unity where dialogues unfold and about whom a story may be told. Personhood is dialogical and narratival: “We are called into being persons by the expectations others have of us.[lxxii] Our identity is a function of our relations to others; the shape of our freedom is a function of the history of our responding to them. The human body is on this view “a field of communication.” Of course, the communicative relation that constitutes our identity is the one we have is with God: human persons are beings “addressed as Thou by God’s I.”[lxxiii]

3. The human spirit is a person’s characteristic communicative posture and pattern. Everything we say and do with our bodies communicates something about us, bears witness to the relations that constitute us, to the way we are with others, to our loves. The human spirit is the core character of a person’s psychosomatic unity, the shape a person’s freedom takes in its communicative relations towards others, especially God. If a person were a ship, the spirit would be the trim of the sail, either open to receiving the wind of the Holy Spirit or not. If persons in their psychosomatic unity continue to respond defiantly to God’s communicative overtures, they eventually display a “fleshly” spirit. Character is course: “We carry the effects of the communication we have received and the response we have made in the past forward with us into every new situation and relationship.”[lxxiv] It follows that every human being is spiritual and has been spiritually formed. The question is: how have they trimmed their sails? What form does their spirit––their pattern of responding to communications from God and others; the narrative shape of finite freedom––take?

4. Spiritual formation is the process of the Holy Spirit testifying to and transforming our “spirit.” John Webster describes spiritual formation as the process by which the Holy Spirit works on our spirits to put on Christ and put to death anything that does not belong to Christ’s new humanity.[lxxv] The opposite of fleshly existence is not disembodied spirituality, but rather an orientation of our human spirit––the characteristic way we communicate to God and others as ensouled bodies ––toward the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:6). Christian spirituality is a matter of participating in the body of Christ, and progressively embodying the mind of Christ: “To be ‘spiritual’ is not to draw upon an innate ‘higher’ capacity of the human soul; it is to be moved, activated, and transformed by the Holy Spirit of God.”[lxxvi] Christ is the form and content of God’s call to us. Christ’s life and light is what the Holy Spirit communicates to human spirits, particularly in and through Holy Scripture. The Holy Spirit speaks Christ, the whole Christ, and nothing but the Christ.

Conclusion: Whose citizenship? Which shape of freedom? What does formation form? Christians are not the only ones asking this question.

Cultivating humanity: Moral formation

Martha Nussbaum does philosophy for the sake of moral formation, and has for years looked both to the ancient Greeks, and imaginative fiction, as resources for her pleas to contemporary society to strive for greater virtue, justice, and human flourishing. All her gifts are on display in her book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. [lxxvii]

Liberal education shapes and informs human freedom, and Nussbaum believes that education has the power to form adults who can function as citizens not just of their own region or group but “as citizens of a complex interlocking world.”[lxxviii] It’s an admirable vision: to use the humanities––especially literary works that, in stretching our imagination, helps us to identify with and relate to others who are different from ourselves––to cultivate humanity.

Cultivating new humanity:

Spiritual formation

While the university may be a good place to pursue the liberal arts and cultivate liberal humanity, the local church is the best place to cultivate the new humanity that is in Jesus Christ. James Loder describes the Spirit’s work as “humanizing humanity according to the nature of Christ.”[lxxix] Narrative fiction may be helpful in sensitizing world citizens to those who are culturally different, but Christian spiritual formation relies on one narrative in particular, the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the truth about how things are in Christ, the gospel is “the fundamental context of formation.”[lxxx] The Spirit bears witness to our spirit that Jesus’ story is the template for our own formation. It is to this story about being made new in Christ that the word-ministering Holy Spirit conforms Christian spirits, forming them into citizens not of the world, but into citizens of the gospel. 

Spiritual formation is the process of aligning our everyday life and experience to the reality of who and what we are in Jesus Christ: members of his new humanity. It is the process of coming to live in conformity to the truth of the gospel: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The gospel is essentially “a story of formation”[lxxxi]––the formation, in Christ, of a new humanity and holy nation. Spiritual formation is the Holy Spirit’s work to conform our spirits to that of Jesus Christ. The result is a series of shapes of evangelical freedom––the disciple’s freedom to live out the life of Christ everywhere, always, and in relation to all persons. It is for cultivating such shapes of Christian freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1).

The practices of spiritual formation (call them core exercises) reinforce who and what God says we are in Christ––who and what the Spirit is conforming our spirits to be. They’re bodily exercises too, for as have seen, persons are psychosomatic unities. Even the Desert Fathers never bracketed out the body in their quest to become more spiritual. Rather, as Peter Brown says, “[The body] was, rather, grippingly present to the monk: he was to speak of it as ‘this body, that God has afforded me, as a field to cultivate, where I might work and become rich.’ … In the desert tradition, the body was allowed to become the discreet mentor of the proud soul.”[lxxxii] Our bodies are themselves “spiritualized”––permeated by and in perfect harmony with the Holy Spirit––to the extent we live in sync with Christ (1 Cor 15:42–44). The concentration required for both prayer and fasting, for example, involve the whole person: will, beliefs, emotions, attitudes, and physical discipline.

Our spirituality is that particular shape of freedom that communicates who we are at our core. Spiritual formation is the process of becoming more like Christ in our human spirits. It is the great privilege and responsibility of pastors to form human spirits: finite shapes of freedom that display the light and life of God in everyday experience. Theology without spiritual formation and discipleship is empty; spiritual formation without theology and the gospel is blind. Pastor-theologians preach and teach our new humanity in Christ. That’s theology, and it’s good, but it’s not enough. The goal is not simply to fill heads––that is, to impart information and inform belief––but to transform a person’s characteristic pattern of responding to the calls and cries of others and, above all, to the living and active voice of God. Calvin’s word for this is piety: “the pattern by which we shape our lives before God in grateful obedience to what God has done for us.”[lxxxiii] That’s the spirit! 

Taken from Tending Soul, Mind, and Body edited by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Copyright (c) 2019 by Gerald L. Hiestand and Todd A. Wilson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.

[i] J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 3.

[ii] J. L. Austin describes this approach as a “linguistic phenomenology” (Philosophical Papers 3rd ed.[Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976], 182).

[iii] Cf. John Cooper’s similar commitment to “ordinary-language realism” (“Scripture and Philosophy on the Unity of Body and Soul,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology eds. Joshua R. Farris and Charles Taliaferro (New York: Routledge, 2017), 28.

[iv] Anthony C. Thiselton, A Shorter Guide to the Holy Spirit: Bible, Doctrine, Experience (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

[v] (accessed 19 Oct. 2018).

[vi] Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 22 (emphasis original).

[vii] J. A. T. Robinson, The Body (London: SCM Press, 1952), 16.

[viii] Translation by Anthony A. Hoekema of Bavinck’s Biblical and Religious Psychology, cited in Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 204.

[ix] Hans Walter Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (London: SCM, 1974), 20.

[x] Cf. Kenneth A. Mathews on Gen 2:7: “In our passage man does not possess a nephesh but rather is a nephesh (individual person)” (Genesis 1-11:26 ACC 1A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 196.

[xi] Brian Rosner, Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 67.

[xii] John W. Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 40.

[xiii] H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1911), 27.

[xiv] Richard E. Averbeck, “Breath, Wind, Spirit and the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament,” in Presence, Power, and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, ed. David G. Firth and Paul D. Wegner (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 11.

[xv] It is occasionally hard to tell whether the reference is to the human spirit or the Holy Spirit. See, for example, Matthew 26:41––“The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”––which might be a contrast between physical and nonphysical aspects of our humanity or between unaided human effort and enablement by the Holy Spirit.

[xvi] See further Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, The Human Spirit: Beginnings from Genesis to Science (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2018).

[xvii] W. D. Stacey, The Pauline View of Man (London: Macmillan, 1956), 135.

[xviii] See Susan Grove Eastman: “sarx participates exclusively in what Paul calls ‘the present evil age’ (Gal 1:4),” Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 89.

[xix] Moises Silva, “Pneuma,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) vol. 3, 816.

[xx] George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 459.

[xxi] Silva, “Pneuma,” 807.

[xxii] Susan Grove Eastman, Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 2.

[xxiii] Eastman, Paul and the Person, 6.

[xxiv] Eastman, Paul and the Person, 8.

[xxv] For more on second-person perspectives, see the sources referred to in Eastman, Paul and the Person, 15-16.

[xxvi] Murphy, Bodies and Souls, 27.

[xxvii] Dunn, Theology of the Apostle Paul, 54.

[xxviii] Luther, Exposition of the Magnificat of the Year 1521, cited in Delitzsch, 460. Some trichotomists say that only humans have spirits, others say that only believers are given spirits, the key point being that spirit is that part of human being that enters into contact with God. 

[xxix] Witness Lee, Our Human Spirit (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1984), 8.

[xxx] Cf. J. Gresham Machen: “The Bible does not distinguish the human spirit from the human soul. No doubt these two words designate the same thing in two different ways” (The Christian View of Man [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947], 167–168).

[xxxi] Having said that, my own position is akin to the “moderate dualism” defended by Cooper and described by Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 270–71.

[xxxii] John Cooper, “Scripture and Philosophy on the Unity of Body and Soul,” 30.

[xxxiii] G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 457.

[xxxiv] Cooper, “Scripture and Philosophy on the Unity of Body and Soul,” 30-31.

[xxxv] Cooper, “Scripture and Philosophy on the Unity of Body and Soul,” 31.

[xxxvi] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 377.

[xxxvii] Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting, xxvii. Robert Gundry opts for “psychosomatic unity” with “ontological duality” as the best description of the apostle Paul’s position (Soma in Biblical Theology with Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976], 83-4).

[xxxviii] Kallistos Ware, “The Soul in Greek Christianity,” in From Soul to Self, James C. Crabbe ed., (London: Routledge, 1999), 59.

[xxxix] Van der Kooi and van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 267.

[xl]  See further Nicole Creanza, Oren Kolodny, and Marcus W. Feldman, “Cultural Evolutionary Theory: How Culture Evolves and Why it Matters,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America July 25, 2017 114 (30) 7782-7789.

[xli] See further Robert Aunger, The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think (New York: The Free Press, 2002).

[xlii] Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Strawn, The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 87.

[xliii] My discussion is indebted to that of Peter C. Hodgson, God in History: Shapes of Freedom (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989).

[xliv] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History tr. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1975), 47.

[xlv] James K. A. Smith’s concept of cultural liturgies expresses a similar phenomenon: culture forms specific shapes of worship or habits of the heart. See his You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).

[xlvi] Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 13.

[xlvii] John Coe and Todd W. Hall, Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology (IVP Academic, 2010), 37.

[xlviii] Coe and Hall, Psychology in the Spirit, 84.

[xlix] Coe, Psychology in the Spirit, 220.

[l] Coe, Psychology in the Spirit, 222.

[li] Coe, Psychology in the Spirit, 264.

[lii] Coe, Psychology in the Spirit, 264.

[liii] Dallas Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 13-14 (my emphasis).

[liv] Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence, 117.

[lv] Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence, 118.

[lvi] Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence, 121.

[lvii] Willard, “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare Between the Flesh and the Human Spirit,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 6 no. 2 (2013), 157 (emphasis original).

[lviii] Willard, “Spiritual Formation and the Warfare Between the Flesh and the Human Spirit,” 158.

[lix] J. P. Moreland, “Body and Soul: Tweaking Dallas Willard’s Understanding of the Human Person,” in Until Christ is Formed in You: Dallas Willard and Spiritual Formation, eds. Steven L. Porter, Gary W. Moon, and J. P. Moreland (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2018), 61.

[lix] Moreland, “Body and Soul, 62.

[lx] Moreland, “Body and Soul, 62.

[lxi] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 76.

[lxii] Evan Howard, A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation: How Scripture, Spirit, Community, and Mission Shape our Souls (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 12.

[lxiii] See Howard, A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation, 74.

[lxiv] As to the question, what does spiritual formation form, Howard believes it is whole persons and communities (A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation, 18-19).

[lxv] On the distinction between exegetical and dogmatic reasoning, see John Webster, “Biblical Reasoning,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 130.

[lxvi] Rosner, Known by God, 72. Cf. Staley: “The Pauline usage of spirit [is] for the godward side of man” (The Pauline View of Man, 137).

[lxvii] Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 17 (emphasis original).

[lxviii] Alistair I. McFayden, Called to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 19.

[lxix] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer tr. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 22. Cf. David Ford on human cries.

[lxx] McFayden, Called to Personhood, 22.

[lxxi] McFayden, Called to Personhood, 65.

[lxxii] McFayden, Called to Personhood, 116.

[lxxiii] McFayden’s Called to Personhood, 19. Both Brian Rosner and Susan Eastman acknowledge the importance for Paul of understanding personal identity in terms of being known by God.

[lxxiv] McFayden, Called to Personhood, 7.

[lxxv] John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM Press, 2003), 89.

[lxxvi] Anthony C. Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 53.

[lxxvii] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[lxxviii] Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity, 6.

[lxxix] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 17.

[lxxx] Howard, A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation, 34.

[lxxxi] Howard, A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation, 36.

[lxxxii] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 236-37.

[lxxxiii] Howard L. Rice, Reformed Spirituality: An Introduction for Believers (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 46.

Kevin Vanhoozer
Kevin Vanhoozer
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Ph.D. is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.


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