The make up of human nature always has been a bit of a problem in theological reflection, because the New Testament uses various Greek terms to represent the material and immaterial aspects of human nature. There are two terms for the material aspect, namely, soma, which means body, and sarx, which means flesh.
The immaterial side of human nature is represented by five words: psyche, which means soul, pneuma, which means spirit, nous, which means mind, kardia, which means heart, and syneidesis, which means conscience.
There are two basic views of the human make-up: the dichotomous and the trichotomous views. The theory of dichotomy holds that the human being is composed of two kinds of essence–the material, which of course is the body, and the immaterial, which is the spirit or soul.
Since, as we have seen, the New Testament uses more than one term for the immaterial side of human nature, adherents of the dichotomous view must account for that. The usual explanation is that the term psyche, soul, is the immaterial aspect of man as it relates to the body; and pneuma, spirit, is the immaterial aspect as it relates to God. Nous in this view is simply a description of humanity’s mental processes.
Genesis 2:7 tells us that God created the first human being by shaping a body from the dust; and then God breathed into that body the breath of life. Thus there definitely is both a material and immaterial element in humanity’s make-up. The question is whether or not there are only two, or three, which is the trichotomous view.
The trichotomous view is the same as the ancient Greek view. Plato for example, held this view. So it was not a new idea. It is considered a biblical view by some interpreters, because of the way the Greek terms we have been discussing are used in certain New Testament passages.
For example, Paul, in I Thess. 5:23 says to the Christians at Thessalonica, “may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And Hebrews 4:12 reads: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow….”
On the other hand, it also is true that both the Old and New Testaments occasionally use the terms “spirit” and “soul” as though they were interchangeable. So it is difficult to decide which view is correct.
In this trichotomous view, soma is of course identified with the body. But psyche is identified with the principle of animal, or physical, life. And pneuma is identified with the rational element in humans. Thus, in this view, spirit and mind would be closely identified.
Most orthodox scholars support a dichotomous position. But they do not object to the common use of a threefold description of the situation. It seems to me that both views have a serious problem, because they are trying to neatly separate out the material and immaterial elements in humanity in an unbiblical way. By that I mean that the Bible itself does not present a neat anthropology, which can be put on a diagram in terms of body, soul, and spirit.
On the contrary, if we study Paul’s use of the Greek terms for these human elements, we discover an extremely complex usage which is better explained another way. Paul does not describe human nature as having two parts, or three parts. Rather, he describes our nature as a vibrant unity. We are persons who have relationships with ourselves and God, persons who pursue purposes and makes choices for good or evil.
And though the human person thus understood can be described by all of the terms we have been discussing: body, soul, spirit, and others such as flesh and mind, we still exist and act as a unified whole. Even death does not change this fact, as the promise of the resurrection of our bodies affirms.
One other matter I would like to clarify before we leave our discussion of the doctrine of human nature. It has to do with how individual human beings originate. There are three theories.
The first view is called pre-existence, because it claims human beings exist prior to their embodiment in this life. That is, human persons exist in spirit form before they are born in a physical body as a human being.
The second view is creationism. Creationism holds that God creates each human soul at the moment when the human parents propagate the physical body at conception.
The third view is called traducianism. Traducianism suggests that both the body and soul (or spirit) originate in the same process at the same time. That is, the soul neither exists prior to conception, nor does God create the soul at conception. Rather the soul and body originate together through the human sexual process. Whereas in creationism only the body is created by the sexual process, in traducianism both body and soul are created that way.
THE DOCTRINE OF SIN
Now that we have looked at the doctrine of human nature, we are ready to consider the doctrine of sin. As Dunning points out, the most frequent Greek word for sin in the New Testament is a word that means “to miss the mark.” All human beings have missed the mark. As Paul put it, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, KJV).
I want us to begin the study by looking at the Genesis account. In Genesis 1:27 we are told that humanity was a creation and thus a creature of God. We were made, however, in God’s image, something not true of other earthly creatures. This means that human beings were created with what Ray Dunning calls “original righteousness.” That is, Adam and Eve, by virtue of being made in God’s image were inherently righteous.
As we read on in Genesis, we note four important characteristics of humanity that help us to understand what it means to be made in the image of God. First, in 1:28, God spoke to Adam. This means that we human beings were created to have divine companionship, that is, God created us with the intention of entering into direct communion with us. Of course there is no greater privilege than fellowship with God.
Second, in 2:18, and 21-23, we see that God made a special companion for Adam, a woman, in whom Adam found delight. Thus we not only were created for divine companionship, we also were created for human companionship, which is very important to our happiness. That is, there is a social dimension to being made in the image of God.
Third, going back to Gen. 1:28, God gave humanity dominion over the earth. In other words, God gave us authority. This is another distinct privilege. God, who had all authority before he chose to create other free beings, chose to share authority with his higher created beings. In this case, he chose to give human beings authority over the earth. However, great privilege brings with it great responsibility. When God gave us authority over the earth, he also gave us responsibility to be good stewards of the earth.
Fourth, as recorded in Gen. 2:16-17, God said to man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” That is, God gave humanity a choice; he gave us free will. In other words he made us with the capacity to obey or disobey him. This is the headiest privilege of all. God took the greatest of all risks in order to make his relationship to his new created beings meaningful. He decided to allow us the capacity to do our own will. We can act in harmony with God’s will, or in opposition to it. With this decision God chose to limit his own power, because he gave us power to do something other than what God wants.
These four characteristics express what it means for human beings to be made in the image of God. God chose to create us in a way that gave us the ability to have meaningful relationships with him and one another. He shared some of his authority with us; and he gave us true freedom to make decisions, even bad ones. And that is exactly what Adam and Eve did. As recorded in Gen. chapter 3, they fell into sin.
Turning now to the account of the Fall in Genesis, we see that the serpent (representing Satan, a previously fallen creature) tempted Adam and Eve. His approach was clever.
He first contradicted what God earlier had said. God had told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (3:3). But the serpent told Eve, “You will not die” (3:4). The serpent was correct insofar as physical death was concerned, but Adam and Eve brought on themselves a much more fearful spiritual death.
So Adam and Eve chose to believe the serpent rather than God. They chose to exercise the gift of freedom that God had given them to disobey God (3:6-7). And thus they committed the so-called Original Sin.
And the results are interesting. The very matters, which we pointed out as characteristic of our being made in the image of God, are the characteristics that were affected by Adam and Eve’s sin. First, the relationship between humanity and God was estranged. When God walked in the garden, Adam and Eve hid, because they were afraid of their former companion (3:8-10).
Second, the relationship between Adam and Eve was estranged. As soon as God challenged Adam, Adam blamed his sin on Eve (3:12). You can imagine what tension that caused in the household. And God punished Eve by placing her under the authority of Adam (3:16).
Third, the relationship between humanity and the earth also was estranged. The complete authority that Adam and Eve had been given over the earth was changed. The ground, which formerly brought forth fruit abundantly, was cursed; and it began to bring forth thorns and thistles, causing Adam and his progeny to toil and sweat for their living (3:17-19).
In addition, we learn in Gen. 3:15 that Satan gained a measure of control over fallen humanity, because of Adam’s sin. Theologians have been fond of emphasizing that this prophecy indicates that Satan will be punished, but we must not forget that it also indicates that Satan will get in his licks.
And Finally, fourth, man’s freedom also was tainted by Adam’s sin. By exercising his free choice against the will of God, Adam brought a curse on the human race. Adam’s descendants are sinful by nature, because of Adam’s original sin. This has made it quite difficult for us to exercise our choices in harmony with the will of God. The tempter has an easier time with us now, because he can take advantage of our inner sinfulness.
Now then, I want us to delve just a little deeper into this matter of free choice. According to orthodox theology, Adam was created holy; that is, he was created with a positive tendency or inclination toward the good. His tendency within was to obey God. It was a holiness made possible by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in his life.
However, this presence of the Holy Spirit did not provide Adam with the divine attributes of omnipotence or omniscience. He did not have all knowledge or all power. On the contrary, Adam was created as a limited being with the moral power to disobey God in spite of his innate holiness. As we have seen, Adam exercised that free will against God, and fell morally. It appears then that the Holy Spirit withdrew his presence from Adam and from the human race in general.
Now then, if we reflect upon the role that Adam’s will played in this drama, we see that there are four possible views of the relation between Adam’s will and his holiness. The first possibility was that Adam and Eve had to sin. In this suggestion God created Adam with a will that was not holy. Therefore they had no choice but to sin.
A second possibility for Adam’s will would have been that it was equally possible for him to sin or not. In this situation, God would have created Adam’s will so that it would have been neither holy nor unholy. It would have been neutral, with an inclination neither to sin nor not to sin.
The third and fourth possibilities are the mediating potentialities. God could have created Adam with a will that could choose to sin or not, but with a tendency toward sinning. Or, he could have created it with the ability to choose to sin or not, but with a tendency toward not sinning. It is this latter possibility that is generally accepted as the orthodox position in respect to Adam and Eve’s situation. And it is the one I gave you. In orthodox theology, Adam’s will was created holy. He had a spontaneous tendency to be and do what was right, to do the will of God. But he also had the capacity to choose to do wrong and sin.
It must be kept in mind that our discussion thus far has been a discussion of Adam’s will in relation to Adam’s sin. Our situation is different. As we have seen, humanity since Adam has been affected by Adam’s sinfulness. So if we ask where we fit into these possibilities, an argument can be made for the third possibility, because of the so-called doctrine of original sin. All descendants of Adam now have a tendency toward evil, and we have freedom to sin or not. On the other hand, one could make an argument for the fourth possibility, because our inherited sinfulness inevitably causes us to sin.
But our sinfulness isn’t the whole story. Although we human beings never can experience the pre-fall perfection of Adam, we still have the capacity to be restored to something like Adam’s situation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
All of us have experienced sin. That is why we will never be sinless in the sense that Adam was before the fall. But God has not left us without hope. We can be forgiven and restored to fellowship with God. But beyond that, we can be filled with the Holy Spirit and cleansed from all sin.