The eleventh shift brought to us by the Enlightenment concerns how we think about growth in Christ and our relation to the world around us. Our answers to these questions follow from a more fundamental question.
The more fundamental issue begins with the biblical idea that we have both a soul and a body. That is, we are a duality (this is known as “anthropological dualism” or “substance dualism”). How we think about growing as Christians depend on how we understand the nature of our souls, including how they are related to our bodies. From these beliefs, other conclusions are also drawn, including how we are to worship and serve Christ in the world.
Throughout history, two very different answers to this fundamental question have been proposed. One view became prominent before the Enlightenment. After the Enlightenment, the other view rose to prominence, and today this latter view largely shapes how we understand these issues.
The Pre-enlightenment View Of Growth In Christ
These two answers originate in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Plato thought that the body and soul are two entirely unrelated entities, with very little interaction between them. In his view, what goes on in the body doesn’t make any difference to the health or growth of the soul, and what goes on in the soul has no implication for the body.
Furthermore, Plato thought the body was actually harmful to the soul—a sort of prison in which our souls must live while on earth (see The Republic, Book 10 and Phaedo). So our soul can grow only as it becomes disassociated from the body.
Christians sought to understand what philosophers like Plato had discovered (God’s general revelation) and to integrate it with what the Scriptures articulate (God’s special revelation). In the first eleven centuries of the church, most believers only had access to the writings of Plato and his followers. Therefore, they sought to find points of integration between the call to be Christlike and Plato’s thoughts on the soul and body.
Christians drew one of two conclusions. Some concluded that to grow in Christ one must, as far as humanly possible, ignore bodily needs or even seek to harm the body. These were (are) known as the ascetics. Some took extreme measures, such as Simeon Stylites, who sat on a pole for 37 years.
The others concluded that, since the body is irrelevant to the well-being of the soul, it didn’t matter what the body did. Therefore, no restrictions were placed on what the body does—everything was permissible. These were (and are) known as the antinomians.
Aristotle offered an entirely different picture of the relation of soul and body. He argued that the two are deeply wed. For Aristotle, being in a body is a fundamental part of who we are. Far from being a prison of the soul, it is the natural place for the soul to “live and move and have its being.”
In the twelfth century, the writings of Aristotle became available to most Christians. As they sought to integrate his thought with the biblical call to be Christlike, they concluded that what happens in the body will have either a negative or a positive influence on the health of the soul. For instance, by occasionally fasting—an activity of the body—we can shape our souls in positive ways (for instance, we learn self-control). On the other hand, indulging every bodily desire shapes our soul in negative ways (such as becoming more and more self-absorbed). I am convinced that this is the right way to understand spiritual formation (see my posts here for more on this).
However, because of the centuries of assuming Plato’s thought was consistent with biblical truth, there was a strong impulse to reject Aristotle’s ideas. The great medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively to show Aristotle’s views were more consistent with biblical revelation (see especially his Summa Contra Gentiles). As a result of his (and other people’s) writings, most Christians, at least in the West, began to understand the relationship of soul and body along Aristotelian lines. This view came to be known as “Thomistic Substance Dualism” (named after Thomas Aquinas).
This change had implications for the nature of worship. All five senses were to be involved in worship, to emphasize the goodness of our embodiment. Bodily postures, such as periods of kneeling, were also a part of the worship service, so as to involve the body more fully in honoring Jesus as Lord.
This shift also had implications for how believers conceived of all physical reality. One example was in architecture. Churches were designed to be physical spaces connected with the immaterial realm (just as our bodies are physical spaces connected with the immaterial realm—our souls). The “cruciform” structure reflected the cross in the layout of the church building (as in the picture above).
This understanding was the norm by the time of the Enlightenment. Worship, discipleship, and growth in Christ necessarily involved all we are—body and soul. Unfortunately, for many in the churches of the day, these practices became mere rituals and lost their meaning. The people carrying them out had “a form of godliness” but denied God’s power (2 Timothy 3:5). But this fact does not negate the value of these ideas if Aristotle is right and our souls and bodies are deeply united.
All this changed with the Enlightenment (with a key supporting role played by the Reformation). The Reformation, of course, had many positive impacts. However, the ways in which it accelerated this eleventh shift in thinking, which came to full bloom during the Enlightenment, were not among the positive results. I’ll discuss this next week.
Until then, grace and peace.