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How Not To Be a Chronological Snob (Post 12)

How we think about what we are has far-reaching implications, including how we understand growth in Christ and our role in the world. Last week I discussed the dominant view prior to the Enlightenment, which I think got it right. This all changed beginning in the sixteenth century. A seismic shift occurred–out with Aristotle’s view and in again with Plato’s view. We see the results of this shift in many ways to this day.

The Enlightenment’s View 

Many currents of thought and many historical events contributed to this shift, so any brief summary is incomplete. But I think it is important to outline two important factors in this shift—one theological and one philosophical.

The Theological Factor

Theologically, God brought a great revival known as the Protestant Reformation to His people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Roman Catholic Church had lost its way and no longer focused on the essential aspects of following Christ. The Reformation summarized this by calling people back to the five core commitments necessary to follow Christ–the “five Solas”: 

  • Sola scriptura – the Bible alone is the ultimate source of knowledge concerning God and his activity in the world (including our redemption), rather than adding other equal sources of authority such as church traditions

  • Sola fide – salvation by faith alone, not faith plus good works

  • Sola gratia – salvation by God’s grace alone, not in any way by our merit 

  • Solo Christo – salvation by Christ alone, the only mediator between us and God (rather than priests or other clergy playing a mediatorial role)

  • Soli Deo gloria – glory to God alone, and no glory (worship) should be given to Mary, saints, or angels 

These “solas” were critiques of the theology of the medieval Catholic Church. As such, they also functioned as a critique of the theological writings of Thomas Aquinas, to whom the Catholic Church looked for defense of these doctrines. 

These five Solas provided much needed corrections to theological views inconsistent with the clear teaching of Scripture. Therefore, we are eternally indebted to the brave Christ-followers who stood against the powerful Catholic Church and called them out on these errors, often losing their lives as a result.

However, in the case of our understanding of our soul-body relation, the new Protestant church tended to throw the “baby out with the bathwater.” In addition to rejecting Aquinas’s theology, they tended to reject his philosophy as well. This meant rejecting his Aristotelian arguments for the soul’s relation to the body and its implications. The only other option was the Platonic understanding, held by those of earlier periods of the church. So the Platonic view once again gained traction. 

The Philosophical Factor

Equally important is the philosophical shift that occurred during the Enlightenment, which in some ways was made possible by the theological shifts that led to the rejection of Thomistic Dualism. An Enlightenment philosopher named Rene Descartes is primarily responsible for this philosophical shift.

Descartes embraced Plato’s view of the separateness of the soul and body and wrote extensively in support of this view. As a result, this view is now known as Cartesian Dualism. I’ve written more about it here.

The Implications 

Implications Concerning Growth in Christ

Like Thomistic Dualism, Cartesian Dualism has many implications. In terms of growth in Christ, it follows from this view that the body is not relevant in “spiritual” matters. It is what happens in our soul that determines our spiritual formation. Though there certainly were (and still are) exceptions, in general Cartesian Dualism de-emphasized spiritual disciplines that engaged the body. Instead, spiritual growth became heavily focused on what we do in our “soul” (such as prayer, Bible study, church attendance) and neglected formative practices that involve the body (such as fasting, silence, or solitude)1.

Implications Concerning Engaging the World

This change was also reflected in the way Christians engaged the world, beginning with our own buildings. Church design began to emphasize the pulpit over the altar. It was placed in the front of the altar and elevated, to indicate the centrality of teaching. 

As a Protestant myself, I affirm this central focus on teaching the Word of God and thus the centrality of the pulpit. Therefore, I recognize the positive value of this architectural shift. However, it de-emphasized the incarnational nature of Christianity, represented by the focus on the altar—where the focus is on the broken body and blood of Christ.

This shift away from a deeply incarnational understanding of the Christian faith is also seen in the shift from use of the crucifix to the cross in churches. Gone was the representation of the bleeding and dying Jesus, which is the epitome of God becoming incarnate—being able (and willing) to die for us to pay our sin penalty. 

In its place, churches began to display a cross alone, without Jesus upon it. This certainly continues to serve as a reminder of the centrality of Jesus’ death. However, it is more abstract and conceptual than an actual representation of a bleeding Savior. (Again, my Protestant proclivities incline me to prefer a cross to a crucifix, but I wonder how much of that is because I myself am a product of these philosophical shifts).  

Also diminished was an emphasis on the mystery and awe of God’s direct presence in the material realm. Church architecture increasingly moved away from the cruciform structure (see picture above). Other architectural pointers to the presence of spiritual reality (reflected in many aspects of medieval architecture) vanished.

Instead, the underlying paradigm for church architecture became utility. This new paradigm has become full-bloom in modern Evangelicalism, in which churches are frequently designed as nothing more than large boxes with folding chairs. The implication is that physical space is irrelevant to what goes on in our souls, so what difference does church architecture make? 

I am certain that those making these decisions did not intend to devalue the sacredness of physical space. However, this implication followed from the philosophical air we all began to breathe after the Enlightenment. And so the assumption took hold that physical space is irrelevant to what goes on in our souls–or at best it plays a far lesser role than “spiritual” activities. 

This new vision of the relation between the spiritual and the physical eventually affected all else (as philosophical ideas tend to do). For instance, it leads to an understanding of the believer’s role in culture that focuses on “spiritual” activities (or “ministry”), rather than engagement in all aspects of culture and our understanding of God’s call, or our “vocation” (see links in the wordcloud on my homepage for discussions of the doctrine of “calling” or “vocation”).

My friend Mike Metzger just wrote an excellent exposition of another aspect of this shift, in the context of the type of people being nominated to the Supreme Court over the past hundred years: Where Have All The Justices Gone? I highly recommend reading it.  Also, see my series on three views of how Christians should engage culture here

Contemporary Examples and Counter-Examples

I see trends in modern Evangelicalism both resisting and furthering this shift in thinking. The resistance comes from people like Dallas Willard, who are re-emphasizing the role of the body in spiritual formation. In fact, his thoughts on maturity in Christ are deeply grounded in Thomistic Substance Dualism. Some churches are also more strongly emphasizing engagement of the body in worship in various ways. I count these as positive correctives. 

On the other hand, some seem to be furthering this shift toward Enlightenment thinking. As Cartesian Substance Dualism took center stage, it faced severe criticisms. Many wondered, given how distinct the soul and body are according to Descartes, in what ways the two can even relate to one another (the “Problem of Interaction”).

Furthermore, since for Descartes the body was a machine that ran “on its own steam,” many began to wonder if a soul was even needed (and the soul was increasingly referred to as a “ghost in the machine” at best). 

This trend soon gave way to physicalism—the view that we are only a body, purely physical beings. It is not surprising that secular thinkers eventually adopted this perspective. What is extremely troubling is that a few Christians have embraced this view. 

Led by influential Christian thinkers such as Nancy Murphy at Fuller Seminary, they are known as “Christian Physicalists.” Many who have studied with her and other Christian Physicalists are espousing the view that we are primarily, if not purely, a body (or, more precisely, a brain), which determines what we feel, love, desire, choose, and act. (In a forthcoming series, I’ll critique one popular book that reduces our souls to our brains—Jim Wilder’s Renovated.) The definitive biblical critique of this view is John Cooper’s Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting

This view is inconsistent with None of these critiques, and subsequent moves toward physicalism are necessary if one takes Thomistic Substance Dualism to be true. On the Thomistic view the body is not a machine but an animate object (“animus” is Latin for “soul,” so literally the body is an ensouled thing). 

This, too, eviscerates the objection of “interaction” that has caused such concern over Cartesian Substance Dualism. (See my posts here and here for more on this. See also my and J. P. Moreland’s Aquinas vs. Locke and Descartes on the Human Person and End-of-Life Ethics, which draws out the implications of this for important issues in biomedical ethics.)


Next week I’ll discuss the thirteenth of the fifteen shifts in our thinking from pre-modern to modern times.

Until then, grace and peace.

  1. A notable exception is the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. However, I am not aware that the bodily expression of worship in these traditions are grounded in philosophical anthropology along the lines of Thomistic Substance Dualism. I may be wrong, and welcome corrections in the comment section below.

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