“The best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.”— Samuel Butler
The thriftiest of liars are those who craft definitions to serve their falsehood. Definitions limit and focus thought. How we define man dictates our understanding of man and his needs. The smallest falsehood in our definition of man’s nature will cause us to go far astray.
Perhaps the most serious falsehood that has haunted Christianity over the centuries is the claim that man has a divided nature.
Man’s Problem: Metaphysical or Moral?
The Greeks saw man as having either a dualistic (two-part) or tripartite (three-part) nature. Those who claimed man’s nature had two parts spoke of body and mind (or spirit), while those who saw three spoke of body, mind, and soul. This view of man’s nature as divided was the intellectual framework of ancient philosophy. Unfortunately, Christian teachings of flesh and spirit were easily hung on this framework.
The issue was man’s nature. Greek thinking and Christianity were very early confused by a common terminology which tended to revert Christian thought back to paganism. In Greek thought man’s two or three components fundamentally opposed one another in a hostile tension. The tension between these irreconcilable elements was man’s problem: flesh in conflict with mind or soul.
The Greeks saw the problem as a metaphysical one. That is why they saw man’s hope as being outside his body. Hercules and others in their pantheon were men who had transcended flesh to become gods. Greek thought saw the Christian teachings of incarnation (God putting on human flesh) and resurrection (the reclamation of the body) as reversing the spiritual order.
Scripture does not allow for a metaphysical view of man’s problem. Scripture presents man’s nature as unified. God created Adam with a body, mind, and soul and declared him very good. Christ was God incarnate yet still perfect. In eternity we will have physical resurrection bodies, along with minds and souls. Scripture presents man’s problem as moral, not metaphysical. Greek thinking and definitions present man’s problem as the irreconcilable elements of which we are composed; it sees our metaphysical nature, our makeup, as the problem.
The Lie’s Outworking
What happens when we say man is two or three (or ten or twenty) elements in a metaphysical tension? If we impose the Greek definitions of human nature on Christian thought, we propose a faulty creation. We say man was created with a nature that is at war with itself. We say man had a problem before the fall into sin.
If we view our nature as divided, we can falsely believe sin is limited to only part of our being. We can assume “sins of the flesh” are a natural part of our physical being. We can say our mind or our emotions “carried us away.” We can limit sin to our flesh, mind, or some other individual component of our humanity.
Likewise, if sin is only seen in part of our nature, then our need for God is also partial. If sin is only in part of our being, God’s grace need only permeate that part. God, then, may be needed in man’s mind or spirit, for instance, but not in all of man. The divided man has a limited problem, and needs only a limited solution.
Man wants to leave some part of his nature as good and untainted. The alcoholic or drug addict wants to say, “I can stop whenever I want to,” as though his lack of such a desire was not itself evidence of sin. The most heinous sinner wants us to look away from the obvious and says, “This isn’t the real me; I’m really a good person.”
Dualism in Theology
The false definition of human nature that Greek thought brought into Christianity has greatly affected theology. Early in the church, Manichaeanism was a cult which combined Greek dualism with Christianity. It saw matter as inherently evil. An early convert from Manichaeanism to Christianity was St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Augustine’s rejection of the dualistic view of man was opposed by a British theologian and monk, Pelagius. Pelagius’s view of man’s nature left only part of man a sinner and thus only one part of man in need of God. To Pelagius, this was a relatively small part. He denied man was a sinner by nature, as he denied the Fall. He believed man was only a sinner by habit, that he was born innocent and had the ability to do good and, in fact, achieve sinless perfection.
Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy by the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. It was soon replaced by semi-pelagianism, which moderated but did not eliminate its dualistic emphasis. Semi-pelagianism accepted the necessity of divine grace but said it had to cooperate with man’s will. Augustine said God’s grace comes first, then man’s heart is regenerated. Semi-pelagianism said man’s unaided will leads to regeneration, at which point God’s grace comes to him.
Overtly following Greek dualism, Pelagius said a very large part of man was unaffected by sin. In this reservation of sinless autonomy semi-pelagianism followed, though it said less of man was unaffected by sin. Still, it limited man’s sin nature to only a portion of his being. It reserved part of man’s nature as untainted by sin and proclaimed a role for him in his own salvation.
Implications for Today
Semi-pelagianism is still very much with us. It is the origin of Arminianism, or free-will theology, which leaves part of man’s being untainted by sin. It denies that man’s depravity extends to his will and claims he can voluntarily seek God. Any view that leaves part of human nature untainted by sin and its curse leaves that much of him autonomous, and this idea is central to free-will theology.
When Christianity adopted the Greek view of man as having a divided, conflicting nature, it allowed for a partial, isolated need for God and His grace. Adam was not only created with a unified nature that was declared very good by His Creator, he was also created in the very image of that Creator. From being the image-bearer of God in perfect righteousness in a perfect world, man fell to the status of being a slave to sin (Jn. 8:34). A belief in the unified nature of man leads us to his total depravity. If man had a unified nature, the whole man fell in Eden.
A divided nature would mean our sin, and thus our need for God, could be isolated. If man has a physical problem, we could say, “He’s only human.” If man has a problem with his emotions, we can try to isolate the problem to that aspect of his being. Psychology then becomes attractive to the church, for it isolates man’s mind from the rest of his being. Dividing man divides his problem. If only part of man is fallen, only that part needs redemption. God becomes a resource which fills a partial need.
But we need to see our whole nature as polluted by sin. We need to see God’s salvation as an act of grace because no part of us is free of sin’s depravity. When salvation of the whole man is wholly of God, it does more than fill a partial need and then send us on our way. God’s grace to man regenerates his whole being. It makes his body a temple of the Holy Spirit; it makes his mind conform to the righteousness of God; it gives his soul a resting place in the purposes of God. God’s salvation does not fill a partial need; it gives our life meaning, purpose, and hope.
God created man as a whole, a unified being. Man’s problem is not his created nature; it is his fallen moral state.
In Christ, men are restored to their calling as image-bearers of God. Man is regenerated to serve God by the power of His Spirit, who dwells in the whole man, not a part of him.
The Greek view that has long infected Christian thought still leaves the Christian a metaphysical mess. The Scriptural view sees God, by grace, rescuing and restoring His image-bearer. This is why He calls it our new birth and us His new creatures. We are recalled to our created purpose. Scripture emphasizes obedience, faithfulness, and righteousness, because the redeemed man who is submissive to God is closest to his created purpose.
Man does not have a divided, conflicted nature; he has a sin nature. Our depravity is not partial; it is total. Our need for God is not as a resource; it is as a Savior. We do not come to God because we has to fill a need; we need God’s grace to us. God saves men and works in every part of their beings to conform them to His will. At the final Judgment we shall enter, resurrected body, sinless mind, and eternal soul, into the place He has prepared for us.