Unifying and renewing a divided life: bridging the divide

26 November 2020

As the West gradually drifts from its Christian roots, how can we reconnect society not just with a personal salvation, but an all-encompassing Christian worldview that reaches every area of life?
In part two of this new series by Joe Boot, Joe explains how the West has turned back to paganism throughout history.

Last week, we looked at the root of the divide that society has created between a personal salvation through Jesus Christ and an all-encompassing worldview of Christianity.

To really understand the problem, one must understand that in Jesus Christ – the Word in and through whom all things were created – all things hold together. As such, everything created is to be understood through that Biblical lens; all things were made through the Word and this Word is also wonderfully given along with creation.

A bridge too far

The difficulty is that the importance and power of this Biblical revelation of Christ the Word as the foundation for truly Christian thought gradually faded from view. After the apostolic era, the patristic period of the Church (the first five centuries) saw many Church Fathers that were converted from pagan backgrounds in the Greco-Roman world and they naturally brought with them the intellectual baggage of their former lives.

As brilliant as their contribution to the spread of the faith and growth of the church was, a truly inner reformation of thought in terms of a scriptural worldview did not emerge in this period. They frequently struggled to wrestle free from the powerful religious ground-motives and ideas that shaped their cultural milieu. In their sincere attempts to interpret Scripture and relate the Christian gospel to the pagan world, they were not able to successfully shake off various anti-scriptural elements of Greek thought in conveying Biblical truth.  The extent of their lack of critical reflection on the implications of a fully scriptural view of reality (as being essentially antithetical to Greek metaphysics) led some of them to regard Plato himself as a proto-Christian preparing the way for the gospel!  This makes most of them unreliable guides today in areas like creation, marriage, sexuality and the value of the ‘material’ world, because even men as great as Augustine were deeply influenced by Neo-Platonism.

The powerful influence of Greek thought in regard to origins along with its division of reality into two substances thus continued in the life of the church. By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas brought Roman Catholic thought to its zenith by officially interpreting Aristotle for the church. He attempts to build a formal bridge between Aristotle and Scripture, a synthesis of the Greek understanding of nature with the Biblical teaching of creation – his thought shaping an entire school of thought called scholasticism. It is here that we begin to see the immense relevance of Greek thinking for the divided life of the modern church. Aquinas tried to accommodate the form-matter dualism of the Greeks to the Christian faith and that legacy has remained with us in various permutations ever since. In order to see this bridge clearly, we must consider briefly the ongoing influence of these Greek ideas on our view of the human person and then note some of the practical consequences.

In accommodating the Greek view to the Christian view of creation, theologians demanded the independence of the human body as a substance, over against a soul substance. It is not clear in Aquinas whether he was completely free from a belief in some kind of pre-existing or uncreated substance that God worked on in creation. At any rate, influenced again by Greek thought the scholastics developed a psycho-creationist idea for human beings. Here, by special creative act, God permits the implanting of an indestructible soul into a body from without, the body being prepared by an organic life principle. What we end up with, instead of the Biblical unity of the human person, is the uncomfortable assemblage of two independent substances – body and soul. In keeping with Greek thought, the flesh (non-divine earthly matter of the body) is conceived as something of a prison for the noblest ‘part’ of man – the immortal soul which escapes the corruptible material flesh at death. The anima rationalis (rational soul) – a spiritual complex of particular functions (i.e. thinking, willing etc.,) – is then seen as the seat of true light, natural reason and spirituality, whilst the body is implicitly or explicitly denigrated in terms of lower desires, carnal appetites and the seat of sin. Like the Greeks (who saw the non-divine in matter), the ‘Christian’ view then saw the source of sin in these ‘lower desires.’  This teaching obviously entails the problematic notion that God creates and inserts sinful souls into each new person – hence the need to shift the seat of sin to the body’s lower capacities.

The theological superstructure that is then built up around this initial division of the human person into two independent substances, one higher and the other lower, steadily divides all of life into two domains, the natural and the spiritual – which in church doctrine becomes the idea of nature and grace. Nature is conceived as form and matter and grace as an addition to bring the immortal soul to perfection. The scriptural view of the creation of human beings from nothing as a unity in God’s image along with a life-comprehending apostasy in sin and rebellion at the Fall so that we are in need of an equally life-comprehending redemption at the root of our being, was eclipsed. Instead, sin is steadily located in material bodies and fleshly desires which rebel against our natural ‘reason’ – a function of our rational soul – being wounded but not radically perverted and depraved by the Fall. On this view, since God creates and releases a ‘rational soul’ for each new body, it is easy to see why a comprehensive understanding of the Fall into sin was not possible. Scholastic thought teaches that the Fall really robbed us of a supernatural gift of grace (i.e. true faith) which is restored through Christ and the church, which itself is the supernatural institution of grace.

As such two domains of life were generated: a natural domain where, following the Greeks again, the state is the highest community in the earthly temporal order leading us to the highest step of morality, and a spiritual domain of grace governed by the church bringing souls to eternal verities. The state in turn rules over the earthly and temporal realm and is the portal or threshold to the domain of supernatural grace where the church leads us on to spiritual perfection. This is why the ‘Holy Orders’ of the church, asceticism, monasticism and the priesthood with its celibacy were celebrated and constituted the highest forms of service to God because they belonged to the upper storey of reality that brings souls to perfection whilst withdrawing from carnal appetites and fleshly desires of ‘the world.’

A divided life

Though the Reformation broke with much of this characterisation of life and sought a renewal of the Biblical and integral understanding of Creation, Fall and Redemption, recovering a scriptural view of marriage, the priesthood of all believers and our cultural calling to rule and subdue, it failed to completely blow up scholasticism’s bridge from dualistic conceptions of the human person in Greek thought to Christianity. Consequently, a ‘Protestant scholasticism’ was soon entrenched and has persisted into modern evangelicalism. With the continuation of Greek philosophical dualisms we can see the many ways in which the division of life into separate domains has stubbornly manifested itself. Consider some of these familiar divisions of life and common assumptions amongst Christians in Western culture:

Body/Soul: Human beings are made up of two separate substances, one higher the other lower, easily distinguishable and separable. The soul (a complex of higher functions including reasoning) is the ‘real’ person; the body is merely a shell. The soul’s destiny is Heaven or Hell, the body and the earth are relatively less important.

Material/Spiritual: The Christian life is a ‘spiritual’ life consisting of spiritual disciplines. It is an inner battle against the desires of the lower part of us – stemming from the body. The material world is an incumbrance, lesser, or evil and we will eventually escape it into Heaven. In the meantime, we must suppress the desires of our material nature.

Natural/Supernatural: Most life activities are just natural and about this world, but Christianity is about a supernatural world beyond this one, and therefore this natural life and creation are not as important as the supernatural world. The natural is mundane and boring and carries on largely in terms of its own impersonal laws, but sometimes God breaks in to do supernatural things like miracles, which are much more significant than everyday events.

Public/Private: Our spiritual life of faith is an essentially private matter of personal conviction and should not be imposed on anyone else. Our private faith is not for the public space as it does not involve publicly assessable knowledge and in any case, God’s kingdom is not of this world.

Secular/Sacred: Most of life functions well in terms of neutral secular principles and concepts that everyone can agree on. Politics, education, law, science etc., are secular areas of life basically governed by man’s common natural reason. The Church however is a sacred institution of grace which, unlike these other areas, is ruled by Biblical revelation. This revelation must not be imposed or applied to culture and society for to Christianise culture is mixing the upper and lower storey, secular and sacred.

Law/Gospel: Law is concerned with the earth, the material world and sinful natural desires, whereas gospel freedom is spiritual and concerns grace for the soul. The Church is the institution of grace, not law – which is a matter for the state as a natural institution. Grace throws law aside because grace has no more need for the law than Heaven needs Earth, or the saved soul has real need for the body.

Common/Special Revelation: The natural creation is the realm of common grace, common principles, natural law. By contrast, Christ is the source of special grace and special revelation. The one is a ladder to the other, but we need the addition of faith and grace in special revelation to bring us to completion, salvation and perfection.

Reason/Revelation: Human reason is sufficient for understanding most of life in the natural world and guides politics, education, culture etc., in terms of neutral rational principles.  Human reasoning, though prone to errors, is good as far as it goes and can offer high-probability proofs for God’s existence acceptable to logical and right-thinking people. However, supernatural revelation to the soul is admittedly necessary for eternal salvation and to disclose certain spiritual doctrines.

Science/Faith: The sciences operate only in terms of objective natural reason and concern religiously neutral knowledge of the natural world. The sciences answer factual questions about how things happen in the world. Faith is unrelated to reason and is only concerned with the higher value judgments of why things happen. The only truly Christian academic discipline is theology because it is concerned with studying religion and faith. There can be no distinctly Christian view of philosophy or science.

Culture/Kingdom: The kingdom of God is a purely spiritual and invisible reality that does not manifest itself outside the heart and supernatural institution of grace – the church. The kingdom of God fundamentally concerns a future heavenly reality, not the present earth and human culture. The earth is destined for total destruction, so nothing in human culture has any eternal value. Getting souls into Heaven and preserving them in the institutional church through this veil of tears is our calling.

These artificial separations of territories or domains in life ruled by different principles are perspectives that follow logically from the dualistic conception of the human person derived from distinct substances in Greek thought and then synthesized with the Christian view of creation and redemption.


Read part 1.
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