Salvation of the Soul? A Reflection on Ontology and Theological Anthropology

What does the Bible say about the nature of human beings? Does it have a single stance on it? Better yet, how do you interpret what the Bible has to say this topic? My interdenominational work as a missionary allows me to be in and out of various theological circles and Christian faith traditions in a multicultural context. What is perhaps more diverse than the places I visit, is how people tend to interpret the nature of human beings (ontology) and how that affects their soteriology (theology of salvation). I often see people get caught up in debates concerning dichotomist or trichotomist perspectives.

In my work in the West (mostly in the United States), salvation is largely seen as an individual endeavor. It is often internalized, where God is out only to save people’s soul. This leads to two polarized perspectives. On one side, God wants to save the soul and the body doesn’t matter. On the other side, people develop a high view of ethics and personal standards of morality. In my work in the East (mostly in Greece), salvation is a collective work. It doesn’t really matter what individuals do right or wrong, since they belong to the collective church which will be saved in the end. Salvation does not concern itself with ethics, but with the revelation of God. It is less about ontological regeneration, and more about a collective process of theosis.

The question of human ontology (the nature of human beings) and its effects on salvation is a reoccurring theme throughout Scripture. One could say that it is present from beginning to end. From the concepts of the imago Dei surrounding image and likeness in Genesis, to the nature of the resurrected bodies in the eschaton as presented by Paul in 1Corinthians 15, Scripture seems to place high value in human nature as a cohesive entity. But as with other themes such as the Trinity and theodicy, Scripture does not seem to present a single set systematic theology of human nature. Rather, it seems to allow its authors to speak to their particular socio-cultural context. Thus, we find holistic Hebrew interpretations of salvation in the OT, and a seemingly Greek trichotomist perspective when Paul addresses the Greek context through a Greek/Judaic worldview.

As with contextual applications of ontology in Scripture, history shows that ontological deliberations seem to coincide with dominant philosophical and scientific views of the day. LeRon Shults, a professor of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Adger, provides significant insights of how philosophical frameworks affected ontological interpretations throughout history. For example, he argues that Augustine adopted a Neoplatonic anthropology in which the soul was  easily separated from the body, in order for him to defend the resurrection of the soul and an intermediate state after death. On the other hand, Shults affirms that in the Reformation, Luther’s Alexandrian leaning in Christology led him to emphasize a real union of the body and soul in his anthropology. In the same way, contemporary views of human nature are also informed by current philosophical thought and scientific breakthroughs.

And so, we find that as Folk Judaism influenced their ontology in the Old Testament, Paul also used Greek thought to communicate the importance of the human person in the NT. This trend repeated itself throughout history, from Augustine to Luther until today. No one is able to provide a completely unbiased human ontology. It’s presumptions to think so, since Scripture itself is not concerned with it. The point is not to find a single Scriptural perspective, but rather, to understand the message that Scripture wants to communicate concerning the ontological worth of all creation.

This is a challenge for us today. Massive scientific advancements in the study of the origin of the universe and nature of human beings has significantly rearranged our theological anthropology. Evolutionary theory placed humanity among with the rest of nature, looking at human development amidst other species. From astrophysics to genetic research, we are learning that we are more mutually dependent than originally thought. We are not just internalized, self-expressive individuals as the West seems to think.

A Holistic Anthropology may help to guide our reflection in the context of such foundational and dynamic changes. A holistic perspective defends that human beings are an ontological units capable of relating to ourselves and others as well as to the transcendent. This cohesive understanding takes into account psychological breakthroughs, such as the reality of psychosomatic diseases, that present body and psyche as equally important and mutually dependent. In this perspective, salvation is of the whole being, bringing it all into a dynamic development of growing into the image of God embodied in Christ. This process culminates in the eschaton where we attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).