Monday, October 30, 2017

Pondering the Human Spirit

Do human beings have an indwelling spirit, or do they have spirit? Answering affirmatively to the first question (i.e., humans have an indwelling spirit?), then one seems to be thinking dualistically. That is to say, human beings possess an inner ethereal spiritual "essence" that is distinguishable from the "stuff" of the material body.
            In the Western literary tradition the idea that human beings are dualistically comprised is found as early as Homer (8th century BCE?): "In Homer, the psyche [soul] is what leaves the body on death (i.e., life, or breath?), but also [it is]an insubstantial image of the dead person, existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body…is well-established by the fifth century…"1 In the Western Philosophical tradition the survival of the soul (psyche) is well established in Plato's writings (5th century?): "Throughout the dialogues Plato expresses that a person's soul is an entity distinct from the living embodied person, attached to it…"2
            Among the Greeks this survivable essence of human beings was also described as spirit (pneuma), a term coterminous with psyche (soul): "[a]t death it (pneuma/psyche) is separated from [the body], for, breath-like, it escapes with the last breath, returning to fulfill its higher destiny in the element from which it came or in the upper region to which it is by nature related, in the atmosphere of heaven or the aether…"3
            The Apostle Paul used similar language (e.g., 1 Thess 5:23) and embraced the idea that after death there was still a future for a regenerated human being (Phil 1:19-24). Nevertheless, Paul did not share the Greek idea that the human body was a perishable shell housing an eternal spirit or soul; rather, Paul shared the Hebrew idea (Gen 2:7) that people are living beings whose perishable nature in the end will become imperishable, immortal, and spiritual (1 Cor 15:35-57; what is transformed is the whole person not an ethereal spirit or soul that indwells the body and leaves the body behind at death. Although at times he certainly sounds dualistic (2 Cor 5:1-10).4
            In a secular modern sense, however, the human spirit is regarded as "an attitude or principle that inspires, animates, or pervades thought, feeling, or action."5 To judge from human behavior the human spirit can be either evil or idealistic—that is, it can inspire actions that are either egregiously harmful or inspirationally helpful to the human situation. The seat of attitudes lies in the mind, and arises from our intellect, emotions, fears, passions, creativity, and will, and is conditioned by our nurture and personal experiences.
            Hence, if the Greeks are correct, human beings are dualistically conceived; they are comprised of an eternal spirit/soul housed in a perishable body. If Paul is correct, human beings do not house either a spirit or a soul but are living beings. If current secular sentiment is correct human beings have spirit, that is to say they have attitudes that excel, flounder, or lie somewhere in between. How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Christopher Rowe, "Soul," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1428.
2Kenneth Dover, "Plato," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1192.
3Hermann Kleinknecht, "pneuma," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 6.336.
4For a discussion of Pauline anthropology see Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 203-10.
5Random House Dictionary, s.v. "spirit."

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Helpers—an overlooked “Church Office.”

The Reformation period churches of the sixteenth century that settled this country during the period of the Renaissance (14th -17th centuries) were very different in organization, spirit, and theological ideas from those loosely organized Christ gatherings (ekklēsiai; incorrectly translated "church") of the middle first century. We have detailed information about only one of those early gatherings—the gathering around Christ at Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians), but the light cast on the character of nascent Christianity in those letters is enough to produce a jarring recognition of a graphic difference from the Reformation era churches. The gathering at Corinth under Paul's ministry (Rom 15:14-16) was a free-wheeling spirit-led group. By the sixteenth century what in the early period was an informal gathering became an organized creedal institution, for which the designation "church" is entirely appropriate.
            One example of the difference is reflected in 1 Cor 12:4-11. Paul discusses varieties of "gifts," which are given by the Spirit of God "for the common good." Hence these charismatic abilities bestowed by God's Spirit are aimed at ennobling and enabling the entire gathering. At the end of the chapter Paul lists a few specific "offices" or recognized functions of leadership (1 Cor12:27-28). These offices consist of apostles, prophets, teachers, [workers of] miracles, gifts of healings, helps, administrations, and [speakers in various1] kinds of tongues. The people who are gifted with these abilities are not chosen by the gathering to perform services in these areas, rather God has appointed them through the Spirit (1 Cor 12:28). Oddly we find no mention in this passage of deacons (1 Tim 3:8), pastors (Eph 4:11), bishops (1 Tim 3:1), evangelists (Eph 4:11), elders (Tit 1:5), or preachers (1 Tim 2:7). These functions came along later, once the charismatic-spirit of the earliest groups dimmed. Later the churches established qualifications for certain offices and began to select their leaders on the basis of secular qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-13). A cursory glance over the list reveals several official functionaries that are lacking in many churches of the modern era, such as an official who works miracles or [speaks in various] tongues or one who utters prophecy (compare 1 Cor 14:1-25).
            One of the early positions, whom God appointed through the Spirit, was that of someone gifted to give "helps," or as it is usually translated "helper" (1 Cor 12:28). The word antilēmpseis translated "helper" appears only here in the New Testament. As to its function, it is listed ahead of administrators and [speakers in various] kinds of tongues and follows immediately after healers. In other words a Spirit-gifted Helper was not regarded as a minor "volunteer" functionary, but such a person was selected specifically to play a significant role in the community—to judge by its association with the other spiritual gifts. For example, the first converts of Achaia (the household of Stephanus) are singled out as "devoting themselves to the service of the saints" (1 Cor 16:15-18) and they deserved to be recognized for their service.
            What exactly might the function of Helpers have been? "Perhaps it is similar to the final three items in the list of Rom 12:8 (service, giving to the needs of others, doing acts of mercy)."2 Hence some in the Christ gathering at Corinth ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of others in the community,3 and those who possessed this gift had a seat at the table right up there with apostles and prophets or those who performed miracles.
            We read of the appointment of elders (Acts 14:23), apostles (Acts 1:21-26), deacons (1 Tim 3:8-13), and preachers (1 Tim 2:7); why shouldn't "helpers" also be recognized as an official function in the church, particularly since Paul insisted that God had appointed them to an official position in the Corinthian gathering?
            This analysis subtly raises another question: if the Spirit ever actually charismatically gifted Helpers or [workers of] miracles, why did it stop? Lord knows, we could use a few scientifically confirmable miracles today!
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1For the superior ability of interpreting tongues over ecstatic speech, see Pau1's comments in 1 Cor 14:5-6, 13, 18-19, 26-28.
2Gordon Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 621.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Transforming by Renewing the Mind

Paul's exhortation in Rom 12:2 is unclear, which explains why bible commentators have responded to it in different ways. Paul writes this to the Christian gathering at Rome:
Do not be shaped by this age, but be transformed by renewing the mind in order to critically determine what the will of God is—the good, acceptable, and perfect.
Paul did not establish the Jesus gathering at Rome and had never actually visited the group previously (1:10-13; 15:22-24, 28-29), but in the salutation of his letter he includes them as full partners in the gospel enterprise (1:5-7), one assumes because of the reputation of their faith "that is proclaimed in all the world" (1:8; no doubt partly an exaggeration to win a sympathetic hearing). The "letter" is heavily theological with little personal information about the gathering at Rome.
            Let me unpack the exhortation: "the spirit of this age" is a condemnation of what Paul regards as the present evil age (Gal 1:4)—hence, those in the Roman gathering should not allow themselves to be shaped by the perceptions of reality pushed on them by the "spirit" of this evil age. Rather they are to be completely transformed (metamorphosed) by "the renewal of the mind" (singular)—perhaps to the end that their collective minds be unified as one (1 Cor 1:10). The goal of mind renewal is "critically to determine" (dokimazein) what God's will is, as to "the good, the acceptable, the perfect"—one assumes with regard to the character of living in this present evil age. The word "mind" (nous) relates to a human being's ability to know, understand, and judge—that is, it refers to what a person "has a will to"—i.e., what a person intends or wills. Hence, a renewal of mind, is not a relearning but a renewal of what one wills, as a matter of customary practice (Bultmann, Theology, I. 211).
            At this point readers should come to a full stop, since Paul has neglected to tell his readers exactly how they should go about renewing the mind. Paul's failure to make that clear is responsible for the different responses from commentators. Strangely, none of the commentaries I checked (randomly) chide Paul for his unforgivable lack of clarity. Here are some of the ideas from the commentators about transforming the mind by renewing it:
1.               Renewal of mind means being shaped by the Holy Spirit to the mind of Christ (L. T. Johnson, Reading Romans, 179-80). [and how does one do that?]
2.               Paul "has in mind the basic recovery of righteousness and rationality through conversion." Compare 1 Cor 2:16, where the community "shares 'the mind of Christ'" (R. Jewett and R. D. Kotansky, Romans, 733).
3.              "Paul is talking about a change in worldview…about a new or 'renewed' and Christlike way of looking at the world." Knowing what is good, pleasing, and perfect comes by means of a fallen person being transformed (B. Witherington III, Romans, 286-87).
4.               "The character and personality are transformed by renewing, renovating ideas and ideals which the mind reaches by the study of spiritual truths—reading the Scriptures, religious books and papers, and by meditation" (C. B. Williams, Pauline Epistles, 301-302).
5.               "This [renewal] is accomplished through the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit…by controlling the mental processes of the believer" (Wuest, Romans, 208).
6.               "The process [of renewing the mind] would in modern language be described rather as sanctification than regeneration," which is occasioned "by the Holy Spirit" (W. R. Nicoll, Romans, 688.
7.              "Repentance is—the renewing of your mind…" (K. Barth, Romans, 436).
8.               It is "the new birth, the new mind, the new man." A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, 403.
Virtually all of the commentators that I consulted regard "renewing the mind" as a mystical act and relate it to repentance, conversion, or sanctification through the Holy Spirit. It appears that answers like these are incorrect if Paul actually did accept the Roman gathering as full partners in the gospel enterprise—meaning Paul would have assumed on the part of the Romans all those things the commentators suggested. Only one commentator (C. B. Williams) takes "renewal of mind" to refer to an act of natural learning that anyone could accomplish by reading and studying certain spiritual things.
            As a former educator, I think that formation and transformation of character can and does take place in an atmosphere of critical learning. Religious "conversion" most often leads to a kind of "group think" from which it takes years to extricate oneself, if ever. With respect to how Paul might explain renewing the mind happening, one can only guess; my guess is that Paul would regard renewing the mind to be a work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-13), just like repentance, conversion and sanctification, and the many other things that Paul thought the Spirit did (1 Cor 12:4-11). How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University