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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

On the Soul: An Examination of Plato and Paul

While ψυχη only appears a handful of times through Paul's letters, πνευμα is used 146 times.94 For his theological construction, the importance of ψυχη diminished and became overwhelmed by the centrality of πνευμα.95 While Paul's use of πνευμα suggests several different implications, many of them overlap those of ψυχη. Indeed, since πνευμα is generally understand as Paul's all-purpose term for the conception of 'spirit,'96 it is used to also indicate the whole human, the self of an individual;97 it is used as well to signify not only the seat of emotion and will, but also of consciousness and intelligence,98 and the natural passions of every person.99 However, in a slight differentiation from the ψυχη as the animating element of the σωμα, πνευμα is often employed simply to imply the human spirit, without strong overtones of the body's connection to it.100 In fact, πνευμα is often placed in contrast with σαρξ, 'the flesh,'101 and while ψυχη is destined for the future σοτερια, σαρξ will not necessarily share this same fate.102 In distinction of σαρξ from that of σωμα, the flesh is most often utilised in the sense of the weakness of the human being, such as in Romans 6:19103 - as well as Romans 7:18, where ουκ οικει εν εμοι, τουτ εστιν εν τη σαρκι μου, αγαθον, 'no habitation in me, that is in my flesh, [is] good:'104 that is to say, nothing good dwells in σαρξ. Moreover, being 'in the flesh' is diametrically opposed to that of being 'in the spirit,' for to be in the flesh is to still be of Adam, a state in which the human being is unable to please God.105

The most crucial characteristic of Paul's πνευμα is the fact that it is also used as a descriptor of God's own nature.106 In both Romans 1:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 2:11, God's πνευμα is contrasted with that of humanity's to show the inadequacy of the human πνευμα.107 However, the πνευμα of God is a sanctifying agent,108 and transforms the natural πνευμα of the human being into something different than it once was.109 While the πνευμα is not an element unique to the believer, the πνευμα of the believer is in fact of a different quality than the non-believer's, for the believer's πνευμα is a new creation through which the σωμα ψυχικον is able to experience fellowship with God.110 Although the make-up of all humans consists partly of πνευμα, the natural human has a πνευμα which is inadequate to understand and experience the truths of God.111 In this way, the πνευμα appears to inhabit more of the intellectual realm than the ψυχη. While both the spirit and the soul involve a relationship with God, one is a sort of underlying principle, while the other is a more conscious posture. Indeed, the πνευμα is the subject of human consciousness, while the ψυχη is the inner self which relates directly and perhaps also indirectly to the σωμα.112 Therefore, σωμα ψυχικον can perhaps be said to be the totality of the human being in which the ψυχη dwells as the mental power, whereas the σωμα πνευματικον has the πνευμα of God.113 This of course is not fully realised until the resurrection, of which the πνευμα of God conveys to the transforming believer, for it is at this point in time prior to the resurrection that the human is still flesh, though with the πνευμα of God within him/her - serving as the new self, and guiding power114 - is no longer 'of the flesh.'115 And it is Paul's eschatological hope and assertion that in due time the σωμα ψυχικον will itself be fully metamorphosed into the σωμα πνευματικ, and a link will be made of the individual ψυχη to a body more akin to its new 'πνευμαtic' nature.116


The diversity of Plato and Paul in their understandings of the soul is quite evident; however, the overlapping themes and notions are also rather apparent. The question of influence, moreover, can reasonably already be seen, and it can also be answered somewhat confidently despite the decades of debate. While there are many who argue that a Platonic understanding of the cosmos creates a more coherent reading of Paul,117 it can be more readily established that much of Paul's thought is simply a carry-over of his Jewish education. There are several reasons to maintain this argument, a number of which will be very briefly examined over the following section. And while it is true Paul may have come into contact with Platonic thought, it is not necessarily true that is by Plato we understand Paul.

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  1. Ibid., 126.
  2. Dickson, Flesh and Spirit, 191.
  3. 1 Cor. 16:18, 24; 2 Cor. 2:13, 7:13, 13:13; Eph. 6:24; Col. 4:18; 1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 3:18; 1 Tim 6:21; Tit. 3:15. See Zakopoulos, Saint Paul, 104, 109.
  4. Rom 1:4, 8:15, 12:11; 1 Cor. 4:21; 2 Cor. 4:13; Eph. 1:17; 2 Tim. 1:7. See again Zakopoulos, Saint Paul, 104, 105-106.
  5. Stacey, Pauline, 129.
  6. Dickson, Flesh and Spirit, 192.
  7. Zakopoulos, Saint Paul, 106.
  8. Dickson, Flesh and Spirit, 183.
  9. F F Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 204.
  10. Author's translation of the GNT.
  11. Ibid., 205-206.
  12. Stacey, Pauline, 129.
  13. Ibid., 132.
  14. Bruce, Heart, 209.
  15. Stacey, Pauline, 141.
  16. Ibid., 133-134.
  17. Ibid., 133.
  18. Ibid., 137.
  19. Dickson, Flesh and Spirit, 190.
  20. Stacey, Pauline, 133.
  21. Bruce, Heart, 209.
  22. Stacey, Pauline, 142.
  23. Wasserman, 'Among Philosophers,' 409.