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KALLISTOS, Bishop of Diokleia

The unity of the human person: The body-soul relationship in Orthodox Theology

From: [Proceedings] Πρακτικά του Συνεδρίου «Επιστήμες, Τεχνολογίες αιχμής και Ορθοδοξία». Εκδ. Ιερά Σύνοδος της Εκκλησίας της Ελλάδος, Αθήνα 2002.

You have made me and laid Your hand upon me; Your knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great, and I cannot attain to it.
Psalm 138 [139]: 5-6

1. Microcosm and mediator

In any dialogue between theology and science, there is one basic truth which as Christians we must keep continually in view. Spirit and matter are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are interdependent; they interpenetrate and interact. When speaking, therefore, of the human person, we are not to think of the soul and the body as two separable «parts» which together comprise a greater whole. The soul, so far from being a «part» of the person, is an expression and manifestation of the totality of our human personhood, when viewed from a particular point of view. The body is likewise an expression of our total personhood, viewed from another point of view - from a point of view that, although different from the first, is complementary to it and in no respect contrary. «Body» and «soul» are thus two ways of describing the energies of a single and undivided whole. A truly Christian view of human nature needs always to be unitary and holistic.

It is true that, in our daily experience, we often feel within ourselves not undivided unity but fragmentation and conflict, with soul and body in sharp opposition to one another. It is this that St Paul expresses when he exclaims: Ό wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?' (Romans 7:24). St John Climacus (7th century) voices the same perplexity when he says of his body: «He is my helper and my enemy, my assistant and my opponent, a protector and a traitor. ...What is this mystery in me? What is the principle of this mixture of body and soul? How can I be both my own friend and my own enemy?»(1). But if we feel within ourselves this dividedness and warfare between our soul and our body, that is not because God has made us that way, but because we are living in a fallen world, subject to the consequences of sin. God for His part has created us as an undivided unity; it is we human beings who through our sinfulness have undermined that unity, although it is never altogether destroyed.

Whenever, therefore, we find passages in the Bible or the Fathers which seem to affirm an antagonism and division between body and soul, or which appear to condemn the body as evil, we have to ask ourselves: To what level of human existence does the text in question refer? Is the author speaking about the fallen or the unfallen condition of humankind? Is he talking about the body in its natural state, as created by God, or does he have in view our present situation, subject to sin, whether ancestral or personal -a situation that is in fact altogether contranatural? When St Paul speaks about «the body of this death» (Romans 7:24), he means our fallen state; when he says, «Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit... Glorify God in your body» (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20), he is speaking about the body as it was when originally created by God, and as it can be once more when we are redeemed in Christ. Similarly, when St John Climacus terms the body «enemy», «opponent» and «traitor», he has in view the body in its present state of fallen sinfulness; but when he calls the body «helper», «protector» and «friend», he is referring to its true and natural condition, whether unfallen or redeemed. When reading Scripture or the Fathers, we have always to place each statement about the body-soul relationship in its specific context, and to allow for this crucial distinction of levels.

However acutely we may feel the inner antagonism between our physicality and our spiritual yearning, let us never lose sight of the fundamental wholeness of our personhood, as created in the divine image. This wholeness is vividly emphasised in a text attributed to the second-century author Justin Martyr:

What is a human being but a rational creature constituted from a soul and a body? So, then, the soul by itself is not a human being? No; it is the human being's soul. And the body is not to be regarded as a human being? No; it is just the human being's body. A human being is neither the body or the soul on its own, but only that which is formed from the combination of the two(2).

The unknown author of this text thinks in dichotomistic terms, affirming a contrast simply between soul and body. The Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451) speaks in a similar way when it states that Jesus Christ is «complete (teleios) in Godhead and complete in Manhood, truly God and truly Man, [formed] from a rational soul and a body». On other occasions the Fathers use a trichotomist scheme, speaking of body (soma), soul (psyche) and spirit (pnevma), or of body, soul and intellect (nous). Both the dichotomist and the trichotomist schemes can claim support from the tradition of the Church, and there is no basic contradiction between them. For our present purpose it is sufficient to note that, whichever scheme we prefer, the same primary truth is to be affirmed. Our human nature is complex, but it is one in its complexity. There is within us a diversity of aspects or faculties, but this is a diversity-in-unity.

The true character of our human personhood, as a complex whole, a unity-in-diversity, is admirably expressed by St Gregory of Nazianzus, «the Theologian» (ca. 329-90)(3). He distinguishes two levels in created reality, the spiritual and the material. Angels belong only to the spiritual or non-material level; although according to many Patristic authors God alone is to be considered non-material in an absolute sense, yet in comparison with the rest of creation angels may indeed be termed «bodiless» (asomatoi) in a relative sense. Animals, on the other hand, exist solely on the material and the physical level. Uniquely in God's creation we human beings exist on the two levels at once, belonging to both the spiritual and the material realm. Accordingly, St Gregory applies to human nature such terms as «mingling» (krama) and «mixture» (mixis).

As «mixed» beings we may not stand at the highest point in the created world; that position is usually assigned to the angels, although there are in fact some Fathers such as St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) who are inclined to assign to human beings a place above the angelic orders, precisely by virtue of our «mixed» character(4). Yet, even if we human beings are not at the summit of creation, we are certainly at the crossroads. We humans are the bridge and meeting point between the spiritual and the material. As St Gregory the Theologian puts it, each of us is «earthly yet heavenly, temporal yet immortal, visible yet intelligible, midway between majesty and lowliness; one selfsame being, but both spirit and flesh». In this way, each is a «second cosmos, a great universe within a little one»; we contain within ourselves the diversity and complexity of the total creation. It is significant that, in St Gregory's understanding, the «great universe» is not the world around us, the outer space that is measured in millions of light years, but the world that is within us, the inner space of the human heart. Moreover, continues St Gregory, because we are not only an image of the world but an image of God, we are capable not simply of uniting the spiritual and the material -of rendering the material spiritual, and of rendering the spiritual incarnate- but it is our vocation also to attain «deification» (theosis), thereby uniting ourselves and the whole created world with God.

The human person is in this way called to be both microcosm and mediator. But we cannot fulfil this vocation as unifiers and bridge-builders -we cannot unite matter and spirit, the earthly and the heavenly- unless we each see our own self as a single, undivided whole. If we reject our body as alien to our true personhood, if we sever our links with our material environment, then we cease to express our true character as microcosm and we are no longer able to mediate. «One selfsame being», says St Gregory; and this is all-essential.

This truth is underlined with great clarity by St Maximus the Confessor(5). If according to the account of creation in Genesis 1 Adam, was created last of all, after the rest of the created cosmos, that is because the human person is -as St Maximus puts it- «a natural bond of unity», mediating and drawing together all the different levels of the outside world, because related to them all through the different aspects of his own being. In the words of St Maximus, each of us is «a laboratory (ergastirion) that contains everything in a most comprehensive fashion», and so «it is the appointed task of each one of us to make manifest in ourself the great mystery of the divine intention: to show how the divided extremes in created things may be reconciled in harmony, the near with the far, the lower with the higher, so that through gradual ascent all are eventually brought into union with God». Having united all the levels of creation with each other, then -through our love for God (a key concept in St Maximus) and through the gift of theosis which God in His divine love confers upon us- we finally unite created nature with the uncreated, «becoming everything that God Himself is, save for identity of essence».

In the thought of St Maximus, as in that of St Gregory of Nazianzus, the corollary of all this is abundantly clear. We cannot mediate if we are ourselves fragmented; we cannot unify unless we are at unity within ourselves. Only if we accept our physical body as integral to our humanness can we bring together into harmony the spiritual and the material, and offer them together to God their Creator. «I beseech you», says St Paul, «to present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God» (Romans 12:1). Unless we have first by God's grace made our body into a true temple of the Holy Spirit and offered it to God, we cannot as mediators offer back the material world to God. St Maximus is emphatic about this need to «glorify God in the body». «The body is deified along with the soul», he writes(6); «by nature we remain entirely human in our soul and in our body, but by grace we become entirely God in our soul and in our body»(7). «The body», affirms St Gregory Palamas in similar terms, «once it has rejected the appetites of the flesh, no longer drags the soul downwards but is raised together with it, so that the whole human being becomes spirit»(8). Only if we spiritualise our own body (without thereby dematerialising it) can we spiritualise the creation (without thereby dematerialising it). Only on a holistic view of human personhood, which regards body and soul as an undivided unity, does it become possible for us to carry out our uniquely human vocation as mediators.

When we speak in this way of the human person as mediator, we have of course to add that in the ultimate sense there is only one mediator: Jesus Christ, the «God-man» or Theanthropos. He is the mediator; we can only mediate in and through Him.


1. The Ladder of Divine Ascent 15 (PG 88:901C-904A). On John Climacus's theology of the human body, see Christos Yannaras, Η μεταφυσική του σώματος (Athens, 1971); also my introduction to Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (translators), John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality: New York, 1982), pp. 28-32.

2. On the Resurrection 8 (PG 6: 1585B).

3. Oration 38:11.

4. See Georgios I. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man: St Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition, translated by Liadain Sherrard (St Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, 1984), pp. 19-20.

5. Ambigua 41 (PG91: 1305A-1308B).

6. Gnostic Centuries 2:88 (PG 90: 1168A).

7. Ambigua 1: (1088C).

8. Triads 2:2:9

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