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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.

2. The human mystery

At this point in our discussion, it will be prudent to issue three words of caution.

First, we understand only a very small part of ourselves. This is true for theology, as it is true also for physiology and psychology. However far we carry our inquiries into human nature, there remains always much more that we cannot yet put into words, that has to remain unsaid. Our self-analysis, however penetrating, is never exhaustive. «What is this mystery in me?» asks St John Climacus, in words that we have already quoted(9). Yes, indeed: the greatest mystery in the entire world is the human person. The Greek Fathers, moreover, give a specific reason for this mysterious, indefinable character of our nature: the human being is fashioned in God's image and likeness (Genesis 1: 26-27). Our personhood is a created icon of the uncreated God: and from this it follows, according to St Gregory of Nyssa (died ca. 394), that -since God the Archetype is beyond our comprehension- so also is God's living icon, the human being(10). In our discourse about human persons, as in our discourse about God, there needs always to be an apophatic dimension; negative theology requires as its counterpart negative anthropology. As theologians, then, and equally as scientists, let us be circumspect in what we assert about ourselves, for all our statements are no more than provisional. The knowledge that we have of ourselves falls far short of the knowledge that God has of us; as the Psalmist observes, «His knowledge is too wonderful for us, and we cannot attain to it».

In the second place, the words that we customarily use to describe our human personhood have almost always altered their meaning, in subtle yet significant ways, since the era of the New Testament and the Early Church. Can we be confident that we today mean by «soul» exactly what St Paul meant by psyche in the first century, or St Gregory the Theologian in the fourth? Almost certainly we cannot. Many of the key terms concerning human nature -not only «soul» (psyche) but equally «intellect» (nous), «passion» (pathos), and «heart» (kardia), to mention only a few examples- carry different connotations today from those which they possessed in the past. To assess the meaning of such terms, we have to analyse carefully the way in which they are employed on specific occasions. When I was working on the English translation of The Philokalia with my friends, the late Gerald Palmer and the late Philip Sherrard, we regularly found that the most problematic Greek words were those referring to human nature, and we were often dissatisfied with the English equivalents that we proposed. So also, in many instances, were the critics who reviewed our translation; but, if they proposed alternatives -which usually they did not- these raised further difficulties, perhaps as serious as those involved in our own renderings. What T.S. Eliot says in East Coker about words in general applies particularly to words about human personhood:

...a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.

Thirdly, while acknowledging the great benefits to either side that may be gained through a dialogue between science and theology, we have to recognize the profound difference in scope and method between the two. Whereas science relies upon observation and experiment, theology starts from the data of revelation. And whereas science is limited to the present fallen condition of our human nature, theology embraces within its scope -albeit only tentatively and with a constant apophatic reserve- the unfallen as well as the fallen state of the created world. It has to be kept in mind that in our present experience we know only the situation of the body in its fallen state; and it is of this alone that science speaks. But the body as we now know it is not at all the same as the body in the state in which God intends it to be. It lies largely beyond our present imagination to envisage the transparency and radiance, the lightness and sensitivity that our material bodies -along with the rest of the material creation- will possess in the surpassing glory of the Age to come.

We have spoken a little time ago about the human person as mystery and about the need for apophatic reserve. In this connection it is noteworthy how few are the definitions concerning human nature in the Creed and in the dogmatic decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Our Orthodox teaching concerning human personhood belongs for the most part to the realm of theologoumena rather than dogmata (it should of course be remembered and theologoumena stand on a far higher level than the private opinions of individual theologians). Only on two occasions, so far as I am aware, do the Creeds and the Ecumenical Councils speak directly and in authoritative terms about human nature; and significantly on both occasions they are concerned with the unity of our personhood.

1. The Nicene Creed -or, more exactly, the expanded version of the Creed of 325 endorsed by the First Council of Constantinople (381)- affirms in its final clause: «We await the resurrection of the dead». Body and soul, that is to say, are separated at the moment of our physical death, but this separation is only temporary. We look forward, beyond physical death, to the Last Day when the two will once more be reunited. As Christians we believe, not simply in the immortality of the soul, but in the ultimate survival of the entire person, soul and body together.

2. A second, and less obvious, affirmation concerning human nature is to be found in the first of the Fifteen Anathemas directed against Origen, which were adopted at (or perhaps immediately before) the Second Council of Constantinople (553), the Fifth Ecumenical Council: «If anyone maintains the mythical pre-existence of souls ... let him be anathema»(11). Soul and body, in other words, come into existence at the same time, as a single unity, and they grow to maturity together. They are strictly interdependent. Although many of the Greek Fathers were profoundly influenced by Platonism, the anathema against Origen clearly indicates that there were limits to this Platonic influence. Orthodox Christianity rejects the picture of human nature presented by Plato in the myth of Er (Republic, Book X). According to the Christian view the human person is not a soul temporarily enclosed in a body, but an integral unity of soul and body together. The body is not a transient dwelling-place or tomb, not a piece of clothing that we shall in due course discard, but it is from the first beginnings of our human existence an indispensable and enduring expression of our total personhood.

These two ecumenical affirmations, then, underline the unity of our personhood, both at its initial coming-into-being -there is no pre-existence of the soul- and at its final end, when soul and body, divided at death in a manner profoundly contrary to nature, will be forever restored to their primal oneness in the Age to come. So at the consummation of all things the words of the prophet will be fulfilled: «Death is swallowed up in victory» (Isaiah 25:8; compare 1 Corinthians 15:54).


9. See note 1.

10. On the creation of the human person 11 (PG44: 153D, 156B).

11. On the anti-Origenist anathemas, see Aloys Qrillmeier and Theresia Hainthaler, Christ is Christian Tradition 2:2 (Mowbray: London, 1995), pp. 403-4

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