Response to Erickson’s Godfather of Soul

By Samuel M. Frost, Th. M.

I am still a bit amazed in this day and age that the idea that man is a “tripartite” being is still taken with credibility.  Yet, in Michael Erikson’s paper, right off the bat, readers are informed by his quotation of two Scriptures, 1 Thessalonians 5.23 and Hebrews 4.12, that his conclusion is “definitively established” (p.1)!  That is, man is not a dual-unity (the orthodox, Christian view), but a tri-partite being, soul, spirit and body.  Most commentaries, scholars understand (as any survey would show) that ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ are often used interchangeably in the Scriptures.  Man is also said to be “as he thinketh, so he is” – so would we conclude that man is a ‘thought’?  Man also has a ‘mind’, ‘heart’ and Scriptures speak of his ‘bowels.’  Why are these ‘parts’ excluded?

Even in the verses quoted, there is no critical interaction with them in Erickson’s paper.  In Hebrews 4.12 it says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  Are “joints and marrow”, and “thoughts and intentions” separate things?  An “intention” is a “thought”.  Rather, one can interpret this passage as saying that God’s word ‘pierces’ that which cannot be separated or pierced without destruction.  Separate a joint from marrow, and the results are disastrous.  Take thought from intent, and what do you have?

Now, to be fair, Erickson does at some point attempt to define these three ‘parts’ of a human being, but not without quoting one more verse, 1 Corinthians 15.45.  There we read, “And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.”  Erickson is quick to point out that Adam was a ‘soul’ whereas Jesus is a ‘spirit’ and thus, there is difference.  The problem is that even here, noting that text that Paul is quoting, Genesis 2.7, man is formed, and breathed into by God and thus, became a ‘living being’.  ‘Breath’ is associated with ‘spirit’ – the breath of God animates the form of dust and man is now a ‘living being’ (a living soul – nephesh in Hebrew).  The ink spilled on the meaning of this is without measure.  But, nowhere in the Genesis text are we affirmed that man is a spirit, a soul, and a body (or, with a body).  Some have thought that man is a combination, like NaCl (salt), as Sodium can exist apart from Chloride, and vice versa, but if you want salt, you need both.

Erickson, from these three verses, draws up a chart of ‘man’ with ‘spirit’ in the center, surrounded by another circle of ‘soul’, and finally enclosed by a ‘body.’  This, again, is drawn from three verses.  However, as stated, Erickson moves on to consider the definition of ‘body’ (basar, in Hebrew, or givelah ‘corpse’, giviah for ‘body’; Greek uses ‘soma’ ‘ptoma’ and a couple other words – in the LXX these are used often times interchangeably, one for another).  There is not much controversy here.

From there a consideration of the Greek term psyche or the Hebrew nephesh (often rendered soul, life, and even in some cases, ‘body’) is noted.  Amazingly, however, and one can already see a prejudice in Erickson’s interpretative inductions, he quotes, “And we were in all in the ship two hundred threescore and sixteen souls” (Acts 27.37).  He deduces from this that ‘soul’  means, “The soul is the seat of the individual conscious personality” (p.3).  That may be, but how one got that from this verse is beyond me.  Counting the souls is not an exclusion of their bodies on board, but an inclusion (an assumption) that sixteen bodies were on board, too.  Soul, thus, can be a term that speaks of the whole combination: soul/body.  We would be hard pressed to think that sixteen souls without their bodies were on board!  The Scriptures are quite free to use terms colloquially, popularly, without always having some sort of technical, precise, theological import.

Alas, this does not stop Erickson from penning a remarkable paragraph akin to an introduction into Psychology proper concerning the ‘soul’ with little, if any, Scriptural warrant.  Some of his points (on page 3), will have to be addressed briefly.  It is important to note that although Erickson admits that ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are often blurred, they are “two separate things” (p.2).  Further, “consciousness develops out of the basic human soul structure that every human being inherits through their parents and that originated from the first created human soul, Adam. It is the innate human pattern that produces qualities and functions specific to the human being. Faculties such as conscious thought, feeling, and will, as well as innately human experiences of things like hunger, fatigue, and physical pain. These built-in qualities and expressions are often referred to as “human nature” (p.3).  One is hard pressed to understand how a soul is hungry is gets tired, attributes more in line with the body.  Paul refers to the “stomach for food.”  Nonetheless, this is his definition of ‘soul.’

Of course, to further the definition from a biblical perspective, one has to talk about “sin”.  Erickson does not disappoint.  The soul is not “inherently corrupt” (p.3).  However, “A corrupt “sin nature” can and does eventually form in nearly every human soul” (p.3).  Sin nature is “acquired” through “programming” by our social conditions, parents, and the like (not to mention our own choices).  This is more akin to Skinnerism and the Behaviorists, but I am not sure how biblical it is.  “The heart is evil above all things.  Who can know it?” says the Prophet (Jeremiah 17.9, which Erickson quotes later on).   But, for Erickson, this evil that arises “from the heart” (says Jesus), is something foreign to the innately “good” soul.  Perhaps with the right environment and education (not to mention model parents and upbringing) one might not be “as evil”.  The soul, also, exhibits its influence on the body, making the body do what it does.  What is not discussed is how something like the soul can move an object, like a body.  Be that as it may, more or less, apart from the innate “goodness” of man, Erickson’s material here can pass without severe criticism (and I completely let slide is misunderstanding of Calvinism).

Followed by yet another chart, ‘spirit’ is defined.  “The spirit is closely associated with, and acts through, what is known in psychology as “the subconscious” (or simply “the unconscious”)” (p.4).  Actually, this is straight out of the pages of Sigmund Freud.  Scriptures do not have these types of terms.  There is heart, soul, mind, deep thought, troubling thoughts, etc.  But, we do not find Freud, whose influence, admittedly so, was straight from the Greek classics.  Needless to say, Erickson offers no Scriptures for this definition.  “The spirit is not directly seen in our awareness in daily life because it is that which imparts consciousness and vitality itself to the personality and conscious soul, and for this reason it is very difficult to pin down or identify with words” (p.4).  If the spirit is the “unconscious”, then how does it impart “consciousness” to a soul already “conscious”?  Admittedly, reading the psychologists from Skinner, Rogers, James and even Freud and Jung boggles the mind in the disparity of definitions between these great men.  But, does this mean that ‘spirit’ in the Scriptures is “difficult” to pin down?  Since the word is so often used in relation to our very being, and more importantly in our relationship with God (who made it), it would seem to be a word we would need to know!

What follows is a few pages of how the spirit, soul and the body, the ‘flesh’ all work together to either cause a person to be a ‘carnal’ one or a obedient one.  Since the material is largely speculative (it mentions nothing concerning what causation God has upon any of this, if any), it is not too difficult to spot a few irregularities here and there.  “The spirit functions just beyond our normal conscious awareness, spiritual blindness is difficult to recognize. We cannot see what it is we cannot see” (p.4,5).   This makes it difficult, then, if not impossible to recognize it.  If we suppress the truth, how do we know we are suppressing it?  Perhaps, in some ironic way, if Erickson’s description is correct, and the outcome is that man, in and of his own self and self ability, then man is completely, hopelessly lost.  Blind.  But, this would mean that whatever “goodness” is there (in terms of whatever potential goodness is there), it cannot “see what it is we cannot see.”  But, that would be in line with the French Reformer.  The issue is not whether the soul is innately “good” (that’s irrelevant); but that apart from the action of God, man cannot see, and thus, will not see.  He is incurably blind (in and of himself and his own strength).


Aside from this, and again, being all too brief to offer a thorough-going criticism, Erickson finally heads into a Scriptural application of his theory.  What better place to start with the predicament of man than in Genesis 2,3?  First, Erickson attempts to tackle the age old question of whether or not Adam was made “inherently immortal” (p.7).  The reason why this has been presented as a problem is because God threatens Adam with death.  He concludes that Adam’s body was not “inherently” immortal but, in fact, the second it was animated was marching towards inevitable, natural death by growing old (p.7).  But, would this not seem to go against the idea of the threat of death?  If death was a threat – but yet death was to naturally occur anyway, then wouldn’t the natural process leading to death also be a threat of sorts?  “Kill you now, or kill you later” is still being killed (letting death have its way).  The Theologians have understood that Adam was given the inherent potentiality of dying, and the same for living forever.  What lives forever, in terms of a human being, is demonstrated in the “last Adam”, Jesus Christ.  Jesus has a spiritual body, a body transformed, yet still in continuity with his earthy body.  Adam simply had an earthy body – one that could be killed – one that could, indeed, live forever on earth.  However, the potentiality of living forever in a spiritual body – a body fitted for earth and heaven (like Jesus’ body now is) – solves the problem.  In other words, Adam was created without any occurrence of what Erickson calls, “natural death”, and would have lived forever on earth, as an earthy body.  However, this is not the eternal life offered in the Tree of Life, which would have transformed Adam’s body to that which could ascend and descend heaven and earth.  Thus, Adam was given the option: death, or transformation.  He chose the former.


Erickson does not actually deal with this aspect, but strangely defines “immortal” with being “unable to die.”  This entirely ignores any idea of potentiality to death, or that which can be subjected to death.  Adam was made, in terms of his earthy body, immortal.  But, this immortality is not without the condition of mortality.  If Adam were made with a spiritual body after the fashion of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a heavenly man (as Paul called him), then, absolutely, like Jesus, “death” would have “no mastery” whatsoever over Adam (Romans 6.9).  But, Adam’s body was “natural”, “earthy”.  Jesus’ body, having been raised and transformed, was “spiritual” and “heavenly.”  “Unable to die” applies to Him, not Adam.  Another problem here is that Paul states quite emphatically that “all men die in Adam.”  If Adam was created with biology of “natural death” as Erikson asserts, then God made him with that which Paul calls an “enemy” (“the last enemy, death…”).  This would appear to go against the entire grain of Paul’s thinking, and the Bible in general, that “death” is something holy, good and righteous, not to be destroyed or swallowed up at all, but right there in the beginning before Adam even fell!


For Erickson, the “spirit” of man (that which belongs to God and animates a man, and returns to God when a person dies), is radically separated from the soul (which we have already noted).  Therefore, he now moves to question whether or not the soul can “die”.  Is the “soul” itself created with immortality?  His answer is, “no.”  After spending a little time on this, Erickson has become entangled in his own creation.  If the body was created to “naturally die”, then would the soul also “naturally die” along with it?  Of course, the “spirit” does not die, but goes back to God (arguing from the controversial text of Ecclesiastes 12.7).  Second, Eve and Adam, from Erickson’s standpoint, appear to have “the pride of life” in them even before they actually sin and break the commandment given to them by God in not eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  It was not what was going in them that caused the Fall.  It was the direct breaking the commandment of actual eating (the act, the “transgression”).  They could “desire” the Tree all they wanted and not be in sin.  It was the act of eating it, directly breaking the commandment not to “eat” (the commandment does not say, “don’t even think about eating it, or you will die”).  How could they not think about eating it, if they were told not to eat it?  Nonetheless, Erickson then quotes Paul to the effect that from this act “death” enters in through it (and them) and thus to the rest of us.  Therefore, it is not “biological death” that Paul is talking about, but some other kind of death.  The death of the soul.


Of course, this assumes that the “soul” can be “killed” – to which Erickson quotes the go to passage where Jesus speaks of God being able to kill both “body and soul” (Matthew 10.28).  This passage has been subjected a great deal of ink throughout the centuries, and there is not any time to descend into that.  Whatever in the end is said of it, it must be weighed in the balance of every occurrence of the word, “soul”, its variegated usages (defined in context), and its being able to be translated with different meanings, accordingly.  It is a case of the verse that says, “God is not a man.”  “The Logos was with God and is God.”  Is this a “contradiction”?  Doctrines of “soul sleep” and “soul destruction” have been generally downgraded within mainstream orthodoxy, and for good reason.  My focus is not the debate this issue here, but to expound on what Erickson does with it.  Suffice it to say, then, that Erickson believes the soul literally, “dies.”


Basically, when a person dies, their body ceases to be animated by the soul/spirit combination.  A short while later, Erickson explains, the soul and spirit separate with the soul dying.  The spirit, however, a “record imprint” of all that has happened to a person in this life, goes to God.  After spending considerable pages on what a “carnal man” is, some of it interesting, my focus is on what role “regeneration” plays in Erickson’s over all scheme.  Where is he going with all of this?


For example, he writes, “Most of Christianity today, being influenced almost across the board in protestant denominations by the events of the Reformation and Calvinistic thought, hold to the idea that once a person is born again, that that is it; the goal has been reached and a person is permanently delivered from sin” (p.18).  Being a Reformed Theologian myself (my Th.M. is in Reformed Theology), Erickson has apparently never read Calvin or the Puritans.  If he has, then he is deliberately misrepresenting them, for their remarkable stress is not on ‘that’s it’, but on progressive sanctification of the whole man, mind and body.  The whole Puritan “work ethic” and “Puritanical moralism” are phrases thrown around, disparagingly in this day and age, because of this emphasis.  Erikson would do well to read Edwards or Turretin.


Erickson does not quite provide the answer to my question about “where is he going with this?”  Instead, simply stating his own anthropological theory, he heads into discussing the being of Jesus.  And, it is here that I find a remarkable, if not downright heretical statement: “We also know that Jesus was tempted in every way we are, yet never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). From this we can deduce that He was indeed human in soul and body, but His Spirit was not simply a generic breath of life from God, it was the very Spirit of God Himself in all its fullness” (p.18).  This is, of course, deemed heretical by every form of Catholic, Greek or Protestant creedalism.  Second, it contradicts the statement that he was a man just like us.  The ancient theologians solved this problem, of course, and all are welcome to read the so-called Athanasian Creed.  The Son was incarnate, the Spirit was not.  The Father is not incarnate, either, but the Logos, who is God, the Son, is.  The Spirit was not crucified, nor was the Father, and the Logos did not die, but the man, Christ Jesus, did.


“Jesus’ human soul was constantly and uninterruptedly bombarded with promptings in His Spirit for His ENTIRE life with nothing but the will, thoughts, emotions, divine intuition, divine insight, and sense of holiness from the very Spirit of the Father Himself” (p.18).  The Spirit has emotions?  What was it when Jesus said, “not even the son of man knows the day or hour”?  Did the Spirit have a lapse of memory?  Was Jesus omniscient?  Hardly.  Instead, he “grew in wisdom” – which can hardly be said of the Spirit, or God (unless, of course, one subscribes to Process Theology and Whitehead).

Another major problem, of course, is the application of his theory on death to Jesus, the man.  Jesus died, of course, and in Erikson’s theory, his spirit (the Spirit of God Himself) went back to God (did it ever leave God?), and his soul, apparently died after it split from the Spirit.  His body was placed in a tomb.  However, his body was raised again, thus reunited a split Spirit with his soul, and with his body – again.  This ‘person’ appeared for forty days, then split off his earthy, raised body (again) and entered heaven as “soul/Spirit”.  The massive difficulties this raises in the NT texts are too noteworthy to discuss here, suffice to say that this application to Jesus contradicts the NT entirely.

I expected to read this paper from a man that is known for his constant attacks and persistent ridicule against those who do not endorse his views (which he virtually equates with Divine Authority itself).  I was expected a paper that delivered answers more than raised serious objections and problems, with little exegesis to boot.  I have not offered a ‘rebuttal’ of sorts in this paper, but only a highlighting of just how far off the reservation Erickson’s theology is (not to mention contradictory).  Erickson does not at all deal with any objections, or seriously interact with any other textual alternatives to his interpretations, leaving the reader to merely accept his word for it.  On issues such as these, accepting one’s word will not do.  A thorough going tome is needed, and many have been written.  But, that requires time, effort and a discipline to actually read sustained arguments that have held their own time for centuries.  No one is going to pioneer a “new thought” here.  No one is going to uncover a “hidden revelation” that no one else has ever seen.  Forgive me, if I am not convinced.  At least I did give this paper some consideration even if I came away from it a bit disappointed.

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