A: This morning it seemed like a good idea for me to post part of the cognate paper I wrote for my Master’s degree. I’ve included the abstract, the information from the Schematic Model that underlies my argument, and an introduction to the argument itself. This paper has not been published, but, like all original writing, is covered by copyright laws.

This research paper was the product of years of combined academic and mystical research. I got a lot of help from Jesus (though I couldn’t put that in the bibliography!), and I got little help from my supervising professor, who was somewhat bewildered by the paper. The paper was read and marked by a second professor — P.H., a theologian of Pentecostal stripe — who hated the paper and who, strangely enough, accused me of wasting 20 pages in the middle on “nothing” and then in the next breath accused me of not backing up my stated theory about Jesus’ teachings. She literally could not see, with her fundamentalist background, that the “wasted pages” constituted an analysis of radical claims about Jesus made by the author of the Gospel of Mark. People see what they want to see, even in academia.

July 18, 2012:  Today I posted the research paper in its entirety.  You can access it on the “Doctrines of the Soul” page I’ve added to this site.  Enjoy!


This paper compares different theological claims that were made about the soul in Hellenistic philosophy, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity, and shows through the use of a new theoretical model that these claims cannot be grouped by religion. Doctrinal claims about the soul can instead be grouped into one of three main fields of theological inquiry: the physis versus nomos debate; the nomos versus the Divine debate; or the physis versus the Divine debate. These three debates have operated in parallel within Christianity since its inception. The Gospel of Mark provides evidence that Jesus’ own teachings on the soul may have been part of a novel solution to the physis-Divine debate. By contrast, Tertullian’s detailed doctrine of the soul, presented in The Soul’s Testimony and A Treatise on the Soul, draws on the traditions of the nomos-Divine debate, and yields very different claims than those presented in Mark. Tertullian’s doctrine of the soul, and his related doctrine of original sin, have exerted great influence on the orthodox Christian understanding of the soul. The church today has the option of reexamining the history of early Christian soul doctrines and assessing the three parallel strands of thought to uncover a previously overlooked biblically-based understanding of the soul that can meet today’s pastoral needs.


Schematic Model for the Theological “Trilemma”:

(c) Jennifer Thomas 2010

(c) Jennifer Thomas 2010

1. The Rift Between PHYSIS and NOMOS   The Problem: How can we reconcile the necessities of nature with the themes of justice and judgment derived from human laws?  The Solution: Elevation of human authority and human status (arete). IN TENSION WITH 2 AND 3.

2. The Rift Between NOMOS and the DIVINE   The Problem: How can we reconcile the themes of justice and judgment derived from human laws with the puzzling long-term relationship we have with God?  The Solution: Elevation of prophetic authority, and lack of accountability to the necessities of nature.  IN TENSION WITH 1 AND 3.

3. The Rift Between PHYSIS and the DIVINE  The Problem: How can we reconcile the necessities of nature with the puzzling long-term relationship we have with God? The Solution: Elevation of secret knowledge, mysticism, and cult rituals. IN TENSION WITH 1 AND 2.

The model I propose is shown in diagrammatic format in figure 1, Schematic Model for the Theological “Trilemma.” This figure is elaborated on in tables 1, 2, and 3. Although a much longer paper would be needed to examine this model in detail, in the current paper I will use this model to examine three major streams of theological thought that have all, in their own way, used doctrines of the soul to resolve issues of religious and political authority. By placing the different doctrines of the soul mentioned above into this framework, it is easier to see in what way Tertullian’s theology differs markedly from that of Jesus in the Synoptics. The contrast between these two demonstrates clearly that doctrines of the soul do not line up neatly according to the respective religious tradition from which each emerged. In other words, there is not a soul doctrine that is unique to Judaism, a different soul doctrine that is unique to Hellenism, and a third one found only in Christianity. Instead, a distinctive three-fold pattern exists, a pattern that is shared among Judaism, Greek religion/ philosophy, and early Christianity, and this three-fold pattern is the basis of the model I am proposing. This three-fold pattern, or “trilemma” as I have chosen to call it, partly explains the “why” of fierce theological debate. It also helps explain why we are so confused today about the nature of the soul.

The pattern I am proposing as a theological framework to help us analyse our current confusion arose in response to observations made by Walter Burkert in his book Greek Religion. Towards the end of this important book, Burkert discusses the religious and philosophical crisis that erupted in the fifth century BCE when sophists and atheists undermined Greek religious certainty with their observations about nomos and physis:

Nomos, meaning both custom and law, becomes a central concept of sophistic thought. Laws are made by men and can be altered arbitrarily. And what is tradition if not the sum of such ordinances? Horizons are extended through travel and the reports of travel: with growing interest men became aware of foreign peoples among whom everything is different, witness the ethnographic digressions of Herodotus. In this way the unquestioned assumptions of custom can easily be shaken. The discovery of the changeability of custom becomes particularly dangerous when nomos is set in opposition to physis, a concept provided by the philosophy of nature where it is used to denote the growing of the cosmos and of all things contained in it from their own laws. Archelaos, a pupil of Anaxagoras, is supposed to have been the first to formulate this antithesis about 440 BC: the just and the unjust, the ugly and the beautiful are not defined by physis but by nomos, by arbitrarily changing human convention.

But it was on tradition, nomos, that religion primarily rested, as the Greeks knew well. Its foundations were seen to be threatened, at least in theory, as a result of the questioning of nomos.[1]

Burkert then goes on to outline how pre-Socratic thinkers such as Heraclitus, Empedocles, Sophocles, and Diogenes of Apollonia “delivered” the pious from this crisis of uncertainty by asserting that “[t]here are laws of eusebeia which are rooted in heaven, removed from human caprice, and eternal like the cosmos itself.”[2] Thus, concludes Burkert, “nature speculation provides a starting-point from which to close the rift between physis and nomos, and so to give a new, unshakeable foundation for piety.”[3]

“The rift between physis and nomos” is a phrase so powerful, so meaningful, that it seems almost paradigmatic, and Burkert’s recognition of the pattern opened the door to a pursuit by this author of other such paradigmatic rifts. This line of enquiry led to the observation that there seem to be two other major rifts: the rift between nomos and the Divine, and the rift between physis and the Divine. Each of these rifts is not a simple duality but rather a complex philosophical/theological tension that encompasses perennial questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to be a human in relationship with God.

The three-fold pattern I suggest here can be represented by the triangle shown in figure 1. Each point of the triangle represents one of the three rifts. Although other writers have proposed three-point triangles to highlight both doctrinal and scholarly incongruities[4], what distinguishes the “trilemma” from other three-point models is the fact that each point in the proposed triangular scheme represents not a single concept but a complex tension between two difficult-to-reconcile concepts that seem to be separated by a rift. Each of these rifts, on its own, represents a valid question. For instance, it is perfectly valid for religious seekers to ask in what way human laws and traditions should (or could) align with the laws of nature (nomos in tension with physis; table 1); or in what way religious laws are (or could be) made in the image of our relationship with God (nomos in tension with the Divine; table 2)[5]; or in what way the actual laws of nature reflect our relationship with a God who allows death and suffering (physis in tension with the Divine; table 3). These are all straightforward and important themes of theology. What is not straightforward is the way in which the answers to these questions gradually resulted in three divergent theological solutions, as shown on tables 1, 2, and 3. Each of these three theological solutions presents a different view of who God is, and how we can be in relationship with God. These solutions are mutually incompatible. For instance, if you “cut and paste” the three different versions of how God is perceived in these three different solutions (that is, if you try to put them all together on one point in the centre of the triangle), you arrive at a God who is simultaneously distant and transcendent, fully immanent, unchanging, emotionally detached, interventionist, emotionally involved, in conditional relationship with us, in unconditional relationship with us, and proleptically in relationship with us. This simply cannot be, unless one resorts to the time-honoured tradition of explaining away overt contradictions as mysterion.[6]

What emerges upon examination of the “trilemma” is the extent to which these three theological solutions are mutually incompatible. The questions that underlie the three points are not incompatible; but the solutions that have arisen and been accepted as dogma over many centuries are very much incompatible. A person who attempts to hold all three solutions together as a unified whole is likely to end up confused at the very least. Yet for centuries Christians have been trying to do this very thing. Before that, the people of Judah/Israel and the people of classical Greece wrestled with the same confusion. This is not a new problem. But until we recognize it as a reality that is causing us problems, and until we look for new ways to de-complicate our Protestant theology, we will continue to be confused about our relationship with God.

This same confusion manifests in our current understanding of the soul, which, as I will show in the next two chapters, presents a theological solution based on only one point of the trilemma – the nomos-Divine rift – while using a confusing blend of vocabulary that seems to point to the other two points as well. Thus we will see the emergence of a soul doctrine that means one thing while ostensibly saying another. The intent of this soul doctrine is to entrench the inviolability of divine contract laws (the nomos-Divine rift), but it refers often to the language of free will (physisnomos rift) and of mystery (physis-Divine rift). In this context, it is little wonder that today’s church is so reticent about the soul – at present, the orthodox understanding of the soul makes no sense!


[1] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan (1977; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 312-313.

[2] Ibid., 318.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Dr. W. M. pointed out to his Winter 2009 class the triangular models of Mattitiahu Tsevat and James Barr respectively. Tsevat’s model shows the doctrinal dilemma of the Book of Job, which can be summarized as “just Creator, just persons, just rewards: pick two.” Mattitiahu Tsevat, “The Meaning of the Book of Job,” Hebrew Union College Annual 37 (1966), 73-106. James Barr presents a threefold process for studying the Bible – referential, intentional, and poetic – in The Bible in the Modern World (London: S.C.M. Press, 1973), 61. James Rives, however, comes closest to the model I’m suggesting when he describes the three kinds of advantage offered by religion in the Greco-Roman period: (1) traditional benefits, (2) intensification, and (3) salvation. James. B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 168-179.

[5]As the entry on nomos in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology points out, “[t]he legal, ethical and religious meanings of nomos are inseparable in antiquity, for all goods were believed to come from the gods, who upheld order in the universe and in relations between men . . . . Philosophy (even that of the Sophists), kept alive the awareness that, since human laws are so fallible, man cannot exist unless he conforms to cosmic, universal law . . . . Whereas the Sophists criticized the idea of absolute validity attaching to nomos, Plato and Aristotle each in his own way connected it with the nous, the human spirit, and thereby once again with the divine.” Hans-Helmut Esser, “Law, Custom, Elements,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, rev. ed., ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986),439.

[6]Although I am a practising mystic, I would not want to fall back on the excuse of mysterion to try to force these different images onto a single page. Mystery as a concept can be dangerous when used as a catchall to smooth over doctrinal inconveniences or to uphold church authority at the expense of the oppressed. The church needs mystery – but it does not need the kind that has been used to justify longstanding abuses in the church towards women and the disadvantaged.

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