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The Person in Christian Theology

Critical church history in the Modern period has recognized significant doctrinal developments. These developments, largely revolving around semantic difficulties in language translations, have had a strong bearing on how we have come to our own human makeup. One important aspect is the recognition of the Hellenization of Christian thought -- the `translation' of doctrines into the thought-forms and language of Greek culture. This process, already begun in New Testament times, accelerated in the Patristic era and continued at least until the Reformation.

One response to this recognition was a call to purify theology of its Greek accretions, and to return to the original Hebraic understanding of Jesus and his significance. This movement has led to questions over whether body-soul dualism was in fact biblical teaching. That is, whether both Old and New Testament conceptions of the person have been distorted by the translation of the original Hebrew and Greek into modern languages, and the modern interpretation of those scriptures in accordance with dualistic philosophies.

Nonetheless, Christian theologians such as Augustine soon adopted the dualist picture of human nature, and this came to be the most common Christian view until the present century.

The doctrine of the intermediate state continues to be a critical issue for some Christians. Historically, Thomas Aquinas went to great lengths to make room in his theology for such a doctrine, and it was made official for Catholicism by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1513. Calvin seems to have settled the issue for members of the Reformed tradition. His work Psychopannychia (1542) was written against other reformers who were teaching, either that the soul simply dies with the death of the body, or that it goes into an unconscious "sleep" between death and the general resurrection. Despite the fact that psychopannychia literally means a watchful or sentient "wake" of the soul -- ordinarily used to designate a position such as Calvin's own -- Calvin's treatise has, instead, been applied to his opponents.Neil Gillman, The Death of Death, 137.

Early psychopannychists included Luther, Michael Servetus, and Carlstadt, as well as a variety of lesser-known Radical Reformers, such as Westerburg; some were banished or put to death for their support of this position.

Finally, is there any meaning to the question of an intermediate state? If God is not `in time'; perhaps those who are with God after death are therefore not in time, either. Thus, we may not know what it means to distinguish between immediate resurrection and resurrection after a period of waiting.

A theological issue, then, the intermediate state concerns the relation between anthropology and the doctrine of salvation. Critics of dualism claim that it fosters an overly-narrow conception of salvation, as merely saving souls for the after-life. They argue that a more biblical -- and generally more adequate -- account of salvation involves saving the whole person. Further, this alternative account is as much a this-worldly concern as a concern for the final state. It can be argued that the conception of salvation as "getting to heaven" is a Neoplatonic idea, closely related to Plato's view that the proper abode of the soul is the realm of the Forms. It is important to emphasize that the original Christian account of hope for life after death was the expectation that all would enjoy the resurrection of the body. Wolfhart Pannenberg proposes that a more authentic Christian view involves the ultimate transformation of the entire cosmos, similar to the transformation that Jesus' body has already undergone in the Resurrection.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Nancey Murphy

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