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Person, Personhood

Person, Personhood

The biblical view of humanity is critical to our understanding of the Scriptures and God. Anthropology is an essential element of theology. Man-talk and God-talk are closely related and only possible as they are related one to the other. Themes such as sin, grace, faith, redemption, and the church must not only be viewed from the God-side, but also from the human side. While God is absolute in the Old Testament, he revealed his Godness through his contact with humans in words and deeds. In the incarnation in the New Testament he is completely defined.

Now this is not to suggest that the human being is the measure of all things. Anthropocentric concerns must not so dominate theology that its focus is the nature of the human being, rather than the character of God. But there is real danger when the consideration of anthropology is pursued in isolation quite apart from theology. It is critical that anthropology be considered from a biblical perspective. Human preoccupation results in narcissism. The question of what human beings are must be answered biblically.

The creation account of Genesis 1 portrays human beings as part of the material world created by God. As such they have solidarity with the natural order and a creature relationship to God. This is the emphasis of Psalm 8, in which the human being is seen as a little lower than God, but crowned with glory and honor.

The boundary lines between humans and God on the one hand, and that between humans and nature on the other hand are never violated. Humans can only have a proper understanding of themselves as they have a proper understanding of God. This results in self-awareness, in a creature consciousnessbut not in a debasing sense. As uniquely created in God's image, humans are his agents ruling over and caring for the earth.

Commonality with all other creation gives humans their earthiness. They are embedded in creation, but they are not only in nature, they are also over nature. While they are a part of nature they are apart from nature. They not only have solidarity with nature, but transcendence over it. Not only do they have a special relationship to God, they also have one with other humans.

It is exceedingly difficult to systematize biblical anthropology since the Bible does not set out to present an encyclopedic treatment of it. At best, reference to it seems to be incidental and informal.

This effort to understand humankind biblically is further complicated by the multiplicity of terms such as heart, soul, spirit, and body, which, while having distinct meaning, are frequently used interchangeably in Scripture. Stereotyped translation of Hebrew words is not wise or possible.

The development of a biblical anthropology is also complicated by the movement of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek world and language. The Septuagint translations of the Hebrew terms has led in the false direction of a dichotomic or even an trichotomic anthropology, in which body, soul, and spirit stand in contrast and conflict. The "wholeness" of the human being in Semitic thought gives way to a more fractionalized consideration of the person.

Terminology. While the word adam ['d'a] can indicate the first man, it is most generally generic, designating humankind. The etymology of this word is uncertain. It should be distinguished from Hebrew words of gender. It is this word that is associated with the image of God ( Gen 1:26 ), depicting human dominion over the nonhuman world. Even after the fall, adam ['d'a] is used of humankind. The image of God is still the distinctive.

Another Hebrew word used for humankind is enos [v/n\a]. This represents the weakness or mortality of humanity, although such an understanding may be more attributable to theology rather than etymology.

The Greek counterpart of the Hebrew adam ['d'a] is anthropos [a [nqrwpo"]. This too is a generic term, used without sex distinction. It depicts humanity in contrast to animals and provides us with the English word "anthropology." Implicit in this term is an acknowledgment of humanity's finiteness and creatureliness.

The Nature of Humankind. A careful study of biblical words and expressions used for the person need to be made to facilitate our understanding of humankind.

Soul. This is the traditional English translation of the Hebrew word nepes [v,p,n], but most generally it refers to the person as a needy/longing creature rather than to some indestructible spiritual substance. Such is observable in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, where the qualified (living) nepes [v,p,n] refers to animals and is rendered "living creatures." Thus this term is not reserved for human beings and when used of a person it does not so much suggest what a person has as what a person is. This term is even used where nepes [v,p,n] is detached from the concept of life and simply designates a corpse.

Nepes is often used to express physical needs such as hunger ( Deut 12:20 ; 1 Sam 2:16 ) and thirst ( Prov 25:25 ). It can be used of excessive desires (gluttony Prov 23:2 ) and of unfulfilled desires (barrenness 1 Sam 1:15 ). Volitional/spiritual yearning is also assigned to the nepes [v,p,n] such as the desire for God ( Psalm 42:1-2 ) and justice ( Isa 26:8-9 ), but also for evil ( Prov 21:10 ) and political power ( 2 Sam 3:21 ).

The counterpart to nepes [v,p,n] in the New Testament is psyche [yuchv]. It is difficult to draw hard and fast lines between the various meanings of this many-sided Greek word. It can mean "life" of a particular person or animal ( Matt 2:20 ; Mark 10:45 ; John 10:11 ; Rom 11:3 ) or person ( Acts 27:37 ) or be reflexive, designating the self ( Luke 12:19 ). There are passages where psyche [yuchv] stands in contrast to body (soma [sw'ma]) and there it seems to refer to an immortal part of man ( Matt 10:28 ). Nevertheless, on the whole, in the New Testament soul retains its basic Hebrew meaning.

Flesh. The Hebrew word basar [r'f'B] so rendered, represents that which humans share in common with the animal world. While basar [r'f'B] stands primarily for the visible part of the body, it is also used to designate the body as a whole. Hebrew has no word for body, but the frequency with which basar [r'f'B] is so translated suggested that this term often served in that capacity. That these uses refer to a body can be seen in the treatment that basar [r'f'B] received: anointed, washed, clothed, cut, pained, and in particular in its capacity to thirst, tremble, faint, and grow weary. These latter qualities show that basar [r'f'B] can also indicate the whole person.

Thus, common Old Testament anthropological thought holds that a human being is a body, rather than having a body. The distinctions between soul and body are minimized. A human being is an animated body rather than an incarnated soul. The body is none other than the soul in its outward form, allowing the various parts of the body to think and act as representations of the soul.

While weakness is associated with basar [r'f'B] in the Old Testament, there is no indication that it is a source of evil. This is in contrast to the New Testament where flesh is the locus of sin and the term "fleshly" becomes virtually synonymous with "sinful."

The Greek word for body is soma [sw'ma]. While it can designate the physical entity, it is often used as a comprehensive term for the whole person. Such a holistic definition of soma [sw'ma] is widely accepted today. This view minimizes dualism where the body and soul oppose each other and it advocates unity. This unity is not to be seen as monadic, denying either the corporeal or the incorporeal side of the person.

Spirit. The Hebrew word so rendered is ruah [jWr]. Its basic meaning is "wind" or "breath" and by extension comes to mean "strength"the vital power necessary to sustain life. The spirit that animates man comes from God. It can be crushed ( Psalm 34:18 ), necessitating the Lord to save, or it can be taken back, causing the person to return to dust ( Job 34:14-15 ; Psalm 104:29 ). These latter verses suggest that the person's spirit and God's are virtually inseparable.

If the concept of "body" associates human beings with the animals and suggests weakness, the concept of "spirit" stresses the affinity we have for God and stresses power. While nepes [v,p,n] pertains to God in a few instances and basar [r'f'B] never applies to God, ruah [jWr] is used more often of God than humans. Thus, the human spirit calls out for its divine complement, while God desires worshipers who will worship in spirit and truth. It is the spirit that provides the energy and capacity to worship.

This term is also used to indicate the dominant impulse or disposition of a person so that the text can speak of bitterness of spirit ( Gen 26:35 ), spirit of jealousy ( Numbers 5:14 Numbers 5:30 ), broken spirit ( Exod 6:9 ), right spirit ( Psalm 51:10 ), and a "generous spirit" ( Psalm 51:12 ). In Numbers 14:24 Caleb is distinguished from the others by his attitude"different spirit."

Spirit can also refer to the life center of the body. This is seen in Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 where a comparison is made between the spirit of a person and the spirit of a beast. When the ruah [jWr] departs mortals return to the earth. The ruah [jWr] returns to God who gave it.

Heart. The Hebrew word leb [bel] is the most common Old Testament term for the person. Its traditional translation "heart" has hidden its meaning, since our present understanding of the term has but little of its biblical meaning.

The Old Testament has little interest in anatomy. No connection is made in the Old Testament between the heart and the beating of the pulse.

Upon learning of his wife's approach to David, Nabal's heart dies and became like stone, but he continued to live for ten more days ( 1 Sam 25:37-38 ). Obviously this refers to his emotions not to his physical heart. The whole spectrum of emotions is attributed to the heartpositive emotions like love, loyalty, joy, comfort and negative ones like grief, envy, anger.

Thought functions are also attributed to the heart where leb [bel] is better translated "mind." Wisdom and understanding are located in the heart. The heart is the seat of the will, so that a decision can be described as "setting" the heart ( 2 Chron 12:14 ).

Thus, leb [bel] in its more abstract meaning refers to the inner or immaterial part of the human being, being, in fact, the most frequently used word and the richest.

The Greek word kardia [kardiva] in the New Testament also includes the mental, moral, rational, and emotional elements of human nature. While "soul" and "spirit" deal with the essence of a human being, "heart" reflects the qualitativethe matter of character.

Other Functions. A survey of the above four terms reveals the absence of a variety of English terms and functions we associate with personhood. Rational functions are frequently assigned to the heart (leb [bel]) that we would ascribe to the head, and more precisely to the brain, the mind. Lack of heart in the Old Testament does not mean coldness of feeling, but lack of thought ( Prov 10:13 ). The "wise heart" ( Psalm 90:12 ) indicates intelligence.

The conscience is also associated with the heart. This is clearly seen in the statement: "Afterward David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his [Saul's] robe" ( 1 Sam 24:5 ). The cry for a "clean heart" in Psalm 51:10 is a plea for a pure conscience.

Another function of personhoodwillis related to both the heart (leb [bel]) and spirit (ruah [jWr]). In "planning the heart" ( Prov 16:19 ) the emphasis is not only upon understanding, but execution, an activity of the will. Sometimes spirit indicates will, such as in Ezra 1:5, where reference is made to the exiles whose spirit God had stirred up to go up to rebuild the temple.

Relationship among Persons. That human relations are critical to a person's wholeness is seen in the creation account of Genesis, when God created persons male and female, and in Genesis 2 where the divine assessment is that "it is not good" for the man to be alonea partner is necessary. Singularity is not good. Even as there is diversity (trinity) within unity in the Godhead so there is unity within diversity in humanity. Maleness and femaleness are basic to humanity.

Human relationship in the Old Testament goes beyond marriage. The life of the individual Israelite was always integrated in the bonds of the family. The elimination process in Joshua 7:16-18 that finally isolated Achan reflects this solidarity.

This solidarity is referred to as corporate personality. While individual value, worth, and responsibility are recognized in the Old Testament, there is no tendency to the rugged individualism of Western culture. Rather in the Old Testament the individual was able to implicate the entire nation either in blessing or judgment and a single person such as the king could represent the whole nation as if it were an individual.

While to stand alone was viewed negatively as an affliction ( Psalm 25:16-17 ) and an occasion for taunting ( Psalm 102:6-8 ), there are individuals who are singled out, who stand alone, but not for their own benefit, but for that of the group such as Abraham and Moses.

The concept of solidarity is continued in the New Testament. Individual distinctions are lost since "you are all one in Christ Jesus" ( Gal 3:28 ). The representation of the church under the metaphor of the body also stresses unity: "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" ( 1 Cor 12:12-13 ).

Conclusion. In this consideration of the person two tensions stand out.

First, should the person be viewed as a unity or a duality? Scriptural evidence can be advanced for both of these positions. This would call for caution. The individual, on the one hand, must not be fragmented or disassembled. On the other hand, the material and the immaterial must not be so homogenized that there is a denial of either materiality or spirituality.

The second tension is individualism versus corporate solidarity. Again scriptural evidence can be presented for both realities. The oscillation of Scripture, the ready movement between the I and the we, demands a careful balance between them.

Carl Schultz

See also Soul; Spirit; Will

Bibliography. W. Dryness, Themes in Old Testament Theology; R. H. Gundry, Soma in Biblical Theology; R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms; N. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament; H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Person, Personhood'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.