Like any other group of people, Christians have their own language system. It has often been called Christianese. With that language we describe what has occurred to a new believer as “God saving a soul.” This betrays a definite Greek thought form which has become the foundation for our use of the soul language. The idea of getting souls saved is the language of Jonathan Edwards in the First Great Awakening in the 18th century. It has carried down to the present as good evangelical language, usually based on the passage in 1 Peter 1.9, “…for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (NIV).
We have prayed and taught our kids to pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep….” This is not Christian theology but Greek philosophy, unless soul is taken with its Hebraic concept of wholeness as we will discuss below. Plato (see below in box) developed the distinction between body and soul. Scripture does not indicate anywhere that a human has a soul but rather that a human is a soul. Body and spirit would be two different ways or perspectives in Scripture by which the soul is viewed.
The Hebrew word which we translate soul is nepesh which refers to a human being. It appears in the Hebrew Bible 750 times and is translated soul 119 times. No other Hebrew word is translated soul. All the other instances are rendered by English words such as life, being, self, etc. The New Testament term is psyche and essentially has the same meaning as nepesh. In Scripture, a soul is the complete person.
God shaped a lifeless form and breathed into humans the breath of life (Gen. 2.7). The human became a living being. Our anthropology of humankind has suffered greatly by the translation of this verse in KJV as a living soul. The first human creation of God became a complete being not body and soul. The concept of humankind as being made up of body, soul, and spirit is Platonic philosophy, not Biblical theology. Humankind is a whole viewed from two perspectives, body and spirit. This composite nature of a human being does not by itself set humankind apart from the animal kingdom. Both are identified as living beings (Gen. 1.20, 2.19) and both are designated as having the breath of life (Gen. 6.17; 7.22). What we can say is that the word picture suggests that humans have received special attention from God. His relationship to humans is immediate and personal.
Dr. George Ladd presents us with a more natural view of soul in his book A Theology of the New Testament (Revised Edition).
“Soul (nepesh) is not a higher part of a human standing over against the body, but designates the vitality of life principle in humans. God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul (Gen. 2.7). Body and the divine breath together make the vital, active soul. The word is then extended from the life principle to include the feelings, passions, will, and even the mentality of the individual. It then comes to be used as a synonym for humanity itself (p. 500).
Psyche (often translated soul) and pneuma (translated spirit) are not strictly interchangeable but refer to man’s inner life viewed from two points of view. Pneuma is man’s inner self-viewed in terms of a human’s relationship to God and to other humans; psyche is a human as a living being, as a human personality…Paul never speaks of the salvation of the soul, nor is there any intimation of the pre-existence of the soul” (p. 502).
The soul designates the vitality of life in a human (male or female). It is the summation of human personality. It is equivalent to the meaning of I myself or yourself. A way to understand this is to comprehend the following equation: Soul = Person. If we choose to use the terminology that God wants to save our souls, we need to be Hebraic instead of Greek. Yes, God does want to save our soul, i.e., the salvation of the body and the spirit, the salvation of the complete person.
Worship serves as a good example of this total person view because worship encompasses the total person. It seems that humankind is viewed by God from two points of view: a physical view (body) and a spiritual view (spirit). Humankind was for the Hebrew not divided into three parts, even though the Western rational interpretations of First Thessalonians 5.23 would try to so persuade us. Paul was using Platonic language in this passage, but with Hebraic insight. A human is not made of three parts any more than a human is divided into four parts (Mark 12.30). We must be constantly reminded that although the New Testament is written in the Greek language, the concepts behind the language are rooted in Hebraic thought.
With this in mind look at John 4.24 which says, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Jesus was responding to the woman-at-the-well’s assertion that worship happened in Samaria and Jerusalem according to her belief and the belief of the Jews. Jesus told her that the realm of worship, not the location of worship, was the issue. To worship in spirit and truth was the spiritual realm or the realm of spiritual activity that worship would naturally occur within. Therefore, to worship in spirit was to respond to the Holy Spirit. To worship in truth meant to have genuine, truthful, honest worship. Truth is the knowledge of God which comes through Jesus. Knowledge is a part of the physical perspective of humankind. As so often interpreted, truth does not mean philosophical correctness or even the Word of God (Bible) in this passage.
So biblical worship is in response to God and brings together what we have been taught to see apart. When we sing, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…,” we are blessing God with our total being, not some Platonic view of our being.
We should always be willing to let our popular understanding of biblical ideas be formed by Scripture and not try to insert our popular understanding into the text of Scripture and thereby make God say something he never said.
Our thinking is often more formed by Platonic philosophy than by biblical theology. We contend with many dualities and think them correct and then read those philosophical views back into the text of Scripture. Body, soul, and spirit is just one of thoes reading-into-the-text items.
The good news is: you don’t have a soul, you are one! God created you as a complete person. He sent Jesus to deliver you as a complete person. Rejoice and accept his work in your total person. Got Soul? Nope, you are a soul!