Are You a Dualist? Is that Bad? Just ask N.T. Wright

I was a sophomore in college when I found out that there was more than one kind of dualism. I was sitting in my class on St. Augustine (it was my medieval philosophy class) when a fellow classmate brought up the issue of dualism and how interesting it was given that nobody believed it. I piped up and said, “Oh, yeah, I’m a dualist.”

Looking at me with surprise, “Oh really? I’ve never met one. That’s odd.”

I didn’t think it odd at all: “Well, I am a Christian so it’s not that weird.”

“Really? I thought the two were kinda not compatible.”

At this point I was truly confused. Turns out we both were.  See, I had been talking about mind-body dualism and he was referring to theological dualism a la Zoroastrianism where you have a good god and a bad god facing off. At that point I started to realize that the subject of dualism was far more complicated than I thought. In fact, I didn’t realize how complicated it was until I read N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)In that work he lists 9-10 different kinds of dualism that you could speak of when discussing the views of 1st Century Pagans and Jews.

I was reminded of this little discussion when reading this article by Wright on anthropology, or the theology of humanity, in the Apostle Paul’s thought. In it, he offers this helpful summary of his own discussion in NTPG.

So let’s run through these types of dualism or duality, beginning with four types that would be comfortably at home within ancient Jewish thought:

  1. a heavenly duality: not only God exists, but also angels and perhaps other heavenly beings;
  2. a theological or cosmological duality between God and the world, the creator and the creature;
  3. a moral duality between good and evil;
  4. an eschatological duality between the present age and the age to come.

All of these dualities a first-century Jew would take for granted. But none of them constitutes a dualism in any of the following three senses:

  1. a theological or moral dualism in which a good god or gods are ranged, equal and opposite, against a bad god or gods;
  2. a cosmological dualism, a la Plato, in which the world of space, time and matter is radically inferior to the noumenal world; this would include, perhaps, dualisms of form and matter, essence and appearance, spiritual and material, and (in a Platonic sense) heavenly/earthly (something like this would be characteristic of Philo);
  3. an anthropological dualism which postulates a radical twofoldness of soul and body or spirit and body (this, too, would be familiar in Philo).

Then there are three more which might be possible within ancient Judaism:

  1. epistemological duality as between reason and revelation – though this may be problematic, since it’s really the epistemological face of the cosmological dualism which I suggest ancient Jews would mostly reject;
  2. sectarian duality in which the sons of light are ranged against the sons of darkness, as in Qumran;
  3. psychological duality in which the good inclination and the evil inclination seem to be locked in perpetual struggle, as in Rabbinic thought.

It’s important to know about these different sorts dualisms in order to keep a clear theological head on your shoulders wading into these discussions–which I know you do everyday. But seriously, for Christians wanting to understand reality out of a properly Christian worldview, or theological framework, we have to keep in mind what Wright underlines here:

The radical rejection by most ancient Jews, in particular, of what we find in Plato and in much oriental religion, and the radical embrace of space, time and matter as the good gifts of a good creator God, the place where this God is known and the means by which he is to be worshipped – all this remains foundational, and is firmly restated and underlined in the New Testament. Creational, providential and covenantal monotheism simply leave no room for those four dualisms in the middle. In particular, I argued that such dualisms tend to ontologize evil itself, whereas in first-century Judaism evil is not an essential part of the creation, but is the result of a radical distortion within a basically good created order.

While we might not all agree with his judgments on Plato’s dualisms or body and soul, it’s important to keep distinct the things that ought to be distinct (God/creation, good/evil, present age/age to come, etc.) while avoiding tearing apart those things that should be kept together. That basic creational framework of a good God who creates a good world that gets distorted by sin is the backdrop of God’s redemption of all things in Christ. This is what the ancient gnostics missed when they created a Jesus who was simply a redeemer who saved people’s souls from their bodies–in which case, who cares what you do with your body? This is what is absent in pantheistic theologies that drag God into the world, who end up giving us a “compassionate” God that, in the end, is just as trapped in the world’s agony as we are, instead of being the distinct, but sovereign redeemer who can fix it. This is what modern Evangelicals sometimes miss with their tendency for evacuating from the world, despising creation, and simply waiting for Jesus to come back and rapture them out of their nicely air-conditioned churches they hide in most of the week.

God freely created the world distinct from himself, he loves it–he’s going to save it. He wants his people out in the world, in it, but not of it, proclaiming that good news, and working for it out in the world.

The bottom-line is: if you don’t keep your dualisms straight, you might lose the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 thoughts on “Are You a Dualist? Is that Bad? Just ask N.T. Wright

  1. Mind/body, neoplatonic soul/body dualism is slowly being expunged from certain “secular” disciplines, like Psychology and Biology. In time, hopefully, those religious holdouts will give way as well.

    • Yeah, I mean, I think there’s certain kind of “dualism” that must be maintained in the sense of the non-reductivity of the soul to the body, or a physicalism, but there is movement in these areas.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Ah, but according to St. Paul, the soul body dies, and the spiritual body is raised.

        So even the very constituent element of a living being requires… remaking. Not merely a part of a living being, or an aspect, or a perspective, or an energy, or a faculty.

        Thus soul can mean life again, as life calls itself life. And then maybe the person can be a person, in the end.

      • Yeah, actually, the inner man and the outer man need resurrecting. Wright has a great summary in that article of his work elsewhere on the passage you’re referring to where he says:

        This then is carried over into the discussion of the resurrection body in chapter 15. Here we face the problem of the disastrous translation of the RSV, perpetuated in the NRSV, where we find the contrasting present and future bodies translated as ‘physical body’ and ‘spiritual body’ (15.44, 46). Generations of liberal readers have said, triumphantly, that Paul clearly thinks the resurrection body is spiritual rather than physical, so there’s no need for an empty tomb. But that’s emphatically not the point. For Paul, as for all Jews, Christians and indeed pagans until the rise of the Gnostics in the second century, the word ‘resurrection’ was about bodies. When pagans rejected ‘resurrection’, that’s what they were rejecting. Paul’s language here, using Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, is not about the substance of which the body is composed, but about the driving force that animates it. It’s the difference between, on the one hand, a ship made of steel or timber, and a ship powered by sail or steam. For Paul, the psyche is the breath of life, the vital spark, the thing that animates the body in the present life. The pneuma is the thing that animates the resurrection body. This is where the link is made: the pneuma is already given to the believer as the arrabon, the down payment, of what is to come, since the Spirit who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to the mortal bodies of those who belong to the Messiah (Romans 8.9-11). In Paul’s discussion, the psyche is simply the life-force of ordinary mortals in the present world, emphatically not a substance which, as a second and non-material element of the person, will then carry that person’s existence forward through the intermediate state and on to resurrection itself. On the contrary: the psychikos body is mortal and corruptible. The new, immortal self will be the resurrection body animated by God’s pneuma, the true Temple of the living God (or rather, one particular outpost, or as it were franchise, of that Temple). To speak, as many Christians have done, of the body dying, and the soul going marching on, is not only a travesty of what Paul says. It has encouraged many to suppose that the victory over death is the escape of the soul from the dead body. That is a dangerous lie. It is resurrection that is the defeat of death. To think of the body dying and of something, the soul or whatever, continuing onwards isn’t a victory over death. It is simply a description, however inadequate, of death itself. Let us not collude with the enemy.

        Thanks for stopping by!!

  2. Excellent use of NT Wright. Dualism’s can be explained to so many in such a simple way and it helps to get at the heart of the message of many OT and NT passages.

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