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The Unity of Body and Soul

Last week in my sermon I made a comment that a Western view of the world more easily abstracts the physical from the whole mesh of reality. This week the emphasis in Leviticus 21-22 on priests maintaining their holy status in both what they do and who they are—that is to say, blemish free—only reinforces the importance of appreciating the close connection between the physical and spiritual aspects of reality. Specifically, the very physical nature of the disqualifications almost forces us to reckon with the nature of humanity if we are going to appreciate the depths and symbolic significance of these chapters.

That said, this reflection will take up the topic of the nature of humanity with respect to the unity of the body and soul. And in this regard, humanity finds itself in a special place over against the rest of creation. Joel Beeke says,

When God created the heavens and the earth he made a dual realm populated with spirits above and plants and animals below. However, there is one creature who shares in both realms. Herman Bavinck said, “Creation culminates in humanity where the spiritual and material world are joined together.” This is part of the wonder of man: he is a creature both physical and spiritual, with feet planted on the earth and a soul that aspires to heaven.[1]

Now, the nature of this joining of spiritual and material is not an unhappy union but an intimate unity. Bavinck says, “The nature of the union of the soul with the body…is not ethical but physical. It is so intimate that one nature, one person, one self is the subject of both and of all their activities. It is always the same soul that peers through the eyes, thinks through the brain, grasps with the hands, and walks with the feet.”[2]

This view of the unity of body and soul is a thoroughly Biblical idea that opposes itself against more antagonistic views. Robert Letham comments, “The Old Testament presents humans as a psychosomatic unity; different elements are apparent, but there is no hint of a polarity between them. The early Christians, let alone the Bible, never disparaged the body; it was the Greeks who did that. Running through much pagan thought was a radical disjunction between the spiritual and the material.”[3] On account of this psychosomatic unity, the OT in particular used words for both body and soul to describe the whole person as an example of synecdoche.

Providing helpful balance to this idea of a psychosomatic unity, Joel Beeke writes, “The Bible’s employment of ‘body’ and ‘soul’ in a holistic manner does not make the terms identical in meaning with each other or with the whole person, but reflects the involvement of the whole man in life, a functional and vital unity in the human constitution—the outer man of the body and the inner man of the heart.”[4]

This balance is helpful for us so that we do not inappropriately ascribe spiritual qualities to physical aspects. The worse form of this would be to make a one-to-one connection between a material attribute and a spiritual reality. And that has bearing on the disqualifying blemishes of Leviticus 21. It is not accurate to say that a priest with a physical blemish was also spiritually blemished, as though there were a one-to-one relationship between the material and spiritual aspects of a given human—that would give too much credit to the unblemished priests! Such a simplistic point of view would give rise to the worst forms of prejudice on account of congenital or contracted blemishes.

But at the same time, there is a general, symbolic connection at work between the physical blemishes and the spiritual fitness of humanity to stand before God. Especially because the priests were the representatives of the people before God, their physical state had to symbolize the spiritual fitness required to draw near to God. Of course, no priest was intrinsically holy. Only by faith in what the sacrificial system pointed to could any priest, even an unblemished priest, serve the Lord.

But with the coming of Christ, a priest arose who was spiritually unblemished, perfectly and intrinsically holy, and consequently able to minister for his people before God. And he is the one whom we celebrate in this season.

[1] Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019), 2:229. [2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:559. [3] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 337. [4] Beeke and Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, 2:233.

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