Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 12

Classical Interpretations of the Soul

In this lesson, you will explore the classical interpretations of the soul and their historical context. You will examine major classical views on the soul, including the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Christian perspectives. You will also delve into how these views interacted with Christian theology and influenced early Christian thinkers. Additionally, you will learn about the challenges and responses to these interpretations and their relevance for contemporary theology.
James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 12
Watching Now
Classical Interpretations of the Soul

TH730-12: Classical Interpretations of the Soul

I. Introduction to Classical Interpretations of the Soul

A. Significance of the Soul in Theology

B. Historical Context

II. Major Classical Views on the Soul

A. Platonic View

B. Aristotelian View

C. Christian Perspectives

III. Interaction of Classical Views with Christian Theology

A. Influence on Early Christian Thinkers

B. Integration and Critique

IV. Modern Theological Implications

A. Challenges and Responses

B. Relevance for Contemporary Theology

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

We saw yesterday that Biblical exegesis and commentary in the early Church among the Fathers was very much influenced by the Classical world around them and so it’s not surprising that the Classical interpretation of the soul also had a profound influence upon their thinking. There’s no doubt that Greek teaching on the soul has made the most lasting impression ever since. The earliest of the Greeks that taught and wrote about the soul was Pythagoras and Pythagoras elaborates that the soul is divided into different parts. He would explore different aspects of the soul and he also taught about the immortality of the soul in the terms of its transmigration. So whether Pythagoras was himself influenced by Hindu thinking on transmigration, or certainly other aspects of Asian thinking, he certainly believed in the transmigration of the soul.

He himself does not have much influence on the Church because of this. But Plato has a powerful influence, for Plato is building on the work of his master, Socrates, arguing that the soul is the principle of human life. It’s also the principle of divine life and so the soul is that divine part of the human. It’s that bridge between God and man. But the spiritual and divine nature of the soul, argues Plato, is imprisoned within the body. And so Plato’s speculation was that only after a series of subsequent births and deaths that once again it becomes one with God, so in this respect he’s taking up the Pythagorean idea of transmigration as well.

In complete contrast, Aristotle defines the human [body 00:02:20] as both body and soul, but not in the divisive way that Plato does. He doesn’t have a dualistic system. He’s much more monistic in his thinking. So he sees that the soul could be interpreted as the living quality of the body. The soul is what makes the body alive; the fact that it has spirit or soul is that it’s not a dead corpse. And so Aristotle is very much more of the view of what neuroscientists or secular neurophysiologists would represent today.

The person who is very interested in this whole aspect in the history of the Church is Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century/early 14th century, who builds to some extent on Aristotelian philosophy. And so Thomas Aquinas presents the soul as the body’s form. It’s the soul that gives our personality and so when we encounter each other, it’s not our body that we encounter so much but as the vitality of the soul that gives us our uniqueness that we make an impression on each other. But what has happened in these two ways, the way of Plato and the way of Aristotle, has been divided ever since and they’re still divided. And so going back to that incident of saving our soul as an evangelical, this is much more neo-Platonic than these good, worthy believers realised.


The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria also reflected upon the nature of the soul. And, for him, he sees death as the friend of the soul, for what death does is to restore the soul to its ordinal condition, its precondition in immortality. He speculated that while many lose their souls in the labyrinth of living in a material world, the intent of the true philosopher is to save his soul. This of, of course, Socratic. That’s why he’s a philosopher. And so the true philosopher’s soul survives bodily death and assumes a higher existence that’s immortal and incorporeal as well as being asexual.

Origen, who as we saw yesterday is the first great Biblical scholar, was very much influenced by Platonic or neo-Platonic thinking and he too taught on the pre-existence of the soul, which is still part of Mormon belief. And the spiritual teaching of Origen is where sometimes people are suspicious of it and certainly the Church condemned him for the next four centuries. This was a foolish speculation in the midst of a man of such great brilliance. Tertullian also speaks about the soul, but he follows the Stoics in their teaching that the human soul is corporeal. In other words, the Stoics are more like Aristotle. They’re accepting that the soul is generated with the body and so instead of having an eternity within one’s self, Tertullian accepts that we inherit our souls from our parents. And so because we’ve inherited our souls from our parents, we have therefore this continuity of sin in our lives, a continuity that goes back to the original fall of Adam and Eve—that we’ve inherited the fall, in other words, in a kind of genetic way.

Jerome is much more matter-of-fact and he just simply says our soul was created at the time of our conception. So in this session, we’re now saying that there were sown the seeds of utter confusion about the soul in this Classical heritage that we’ve never really got rid of even till now. Another alternative to this Classical thinking is Plotinus. And Plotinus had contact with Eastern pantheism. In fact, he have travelled there, but we’re not sure about that. He says a lot about the soul. He sees the soul as immortal, but not eternal. He doesn’t see it as being imprisoned by a mortal body like Plato. Rather, he sees that the soul has two levels. There’s the lower soul, which is a composite mix of the body and the soul, so within its features are to be found the passions, the fears, the desires, the pains and the pleasures that the body experiences. He sees that the lower soul is the emotional soul; we might say the passionate soul. Or as neuroscience is teaching us today that the basic human emotion is fear. In other words, we can speak of the soul as being the fearful agent of the human condition.


But he also sees that there’s a higher level of the soul, which is the inner or the spiritual man. And here is where the will is superior. It’s very interesting to discover that today many neuroscientists are saying that the drive or the will is really the issue of coherence within neurophysiology. That the will is really the driving force and, as one contemporary neurophysiologist is saying, that this is Descartes’ error. It’s not the reason that’s in the driving seat, says Damasio; it’s the will. It’s the passion to know that makes us rational, but it’s not reason that makes us passionate. It’s the will that makes us passionate about reasoning. So Plotinus would, in a sense, agree with some of our contemporary neurophysiologists in this regard. The passion to think is, for Plotinus, the higher soul.

And, of course, by thinking, Plotinus wasn’t thinking, he was contemplating because, for him, the highest form of thinking is contemplating the ineffable. It’s contemplating God. So he’s unlike the philosopher that my daughter, Penny, when she was five years old used to go and visit across the street a couple who were without children. And he was a famous philosopher called Robinson. So she asked him who Mr Robinson, what do you do for a living? Oh, Penny, you know, I simply think. My job is to lecture about thinking and I write books about thinking. And so she turned on him as a five-year-old in disgust and said, is that all you are? Is that all you do—to think? But Plotinus would have agreed that this was the focus of the human being. The focus was the divine: contemplating the eternal, contemplating God. It’s the contemplative life of the gods where the soul resides. So for Plotinus, death is not an evil. It’s a good. And again, like Socrates, he was prepared to see that the better life is the life to come.


One of the people where I’ve followed his thinking with great sadness is Pierre Hadot, who has been a brilliant philosopher at the College de France in Paris. And he started as being ordained as a Jesuit priest and he ended his days as totally a Plotinian philosopher. All other sense of the reality of life had evaporated. The whole theme of the Biblical faith had just simply been like scent in an empty scent bottle. So it’s tragic today to see how easy it is for people to totally evaporise their understanding of transcendence by their own speculations.

One of the Early Fathers that struggles very much with this whole theme of the soul is the Bishop of Lyons at the beginning of the 2nd century, Irenaeus. He’s writing in a period of tension, a period when Lyons was the commercial heartbeat of the Roman Empire. It was the wealthiest city at the time. It was the most powerful, therefore materialistic, culture . And so many of the Christians of Lyons were affluent, well-travelled and when the persecution broke out against them in 175–177 AD, they were, in a sense, shattered to realise that all this enjoyment of the good life on this Earth was over. But it was in their thinking that they now saw that the good life that was to come is a kind of extension of the good life here. So if you have lots of good food and good wine and banqueting all the time on Earth then that’s what Heaven is going to be—an eternal banquet. And so there again, there was a misunderstanding of transcendence in terms that transcendence was simply a projection into something better in the life to come, but it was determined in your understanding of Heaven by your understanding of what you’re enjoying on Earth. That one was a continuum of the other.