Letting the Bible Interpret Itself?

Theology / Biblical Studies


What does it mean to say that we should use Scripture to understand Scripture?

A discussion that I was having today reminded me of an issue that you hear about often when discussing biblical interpretation with Evangelicals (among whom I count myself). That issue was the practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture. It took me back to great textbooks that I was reading in my undergrad years and prior (books like Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard’s Introduction to Biblical Interpretation) and to classes with Bill Osborne and Chris Marshall (“Interpretative Method”). It’s a fairly significant issue if only because of the way that it shapes the way so many people understand the Bible, and the discussion I was part of today has prompted me to write down some of my thoughts on the use – and abuse – of the practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture.

First allow me to set the scene by sketching the discussion that prompted me. I was talking about what, if anything, the biblical writers had to say to indicate whether they more clearly saw human beings as physical beings or as beings that are basically non-physical (having bodies until they die, but continuing to live on in their non-physical state afterwards). As readers may know, I hold the former view.

Whether you want to divide the person up internally into soul, heart, mind, or any other thing, there are many passages that talk about human beings as a whole – including whatever parts you think are bundled into “you” – and flatly says that you are dust. That’s what you are. And they also say that “you” will go back to the dust when you die. Again, you might think that “you” includes a soul (and/or other bits and pieces). But whatever is contained in “you,” those passages say that it goes back into the dust when you die.

The list of passages includes: Genesis 2:7, Genesis 3:19, Job 34:14-15, Psalm 22:29, Psalm 30:9, Psalm 90:2, Psalm 103:13-16, Psalm 104:21-30, Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, Ecclesiastes 12:7-8, Isaiah 26:19, and Daniel 12:2. I won’t quote them here, but feel free to look them up. As you look these passages up, a clear pattern emerges: The authors of the Hebrew Scripture viewed human beings in very physical terms. We are creatures of the dust (“we are but dust,” as one of those passages says), and like the other creatures in this world (which the Old Testament also describes as being made from the dust of the earth), we are sustained by the breath of life given by God, often synonymous with the Spirit of God. When these creatures (including humans) die, they go back to the dust, and God reclaims the spirit (or breath, those terms are interchanged as you look through these passages).

I pointed out this list of passages to somebody recently. He is a dualist, believing that we are an immaterial soul who lives inside a physical “container” (his choice of words). So this list of passages, I thought, would at very least show him that his view wasn’t biblical (whether you continue to think a view is true is another matter, of course). But these passages had no impact on his stance. Sure, he could see what the passages were saying, but his reply was to say (my summary): Yes, those verses are all true, but they’re only about part of us – the body. What about the soul? Those passages don’t mention the non-material soul, so you can’t interpret those passages as saying that human beings are physical.

I reacted in what I take to be a fairly natural way – “What?” Of course those passages don’t mention our non-material soul. How could they, when they so unanimously claim that we are physical beings, made from the dust and returning to dust in death? Obviously what was happening here is that my partner in dialogue could see quite plainly that these passages said that we are physical and didn’t say that we also have an immaterial soul, but because this fellow just knew – or so he was sure – that dualism was true and that this, really was what the biblical writers believed, it should be assumed anyway. It was an awkward reading of the passages though, there was no denying it. Somehow, passages that asserted bluntly that we are dust and will return to the dust somehow had to be taken to mean almost the opposite; that our conscious selves really are some immaterial thing that isn’t dust, and that really we don’t return to the dust when we die at all! These passages from the Hebrew Bible certainly weren’t giving rise to his view. Something else was at work.

In the end, the other fellow told me his method: He thinks that there are some passages in the New Testament that, while not directly teaching dualism, appear to presuppose it. Two texts in the New Testament that he mentioned are passages that I have discussed at some length here before: Luke 23:43 and 2 Corinthians 12, and he also mentioned 2 Corinthians 5. Because of this – and this is the vital part – he “interprets the Old Testament in light of the New Testament,” using his view of what this small number of New Testament passages means to regulate the range of possible meanings of all the passages in the Old Testament.

I don’t think the New Testament teaches dualism at all, but that’s another issue. The issue that I want to discuss here is the legitimate (and illegitimate) way to use some parts of the Bible to interpret other parts.

Should we do it at all? Yes, I think so. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the simple reason that – as we all realise – some pieces of ancient writing are clearer than others. Straightforward statements on broad moral precepts are generally going to be easier for us to understand to understand than, say, elaborate apocalyptic imagery. Clearer passages of Scripture will be useful in helping us understand more obscure passages created by the same community of faith. For example, Daniel had a strange dream of bizarre animals that was then given a divine interpretation: They referred to kingdoms in the world. In the book of Revelation the author takes and uses those same images, but he does not state that they refer to kingdoms in the world. By comparing Revelation to Daniel, we can use the earlier book to help us understand the later book, because it contains more information about what the images mean.

The second reason is more theological in nature. Christians maintain that while the books of the Bible do tell us about the perspective of the human authors, they tell us more than that. Through the human authors, God is speaking. The doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture, although it comes in several forms, is the idea that the human authors are, in God’s own way, serving a role of conveying something that God – and not just the human author – wants to convey. In addition to having a human author, with all of his frailties, imperfections and limitations, Christians believe that the books of the Bible also have a divine author, and because of this there is a basic unity to the Bible as a whole. Understanding one part of the Bible can therefore be helped by a good understanding of other parts that speak to the same issues.

I think a great example of this rears its head in the list of passages I gave earlier. Take Ecclesiastes 12:7, which refers to the death of human beings, saying that “the dust shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.” Some people today use this as a proof text for dualism and for the idea that we go to heaven when our bodies die. But they couldn’t use this passage this way, if only they would use Scripture to interpret Scripture. All of the other passages that I listed repeatedly reinforce the idea, first stated in Genesis 2:7, that human people are made from the “dust,” natural, physical constituents, and they have from God the spirit, he breath of life, common to all animals, which is reclaimed by God when those creatures die. If readers of Ecclesiastes 12:7 were familiar with the Old Testament background of the language that it uses, they would be much better equipped to understand it.

The principle of using Scripture to interpret Scripture became very important to Christians when it came to reading Old Testament passages in a Christological sense. I am speaking here not just of prophecies in the sense of predictions that are only properly fulfilled by Jesus. Instead, Christians over the centuries have, in light of God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus, found “echoes” or rather foreshadows of Christ in various Old Testament passages. It’s important to realise that in treating Old Testament passages christologically, the reader does not (and must not) try to change what they would have meant to the first readers, but they do still gain a new significance insofar as they resemble and even prefigure what unfolded in the work of Jesus. In Genesis, the words still do refer, in the primary sense, to enmity between the serpent and humans in general, but when God says that the serpent will strike at the heel of the woman’s offspring, and he shall crush the serpent’s head, Christians have always seen striking image of Jesus’ defeat of Satan through his death on the cross. When Isaiah wrote of a young woman conceiving and giving birth to a special son who will be called Immanuel (God is with us), in the primary sense it really does refer to an event in the Old Testament, but Christians, including the authors of the New Testament, have seen a strong and divinely intended parallel here with the birth of Jesus, who truly was God with us. So it’s not the case that the first Jewish readers of these texts had no idea what they meant, and nobody understood them until Jesus came along. Instead, with the arrival and saving work of Jesus, passages like these take on a new and more profound significance.

Notice however, that the practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture needs to be done carefully. Say there were fifteen passages of Scripture that appeared to say that Mary Magdalene was married (some of them even say “her husband was a man named Samuel”), and there are two passages that appear to describe her as single (I’m using an example that’s not doctrinally entangled just to keep it simple). Obviously it’s not legitimate to say, “well I take those two passages to mean that she was single, and now I’m going to use those two verses to interpret the other fifteen, and hey presto, the Bible now clearly teaches that Mary Magdalene was single!” In a case like this (and, I say, in a case like that of my dualist partner in discussion), we’re not actually using the Scripture to interpret other parts. All we’re really doing is allowing our conclusions about some parts of Scripture to trump the apparent evidence found in other parts of Scripture, relieving ourselves of the burden of really dealing with all of the evidence. Certainly in the Mary Magdalene example, concluding that two passages speak about her as though she was single does not help us to explain the meaning of the other fifteen passages, and it does not give any clues as to why they say what they do. It is simply a case of preferring some passages and basically ignoring the others – even though the others are the clear majority.

The same was true in the discussion I had today. Saying that you think a small number of passages in the New Testament are easier to understand if dualism is true, and therefore any passages that appear to suggest (even directly state) a physicalist view of people should be declared not to really do so – this is not using Scripture to help us understand Scripture at all. This is just to not engage in the exegesis of a large number of passages because we are content with the conclusions that we have drawn from others.

Another vital principle to bear in mind is that when using Scripture to interpret Scripture, more straightforward statements should be used to unravel and explain more cryptic statements, and not the other way around. For instance, look at the many clear texts in the list I gave, and observe how they so clearly unite in speaking on one issue. It would be very unwise to take such direct and repeated statements, and subject their meaning to our understanding of a very unusual passage about visions of a man who saw the third heaven – in a passage that is anything but clear.

That example might distract or irritate you, because perhaps you think I’m dead wrong about physicalism. OK, here’s a different one: 1 Corinthians 15 (in my view) presents some fairly clear teaching about future events. There, Paul claims, Jesus is now reigning after his resurrection, and he will continue to reign until all his enemies – even death itself – have been conquered, and the dead are raised back to life. You might not agree with my assessment, but I think I speak with the majority in saying that this is spelled out in very straightforward terms in verses 20-28. So if there’s an appropriate time to say that Christ is reigning, it’s right now. Some people, by contrast (I think in particular of those who hold to what is termed “dispensationalist” theology) reject this view, and claim on the basis of a rather picturesque passage, Revelation 20, that there will be more than one time in the future when the dead will rise; there will be a first resurrection, and then a long period during which Christ reigns, and then a final resurrection, and then that reign will come to an end and the rest of the dead will rise and God the Father will, as it were, take over the reigns. I say “picturesque” because it’s a context notorious for its almost excessive symbolism, with beasts, dragons, lakes made of fire (!!!) and so on. I think that a good application of the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture means that we should take what are – again, in my estimate – clear, more straightforward passages like 1 Corinthians 15, and use them to help us understand more arcane passages like Revelation 20, rather than independently interpreting Revelation 20 and then allowing that interpretation to decide what other passages mean.

What’s more, there is a real risk in choosing to privilege our understanding of a select few New Testament passages at the expense of the well attested voice of the Old Testament. It’s all very well to believe that revelation is “progressive,” that is, it gets larger and larger over time as God reveals and clarifies more issues. I think this is the right way to think about revelation, for the simple reason that it couldn’t have been given all at once. But we have to take care that we understand this as genuinely progressive, that is, it makes progress and adds to a pre-existing body of revelation. We should not think that this means we can actually reject what was once said. You should use pre-existing data, then, to interpret new data. In fact my friend had it exactly backwards. When you’ve got a very large pool of writing in the Old Testament on a subject and just a few in the New Testament, you should actually use the Old Testament background to help you understand the passages in the New Testament, and not the other way around. This is the key to understanding the book of Revelation, for example, which draws all of its imagery from the Old Testament. This is the key to understanding Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, for example (going into Egypt, then passing through the water in baptism, then going through the wilderness, which are all clear parallels to the nation of Israel in the book of Exodus). Similarly, the basic presuppositions about God and human beings, including the list of passages I gave earlier (and others besides) are all things that should inform the way we understand the New Testament writers, most of whom lived and breathed the thought world of readers of the Old Testament.

So yes, you should use Scripture to interpret Scripture – Just as long as what you’re using is Scripture (rather than the system of theology that you’ve derived from it), and what you’re using it to do is actually interpret (and not silence) other parts of Scripture.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Eugene June 8, 2012, 2:19 am

    Hi Glenn,

    I’ve been thinking of the monistic/dualistic anthropology issue recently. I’d very much like to be a physicalist like you, it would just be simpler. Still, I can’t seem to silence some of my qualms about that stance. I’ll sketch one out and you can, if you’re so inclined, set me straight.

    You’ve argued here and elsewhere that the Old Testament (leaving aside the New for a moment) clearly teaches a physicalist anthropology. But if that’s true, why is it that Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t seem to get the memo?

    In Mark 6:49/Matthew 14:26, when the apostles see Jesus walk on the water, their go-to thought is, “It’s a ghost.” If the idea of ghosts are flatly impossible and even incoherent on the OT’s anthropology, why would the apostles (basically a bunch of rabbinical students at this point) so quickly resort to that interpretation of the situation before them?

    Similar things could be said about Luke 24:37 and Acts 12:13-15 (when “angel” in that latter passage is understood to probably mean something like “ghost”, cp. Acts 23:8)


  • Glenn June 8, 2012, 9:05 am

    “You’ve argued here and elsewhere that the Old Testament (leaving aside the New for a moment) clearly teaches a physicalist anthropology.”

    Well – I didn’t make that argument here. I wouldn’t presume to do so in such a short space. I just listed some passages that I would use if I was going to make that argument. I do make the argument elsewhere though, in part five of my podcast series on the subject here: http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2010/episode-033-in-search-of-the-soul-part-5/

    Even then, it’s only a brief overview.

    As for the fact that when confronted with an impossible situation (i.e. seeing something walking on the water) they thought that it might be a spirit, this tells us little. Whatever they thought it was, they were grasping at straws to explain something. Even physicalists can be scared by ghost movies – not because they have a change in outlook, but because the mind is a funny thing and will spook us with things that we frankly know aren’t possible. The point of “spirit” in Mark 6 is that they thought it was some sort of apparition – a phantom, maybe even a demon (most commentators think the latter – have a look), but certainly not a real person.

    I don’t think observing a panicked and potentially irrational reaction of fear is an especially strong way to develop a considered understanding of what the disciples believed. It may even well be that some of them did believe in ghosts, who knows? I wouldn’t want to assume that they were infallible in all their background beliefs. Recall that the doctrine of inspiration only extends to the things they taught in Scripture.

    Acts 23:8 seems in my view to be talking about non-human beings, where angels and spirits is a reference to good and bad spirits (angels being the good ones). The Sadducees believed in no such beings.

    On a side note, I don’t know why you think Acts 13:15 “is understood to probably mean something like “ghost”.” Understood by whom? That interpretation would definitely be a minority report. Peter was thought dead, and when the servant girl believed that he was outside the door, the others suggested that really it was not Peter, but his angelos, which means messenger. Virtually all commentators take this to be either a messenger of Peter, or else an angel (e.g. Matthew Henry – http://www.studylight.org/com/mhc-com/view.cgi?book=ac&chapter=012 , John Gill http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/acts-12-15.html , Wesley http://www.christnotes.org/commentary.php?com=wes&b=44&c=12 , Adam Clarke http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/clarke/act012.htm , Calvin http://christsassembly.com/literature/calvin/cc36/cc36102.htm.html etc). I can’t find even a single commentator who thinks this refers to the ghost of Peter. So who did you have in mind when you said this term in Acts 12:15 “is understood to probably mean something like “ghost”? I’m curious now.

    But do please bear in mind – this is really meant to be about the method of using Scripture to interpret Scripture, and not about whether physicalism is true or not!

  • Eugene June 8, 2012, 11:06 am

    “this is really meant to be about the method of using Scripture to interpret Scripture, and not about whether physicalism is true or not!”

    Fair enough, I won’t try to hijack the comment thread. It still seems like what I’m saying is relevant though: if 1st century Jews didn’t think that the Old Testament led to a belief in physicalism, then we can’t use it *as if it did* when interpreting the NT evidence. But I’ll leave that alone. (Good point about physicalists and scary movies though.)

    Thank you for alerting me to the controversy regarding Acts 12:15 (I mean it); I had no idea that what I said was disputed in the scholarly literature.

    “So who did you have in mind when you said this term in Acts 12:15 ‘is understood to probably mean something like ghost’? I’m curious now.”

    An entirely fair question. The “ghost” understanding of Acts 12:15 is supported by the following guys: N.T. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God (pg. 134); Guy M Davis Jr. in his article “Was Peter Buried in Rome?”, Robert Jamieson, Andrew Fausset & David Brown in their classic commentary on the Bible in their comments on Acts 12:15 itself and Luke 24:36 ff.; W. E. Vines in his classic Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words under the entry “angel”; B. B. Warfield in his essay “The Angels of Christ’s Little Ones”; James Montgomery Boice in his commentary on Acts (pg. 212); and Craig A. Evans seems to lean this direction (or is at least open to it) in his The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Matthew-Luke (pg. 525).

    The thinking, so far as I know, runs like this: Acts 12:15 was written by the same author who wrote Acts 23:8. In Acts 23:8 we’re told that the Sadducees don’t believe in a bunch of popular religious stuff, including “angels”. But, as we know from other sources, the Sadducees’ religious skepticism was really just a form of religious conservatism–they only accepted the Torah as authoritative and thus rejected all the fun stuff that could only be supported with reference to the rest of the Tanak. But when we look at the Torah, angels (that is, super-human but sub-divine messengers of God type beings) are all over the place (e.g. Genesis 3:24, 19:1 ff., 28:12, Numbers 22:22 ff.). So, if the Sadducees accept the Torah, and the Torah accepts angels *in this sense of the word*, then presumably the Sadducees accept the existence of supernatural spiritual agents working on God’s behalf. And if that’s so, presumably, when the author of Acts 23 says that the Sadducees didn’t believe in an “angel”, he must have meant something different by that word. Given Acts 12:15, a plausible solution is that “angel” was meant in these two verses as another word for “ghost” or “disembodied soul”.

    Alright, no more hijacking, back to inter-textual hermeneutics.

  • Dave June 9, 2012, 6:15 pm

    Very clever. Make a point that your fellow evangelical will gladly accept about hermeneutics. Then show how that point helps a position that a number of your fellow evangelicals don’t hold, but you think they should. Well played. 🙂

  • Andrew June 10, 2012, 3:57 pm


    Just for the sake of charity, couldn’t you think of your interlocutor as implicitly saying something like “these verses which you point to only support the view that there is something definitely physical about humans. But of course that’s not inconsistent with what i’m saying. It doesn’t obviously follow from these verses that humans are exhausted by their physical bodies”?

  • Glenn June 10, 2012, 4:59 pm

    Andrew, well they could say that, but it would be a tough sell. To say “you are X” doesn’t naturally lend itself to “you have X as one aspect of you.” This is especially so when the writers add things like “YOU were made out of X… YOU will return to X… after you die you will be ‘sleeping in the X’… When God takes his Y back (which is not you), you are nothing but X” etc. So yes, of course people can say what you propose. The question would be whether or not such appeals sound strained or not. In my opinion, however, the argument is so strained and implausible that it would not be an act of charity to attribute it to my interlocutor. Indeed, it would smack of flagrant question-begging. I think that to justify this sort of strained argument in regard to a wide range of texts on the basis of the interpretation of a small handful, where (I think) that small handful quite clearly admits of more than one defensible interpretation – this is simply poor hermeneutical method.

  • Nick June 10, 2012, 6:02 pm

    Just a quick question before I read the rest of the blog. How much has Greek philosophy influenced our western thought about human anthropology? If there has move away from a OT Hebrew theology about the make up human beings then it could be part of the reason the OT examples you sited could be read from a dualist position. The principle of ‘first mentioned’ (the proper term alludes me right now) seems to favour the physicalist position when reading the Genesis creation account. This principle (mentioned above) is keystone to both any hermeneutical and theological development and conclusions about any topic I would argue. Genesis, is a Hebrew document free largely from Greek thought. So, Glenn how important is the principle and the influence of Greek thinking when we decide how to develop our interpretations?

  • Glenn June 10, 2012, 8:37 pm

    Nick, “first mentioned” should come with some caveats – of course what comes later will have certain advantages, standing on the shoulder of giants and all that, but it does – given evangelical assumptions about inspiration – need to build on the foundation already laid. It should not be used to essentially overthrow what came before, so yes, “first mentioned” does have value here.

    As far as the extent to which “Greek Philosophy” is a culprit here, we have to be a bit careful. There wasn’t just one thing that Greeks believed. Some of them (e.g. epicureans) would have had little problem with physicalism, for example. But there’s definitely something to be said here about the influence of other cultures. Dualism just was common in the non-Jewish world, and it did influence the Jewish world, so it was common in Second-Temple Judaism, for example. So Christians were exposed to multiple sources of dualism. It had infiltrated large sectors of Judaism and it was everywhere in paganism. Numerous church historians (e.g. Kenneth Scott Latourette) note the important influence that dualism in the Hellenistic world had on early Christianity. It would not surprise me if a number of prominent Christians in the New Testament personally believed in dualism, even if they didn’t urge their readers to do so. They weren’t infallible in all that they privately thought of course. A strong doctrine of inspiration doesn’t require that.

    But on the whole, I think this is another reason to favour the large body of previous revelation in the Old Testament when it comes to providing the appropriate backdrop for understanding the New Testament. Early Christianity arose in a culture that was a melting pot of ideas, and it’s important that we try to grasp the faith as an extension, rather than a replacement, of what came before in the Hebrew Scripture.

  • Andrew June 11, 2012, 2:03 am

    Well i’m not necessarily sold on dualism myself (although I will admit that I am very sympathetic towards it given that it raises the antecedent probability of theism when constructing a cumulative case argument for theism). But again, it’s not clear to me that when a writer says that some person S is X that S is exhausted by X. I mean scripture repeatedly affirms that humans are sinful, and yet evidently sin is not the extent of a person.

    I think you do have a point when you talk about Genesis 3:19, although that wouldn’t be inconsistent with some kind of property/emergent dualism. Now I have heard you say that this is really just a form of physicalism. But i’v never quite been sold on that latter claim.

  • Glenn June 11, 2012, 4:37 pm

    Andrew, “sinful” is an adjective, so it’s quite different from saying that somebody is X in the sense that they are made out of X and will go back to X.

    And yeah, emergentism = physicalism. Or even if you can’t repress the urge to attach “dualism” to that view, the point here is just that substance dualism seems to not fit with this biblical litany of humanity. If you want to call something else dualism, hey, it’s like defining “Hindu” as “a Christian named Glenn Peoples” and then saying that I’m a Hindu. Go right ahead. 🙂

  • Jake June 12, 2012, 8:14 am

    For me, the question boils down to a simple hermeneutic principle: If there are multiple verses related to a certain topic, and one adds a detail not found in the others, we can apply that same condition or detail to the rest. Simply put, we “interpret the less complete with the more complete.”

    This is the same method we use to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity. As you know, the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in any one passage – in fact, many verses in the OT would seem to contradict that doctrine if read in isolation.

    Using the same hermeneutic, if we can find any verses that describe the soul existing apart from the body, we are no longer obligated to believe the soul *must* return to the dust along with the body.

    Furthermore, if we find a passage that describes the soul being separated from the body at the point of physical death, or a verse that describes consciousness outside of the body, then we actually have reason to believe the soul *will not* return to dust along with the body.

    I believe we have passages that do just that, and thus I think we should reject a physicalist interpretation of the verses you reference. Although there are dozens of verses that imply a distinction between body and soul, there are only a few that explicitly state the difference. Thankfully, just like the doctrine of the Trinity we only need a few.

    Can the soul exist apart from the body? Paul seemed to think so. In 2 Cor. 5 he repeatedly describes being apart from the body in reference to what seems to be an afterlife. “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

    Can the soul be conscious apart from the body? Again, Paul seemed to think so. In describing his vision of the third heaven, Paul is unsure of whether it was “in the body or apart from the body I do not know.” (2 Cor. 12:3)

    As an expert in the law, it’s safe to assume Paul would have a clear understanding of all the OT passages you cited. Yet he apparently thought it was possible to be conscious while “out of the body.” And Paul didn’t make this assertion only one time, he made it several times and in different letters.

    Jesus also seemed to think the soul could survive physical death. In Matthew 10:28, he says “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

    I take this quite literally to mean that my enemies can kill my body, but they cannot kill my soul. Just like Jesus promised the sinner on the cross, and Paul encouraged the believers in Corinth, I believe that when we shed this earthly tent that is our body, our soul will be at home with the Lord. And thus I interpret the OT passages you cited to merely describe the body returning to dust and nothing more.

  • Glenn June 12, 2012, 5:22 pm

    Jake, I think I summarise you fairly as follows (correct me if I am wrong): You accept the truth of the large number of Old Testament passages I refer to, and would not say that their claims are false. However, you say that a few NT passages (three I think, but the exact number isn’t the point) take those true claims and just add more details to them.

    In principle this is fine. It’s progressive revelation – newer revelation adding further detail to what came before. The problem is that this is not what you’re doing. Here we’ve got some claims by Old Testament passages that, according to the method you’re really using, should be deemed false. You almost say this in your comment where you say that in light of a few passages in the NT, we should not believe that we are dust and return to the dust. You even use the phrase “we are no longer obligated to believe.” This is not the *addition* of detail. This is the *subtraction* of details that have previously been given in the OT. There’s an big difference between the two. You’re not using one text to add to the other. You’re using your interpretation of a few texts (an interpretation that I think is flawed, but that’s another issue) to suppress or deny what is plainly stated in a very large number of texts, and that’s of some concern to me. This is not interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture. This is just using your view of a few texts to trump the majority of texts.

    Two more things. First, just a claim about what passage means doesn’t really count as an interpretation. An interpretation is where you *interpret* a text. It’s a process internal to the text where you give a rationale from within the text as to why you say it means something. You can use other texts to help, but in the end you must show that what you’re saying is consonant with the text that you are interpreting, and this is what you haven’t done in regard to these many OT passages.

    Lastly, there’s a language issue here. A good part of the disagreement is over what “soul” even means, so I think you’re getting ahead of the discussion by introducing that term, saying that Paul thought the soul could exist outside the body, denying that the OT passages say that the soul dies etc. Those passages (in Paul and the OT) do not use the term soul, so to keep it clean I have chosen to leave it out. I say more on this here.

    Incidentally, my treatment of Luke 23:43 is at (http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2010/luke-2343-and-soul-sleep/), and my treatment of 2 Corinthians 12 is here (http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2010/2-corinthians-12-an-out-of-body-experience/). There, I hope you will see, I have actually tried to construct a coherent meaning from within the passage itself, instead of imposing a meaning from outside (e.g. my belief about what a different text says).

  • Andrew June 12, 2012, 10:07 pm

    I don’t know that calling emergentism “dualism” is merely an arbitrary re-definition of dualism. Especially if the mental properties that the physical structure gives rise to are not, themselves, physical.

  • Glenn June 12, 2012, 10:32 pm

    Jake: An afterthought, which may or may not be of use. Maybe an example of what I mean will help. I’ve said that if the Old Testament pretty plainly says that we are “dust,” that God sustains us with his power (breath of life, his spirit etc), and that we will return to the dust, and that the dead are, right now “sleeping” in the dust of the earth, then it’s not progressive revelation for God to turn around later and say actually we’re not “dust,” we’re a dualistic being, we will not return to the dust when we die, we will actually survive, and the dead are not sleeping in the dust of the earth. That removes the foundation, it doesn’t build on it.

    So what would be an example of progressive revelation, or adding more details, as you put it? Well, I think this would be a great example: “Yes, I fully accept the Old Testament background. It’s completely true that we are but dust, that we will return to the dust when we die and so on. But there are more details to add, because that’s not the end of the story. You see, after that, there’s a resurrection.” See the difference? The former example rejects what came before, whereas the latter truly does add more details to an existing picture.

  • Glenn June 12, 2012, 10:34 pm

    Andrew, I never said it was “arbitrary.” But again, in terms of substances, emergentism is physical all the way. What you’re talking about now are properties. So you can at least see the logic in calling it physicalism, if one is really interested in what type of substances are involved.

  • Basil Wellington June 15, 2012, 6:36 pm

    Dr Peoples,

    Great piece I enjoy it!

    Your last comment has cleared up some issues for me, but has also raised a question.

    I get it now–I think–essentially you hold to a single substance, which is physical, that can produce mental properties (which may be non-physical?).

    If this is the case, do you see a problem with the emergent properties (metal properties) being efficacious to the body. In other words, do you think there is a pivoting problem for the emergent properties having an influence on the body– I’m thinking about the placebo effect and etc.

    I understand this question is moving away from the thrust of your post, but I hope you have time to respond.


    BTW, another quick question, do you think Dr. Penfield (a darling of the substance dualist) could be considered a physicalist, if one understood a phyicalist as being able to be, in principle, described by physical laws. Since he thought the connection between the mind and body was through energy. And energy seems to move according to some physical laws? If you are unfamiliar with Penfield, of course don’t worry about answering–I just assume you’ve read everyone I have, plus more :).

  • Tarnya Burge Wessels October 16, 2012, 11:24 pm


    I quote ” This is one of those passages that has been so hijacked by traditionalist thought that the wording appears to reject much of what the same author (Paul) says elsewhere. Before addressing 5:8 itself, it is helpful to review the theology of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, to see that it is consistent… ”
    Seems if we do use scripture to understand scripture it may not mean what we think it means..

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