Part 3C: Split level Christianity
Back in the first post of this series, I said that the early Church rejected Trichotomy because it was a piece of speculative Greek philosophy, not a biblical teaching. Here’s where we begin to make good on that accusation.
The tri-partite concept of man dates back at least to Plato, but the form we are all most familiar with comes from Plotinus. Before we illustrate this, we need to put a little bit of groundwork in place. In common popular evangelical teaching and literature on the Christian life, Trichotomy is the soup de jour. Although nearly all theologians reject this understanding of man, it is nonetheless the most prominent view out there among run-of-the-mill Evangelicals. This teaching has resulted in many theological errors, some of which we have already exposed; but one in particular has been gained widespread acceptance and has caused great havoc on personal Christian piety. I speak, of course, of the wretched doctrine of the carnal Christian.
Where did such an idea come from and what does it have to do with Trichotomy? Let’s look at how a classic Trichotomist, Chuck Smith (an advocate of the Carnal Christian teaching), handles 1 Thessalonians 5:23, one of the two Trichotomist proof texts. He writes, “We meet God in the realm of our spirit." (New Testament Study Guide, pg. 113)
Then when handling 1 Corinthians 2-3, the proof text of the Carnal Christian teaching, he writes, “Many of the Corinthian Christians hadn't entered the spiritual dimension yet," and that the "Holy Spirit gives us knowledge beyond our experience." The Gnostic impulse associated with Trichotomy comes out guns blazing when he says, “Our problem arises from living as redeemed spirits in unredeemed bodies. We desire to be delivered from these bodies of flesh so that we can enjoy the full, rich, overflowing life in the spirit." [Chuck Smith, New Testament Study Guide (Costa Mesa: The Word for Today, 1982), p. 78, 113, 193.]
Historically Christians have always affirmed that God meets us through means - Word and Sacrament. But Smith affirms that God meets us immediately "in the realm of our spirit." And since he affirms this, it follows for him that not all Christians have "entered into the spiritual." This posits two categories of Christians, the "carnal" and the "spiritual.” You will search in vain for this distinction in Scripture.
Chuck Smith did not originate this doctrine, of course. He gets it from his beloved Scofield Reference Bible, which has numerous notes advocating a Trichotomist view of man. For instance, in the notes on 1 Corinthians 2:14, the Scofield notes read:
“Paul divides men into three classes: (1) psuchikos, meaning of the senses, sensous, (Jas 3:15; Jude 19), natural, i. e. the Adamic man, unrenewed through the new-birth (Jn 3:3,5); (2) pneumatikos, meaning spiritual, i.e., the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God (Eph 5:18-20); and (3) sarkikos, meaning carnal, fleshly, i.e. the renewed man who, walking "after the flesh," remains a babe in Christ (1 Cor 3:1-4). The natural man may be learned, gentle, eloquent, fascinating, but the spiritual content of Scripture is absolutely hidden from him; and the fleshly or carnal Christian is able to comprehend only its simplest truths, "milk" (1 Cor 3:2).”
I said earlier that this Trichotomist view of man was not a Scriptural doctrine, but rather a Plotinian view of man. Let me give you Plotinus’ exact words so that a comparison can be made:
“All men, from birth onward, live more by sensation than by thought, forced as they are by necessity to give heed to sense impressions. Some stay in the sensate their whole life long. For them, sense is the beginning and the end of everything. Good and evil are the pleasures of sense and the pains of sense; it is enough to chase the one and flee the other. Those of them who philosophize say that therein wisdom lies... Others do lift themselves, a little above the earth. Their higher part transports them out of the pleasurable into the honorable. But, unable to perceive anything higher and with nowhere to set themselves, they fall back in virtue's name - on the activities and "options" of that lower realm they had thought to escape. But there is another, a third class of men - men godlike in the greatness of their strength and the acuity of their perceptions. They see clearly the splendors that shine out from on high. Thither, out of the mist and fogs of the earth, they lift themselves. There they stay, seeing from above what is here below, taking their pleasure in truth.” Plotinus, "The Intelligence, the Ideas and Being," in The Essential Plotinus, trans. Elmer O' Brien (Indianapolis: Hacket Publications, 1964), pp. 46-47.
Notice the similarities? On the one hand you have Plotinus’ categories of “sensate,” “above the earth,” and “godlike” And on the other hand you have Scofield’s “natural man,” “carnal Christian,” and “Spirit-filled Christian.” Plotinus’ first level corresponds to the “natural man” in Scofield’s system. Plotinus’ second level corresponds to Scofield’s “carnal Christian” who can only handle “the milk of the Word.” Scofield’s “Spirit-filled Christian” mirrors Plotinus’ third level.
Plotinus’ system is to blame for many of the mystery religions and the New Age movement. But you obviously don’t need to get into weird things like these to be influenced by such a Gnostic philosophy. Merely by adopting Trichotomist anthropology, you can get the same structure of belief. The same belief system behind the New Age movement has infiltrated Evangelicalism through Trichotomy, or the Carnal Christian view of sanctification and the Keswick or "higher-life" teachings that have become central to fundamentalist theology.