A critical view of Ericksons Conditional Unity
July 24, 2016
Table of Contents
1. Erickson’s Conditional Unity
- Description of his Conditional Unity
2. Reasons he believes it
3. Implications of Conditional Unity
4. Analysis of Conditional Unity
a. He tries to account for 1273 verses of Scripture.
Erickson believes in Conditional Unity and is supported by 1273 verses in the Bible. However, trading verses between theological views does not necessarily account for the meaning intended by the Scripture. Erickson warns against the presuppositions everyone brings to the study of the Bible and the topic of the human constitution. Erickson has conceived a reasonable theological view based on his subjective reasoning of Scripture. Honest theologians like Erickson still bring in their own presuppositions regarding their framework of Scripture.
There are many educated guesses regarding the doctrine of Man in Scripture that true believers put forth. There are also educated guesses made by unbelieving scholars. Believers begin with a foundation on God and unbelievers do not. Regarding believers, it should be expected that God has an intended meaning of Scripture and has discoverable doctrines that He reveals as it is studied. However, not all things are perfectly clear resulting in reasonable differences that believers come to a conclusion on regarding various doctrines. There are doctrines that Christian believers cannot disagree with and still be called Christian. Doctrines such as those regarding the Trinity and Jesus being the God/Man. The nature of man’s body and soul is not necessarily a deal breaker as to believer being Christian or not. There are heretical teachings regarding this topic but following is Erickson’s view which he refers to as conditional unity. Other views will also be covered.
Millard J. Erickson approaches the topic of the nature of man by proposing a model called conditional unity. He does not see the doctrine as a choice between “…immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. In keeping with what has been the orthodox tradition with the church, it is both/and.” Just like other orthodox Christian believers he agrees that man has a material body and an immaterial soul. The two parts, body and soul, separate at death and at the resurrection these two will be reunited in a new perfected way. James 2:26 describes death as the separation of body and spirit. Genesis 2:7 is using the word soul as a whole being. Genesis 2:7 says, “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul”. Here the body was formed but it lacked life. Life was breathed into the human producing life. In other words the body is dead without the soul. God created both the body and the soul and they can be separated which is articulated in Matthew 10:28. It says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both the soul and the body in hell”. He views the separation of the material body and the immaterial as the intermediate state found in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.
It says, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if in deed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
Erickson view a human “as a unitary compound of a material and an immaterial element. The spiritual and the physical elements are not always distinguishable” and there is no conflict between them. Death dissolves the unity and “a compound” is reformed perfectly and inseparably at the resurrection.
Monism is a theological model that views the makeup of mankind as having only one part. Erickson does reject the monism model because the Bible identifies mankind as having at least two parts. Monism considers it unthinkable that a human can exist apart from the physical body. Michael Horton explains monism as, “Human beings are physical organisms; the characteristics traditionally associated with the soul or mind are attributable to chemical and neurological processes and interactions.” Erikson says that this model, “arose in part as a reaction against the liberal idea of immortality of the soul”. Elwell mentions that the term was first used by a German philosopher Christian Wolff. Also that the idea of monism dates back to “pre-Socratic philosophers who appealed to a single unifying principle to explain all the diversity of observed experience.” According to Elwell monism has a metaphysical question that it is trying to understand. That question is, “How many things are there?” Elwell breaks monism down into substantival (one thing) which was held by Spinoza and attributive monism (one category). This last position was held by liberal scholars such as Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hobbes and Leibniz. Liberal scholars tend to employ this model as being correct as they see no real distinction between God and the creatures of this world.
Both substantial and attributive models are insisting there is only one substance that makes up all things and in the case of the attributive model one category of material substance for those who hold to materialism or mental substance for those who are idealists. The substantial view has been a dominant view throughout history. Dr. Mapes mentioned that Mormons are proponents of it today and regard the image of God as referring to mankind’s physical makeup. That this view is not consistent with Scripture because if God had a physical body Jesus would not have had to become incarnate. He also noted that if this Mormon view is correct God should also have wings and feathers because animals have the image of God since they too are physical beings.
The correct view mentioned in Dr. Mapes notes is the more common view that sees the image of God as being embedded into man’s nature. This is communicable attributes or abilities that God possesses and has granted to human beings. God has blessed man with some shared abilities yet they are not infinite like His own. This means mankind has a will, morality, and rational thought similar to but not exactly like God’s. Man is different from God in that He is a Spirit and man is dualistic with a spirit and body.
Rival doctrines of man expand upon their own understanding of it based on their own philosophical and religious stances. True believing Christians differ on the issue of man being two or three parts. Elwell lists three very important Old Testament words regarding God and nature. The word for soul is “nephesh” and it is mentioned 755 times. 4 of those times it is used to refer to the body. The word for spirit is “ruach” which is mentioned 378 times. And the word flesh is “basar” which is used 266 times. How a person understands these words within the verses and overall context of the Bible will determine their doctrine of mankind. Of course unbelievers will use the words but dismiss the authority of Scripture. They simply are trying to undermine faith in God and certainly the God of the Bible. Orthodox believers such as Louis Berkhof states:
It is customary, especially in Christian circles, to conceive of man as consisting of two, and only two, distinct parts, namely, body and soul. This view is technically called dichotomy. Alongside of it, however, another made its appearance, to the effect that human nature consists of three parts, body, soul, and spirit. It is designated by the term trichotomy. The tripartite conception of man originated in Greek philosophy, which conceived of the relation of the body and the spirit of man to each other after the analogy of the mutual relation between the material universe and God.
Christians want to be correct in interpreting Scripture by doing their best to understand God’s intent behind every passage. So, believing theologians work hard at searching Scripture for every clue that leads to the truth of a matter. In the case of the doctrine of man the Bible is not explicit in defining if man is made up of only two parts or three. In fact there are passages that make a person wonder if man is made up of more than three. In these cases a person has to look at the entire passage. First, it would be good to look at the several historical views.
Faithful Christians will look at how God used certain words within a text and how is compares to the rest of Scripture. Erickson rejects the various anthropology positions for various reasons. Some of them are because the Greek word for spirit is “pheuma” and is also used to refer to the entire person. Romans 8:16 uses the word in that way. It says:
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
The Greek word for soul is “psuche” which is also used to refer to the whole person.
Romans 13:1 is an example of it being used that way when it says:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Here “person” is a nominative singular noun. This shows the Greek word and the translation are appropriate and possibly then rejects the trichotomist view.
Faithful Christians like Millard J. Erickson will find that the Bible is not always clear about the terms it uses regarding our topic. Luke 10:27 says:
“And he answered, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Luke is saying a person should love God with all their heart (kardia) and soul (psyche) and strength (ischys) and mind (dianoia). This seems to indicate there are four parts to a person. Matthew 22:37 leaves out the part about strength and says:
“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Mark 12:30 does include it but has the order a bit different when he says:
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Mark 12:33 uses a different word for “mind” and does not use the word for “soul” at all. Due to all the variations a person may wonder if a model consisting of four, five, or six parts should be adhered too. It must be concluded that these verses are not clearly talking about the makeup of a human being but that a human being is to love God with their entire being whatever that is.
The dichotomist view is that “human beings are composed of soul (synonymous with spirit or mind) and body.” That the material body and the immaterial soul (spirit) are two ontologically distinct entities. This is a mysterious union that as a whole makes up the whole human being. Louis Berkhof calls it the “union of life”. He supports the view with Genesis 2:7, Ecclesiastes 12:7, and Matthew 10:28. It should be noticed that Ecclesiastes 12:7 says, “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” So, there appears to be two distinct ontological entities yet somehow a unity in the diversity. The body (soma) can die but the spirit (psyche) does not. Luke 23:43 Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he would be with Jesus in paradise right after the death of his body.
2 Corinthians 5:1-10: For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Philippians 1:21-24: 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
In orthodox Christianity the dichotomist position which says that a person has a perishable body and an immortal spirit that does not die after it leaves the body has been the most widely held view.
Erickson points out there is a liberal form of dichotomy promoted by William Clarke and L. Harold DeWolf called dualism. Erickson talk about how Clarke believes, “the body is the seat and means of our present life, but not a necessary part of personality.” The body is not an essential part of the human nature. Others like Harry Emerson Fosdick went further and “saw no need to identify the idea of immortality with resurrection.”
The trichotomist view is explained by Horton as, “Human beings are composed of spirit/mind, soul, and body (in descending rank).” They insist that the use of the conjunction “and” between “spirit” and “soul” in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is proof Scripture teaches they are separate entities. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may our whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Erickson rejects monism and dualism. He believes that monism has difficulty squaring their model with eschatology. He views certain passages as indicating an “intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the individual lives on in conscious personal existence.” Passages such as Luke 16:19-31 regarding the rich man and Lazarus a poor man who both died. Both are clearly consciously aware of what is happening around them.
He rejects the Christian dualist citing Hebrews 9:27; Romans 14:8; and 1 Corinthians 15:22. He said it is due to these verses speaking of the individual person dying and:
“they do not say that the body dies and the person somehow lives on. The resurrection is never spoken of as a resurrection of the body alone, but rather of the person. Consider also Jesus’s atoning death. Scripture says plainly, “Christ died for our sins” (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:3); it does not say merely that his bodily functions ceased.”
This argument for rejection makes one wonder if Erickson thinks Jesus also died spiritually along with his physical body.
There are five implications of the Conditional Unity Millard J. Erickson expounds. The first is that a human is to be treated as a unity meaning their spiritual condition is not to be dealt with separately from their physical and psychological condition. Application of this means attention must be given to their mental and physical health. So, if a doctor finds it necessary to use psychotropic medications it should not be looked down upon. It is not going to be detrimental to their spiritual condition but possibly help them in overall health. Likewise, taking care of physical health is just as important. Physical health includes proper rest, diet, and exercise. These things will help the person be mentally alert and energized for worship.
Secondly, a person is a complex being and is not to be thought of in a single monism type model. This idea follows well with the above notion that people need to manage their spiritual and physical health in order to properly function. For example, physical pain can lead to depression making it necessary to manage both the physical pain and the mental health problem of depression.
Third, the gospel is intended to meet the needs of the whole person. Mankind is to be respected physically and spiritually. A proper gospel ministry means people are to be taken care of in the things they need physically and spiritually. This type of action is seen in the Book of Acts. Acts 2:42-47 shows early believers voluntarily providing for the needs of other Christians. These early Christians were helping each other out in a material way but also spiritually building each other up through discipleship.
Fourth, “no part of the human makeup is evil per se.” Erickson believes that total depravity effects the entire person and sanctification should not be thought of as just dealing with one part of the human makeup. A person should desire to bring the body and spirit into conformity with the gospel message of Jesus Christ. God is and has always been about renewing the entire being of a person. This means a person should not think punishing the body is going to benefit themselves spiritually with God. Likewise, punishing themselves spiritually will not attain God’s love either.
Fifthly, Erickson say’s an implication of his Conditional Unity model is, “Human nature is not inconsistent with the scriptural teaching of a personal conscious existence between death and resurrection”. Hebrews 9:27 says, “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgement.” There is a clear example of how a human being should expect to be conscience of being judged after the death of their body. In Jesus Christ there is no sting of death because He has covered the sin of the believer. This does not mean a Christian cannot physically die but it does mean eternal unity with God is possible for the believer. On Judgement Day the believer is to expect to be reunited with a perfect body and spirit.
The analysis of Erickson’s Conditional Unity is that he is a faithful Christian doing the best he can do to understand a very complicated topic. Other faithful Christians have understood the topic as best they could but may have not thought things through as well. Still others have come up with conclusions with no intent on being faithful to Scripture. Faithful Christians are still fallible people and cannot come up with all the correct answers on their own. Christians need to rely on the Holy Spirit as he guides faithful theologians to the truth of a matter. Not all things are necessary to be known to the fullest extent that is desired.
Erickson and others believe he has come up with the best explanation for the constitution on mankind. He makes a pretty good logical argument for Conditional Unity by discussing how the body and soul are defined by the entire Bible both Old and New Testaments. He argues for the body dying and the spirit/soul living on in an intermediate existence until the final resurrection. This existence is an incomplete state of being for a human but is real nonetheless.
As stated before, Erickson has made a valid and rational argument for his position. It is at least on a near equal footing as that of the conservative dichotomist view articulated during the Reformation and in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith (which is a summary of what the Bible teaches on the topics covered in Systematic Theology and other topics) says in chapter 32 regarding the state of men after death and of the resurrection of the dead:
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous are received into the highest heavens And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
Various biblical verses support their view and have already been covered. For quick reference they are Philippians 1:21-24, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Luke 23:43, Genesis 2:7, Ecclesiastes 12:7, and Matthew 10:28. The Westminster Confession of Faith includes many more passages to support the view. They include: Genesis 3:19, Acts 13:36, Hebrews 12:23, 2 Corinthians 5:1, 6, 8; Acts 3:21 Ephesians 4:10, Romans 8:23, Luke 16:23-24, Acts 1:25, Jude 6-7, and Peter 3:19.
The chapter does not simply end with what is quoted above but continues to expound upon the topic. Sections 2 and 3 of chapter 32 of the Westminster Confession of Faith say:
Section 2: At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.
Section 3: The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to his own glorious body.
These statements are defended with numerous Scriptures as well. They include: John 5:25-29; Acts 24:15; Job 19:26-27; Daniel 12:2; 1 Corinthians 15:42-44; and Philippians 3:21 to name most of them. Clearly they are using both the Old and New Testaments to defend the dichotomous position.
There should be no doubt by reading chapter 32 of the Westminster Confession of Faith that it views mankind as having only one ontological entity. That the body will die and see corruption. This simply means the body will return to the dust of the earth no longer having a form of its own.
Furthermore, the Westminster Confession of Faith correctly believes that man has another ontological entity which is immortal. This soul/spirit does not die or sleep after the body dies. Clearly, they correctly see the soul and spirit as interchangeable. It seems people forget that the separation of the material body with the immaterial soul is a curse God put on mankind in Genesis after the fall. There is a continuity between the mortal and immortal body just as 1 Corinthians 15:49 says. The passage reads, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” There is a difference between the earthly and heavenly body. The natural body belongs to and in this world whereas the spiritual person belongs in heaven with God. The physical body dies and goes to where it belongs and the spirit goes back to where it came from which is the source of life itself.
As stated before, Erickson clearly has a solid argument for his position but it must also be recognized the historic Christian church articulated the topic convincingly in the Westminster Confession of Faith. No matter who addresses this topic they will bring in their own presuppositions based on life experience and the things they have been taught in school or church by people they trust. All faithful Christians are trying to understand as much as possible regarding numerous topics when it comes to their faith and the precious gift God gave in His special revelation to us. It would be ridiculous to suggest that Westminster Confession of Faith or Millard J. Erickson have everything just right in their understanding of the Bible. Indeed, there are positions held on any number of topics that are different between churches and denominations. There are very faithful churches and denominations and then there are those who are on the brink of heresy. Neither Millard J. Erickson in his book or the 151 theologians who wrote the summary of the Bible in the Westminster Confession of Faith are perfect. They are not because of sin.
Good theology should stand the test of time. Christians stand on the shoulders of Christians who have come before us and the foundation of it is Jesus himself. It is good that Christians pour over difficult topics and allow iron to sharpen iron as the differences come about. All Christians must submit to Scripture and there is no doubt a faithful Christian can get so set in their ways that sin does not allow them to learn or submit to the appropriate doctrine of the Bible. The Holy Spirit will either convict them of the error or leave them in it. No person dies with a 100% pure doctrine on all things concerning the Bible. That is not because a faithful Christian does not try to do it. They do try and they fail. Some fail miserably and others show a mighty growth in their understanding of Scripture.
Erickson clearly has a great understanding of Scripture and the topic of the constitution of mankind regarding the terms body, soul, and spirit. It is clear that those such as the Lutheran church who hold a tripartite view believe they have the most sufficient view based on Scripture. It is also very clear that the Westminster divines produced a magnificent, subordinate to the Bible, document that summarizes biblical doctrine of man very well. So, while I hold to this last view I would always be willing to conform to Scripture on any given topic. That is why I have changed my views on several things over the past 45 years. In the end a Christian must hold to the essentials of the faith and be charitable in our differences as long as it is not a difference that is heretical.
Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.
Church, The Orthodox Presbyterian. The Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts. Willow Grove: Great Commission Publications, 2008.
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Ryrie, Charles. Basic Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Edited by James T Dennison Jr. Translated by George Musgrave Giger. New Jersey: Reformed Publishing Company, 1992.
 Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 492.
 Ibid., 492
 Ibid., 492
 Michael Horton. The Christian Faith A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 379.
 Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 481.
 Walter A. Elwell. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001. 787.
 Ibid., 787
 Michael Horton. The Christian Faith A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 379.
 Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996. 195.
 Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 479.
 Ibid., 480
 Michael Horton. The Christian Faith A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 379.
 Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 483.
 Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 486.
 Millard Erickson. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 493.
 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The Confession of Faith and Catechisms with Proof Texts. Willow Grove: Great Commission Publications, 2008. 147.
 Ibid., 148-149.