Does „Spiritual” Mean „Inwardly”? (A Few Words an a Common Protestant Missunderstanding)


After two thousand years of Christian history it is difficult for us today to imagine the great novelty that this religion brought to the world of Late Antiquity. It is too often assumed, especially in academia that Christianity came with a message that resonated with the expectations of the people that it reached. But even a slight glimpse thrown into the spirituality of the Mediterranean world of the time would show us that this is not the case. A comic example of this is the preaching of Paul in the Areopagus before the Athenian sages. The outcome is predictable, if you consider the beliefs of these philosophers:

 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, „We will hear you again about this.” 

 It is no wonder that the biggest problem for these learned men was the resurrection of the dead. Everything in the religious and spiritual expectation of the people in that period went against the central idea of the Gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For the pagan sages of the day, the concept of being born again spiritually was well known. But what they meant by this was completely different from what the Christian missionaries preached. Some of their ideas are still with us today, so we should give them a look to be able to avoid them.

The pagan sages of the late antiquity saw the Cosmos as a well ordered unity that is composed of various levels. The Earth was for them the place of physical life, followed by the spheres of the planets, which were imagined as being composed of the same non-physical substance that formed the outer portions of the human soul. Beyond the last sphere, that of the fixed stars, there was the realm of the invisible, the purely spiritual, beyond space and time itself. The planets themselves were made of a material that was more spiritual than the physical matter of the earthly existence, but less spiritual than the realm beyond them.

The human being itself was made up by a spiritual core, like the spiritual being beyond the last visible sphere. On this core there was a layer of impressions related to the spheres of the planets. At last, this soul was put inside a physical body.

So, the human soul was thought to have a spiritual nature and this spiritual nature had to be discovered by purifications. Liberation from the physical needs of earthly existence as well as from the individual character imprinted by the various planets was the ultimate goal of these philosophers and their disciples.

The common image was that of the purely spiritual soul descending through the different planetary spheres, concentrically arranged around the Earth, receiving certain characteristics from them during its travel and, finally, in the abode of the earthly existence receiving a physical body too. Therefore, the art of Astrology was practiced to find out what was the position of the planets at the birth of a person, in order to determine the character and the fate of that person.

They thought that as earthly beings humans cannot escape their fate, because it is determined by the stars above. Only by ascending beyond the stars, from where the original spirit came, could one of us become free. This ascension is, in fact, a descent in the deeper parts of our soul, because the cosmic levels correspond to the different levels of the human being: Earth to the body, the soul under the cosmic fate to the planetary spheres and the pure spirit that is in the deepest part of the soul to the realm beyond the sphere of the fixed stars. The journey through the spheres of the Cosmos is a journey to deeper and deeper levels of our soul, leaving behind the outer levels to reach the spirit within. This is the mistake that is still with us today: we continue to think that true spirituality has something to do with getting away from the body and turning to the “inside”.

In this context, spiritual death and rebirth is the descent into deeper and deeper levels of our own being, that we are doing ourselves through philosophic (neo-platonism) or ritual (various mystery cults) purification. Metaphorically, it is the ascent through the planetary heavens and beyond the last sphere. We have to die to our body first, that is to detach ourselves from bodily needs. After that, we have to detach ourselves from the imprints of the planets on our character, becoming more and more depersonalized, until we cease to be individuals and become pure spirits.

We can see now why the Athenian philosophers were having such a hard time with the preaching of Paul. For them, the basic premise of any kind of spiritual life is the detachment from the body. Spirit and body are in conflict, and only by leaving one behind can a human being live fully in the realm of the other: if you want to progress spiritually, you have to forget your body. Not only there is no place for a bodily resurrection in this scheme, but a physical resurrection – if it can be conceived by these philosophers – is the exact opposite of what they were looking for. It is not something different and new, but the exact opposite! The learned men of Athens had nothing against new and original approaches (Acts 17:21), but they were not ready to give up the most cherished idea of their wisdom: progress in the spiritual life is a progressive abandonment of the physical existence, is a turning away from the body.

Given the ideas and sensitivities of the Athenian philosophers, the message of Paul looks ridiculous at best or scandalous at worst. But from a biblical point of view, the same message makes perfect sense. “Spiritual” life, for the Bible, is a meeting of the whole human person, body and soul, with the Creator. It is a life in the Spirit of God. Two beings, Creator and creature, are united in one loving relationship. When a pagan philosopher thinks of spirit, he thinks of his own spirit. For a Christian spiritual life refers to life in the Spirit of God. Still today, we have to be very careful what we mean by “spiritual”. We Christians mean the life in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that we are talking about is not our own interior being, but a person that is outside us: the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Also, for the pagan sage, spiritual rebirth is a death to outer levels of his soul (and lower levels of the Cosmos), that are more material, and rebirth to deeper levels of his soul (and higher levels of the Cosmos), that are more spiritual. For the Christian, spiritual death and rebirth is a dying to this world (the old Cosmos entirely) in order to be reborn in a new world with a renewed body and soul. It makes little difference what levels of materiality or spirituality this Cosmos has, or on what level we find ourselves, or how deep are we reaching in our soul. This whole Cosmos will pass away and will be replaced by a renewed one. So it makes no sense to try to ascend through planetary spheres in search of the pure spiritual realm beyond the fixed stars – that is: there is no sense in progressive detachment from more material levels of our being to reach the more spiritual ones. All these will be done away with at the passing of this world.

We understand now the context of the famous exhortation of Paul to the Colossians:

8 See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Col. 2:8-10)

  Philosophy deals with this world and its structure, or with the “elemental spirits of the universe”, as Paul puts it. If you want to be liberated from your body and to reach the realm of pure spirit, it is crucial to know the way the Cosmos, and your own being, is built up. Knowledge is everything for philosophers, while Christians live by faith (Habakuk 2:4 cited in the New Testament in places like Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, Philipp. 3:9 and Heb. 10:38). But if you want to be saved by Jesus Christ knowledge of the structure of the Cosmos and of your soul will not help you in any way. So, if you are a Christian and you want to use knowledge of any kind to save yourself, philosophy will be nothing more but vain deceit. Salvation in Jesus Christ is escape from this world corrupted by the sin of Adam and destined to be judged by God at the end of time and entrance in the New Creation. You do not move from one part of your being to another, but your whole being is transferred from this world to the next.

Of course, as long as we are part of this Creation we do not have the possibility to make this jump. It would be like trying to escape from drowning in lake by pulling ourselves out of the water by our own hair. A pagan philosopher has only to reach deeper levels of his soul, that are already there and waiting to be reached. A Christian can do nothing alone. What a Christian has is faith that God will work as He promised. This is why Paul insists so much on the fact that we cannot save ourselves, but it is the grace of God that saves us.

For Christianity, however, faith is everything. Not knowledge (Greek and Indian paganism), not the law (Judaism), not submission (Islam), but faith is the keyword of the christian spiritual life. Faith that God will deliver us, based on the long record of His faithfulness. The Bible is one long story and not a description of the Universe, or a treatise on arcane wisdom, because it tells us the story of the faithfulness of the One Who promised to save us, giving us hope that He will stand by His word.

We see why modern science has done away with pagan practices such as astrology[1] or alchemy and their underlying philosophy, but has not done away with Christianity. There is nothing that we can find out about this world that can shake our faith, since our faith is in a New World for which we have to be born again in Christ Jesus. New discoveries about the world that we live in can shatter ancient spiritual arts, such as astrology or alchemy and the like, because these are based on a certain idea about how our world functions. If that is proved wrong, they are useless too.

Both modern science and the ancient philosophies and wisdoms are preoccupied with giving a true picture of the structure of the Universe and our place in it. This is fine in itself, and Christians had nothing, historically, against this kind of knowledge. Actually, in no human culture was Creation more studied then in Christendom. It is not by chance that modern natural sciences were born in the Christian West. The problem comes when these claim to bring ultimate fulfillment for human beings. Then they become nothing more then empty deceit.

In its two thousand years of history the Church was careful to preserve and cultivate worldly knowledge, taking care to confine it to its proper place. In Late Antiquity the first theologians, the Church Fathers, had no problem generally to engage worldly philosophies on their ground, never losing sight of the fact that these philosophies are the product of the limited mind of a fallen creature. Since the most important philosophical school at that time was Platonism, we find the Fathers of the Church using platonic terminology and concepts to make intelligible for the pagan world the Christian Gospel. But almost always these theologians of old were able to see the limitations of the platonic philosophy that represented the height of science of their time, and denied its sufficiency. They discarded astrology and other divinatory practices that were thought by their practitioners to be based on these cosmologies, but they kept what was scientific and useful.

Later on, during the dark ages, the Church preserved in the monasteries the most important writings of the pagan philosophers, saving them from the destruction brought by the barbarian invasions. As a result, some people accuse it of having become too fond of worldly wisdom, while others accuse it of not having done enough for the preservation of ancient knowledge. Actually, for every accusation brought against the Catholic Church there is another opposite accusation – it all depends on whom are you listening to. But the Church has kept going forward, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ for the salvation of people and treasuring useful knowledge of this present world when there was a need for it.

But, in any case, there can be no contradiction between scientific inquiry in the mysteries of the Universe and the message of salvation into a New Creation. Problems arise only when scientific inquiry becomes a quest for worldly messianism. The deceit of ancient philosophies, that claim to bring peace and self-fulfillment in spiritual progress or the modern deceit of secularist ideologies to create paradise here and now are destined to clash head on with the Gospel of the New Creation in Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior.

These are important points to keep in mind when we consider the goal of salvation in Christ and the means for achieving this salvation. Many sincere Christians expect salvation to be only something “spiritual” or “inwardly” and, therefore, any interest that the Church shows for things of this world seems misguided. This mistrust extends also to the sacramental system of the Church. The argument against it goes something like this: the spiritual life, because it is spiritual and inwardly has no use for exterior rites and physical matter, such as water in the case of baptism, holy oil for Chrism. Also, there is no need for the mediation of another person, such as a priest. Grace works inwardly, and the sacraments are only exterior signs of the work of grace that has already happened before their administration. Baptism is only the public celebration of a regeneration by grace that has already taken place in the life of the believer, and the Lord’s Supper is a simple commemoration of the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus. Grace cannot be conferred through them.

We can see the weakness of this line of reasoning (and feeling) now that we have seen the proper distinction between the Christian and the pagan sense of spiritual life. The chief mistake is to confuse “spiritual” with “inwardly”. This is to take “spirituality” in the pagan sense, as having something to do with the interior life exclusively. For the heathen philosophers of old, the spiritual progress of the soul towards its spiritual abode up there was a descent into deeper and deeper levels of the soul. Modern Christians realize that it is God who does the work – and that is a good thing – but the idea that the work of God is exclusively interior is a pagan idea.

Contemporary Christians who are chasing an exclusively interior life, with the mistaken idea that that is the true spirituality, make a further mistake, which even the pagan philosophers were wise enough to avoid. This is the mistake of confusing the “emotional” with the “interior”. As a result, contemporary evangelical Christianity is nothing more in practice than an exacerbation of emotions and feelings, the most unstable and volatile part of the human psyche.

There is no wonder that in the absence of a sacramental theology like that of the Catholic Church, Protestantism descended into a “feelingism” that is taken for authentic interior/spiritual life. There is much talk in evangelical circles about the authentic spirituality that is to be found there, compared to the exterior and empty worship of Catholics. There is some truth to that, as far as catholic worship goes. Indeed, the danger of having such a developed exterior worship is that it is used to avoid authentic interior life. But the problem there is the lack of coherence between the inside and the outside, not the fact that there is an outside beside the inside. But on the evangelical side the mistake is to take only what is emotional as authentic. To put it briefly: they mistake the intense for the profound.

But the christian spiritual life is not about the inward working of the Holy Spirit, but about the working of the Holy Spirit upon the whole being. The rejection of the outward in the name of the inward makes perfect sense for pagan neo-platonists (at least for the early ones like Plotinus and Porphyry), but makes absolutely no sense for the christian doctrine of salvation. As Christians, we hope for the rescue of our entire being, body and soul, into the New Creation. Our faith is in the resurrection of the flesh in Jesus Christ, not in an inward experience here in this world. There is no reason, therefore, to expect the Holy Spirit to work only inwardly. This is a mere superstition inherited from heathen philosophies of old and further degraded to the level of emotionalism.

It is perfectly true that the work of the Holy Spirit is invisible, but this does not mean that it is inwardly, as evangelicals and born-again Christians think. It is invisible because this world will pass away only at the Second Coming. Until then, we only have access to the Promised Land through faith. We see the water flowing, we know that the Holy Spirit is at work, but we know of that work only through faith. We don’t see it. The regeneration is not only inwardly because if it were, then in the New Jerusalem we would go only with our interiority. Why would we be raised body and soul then? It doesn’t make any sense. Instead, the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit regards the whole person, body and soul, exterior and interior, but is invisible because we will see the result only at the Second Coming (1 John 3: 2).

It is crucial, therefore, not to be carried away by words such as “spiritual”, “inward”, “invisible” and the like, but to use them in their proper sense in the context of christian doctrine. If we are taken in by a mistaken use of them, we will be deceived by false hopes and erroneous expectations. I am thinking here of the so called experience of being born again, without which, allegedly, no one is saved, but after which one can know with certainty that is “saved”. This doctrine is a complete distortion of the Gospel. There is no reason to expect evidence of our regeneration while we are still in this old world destined to be done away with. The evidence will be readily available at the Second Coming, not a second before. Till then, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), or emotional experiences, or anything like it.

The correct understanding of the role of faith in our regeneration helps us avoid another pitfall as well. We can see that our spiritual regeneration will reveal its fruits only at the Second Coming, when we will be new creatures in a visible manner. Before that, we only have access through faith to some fruits of our regeneration. Before we can see Christ in His glory we cannot know what exactly our regenerated nature looks like:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

This is so because our regenerated being is a new creature for a new Creation. We have to be patient and wait for the new Creation, brought forth at the Second Coming, at the passing of this world. What we do have, however, is faith that Jesus has regenerated us, as He promised, and we also have hope that He will return. Faith and hope are the two treasures that we have in this life, before His return. To these, it is added charity, or love, that is to stay with us here, as well as in the next world.

It is clear that any expectation to have a clear sign of our regeneration before the Second Coming goes against the Scripture that insists on this crucial point: we walk by faith, not by sight. It is surprising how many honest and sincere Christians have the impression that salvation comes with a sign that should prove to them (and others) that they are saved.

The intense emotional experience of “being born again” is a sign to many that one is “saved”. In Pentecostal circles this sign-craze goes even further. The Holy Spirit has to prove in a visible manner His presence, by giving the believer the gift of tongues and performing miracles. For those of little faith this kind of “evidence”, emotional or miraculous as it may be the case, is a very efficient magnet. People don’t want to rely on faith and hope. They want evidence. They want the “real” thing. They search for the “authentic” spirituality that can be easily identified as such.

It seems that nothing has changed in two millennia, if we read this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

38. Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, „Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39. But he answered them, „An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Mt. 12:38-40)

There is only one sign of our salvation and that is the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Period! Emotional evidence and miraculous events have nothing to do with our regeneration. It is true, in some occasions God may choose to perform miracles to get someone where He wants that person to be, but those are extraordinary cases. Usually and normally what we have at our disposal from Him is Faith, Hope and Charity. These are His gifts and they should be sufficient for us.

These things are especially important to keep in mind when we deal with two mistakes. One I have already mentioned and it regards the emotional evidence sought by “born-again” Christians and the signs and wonders pursued by Pentecostal faithful. The other mistake is the “assurance of salvation” doctrine. If you have been saved, so the story goes, you know it for sure. The verse invoked in support of this thesis is 1 John 5:13.

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

According to this verse, those who already have faith in Jesus Christ as Savior can have the confidence of having salvation in Him. John writes his letter to confirm the brethren in their faith, not to assure them about knowledge of something. In brief: salvation is a question of faith not of knowledge. You don’t know it, you believe it. Whoever knows that he is saved is deceiving himself.

Now that we have discussed the sensitive issue of faith versus knowledge, we are ready to take on another sensitive issue: that of faith versus works. A common prejudice is that once faith is present, works will come automatically. In fact, the difference between “true” and “false” faith is supposed to be that the first one produces good works, while the other does not produce them. So you can know if someone has authentic faith if that person has works.

This theory has been brought to light to answer a particular problem within the protestant interpretation of the role of faith in salvation. The problem is this: if it is true that salvation is by faith and not by works, how do we reconcile this with what James is saying in his epistle:

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

The way to circumvent this verse, that flatly contradicts the protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone, is to superimpose on it a distinction between two kinds of faith: a real and a false one. The real faith produces works. The false faith, that does not save, does not produce works. This is what James is supposed to say here. According to this doctrine, faith produces spontaneously good works. It goes without saying that the text itself does not speak about a “false” faith, or any other kind of faith. It simply speaks about faith as such and denies that it alone can bring salvation.

This is a crucial point in understanding correctly the difference between the evangelical/born-again and the catholic doctrine of baptism and regeneration. The New Testament is full of passages that are talking about the importance of faith, and in many places this is the only requirement for being saved. Should we conclude from this that everything else except faith is not required for our salvation? It may seem so at first glance. But the Bible excludes this interpretation.

Why is it then the case that such a doctrine has been formulated and it is so widely believed by bible-christians, of all believers? The reason has to do with the error that I have mentioned in the previous pages: to consider the work of the Holy Spirit as one completely inward, because of the confusion between the “spiritual” and the “inward”. The doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) is the main reason why Protestants reject the sacramental system of the Catholic Church and other historic Churches. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that salvation is by grace alone, that we cannot merit it in any way, much less produce it. But Catholics believe that we partake of the grace of God through the sacraments, while Protestants believe that we partake of it by faith alone, apart from anything else.

If we think that the invisible work of the Holy Spirit in our life is an exclusively inward operation, without any outside aid, and we take “inward” to mean “affective” and “emotional”, then we have no place for the sacraments. There is only an emotional experience of “accepting Jesus in our heart”. Contrarily to what it is said and believed in evangelical circles, this kind of experience has nothing to do with biblical faith. It is only a reduction of the faith to an emotion.

According to this logic there is no place for the sacraments as vehicles of grace, because they are outward signs, while grace is supposed to be interior, because it is spiritual. How can physical matter such as water bring salvation in the sacrament of baptism if salvation is something spiritual and interior? Or how can oil confer the fullness of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Chrism? How can bread and wine be anything more than a simple commemoration of something that has already happened?

The same goes for the sacramentals and not only with the sacraments. The sacramentals are visible signs and gestures through which grace is requested, while the sacraments are exterior signs that confer grace. An example of a sacramental is the lighting of candles in church, in homes or other places. How can that be an effective prayer for grace? Should not a proper prayer consist of an interior conversation with God in which we talk to Him in words? Why are people crossing themselves, thinking that that is a prayer and why do they use holy water? Are not those just exterior signs that have nothing spiritual? Indeed, for many people they seem to be mere superstitions, like the pagan magical practices.

All this is the fruit of that simple but very effective mistake that I have bored about the kind reader in this post. The truth is that all these exterior signs that often employ physical matter of one kind or another, are profoundly spiritual, provided that we use the word “spiritual” in the Christian sense. They are the instruments of the Holy Spirit and that is what makes them spiritual. They simply do not have to be inward, because the Christian spirituality is not about inwardness (it is, but in a sense that we will consider in due time), but about totality. There is nothing in the human being or in the whole Creation that is closer to God or further from Him. We humans are just as fallen in our bodies as in our souls, spirit, mind or whatever. It is not the case that our “inward” part has a privileged relation to things spiritual, so that the Holy Spirit would relate more or exclusively to our “spiritual/inward” dimension. He relates to us and works on us body and soul, outward and inward.

Let me put it this way. If you think that prayer and relating to God is a question of inwardness and not empty exterior signs, please answer me the following question. Do you think that your soul, or your inward nature, is less fallen then your body, so that it is closer to God? If the answer is yes, then I am afraid that you inherited some pagan superstitions along with your Christians faith. Body and soul, outward and inward – we are just as fallen and incapable of relating to God. It is He that relates to us and since we are fallen both in body and soul, outward and inward, He will use both exterior and interior means to confer His grace to us. There is no partiality with God, and He wants to save us completely, not only our interior half. That is why the proper way to receive His grace is through sacraments that are visible signs carrying invisible grace. They are visible signs producing an invisible effect, but they are not outward signs producing and inward effect, because they have an effect on the whole human being. In order to touch the whole human being, body and soul, they have to have both an interior and an exterior dimension.


[1] This is true despite the tremendous popularity of contemporary “Astrology”. What the “astrologers” of today offer to the public is a completely falsified version of this hermetic art, when it is compared to its original form.

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Published in: on Aprilie 26, 2010 at 3:27 pm  Lasă un comentariu  

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