Several semesters ago, I took a great systematic theology course in seminary where I learned about various ideologies that render humans tripartite beings. At one point, primacy was placed upon the contributions Millard J. Erickson has made to discourse on this topic. As many theologians and biblical scholars know, Erickson has submitted some profound and provocative ideas by proposing his conditional unity theory. For those who are not familiar with the theory, the conditional unity view holds that the soul is contained within the body of an individual during earthly existence. After death, however, this unity is dissolved as the material aspect of the individual disintegrates while the immaterial dimension of their personhood remains. At the resurrection, the dissolution of the soul and body is brought back together such that the individual continues to exist in the state they embodied while alive on earth. In addition to proposing and discussing the conditional unity theory, Erickson has also spent time explaining the implications that this theological view has on humans. Because his ideas pertain to the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of human existence, his ideas are worth discussing.
In addition to defining conditional unity and comparing it to extant theories regarding the constitution of human bodies and souls, Erickson’s discourse regarding the theological view incorporates discussion of its implications. In noting five implications of conditional unity, he first references the notion that humans are to be considered unities. In discussing the import of this concept, he maintains that people cannot be treated in context of only their physical or psychological components. Rather, both aspects of their being must be taken into consideration for the person to be fully healthy. Thus, he argues, any attempt to treat an individual’s spiritual condition without recognizing their psychosomatic state cannot be entirely successful.
In addition to maintaining that conditional unity entails belief in the notion that humans are unitary beings, Erickson argues that humans are complex entities. In essence, this statement means that the human’s nature cannot be reduced to a single principle (557) but rather must be considered in context of various components existing and/or interacting in unison. Following this notation, Erickson points out that accedence to the conditional unity principle generates belief in the notion that “the different aspects of human nature are all to be attended to and respected” (557). Elaborating on this concept, he claims that the gospel is “an appeal to the whole person” (557) and points out that there should be no depreciating of the psychosomatic components of the human.
Following his assessments regarding the importance of attending to and respecting each aspect of the human, Erickson argues that spiritual growth cannot and should not incorporate the subjugation of one aspect of human nature to another (557). Total depravity indicates that all components of the individual have been sullied, not merely one. Therefore, the goal of the Christian should not be to bring one part of the self (such as the body) under the control of another (such as the soul). Finally, Erickson maintains that human nature “is not inconsistent with the scriptural teaching of a personal conscious existence between death and resurrection” (557), an idea he delineates during his discourse regarding the definition for conditional unity.
As made plain by the information listed above, Erickson takes his proposing of the conditional unity theory to a new level by discussing the implications of it. In mentioning things such as the fact that conditional unity entails belief in the idea that every aspect of the human is worthy of attention and regard, Erickson deepens the reader’s understanding of the significance of our bodies and souls. Additionally, his insistence that spiritual growth will not be accomplished if each aspect of the person is not attended to furthers our understanding that we are tripartite beings and must ensure that attention is paid to each component of our personhood. Ultimately, Erickson’s suggestions regarding the significance of his conditional unity theory provides the reader with a fresh and intriguing perspective on the age-old subject of minds, bodies, and spirits.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998. Print.