Mystical Union: Alternate Anthropologies

We’re having productive discussions about how relationship with God works, and I don’t want to disrupt that.  However, we do have a little unfinished business with the moribund corpse of Platonic anthropology, and I’d like to plant a stake in its heart.  I’ve already argued that having the intellect hermetically sealed off from emotion and will is bankrupt — and that intellect-emotion-will isn’t a sound ‘anatomy of the soul’ anyhow.  I’d like to extend that argument a bit further.

To that end, let’s consider another ‘anatomy of the soul’ that might compete with the intellect-emotion-will model.

Being a deep anatomist of the soul, St. Gregory [Palamas] teaches that man’s soul is divided into the nous, fantasy, opinion and intellect.  The nous is the center of the soul, the eye of the soul.  The sense is the non-rational power of the soul, which knows and feels the physical things.  Fantasy is the offspring of the sense; it originates from the sense.  Fantasy receives its images from the sense and keeps them even when the actual things are not present,  Opinion — the idea we have about various things, including people and objects — is begotten from fantasy.  Intellect is the rational power of the soul, which formulated the opinion we have about every issue.  It is evident, therefore, that the nous is the core of man’s spiritual world — the eye of the soul — whereas all the rest of the powers, that is, fantasy, opinion and intellect, depend on the sense.  Thus when one wishes to reach God and acquire the knowledge of God, he must do it only through his nous, and not through his fantasy, opinion and intellect.  They all originate from the sense, which is associated with the external bodily senses.*

My point here is not to advocate for this anthropology; in fact, I think it’s unbiblical in a couple of key respects.

But here’s the challenge: how would you refute it?

Go on, think it over for a second.  I’ll wait.

Got a few ideas?  Good.

How many of your arguments apply equally well to the intellect-emotion-will model?


*Hierotheos Vlachos, The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition.  Translated by Effie Mavromichali. 119.


7 Responses to Mystical Union: Alternate Anthropologies

  1. Mike Bull says:

    Heh – nice strategy. Personally, I’d use the triune Tabernacle architecture of man. But I’m weird.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Of course you’re weird, God love you. You wrote about that in Totus Christus, if I remember correctly, isn’t it?

  3. FedExMOP says:


    I am still chewing on the four divisions that St Gregory comes up with. I am not sure that I can see biblical support for each of his divisions, but I am still working on that.

    As far as refuting this anthropology, I think it really echos the thinking of the gnostics. It seems that he is saying that the only route to God is through the spiritual man. Just as gnosticism taught that flesh was bad and spirit was good.

    The end result is that St Gregory makes the same error that the romantics and Platonists do. They all try to reduce the experience of God to only one dimension. The romantics to empotion, the Platonist to intellect, and St Gregory to the spiritual man. I do not see support for this in the Bible, as we really are created to experience God through all aspects of our being. I will keep working on this one.

    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

  4. FedExMOP says:


    I would also question how St Gregory’s anthropology deals with Romans 1. This passage seems to indicate that we can see and experience God from external sources (visible creation).

    Men of Praise Motorcycle Ministry

  5. Tim Nichols says:


    Yeah, that’s some of my problem with it too. I don’t think he really gets that the ‘natural’ world isn’t just there; it’s spoken and pre-interpreted by God, already, and it conveys knowledge of God to everyone that comes into contact with it — which is to say, everyone. An Eastern apologist would object to what I just said, and answer that both St. Gregory and St. Isaac the Syrian talk about knowledge that leads to faith, as well as knowledge that comes from faith — the former from the natural world, the latter from the nous. This is true, as far as it goes — but I am not persuaded that the implications of Creation have fully been worked out. To my eye, touting the need to shut out the natural world and derive knowledge only from the nous argues against it.

  6. Oto says:

    Where does Plato argue that “the intellect [is] hermetically sealed off from emotion and will”?

    You also wrote in a previous thread, “I’m not saying those functions — thinking, feeling, choosing — don’t exist.”

    If they exist, what do you call them?

  7. Tim Nichols says:


    Francis Schaeffer faced this same type of argument, especially with regard to his reading of Hegel. “Hegel doesn’t actually say xyz,” they said. He didn’t care, because the people he was ministering to thought that Hegel had, and even if he hadn’t, xyz was what reading Hegel sparked in their heads, and it was what they thought. He was dealing with the people in front of him, and making them orthodox Hegelians wasn’t going to help much, nor was convincing them that they weren’t Hegelians, after all. The nub of the matter was dealing with xyz as they actually held it, regardless of whether it was Hegelian or not.

    Likewise, I’ll be perfectly happy for you to substitute “various modern fundamentalist FG types” for “Plato” if it makes you happier. I’m perfectly happy to concede that Plato’s original position may have been different, or at least more nuanced. The neoplatonic virus has mutated and combined with several others, and the contemporary result is what I’m dealing with. I am calling it Platonic because I think it is that in flavor, if not in strict correspondence. I’m frankly not prepared to fight over it — proving that Plato didn’t mean that, exactly, doesn’t do a thing to help my missionary efforts with his contemporary fundy great-grandkids.

    Your other point: “You also wrote in a previous thread, ‘I’m not saying those functions — thinking, feeling, choosing — don’t exist.’ If they exist, what do you call them?

    I call them thinking, feeling and choosing — didn’t you catch that? 😉

    Let me put it this way: there’s a difference between structure and function. I squat, walk and run (functions), but I don’t have separate squatters, walkers, and runners (structures). Rather, I perform all three functions with the same structures: my legs.

    The kardia thinks, feels, chooses, lusts, reasons, believes…we’ve been over this. I am objecting to the imaginary structures of the soul called intellect, volition, and emotion — or, more crudely, “head” as over against “heart.” When we set up that opposition, we are hermetically separating functions that in fact arise from the same place, and influence one another.

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