Wholism and the Bible

Introduction to Wholism
The term “wholistic” has become familiar in recent years—even something of a buzzword—however, it is worth pausing to examine its meaning and whether or not the concept is indeed biblical. Interestingly, the English word “holy” has its root in the old German word hailaz or “whole.” The concept of wholism itself is an acknowledgment that life is generally made up of organic systems which function in an integrated way and are not easily divided into their component parts without something of the total being lost.

The converse also holds true—that most entities are more than the sum of their parts. When applied to humanity, wholism sees the person not so much as a bipartite (body and soul) or even tripartite (body, soul, and spirit) being, but rather as multipartite. Truly, the human being is fearfully and wonderfully made, with at least physical, spiritual, social/communal, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and moral dimensions to his or her make up. From this understanding flows the concept of wholistic ministry: the belief that God created all these dimensions for his glory and that, in Jesus, the deepest, God-planted longings of each of these dimensions are ultimately fulfilled.

Was Jesus Wholistic?
If this is true, we would expect to see examples of such ministry in the life of Jesus. Certainly Jesus' teachings spoke to the minds of men and women. Certainly he healed the hearts and bodies of those he touched. Beyond question he held out the offer of spiritual rebirth while calling men and women into just communities, and on to a path of moral and spiritual growth. Sometimes Jesus ministered by the overtly miraculous, at other times by something as mundane as the touching and washing of dirt from the disciple’s feet.

He instructed his disciples to administer healing through the laying on of hands and through the loving application of bandages and balm (Luke 10:8-9; 30-36). The ministry of Jesus was indeed to the whole person. Jesus never carried out some aspects of ministry as a form of “pre-evangelism” or with an ulterior motive. He did not heal or feed people on a Saturday in order to soften them up for Sunday’s altar call.

Everything Jesus did he did as an end in itself, because he saw his Father doing it (John 5:19); because it reflected the compassionate-holy heart of God; because it demonstrated the coming of the kingdom. All of Jesus' ministry was filled with divine significance; none of it could be trivialised as “unspiritual.”

We often proclaim that Jesus came into the world to save souls, but this truth only yields its full meaning when we examine the biblical meanings of those words. The Old and New Testament words generally translated to “save” (salvare, salus) also have the meaning of redemption, deliverance, healing, and making whole. Nepes or “psyche,” which we translate as “soul,” seldom appear in scripture with the connotation of “a ghost trapped in a body” (as Greek philosophers and Christian Gnostics supposed), but rather has the meaning of “life” or “life-force.” Throughout the Bible, this life-force is regarded as intrinsically related to all other aspects of one’s being—heart, mind, breath, and most significantly, blood. In saying that Jesus came into the world to save souls, we are also saying that he came into the world to give life abundantly (John 10:10).

The ministry of Jesus was life-affirming in every way. He came to redeem every aspect of our humanity, including the human body, which was originally designed by God and declared “good” and which one day Christ will renew in the resurrection to be “like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). In the meantime, we are told to “use our bodies for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

For the believer there is no defeat even in physical death, but the sure hope of entering heaven in a perfected resurrection body. However, it needs to be said that scripture depicts this heavenly state far more like the unspoilt Eden that unfallen man and woman first enjoyed than like the phantasmic realm of ideal forms that Plato envisaged and the Church later borrowed. Scripture does not suggest we will be floating on clouds and strumming harps. The life to come will be—like the incarnate Christ—wholly material and wholly spiritual, the perfection of both. For as we read in Revelation 21, the new heaven descends and fills the new earth, and the dwelling place of God will be with humanity forever and ever.

Integrity and Inter-connectedness
Another aspect of wholism is that of integrity, the inter-connectedness of all parts. As we have said, life is more than the sum of its parts. Every dimension touches and affects every other dimension. Change one aspect and every aspect is changed in some way. Ministering to a person’s spiritual needs will affect his or her physical being and vice-versa. Ministering to a person’s social needs will effect change in his or her emotional being and vice-versa.


Life is more than the sum of its parts. Every
dimension touches and affects every other
dimension.

This principal of integrity holds true at every level of organisation—individual, family, or community. When stated this way, these truths seem obvious and self evident. Yet how often we carve Christian ministry up into segments, isolate them from one another, and then exalt certain aspects as “more spiritual” than others! As David Korten puts it:

 …we become accustomed to dealing with complex issues in fragmented bits and pieces. Yet we live in a complex world where nearly every aspect of our lives is connected in some way with every other aspect. When we limit ourselves to fragmented approaches to dealing with systemic problems, it is not surprising that our solutions prove inadequate. If our species is to survive the predicament we have created for ourselves, we must develop the capacity for whole-systems thought and action.1

It is no mere coincidence that just as recent times have seen an emphasis on Christian wholism, so too they have witnessed a renewed interest in the Kingdom of God as a biblical theme. For the Kingdom of God as articulated by Jesus and the prophets is the wholistic and integrated vision we are seeking to reclaim. As John Driver explains:

In the biblical motif of the kingdom we find summed up God's salvific intention for a new humanity within a restored creation characterised by healed relationships with the creator as well as with fellow humans and the rest of the created order. The biblical view of the Kingdom of God responds to the deepest needs of humanity and offers a framework in which to understand more holistically the nature and mission of the messianic community.2

The Kingdom of God
Many authors have attempted to define what scripture means when it speaks of the “Kingdom of God.” But the concept is one of such breadth and depth, such profundity and multi-layered dimension, that it surpasses any narrow definition. Jesus himself always spoke of it parabolically, casting light on its many different facets with similes and metaphors—“the Kingdom of God is like …” No doubt Jesus was far more interested in demonstrating the kingdom than defining it. But what is clearly implied in his use of the term is that something of the power and reign of heaven has touched the earth, and that this is being demonstrated in the effects of the fall being reversed through the ministries of Jesus and his followers:

  • “Jesus called the twelve and gave them power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9:1-2)

  • “…heal the sick and tell them ‘the Kingdom of God is near you!’” (Luke 10:9)
  • “…later Jesus replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.’” (Luke 10:18)
  • “So you should pray…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Luke 11:1-2)

The motif of the kingdom is one of the overarching (perhaps the overarching) themes of scripture as it moves from the opening stanza's in God's paradise on earth to the closing chapters with the kingdom paradise finally restored. It is the subject to which Jesus returns again and again in the synoptic Gospels (where he mentions it on more than one hundred occasions). Jesus preferred to use the expression the “gospel of the kingdom” rather than “gospel of salvation” or “gospel of Christ,” which would later come into more common usage.

Endnotes

1. 2001. When Corporations Rule the World. San Francisco, California, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 11.

2. In Shenk, William, ed. 1993. The Transfiguration of Mission. Newton, Kansas, USA: Herald Press, 85.


Kristin Jack is the Asia coordinator of Servants to Asia's Urban Poor. Jack and his family have lived among the urban poor in the slums of Cambodia for more than fourteen years.