Biblical Lexicography – What does it mean to be “Spiritual”?

Okay.  I’ve got a confession to make…

I dislike the talk about being”spiritual”.

I dislike the talk about”spirituality”.

I dislike the absolute tsunami of theological vomit that usually accompanies discussions of “being spiritual” or “spirituality”.  Talk about “spirituality” has generally become an excuse for flakes and fools to unleash whatever completely heretical ideas on the general public under the cover of total ambiguityNobody defines the terms biblically, since nobody who talks about “spirituality” has much concern for the Bible.  Nobody talks about that stuff with any sort of clarity, since clarity would unveil the charade of the whole discussion.  People like the term “spirituality” and talk about “being spiritual” because nobody could ever possibly say anything wrong about spirituality since it can mean just about anything.

What’s worse is that I recently started reading a book on spirituality (because I’m an absolute masochist and a friend asked for my opinion) and it’s so utterly useless, I actually screamed and threw the book.  In the book, spirituality is defined as “the quest for relationship to the Other”.

Oh.  My.  Good.  Gravy.

I want to beat my head with a meat mallet.

That’s a definition so broad that it’s impossible not to accomplish it.

Do you try to have a relationship with any form deity, personal or impersonal, real or imagined?

Congratulations!  You’re spiritual!  Yay!

That fruit is hanging so low it’s subterranean.

Now, here’s a different question that I’ve never actually seen answered: What does spiritual, as in the adjectival form of “spirit”, mean in the scripture?

Well, the Greek term is pneumatikos, which is the adjectival form of pneuma.  Pneuma basically carries the idea of energy, movement, wind, etc. when it’s not a proper noun referring to the Holy Spirit.  We still have it in English, thousands of years later, popping up in words like “pneumatic”.

The term pneumatikos appears 26 times in the Bible:

1.  It qualifies the word “gifts” once (Rom 1:11) and is used as shorthand for “spiritual gifts” twice (1 Cor. 12:1, 14:1).

2.  It is contrasted with the idea of “carnal” 9 times in the New Testament:

– Being “spiritual” is contrasted with being carnal; (sold under sin) in Romans 7:14

– “Spiritual” blessings contrasted with “carnal” blessings (namely, money) in Romans 15:27

– “Spiritual” truths (divine revelation) are contrasted with human wisdom (human knowledge) in 1 Cor. 2:13

– The “spiritual” man (the man of regenerate mind) is contrasted with the “natural” man (the man of unregenerate mind) in 1 Cor. 2:14-15.

– “Spiritual” people are contrasted with “people of the flesh”, which is further explained to mean “infants in Christ” in 1 Cor. 3:1

– “Spiritual” things (i.e. the teaching of the gospel and the word of God) is contrasted with “material things” (namely, money) in 1 Cor. 9:11.

– A “Spiritual” body (post-resurrection body) is contrasted with a “natural” body (pre-resurrection body) in 1 Cor. 15:44 & 46.

3.  It is used in a metaphor (“spiritual food” and “spiritual drink”) that means something along the lines of “divine sustenance” or “divine preserving power” in 1 Cor. 10:3-4, and it appears in a similar way in 1 Peter 2:5, which speaks of the assembly of believers in the body of Christ and the sacrifices offered via Christ (i.e. the acceptable “sacrifice” of obedience, only possible through the imputed righteousness of Christ.)

4.  It is used in parallel with the term “prophet” in 1 Cor. 14:37 as a general term referring to someone who is a highly mature believer , and in Gal. 6:1 it is used as a shorthand term for someone who is a mature believer.

5.  It is used adjectivally to describe all the various blessings given to believers in Christ (Eph. 1:3), songs believers sing (Eph. 519; Col. 3:16) and wicked forces aligned against believers (Eph. 6:12).

6.  It is used as a shorthand for “divine” in Col. 1:9; referring to “divine” knowledge (i.e. revelation) that believers have in parallel with wisdom.

So there you go.  There’s every usage of the term “spiritual” in the New Testament, categorized by usage.  As you can see, a majority of the usages basically are contrasts with “carnal”, and the “spiritual” person in the New Testament is the person who is a mature believer that walks in obedience to the Lord.  Not that complex.  A “spiritual” person is someone who is instructed, empowered, gifted, blessed, and obedient to the Holy Spirit.

So, the next time someone tells you that they’re into “spirituality”, I’d suggest responding “Oh?  I’m a Christian too!”  Then, when they protest, you can say “Oh…you said ‘spiritual’ but you meant ‘nominal westernized Hindu’.  Gotcha!'” (or whatever religious affiliation they actually are talking about).  If they continue disagreeing with you, tell them you’re a platypus…since you want to play the “I’m going to redefine random words to mean something they’ve never meant” game too.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “too spiritual for spirituality” Unger


14 thoughts on “Biblical Lexicography – What does it mean to be “Spiritual”?

    • Thanks Slim.

      The older I get, the more I find my exegetical enterprises get more microscopically intense. I used to simply read the Bible and assume I knew what it meant, then I started paying attention to stories, paragraphs, then sentences, and now words.

      I find that I’m often surprised at what the biblical usage of a term is when I do a comprehensive study of it…and how wrongly I use so much “biblical” language.

    • Thanks Jules!

      Am I going to get lured into another heated debate with a prominent evangelical? I don’t know anything about Whitney, though I recognize the name.

      Will he love it or hate it?

      • Oops! I’ll refrain from forwarding your link 😉

        Whitney is associate professor of biblical spirituality at SBTS. Whitney came to Southern from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he was Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation for ten years. He has authored six books, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

  1. Good article! I use the term “spiritual” when talking to people who are involved in some area of the New Age. It’s a good way to get a discussion going, as in “What is your spiritual path?” to find out more about their beliefs. I agree the word is vastly overused in our culture and it’s important for Christians to know its use and meaning in the Bible, which you’ve done here. But I am glad it’s a popular word because it can open up conversations with others.

    • Agreed Marcia. I am definitely aware that there’s a TON of talk about “spirituality” in non-Christian circles, but the reason I wrote this was because so few Christians that I talked with had any concrete understanding of what the term actually meant.

      I know professing Christians that reference “great books on spirituality” but end up referring to “The Secret”, or the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series…


      • I shudder with you! I have posted recently on the Chicken Soup books and do so from time to time. I’m glad you wrote this. I posted it on my 2 FB pages. Thumbs up!

  2. Dear God In Your Son Christ’s Name, Please overwhelmingly Bless the Mennoknight family in all ways. With Your Father’s Ever-Roving Eye, a good man has been found, dedicated to Your Word and Willing to Defend it. Thank You, Send, Amen. +++

  3. “Spiritually” I can recall when a member of the family, an adult, was insisting in a former life she had been a Queen. She was, in her actual life, catholic. Of course, I got into trouble again because I asked “how come all these ”reincarnated” people are always Kings and Queens, where were the serfs and skullery maids?”

    I always believed from within The Holy Spirit to be THE Source of all spirituality. Even after I discovered the laughable yet sad titles one comes across on a certain huge website. I learned very rapidly not even to glance at descriptions of books earmarked by the term “spirituality”.

    Thanks for a great, great column. +++

    • Hi, Marie! I was in the New Age for close to 20 years, and I think it’s a sort of myth or urban legend that people who believe they had former lives always think it was someone important or a king, queen, etc. This is just not true. While some people do claim this, in all those years I was in the New Age, I only came across one person who believed she had been someone famous, and she took this quite seriously. She was not the type to do it for attention (I knew her personally). None of my “memories” were of famous people, and I “remembered” quite a few. I think the “memories” are products of imagination mixed with demonic influence. God bless.

        • My choice is to agree with Mennoknights’ column and more importantly with The Bible, leading straight back to Mennoknight’s Blog. To me, The Bible is a forensic, all encompassing, so much ”great” literatures seized from its’ pages…it’s The Bible for me. +++

  4. By the way: Kindle can be downloaded to a personal computer (within a couple years, personal desktop computers are planned to be history)

    Anyway, they have tons of zero cost books including the Bible, many interesting books. 🙂

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