WATCHMAN NEE’S TEACHING ON SOUL AND SPIRIT: A FORM OF NEO-GNOSTICISM
A Review By Gordon Ferguson
My Introduction To Watchman Nee and Witness Lee
In my first ministry job, I was one of several ministers on the staff of a local church. The main pulpit preacher was using terminology and concepts that were strange to my ears, which was significant, since I had just graduated from a very intense two year ministry training school in which we went through the whole Bible verse-by-verse and memorized hundreds and hundreds of Bible verses. What I was hearing sounded definitely different from biblical concepts and wording. Further inquiry led to discovering that the minister was reading books by Nee and Lee, and appeared to be rather drawn to what amounted to a “new teaching” in the churches of which I was a part.
I then purchased some of these books and read them, being struck quickly with the obviously allegorical approach to interpreting Scriptures. The allegorical approach to studying written documents certainly predated the Christian era, but it found its way into the Christian church fairly early. Philo, an Alexandrian Jew (20 B.C. to 42 A.D.). is credited with introducing this method of biblical interpretation to the Old Testament Scriptures. Origen (182-251 A.D.) was quite influential in spreading this method of interpreting the New Testament, as one of the early “Church Fathers.” Augustine adopted a modified form of the system, and Jerome is said to be the main figure responsible for introducing it into the Roman church. But my most recent study, described in the following material, convinces me that Nee’s system is also a form of neo-Gnosticism. Actually, the allegorical system of interpretation is quite closely related in a specific way to the Gnostic approach of interpreting the Scriptures, as we shall see.
Introductory Thoughts About Interpreting Nee
In Watchman Nee’s classic book, The Spiritual Man, he combines three volumes into one comprehensive work, which well represents the school of theology that he has developed. The total number of pages in this compendium of his work is 694 − hence a substantial work. The first chapter, Spirit, Soul and Body, forms much of the basis of what he writes later, and gives the reader the keys to interpreting and understanding the terminology used and the concepts they represent. It should be said that the terminology and concepts are unfamiliar to the average Bible reader, which suggests from the outset that we are being introduced to a system of interpretation developed by a man, rather than to the Bible itself. Instead of being taught biblical things in biblical terms, we are forced to learn a system before we can understand what is being taught about the Bible, and thus, this teaching must be run through the filter of the system of interpretation being employed.
A failure to learn the system makes reading Nee’s work confusing and not really understandable to the uninitiated. For example, terms like “soulish” and “soulical” (neither of which are in the Bible or the English Dictionary) are used repeatedly. Soulish essentially represents worldly or non-spiritual attitudes and behavior, while soulical represents spiritual attitudes and behavior. Had Nee simply used the biblical terms themselves rather than inventing other terms, the book would be far more helpful to the average reader, and its errors more obvious. The insistence of using non-biblical terminology to represent fundamental teachings in Nee’s system of theology is not only confusing and demands that the reader develop a familiarity with the system, it also introduces elements of Gnosticism − which will be explained later.
Spirit, Soul and Body − the Biblical Passages
This first chapter of the book lays the foundation for the rest of the book, and thus all quotes used from Nee come from Volume One, mostly Chapter One. A failure to understand the terminology and basic assumptions upon which it is based insures the reader’s failure to grasp the rest of the book. With that in mind, I want to give a basic introduction to the theological system used by Nee. The main two passages which form the basis of the theology are the following:
1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
A few observations about these passages are in order: One, the mention of “soul” and “spirit” contained within one verse is only found in these two passages, and neither of them defines what is meant by the distinction. Hence, basing an entire system on one’s interpretation of only two passages which are left divinely unexplained should raise eyebrows at the outset. Most biblical scholars do not elaborate upon this distinction, since it doesn’t seem to be the focus of the passage, but they rather state what the overall emphasis of the passage appears to be (i.e., God saving us completely in 1 Thessalonians 5:23). The following comment by the College Press Commentary is typical of the type explanations given:
That idea is further underlined with the combination “spirit, soul and body.” Much discussion of this phrase has concerned whether it indicates that human beings are trichotomous, consisting of three distinct aspects described by these terms, or dichotomous, really consisting of two aspects, body and spirit. In favor of the former interpretation is the fact that all three terms are used here; in favor of the latter is the difficulty in distinguishing clearly between the meaning of “spirit” (pneuma) and “soul” (psychē). However, it must be conceded that Paul is not discussing the precise nature of humanity but is offering assurance of God’s protection. The combination of three terms here is probably only intended as a means of underlining the comprehensive nature of that protection; it is no more a systematic presentation of human nature than is the combination “heart, soul, mind and strength” in Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27. Paul, like the other New Testament writers, repeatedly indicates that God’s purpose is to save the whole person, not just some part.
A representative example of what biblical scholars say about Hebrews 4:12 is as follows (from Expositor’s Bible Commentary):
The Word of God is unique. No sword can penetrate as it can. We should not take the reference to “soul” and “spirit” as indicating a “dichotomist” over against a “trichotomist” view of man, nor the reference to “dividing” to indicate that the writer envisaged a sword as slipping between them. Nor should we think of the sword as splitting off “joints” and “marrow.” What the author is saying is that God’s Word can reach to the innermost recesses of our being. We must not think that we can bluff our way out of anything, for there are no secrets hidden from God. We cannot keep our thoughts to ourselves. There may also be the thought that the whole of man’s nature, however we divide it, physical as well as nonmaterial, is open to God. With “judges” we move to legal terminology. The Word of God passes judgment on men’s feelings (enthymeseon) and on their thoughts (ennoion). Nothing evades the scope of this Word. What man holds as most secret he finds subject to its scrutiny and judgment.
In other words, the main focus of these two passages is not to emphasize a distinction of soul and spirit, but to make a main point of practical application − namely that God can save us entirely and that the Word of God exposes our inmost thoughts and motivations. Building a theological system on passages intended to provide practical motivations is highly suspect, to say the least. However, Nee has not only chosen a suspect approach, he has deemed it absolutely essential to our understanding of the Bible. A couple of quotes will illustrate that point:
“It is an issue of supreme importance for it affects tremendously the spiritual life of a believer.” (page 22)“To fail to distinguish between spirit and soul is fatal to spiritual maturity.” (page 22)
It is obvious that Nee has not only developed a system of theology and interpretation, but it is equally obvious that he believes we cannot be spiritually healthy (or maybe spiritually saved) without seeing the Bible through the filter of his system. One brother, who came out of this background himself, said that it is not uncommon to hear the adherents to Nee’s doctrine say that this issue is a salvation issue. Certainly such strong assertions by Nee are both assumptive and arrogant, and insulting to the large body of believers who are either unaware of Nee’s system or who have studied and rejected it upon biblical grounds. And as stated before, one of these grounds is the inclusion of certain Gnostic elements.
Spirit, Soul and Body − the System Introduced and Defined
It is important that we introduce the basics of Nee’s theological approach and explanation of his terminology. Nee begins his explanation with the creation of man in Genesis 2:7, quoting from the American Standard Version: “And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The term soul is from the Hebrew nephesh, which will prove to be very important in this study. Nee says that God breathing into Adam the breath of life meant that the breath of life became man’s spirit, and when it came into contact with man’s body, the soul was produced. Hence, the soul is the combination of man’s body and spirit (and assumedly would not have been formed without the spirit).
He states: “In other words, soul and body were combined with the spirit, and spirit and body were merged in the soul” (page 24). Another quote: “Soul is the organ of man’s free will, the organ in which spirit and body are completely merged” (page 25). Thus, according to Nee, the soul chooses whether to go toward the flesh or the Spirit. We are told that the body gives us “world consciousness;” the soul gives us “self consciousness;” and the spirit gives us “God-consciousness.” This interesting observation was made on page 27: “Before man committed sin the power of the soul was completely under the dominion of the spirit…The spirit cannot itself act upon the body; it can only do so through the medium of the soul.”
However, this observation was followed up by quoting Luke 1:46-47, which reads: “And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’” This passage is typical of scores of passages which use soul and spirit interchangeably (which Nee denies strongly). In this case, we have a simple case of Hebrew parallelism, as any commentator will note. Hence, Nee uses a passage that makes a different case than the one he is trying to make. Nee’s threefold delineation of the supposed nature of both soul and spirit: Soul − the site of personality, consisting of will, intellect and emotions; Spirit − the site of conscience, intuition and communion (worship).
Biblical and Practical Inconsistencies
The word “soul” is used in a variety of ways biblically. Prior to Genesis 2:7, where man is said to be a “soul,” animals, fish, birds and creeping things were all said to be “souls” (from nephesh). (Yet, they had no spirits to unite with their bodies to form their souls!) See Genesis 1:20-26 on the point of other animate life besides humans being souls. The word “creature” is most often the term used to translate nephesh. Thus, living “being” is a good translation for all of created animate life, including man.
Further, God himself is a soul (and has a soul): Leviticus 26:11: “Moreover, I will make My dwelling among you, and My soul will not reject you.”Leviticus 26:30: “I then will destroy your high places, and cut down your incense altars, and heap your remains on the remains of your idols; for My soul shall abhor you.”Leviticus 26:43: “For the land shall be abandoned by them, and shall make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, shall be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes.”Psalm 11:5: “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, And the one who loves violence His soul hates.” Isaiah 42:1: “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights.” Isaiah 53:11: “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.”Zechariah 11:8: “Then I annihilated the three shepherds in one month, for my soul was impatient with them, and their soul also was weary of me.”
In the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, soul is often used to describe the inner part, or the spirit of man. Nephesh can describe only the man as a created being (like the animal, bird and fish world), or it can describe the part that is unique to man − the spirit.
Psalm 19:7: “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”Psalm 23:3: “He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake.”Psalm 25:1: “To Thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”Psalm 30:12: “That my soul may sing praise to Thee, and not be silent.”Psalm 33:20: “Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield.”Psalm 34:2: “My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; The humble shall hear it and rejoice.”Psalm 35:9: “And my soul shall rejoice in the Lord; It shall exult in His salvation.” Psalm 42:1-2: As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God?” Psalm 71:23: “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to Thee; And my soul, which Thou hast redeemed.”Psalm 94:19: “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Thy consolations delight my soul.”Psalm 103:2: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits.” Psalm 108:1: “My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing, I will sing praises, even with my soul.” Psalm 119:81: “My soul languishes for Thy salvation; I wait for Thy word.”
Many other similar verses could be quoted, but why is this point important? The following quotes from Nee answer that question.
“The spirit lies beyond man’s self-consciousness and above his sensibility. Here man communicates with God.” (page 29) “The revelations of God and all the movements of the Holy Spirit are known to the believer through his intuition.” (page 32)“God is not apprehended by our thoughts, feelings or intentions, for He can only be known directly in our spirits.” (page 32)
Implications from the above quotes:
1. If the spirit lies beyond man’s self-consciousness” (his soul), and is the only place where man can communicate with God, the Psalmist was poorly informed of such.
2. If the revelations of God and all the movements of the Holy Spirit are only known through the intuition (which is a part of the spirit, not the soul − by Nee’s definition), then the Psalms are mistaken.
3. If God cannot be known directly through our souls, the Psalmist is again mistaken.
These kinds of contradictions will always occur when the Bible is forced into an artificial system of interpretation. Other contradictions:
1. Before conversion, one cannot distinguish between soul and spirit. (page 34)
2. Yet, on the same page we are told: “The New Testament does not consider those with a sensitive conscience, keen intellect or a spiritual tendency to be saved individuals.” (If conscience is a function of the spirit and is based on the intuition, which cannot be distinguished prior to conversion, how can the conscience become “sensitive?”)
3. If the revelations of God and the work of the Holy Spirit can only be known through his intuition, one’s personal insight is exalted above the statements of Scripture. (Dictionary definition of intuition: “knowledge or conviction gained by intuition. The power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.”) Such a conclusion is both unbiblical and dangerous.
The Soul and Spirit of Man in Normal Biblical Usage
Spirit refers to man’s inner being, made in the image of God. Soul may refer to the animate life itself, or to man’s inner being − depending on the context. Some OT verses use Hebrew parallelism to show the interchangeable nature of soul and spirit, when soul is used to refer to man’s inner being.
1 Samuel 1:15: But Hannah answered and said, "No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the Lord. Job 7:11: “Therefore, I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”Isaiah 26:9: At night my soul longs for Thee, Indeed, my spirit within me seeks Thee diligently; For when the earth experiences Thy judgments The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
The NT is even clearer in its interchangeable usage of the terms soul and spirit:
Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (According to this passage, man cannot kill the soul.)Matthew 22:37: “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”Matthew 26:38: “Then He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.’”Luke 1:46: “And Mary said: ‘My soul exalts the Lord.’”Acts 2:27: “Because Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.”2 Corinthians 1:23: “But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth.” Hebrews 6:19: “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil.” Hebrews 10:39: “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.”James 5:20: “let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.”1 Peter 2:11: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul.”2 Peter 2:8: “for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds.”3 John 1:2: “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
Many observations could be made on the above passages, but a mere reading of them pretty much makes the point. Trying to force biblical terminology to fit a system imposed upon it always leads to confusion and false teaching.
Dangers of Watchman Nee’s Teaching (and Those Patterned After Him)
His teaching is a system which is based on his theology and terminology, and cannot be understood without first being trained in that terminology. Thus, instead of just studying the Scriptures, time must be taken to study the philosophy of a man. Many of his teachings are merely assumptions and opinions, and yet are emphatically declared by him to be Scriptural. The essential ingredients of Gnosticism are present in both subtle and blatant forms.
Gnosticism (which was present in incipient forms in many places in the New Testament) has the following characteristics: The name comes from the Greek word, gnosis, for knowledge. It is built upon the premise that anything material was bad. In the realm of personal practices, the NT contains two manifestations of it: asceticism (see 1 Timothy 4:1-3 and Colossians 2:20-23) and libertinism (see 2 Peter 2:13-22 and Jude). The reasoning was that since the flesh was inherently bad, either deny it or indulge it. In the latter viewpoint, as long as you had the right knowledge (gnosis), what you did with the body didn’t matter. In defining the nature of Christ, those with Gnostic tendencies denied that he could have come in the flesh. He just “seemed” to be in the flesh. We call this the Docetic doctrine. The Apostle John attacks this heresy in no uncertain terms in 2 John 1:7: “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
Further, and this is where Nee’s and Lee’s teachings especially converge with Gnosticism, those who succumbed to Gnosticism believed that they had a special insight to spiritual knowledge, and saw their insight (intuition) as more important that the Bible’s specific teaching. They were very prideful and looked down on those who just simply clung to the specifics of the Bible. They had the idea that in spite of what the Bible seemed to say on certain points, they had been given the illumination of the true will of God. (They could read between the lines to get the real meaning God intended.) This tendency is seen in some of the Christians in Thyatira, according to Revelation 2:24: “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you).” In other words, these people claimed to have the “deep teachings of God,” but God said that they actually were holding to the “deep teachings of Satan!”
Nee’s form of Gnosticism comes through the development of a rather complicated system, with its own specific terminology, which means that the uninitiated cannot really grasp the “deep teachings” of God. The focus on the intuition as the real means of grasping truth, rather than through the specifics (including the wording) of Scripture is a definite type of Gnosticism, complete with its arrogance and exclusivity (regardless of intentions to the contrary). His claims that the conscience is based on one’s intuition opens wide the door for being directed by a supposed inner voice from God rather than taking God’s written Word as the true basis of conscience training. The conscience is only as accurate as the training upon which it is based. (See my recent article on this subject, entitled: “Matters of Conscience: a Deeper Look.”)
The allegorical approach to interpretation is a part of the discovery of so-called “deeper truths.” For one example, Nee on page 29 compares the three-fold nature of man to the three parts of the temple (outer court, Holy Place, Most Holy Place) − as if God had made the comparison. Such allegorization is common to Nee and Witness Lee. Mentioning Witness Lee, who picked up the torch of Nee’s theology, Lee is even more blatant in his Gnostic statements. Consider the following quotes from The All-Inclusive Christ:
“First of all, I would ask you to realize that according to the Scriptures all physical things, all the material things that we see, touch, and enjoy, are not the real things.” (Chapter 1, page 7)“…material objects: we are eating food, drinking water, putting on clothes; we are living in our houses and driving in our cars. I would ask you to realize and remember well that all these things are not real.” (Chapter 1, page 7)“What about the earth? There was chaos upon the earth. Waste and void and deep waters were upon it. It was buried under the deep. So God came in to work; God began to recover the earth...Then He divided the water from the earth, and the earth came out from the waters on the third day. It was the third day when the Lord Jesus Christ came out of the depths of death. So, you see, this is a type. On the third day God brought the earth out of the waters of death. From this type you can realize what the earth is. The earth, or the land, is a type of Christ.” (Chapter 1, page 10)“Whenever you want to do something, whenever you enjoy something, whenever you use something, you must immediately apply Christ. For instance, you are sitting on a seat. Do you realize that this is not the real seat? This is but a shadow, a figure point to Christ. Christ is the real seat. If you do not have Christ, it means that in your entire life you have never had a seat. There is no rest for you. You have nothing to rely upon. You have something false, for Christ is the real thing.” (Chapter 2, page 19) These quotes from Witness Lee show us two important pieces of this dangerous Gnostic-type teaching. One, the alleged lack of realness of material things is very Gnostic in nature. Two, the typology (allegorization, in this case) is merely speculative, but a part of so-called deeper truths. The only way we can be sure that an allegory is intended in Scripture is when the writer makes an allegorical application. For example, in Galatians 4:24-26, God inspires Paul to use the following allegory: These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.  Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.  But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
When God inspires a biblical writer to use an allegory and make an application that we might not have otherwise thought of, that is his prerogative. When non-inspired men do the same thing, they are assuming what God has not said and are in danger of adding to the Scripture and of being false prophets. Additionally, and this is not necessary Gnostic-related, Lee is clearly Premillennial in his interpretation of prophecy (which I believe to be false, in spite of its popularity in the Evangelical world).
Upon a close examination of the theology of Watchman Nee and those who ascribe to his theology, I believe it to be biblically erroneous in many ways and thus clearly dangerous. This is not to say that the faulty exegesis and danger was in any way intentional by him, nor is it to say that his followers are intentionally deceived and deceptive, or unspiritual in their overall desires or actions. However, regardless of intention, false doctrine is false doctrine and therefore dangerous.
Recently, I heard a disciple commenting on Nee’s books, saying that they were “deep” and contained things that he never would have thought of. I told him that there was a good reason for that − the Holy Spirit never thought of them either! But this brother provides a good example of how reading subtle but erroneous teachings can influence those without a real foundation of biblical knowledge. My hope and prayer is that this study can be profitable to those who have unknowingly ascribed to a false system of theology, and will help them to decide to adopt a much simpler and more accurate approach to Bible study by being willing to call Bible things by Bible names and accept the simple teachings of God’s plan of salvation.