I recently was asked a question about an idea known as “soul-force”. The concept does not seem to be very widely known, except if you are acquainted with the works of Watchman Nee. He wrote a booklet on it (which is more: delivered messages, on it which was later on compiled by himself in a booklet). It originally appeared in 1933 and was later translated from the Chinese language as “The Latent Power of the Soul”.1 Although the teaching on “soul-force” is on the surface not well-known or wide-spread, I think it is still necessary to look into this teaching, as it does represent a very dangerous approach to the gospel message and the view of Scriptures on man.
The use of other writers on the subject
Nee was not the first one to develop or speak of the idea of soul-force. In his booklet, we find that he uses three authors on which he builds his arguments. Not all of them are used to build his teaching on soul-force though.
The first name we see him using is that of Dr. Andrew Murray (1828-1917). Now, he does not use Murray to develop his teaching on soul-force, rather to build his view of man as tripartite, i.e. made up of spirit, soul and body. For this he quotes from Murray’s The Spirit of Christ.2 Murray is a well known 19th century Dutch Reformed minister in South Africa who’s impact is still felt today. From the Scottish-Presbyterian tradition, he was also influenced by the Puritans.
The second name we frequently encounter is that of Jessie Penn-Lewis (1861-1927). He frequently quotes and uses from her work Spirit and Soul.3 She is well known, with Evan Roberts for the work The War on the Saints, a result of the death of the Revival in Wales (1904-1905). In her work, she also uses the thoughts of Murray to establish the tripartite concept of man. She goes further though with the reference to soul-force versus spirit force as the battleground in the last age.
A third name we encounter is that of G.H. Pember (1836-1910), a theologian from the Plymouth Brethren tradition. Nee (as well as Penn-Lewis) quotes from his work Earth’s Earliest Ages.4 He also advocates soul-force as man’s abilities.
A view of man
Before defining what soul-force is, it is necessary to understand the premise from which Nee works to build the teaching on soul-force. Central to his concepts is the view on man. Man is a tripartite, consisting of spirit, soul and body. He uses 3 verses of Scripture to build this, i.e. Genesis 2:7, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, and Hebrews 4:12.
“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
1 Thessalonians 5:23:
“And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
He relies a lot on the views of Murray in this regard. Man was formed from the dust of the earth (body) and God breathed life into him (spirit). This action caused man to become a living soul. The soul is therefore the result of the spirit and body meeting. In this view the spirit is the highest while the body is the lowest. The soul was meant to maintain the proper position of spirit and body. The body represents world-consciousness, the spirit god-consciousness and the soul self-consciousness.
An important concept related to the idea of soul-force, is that God created man in His likeness (Genesis 1:26). Nee’s interpretation of this opens up for a dangerous, almost gnostic approach to man’s purpose. He states
“The words “image” and “likeness” may seem to be alike in meaning and may therefore appear repetitious. But in Hebrew the word “image” does not point to physical likeness, rather it denotes moral or spiritual similarity. Someone has put it as: “change into likeness”; that is, “to be conformed to a likeness”. The purpose in God creating man is for man to be transformed according to His image. God wanted Adam to be like Him.
From this we conclude that before the fall Adam had in him the power to become like God. He possessed a hidden ability which made it possible for him to become like God. He was already like Him in outward appearance, but he was ordained by God to become like Him morally…”5
According to Nee, man’s creation endued him with abilities that would now seem to us (post fall) as miraculous and supernatural, but in fact was the normal status for Adam (pre fall). This he finds in the command gave Adam to rule over everything (Genesis 1:27-28). He says:
“Although we may not rate Adam’s power as being a billion times over ours, we can nonetheless safely reckon it to be a million times over ours. Else he would not have been able to perform the duty commanded him of God.”6
He goes on to explain the abilities of Adam in a couple of areas, i.e. Adam’s authority and physical prowess (exceptional abilities), his brain power and memory, his managerial power, and the power God gave him. In all these aspects, Adam displayed tremendous abilities. These abilities is now apparently not visible any more and this is due to the fall of man.
We have to ask if the image of God should be seen in this elevated way, so as to almost render man as a little god. Does God really have a body as Nee implies when stating that man was already like Him in outward appearance? This would imply a physicality to God even before the incarnation of Christ (the appearances of Christ in the Old Testament apart). Jesus explicity taught that God is Spirit and all who worship Him must do so in spirit and in truth (John. 4:23-24).
The hermeneutics of the command in Gen. 1:27-28 is taken to the extreme with absolutely no Biblical grounds for the abilities that he is trying to accredit to Adam (and the human race). He is clearly reading into the text (eisegesis) what is not there and what is not the original intent.
The fall of man
Nee has an interesting view on the fall of man. I will approach it from two perspectives. Firstly from Satan’s viewpoint and secondly from man’s viewpoint.
– Satan’s purpose
The view from Satan’s perspective is best understood from Nee’s interpretation of Revelation 18:11-13 (one of the texts of Scripture that he uses as his starting point for the book), especially the last clause, but let’s pick it up from verse 11:
“And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.”
From this, Satan wants to trade in the souls of men, which would mean taking control of the souls of men in order to utilise the soul-force of each soul.7 This, according to Nee, was Satan’s original intent with the temptation in the garden:
“The purpose of his tempting Adam and Eve in the garden was to gain control of their soul power.”8
“Satan knew there was such wonder-working strength in man, hence he tempted man to declare his independence from God. The fall in the Edenic garden was none other than man taking independent action, separating himself from God. Upon learning the story of the fall in the garden, we can perceive what the purpose of Satan was. He aimed at gaining the soul of man. And when man fell, his original ability and miraculous strength all fell into Satan’s hand.”9
“At the end of the age, particularly during the present moment, Satan’s intention is to carry through what he at the beginning aimed at in the garden of Eden. Although he initiated the work of controlling man’s soul in the garden, he had not fully succeeded. For after his fall, man’s whole being, including his soul power, came under the flesh. In other words, man’s psychological forces came under the dominion of his physiological forces. The enemy failed to make use of man’s soul power; accordingly his plan was foiled.”10
From this it is clear that Satan’s aim was to gain control over the soul-force of man in order to use it to his own advantage – at least according to Nee’s interpretation. The shocking thing is that Nee is of the opinion that Satan was unsuccessful to gain control and ever since he is working at completing his foiled attempt.
“All these are due to but one reason: the enemy is attempting to finish his previously unsuccessful work.”11
This would in fact mean that the fall of man was a total failure from Satan’s perspective. The very fact that God stepped in with judgement, punishment and redemptive promises, shows that God’s view on what happened was clearly different than what Nee proposes.
That man was tempted to become independent of God, I can agree with, but there is no biblical grounds for the idea that Satan was head hunting the soul-force of man. In fact, Jesus characterises him as a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). The Bible also clearly teaches that Satan can perform miraculous deeds (2 Thess. 2:9, Rev. 13:4, 13). He does not need man’s soul-force to perform these, unless if Nee is of the opinion that man’s abilities are more powerful than that of Satan, a valid question considering that “the Holy Spirit is God’s miracle-working power; but man’s soul is Satan’s wonder-working power.”12 Then the question arises as to why Adam and Eve could not resist Satan with all of these abilities they posessed.
– effect on man
Man was tempted to choose independence from God rather than depending on Him. This is the meaning of the two trees in the garden. Pre fall Adam had “an almost unlimited power, a near miraculous ability.”13 After the fall, these abilities did not disappear, but was hidden by God in the flesh.
“As soon as man fell, God imprisoned man’s psychic powers in his flesh. His many powers became confined and hidden in the flesh as a latent force—present but inactive.”14
I find this a bit awkward that God would do such a strange thing to lock up man’s soul-force in the flesh. From a biblical point of view, the flesh is not something good. In fact, it is something man needs to get rid of, as it is that part of him which keeps on sinning and rebelling against God. Why would God then lock up the abilities he created man with in something that is sinful and corrupt?
Nee summarises his opinion in four facts, which are as follows:
“In summary, then, we see that (1) all these miraculous powers are already in Adam, (2) Satan’s objective is to control these powers, (3) in the end time Satan is, and will continue to be, especially engaged in manifesting these powers, and (4) this is his attempt to finish his earlier unsuccessful task.”15
What is soul-force?
With this as background, we can now proceed to define soul-force. It is clear from Nee’s argument that it is the miraculous abilities of the soul of man.16 What does this mean? Remember that he argues from the “near impossible” command of God to rule over everything (Gen.1:28). To do this, Adam had to have certain abilities to do this. As mentioned earlier, these abilities covered Adam’s authority and physical prowess, his brain power and memory, his managerial power, and the power God gave him. Nee’s view is that God would not expect something he could not do. The approach is then that Adam had to immediately take charge of the whole spectrum and manage, control and work it – and he could do it because of these abilities within his soul.
“Would God, then, ask Adam to do what he was incapable of doing? We can therefore conclude that if Adam was capable of managing the earth, his prowess was most certainly superior to ours today.”17
Soul-force for Nee is therefore equal to psychic force. He mentions the development of psychic abilities through techniques such as meditation, breathing, hypnotism, the modern psychology, etc. All of these succeed in releasing the soul-force of man to enable extraordinary abilities. These abilities include clairvoyance, telepathy, etc. To sum up Nee on the different findings in his own words:
“Psychologists declare that within man is a tremendous array of power: the power of self-control, creative power, reconstructive power, the power of faith, the power of quickening, the power of revivification. These can all be released by men.”18
This is his take on all phenomena we usually would classify as occultic. The different areas of religion and science are all coming to the same conclusion, that man has tremendous abilities locked up within his soul. It seems as if Nee agrees with the notion that man in his soul has almost infinite power and abilities. In quite a few places he seems to acknowledge the findings and experiences of other religions and science. He then concludes that “to the practitioners of this science these many miraculous phenomena are quite natural. To us believers they are even more natural. For we know they are merely the consequences of the releasing of the latent power of the soul.”19
We must understand that because of his view of man, the Christian is not to covet these powers. In fact, because the life of the Christian is in the spirit and not the flesh (that is the combination of body and soul), these abilities must stay subdued and not utilised. Allowing them to become active, would be to live a life in the flesh and become an instrument in Satan’s work. Nee himself confesses to be able to read thoughts, but he prays against it whenever it surfaces.20
I find it hard to see that God would allow the will, intellect and emotions (these are the main components of the soul in this view) to keep on functioning even after regeneration, but not the abilities that He CREATED man with. After all, following Nee’s argument on man being created in God’s image, I would see it more consistent with his view that these very abilities be revived and renewed and used in God’s service. Clearly, following Nee in this, would mean that God created something which is totally useless in the Christian. This to me is an inconsistency in the line of Nee’s thought.
Another problem comes to mind when thinking about Adam and his abilities before the fall and what happened when he chose to eat of the forbidden fruit. Surely, someone with clairvoyant and telepathic abilities, would be able to smell a rat (or a snake in this case) a mile away when the snake started talking and making promises of becoming gods. It does not make sense that someone with all these supernatural abilities was not able to discern the lies of Satan.
The effects of soul-force
We have to spend some time on the effects of soul-force on people, because according to Nee, even Christians are able to exert certain influence on other Christians. He explains a couple of areas in the Christian’s life where soul-force in stead of spirit force can be employed. These areas would include Power of Service, Peace and Joy, Wonders, Spirit-Baptism, Evangelism, Singing, Biblical Exegesis and Teaching, Revival Meetings (which can also apply to church meetings), and Visions and Dreams. Prayer is also one of them from which we will draw an example of how soul-force is applied. Nee explains it as follows:
“The prayers in the Bible are intelligent and not silly. When the Lord Jesus teaches us to pray, His first words are: “Our Father who art in heaven”. He teaches us to pray to our Father in heaven, but we Christians often pray to the God in our room. If you pray to, and expect to be heard by, the God in your room, I am afraid you will receive many strange feelings and miraculous experiences and visions from the God in your room. These are given to you by Satan, and whatever you receive from Satan belongs either to consciousness or sub-consciousness.
Someone may not pray to the God in his room. He may direct his prayers instead towards the person for whom he prays. This too is most dangerous. Suppose you have a friend who is over two thousand miles away from you. You pray for him, asking God, as the case might be, to either revive him in the Word or to save him. Instead of directing your prayer towards God, you concentrate on your thought, your expectation, and your wish and send them out to your friend as a force. Your prayer is like a bow which shoots your thought, desire and wish as arrows towards your friend. He will be so oppressed by this force that he will do exactly what you have asked for. You may think your prayer is answered. But let me tell you, it is not God who answers your prayer, for you have not prayed to Him. It is merely an answer to a prayer which you directed towards your friend.
Someone claims his prayer is answered because, says he, “I have piled prayers on my friend.” Indeed, for you prayed towards him, not towards God. Your prayer is answered, but not by God. Even though you do not know hypnosis, what you have secretly done has fulfilled the law of hypnotism. You have released your psychic force to perform this act.
Why is this so? Because you have not prayed to the God in heaven; instead your prayers are projected towards, piled upon, and laid seige to, the person for whom you pray. In appearance you are praying, but in actuality you are oppressing that person with your psychic power. If you use your soul force in praying for a certain one—say you pray that he should be at least disciplined if not punished—the prayer of your soul force will dart out at him and he will accordingly be sick.”21
I include this example at length, as it is clear from this that Christians can exert psychic influence on other Christians according to this teaching. It clearly undermines some of the true teachings of the Bible, e.g. the Sufficiency of Christ’s redemption work as well as the true battleground in spiritual warfare and the influence of demonic forces on the Christian. From a Biblical viewpoint, when we are made free in Christ, we are truly free. This does not mean that we will not be the target of the enemy, but we will be able to resist in the power of God. Nee’s teaching clearly indicates that the impact on someone could be direct and effective without resistance or knowledge of the source. If this is true, Satan does not need sin and other ways to bring the church to a fall. Believers will destroy each other all by themselves! Paul clearly states in Ephesians 6:12 that the battle is against the forces of Satan and not the latent power of the souls of men! This teaching also denies the headship of Christ over his church and His ability to protect His body.
There is no doubt that the idea of soul-force is nothing but a dangerous error that deviates from the clear teachings of the Bible. Nee’s own method of discerning error works against him in this teaching. He says that to know if a teaching is an error, you need to magnify its effect to 100 times because on a 1x magnification, the error is not so easily discernible. If you find error at 100x magnification, there is error at the normal level.22
Looking at the example mentioned above with regards to prayer, is reason enough to say that we have error in this teaching. So the question is then, where does the error start? It is clear that we have at the base of this error an erroneous high view of man, to the extent that man can be seen as a small god, or if you will, a god in development. There is no biblical bases for the psychic abilities of the soul as we find it in Nee’s interpretation. Man is definitely made more than what is needed and this causes this teaching to run into errors. Couple this with poor exegesis (and often times eisegesis) of Scripture and you end up with a recipe for error.
Embracing this teaching causes one to interpret certain passages as the result of soul-force. This would mean the Elijah was in a state of depression after his ordeal with the priests of Baal because Jezebel soul-forced him; Job was in his state of depression because of the influence of his three friend’s soul-force; many of the Psalms would be the result of soul-force.
This teaching also have Christological implications. Did our Lord Jesus also have these abilities (locked up in His flesh by God) that He had to subdue? A question we need to ask ourselves would then be by what abilities did Christ perform the miracles he did? After all, He was fully man. This teaching has far-reaching consequences if you think about Christ’s nature and work.
It is also not difficult to see some connecting dots with the Word of Faith movement. We see the same non-biblical elevation of man to the point of being gods that can work all sorts of wonderful powers, of which faith is probably the most notable.
In my opinion this teaching should be avoided as far as possible. As for the reputation of Watchman Nee, the purpose of this is not to discredit him, but we have to show where he deviated from God’s Word and the truths contained in it.
1 Nee, Watchman, The Latent Power of the Soul (Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., New York, 1972). All quotes will be taken from this version.
2 Murray, Andrew, Note C: The Place of the Indwelling in The Spirit of Christ (Christian Literature Crusade, Fort Washington, Pa., 1964), 227-228.
3 Penn-lewis, Jessie, Spirit and Soul (Poole, Dorset, England, Overcomer Literature Trust, 1968?), 67.
4 Pember, G.H., Earth’s Earliest Ages (Flemming H. Revell Co., n.d., New York).
5 Nee, Latent Power, 18
6 Ibid., 15.
7 Ibid., 18-21
8 Ibid., 38
9 Ibid., 39
10 Ibid., 40
11 Ibid., 40
12 Ibid., 41
13 Ibid., 38
14 Ibid., 39
15 Ibid., 41-42
16 Ibid., 18-19
17 Ibid., 15
18 Ibid., 28
19 Ibid., 27
20 Ibid., 65-67
21 Ibid., 46-47
22 Ibid., 72-73