Book Review: “The Latent Power of the Soul” by Watchman Nee
Watchman Nee (Chinese “Ni To-sheng”) was a leader in the Chinese church during the first half of the 20th century. After the Communists came to power in China, Nee was imprisoned and spent the last 20 years of his life incarcerated for his faith. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchman_nee)
Nee only wrote a few books himself, The Latent Power of the Soul being one of them. However, notes from many of his lectures were also compiled and translated into English to comprise quite a few more books that have been published in his name.
I’ve read several books by Watchman Nee that were really good. In particular, The Normal Christian Life, an explication of Romans 5-8, and Sit, Walk, Stand, based on Ephesians, are outstanding.
However, The Latent Power of the Soul is not on par with Nee’s best work. The reasons are as follows: 1) Nee’s exegesis (that is, his reading and explanation of Scripture) is very weak. 2) His explanation of his argument is unclear. 3) Much of Nee’s case is based on his own subjective experiences rather than on hard biblical evidence, and these experiences aren’t described clearly enough in many cases for the reader to even be sure Nee’s meaning is understood.
Nevertheless, I do see some good in the book, which I will share toward the end of this review.
Spirit, Soul, and Body
The central concept in The Latent Power of the Soul is built on Nee’s earlier book The Spiritual Man, in which he explores the tripartite nature of humanity (i.e., man as spirit, soul, and body). 1 Thessalonians 5:23 reads, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, in Hebrews 4:12 we read “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” (emphasis added).
Based on these verses, in The Spiritual Man Nee argues that the terms “spirit” and “soul” are not interchangeable but instead in the Bible each is used distinctly to refer to a different part of the human make-up. As Nee explains in The Latent Power of the Soul, “the soul is our personality” (p. 11), while the spirit is “that which makes us conscious of God and relates us to God (p. 13).” I haven’t read all of The Spiritual Man, but what I have read of it seems accurate from both a biblical and experiential point of view.
Superhuman Power Before the Fall?
However, Nee’s main argument in The Latent Power of the Soul seems less well-founded biblically. His premise is that human beings as originally created prior to the fall were endued with incredible, even supernatural, power, and this power resided in our souls.
Nee bases this claim on the fact that in Genesis God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth. Nee takes God’s command to Adam to subdue the earth quite literally and assumes it was incumbent on Adam and Eve all by themselves to fulfill it. Nee’s assumption is that our first parents, as the only two humans on earth at the time, must have had incredible powers in order to be able to fulfill this command, in light of the sheer size of the earth and the scope of plant and animal life that covered the planet at that time.
In my opinion, however, it’s better to interpret God’s command to Adam and Eve as intended not only for them but also their descendants–i.e., that the command is given to the entire human race. It’s unnecessary to assume God expected Adam and Eve to take dominion over the earth all by themselves. (The question of whether Adam and Eve were the only humans on earth arises later in the story when their sons Cain and Seth marry, for one must ask, where did their wives come from?? But that is a topic for another blog post.)
To back up his argument, Nee makes this claim: The fact that sweat and toil in labor were effects of the fall and not of the original creation (see Genesis 3:17-19) means that prior to the fall Adam must have had limitless physical strength to labor and not grow tired. However, this is also a misinterpretation, because a careful reading of these verses shows that the increased difficulty in manual labor after the fall is not due to a decrease in Adam’s strength, but to an increase in the difficulty associated with work. In the fall the ground is cursed and produces thorns and thistles (weeds) and so plants which can be eaten now have to be cultivated and the ground worked in order for it to produce food. Man’s labor is likewise cursed with an increase in the obstacles he must overcome in order to achieve his goals.
Because of the fall, humanity has to work a lot harder to produce the same results. So Nee’s claim that prior to the fall Adam must have had superhuman stamina is unfounded.
Nee also claims that in order to name all the animals (see Genesis 2:19-20), Adam must have had an incredible power of memory and thought in order to accomplish this task. Here as elsewhere, Nee’s argument is based on conjecture that cannot be supported by the text itself.
Likewise, Nee argues that the Garden of Eden must have been very large because it was bounded by four rivers (based on Genesis 2:10-14), and therefore Adam must have had superhuman powers in order to be able to manage the garden. However, once again we have a faulty interpretation, for the text actually says that “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters,” (emphasis added). So the four rivers were not part of Eden but flowed from the river that came out of Eden. Even if Nee’s interpretation were accurate, his argument about the size of the garden is based solely on conjecture, and such arguments are not a good basis on which to found an entire teaching.
Finally, Nee claims that the fact that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27) also means they had powers that would seem supernatural to us today.
Now, I don’t have a problem with the idea that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve had greater abilities than we currently know. Science has shown that we only use about 10 percent of our brain power. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who proposed that prior to the fall we used 100% of our brain capacity and pondered what wonders we’d be capable of if this power were restored. But the biblical basis on which Nee makes his assertions about Adam’s prowess before the fall seems flawed to me.
Latent Power in the Soul
Nee goes on to say that when Adam and Eve sinned against God their spirits died, causing these incredible powers that resided in their souls to be “frozen” and immobilized due to sin. Nee tries to explain this biblically but in my opinion his argument here is not just bad, it’s unintelligible.
The major premise of Nee’s book, then, which is referenced in the title, is that this vast soul power which was frozen in the human soul lies latent and unused. The central biblical passage on which he bases this idea is Revelation 18:11-13:
11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.” (emphasis added)
From this passage Nee surmises that in the last days Satan’s goal is tap into this latent power in human souls in order to accomplish his diabolical deceptions again humanity and the church. How he comes to this conclusion from these verses is, quite honestly, beyond me. It seems like a complete stretch in terms of interpreting the passage, especially in light of its context, which speaks of judgment against Babylon in the last days.
Satan Wants Your Soul Power!
Nee’s main point, then, is that in our souls we humans have enough hidden power to perform supernatural wonders. However, he says, as Christians we are not to make use of this power because it is forbidden, due to the fall. Instead, Christians are to rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, working through our spirit (as opposed to the soul) to do God’s work.
Moreover, Satan is trying to tap into the latent power in the human soul in order to deceive the world in the last days through false signs and wonders he would perform using humanity’s soul power. For millennia Satan’s attempts to harness this power failed, but in recent centuries he has found success and has been building up steam toward the climax of the last days when the antichrist will unleash the full power hidden in man’s soul and take over the world.
Now, the idea that we should rely on the Holy Spirit’s power instead of the power of our own souls in order to live the Christian life is exactly right. It’s Nee’s claim that we have supernatural powers bound up in our souls which Satan is trying to release that I see as unfounded from a scriptural standpoint.
Nee makes much of Anton Mesmer’s discovery of hypnotism in 1778, and claims this was the turning point at which Satan began to have more success in releasing humanity’s latent soul power. Since that time, claims Nee, man has been learning more and more about parapsychology, through which Satan has been gaining ever greater control over human soul power. Nee believes that parapsychology and all paranormal activity is a product of man’s latent soul power, and says that this is going to increase in the last days until the antichrist finally emerges and gains control of the world. It seems to me that Nee’s thesis betrays a 20th century Western preoccupation with paranormal activity.
A More Biblical Approach
Now what strikes me as odd about this is, I think there’s a way in which Nee could’ve easily made a similar argument from a much more biblically sound perspective.
Nee’s position is that Satan needs man’s soul power in order to be able to do anything of a supernatural nature or perform the false miracles with which he will bring the antichrist to power in the last days. Strangely, Nee completely overlooks what the Bible has to say about the occult. Several passages in the Bible (notably Deuteronomy 18:9-14) make it clear that occult practices like witchcraft, spiritism, necromancy, and the like were forbidden by God, and the implication is that these are activities which convey genuine supernatural power and originate with Satan. (Paranormal activity like Nee describes would fall under the category of occult power as well, by the way.)
So the Bible would seem to indicate that Satan is capable of supernatural activity without having to use man’s soul power. Therefore Nee’s claim that Satan needs human soul power to do his dirty work simply doesn’t seem necessary (or biblical). I’m sure it’s true that when the human soul is separated from God and HIs Spirit, this can become a means through which Satan can work; but it doesn’t follow that this is the only means by which Satan can work. At any rate, it seems strange to me that Nee ignores such a clear scriptural connection to his topic, and instead comes at it in such a roundabout way.
Soulish or Spiritual?
In the last of the three chapters in the book, Nee focuses on the difference between living the Christian life, or conducting ministry, out of one’s soul power versus doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a helpful distinction. However, I found the practical examples Nee gives to be singularly unhelpful. They are very subjective, often based on Nee’s own personal intuitions and perceptions, so that his reasons for believing a certain experience or manifestation was soulish rather than Holy-Spirit-led are hard to see or understand. And in fact some of his claims seem pretty strange to a modern reader.
For example, Nee says that too much singing in worship services is soulish rather than led by the Holy Spirit; too much reflection on a Bible text will lead to a soulish interpretation rather than a spiritual one; all holy laughter (yes, they knew of it in his day) is soulish; if you desire for God to speak to you through dreams or visions, and especially if you have a lot of dreams or visions, then these are likely from the soul rather than the Holy Spirit; if you experience strong feelings, especially good feelings, in worship or prayer then these are likely from the soul rather than from the Holy Spirit; too much praying in tongues, or an inordinate desire to speak or pray in tongues, is soulish; and that many supernatural healings are wrought through soul power rather than Holy Spirit power.
Fear of Spiritual Deception
After reading Nee’s final chapter I felt like the ultimate effect of it, and indeed of the entire book, might be to instill in the reader a fear of being deceived. Nee comes across as though he believes most spiritual phenomena and manifestations in church or Christian meetings are soulish and demonic rather than from the Holy Spirit, especially if they are accompanied by very nice feelings. Nee seems to believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is accompanied by very little feeling at all, almost as if the Holy Spirit works impassively in human beings. Therefore, a lack of strong feelings is a sign of a work that is authentically of the Holy Spirit, while the presence of strong feelings renders an experience suspect as being possibly soulish and demonic rather of God.
If what Nee says is true, then a lot of what goes on in today’s charismatic church (not to mention the rest of the church) originates in the soul and is of demonic origin, rather than from God!
Throughout The Latent Power of the Soul Nee refers to a book called Soul and Spirit by Jessie Penn-Lewis, an evangelist famous for her role in the Welsh revival in the first decade of the 20th century. Penn-Lewis is also known for her controversial book War on the Saints in which she concluded that some of the spiritual manifestations which occurred in the Welsh revival were from Satan rather than God.
Though I haven’t read War on the Saints in its entirety, nor have I read Soul and Spirit, I have studied Penn-Lewis and can sense her influence on Nee in The Latent Power of the Soul. Penn-Lewis became very suspicious of spiritual manifestations and is accused by some of being too quick to label certain manifestations as being demonic in origin rather than divine. The Latent Power of the Soul strikes me as having this same tendency. And since Penn-Lewis’ book is about the only source Nee consistently references in this book besides the Bible, I think it’s pretty safe to assume Soul and Spirit had a lot of influence on The Latent Power of the Soul.
I will be the first to admit that discernment is needed with regard to spiritual experiences and manifestations. The apostle John warned us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). However, in my opinion Nee’s approach in this book is erroneous in itself. It seems based more on Penn-Lewis’ book and on certain assumptions of Western society (which is ironic from a Chinese author) than on the Bible.
Reading this book helped me understand something about my own life and background. My mother was always very afraid of being deceived in the way Nee describes in this book. In fact, the copy of the book I read belonged to my mom, and contained all her underlining and notes. From these I could tell that she really agreed with or was greatly influenced by the teachings in this book. I also know that my mother was highly influenced by Jessie Penn-Lewis’ book War On the Saints which also goes into great detail in describing what the author believed were demonically inspired manifestations in the Welsh revival and warning her readers to be on guard against them.
It seems my mother was highly influenced by these two books, and that her deep fears of being spiritually deceived may have been founded on them. My mother’s fears in this regard had a very profound (and I would say negative) effect on our relationship and also on my perception of God and His trustworthiness with regard to spiritual phenomena.
The Value of This Book
Having described all the problems I see with The Latent Power of the Soul I will go on to say, however, that it’s not all bad. I did benefit from reading it. Nee’s clear and careful distinction between the human soul and spirit is helpful, as is his delineation between the ways they operate. Nee also makes a valid point that there is an important difference between what we conjure up by our own power and what is the true work of the Holy Spirit. He rightly points out that some of what goes on in Christian church services and meetings is more the use of psychological means and human effort rather than relying on the Spirit.
Nee’s words made me ask myself: when I lead worship or speak, how much of what I do is my own efforts, and how much is reliance on the Spirit? How often to I employ persuasion or manipulation, rather than simply looking to the Spirit to do his work? It is a sobering question, worth considering.
Nee’s book also made me take a fresh look at some of the ways we do things in church today. For example, if church leaders work very hard to sport the latest hip fashion, and if our desire in worship is to have the latest cool music in order to attract new people (or retain the ones we have), are we using psychological manipulation? Is our very approach, and our motive, soulish in origin?
Reading this book also spurred me to begin a study of how the Greek word for soul, psuche, is used in the Bible. Psuche is the word from which we get the English term “psyche,” another word for soul. In fact, “psyche” is really just a transliteration of psuche. “Psychology” is the study of the soul.
In my word study I learned something new about the following verse (or was reminded of it, because I think I had heard it before): 1 Cor 2:14 says “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” In the Greek (the language in which the New Testament was originally written) the word translated “natural” is psuchikos–literally “soulish” (or, as the English translation of Nee’s book quaintly says, “soulical”). So a paraphrase of the verse using this idea would be “The person operating only in the realm of the soul does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Here is another place in Scripture where we see the distinction Nee has rightly pointed out between operating from the soul, and operating from the spirit. It shows the importance of the distinction.
I hope no one reading this will leave with a bad impression of Watchman Nee. He was a great man, a truly courageous Christian. No doubt he received a great reward when he met his heavenly Father after leaving this life. Some of his books are classics. The Latent Power of the Soul is just not one of his better works. This reminds us that even the greatest of Christian leaders is still a human being and fallible like the rest of us. But I’m grateful I took the time to read this book. It gave me greater insight into one of my spiritual heroes and helped me to see his more human side.