Biblical and Modern Concepts of the Soul

on June 12, 2019

The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology considered questions of Christian anthropology at a conference at Loyola University in Baltimore on June 3-5. Considered first in this very contentious area is the still very controversial doctrine of the soul.

Patrick Lee of Franciscan University discussed the doctrine of the soul in both Scripture and Christian tradition. Attention to the soul remains important today, because it is important to “what the good news really is” when we are working to “hand off the words and deeds of Christ.” Scripture doesn’t really present a picture of the universe at large, but focuses instead on our personal relationship toward God. Involved in that is some understanding of human nature. Lee sees two areas of particular concern with respect to humanity, namely, the resurrection of the dead, and our destiny in heaven.

With respect to the resurrection, the first question concerns what happens at death and after death, and in particular “personal identity after death.” Lee said he takes “the resurrection to be literally true.” Scripture says that we will be raised with a “glorified body,” but it is unclear what this actually means. People debate whether the glorified, resurrected human being is in fact the same person as the person who died. Platonists and Cartesians hold that the human body is not actually part of the true person — the body is only a possession. One can then easily see that personal identity continues after death. The soul can easily be pictured leaving the body and going to heaven. But the Genesis account of the Fall says that we return to dust, clearly indicating that we are in some sense “dust.” The Christian church has insisted that the body is part of the self. This then raises the question of why the resurrection is important, Lee said, if we are still living souls in paradise after death. Physicalists, on the other hand, who have a materialist doctrine of human nature, believe that the soul is a mere function of the body. This does show the need for a resurrection, although physicalism seems inconsistent with various Biblical statements.

The traditional interpretation of God breathing into Adam the “breath of life” has been that God created man as a unity of body and soul. One contentious question is whether or not a person exists when his body no longer has the breath of life in it, but the resurrection has not occurred, and whether he or she is the same person at the resurrection. A gap in existence, particularly if a composite being is disassembled and re-assembled, raises a question of identity with the being that first existed. Modern thinkers have debated in particular whether or not a duplicate person created by God at some other time and/or place would be the same as the original person.

In traditional Thomistic thinking, the soul, although in union with the body, has an element of transcendence from matter. But Thomas Aquinas was clear that the self is not merely the soul, contrary to Plato. Human souls can, however, exist apart from human bodies, unlike animal souls. Actions of the mind that involve no bodily actions exist in humans, thus demonstrating existence independent of the body, Aquinas thought. This is less of a problem for continued identity after death than a physicalist has, but there is still a gap between death and resurrection, and a resulting question of identity where there was no continued body/soul union.

In response to a question, Lee indicated that while there might be material copies of thoughts in our bodies, thought itself cannot become material, because it is not then “anything universal at that point.” On the other hand, matter cannot exist without form, as Aristotle believed. Another questioner asked with disembodied souls have only memory (but not spontaneous thoughts, apparently). Lee said that Aquinas emphasized that the separation of soul from body is “really bad for the soul,” and there will not be eternal life in the full sense until the resurrection of the dead. In answer to another question, Lee seemed to indicate the problem of identity indicated by the “replica objection” to the resurrection of the body with no intermediate state is difficult to resolve philosophically. Nancey Murphy, who spoke next, commented that scholars have identified “radically different conceptions” of basic ideas in philosophy, such as the concept of “matter,” and that “there isn’t anything close to being commensurable with the Aristotelian concept of form.” This problem of “incommensurability” makes it difficult to talk about ancient doctrines in the way that we think about the issues of body and soul today. Lee responded that while this problem “needs to be looked at,” he still feels that it is reasonable to talk about a human being as a “renewable substantial form.” He also said there is much mystery, and we are dealing with God’s abilities in connection with our understanding of eternal life.

Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary then discussed the relationship of the brain to human consciousness and Christian faith. Her viewpoint, which endeavors to accommodate physicalism (the belief that human beings are entirely physical, not a union of mind and matter) with Christian faith and human rationality, holds that humans are not “made up of two substances, but only one, and yet we not mere animals,” we “have capabilities that have regularly been attributed to the non-material soul.” Nevertheless she thinks that “Thomas [Aquinas] has the best of all accounts of the soul that you can find in the literature.” Murphy believes that reductive materialism (the belief that only matter exists, and that thought is nothing more than processes in the brain) endangers rationality. She favors, instead, a nonreductive physicalism, which holds that while human beings are made of only one substance, thought is an aspect of human bodies not reducible to physical processes.

She said that mind-body dualism was the dominant Christian teaching “for over seventeen centuries.” It was not an Hebraic concept. She said that by the mid-twentieth century, mainstream Christian scholars had come to the conclusion that “body-soul dualism was not a part of original Christian teaching,” but entered Christianity through the Hellenistic civilization in which early Christianity lived. At this point in the early twenty-first century, this issue is “now being debated by conservative Protestants.” The translation of the Old Testament Hebrew word for “breath” as the Greek word for “soul” in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) contributed importantly to the rise of dualism, she said.

Instead, she believes, in line with much current thinking, that we should distinguish between “aspective” and “partitive” accounts of human nature (reckoning body and soul as two aspects rather than two parts of human beings). She observed that in Aristotelian understanding, the soul is “strictly the life principle,” becoming more complex as one moves up the hierarchy of being. With conscious beings, “we not only know things about our environment, but we know that we know.” In this regard, the “binding problem” (of linking together sight, sound, smell, and other sensations of a single thing as pertaining to that single thing) “is considered to be one of the hardest problems in neuroscience next to consciousness.” But a physical connection with consciousness is indicated by damage to the temporal lobe of the brain affecting human ability to recall the “emotional significance” of particular things. With Aquinas, Murphy believes it is helpful to conceive three particular aspects of the human mind—passive and active intellect, and the will. The seeking of information and forming of judgments is active intellect, passive intellect is the forming of memory. Contemporary scientists “distinguish a dozen memory systems.” Will is “the power to have wants that only the intellect can frame.” A human will is “the power to have wants that only a language user can quote.” She said that “a great deal of work has been done on the neurological basis of language.” “Unique human properties” include “the ability to anticipate the future and plan accordingly, the ability to orchestrate survival” and the “appetite for the good.” Currently, neuroscientists are interested in “the regions of the brain that are activated during religious experience.”

Murphy said that “neuroscientists consider accounting for consciousness the really hard problem.” She said that reductive materialism calls into question all the ideas of the materialists, who by their own account are strictly human machines. All the products of a machine, however complex, are determined by the causal interaction of their parts. This is “a very reasonable worry, that the laws of neurobiology are determining all of our thoughts and actions.” In this kind of determinism, causation proceeds from parts to the whole. Murphy proposes instead a non-reductive “downward causation” from the whole to the parts of an organism. Even this, however, does not explain how persons could be willing beings rather than determined by the nature of their parts and their environment. She claimed that “complex systems theory” can explain humans as free agents. To do this, we need “to give up the traditional Western bias toward things” in favor of looking at “processes, and their relations.” The systems level is “de-coupled” from the component parts. “Complex adaptive systems” have some way of “storing memory, about what has or has not worked in the past.” One example of such “complex adaptive systems” is “the storage of information in the genome, which results in the adaptation of the species.” Accounting for rationality and moral judgment is yet another problem for a physicalist account of human nature. It is crucial to moral reasoning to “distinguish between self and not self” and to be able to evaluate concepts of the good. The “evaluation of possible futures is important to evaluating the good.”

A non-reductive physicalist account of morality is preferable to a reductive physicalist account from the standpoint of Christianity, since the latter really explains away both reason and morality, Murphy indicated. She favors a contemporary understanding of the apostle Paul’s anthropology which is that “as embodied beings we are social,” characterized by social relations and “vulnerability to desire,” while “at the same time, as rational beings, we are capable of soaring to the highest heights of reflective thought … and capable of sustained motivation … [of contemplating] the mystery of life … and there is a dimension of our being in which we are directly touched” by the psalmist’s reflection that “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

A questioner asked whether on a physicalist understanding of the soul, the soul can be inspired by the Word of God, whether the Word of God is simply a particular collection of physical processes, and whether Jesus Christ is a particular collection of physical processes. Murphy said the question of divine inspiration had to do with the question of God’s action in a “closed causal order governed by universal physical laws.” This is a problem she has been working on with her colleagues at the Vatican for twenty years, she said. With respect as to whether the Word of God is a configuration of physical processes, she appealed to a philosophical concept of “realization” to explain the Word of God as a transcendent reality, manifest is space and time. Murphy commented than in switching from her Catholic background to a radical Anabaptist tradition, she discovered that the early Anabaptist leaders “carefully used Biblical anthropological terms.” She said that both Michael Sattler and Menno Simons held the soul to be “a human being’s capacity to be in relationship with God.”

Another questioner asked if people today understand what technological changes will mean for human nature. Murphy responded that people tend to apply what they know about existing technology to their understanding of human nature. Additionally, today’s transhumanism proposes changing human nature through technology. She sees a lot of problems with this. Transhumanism does, however, deny that humans are mechanical machines, she believes. A commenter pointed out that dualism lends itself to transhumanism, since it proposes that “the human being can be abstracted from the body, fundamentally transcending its embodied [state],” which is “a very dangerous road.” It is, he said, the road to “the sovereign self.”

This writer would observe that while in recent centuries, and well into my own lifetime, body/soul dualism was thought vital to Christianity and physicalism a denial of Christian faith, dualism can easily involve a Gnostic view of the world. The insulating of the self from the world, protecting the self from the consequences of pursuing its preferred reality is clearly involved in LGBT liberation, abortion and euthanasia, and the sexual revolution in general. Yet to be a physicalist, one must be open to God’s interventions in the world; the “closed system” Murphy referred to cannot exclude God as the source of everything that happens in it. We know that his providence governs our lives, and he controls our destiny.

  1. Comment by David on June 12, 2019 at 10:02 am

    The soul serves no purpose unless there is an afterlife. The belief in such did not arrive in Judaism until perhaps two or three centuries before the time of Jesus. Even in his era, it is mentioned that the religious authorities of the day, the “priests and scribes,” rejected the notion as they found no basis for it is scripture. The Pharisees, a laymen’s movement of which Jesus was one, accepted the afterlife or resurrection of the dead. When this group became a competitor to early Christianity, nasty comments were written about them.

    Of course, the question arises where did the belief in the afterlife come from if not from scripture. We need only look around the ancient world for an answer. The Roman era mystery cults had two chief characteristics—life after death for members only and a ceremonial meal.

  2. Comment by Roger on June 12, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    The Soul is the Personality; which is made up of Mind, Will, and Emotions. The Body contains the 5 Senses. The Spirit is dead, due to Adam, at one’s birth. The Cross and Resurrection makes alive( reenergizes) the Spirit in the person that believes 1 Cor. 15: 1 – 4, into a new creation (creature). Hebrews 4: 12, says that the word of God is able to divide the Soul from the Spirit.

  3. Comment by Ken dean on June 13, 2019 at 11:28 am

    So much disagreement with each other and no name calling. I love it. Take a dozen 12 year olds. Have them read the appropriate chapters on souls and resurrection. Let them define souls after death

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