Am I a Soul or a Body?

An Excerpt from An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine

There exists a growing trend in theological anthropology toward what has been called Christian materialism. By Christian materialism, I am referring to the position that we are strictly identical to our bodies—albeit sophisticated bodies, our brains, or our animal (i.e., a biological organism) without an immaterial ingredient or substance (i.e., a property-bearer specifically characterized by the properties of consciousness, freedom, and morality). The claim is that materialism finds secure footing in science, philosophy, and the biblical material. In what follows, I will advance one philosophical reason and several lines from Scripture that support the fact that I am more than my body, brain, or animal, but, in fact, I am a spiritual being with an immaterial ingredient, or substance, that can potentially persist without my body (i.e., I am a soul-body compound who may exist via the soul and without the body).

Our reflection begins with a theological reading of Genesis 2:7 and Ecclesiastes 12:7. Solomon’s reflection on human purpose in relation to the creation story of humans in Genesis 2, arguably, presupposes this understanding that humans are soul-body compounds. Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit [ruah] returns to God who gave it.” The notion that one’s body returns to the ground and one’s soul goes to be with God seems to restate what we find in Genesis 2:7. The author of Genesis 2 describes humans as composed in some way of the dust of the ground and indicates that the life that is given is given to the body to make it alive. This “breath” spoken of can be naturally read in light of the larger canon of Scripture as the soul that God creates and is uniquely highlighted in contrast to the rest of God’s creation, signifying the fact that God is adding something new. Gregory of Nazianzus, in the fourth century, reflecting a common theological appropriation of Genesis 2:7, comments on this passage, “The soul is the breath of God, a substance of heaven mixed with the lowest earth.”[1] In fact, according to some Old Testament scholarship, what is naturally read here as referring to the soul or spirit of the person can be legitimately translated as “soul” or “spirit.” In this context, the important word used is ruah, and in other contexts a related word, neshamah, often translated as “wind” or “breath,” can be translated, and in some cases must be translated, as “soul” or “spirit.” A parallel passage bears out this appropriate usage: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created [bara’] the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath [neshamah] to the people on it and spirit [ruah] to those who walk in it” (Isa. 42:5). The distinction made between breath as mere breath and spirit is present in this passage.[2]

A commonsense understanding of humans buttresses this understanding of humans as souls. By “commonsense” I intend to convey the idea that certain beliefs are natural to believe and become knowledge when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, where souls (or immaterial spirits) seem to be the common belief not just in theistic traditions but also among the ancients.[3]

There is good reason to begin with common sense, and that is because we already begin there in our daily lives. When I wake up in the morning, I take it for granted that I exist and that I have several options before me: I can go for a jog first or drink coffee first. Implicit therein, I take it for granted that I am thinking and that I can deliberate and have a choice between two options. My experience suggests to me that I am free. When I begin, I do so with natural intuition and conscious experience because there are givens in our experience that are basic to all the operations we confront in life. We begin there because it grants us knowledge of the actual world around us, and because the possibilities before us are somehow rooted in what is actual. Naturally, we are inclined to believe that we are distinct from our bodies, which is buttressed by the fact that we are inclined to believe in something like a soul prior to any tutoring, and this has been the case throughout most of history for most people in most parts of the world.[4]

Let’s take an example that will serve to motivate this claim. When a person reflects on his or her hands or feet, the person naturally distinguishes the self from his or her hands and feet. Hands and feet are distinct objects of consciousness that are nonidentifiable with me, nor do they essentially constitute who I am. Who I am is made up of something else fundamentally and essentially. I am a mind or a soul, for I could lose my feet and hands and still I would remain the same person. In fact, I could lose several parts of my body and remain the selfsame person. Taking this in mind with the fact that there is no physical object with which I identify, I have reason to consider the possibility that I am something other than my body. And, through repeated attention given to the question, I either come to form the belief that I am distinct from my body as attested to by the feature of “frequency” that my mind is inclined to think that I am not my body or I come to develop a deeper appreciation for the intuitiveness of the belief based on the fact that I learn more through conscious attention given to the features of my body in contrast to my personhood.[5]

Other Scripture passages reflect this same understanding that we seem to have of ourselves. When Mary in the New Testament says, “My soul [psychē] doth magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46 KJV), she is referring to the whole self (in the sense of a merism: by referring to the whole self through its parts), yet she seems to be referring to the subject of her own actions not reducible to the parts therein and not captured by the whole of the parts that she has. Instead, she is referring to some subject that has desires, emotions, thoughts, inclinations, volitional states, and the like. She is neither her body nor the parts of her body. She is, arguably, something other than her body, or at least something higher than the body she inhabits.

In Psalm 42:11 the psalmist presupposes this commonsense dualism when he enters into a conversation with his soul. He raises the question, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” The psalmist is assuming some distinction between self or soul and body. The psalmist does not reflect on or speak directly to the body or the parts of the body, as if they can respond. Rather, he communicates with his soul or self in an attempt to bring about some causal change in the emotional states he is experiencing.

The New Testament picks up on the Old Testament theme of our soul or spirit going back to God once we die somatically. Consider the example of Luke 23:46, Christ’s death on the cross, where he exclaims, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit [pneuma].” Similarly, Stephen in Acts 7:59 says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit [pneuma].” Conceptually, these and other New Testament passages point us in the direction of personal persistence after somatic death. Pneuma and psychē are common parallel terms to the Old Testament words ruah and nepesh, and while these may be translated as “wind,” “breath,” or “life” more generally, there are, arguably, cases where they can be translated as “soul” or “spirit” and should be interpreted as such.

Beyond the reasons given above, there is a growing consensus in much of the contemporary theological literature that humans are not souls or composed of souls. In fact, there is a tendency among many recent theologians to think that the Old Testament yields a conception of the human person that is quite at odds with a belief in the soul as an immaterial substance because, in their view, the Old Testament authors present a picture of human beings that is necessarily holistic, even monistic (i.e., individual human beings are one kind of thing). Alister McGrath represents this opinion when he states:

Yet it is widely agreed that this is not how the writers of the Bible understood these ideas. The notion of an immaterial soul was a secular Greek concept, not a biblical notion. The Old Testament conceives of humanity “as an animated body and not as an incarnate soul.” The biblical vision of humanity was that of a single entity, an inseparable psychosomatic unit with many facets or aspects. “Soul” is an Anglo-Saxon term used to translate a variety of biblical terms, often having the general sense of “life.” Thus the Hebrew word nephesh, translated as “soul” in some older English Bibles, really means a “living being.”[6]

McGrath is certainly not the only theologian who has made these claims. In fact, this is fairly common in much of the contemporary theological anthropology literature, and while it sounds like sophisticated biblical scholarship, it is actually a debatable thesis.[7] To suggest that there is an Old Testament consensus regarding the nature and constitution of persons is debatable.

While the thesis that holism is at odds with the view that persons have or are souls can and has been challenged primarily based on the Scripture’s teaching of a temporary disembodied intermediate state found in New Testament eschatology, it can also be challenged from the perspective of the Old Testament. Challenging the “holism as monism” thesis of anthropology as the consensus of Old Testament scholarship, Richard Steiner has recently argued that there are several cases in the Old Testament that presume that humans are composed of souls or are souls that can, potentially, exist disembodied. In fact, he even challenges the view that nepesh and ruah exclusively mean “breath” or “wind.” He argues that there is at least one definitive case where nepesh means “soul” as an immaterial substance that can exist disembodied, as found in Ezekiel 13:18, 20, and there are several other cases where it either could be translated as soul or it is likely referring to a soul and not mere “breath,” “life,” or “wind.” He further shows that this is common to the ancient Near Eastern understanding of human beings rather than its being a “Greek” idea that was imposed by early Christianity on the passages of Scripture.[8] The reason why the Ezekiel 13 passage can and must be translated and interpreted as presenting a soul or spirit follows from a common cultural ancient Near Eastern understanding that witches could cast a spell on clothes that were then able to capture the disembodied souls. This understanding that there is a distinction between the person, as soul, and the person’s body is reflected in another Old Testament passage, 1 Samuel 28, where, at the request of Saul, the witch of Endor conjures the dead soul of Samuel, who is actually present and communicating with Saul.

In An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine, I advance these and other reasons from the historic and contemporary literature in favor of the view that we, as humans, are souls or embodied souls (i.e., I am a compound the soul and body), which can potentially persist without my body.

[1] Louth, Genesis 1–11, 51.

[2] For a concise theological anthropology from an Old Testament perspective, see Hoffmeier and Siefert, “What Are Human Beings?,” in Hoffmeier and Siefert, Can We Believe in Creation and Evolution?.  Old Testament scholar James K. Hoffmeier is convinced that Gen. 2:7 yields a distinction between the dust referencing the body and ruah referring to the distinct part of human beings, namely, a soul or a spirit. For Hoffmeier, the commonly assumed thesis that Old Testament conception rules out a soul or dualism is not substantiated from these and many other texts. The traditional reading of the Old Testament, particularly with ruah and nepesh, actually make some latitude for translating and interpreting them, in some cases, for the soul or spirit.

[3] See Bloom, Descartes’ Baby. Bloom argues for the naturalness, intuitiveness, and commonsense belief that we are dualist. He is certainly not the only psychologist or scientist who defends the natural belief in a soul, and there are others who defend a robust dualism of soul and body. For a treatment of Reformed or commonsense epistemology, see also Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief. My arguments for a soul, and specific versions of the soul, are not merely dependent on “intuition,” but intuition and common sense are the starting points. They are further buttressed by deeper reflections on our experience of the first-person, and the soul becomes necessary for grounding some empirical data. Plantinga’s epistemology begins with the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid. And while there are complicated ways of taking Reid or establishing his commonsense epistemology, there is a shared understanding among commonsense “foundationalist” (i.e., the foundations of knowledge) epistemologies that we begin in common sense and in that which is actual for developing knowledge about what is possible. See Nichols and Yaffe, “Thomas Reid.”

[4] While some would eschew starting with common sense and natural beliefs that we are disposed toward, there is no good reason, in principle, for not adopting this philosophical starting point. Some object that such a starting point is philosophically naïve, but we all begin here. And there is good reason to begin here because all of knowledge, as it is rooted in experience, begins with the initial deliverances of experience. Our question is, What is it that we learn from our shared experiences? And this requires careful clear articulation and attention to the details of the basicality of our experience. The only time that we should doubt or reject the deliverances of our basic experience is when we have an overriding reason to deny some item within our conscious experience.

[5] See McNabb, Religious Epistemology, esp. 25–37. McNabb advances a criterion for determining the warrant of a belief using “frequency.” His development of a commonsense account for arriving at beliefs about persons as minds is called “proper functionalism” Reformed epistemology, which is consistent with the deliverances of cognitive science. There are other forms of Reformed epistemology that give more credence to greater or deeper forms of justification for a belief based on attentiveness to one’s own internal items of the mind through a comparison and contrast of features or properties that “seem” to be present. This is called an internalist approach to epistemology that gives greater credence to the internal contents of the mind that individuals have access to in contrast to the “proper functionalism” as reliabilism above. Frequency, as a criterion, functions then in different ways on both systems. On reliabilism it functions to show that beliefs are more likely warranted beliefs in light of the frequency criterion, and on internalism it provides additional justification and surety that certain beliefs are accessed and representations of the world. Both ways are viable approaches to arriving at the belief that I am my soul or mind and not, strictly speaking, my body. For an approachable work using a similar rational framework as McNabb and that spells out some of the conclusions of cognitive science, see Clark, God and the Brain.

[6] McGrath, The Big Question, 137–38. McGrath quotes the Old Testament scholar H. Wheeler Robinson.

[7] For a representative sampling, see Jeeves and Brown, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion; Murphy, Bodies and Souls; Brown, Murphy, and Malony, Whatever Happened to the Soul?; Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting; Murphy and Knight, Human Identity; Corcoran, Rethinking Human Nature; Jeeves, The Emergence of Personhood; Jeeves, Rethinking Human Nature. For theologians proper, see Vorster, The Brightest Mirror of God’s Works, 28–32; van der Kooi and van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics, 267–68. Van der Kooi and van den Brink suggest that the “immortal soul” doctrine is indebted to Greek philosophical thinking rather than the holism of Scripture. Here, as in much of contemporary theology, there is a tendency to read the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, as entailing holism and not substance dualism. The authors in these works often assume holism as monism, and they assume that dualism is either explicitly or implicitly given over to Greek philosophy, but these charges neither reflect accurately on the doctrines entailed by various combined scriptural passages, nor do they give sufficient credence to the wider catholic tradition as an authority, nor do they often give credence to sophisticated philosophical arguments. John Cooper, in Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting, has challenged the view that “holism” as a thesis is inconsistent with substance dualismJames Hoffmeier and Richard Averbeck have also stated in conversation that they are unsure how monism has become a “consensus” view within contemporary theology and why theologians suppose that there is such a consensus report in Old Testament scholarship. In fact, this sort of claim made by Murphy, among others, is similar to another claim that “monism” is the consensus view among neuroscientists.

[8] Steiner, Disembodied Souls.

Joshua R. Farris

Joshua Ryan Farris, Rev, Ph.D, He is Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the University of Bochum, Germany, 2022-2023; Mundelein Seminary Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor, 2020-2021, March 2020 Center of Theological Inquiry; Director of Trinity School of Theology; International Advisor, Perichoresis, The Theological Journal of Emanuel University; Associate Editor, Philosophical and Theological Studies for the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies; Associate Editor, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion.

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