Body, Soul, and Human Life

I started reading Joel Green’s recent book, “Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible.” Dr. Green was my Exegetical Methods & Practice professor at Fuller Seminary, and one of the most intelligent human beings I have ever come across. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but so far, it has caused me to think about my own preconceived notions of what it is to be a human. This book is a challenge to the traditional theological conception of human beings as either a body/soul dichotomy or a body/spirit/soul trichotomy.

Most Christians are dichotomists, believing that the real essence of humanity is in the soul or the spirit. The body perishes at death, but the soul is eternal and survives after death. Dr. Green makes a compelling case for a biblical monism, the view that the bible does not conceive of humans as a compilation of diverse parts, but as a whole person, an integrated self. Humans are not embodied souls. Nothing of the human survives after death. A person quite literally dies at death.

Nothing survives death.

If that is true, then a great deal of our theology has to be revised! Now, I haven’t finished the book yet, but anticipating the material, it seems to me that Dr. Green is making the case for a bodily resurrection which, if so, is actually in accord with traditional Christian dogma; for example, as stated in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” I think that is what Dr. Green is hinting at. And the idea that a disembodied human soul survives after death is not very biblical.

In fact, dichotomistic body/soul conceptions are really the result of a misguided Platonism which heavily influenced the early church. By misguided, I mean Plato’s own conception of the soul is taken to mean some form of nonmaterial essence, which is not really Plato’s view. And, although Dr. Green doesn’t mention it, I think a vestige of the radical dichotomy between flesh and spirit in some forms of Gnosticism. It’s funny to me how what was once condemned as heresy in the early church persists in raising its ugly head even in 21st century Christianity–and a great many Christians are completely unaware how ‘gnostic’ their theology actually is!

The book draws on modern neuroscience which has no conception of a nonmaterial entity in a human being called the soul. Neuroscience posits that almost everything which was once attributable to the soul can be explained by physical impulses in the brain. A person is material essence. Now, I don’t think Dr. Green is approving of some of the resulting reductionist views of human life–all we are is physical, and everything about us can be explained by physical concepts. Rather, that the traditional idea of the soul as the nonmaterial essence of the human being is brought into question by modern neuroscience.

Secondly, the book takes several biblical Greek and Hebrew concepts such as nephesh, ruach, basar, psyche, pneuma, sarx, etc., and asserts that a strict lexical definition does not work. After Ferdinand de Saussure and the advent of modern linguistics (and may I add Humberto Eco and semiology) bible students have begun to realize that words are much more polysemous and ambivalent than at first glance. For example, nephesh in the Hebrew may mean a variety of different things, all of which do not connote nonmateriality. Rather, Dr. Green argues we have been reading the text from a Cartesian influence. You know, Rene Descarte’s cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. In this manner, the Cartesian influence made it seem that the nonmaterial mind is where the essence of the human person is actually contained. Your nonmaterial mind trumps your physical body. This gave way to the radical dichotomies that have become commonplace in Christian thought about the human being. For Dr. Green, recovering a biblical perspective shows us that humans are conceived of as whole persons and not composed of different parts, some material, some nonmaterial.

So far, this is an intriguing, if not troubling read. I confess I am a dichotomist. But I haven’t really thought deeply about why, or how I came to be a dichotomist. Perhaps I just accepted it unthinkingly because it seemed to be the Christian thing. At the very least, this book has caused me to question why I hold certain beliefs about what it is to be human. I don’t think it will convince me–and I don’t think that is Dr. Green’s intention–that human beings are completely physical, material beings, and nothing else. I will have to carefully reconsider the use of biblical terms and what they mean in regards to human life, and once I finish the book, I may post a 2nd blog on it.

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6 comments

  1. That’s a really interesting book. Can’t say I totally agree with Joel Green’s views, however. I’m a body/spirit dichotomist because I think it makes sense of the scriptural witness. Although I agree the Bible conceives of human beings as whole persons, this doesn’t mean we cannot have a “spirit.” God himself is spirit. And God is one, yet three. Interesting stuff.

    I wonder how Joel Green interprets Matt 10: 28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” What does a monist think of that?

    1. Thanks for commenting. I’m a dichotomist myself! However, I think I’d revise my beliefs by positing that the essence of a person does not lie exclusively in the spirit or the soul. Rather, the essence of the person is in the whole person.

  2. Pastor James! I had Dr. J.B. Green too, I think probably while he was writing this very book you mention! It was a class called, “NTT: Theology of the Human Person.”
    I wonder if Dr. Green leans towards Non-reductive Physicalism. If I am not mistaken I think Dr. Nancey Murphy of Fuller SOT is its proponent also. What interests me is the implication of its findings. A dichotomist anthropology can disregard the body as did the Gnostics, and spiritualize the reality of human suffering as necessitating the Gospel, as mainly a narrative message. If we can disregard the dichotomist perspective and begin to critically examine our world from a monist anthropology, well our doctrine of sin may stand to go through a revision, as well as our eschatology. Dr. Green did not say this explicitly but seemed to hint at the magnitude of difference between views.
    If a monist anthropology is what the Bible supports, it is obviously not without the continuum of the whole person, both the inner realm of the psyche- as well as the outer, physical existence when focusing on the private, individual life. But the Bible also seems to look at the person in context of community. Even the monist perspective, if we focus in on the inner life of the individual, is dependent and contingent upon the human person’s standing within his or her community, not to mention his or her God. Which is why I’ve been keeping an eye on “Phenomenological Theology” and “Emergentism” as a philosophical category.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Pastor Koo! Sadly, I never had a class with Dr. Nancy Murphy, and so missed out on a lot of that stuff. Yes, I think Dr. Green proposes a non-reductive physicalism in line with Murphy. And the more I think about it, the more they seem to be on to something which Christian theology has taken for granted since Descartes.

      Not just harmatiology, or eschatology, but anthropology, christology, and pneumatology may need to be critically revised. Of course, from a Christian biblical perspective. And that’s where I am grateful to Green.

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