Being Human 1 (RJS)

About a year ago I promised (and intended) to read and post on Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Other topics and time constraints interfered and this book was pushed further down the line. This summer, however, provides a good opportunity for digging into the book. Over the course of the next few months, once or twice a week, I will work through the questions raised by Green on the nature of humanity in the context of scripture, theology, and modern neuroscience.

The view that humans are composed of a physical material body and a separate immaterial soul is the default position for most Christians. This dualist view is increasingly difficult to reconcile with improved understanding of biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience. I’ve posted on some of this before. The posts can be found through the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar – scroll down to the heading Science, Faith, and Being Human. The challenge to the dualist view is not simply scientific though. Study of the context of the old and new testaments suggests that the dualist view of humanity is foreign to the text, coming in large part from the Greek context of early Christians.

Joel B. Green is Professor of New Testament interpretation and Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Before that he served on the faculty and administration of Asbury Theological Seminary. When Joel Green became interested in the questions of body and soul he responded by pursuing the topic from biblical, theological, philosophical, and scientific directions. Although trained in New Testament, he began graduate work in neuroscience at the University of Kentucky. While I don’t believe he completed a degree before moving to Fuller, he has a more complete perspective on the topic than many theologians or philosophers. In order to engage the topic fully it is necessary to understand the arguments from a variety of  different perspectives.

From the product description:

Exploring what Scripture and theology teach about issues such as being in the divine image, the importance of community, sin, free will, salvation, and the afterlife, Joel Green argues that a dualistic view of the human person is inconsistent with both science and Scripture. This wide-ranging discussion is sure to provoke much thought and debate.

The question here is not does science undermine the Christian understanding of persons? but rather what is the biblical view of persons? This leads to a corollary question: how do we integrate the biblical understanding of persons with the scientific understanding of persons? Dr. Green’s book provides an excellent starting point for this discussion.

What is the biblical view of persons?

Do humans consist of a separable material body and immaterial soul? What does this mean?

The first chapter of Body, Soul, and Human Life lays the ground work for engagement with the questions involving the nature of humanity.

Dr. Green begins with a sketch of recent developments in theological thinking about body and soul, the use of the Greek words soma and psyche in the NT, and traditional theologies of the soul beginning with the early church fathers. In the late second century, ca. 200 AD,  there is clear evidence for a theology which separates body and soul.  Green gives evidence for the early understanding of the church by citing the The Epistle to Diognetus (late second century) which contains statements like “the soul lives in the body, but it does not belong to the body” and “the soul is imprisoned in the body, but it sustains the body” and Tertullian in his Treatise on the Soul (ca. 203 AD).

On the other hand, it is not clear that this idea of a duality to human substance is present in the New Testament and it seems virtually certain that it is not an Old Testament concept. As a result modern theologians and biblical scholars have been moving away from the traditional dualist position. It is necessary to carefully consider the biblical texts to determine what is taught and what is presumed about the nature of human persons.

Why Science Matters. Dr. Green then moves into a discussion of the relevance of science to the discussion of body and soul. Some Christians will deny that science has anything to contribute to our understanding of the soul and the nature of persons. If science is opposed to the existence of a soul, then science must simply be wrong. Christian understanding trumps science. Many bristle at the idea that modern science could or should have a place at the table serving as a source for development of a Christian theology of persons (or creation, or anything else).  Dr. Green suggests that this results from a poor understanding of the development of Christian thought in the first place. “Science” or more precisely cultural understandings of the nature of persons has always shaped Jewish and Christian thinking about  the body and the soul.

The most simple reply is that science already informs exegesis; it is only a question on which science or whose, good science or bad. (p. 21)

And a little later he lays this out quite clearly:

Epistemologically, we cannot bypass the reality that, whether acknowledged or not, natural science is and has always been part of our worldview – recognizing, of course,  that “natural science” takes forms and follows protocols today that in many of its particulars would hardly be recognizable to Babylonian, Egyptian, or Greek scientists and natural philosophers. The question is not whether science will influence exegesis (or vice versa) since the two, science and religion, have interacted and continue to interact in a far more organic way than is typically acknowledged. As a consequence, from a historical perspective, it is virtually impossible to extricate one influence from the other, or chronologically to prioritize on vis-à-vis the other. This is true in regard to the science presumed of the biblical writers. It is also true of the science presumed of biblical interpreters and theologians from the second century onward. We have before us a long history of interpreters of biblical texts who have engaged those texts on the basis of scientific views of the human person pervasive in the worlds of those interpreters (irrespective of their currency in antiquity or today). (pp. 24-25)

We cannot separate bible from culture. It is not possible to separate extrabiblical and biblical sources for understanding and teaching in the church. These are always intertwined. There is also no reason to assume that God’s revelation, in relationship with his creatures, reflects a more perfect or a less perfect understanding of the material nature of human persons localized at any one ancient point in time. Rather, to return to a framework that came up in our discussion of Denis Lamoureux’s book Evolutionary Creation, many aspects of the cultural context, including the understanding of “natural science”, is incidental to the purpose of the text. We err when we allow a particular scientific rendering of the text, whether that of the original human authors or that of later interpreters, to, as Dr. Green puts it, masquerade as “timeless truth”.

Awareness of the situation of both biblical texts and biblical interpretations in time and place, cultural context, provides an important insight into the message found in the text.

Hermeneutically, then, my point is that deliberately locating our interpretive work in relation to science does not necessitate our reading contemporary science back into the ancient texts in a gross form of anachronism, nor that it subject biblical interpretation to the ebb and flow of scientific discovery. W have no need to imagine that the ancients, even the biblical writers, had it right with respect to the role of cerebral spinal fluid or the ventricular cavities. (They were wrong on both accounts.) Rather, doing exegesis in an age of science increases our awareness of the scientific assumptions of the third or fourth or even eighteenth centuries that have already shaped the history of interpretation – and that have the potential to set artificial parameters for our own reading of the biblical texts. (p. 28)

Dr. Green suggests that reading the text with an eye toward science, particularly in the case relevant to this book the neurosciences, as with reading from other specific perspectives (poverty, injustice, persecution,  suffering, calvinism, sovereignty of God, freedom, etc.) can allow questions to surface that would have otherwise remained unasked and unanswered.  We must take care not to allow some pet perspective to dictate all we find in scripture, but looking at the text through new eyes, from a different perspective, can be illuminating.

In this context Dr. Green poses the question:

What is the effect of studying biblical anthropology in today’s context of scientific inquiry?

This is a good place to stop and start a conversation.

What do you think? Should science inform our understanding of the nature of human life?

How do we distinguish the role played by presumptions of culture – either ancient near eastern culture or the culture of later interpreters – from the revelation of God in scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • http://jeremiahduomai.blogspot.com/ Jeremiah Duomai

    When a person dies the soul goes to be with the Lord, and the body rots on the ground until the day of resurrection when the Lord gives a new body to the soul. I think this suggests that there is some kind of immaterial soul which is different from the material body.

    Supposing that this is true I don’t think scientific research would ever be able to locate the ‘soul’ just as scientific research cannot really locate God to be able to prove God’s existence. I think spirit/soul lies outside of the possibility of locating empirically; inference may be possible though I don’t know how it could be possible.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    I’m not sure I understand your questions…if the quotes of Green are accurate, all the resistance to the influence of “science” in our reading and interpretations of biblical texts would be wasted energies. Green has given voice to what plenty of people have wanted to say: the particular science of the day contributes to how we read a text as do the sciences that preceded it. To suppose that we can read any biblical text without such influence, i.e., distinguish it from the presumptions of culture, is another version of culture-free gospel: it doesn’t exist.

    Re: your last question. I am not sure what you mean here…as it could be taken as though God has revealed himself in Scripture in a culture-free fashion…and that would deny the cultural realities of Scripture itself. Maybe you could clarify? Thanks.

  • http://kingdomroundtable.blogspot.com Dru Dodson

    First question – yes. It already does as Mike points out, but “influence” is not the same as “determines”.

    Second one is huge. Since we affirm that revelation comes to us enculturated – never culture free, it seems we have to take seriously the particular enculturation (is that a word?) that God chose to use. A particular Iron Age Semitic tribe was chosen to carry the message. A Japanese, Celtic or Navaho tribe was not. A particular people at a particular time. I think this really grates on our scientific sensibilities. So in one sense, if you’re going to give Scripture any place of authority in your life, you’re going to end up smelling a little bit like an ancient Jew. And a little less like a modern, scientific American.

  • http://noggingrande.wordpress.com Joe Watkins

    @Jeremiah – I think that while your statement does indicate some separation between the body and soul, the fact that God’s work is not complete until after the resurrection points to the reality that for God the integration of the two and not the separation is the ultimate goal.

    This is where science can speak volumes into our understanding of the nature of human life. If God created us to be integrated beings in whom our souls and our minds and our bodies are far more intertwined and interdependent than we often want to think, then scientific studies about these relationships can help us understand ourselves better. Learning how our brain forms patterns of thought, and how those patterns might impact our own emotional structures and thereby impact our bodies can be of great use to Christians as we enter into disciplines to grow in our faith.

    I’m becoming convinced of the importance of seeing the connectedness of our mind/body/soul/spirit/will/passion/emotion whether in theology or medicine or science, and I think it’d be a powerful statement for Christians to be at the forefront of this discussion. I’m really looking forward to your review of this book rjs – I might just have to run out get a copy for myself!

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    It seems quite obvious to me that all the functions and activities of our personality can be turned off on off by physical switches in our brains.One needs only to read the daily research that is being published to see just how much of the “person” is being explained and located in the brain.

    There’s no immaterial part there to do anything. So what would that mean for an afterlife? Well, a bodily resurrection is the only option, the person needs a body, or at least a brain, and I don’t think the “futurama head in a jar” option would be suitable.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    It has only been the past year the I have even considered whether there may not be a soul, and have found that rolling around in that new perspective drastically changes my outlook on life. I have a newfound appreciation for this life, my physical body, and the experienced life of others. This has not been easy since I am a strongly intuitive type and not a sensing type. But I am not convinced, but still experimenting.

    I think science does deserve a place at this table in the same matter because it informs the conversation. Like the miracles or the existance of god, science is showing that it cannot offer proof of a soul, therefore it is telling us that we should consider whether there is one or not.

    I don’t know if I am getting ahead here, but Matthew 10:28 immediately pops to mind….

  • Rick

    Glad you are going to discuss this. The range of issues it brings up include science, Scripture, humanity, death, free-will, original sin, etc…

    It will be an interesting discussion.

  • Scott W

    it’s interesting the Bishop N.T. Wright recently presented a paper on this very topic, which from the description of Prof. Joel Green’s book, tracks nicely with his thesis. His view is what he calls “eschatological integration,” that is, the language of soul, spirit body, etc. are different ways of describing the same thing, humanity experienced from different angles and not a constitutive description of what humans are comprised of.

  • Scot McKnight

    There are important connections, Scott W, between Tom Wright’s lecture (and Tom kindly sent it to me) and Joel’s work — and Tom wasn’t using Joel’s stuff. This more integrative sense of humanity is definitely gaining ground, and all to the good for us to shed superficial dualisms.

  • Joe Canner

    I recently did a brief concordance-skim to see the usage of the word “soul” in the Bible. As far as I could tell, the only time there was definitive evidence of the soul being separate (or separate) from the body was, as Jeremiah (post #1) points out, between physical death and the final resurrection.

    To expand on the responses from Joe (#4) and Phil (#5), since the final resurrection is going to require a significant miraculous divine intervention (to recover what in most cases will be bodies that have been totally disintegrated), it seems reasonable to speculate that the separation of soul and body that occurs upon physical death is also a once-off miraculous event, one which perhaps preserves that which is the essence of one’s self.

    From a scientific standpoint maybe this is our DNA, which God could use to reconstitute a “soul” in the interim between death and resurrection, and which He could use to reconstitute a body in the resurrection. From a spiritual standpoint how the soul will be separated from the body and reunited with a resurrected body is very mysterious. In either case, we are mostly speculating about thing for which there is very little scientific or Biblical evidence.

  • Joe Canner

    Sorry, I mean to say “…separate (or separable)…”

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    Scott W,

    I’d read some earlier musings by Wright on the subject but I as under the impression that he was still holding to a body/spirit duality (at least for the period post death, but pre-resurrection). Reading this work you’ve linked makes me realise that he does not suggest that at all. Thanks for the link. An engaging read.

  • http://jeremiahduomai.blogspot.com/ Jeremiah Duomai

    # 4, I agree that God’s purpose is for full integration.
    But what would you call that ‘entity’ that goes to be with the Lord when the body rots in the grave? What I am trying to say is that when we die we rot. But is that all until we are resurrected or does something happens prior to resurrection?

    I think when the label ‘dualism’ is used it becomes little muddy.


  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    Wondering if Scot is endorsing the “Jesus Potter Harry Christ” book, which is being advertised on this blog. I doubt it, but I thought you might want to know that the creepy cover is the first thing I saw.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Joe#10, not to go to far sci-fi here, but my 18 year old son is convinced that he is going to live forever because within his lifetime we will be able to capture the essence of him in a computer…

  • Joe Canner

    DRT#15, it’s probably already possible to live forever via cloning; it’s only the ethical problems that are keeping us from doing it. It will be interesting to see what attempts will be made to turn someone’s DNA into a computer self. Of course, DNA is only half of our true self, our environment (accumulated from birth to the present) forming the other half. The latter will be much harder to capture on a computer without collecting data in real time. So, your son is out of luck unless scientists can figure out a way to retrieve his essence directly from his neurons (perhaps that’s what he was thinking about all along).

  • Darren King


    It is pretty presumptuous and reductionistic to assume that because, at the present time, in the present form, body = personality, that there is no personality possible without the body. I’m amazed that you state that as a fact. Clearly there are factors involved here that we have no access to. Or, put differently, you’re running an experiment under very narrow conditions, and then assuming the results are exhaustive under any and all possible conditions. This is “reaching” to say the least.

    As an example, if I download, onto a computer, content from a cloud computing service, and then the computer stops working, a person only aware of the computer may assume, “Ah, all information is lost. Clearly all there ever was is embedded in the hardware of this machine. And now that its done for, well, that’s the end.” Of course, the content is still very much available in the cloud service.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Wow, what a great day, I have been out walking thinking about all the people that I can now call souless and not have my name taken out of the book of life! :)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Phil#5 and Darren#17, I too have a big difficulty in terms of the reductionistic model that Phil put out. While yes, it seems that all of personality can be effected by manipulating our physicality, I also believe the opposite is true. Our thoughts, can proactively change our body too. One could argue that it is a chicken and egg event, but it certainly is not certain.

    Further, Wright’s paper seems to shed some light on this in the perspective that Paul may have had. The psyche as a motivating factor instead of the pneuma as motivating factor (or life force) could be called into this.

  • rjs


    No one said anything about “souless” humans.

    The question is dualism and the separability of body and soul. This is an interesting question in the context of some of the comments on the Wet House Idea.

  • Joe Canner

    Darren #17,

    I’m not sure why the reductionist view (body=personality) is incompatible with the separation of the body from the “soul”. If God is capable of reanimating long-dead bodies, He is certainly capable of downloading the information from our brains and our DNA that would be necessary to reconstitute all of the component parts of a human person.

  • http://scienceandtheology.wordpress.com Justin Topp

    It’s not obviously true that our personality is governed by physical switches in the brain solely. What is true is that some aspects of our personality are dependent, in varying degrees, on our brain. These two statements are very different.

    I really liked Joel Green’s book. Seems the idea of a separate soul was a theological add-on that isn’t necessarily clear in the Bible.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    I haven’t read Joel’s book yet. But, the question that I have had for him since learning about this text relates to a pastoral concern: death and eschatology. I realize in advance I won’t do justice to the question in a limited amount of time and space, but wondered what others thought about this:

    Suppose for the moment you are a pastor or an elder, and someone has a “dearly departed”, and once most of the grieving has concluded (or not), the question gets posed: “What will happen to [my dearly departed]? Will [my dearly departed] lie in the ground awaiting the return of Christ? Or will his/her soul be gathered up to Christ until the final resurrection?”

    Now, for the moment, you need to understand that I- and probably others reading this blog- have received or have likely heard variations upon this question from people who are genuinely concerned about the life of a loved one: and what is the disposition of that life post mortem. Whether we agree with their reading of Scripture is matter for another time.

    Lots of people are indeed comforted by dualism, the body-soul split, with the notion that the soul is gathered up by Christ upon death. (Please: let’s leave Love Wins out of this!) Think about Luke 23:42-43 as an example: no, Jesus does not employ the word soul, but often the bereaved read this from this text: the soul of the late person joins Christ in paradise, while the body awaits resurrection upon Christ’s call. Again, all of the lack of precision in exegesis aside- and that is hardly called for in this context- plenty of people grieve well by this dualistic reading of the Bible.

    With that contrast in mind, what are the pastoral implications for caring for the bereaved (or even those who know their demise is imminent) from the proposed integration of a biblical and scientific understanding of humanity by Joel?

    Again, I apologize that I haven’t done justice to this question, but I wondered what others think about this matter. Thanks.

  • Joe Canner

    MikeK #23,

    It is quite possible that the concept of body/soul dualism was invented within the first few centuries AD for this very reason.

    I don’t have a great answer for you, but it seems that we ought to be able to come up with a way to make the ultimate resurrection of the body a concept that is appealing enough to comfort the bereaved.

    On the other side of the coin, consider the problems associated with body/soul dualism. Over the years there have been many corruptions of it (e.g., Gnosticism and it’s various friends and relations). At present one of the biggest problems with it is that Christians have the idea that they do can do whatever they want to their bodies (and by extension to the earth) because the soul is the only thing that really matters in the end. This is, at least in part, a function of the way the Gospel is preached today which makes the eternal destiny of the soul much more of a priority than the current activities of the body.

  • rjs


    I have not read the entire book yet – I will be working through it as I post. Therefore I don’t know exactly where he goes with the issues.

    However, I think the last chapter, The Resurrection of the Body, gets into all of these issues – including the intermediate state as used by Paul and in Luke.

  • Darren King


    All I was saying is that it would be reductionistic and presumptuous to assume the ONLY way we could live on is if the bodies we have now resurrect. I wasn’t really making a point regarding the biblical perspective, just one about the conclusions we can and cannot reach with the info we now have available to us.

  • PSF

    Has anyone read Dallas Willard’s philosophical discussions of this issue?

    He raises some good points, along the lines that even a non-reductive physicalism does not solve all our problems about the body-soul or brain-mind/consciousness relation.

    Here’s one example: http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=48

  • Brian Considine

    RJS, How on earth, pun intended, could it matter if the soul is separate from the material body or one? If anyone can say they truly understand the nature of the soul they aren’t being honest. The Bible is unclear. But if anyone claims that science has a definitive word on the subject they are being dishonest.

    Now, how on earth, pun intended again, could science find something immaterial? Can love be truly understood scientifically? Can the emotions? No, they can only be observed. Neuroscience can only observe brain activity, not the reasons why it happens.

    Is our spirit the same as our soul? Perhaps(nĕshamah). Perhaps the ancients understood the life force as distinct from the material body. What science can detect in the human body while we are alive is an energy source. Is that the soul? What we know about a human body after death is that energy source is gone. Where did it go? Science can’t tell us. What science does tell us is that energy cannot be destroyed but simply redeployed into another form. Maybe that’s why Jesus could say, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Of course, the resurrected body of Christ was materially different than the pre-crucifixion body. You do believe this, right? Can science tell us why?

    So to answer this question: “Should science inform our understanding of the nature of human life?” Of course, within the limits of science but the entire person remains outside the understanding of science and no doubt always will.


  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Brian#28, Your conclusion is valid in my view. Theology and science should inform our understanding within their limits and neither will (likely) ever understand us in toto. I put them on equal footing as the expression of God, almost. They are thirds, scripture, nature, revelation all tied together through reason. The new quadrilateral.

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    rian #28, “neuroscience can only observe brain activity, not the reasons why it happens”

    I beg to differ. Neuroscience can actually provide ways to not only understand why brain activity/ personhood happens, but actually manipulate it. We CAN do physical things to the brain that changer people’s personalities, memories, their tastes, behaviors, moods and even their accent. All this stuff and more IS controlled by the brain, and we know because we can manipulate it.

  • Paul Franklyn

    The editors for the Common English Bible translation (which is complete and in print by July 2011) decided not to use the word “soul” in the Old or New Testaments. A range of terms are employed. Joel Green is senior NT editor of the CEB. (In some books of the CEB Apocrypha, given the apparent hellenistic influence, the word “soul” does appear for the Greek word “psyche,” though the editors had an invigorating discussion about that too.) I mention this practical application because it gives pastors and readers a chance to see how these issues about human nature are worked out smoothly in biblical context, over hundreds of poems and pericopes.

  • Jeff

    Shallow or superficial dualism is a problem. But, the desire to throw away any and all dualism from Scripture is also a culturally influenced view.

    Funny how we love to employ culture to the views of doctrines we don’t want to embrace. That sword cuts both ways.

    But, even NTW does not fully depart from dualism in his writings.

    Indeed, we will want a body free from sin in the new heavens and new earth – whatever that reality will be. And, that is the plan biblically.

    But, just as this blog notes quite often that one cannot just insert God into scientific investigations (God of the gaps) and that investigation of the material world is not intended to point outside itself and can’t (a methodological naturalism) that sword also cuts both ways. This blog seems to be inconsistent here.

    In other words, if we don’t want to have God (miracles) interfering with our investigation into the physical realm, we also cannot in turn exalt science to the point of infringing on spiritual truths. Yes, of course, we are all influenced by our science in our reading of the text of Scripture – but that does not imply it should – and I think this first post allows too much of science to stand over Scripture.

    The plain fact is that biblical texts regularly address matters outside the realm of science – the resurrection of Jesus; the ascension of Jesus and His rule with God in the spiritual realm; etc. We accept certain truths on faith – based on evidence of course – that lead to acceptance of other truths also outside the realm of science (such as answered prayer; temporal judgments, etc).

    Such is also the case with the soul/spirit. It is a complex subject. But, it will be interesting to see where this review goes in that respect.