Scripture and Philosophy on the Unity of Body and Soul: An Integrative Method for Theological Anthropology

Dr. John W. Cooper, PhD

Learn more about this Routledge Research Companion to Theological Anthropology and this chapter contribution!

In recent decades Christian scholars have debated vigorously whether the biblical view of the body-soul relation is dualistic or monistic. The primary reason for this fundamental disagreement, in my judgment, is a difference in biblical hermeneutics and theological method—conflicting beliefs about the proper interpretation of Scripture, its elaboration into doctrine, and the authority of biblical teaching in relation to the truth-claims of philosophy and science.

This essay draws attention to the role of philosophy in theological hermeneutics as it shapes biblical anthropology. The first section outlines a version of the historic ecumenical Christian approach to Scripture and theology and concludes that the biblical view of body and soul is both holistic and dualistic. The second section contrasts the theological anthropology of historic Christianity with modern approaches since Hobbes and Spinoza, many of which endorse monism—whether idealist, psychosomatic, or materialist. The final section contrasts and evaluates these perspectives concerning the image of God, freedom and determinism, and personal existence after death. Here follows a short elaboration.

The first section employs the grammatical, literary, historical, and canonical/theological method of biblical hermeneutics to discern the original meaning of the individual texts and to articulate the complex picture of human nature that they collectively generate. This method uses philosophy not to determine Scripture’s meaning or truth but to clarify and elaborate its perspective on human nature into a conceptual framework which can engage philosophy and science. This approach assumes that the Bible addresses the issues of life, death, and the life to come in the ordinary language and often figurative expressions of its original authors and readers–the same genres as other religions and non-philosophical worldviews. It likewise uses the terms dualism, monism, and holism primarily in this generic pre-philosophical sense. Dualism implies that humans consist of two basic parts or ingredients and usually affirms continuing existence of the soul, spirit, or person after death. Monism holds that humans consist of one basic ingredient–material, spiritual, or psychosomatic–and material and psychosomatic monism imply that disembodied personal existence is impossible. Holism means that humans exist and function as integrated psychosomatic wholes, but it does not address the number and nature of ingredients or the possibility of an afterlife. Thus integral dualism and non-reductive monism can be holistic.

The essay applies this hermeneutical approach to key Old Testament, intertestamental, and New Testament texts on three topics relevant to the body-soul relation: God’s composition of humans, the unity of human nature, and our destiny through death to bodily resurrection.
With respect to composition, God creates and resurrects people by conjoining two different constituents. In Genesis 2:7 he created the man as a living being (nephesh chayah) from the dust of the ground and the breath of life (neshama). In Ezekiel 37 God brings about bodily resurrection by reassembling lifeless bodies from their parts and reanimating them with life-spirit (ruach). Two basic constituents by defintion rule out all kinds of monism. In ancient near-eastern animism, neshama/ruach is a subsistent principle or power and sometimes but not always an enduring entity such as a spirit or god. Spirit is more clearly substantive in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament, but the composition texts alone are not sufficient to confirm dualism.

The functional unity of body and soul is an obvious implication of the Old and New Testaments’ anthropological terms in their various contexts and uses, taken together as a coherent whole. Body, flesh, bones, heart, viscera, life-breath, soul, spirit, mind, and will are integrated and interdependent parts and powers of whole spiritual-bodily beings whose entire lives are related to God, the spiritual realm, other humans, and the natural world. This unity represents functional holism, which does not address the number or possible separation of constituent parts, and so it is consistent with non-reductive monism and integral dualism. Thus conclusions about the body-soul relation cannot be inferred from Scripture’s emphasis on the unity of life in this world. In particular, holism does not imply monism.

Scripture’s teaching about death and the life to come turns out to be the decisive factor in the body-soul debate. It develops from the Hebrew Bible through Second Temple Judaism and comes to full expression in the New Testament.

The first Testament is primarily focused on God’s relationship with his people in this world. But its references to death, the underworld Sheol, living with the Lord forever, and the future resurrection are sufficient to imply that persons (e.g. Moses, Samuel, and David) subsist apart from their bodies after death even if they are currently inactive in Sheol.
Second Temple Judaism illuminates the New Testament. Among its many perspective, three are paradigmatic for the body-soul debate. The Sadducees did not believe in personal existence after death, which is consistent with monism. Philo and other Hellenistic Jews were influenced by Plato and prized future existence as disembodied souls or resurrected spiritually. The Pharisees and most Rabbis affirmed earthly existence and bodily resurrection but also the existence of souls or spirits between death and resurrection.

The New Testament consistently represents the third view—future bodily resurrection at the return of Christ, and being apart from the body with Christ in the meantime (Phil. 1:20-22; 2 Cor. 5:6-9). This sequence was actualized by Christ himself, who was in Paradise between his death and resurrection (Lk. 23:43). It was taught by Paul, who explicitly endorsed the position of the Pharisees (Acts 23:6-8) and elaborated it collectively in the texts of his letters that address death, resurrection, and union with Christ. All other relevant New Testament texts are likewise consistent with this position. The alternatives–immediate resurrection and non-existence between death and resurrection–are inconsistent with it. Thus the New Testament clearly teaches that human individuals exist without their bodies between death and resurrection. It refers to the dead in various ways–spirits, souls, personal names, and personal pronouns. Obviously biblical eschatology requires a dualist anthropology.

The rest of the chapter surveys and compares the roles of philosophy in the history of Christian theological anthropology. It notes how Augustine and the patristics reformed Platonic concepts of body and soul to express the historic biblical perspective, and how Aquinas formulated an integral dual-ingredient anthropology using Aristotelian hylemorphism. It identifies a number of current Christian defenders of these traditions.

Modern Christianity since the seventeenth century increasingly interpreted and evaluated the truth-claims of Scripture “according to reason” (Locke), that is, philosophy and science. After Descartes, Hobbes’ materialist and Spinoza’s idealist readings of biblical anthropology inaugurated the main monist alternatives. Idealist modifications of Spinoza allowed the affirmation of personal immortality beyond physical existence–reminiscent of Platonism–as is evident in Kant and liberal theology following Schleiermacher.

Psychophysical monism was promoted by some nineteenth-century vitalists and panpsychists (e.g. Whitehead). Materialism was rejected as a corollary of atheism until well into the twentieth century, when evolutionary Big Bang cosmology allowed theistic naturalists to argue that the human soul, the image of God, rationality, moral responsibility, and spirituality are emergent physical capacities.

The chapter concludes by noting key doctrinal differences among historic, modern, and current materialist theological anthropologies regarding the image of God, freedom of the will, and personal eschatology, in addition to the body-soul relation. The greatest challenge is faced by those who claim to affirm both the historic Christian approach to Scripture and an anthropology which entails that souls or persons are generated by and cannot exist without their bodies.

Philosophy has a crucial role in theological anthropology. But the current Christian body-soul debate has been far more philosophically articulate than informed by sound hermeneutics, exegesis, and theological formulation as they relate to philosophy and science. The discussion would benefit greatly from more contributions by philosophically-informed biblical scholars and theologians who can explain the diversity and complexity of what we so loosely invoke as biblical anthropology or the biblical view of body and soul. A fundamental reason for the debate is that we do not agree on how to read Scripture or relate it to philosophy and science. Greater clarity on these positions and issues would result in greater understanding, more consensus on some points, and better focus on genuine disagreements.