Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies, reflections on the book by Nancey Murphy

Here is a quiz for you.  Don’t worry it’s only one question.

Which of these choices best describes what you think human beings are. *

     1. Humans are composed of one “part”: a physical body.

            1a. Human beings are “nothing but” our physical bodies. (materialism)

            1b. Human beings are complex physical beings,  i.e. incarnated souls, spirited bodies. (physicalism)

2. Humans are made up of two parts.(dualism)

          2a. Body and soul

        2b. Body and mind

3. Humans are made up of three parts: body, soul, and spirit (trichotomism)

4. Humans are one “part”;  and that is spiritual/mental. Reality is a mental process.

What did you answer? 

Did you find it difficult to answer?

 If you found it hard to answer, you are not alone. Nancey Murphy in her book  Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies, writes that most of us have not thought about this topic in an intentional way.

That is an interesting observation, don’t you think? What constitutes a human being would seem to be an important item to have thought about. There are all sorts of current issues where our view point would be shaped by our concept of what a human being is.  When does life begin?  When does it end? IVF, stem cell research, cloning, end of life issues and so on. Part of the problem is, according to Murphy, that we are unclear on what we mean when we talk about “soul” or “spirit” or “physical” (3). If someone asked you to define them, what would you say?

Before you start feeling too badly about all this, there have been a variety of views and no small amount of confusion on this subject for a very long time. (1,6-16). Christians normally look to the Bible to answer these sorts of questions, but when we do, we run into a large problem. There is no clear, definitive teaching on this topic in the Bible. Biblical scholars think that when the Hebrew word nephesh is used in the Old Testament it means the entire living person. Older versions of the Bible translate nephesh as soul. However modern translations (including the NIV) use language that indicates an entire person. Mostly, there are exceptions that can be found, but mostly the Old Testament talks about human beings as physical/spiritual/psychological unified beings.  Some passages in the New Testament, written in Greek,  have been interpreted to convey a body/soul dualism. (17-22) Theologians through the years, most notably Thomas Aquinas, have proposed some very elaborate ideas about the human soul. 

Murphy writes: So the Greek philosophers we have surveyed were interested in the question: what are the essential parts that make up a human being? In contrast, for the Biblical authors each “part” (“part” in scare quotes) stands for the whole person thought of from a certain angle. For example, “spirit” stands for the whole person in relation to God. What the New Testament authors are concerned with, then, is human beings in relationship to the natural world, to the community, and to God. Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh is not our later distinction between soul and body. Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ.(21-22)

To adopt a “physicalist” position, which Murphy thinks we should do, would necessitate only “one or two adjustments”, most notably we would need to think in a more physical sense about the resurrection. For a physicalist the resurrection does not mean the soul receives a new body but rather that the entire person is restored to life. (23) Murphy thinks that adopting a physicalist understanding of what humans are would lead to ( not guarantee) Christians who have more concern for the  world around them and the people in it. She does not deny that many dualists are and have been deeply and sincerely engaged in the world. But the tendency to disparage the body and dismiss the natural world that has historically been part of Christianity would be lessened. (27-32)

Dualism, the idea that humans are composed of “parts”- bodies and souls, has been the dominate Christian view. Murphy, in her book, wants to make the case that there is not much biblical basis for this view. If the Bible doesn’t offer a clear teaching, might modern Christians be free to  reassess the dualism?

There is much more that could be said on this subject. I’d like to know, what do you think?


* This quiz is adapted from Nancey Murphy’s book Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)2006, 2-3.   The references in parenthesis are from the same book.

2 thoughts on “Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies, reflections on the book by Nancey Murphy

  1. Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies…

    If we are made in God’s image and likeness, which is characterised as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, then wouldn’t it go to show that, we as a people, are made of three parts (trichotomism)? Spirit, soul and body.

    The spirit of man is the part that was set apart to God, in the beginning ,for fellowship and communication, as they walked together in the cool of the day (Genesis). Kind of like a spiritual radio signal that was always plugged into that frequency in constant dialogue with the Father. There was an intimate knowing that fostered a deep relationship between God the Father and man, allowing us to connect with the one who created us.

    The soul of man consists of mind, will and emotion. This is the part of man that is given a choice to decide what comes into the gate of the mind, as it relates to the truth that has been given, which engages his will to choose to follow one way or another and stirs up the emotion (feeling part of man) to follow that course. I have heard many comments about why bad things happen to good people and what i have found time and time again is that, people have a choice to do right and when a choice is made to compromise what they believe, they reap what they sow. It is a natural principle… When you plant a field, you expect to reap a harvest. But if you plant with compromised seed, you will reap thorns and thistles, which are the consequence of the choice. Very simple… So the soul (mind, will & emotion) is the gate of choice, based upon the knowledge (intimate knowledge from the Father that comes from the Spirit) given to determine which course to take.

    Finally, the body is the like the caboose of a train. Once the spirit and soul line up in agreement, then the body is the caboose that just follows. A fully-functioning body with all its complexities has the ability to be in perfect harmony with the spirit and the soul and be one with God, through the work of God the Son (Jesus Christ), becoming whole (integrity) people, with no shadow of turning.

    This is how i see a human being in its purest state. When these three components are compromised and violated, it creates chaos and sets us on a collision course into destruction. The principle of sowing and reaping is true… ‘whatsoever a man sows he shall also reap.’

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