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?
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.