Human Parts, Wholes & Souls: Some Clarfications

This past Sunday at Christ Church South we had a really fun “Sunday School” (aka, “Christian Formation”) Class during the 10AM hour, right before the service of Holy Eucharist. Fun, and riveting. It was a lively discussion, and I admit that some of what I said, some of the “dopamine bombs” I dropped, may have caused a bit of confusion. Hence some clarification might be in order.

Let me back up a bit.

Last year at Christ Church South, 31 adults were confirmed (or received, or “reaffirmed”) into the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Way of following Christ. What a joy it is to “do life” and to walk with Christ, together with these brothers & sisters in Christ, these new friends who share in our Eucharistic community!

And yet, Christ Church (in Tyler, Texas) exists and functions in the midst of a particular cultural context. One dimension of that context is that East Texas is what you might call the “Bible Belt,” or a particular region in the “Bible Belt.” This means that the dominant cultural assumptions in East Texas are shot through and penetrated by (a watered down) conservative, Protestant life theology.

Now, this is not all bad. Even conservative, Protestant fundamentalists are sisters and brothers in Christ, and, as a fellow follower of Christ, I rejoice in our common fellowship in the Lord. To be sure, the purpose of this blog post is not to denigrate or to insult these fellow believers in any way.

And yet, in order for me to clarify a couple of points which came up in last Sunday’s class, I must differentiate my position from some convictions which are held in some quarters of the conservative, Protestant, evangelical world. There are two areas, in particular, which I have in mind: the relationship between the human soul and body, and the issue of dichotomy versus trichotomy vis-à-vis the human soul.

First, the human soul and its relationship to the human body. Now, I don’t have time to write an entire tome on this issue (nor do I desire to do so). The specific claim I made yesterday, in the context of robust discussion surrounding the question of what “happens” to the soul after the death of the individual human person, is that the Hebrew language—the language in which (what Christians call) the Old Testament was originally written—has no term for soul. (Ironically, during the liturgy, the congregation read Psalm 116:1-8 together, and in one of these versed the word “soul” is used!)

I do not deny that English translations of the OT employ the word “soul” to translate a certain Hebrew term. Nor am I arguing that such a move is an erroneous translation.

The Hebrew term which is often translated as “soul” is the Hebrew nephesh. As is often the case, here it is wise to go back to the beginning of our story, and to attend to the very first (or at least one of the first) instance(s) of this term in the Hebrew Bible. I have in mind Gen. 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The phrase “living creature” here is the Hebrew nephesh haya. (The term nephesh is the same term which pops up in Ps 116:8.)

Gen 2:7, by the way, is “riffed on” by Paul in 1 Cor 15:45: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Here Paul is saying that Christ is kind of like the “new and improved Adam.” Now, the word for “being” here is the Greek term psyche (as in “psychology,” the logos of the soul). Paul translates—or rather he quotes the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of—nephesh in Gen 2:7 as psyche.

Paul uses a Greek concept, that of the individual human soul, the psyche, to communicate the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures. This kind of thing happens all the time in the apostolic teaching of the apostles, contained in the NT. It is worth remembering that it is the Greek LXX which the apostles—including the Gospel writers—authoritatively quote.

But the point is that psyche is a Greek concept. It is different from the Hebrew nephesh, which really means something closer to “life” or “creature” or “living thing.”

This is what I mean when I claim that the Hebrew language—unlike Greek—contains no term for our concept of soul. There is an important point to grasp here, and it bears upon questions such as “what happens to the soul after one dies?” To “cut to the chase” in this brief blog post,  that the Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul is a cautionary warning, in my opinion, that we ought to beware of certain overemphases on the idea of the soul “going to heaven” when one dies. This is especially true when it comes to the sustained stress of St. Paul, a brilliant first century Jewish thinker who understood the Greek mind and also sat at the feet of Gamaliel, precisely on the resurrection of the body, not least in 1 Cor 15, the very context in which he quotes Gen 2:7.

The second point of clarification has to do with trichotomy versus dichotomy.

It was Charles Schofield, associated with the history of Dallas Theological Seminary, in the notes of his Schofield Study Bible, who did much to popularize the idea that the human person consists of three fundamental “parts:” body, soul, and spirit. I am confident that Pentecostal and charismatic emphasis on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit also plays into this, along a separate but related trajectory of thought and Christian culture. The result: most folks in East Texas just assume this position—that the human person is trichotomous—to be true.

And yet, none of the church fathers held this view. Neither did Thomas Aquinas. Neither did CS Lewis. Now, maybe Schofield and the Pentecostals are correct, and the weight of premodern Christian tradition is wrong … but I seriously doubt it.

The truth, in my opinion, is that there are many “parts” to the soul: spirit, heart, mind, will, memory, imagination, etc. But this does not undermine the fact that, in its most fundamental constituent parts, the human person is dichotomous, having only two parts: body and soul. Just as the body has many “subparts” (head, neck, torso, kneecap, eardrum), so does the soul (will, memory, etc.).