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Fall 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 2 · pp. 215–22 

Nancey Murphy’s Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? A Review Essay

Wendy J. Miller

Questions have been surfacing within Christian and secular thinking during the last few decades concerning the basic composition of the human being, questions such as: Are we composed of body and soul? Body, soul and spirit? Or are we just body? Nancey Murphy’s recent book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? is one of a number of texts to emerge lately from within philosophical and psychological disciplines which speak to this subject. 1

It soon becomes obvious to the reader that philosophers, psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, and some theologians are in active debate around this issue. Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, also invites her readers into the discussion by offering a short quiz, calling for reflection on one’s understanding of human nature: Are human beings composed of only a physical body (physicalism or materialism), or of a body and a soul (or mind) (dualism), or of a body, soul, and spirit (trichotomism), or only of a spiritual/mental substance (idealism) (2–3)?

. . . our worldview has called other ways of knowing into question, including intuitive, spiritual ways

Murphy holds the view that humans are composed of a “spirited body.” By this she means that we are not just body, but that the spiritual quality which we possess is not a separate entity. As such she would be a physicalist, but is clear that she does not reduce the nature of the human being to “just a body”—a reductionist point of view. Rather she sees herself as holding a “non-reductive” version of physicalism (5).

Christian physicalists are quick to state that they cannot embrace a reduced theory of human nature (22), and so reject the “nothing but body” view of the person as put forth by neurobiological reductionism. As a nonreductive physicalist Murphy demonstrates how the human person evolves from a simple life form into a complex, intelligent animal through the interplay of the body and the brain. The brain with its ability to consider other alternatives, to stand back as it were, and reflect on its own functioning and to make other choices, does influence the formation and development of the physical human person as new neurons and neurological paths are developed and used. It is this self-transcendent quality of the brain which brings the “top down” causality into play in the gradual development of the person and his or her behavior.

Recent work in the field of neuroscience involves mapping the regions of the brain and studying the functions of its various regions. Through this research, neuroscientists are now associating faculties once attributed to the mind or soul to the brain: the brain performs these functions. Murphy is quick to note that this evidence will never amount to proof, and that it will always be possible for those who hold to a dualist perspective of the human person (body and soul) to claim these functions belong to the mind/soul and that mental events are merely correlated with various regions of the brain (85–90).

At the same time Ray S. Anderson, who also embraces the nonreductive physicalist position, still finds himself needing to refer to the inner nature of the human person: “I use the term ‘soul’ to denote the inner core of the whole person, including the body. By ‘soul’ I mean the personal and spiritual dimension of the self. Thus, the phrase ‘body and soul’ is not intended to suggest that the soul is something that is merely ‘in’ the body, or separate from the body, but the whole person with both an interior and an exterior life in the world.” 2

Even so, nonreductive physicalists bring into question the scriptural basis for the doctrine that a person is composed of body and soul, or body, soul, and spirit (16–22).


I have been invited to consider what difference it makes for us as Christians to think of ourselves, not as “having” a body (a more dualist line of thinking according to Murphy) but “being” a body through and through (the physicalist approach). What difference would it make within the realm of giving pastoral care? Or within the ministry of offering spiritual direction?

Murphy responds to such questions by stating that in embracing a physicalist anthropology would require “one or two adjustments” in our theology of the person. First, we would need to “give up or finesse the doctrine of the intermediate state if that has been an important part of one’s tradition. . . . [Second] One needs also to understand resurrection differently: not re-clothing of a ‘naked’ soul with a (new) body, but rather restoring the whole person to life—a new transformed kind of life” (23). Since Murphy sees the soul/spirit as intrinsic to the body, and that it is only through the body that we are known for who we are and can relate to others (129, 141), 3 she does not believe that when the body dies, a soul/spirit leaves to be in heaven later to be re-united with the body at the final resurrection. When we die we die. It is only at the final resurrection that we come back to life (28, 29).

According to Murphy, a shift toward a nonreductive physicalist view could help us become more bodily aware; we would live more fully in the here and now, rather than pinning our hopes on eternity. If we would not see the goal of life as preparing the soul for entry into heaven (its true home), then, Murphy asks: “. . . would Christians through the centuries have devoted more of their attention to working for God’s reign on earth? And would Jesus’ teachings be regarded as a proper blueprint for that earthly society?” (27). She is hoping for a more grounded, creation- and body-conscious way of seeing and living.

She has a point. There is a current flowing throughout the New Testament scriptures and other writings within the Christian church, which tends to overlook or minimize our life on earth, the kingdom of God coming on earth now. Emphasis on the imminent return of Jesus Christ within the early church would tend in this direction. Murphy also notes that the creeds skip from Jesus’s birth to his death (27). 4 She suggests that in embracing the concept that we are a “spirited body,” we would then pay more attention to our bodies, how we live in the world, and we would be more present to the created world. This would be healthy and life-giving, and could help us embrace creation more deeply, and more reverently. We might not take the physical creation for granted.


As we begin to consider the perspective of pastoral care or giving spiritual direction, I would like to consider what assumptions we embrace when we take a certain perspective or viewpoint. We need to be aware of where we stand, and what it is that informs and guides our thinking, our beliefs, and theological assumptions as we engage in the ministry of pastoral or soul care.

To “adjust” to the physicalist view of being a spirited body, we would also need to be aware of how Murphy arrives at her position. Even as a philosopher, she admits that it is work in the area of cognitive neuroscience within the twentieth and twenty-first century which makes the

most decisive scientific contribution to the question of the make-up of the human person. . . . [A]ll of the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes—or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world. (56)

Hence, we would need to allow science to lead theology, to be the primary discipline in shaping how we know and what we believe about the make-up of the human being.

I remember visiting the wife of church member in a university medical research hospital. Her husband had been found unconscious, but able to walk, ten days before and had been admitted to the hospital. Each day an array of medical specialists ran tests, seeking to diagnose what had caused Rob’s condition. The results of the tests offered no clues, and the various specialists were puzzled. With no diagnosis they could make no prognosis. In the meantime Rob regained consciousness, began recognizing and relating to family members, was able to eat, and could sit up in bed unassisted. It was afternoon, and as I stood in the lounge with Rob’s wife, Megan, one of the specialists approached her and gave her the day’s report. He concluded his report by saying that the latest tests that had been run showed nothing, and therefore he could not make any prognosis regarding Rob’s healing. Megan responded, “But Rob is conscious, he knows his family and is conversing with us. He’s eating, and sitting up!” The specialist looked at her and replied, “That’s nonsense.” Then he turned and left. Shocked, angry, and confused, Megan sank into one of the chairs. “What does he mean, that’s nonsense?” she asked. “The doctor was using scientific philosophical language,” I replied. I went on to explain that within that system of knowing, only what can be empirically measured and tested—based on the five senses—is accepted as reliable. “Their tests cannot explain why Rob is now conscious and re-oriented to his surroundings. They have no scientific or medical diagnosis, and therefore cannot ‘make sense’ of what is happening to Rob.” Information or ways of knowing which come from beyond the empirical realm are not embraced as reliable or rational, and are therefore judged to be nonsense. Our modern world view is very much shaped by the empirical scientific worldview.

This shaping of our worldview has called other ways of knowing into question, including intuitive, spiritual ways of knowing. This has resulted in a gradual movement towards a denial and even rejection of what we call the supernatural, the miraculous (8). Most persons coming to me for spiritual direction are hesitant to talk about their spiritual experiences, and almost universally will preface what they are about to say with, “If I tell you this, you will think I am crazy.” It is as if we in the West have each received a communal message: any spiritual experience is questionable and non-rational and could be a sign of craziness.


To reply to these questions I am inviting other persons to the table, persons who speak from the perspectives of biblical and theological studies, also spiritual theology.

Christopher Hall, associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Eastern College, St. Davids, Pennsylvania, notes that the fundamental womb in which theology is conceived, develops and flourishes is “Revelation, worship, and tradition.” 5 While embracing the Enlightenment critique of the church’s involvement in bloodshed and tyranny, Hall notes that these

were not the only factors raising doubt in the value of the church’s heritage and authority. Key developments in science, mathematics and philosophy indicated that human reason was capable of astounding feats. . . . With the increasing incongruity of the Enlightenment and Christian worldviews . . . a palpable drift away from classical Christian orthodoxy rippled through Western culture. . . . Hence, those aspects of the Christian tradition that failed to meet the standards of human reason—liberated, autonomous reason—were regarded with suspicion and for many ultimately discarded. 6

Belief in miracles, knowing through the gift of revelation, the incarnation of Christ and his resurrection, all came into question and were often laid aside as untrue.

Hall also invites William J. Abraham to the table. Abraham “observes the strongly reductionist flavor of much modern theology, a scientific reductionism he relates to the acceptance by modern theologians of the ‘canons of science’ and ‘critical history’ as normative criteria.” 7 Abraham fears that the biblical narrative of God’s saving work will not fit well within reductionist boundaries. “Once theologians begin writing within the reductionist framework, they have little choice but to ‘reinterpret the tradition in terms that will speak, as they say, ‘meaningfully’ to the modern age.” 8

Eastern Orthodox monk, Fr. Seraphim Rose, offers spiritual guidance for persons asking about life after death and present-day “after death” experiences “that have caused such interest in some religious and scientific circles.” 9 Fr. Rose notes that the Orthodox teaching, while being difficult for persons living in the twentieth century to believe, is not held by a “few isolated or untypical teachers in the Orthodox church, but is the teaching which . . . has been handed down from her very beginning,” and “comes as a refreshing fountain of clarity in the midst of the dark confusion caused in modern minds by the various errors and empty speculations of recent centuries.” 10 He goes on to describe documented accounts of “out-of-body” experiences, in which the soul is performing actions in its own power, without help from the body. He also relates accounts of persons who, as they approached death, realized that they could “see” already-dead relatives and friends, “hovering around the ceiling of the room . . .” and who feel that they had come to protect or guide the person near death. 11

While these accounts may startle persons whose thinking has been shaped by the assumptions of modern science, across the centuries of the church and in the field of spiritual direction and soul care today these narratives come as no surprise. If we were to embrace Murphy’s view, then we need to discard centuries of spiritual wisdom within the Christian tradition and bring into question the experience of persons today who tell us what they are seeing and hearing. Rosa’s body was weakening, and she knew she was near death. One afternoon, as other family members gathered around her bed, she quite suddenly sat up in her bed and smiled. “Jesus is coming,” she said. “And Rob is walking with him. They are coming to take me home.” (Rob was a son who had been killed in military action some weeks before.) Then Rosa laid back down and died, the smile still on her face.


What I find missing within the theological discussion around this issue is reflection on the multiple layers of death which occurred in Eden when the first man and woman embraced the lie, a lie which would then inform and color their own interior thinking, being, relating, and physical condition. Indeed, all of creation was infected. 12 Whereas earlier they lived in harmony with their bodies, with each other, with creation, and with God, following this deceptive choice they found themselves at odds and over against their own bodies, their sense of who they were, over against each other, creation, and needing to hide from God because of fear, shame, and guilt. This pervasive experience of separation, of living with a gap both within oneself and between self and others, self and creation, self and God, is the human condition. And it is into this condition that God keeps coming, asking, “Where are you?” and inviting us home to God’s self. It is in this movement of turning (repentance), receiving rescue (salvation) and returning to walk with God (spiritual and personal transformation), that we come to embrace who we are: body and soul. We can now see and relate to others with love and compassion. And we see creation anew as of God’s making, a gift to all humankind, rather than as real estate to be grasped, bought, defended from others, and fought over.

The ground we walk on becomes holy and a gift to be loved and cherished.

This experience of seeing is a spiritual gift, not something that our brain can think up on its own. How we know is informed by God through the work and servanthood of the Holy Spirit. 13 As a spiritual director I pay attention to this experience of God’s presence and work in another, and to how the person is living into God’s guidance and direction in all of life. Rather than saying that since my brain can adapt and develop new neurological pathways which in turn shapes who and what I am becoming, that I am therefore composed of a “spirited body” without soul, I hold that God has created us in such a way, body and soul, and indwells us by the Spirit so that our body, including the brain, is fitted to receive and be affected by soul and Spirit. Being created in the image of God does include experiencing transcendence—being able to step back from where we are, to discern new direction and to choose to change. And our brain works in coordination with, and in harmony with, the soul and Spirit.


At the final resurrection there will be change. The great divide of death on multiple levels within us and between us and creation will finally be mended. It is the work of Jesus Christ, through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, to bring all things back together. 14 The ministries of pastoral care and spiritual direction help persons to live within the hope of this coming reality and at the same time to live in growing harmony with God, with oneself, with others, and with creation.

Although Murphy and others do hold that they are not reductive physicalists, finally they seek to prove that we know what we know by means of philosophical reasoning and the recent findings of neuroscience. This is another form of reductionism on a large scale. We are created and inbreathed by God, also indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, and so know through other means than our human rational abilities and empirical science. While scientists claim that we need to be able to show just how the Spirit helps us know by revelatory gifts and experiences, Jesus invites us to come as children in simple trust, and to contemplate and live into the deeper “knowings” we are given. 15


  1. Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). All page references in the text of this article refer to Murphy’s book. Examples of other books on this topic are: Whatever Happened to the Human Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, ed. Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Newton Malony (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998); Kevin J. Corcoran, Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006); Ric Machuga, In Defense of the Soul: What it Means to Be Human (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002).
  2. Ray S. Anderson, “On Being Human: The Spiritual Saga of a Creaturely Soul” in Whatever Happened, 177.
  3. Murphy holds that since social interaction can only happen through the body, the body is the soul’s only means of relating to other souls. Souls without bodies would be unable to interact to others, so their existence would be solitary.
  4. The Apostles Creed, while clear in its belief in Jesus’s incarnation, moves from his being “born of the Virgin Mary” to his trial before Pontius Pilate: “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” His life, his teachings, how he mentored and guided his followers, his many compassionate responses to persons who were ill, in need, were demon-possessed, lost and in need of guidance. None of these is noted in the creed.
  5. Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 20.
  6. Ibid., 24–25.
  7. Ibid., 19.
  8. William J. Abraham, “Oh God, Poor God—The State of Contemporary Theology,” The Reformed Journal 40, no. 2 (1990): 19. Quoted by Hall, Reading Scripture, 19, 20.
  9. Fr. Seraphim Rose, The Soul After Death (Platina, CA: Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1980), xiii.
  10. Ibid., xiv.
  11. Ibid., 11, 12.
  12. Gen. 3; Rom. 8:18–25.
  13. Jn. 14, 15; 1 Cor. 2:7–13.
  14. Eph. 1:10.15.
  15. Lk. 10:21, 22.
Wendy J. Miller is Campus Pastor and Assistant Professor of Spiritual Formation at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia. She earned master’s degrees in Church Leadership from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and in Sacred Theology from General Theological Seminary, New York.

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