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Fall 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 2 · pp. 168–84 

Paul on the Human Being as a “Psychic Body”: Neither Dualist nor Monist

Gordon Zerbe

“It is sown a psychic body (soma psychikon), it is raised a pneumatic body (soma pneumatikon). If there is a psychic body, there is also a pneumatic body.”

—1 Cor. 15:44, author’s translation 1

Continuing developments in the fields of physics, evolutionary biology, genetics, and neuroscience have created significant ripple effects among theologians and philosophers on fundamental questions about human nature. 2 While Augustine could chide his Christian contemporaries for making obscurantist pronouncements in the fields of science on the basis of literalist readings of biblical texts (particularly regarding the external, physical world), since what the gospel was really all about was the activity and destiny of the soul, 3 now the stakes are much higher, with the depths of matter-energy activity in the human psyche itself being plumbed to new nanometric limits. The disenchantment of the universe is now apparently even absorbing the last mysterious being—the human. But there is perhaps some consolation: in recent physics the very character of and boundaries between matter and energy, something and emptiness, and space and time are increasingly being made fuzzy. 4

. . . nowhere does Paul attach to this word [psychē] the idea of an “immortal soul” temporarily resident in a body as its essential core

As a result of these developments, old questions are being asked of the biblical witness with a new urgency. While most scholars now argue for some form of holism or monism in Paul’s thought as a result of a crucial transition in the last one hundred years or so, 5 many evangelical scholars have continued to argue that the biblical witness requires some form of anthropological dualism, for a soul that is distinct and separable from the body, even if joined in a functional whole. 6 (Certainly in popular Christian consciousness, there continues to be an assumption of anthropological duality, such that the prime narrative of salvation is of the soul’s departure from the earth to eternal bliss in heaven.) 7 On the other hand, philosopher-theologian Nancey Murphy, in making the case for “non-reductive physicalism,” has argued that the biblical witness is varied and ambiguous, permitting a fair degree of latitude within certain boundaries, 8 while New Testament scholar Joel Green has gone even further to argue that the biblical witness is suggestive of (and more consistent with) some form of non-reductive anthropological monism. 9 Both of these authors continue to be worried about some crucial ethical and missional dangers in a dualist approach to understanding the human being.

The question that is being imposed on Paul, then, is: What is the ontological (essential) status of mind-soul relative to the body? Are they distinct and separable, with the soul being immortal and surviving on its own without the body after death? Or is the mind-soul an attribute of physicality? As Green puts it: “Are the soul and body indivisible (even if conceptually or rhetorically distinguishable) or divisible (even if functionally or ideologically inseparable).” 10

This is not a new question, and biblical scholarship pertaining to some aspect of this question is by now enormous. 11 And while this may not be the most obvious or crucial issue pertaining to the human being that would arise from an interrogation that begins with the reading of Paul’s writings first, nor a question that entertained Paul to any significant degree, it is still an important question that requires some answer.


Paul’s understanding of the human being cannot be fully answered by reference to the terminology that he uses. Yet, such an analysis is still an appropriate place to start. While a survey of the nouns that Paul uses in reference to human faculties is the most common way to approach this, and will be pursued in what follows, a fuller treatment would give equal time to the verbal ideas associated with human behavior, action, volition, cognition, feeling, perception, memory, and social and God-ward interaction.

Paul does distinguish between the “inner” and “outer” aspects of the human being and its interactions (Rom. 7:22; 2 Cor. 4:16; cf. 2 Cor. 7:4; Eph. 3:16). Associated with the inner aspects of the person are various faculties/organs or dimensions of perception, revelation, understanding, feeling, willing, cognition, or memory: nous (mind), noēma (thought, mind), psychē (vital self, life force, life), syneidēsis (consciousness, conscience), pneuma (breath, spirit, life force). These, in turn, are closely associated physiologically with the “heart” (kardia) and the “innards” (splanchna). These crucial inner aspects are significantly physiological in more than a merely metaphorical or figurative sense; the inner aspects are certainly not to be understood as purely immaterial, or somehow completely separable from their physiological form. That is, Paul also works with a kind of physicalism, although different from the one postulated today. As for the more “outer” aspects Paul uses terms such as: sōma (body), sarx (flesh), melē (members, limbs, organs), kephalē (head), and prosōpon (face). But one must be cautious about positing too sharp a line between the inner and the outer in Paul’s thinking: an “outer” aspect can stand for the whole person (face, body), as can an “inner” aspect (psychē, innards, heart). Moreover, both inner and outer aspects can be attributed corporately to the single social reality of the church: body, spirit, or psychē.

Paul seems to use none of these terms with any narrow semantic precision, often using some interchangeably, where they overlap in meaning or reference (e.g. mind and spirit; body and flesh; heart and mind; 12 innards, heart, and breath-spirit 13). Paul can use these terms quite colloquially at times, but can also employ them more “technically” for significant theological or hortatory argumentation (flesh, spirit; psychic, fleshly; body). Some of these terms Paul uses in accordance with the usage of their Hebrew counterparts (heart, face, psychē, flesh), while some of these terms have no direct Hebrew counterpart (mind, conscience, body). Many of the activities of these aspects or organs can be attributed to the whole person, and vice versa, activities of the whole person can be expressed through one of the aspects. 14

A crucial feature of Paul’s vocabulary is that, like most ancient languages, it was especially concrete, with extensive metaphorical, metonymic, and figurative meanings, compared to our more abstract use of words. Thus, to have compassion is “to have innards” (like our “have heart”); to have reputation is to “have face.” A quick review of some of the more crucial terms bears this out.


The “heart” is perhaps the most fundamental word to denote the essential self (in full accordance with the Judaic-Hebrew tradition, yet correlated with Hellenistic categories), 15 referring to the person as a whole from the aspect of intentionality. It is the central organ of the person as the faculty of will, emotion, thoughts, desires, loyalty-belief, and affections, 16 and as the location of divine inspiration and spirit endowment (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 5:5; 1 Cor. 6:19).

Paul’s use of the word for “innards” is based on the Hebrew rachamim (etymologically, “things pertaining to the womb,” rechem), and is used beyond the physical sense to denote (a) the seat of feeling, especially compassion and love (overlapping with and sometimes standing for “heart”; 2 Cor. 6:12; 7:15; Phil. 1:8; Phlm. 7, 12, 20), and (b) the feeling or virtue of compassion itself (Phil. 2:1; Col. 3:12).

The word for “head” is used, beyond the physical sense, to refer to rule, superior rank, origin, or source (to be the “head” of something; e.g. 1 Cor. 11:3; Col. 1:18; 2:10, 19; Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23). Paul does not use “head” to refer to any aspect of human functioning. Its conventional use to denote superior status is not because it is understood as the cybernetic headquarters (as today), but because the head is the highest and most “noble” feature of the human being.

The word for “face” is used beyond the physical sense to denote (a) a faculty of seeing and perceiving (1 Cor. 12:12; 2 Cor. 3:18; 10:7), (b) external appearance, physical or expressive manifestation, and thus social status and honor (2 Cor. 5:12; 8:24), (c) an interface of relationality and social interaction and presence (2 Cor. 2:10; 10:1; Gal. 2:11; 1 Thes. 2:17), and (d) the person as a whole (though especially in its expressive aspect, 2 Cor. 1:11).

The word for “flesh” is a most problematic and difficult term in Paul’s vocabulary. Beyond reference to merely human existence or physicality (in positive or neutral sense), it can also denote the obvious weakness of physical existence (e.g. Rom. 6:19), but also that aspect of the human that is most easily corrupted by or manipulated by the power, Error (hamartia, Sin), designating a belonging to the present state of the corrupted cosmos, and indeed can signify a kind of force or realm hostile to God. 17


The Greek word sōma (“body”) does not have a direct Hebrew counterpart. But significantly, Paul does not use it in its basic Greek use as referring to a dead corpse. “Body” is used in Paul with quite a spectrum of usage and meaning. 18 While Paul can use the word to denote the physical aspect of the human (or the human in its physical aspect), most importantly Paul can also use the body to denote the whole person. 19 On the other side, Paul nowhere uses the term in a way to imply that the body is a kind of external shell that outwardly clings to or is stamped on a person’s real inner self; the body belongs inseparably and constitutively to the very essence of the person. 20 Moreover, Paul can use the term to denote the manifested “spiritual” union between the believer and Christ (“the body . . . is meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body”; “your bodies are members of Christ,” so that “the one united with the Lord becomes one spirit [with him], and “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you”; 1 Cor. 6:13, 15, 17, 19) and to denote the very sacramental-spiritual-social being of the church (“you are the body of Christ and individually members of it”; 1 Cor. 12:27; “the body is one,” 1 Cor. 12:12, 13; cf. 10:16–17; 1 Cor. 11:24–29). In other words, Paul uses sōma also to denote relational aspects of the human being.


Even the usage of the word pneuma, usually translated “spirit,” represents a use of concrete language in that it is based on the phenomenal reality of “breath.” The difficulty with Paul’s anthropological use of the term is that when Paul refers to a “breath-spirit” associated with a person or with a church it is unclear whether Paul is thinking of that which is apportioned by God from the Holy Spirit and bestowed upon a person or a church, or of something that is distinctly a person’s own human spirit. 21 In the only unambiguous case where Paul refers to “the spirit of a human,” it is identified in reference to the “spirit of the cosmos” and quite distinct and different from (even opposed to) the “spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). As Dunn puts it, “Paul nowhere expresses a notion of an innate spirituality [possessed as one’s own] awaiting release.” Rather, Paul’s emphasis is on “the divine Spirit acting upon and in a person from without.” 22 Whether distinctly a person’s own or endowed (apportioned from the divine Spirit), the “breath-spirit” of a person is that faculty or capacity through which a person receives revelation and understanding, engages in cognition, expresses emotion, or relates quite directly to God. In some cases the word overlaps in meaning with “mind,” at other times with “heart.”


Paul uses psychē in accordance with the Hebrew notion of nephesh, as the whole person, and especially the vitality or life-force that makes a living being, or a being living. It is a word for which a rough English counterpart is not available, referring in Paul to the individual person as a whole, one’s earthly life as it is publically observable in behavior, or one’s earthly life which can be lost in death. 23 Significantly, nowhere does Paul attach to this word the idea of an “immortal soul” temporarily resident in a body as its essential core, as developed in the Greek intellectual tradition. This apparent avoidance 24 makes Paul’s letters quite remarkably different from other Jewish writings imbued with a Greek philosophical standpoint 25 and from later Christian writings. 26 Paul goes beyond the Hebraic sense in only two contexts: in Philippians, when expressing the “common life/vitality” [mentality, disposition] of the community (stand as “one psychē,” 1:27, parallel to “one pneuma”; “united in soul, co-souled,” sympsychos, 2:2) and the human aspect of emotion, desire, and affections (“same-souled,” isopsychos, 2:20; “to be well-souled, cheered,” eupsychō, 2:19); and in Corinthians, when he uses the adjective psychikos (psychic, soulish) to denote the merely mortal life vitality or realm (1 Cor. 15:44, 46; and identified with sarkikos, “fleshly,” in 1 Cor. 2:14, in both cases deliberately turning gnostic-type thinking and vocabulary on their heads). 27

For the “inner” person, Paul also uses Hellenistic anthropological terms, such as “mind” or “conscience/consciousness” that don’t have a Hebrew counterpart, but only have a function on the foundation of the Hebraic (OT) anthropological framework of “heart” and “nephesh/psychē.” 28

It is most crucial to note, finally, that distinguishing various aspects, organs/faculties, endowed capacities, or inner/outer dimensions of the human being does not necessarily indicate any fundamental essential dualism. To solve that question, one must look at passages where Paul discusses topics that relate closely to the matter of a basic human make-up or functioning.


In general terms, Paul appears to be much less interested in an exposition of the human being in an “essentialist” or “ontological” sense, than in expounding on the modalities of human living, particularly living in its intra-personal, God-ward, socio-political, and ethical dimensions. That is, some hints as to some possibly implicit assumptions in the former area only come into play when he is addressing the latter. Of the various modalities crucial to Paul (e.g., imperatives for justice and peace in social human life, 29 or for loyalty-faith in relation to God), let me identify two. (a) Human beings in the present are in the process of “groaning,” as a result of the inherent weakness, perishability, and suffering characteristic of life in the present age (Rom. 8:22–23; 26–28; 2 Cor. 4:17; 5:2–4)—and it is important to observe that it is especially the whole person that groans, not just the body (for the internal groaning, e.g. Rom. 8:26–28; 2 Cor. 2:13, “my spirit could not rest”). And further to this in particular, (b) human beings are marked by an existential (phenomenologically experienced) tension between “willing” and “doing,” such that the latter is constrained or rebellious relative to the former—that is, humans are beset especially by an ethical inability and imperative.

It is especially in addressing both of these modalities that Paul’s assumptions of some sort of “essential” or “aspective” humanness come to the fore. In the first case, this appears in Paul’s discourse on bodily resurrection or on the dynamism of resurrection life already working in the present (e.g. 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 4–5; Rom. 8; Phil. 1, 3). In the second case, that of human ethical competence (Rom. 7; Gal. 5), what Paul actually stresses, in accordance with his fundamental apocalyptic premises of the nature of the cosmos, is that the problem has little to do with purely intra-psychic dimensions, but rather in the way in which the cosmic powers, “Error” (Rom. 7:13–8:13) and “Flesh” (Gal. 5:17), have caused a corruption in the inner integrity and competence of the human being. No ontological dualism of separable inner and outer “parts” of the human is posited. And the answer toward full ethical integrity is in what God has provided through the Messiah from without (Rom. 7:4–6; 8:4).


It is especially in Paul’s discussion of the resurrection of the body (in the context of his assessment of the weakness, suffering and perishability of human existence) that Paul’s holistic conception of the human being becomes most apparent. Paul’s discussion of the resurrection of the body makes it most clearly evident that Paul considers the sōma to belong constitutively and inseparably to human being-and-living, both now and in the telos (goal, end). 30

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul identifies human being-living as experienced through a “psychic body” (sōma psychikon) or a “spiritual body” (sōma pneumatikon; 1 Cor. 15:44–45). English translations have consistently mistranslated 1 Cor. 15:44, making a contrast between a “physical” body and a “spiritual” body, importing a physical-spiritual dualism that is not Paul’s. In this text Paul contrasts two forms of bodily animation, one “psychic” (psychikon) and the other “pneumatic” (pneumatikon), as a way to strike a midpoint between the Hellenistic body-soul dualism of his audience (which rejected bodily resurrection, period) and a naïve physical resuscitation model of resurrection. The bottom line for Paul is that human existence in either condition—whether in the present age or the age to come—must be bodily (“embodied” sounds too dualistic), whatever the precise animation and whatever the precise “physical” character. That psychikon here does not refer especially to the “physical” feature of the current body is indicated by Paul’s supportive scriptural citation of Genesis 2:7 in 15:45, which draws attention to the first human as being made bodily into a psychē zōsa, translating the Hebrew, nephesh chayyah, “living being.” Even the subsequent distinction between the “earthly” body and the “heavenly” body (vv 47–49) is not one of physical versus spiritual (or material versus immaterial), since for Paul the heavenly is a kind of substance or form (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:39–41). 31 Both kinds of bodily material require animation—and vice versa, both animations require bodily form—for there to be life. The only mode or form of human existence that there is, in either dimension, is bodily existence.

Paul’s exposition of the character of and transition between these two modes is also instructive. The two modes are characterized elsewhere as “body of humiliation” as opposed to a “body co-formed to the body of [Christ’s] glory” (Phil. 3:21), or as “bearing the image of the human of dust” compared to “bearing the image of the human of heaven” (the second Adam, 1 Cor. 15:47–49). The most crucial language of resurrection, then, is transformational language, emphasizing continuing within discontinuity. Paul says “we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51, 52) and that our body will be “transformed” (metaschēmatizō; Phil. 3:21), such that it will be “co-formed” to that of the “image of God’s son” (symphytos, Rom. 6:5; symmorphos, Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:21). Further, this is described as the “redemption of our body,” linked inseparably with the liberation of all creation (Rom. 8:18–25; Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:24–28). And so Paul can speak of this as a “glorification” (Rom. 8:17, 30; cf. 2 Cor. 4:17). Just as Paul does not speak of the replacement of all creation but of its transformation, Paul also speaks not of an exchange of bodies, even less an escape from bodies, but of the transformation of bodily life. And in continuity with Jewish resurrection hope, Paul understood resurrection not just as bodily but also as involving the restoration of a people within a transformed creation. 32

The difficulty, however, is that Paul also uses rich metaphorical imagery to describe this in varied rhetorical contexts. For instance, it is expressed as the “swallowing up of death” (1 Cor. 15:54; 2 Cor. 5:4; cf. Isa. 25:8). In particular he uses relational imagery: living as a “spiritual body” is to be “with Jesus” (1 Thes. 4:17; 2 Cor. 4:14), it is to experience final “adoption as children” (Rom. 8:23), and it is to “be at home with Jesus” (2 Cor. 5:6–9). 33 Paul also uses as an image of the transformation from present “psychic” to future “pneumatic” embodiment the movement from “sowing” to “emerging [raising]” (1 Cor. 15:36–44), without ever suggesting that there is any separable “seed” that is a distinct, immortal “soul.” Finally, Paul uses dwelling and clothing imagery, language that is wrongly thought to confirm the notion of bodies as an external shell on the inner, essential self (soul). Resurrection life is to “have a dwelling from God, a house not made with hands and [reserved] eternal in the heavens,” instead of a dwelling that is merely “tent-like” (2 Cor. 5:1–2). 34 As for the clothing metaphor, Paul says in one place that “the perishable will be clothed with the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:53–54), quite in continuity with his fundamental transformational exposition, and in another place that his hope is to be “fully or completely clothed” (ependysasthai; as opposed to partially, or inadequately clothed; 2 Cor. 5:2, 4), in contrast to any worry about being found “naked.” 35 Far from suggesting that “being naked” is to be in one’s essential self as a disembodied soul, for Paul the prospect of “nakedness” is one to be avoided at all cost (2 Cor. 5:3), using and rebutting the dualistic language of the Corinthian Christian gnostics. 36


What is also decisive is that Paul understands this resurrection power to be operating already in the present order, in the midst of the very weakness, suffering, and perishability that are characteristic of present human being-and-living. Paul can thus use imagery otherwise reserved for resurrection proper, such as, “Messiah being formed in you” (Gal. 4:19), “[your] spirit [is] life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:11), “making alive your mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:12), mostly in connection with the ethical imperative of Christian living (cf. Rom. 6:1–14; Gal. 2:19–20; Col. 2:20–3:14). But Paul’s stress on the regular, ongoing renewal of life through resurrection power also occurs in the context of maintaining hope and resolve despite constant suffering (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:10–12, 16; 13:4). The point here is that resurrection power is what impinges on bodily life, not simply disembodied life (cf. the imagery of “new creation,” 2 Cor. 5:17–18). The sphere and goal of God’s redemptive work is the cosmos (Col. 1:20; Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:24–28; Rom. 11:36), the creation (Rom. 8:18–25), and the body. In this sense, Paul prays for the entire person in its various dimensions (sōma, psychē, pneuma) to be preserved “whole” (holoklēron) unto the day of Christ (1 Thes. 5:23), when all things are transformed into newness. 37


But what about that “time” between death and parousia? Does not Paul teach an intermediate state of consciousness, in which the dead in Christ enjoy communion with Jesus already (as explicitly propounded apparently first by Irenaeus, late second century), and does this not prove the separate, disembodied existence of a soul? It is indeed the case that many Jewish writings from around this time express some hope for a reality of existence between death and the final arrival of the reign of God. 38 What is interesting, by contrast, is Paul’s significant reserve in this area. What Paul emphasizes is that God’s redeeming power is so comprehensive (Rom. 8:17–34) that nothing, not even death, can ever constitute a “separation” from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35–39). In 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, where one might expect Paul to expound on this matter, all he says is that those “dead/sleeping in Christ” will surely be included in the final resurrection of the dead when the age to come finally arrives (1 Thes. 4:13–18; 1 Cor. 15:18, 23). Elsewhere, all Paul says is that death means being “with Christ,” and thus never to be feared (Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:6–8). Paul is so committed to absolutely no compromise on the primacy of the ultimate resurrection of the dead—apparently especially in controversy with those who sought to emphasize either a spiritual resurrection already in the present or the immortal existence of a disembodied soul as all that mattered—that he refuses further speculation. Indeed, he hints that those believers now dead have no existence apart from the resurrection—apart from resurrection they will have “perished” (1 Cor. 15:18)—suggesting that Paul refused to grant the existence of bodiless immortality. In a similar way, while he grants that to die and thus “be with the Lord” in anticipation of resurrection is to be preferred (2 Cor. 5:8; cf. Phil. 1:23), he rejects the notion of any form of soulish “nakedness” (2 Cor. 5:3). 39 Thus it cannot be said that Paul explicitly teaches an intermediate state of consciousness, from which can be translated a doctrine of the soul’s immortality. 40 In death one moves out of historical time and into transcendent time, and the continued existence of a person after death can only be posited on the basis of the reality of future resurrection, not on the basis of the soul’s immortality. As Dunn puts it: for Paul everything short of final redemption is incompleteness, whether in an interim state, or in the proleptic experience of the benefits of salvation in the present. 41


While Paul cannot be said to teach some version of essentialist anthropological dualism, his writings also do not permit a monist understanding, with the human being at the mercy of the capricious or determined necessities and cycles of “nature.” Paul is certainly a dualist, although of a certain kind—an apocalyptic dualist, as rightly understood by K. Barth and others. 42 The human being cannot be properly or fully comprehended in immanentist or essentialist terms. 43 For Paul the human being is faced with imperatives (modalities of living) that are God-ward (theological-spiritual), ethical (behavioral), and socio-political (having to do with allegiance, dominions, and identity). Paul’s dualism has multiple dimensions. It is cosmic, that is, having to do with a cosmic battle between God and Satan and their respective forces; but crucially this aspect of the dualism is not perpetual: there is a telos (goal) in which God’s victory in Christ will dramatically bring the age to come. In this sense his dualism is temporal: the present age will cataclysmically give way imminently and ultimately to the age to come. The dualism is epistemological, contrasting the wisdom of mastery operating in the present age versus the wisdom of weakness characteristic of God’s messianic revelation (apocalypse). 44 The dualism is certainly also ethical (the choice between justice and injustice, life and death) and salvific: salvation is not possible via immanentist progressivism, but through transcendent intervention from without. Paul’s apocalyptic dualism is chiefly revelatory, world-transforming (not world-ending or world-denying), and salvific (not in terms of a vertical departure to heaven, but in terms of a participation in the eventual merging of heaven and earth in the reign of God, the new creation). But the dualism also has an anthropological dimension, though not in any essentialist sense, but in the sense that the cosmic forces are in a battle within the human (Rom. 6–8; Gal. 5) and confronting the human being with fundamental alternatives, in particular ones of allegiance, of loyalty-belief and its accompanying obedience. Moreover, it is through the dynamic infusion of a new power sphere (Grace, Spirit), that the inner anthropological corruption plaguing the human can be resolved (Rom. 5–8). Finally, in the sense that Paul’s gospel calls to an alternative dominion and lordship, his apocalyptic dualism is also specifically socio-political (e.g. Phil. 1–3). Here Murphy is in large measure correct:

. . . [T]he adoption of a dualist anthropology in the early centuries of the church was largely responsible for changing Christians’ conception of what Christianity is basically all about. I am suggesting that original Christianity is better understood in socio-political terms than in terms of what is currently thought of as religious or metaphysical. The adoption of a dualist anthropology provided something different – different from socio-political and ethical concerns – with which Christians became primarily concerned. 45


In conclusion, it cannot be said that Paul teaches a dualist anthropology with a distinct and separable “soul.” Paul works within the framework of a sort of physicalism, albeit of a different sort than proposed today. But even so, more crucial is an acknowledgement of Paul’s broader dualist apocalyptic perspective that puts the stress on human living, not human being.

This essay has been prompted by questions that recent science has imposed upon thoughtful readers of scripture, in the hopes (by those such as Murphy) that the biblical-theological and scientific perspectives could somehow be integrated, if not reconciled. 46 My own view is that the vocabulary and constructs of each pursuit (domain?) cannot be fully “integrated,” and that the attempt to force the integration would mean that either the biblical witness has to constrain (trump) science, or that science must overtake the biblical witness. Certainly science and theology must be in close dialogue (with neither ignorant of the other), but yet their differing and complementary imperatives and thus perspectives must be respected. While I am fully sympathetic with the scientific imperative to understand and to explain, I am also fearful that this can sometimes overwhelm the theological-ethical-political imperatives. This does not mean isolating ourselves in our own closets, but it does mean a resistance to forcing one into the modality of the other. Truth is not always found in an absolute distinction and choice between an either/or.


  1. Translations throughout this essay are the author’s.
  2. E.g. Nancey Murphy, Religion and Science: God, Evolution, and the Soul (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2002); idem, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Newton Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998); Warren S. Brown and Malcolm A. Jeeves, “Portraits of Human Nature: Reconciling Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology,” Science and Christian Belief 11 (1999): 139–50; Philip Heffner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); John R. Russell, N. Murphy, T. Merering, M. Arbib, eds., Neuroscience and the Person (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory, 1999); J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000); William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999); Kevin Corcoran, ed., Soul, Body, and Survival, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Joel B. Green, ed., What About the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004).
  3. On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, Chap. 19.
  4. E.g. Tim Folger, “What Fills the Emptiness?” Discover, August 2008, 24–28.
  5. For a sketch of the shift from a pervasive assumption of dualism to the predominant emphasis on monism or holism, see e.g. Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul?, 21–26.
  6. E.g. R. Gundry, SŌMA in Biblical Theology, with an Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 147–56; J. Knox Chamblin, “Psychology,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, D. G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 765–75; John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); idem, “Biblical Anthropology and the Body-Soul Problem,” in Soul, Body, and Survival, ed. Kevin Corcoran (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 218–28.
  7. This pervasive conception in evangelical circles is attributed by Joel Green especially to the “enormously influential” writings of Watchman Nee. See Joel B. Green, “ ‘Bodies—That Is, Human Lives’: A Re-examination of Human Nature in the Bible,” Whatever Happened to the Soul?, 151.
  8. Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, 1–37; see also “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul?, 1–30. For Murphy, the biblical witness would suggest that both a radical dualism (which denigrates the body, and posits the immaterial soul as that which seeks reuniting with God) and a radical, reductionist monism (materialism, physicalism), in which there is no room for human uniqueness and relating with God, are “out of bounds.”
  9. Joel B. Green, “ ‘Bodies—That Is, Human Lives’,” 149–73; idem, “Scripture and the Human Person: Further Reflections,” Science and Christian Belief 11 (1999): 51–63; idem, “Monism and the Nature of Humans in Scripture,” Christian Scholar’s Review 29 (2000): 731–43; idem, “Eschatology and the Nature of Humans: A Reconsideration of the Pertinent Biblical Evidence,” Science and Christian Belief 14 (2002): 33–50; idem, “Body and Soul? Questions at the Interface of Science and Christian Faith,” in What About the Soul?, 5–12; idem, “Resurrection of the Body: New Testament Voices Concerning Personal Continuity and the Afterlife,” in What About the Soul?, 85–100.
  10. Green, “ ‘Bodies—That Is, Human Lives’,” 152.
  11. E.g., older bibliography cited in G. Harder and C. Brown, “Soul,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975–78), 3.676–89; newer literature in J. D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 51.
  12. E.g. “hardening of thoughts-minds” is parallel to the “veiling of heart,” 2 Cor. 3:14–15.
  13. E.g. Paul can refer to the “refreshing” of the “innards” (Phlm. 7, 20) or of the “spirit” (1 Cor. 16:18; 2 Cor. 7:13) without any significant difference in meaning.
  14. That is, Paul can move from describing the human through the personal pronoun, and then make a parallel statement highlighting one of the specific faculties/aspects; e.g. “ourselves” in parallel with “our bodies,” Rom. 6:10–14; 2 Cor. 4:7–5:10.
  15. E.g. Phil. 1:7; 4:7; Rom. 1:21, 24.
  16. Robert Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms: A Study on Their Use in Conflict Settings (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), 448.
  17. For the range of usage, e.g. Dunn, Theology, 62–73.
  18. E.g. Dunn, Theology, 52–61.
  19. Emphasized especially by R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. K. Grobel (New York: Scribners, 1951), I, 192–203, and many scholars after him.
  20. E.g. 1 Cor. 13:3; 9:27; 7:4; Phil. 1:20. In particular Rom. 12:1–2 in connection with Rom. 6:12–13, 16, 19. And especially 1 Cor. 15:35–57.
  21. References to a “spirit” especially associated with a person or a church include: Rom. 1:9; 8:16; 1 Cor. 2:11; 5:3–5; 7:34; 14:14; 16:18; 2 Cor. 2:13; 7:1, 13; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23; Col. 2:5; 1 Thes. 5:23; Phlm. 25; Eph. 4:23; 2 Tim. 4:22; further possible references include: 1 Cor. 4:21; 14:15, 32; 2 Cor. 4:13; Gal. 6:1; Phil. 1:27; Eph. 1:17. Many scholars hold that (with the exception of 1 Cor. 2:11) this reference to a human spirit is but an apportioned manifestation of the divine Spirit, and in that sense can be one’s own. E.g. E. Schweizer, “pneuma,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 6.434–35; Jewett, Anthropological Terms, 182–200; G. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1990), 24–26.
  22. Dunn, Theology, 76–77. The (Holy) Spirit is “given” to a person (Rom. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Gal. 4:6; 1 Thes. 4:8), “dwells” in a person (Rom. 8:9, 11; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19), and is “received” (Gal. 3:2; 1 Cor. 2:12), such that Paul can refer to believers as “having” the Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 23; 1 Cor. 7:40 [cf. 1 Cor. 2:16]; cf. the “spiritual ones,” 1 Cor. 2:13, 15), or to be “one spirit” in union with the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17). Contrariwise, it is also possible to receive a different spirit (2 Cor. 11:4; cf. 1 Cor. 2:11). It is the Spirit that “makes alive” in a moral sense (Rom. 8:10), apportions different manifestations to believers (1 Cor. 12:7–11), is the source of joy (Rom. 14:17; 1 Thes. 1:6), the source of revelation, teaching, understanding (especially of “spiritual” realities; 1 Cor. 2:10–12, 16; 7:40), animates moral character (Rom. 7:6; 8:4, 13–14; Gal. 5:16, 18, 25), animates hope (Rom. 15:13; Gal. 5:5), intercedes by virtue of its discerning power (Rom. 8:26–27; cf. 1 Cor. 2:11–13), animates faith (2 Cor. 4:13), and bears witness with a person’s own (apportioned?) spirit (Rom. 8:16).
  23. Jewett, Anthropological Terms, 448; Dunn, Theology, 76.
  24. Jewett, Anthropological Terms, 448–49. He observes that Paul also avoids the regular interchangeability of pneuma and psychē characteristic of later Rabbinic usage, especially pertaining to the fate of the soul after death.
  25. The Greek notion of a bodiless and immortal psychē that temporarily inhabits a body is explicit for example in Wisdom of Solomon 2:22; 3:1, 13; 7:27; 8:19; 9:15; 14:11; 15:8, 11; 16:9, 14; 4 Maccabees 1:20, 28; 13:13, 15, 21; 14:5, 6; 15:4, 25; 17:12; 18:23; Philo, Sacr. 5; Som. 1.135, 181; Plant. 14; Conf. Ling. 161; Migr. 18; and Josephus, War, 2:154, 163; 7:341–60; Antiquities 18.18. The preservation and popularity of these writings among Christian theologians certainly contributed to (or expressed) the pervasive adoption of anthropological dualism in early Christian centuries.
  26. Beginning in the second or third century. E.g., The Epistle to Diognetus, 6:1–8: “The psychē dwells in the body, but is not the body. . . . The psychē is invisible, and is guarded in a visible body. . . . The flesh hates the psychē, and wages war upon it. . . . The psychē has been shut up in the body, but itself sustains the body. . . . The psychē dwells immortal in a mortal tabernacle.”
  27. E.g. Jewett, Anthropological Terms, 449.
  28. For an emphasis on the Hebrew notion of “heart” as constituting the critical foundation for Paul’s anthropological understanding, see Jewett, Anthropological Terms, 447–48.
  29. E.g. Rom. 14:17.
  30. Similarly when Paul wants to highlight life in its bodily aspect, he also draws attention to resurrection realities, e.g. 1 Cor. 6:13–14. For other key texts on resurrection, see Rom. 6:5; 8:17, 22–23, 29; 1 Cor. 15:20–28; 35–57; 2 Cor. 4:14, 16–5:10; Phil. 3:10, 14, 21. For a comprehensive treatment, see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 207–374.
  31. For this reason R. Bultmann (Theology, I, 192) suggests that here Paul uses language that seems to regard the sōma as a body-form, which might be stamped upon various materials-substances, whether fleshly (psychic) or spiritual, a perspective more characteristic of his dialogue opponents than himself. Yet, the bottom line, Bultmann admits, is that in these verses “the underlying idea is genuinely Pauline: The only human existence that there is—even in the spirit of the Spirit—is somatic existence.” Bultmann’s reading of psychikos and pneumatikos to denote various “substances,” however, is not quite on target. What Paul more has in view would appear to be different kinds of vitalities—animations in the two modes.
  32. Wright, Resurrection, 200–206, 372–74.
  33. Similarly, in connection with this, Paul’s imagery for the reign of God has nothing to do with landscape, but the relational modality of “justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
  34. Cf. the metaphor of the body being “the temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” 1 Cor. 6:19.
  35. For this reading of the verb, see esp. G. Shillington, 2 Corinthians (Scottdale/Waterloo: Herald Press, 1998), 109–11.
  36. E.g. Jewett, Anthropological Terms, 274–77.
  37. Space does not permit a careful discussion of the difficult passage in 1 Cor. 5:1–5; for a very helpful and comprehensive recent discussion in non-dualist terms, see A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 395–97.
  38. See e.g. Gundry, SŌMA, 87–109.
  39. For an accessible and articulate rendering of 2 Cor. 4:16–5:10 along these lines, see esp. G. Shillington, 2 Corinthians, 105–112; similarly Wright, Resurrection, 361–71.
  40. M. Bockmuehl (The Epistle to the Philippians [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998], 91–93) helpfully explains that to seek final answer to this question of an intermediate state is to demand the impossible—to describe transcendence and eternity in immanent and temporal terms. Paul, he argues, does not directly address this question, and to focus on it misses the point of the passages in which hints are found. Wright, Resurrection, 226–27, 267, says that all we can gather is that Paul posits some experience of “consciousness” in the presence of the one who loved us. Appropriately the MB Confession is also reserved in this area, indicating simply that “Christ’s followers go to be with the Lord when they die” (Article 18), but lacking any suggestion as to the separate existence of a disembodied, immortal soul.
  41. Dunn, Theology, 489–90.
  42. See e.g Doug Harink, Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003). For this rendering of Paul’s theology primarily in “apocalyptic” terms, see esp. J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980); J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997); Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel: A Suggested Strategy (London: T & T Clark, 2005), who calls this “pneumatologically participatory martyrological eschatology,” over against justification by faith or salvation history models of Paul’s theology.
  43. For a resistance to any reading of Paul that assimilates him into modern immanentist terms (philosophically or politically), see e.g. the Jewish scholar J. Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).
  44. E.g. 1 Cor. 1–2; see e.g. my “The Wisdom of the Cross and the Knowledge of Our Age,” in Higher Learning and the Wisdom of the Cross (Goshen, IN: Mennonite Education Agency, 2006), 5–18.
  45. Murphy, Bodies and Souls, 28.
  46. See e.g. N. Murphy, section on “Integration from a Radical Reformation Perspective,” in Why Psychology Needs Theology, ed. A. Dueck and C. Lee (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 3–76.
Gordon Zerbe is Associate Professor of New Testament at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has an MA in Biblical Studies from the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, an MA in Cultural Anthropology from Western Washington University, and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Gordon and his wife, Wendy, have two children and attend the Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship.

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