About a year ago I promised (and intended) to read and post on Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Other topics and time constraints interfered and this book was pushed further down the line. This summer, however, provides a good opportunity for digging into the book. Over the course of the next few months, once or twice a week, I will work through the questions raised by Green on the nature of humanity in the context of scripture, theology, and modern neuroscience.
The view that humans are composed of a physical material body and a separate immaterial soul is the default position for most Christians. This dualist view is increasingly difficult to reconcile with improved understanding of biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience. I’ve posted on some of this before. The posts can be found through the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar – scroll down to the heading Science, Faith, and Being Human. The challenge to the dualist view is not simply scientific though. Study of the context of the old and new testaments suggests that the dualist view of humanity is foreign to the text, coming in large part from the Greek context of early Christians.
Joel B. Green is Professor of New Testament interpretation and Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Before that he served on the faculty and administration of Asbury Theological Seminary. When Joel Green became interested in the questions of body and soul he responded by pursuing the topic from biblical, theological, philosophical, and scientific directions. Although trained in New Testament, he began graduate work in neuroscience at the University of Kentucky. While I don’t believe he completed a degree before moving to Fuller, he has a more complete perspective on the topic than many theologians or philosophers. In order to engage the topic fully it is necessary to understand the arguments from a variety of different perspectives.
From the product description:
Exploring what Scripture and theology teach about issues such as being in the divine image, the importance of community, sin, free will, salvation, and the afterlife, Joel Green argues that a dualistic view of the human person is inconsistent with both science and Scripture. This wide-ranging discussion is sure to provoke much thought and debate.
The question here is not does science undermine the Christian understanding of persons? but rather what is the biblical view of persons? This leads to a corollary question: how do we integrate the biblical understanding of persons with the scientific understanding of persons? Dr. Green’s book provides an excellent starting point for this discussion.
What is the biblical view of persons?
Do humans consist of a separable material body and immaterial soul? What does this mean?
The first chapter of Body, Soul, and Human Life lays the ground work for engagement with the questions involving the nature of humanity.
Dr. Green begins with a sketch of recent developments in theological thinking about body and soul, the use of the Greek words soma and psyche in the NT, and traditional theologies of the soul beginning with the early church fathers. In the late second century, ca. 200 AD, there is clear evidence for a theology which separates body and soul. Green gives evidence for the early understanding of the church by citing the The Epistle to Diognetus (late second century) which contains statements like “the soul lives in the body, but it does not belong to the body” and “the soul is imprisoned in the body, but it sustains the body” and Tertullian in his Treatise on the Soul (ca. 203 AD).
On the other hand, it is not clear that this idea of a duality to human substance is present in the New Testament and it seems virtually certain that it is not an Old Testament concept. As a result modern theologians and biblical scholars have been moving away from the traditional dualist position. It is necessary to carefully consider the biblical texts to determine what is taught and what is presumed about the nature of human persons.
Why Science Matters. Dr. Green then moves into a discussion of the relevance of science to the discussion of body and soul. Some Christians will deny that science has anything to contribute to our understanding of the soul and the nature of persons. If science is opposed to the existence of a soul, then science must simply be wrong. Christian understanding trumps science. Many bristle at the idea that modern science could or should have a place at the table serving as a source for development of a Christian theology of persons (or creation, or anything else). Dr. Green suggests that this results from a poor understanding of the development of Christian thought in the first place. “Science” or more precisely cultural understandings of the nature of persons has always shaped Jewish and Christian thinking about the body and the soul.
The most simple reply is that science already informs exegesis; it is only a question on which science or whose, good science or bad. (p. 21)
And a little later he lays this out quite clearly:
Epistemologically, we cannot bypass the reality that, whether acknowledged or not, natural science is and has always been part of our worldview – recognizing, of course, that “natural science” takes forms and follows protocols today that in many of its particulars would hardly be recognizable to Babylonian, Egyptian, or Greek scientists and natural philosophers. The question is not whether science will influence exegesis (or vice versa) since the two, science and religion, have interacted and continue to interact in a far more organic way than is typically acknowledged. As a consequence, from a historical perspective, it is virtually impossible to extricate one influence from the other, or chronologically to prioritize on vis-à-vis the other. This is true in regard to the science presumed of the biblical writers. It is also true of the science presumed of biblical interpreters and theologians from the second century onward. We have before us a long history of interpreters of biblical texts who have engaged those texts on the basis of scientific views of the human person pervasive in the worlds of those interpreters (irrespective of their currency in antiquity or today). (pp. 24-25)
We cannot separate bible from culture. It is not possible to separate extrabiblical and biblical sources for understanding and teaching in the church. These are always intertwined. There is also no reason to assume that God’s revelation, in relationship with his creatures, reflects a more perfect or a less perfect understanding of the material nature of human persons localized at any one ancient point in time. Rather, to return to a framework that came up in our discussion of Denis Lamoureux’s book Evolutionary Creation, many aspects of the cultural context, including the understanding of “natural science”, is incidental to the purpose of the text. We err when we allow a particular scientific rendering of the text, whether that of the original human authors or that of later interpreters, to, as Dr. Green puts it, masquerade as “timeless truth”.
Awareness of the situation of both biblical texts and biblical interpretations in time and place, cultural context, provides an important insight into the message found in the text.
Hermeneutically, then, my point is that deliberately locating our interpretive work in relation to science does not necessitate our reading contemporary science back into the ancient texts in a gross form of anachronism, nor that it subject biblical interpretation to the ebb and flow of scientific discovery. W have no need to imagine that the ancients, even the biblical writers, had it right with respect to the role of cerebral spinal fluid or the ventricular cavities. (They were wrong on both accounts.) Rather, doing exegesis in an age of science increases our awareness of the scientific assumptions of the third or fourth or even eighteenth centuries that have already shaped the history of interpretation – and that have the potential to set artificial parameters for our own reading of the biblical texts. (p. 28)
Dr. Green suggests that reading the text with an eye toward science, particularly in the case relevant to this book the neurosciences, as with reading from other specific perspectives (poverty, injustice, persecution, suffering, calvinism, sovereignty of God, freedom, etc.) can allow questions to surface that would have otherwise remained unasked and unanswered. We must take care not to allow some pet perspective to dictate all we find in scripture, but looking at the text through new eyes, from a different perspective, can be illuminating.
In this context Dr. Green poses the question:
What is the effect of studying biblical anthropology in today’s context of scientific inquiry?
This is a good place to stop and start a conversation.
What do you think? Should science inform our understanding of the nature of human life?
How do we distinguish the role played by presumptions of culture – either ancient near eastern culture or the culture of later interpreters – from the revelation of God in scripture?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net