By Matt Boulter
A few Sundays ago at Christ Church South (in Tyler, Texas) we had a really fun “Christian Formation” (aka, Sunday School) class during the 10 a.m. 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.
Over the last two years at Christ Church South, around 45 adults have been 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 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 conservative, evangelical, or fundamentalist theology (albeit of a watered down variety).
Now, this is not all bad, of course. 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, to clarify a couple of points that came up in last Sunday’s class, I must differentiate my position from some convictions held in some quarters of the conservative, Protestant, evangelical world. I have two areas in particular in mind: the relationship between the human soul and body, and the issue of dichotomy versus trichotomy vis-à-vis the human person.
I don’t have time (or desire) to write an entire tome on the relationship of the human soul to the body. The specific claim I made the other Sunday morning, in the context of robust discussion about what “happens” to the soul after the death of the individual human person, is that the Hebrew language — the language in which 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 verses 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 that is often translated as “soul” — including in Ps 116:7 (or 116:6 in the Book of Common Prayer) is the Hebrew nephesh. One of the first instances of this term in the Hebrew Bible is 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 hayah.
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 (from Gen 2:7) as psyche.
Paul, then, 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 New Testament. And while it might lead one to ask “Um, did something get lost (or inserted) in translation?,” it is worth remembering that when the apostles and the Gospel writers quote he Old Testament, they generally do so from the LXX.
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?” The lack of a concept of the soul in the Hebrew Bible is a cautionary warning, in my opinion, that we ought to beware of over-emphasis of 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 Jewish thinker who understood the Greek mind, on the resurrection of the body, not least in 1 Cor 15, the very context in which he quotes Gen 2:7. That is to say, even when he uses the term psyche/soul, Paul is focused on the body’s resurrection rather than the soul’s immortality.
The second point of clarification has to do with trichotomy versus dichotomy.
It was Cyrus Scofield, whose popularized the dispensational theology so strongly associated with Dallas Theological Seminary, who in the notes of his Scofield Reference Bible declared 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.
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.).
There is always a danger that my Christian Formation classes at Christ Church South will be too obscure, too densely rigorous to be helpful to a typical layperson who wants to experience Christian community, to be a life-long learner, and to grow in her faith. I will continue to guard against that danger.
And yet, when it comes to many of the dominant assumptions of the cultural landscape in East Texas (what Charles Taylor and others call the “social imaginary”), I do plan to continue to undermine them. Historic, Christian orthodoxy, mediated by classical Anglicanism, is a much better way.
Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and a PhD candidate in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.