Friday, May 16, 2014

"Body, Soul, and Human Life" by Joel Green: A Review

Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Studies in Theological Interpretation)I am currently taking a class on the theology of the body where we are discussing anything from creation to bioethics.  One of the issues raised in class really intrigued me.  In all of my studies of anthropology, I was under the impression that most rejected monism and were either dichotomists (especially substance dualists) or trichotomists.  I was surprised to hear of the increasing debate promoting such ideals as nonreductive physicalism (lead by Nancey Murphy and her books Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Current Issues in Theology) among others) or emergent monism.

One of the leading voices questioning substance dualism is Joel B. Green who has written much on the New Testament including a number of commentaries, on the atonement (he holds to a Kaleidescope theory of the atonement), and on the question of the soul. Green rejects dualism - the belief that we are both a material body and an immaterial soul.  So far, I have found Green's most thorough argument in his book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Studies in Theological Interpretation)

The reason many are rejecting dualism and the belief in the soul, and Green certainly makes the case here, is based on the rise of neuroscience.  Many have associated things like the mind and conscience with proof of an immaterial soul and then turn to Scripture and find passages that suggests that in between our death and our resurrection, the person's soul lives on apart from the body.  Green suggests that this is not the case either scientifically or Biblically.

In one chapter, Green gives the example of a sexual pervert who had been arrested on child molestation and child pornography charges. And yet in spite of the embarrassment and jail time he suffered, the man continued to be a pervert to the point that he was sent to a mental health institute.  Upon evaluation it was discovered he had a tumor on his brain that affected his sexual drive.  Once the tumor was removed, so did his perversion, at least until the tumor returned. This event, and many others like it along with countless other neuro-studies, raises the question of free will and the meaning of sin. And if sin is questioned, then so is salvation and the after-life.

All of this forces us to debate the issue of the soul.  Do we have souls?  If we don't, then what do we mean by resurrection, the afterlife, sin, and salvation itself?  What does the cross actually accomplish?  Who are we?  Green seeks to answer these questions and in each case, huge flags are raised.  This is particularly true of salvation. Green seems to agree with the argument that emphasis on the afterlife and an immaterial soul makes one care more about the next life then about this life.  Those who make such an argument (and monists aren't the only ones who do) often respond by going to the opposite extreme where this life becomes foundational of what the gospel is. Green promotes an embodied, holistic gospel because we are a unified whole.  At the end of his chapter on salvation, Green makes the point (and I wish he elaborated on this more) that we are not rescued from the cosmos in resurrection, but transformed with it in the new creation.  This is dangerous rhetoric.

Of all of the books that I have read thus far from monists, this is among the best primarily because Green seeks to take Scripture seriously, even though he looks over some texts as insignificant and comes to wrong exegetical conclusions constantly.  However, one of the problems I have with this book I have with others like it.  The motivation for arguing for monism seems rooted in a scientific assumption. Science is pushing us towards mechanistic materialism and theologians and scholars like Green and Murphy are trying to preserve Christianity in light of the onslaught from the world of science.  It is like the creation/evolution debate only this time it is between Christian dualism and scientific mechanistic monism.

It always worries me when we begin with science and respond with weak theological and exegetical arguments fueled by philosophy.  And though for the most part Green emphasizes exegesis and theology more than philosophy, the danger is still there. I still believe that Scripture proclaims dualism - we are both body and soul.  Nonetheless, for those interested, Green puts forth an academic argument (that would be lost on most readers due to its depth) for monism based on recent findings in neuroscience.  I reject whole-heartily the arguments and the implications of it, but this will be an ongoing debate that Christians are going to have to take more seriously.


This is a republished review.


For more:
The Danger of the New Monism: Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Complete Series
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 1 
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 2 
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 3
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 4a  
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 4b   
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 4c
The Danger of the New Monism: Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 5a
The Danger of the New Monism: Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 5b 
The Danger of the New Monism: Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 5c
The Danger of the New Monism: Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 6
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