Tuesday, May 31, 2016

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 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 c
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
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Complete Series


What follows is a series of posts regarding the New Monist movement which combines neuroscience with theology and argues that science has "proven" we have no soul.  The problem I have with such a suggestion isn't just the challenge it presents anthropologically, but soteriologically. How does denying the existence of our soul affect our understanding of the gospel? That's one of the questions I hope to answer.  This debate is another example of the challenge that science can present for Christian theology.

The New Monism

In contrast to the traditional view, many are looking at the advances being made in neuroscience and embracing a monistic view of man.  It should be noted here that like those who try to find God in evolution, those in this new movement begin with the scientific evidence and then turn to exegetical theology.  Throughout their writings, multiple examples of neuroscientific studies are cited to argue that belief in the soul is no longer credible.

One example comes from Joel B. Green in his book Body, Soul, and Human Life.  He highlights one of the more famous stories of neuroscience that took place in 1848. Green notes that though this “may be the most famous story . . . it is hardly unique.” One day a twenty-five year-old railroad worker named Phineas Gage “experienced the piercing blast of a thirteen-pound iron rod that entered below his left cheekbone, penetrated his skull, traversed the front part of his brain, and exited through the top of his head.”  Gage survived the accident but was severely affected. Prior to the accident, Gage was known “as a responsible, efficient, energetic, and capable person” but afterward became “irresponsible and careless, given to raucous profanity, socially backward, and emotionally stagnant.”  In other words, “Gage was no longer Gage.”[1]

Similarly, Green tells the story of a forty-year-old male schoolteacher who in the year 2000 became addicted to pornography. Such activity eventually led to him making suggestive advances towards his stepdaughter who reported his actions to her mother who discovered “his growing preoccupation with child pornography and called the police.” He was then “legally removed from the home, diagnosed as a pedophile, found guilty of child molestation, and sentenced either to an in-patient rehabilitation program for sexual addiction or to prison.” While at the rehabilitation center, the man continued to make sexual advances and was then put in jail. Eventually, the man underwent neurological observation. There it was discovered he had an egg-sized tumor on his brain and when removed the man’s sexual “lewdness” and advances dissipated. However, a year later, his perversions returned and it was discovered again that the tumor had returned and, like previously, when removed, the man returned to his old moral self.[2]

Such stories are given to prove the point that our brains control us more than we previously thought.  Whether it is the question of free will or the existence of the soul, the goal is to make the point that science in general – and neuroscience in particular – is leaving no room for the soul or for traditional Christian theological assumptions. And like the debate over origins, it is time for Christians to reconsider some of their beliefs in light of the scientific evidence. Consider the following statement from Lawson G. Stone:
But what theological considerations privilege the partition of human nature into separate physical and spiritual faculties over against an often physicalist neuroscience?  Although the Bible is not the sole voice shaping Christian thinking, a theological analysis of human nature requires a convincing construal of the biblical narrative. If dualism fails here, they forfeit their status as a privileged Christian view and scientific denials of dualism appear less controversial. If dualist readings prevail, then the scientific claims of some species of monist physicalism constitute a more penetrating challenge to the coherence of the Christian vision of human life.  Thus if the immorality of the soul, and, hence, dualism are essential to Christian thought, then the church should be bracing for an encounter with science far overshadowing debates about creation and evolution.[3]
The statement is telling as Lawson admits that the debate over anthropology is hugely important not just theologically but also scientifically. The world of science is pulling theology in a different direction and the new monists are taking the bait. To them, neuroscience has proven that virtually everything is controlled by the brain and thus there is no longer a need for a soul. Furthermore, the concept of an immaterial soul goes against everything science stands for. In other words, the soul, because it is immaterial, cannot be proven.[4]

The biblical proof of their view is at times anemic. Throughout many of their writings, much is said regarding the meaning of Hebrew words like tOr and vpn.  For example, Stone goes through great pains to explain how Gen. 2:7 does not describe the creation of man’s "soul," but of his "life."[5]  Stone rightly notes that the language of Gen. 2:7 in regards to Adam is repeated in regards to the animals in Gen. 6:17 and Gen. 7:15. Dualists concede the point that Gen. 2 describes Adam as a living being.  In the conclusion, Stone notes:
In the end, this essay is not about the soul as we know it, because Genesis 2:7 is not about the soul, as we have traditionally conceive it . . . The exegesis of Genesis 2:7 clearly points to a situating of Adam in the midst of a range of creatures with whom he shares greater or lesser degrees of compatibility.  He is made from dust, as they are.  He has the breath of life, as they do.  He is a living being, a nefesh hayyah, as they are.  His interactions with them assume this commonality, as my comments on the serpent indicated.  No exegetical justification exists for finding here the notion of abstract, immortal, disembodied personhood that we usually mean when we speak of the ‘soul,’ just as it is equally unnecessary to introduce ‘Satan’ into the serpent narrative.  These narratives get along just fine without that metaphysical assistance.[6]
It is such statements that permeate these writings. The new monists argue that dualism is the byproduct of Greek philosophy.[7] This means that from their perspective, dualism is a philosophical argument, not a biblical one. As a result, Scripture either does not teach dualism or it is ambiguous regarding the parts of man. 

In this manner, after stating “that most Christian theology has in fact been greatly influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, but those influences were various” (primarily Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian), Nancey Murphy argues that “physicalism is the position of the Bible.” She clarifies, however, that such a statement is a bit more “complicated than that,” but still affirms its basic truth because “while there is wide agreement among biblical scholars that at least the earlier Hebraic scriptures know nothing of the body-soul dualism, it is surprisingly difficult to settle the issue of what the New Testament has to say.”[8]  In other words, the conclusion of the Old Testament is clear: we are only a body. The New Testament, on the other hand, the issue is more complicated an ambiguous. 

In regards to the Old Testament, Murphy, like other monists, argues “that the original Hebraic conception of the person comes closer to current physicalist accounts than to body-soul dualism.” She then suggests that the reason most Christians throughout the years have missed this fact is based on Greek philosophy and the Septuagint. The LXX translates the word vpn as yuch thus promoting the Greek philosophy of an immaterial soul.[9]  This allows the monists to write off dualistic interpretations of Old Testament passages, and many New Testament passages as well, as faulty. It is this point that really drives the exegetical and theological argument of the new monists. Since it is easier to make a monistic argument from the Old Testament, the new monists spend most of their time there, but when they turn to the New Testament they are tempted to simply say that the texts are ambiguous, they reflect Greek philosophy, and to remind the reader of the “wealth” of evidence from the Old Testament that there is no soul.

It should be noted here how confident Murphy and others feel in their exegesis of the Old Testament. Like previous monists, they present a simple definition of Hebrew words like vpn and tOr all the while denying (or ignoring) that the Old Testament does allow room for dualism. For example, the Old Testament hints at conscience activity in Sheol which implies an intermediate state which demands dualism. This is seen in texts like Isaiah 14:9-10 where the dead remember, recognize, and speak and in 1 Samuel 28 where the writer strongly suggests that Saul spoke to a deceased Samuel himself.[10]  Such texts, among others, at the very least allow room for some belief in an intermediate state and an immaterial soul. It is this possibility that likely best explains the sharp difference between Pharisees (who affirmed the immaterial soul and resurrection) and the Sadducees (who were monists and denied resurrection).

Furthermore, though the new monists are certain in their Old Testament exegesis, they resort to ambiguity in the New. Murphy begins her survey arguing that the New Testament was written in Greek and “has been read in light of Greek philosophy.”  However “there are a number of passages that many take to show that the New Testament authors espoused” dualism. These texts, listed by Murphy, include Matt. 10:28; Luke 16:19-31; 23:39-43; and 2 Cor. 5:1-10. However, in Murphy’s estimation, these texts are not clear enough to demand dualism.[11]

She then discusses Luke 23:40-43 interacting with Joel Green’s monist interpretation of it, but for the most part says little about the New Testament as a whole. Instead, she cops out saying, “the New Testament authors are not intending to teach anything about humans’ metaphysical composition.  If they were, surely they could have done so much more clearly!”[12]  Amazing how confident Murphy is about the Old Testament but uncertain about the New.

This then leads to the clear conclusion that
There is no such thing as the biblical view of human nature insofar as we are interested in a partitive account.  The biblical authors, especially the New Testament authors, wrote within the context of a wide variety of views, probably as diverse as in our day, but did not take a clear stand on one theory or another.  What the New Testament authors do attest is, first, that humans are psychophysical unities, second, that Christian hope for eternal life is staked on bodily resurrection rather than an immortal soul; and, third, that humans are to be understood in terms of their relationships – relationships to the community of believers and especially to God.[13]
Here again, Murphy shows her inconsistency. Her certainty regarding the view of the Old Testament and her uncertainty regarding the New really shows her own bias. She begins with the conclusion of monism and when presented with clear (and admitted) problems from the New Testament (and even from the Old), she resorts to ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt, but strangely this doubt does not keep her from holding fast to her monistic conclusion.

This brief survey of Christian monism has shown that their greatest strength is the voice of many neuroscientists and philosophers, but are rather weak exegetically. Though some monistic scholars have presented exegetical defense of their views and take on the many texts in the New Testament that call into question monism, the discussion centers on science and philosophy.[14]


[1]  Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Paternoster, 2008), 82.
[2]  Ibid., 73.
[3]  Lawson G. Stone, “The Soul: Possession, Part, or Person?  The Genesis of Human Nature in Genesis 2:7” in Joel B. Green, What About the Soul: Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology (Nashville: Abingdom Press, 2004), 48.
[4]  One writes argues, “Neuroscientists are moving toward a unified theory of mind-brain that implies a monist view of the human person.  In short, no longer will we be able to isolate a separate ethereal mind or soul. A divided dualism with a mindless body and a disembodied soul will not square with science, nor, we are told, does it square with a careful reading of the Bible.” Michael A. Rynkiewich, “What About the Dust?: Missiological Musings on Anthropology” in What About the Soul?: Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, ed. Joel B. Green (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 134.
[5]  Genesis 2:7 reads, “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 (vpn).”
[6]  Ibid., 59.
[7]  See Ibid., 57, Warren Brown, H. Newton Malony, and Nancey Murphy, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul?: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1998), 2, and Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2006), 12-13.
[8]  Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, 16-17.
[9]  Murphy writes, “It is widely agreed now that the Hebrew word translated “soul” . . . – nephesh – did not mean what later Christians have meant by “soul.”  In most of these cases, it is simply a way of referring to the whole living persons.”  Ibid., 18.  Some of the specific passages cited by Murphy include Genesis 2:7, Psalm 16:10; and Psalm 25:20.
[10]  I am not suggesting that it is literally Samuel, but that the text reads that way. The debate over who the medium conjures up will not be solved here. However, it should be pointed out that the text suggests that it is Samuel himself who speaks. Since the text suggests that this is actually Samuel it must mean that there was room in Hebrew thought for an intermediate state as Samuel is clearly in a spirited state, not a physical one.  This would also explain why necromancy is condemned in the Old Testament (Isaiah 8:19). For a monist exegesis of this text, see Bill T. Arnold, “Soul-Searching Questions About 1 Samuel 28: Samuel’s Appearance at Endor and Christian Anthropology,” in What About the Soul?, 75-84.
[11]  Murphy writes, “It is not clear what to make of these passages.  For example, the Lukan parallel to the text from Matthew reads ‘do not fear those who kill the body and after that have nothing more they can do . . . fear him who, after he was killed, has authority to cast into hell . . .’ (Lk. 12:4-5).  Which is the better representation fo Jesus’ own words?”  Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, 19.  The obvious problem here (among others) is the apparent belief that one parallel is right and the other is wrong.  Traditionally, Christians have embraced the message of both.  If Murphy is left picking one that best fits her physicalism then is she admitting that dualism is an accurate interpretation of Jesus words in Matthew 10:28?
[12]  Ibid., 21.  Two paragraphs later, Murphy adds, “So the Greek philosophers we have surveyed were interested in the question: what are the essential parts that make up a human being?  In contrast, for the biblical authors each ‘part’ (‘part’ in the scare quotes) stands for he whole person thought of from a certain angle.  For example, ‘spirit’ stands for the whole person in relation to God.  What the New Testament authors are concerned with, then, is human beings in relationship to the natural world, to the community, and to God.  Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh is not our later distinction between soul and body.  Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ.”  Ibid., 21-22.
[13]  Ibid., 22. Murphy then adds, “I believe that we can conclude, further, hat this leaves contemporary Christians free to choose among several options.  It would be very bold of me to say that dualism per se is ruled out, given that it has been so prominent in the tradition.  However, the radical dualisms of Plato and Rene Descartes, which take the body to be unnecessary for, or even a hindrance to, full human life, are clearly out of bounds.  Equally unacceptable is any physicalist account that denies human ability to be in relationship with God. Thus, many reductionist forms of physicalism are also out of bounds.”  Ibid.
[14]  The scholar that takes the biblical text most seriously is without a doubt Joel Green.  In his books and articles he spends much of his time (if not the majority of his time) dealing with exegetical issues.  See for example Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life, Joel Green, “‘Bodies – That is, Human Lives’: A Re-Examination of Human Nature in the Bible” in Brown, Murphy, and Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul?, 149-174, and Joel Green, “Resurrection of the Body: New Testament Voices Concerning Personal Continuity and the Afterlife,” in What About the Soul?: Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, 85-100.
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