He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.
                                                                                                1 Pet. 3:18b

Some have asked me why I am here to do this research degree. The verse above points to my reason…

How are we to interpret this verse and the language of the Bible in general when it speaks of the contrast between “flesh” and “spirit”?

The nature of the human soul demands fresh scholarship, because genetics, biochemistry and neuroscience are producing a wealth of data to show how the mind and body are linked though brain chemistry and genetics. This abundance of fresh insight into human nature has spawned a profound debate known as the “mind/body problem.” In theology this debate revolves around whether the mind and body are separate substances, and whether it makes any sense to speak of the human soul as existing in reality, or whether the soul is essentially an idea–that is to say, a mere concept we use to describe our first-hand experience of consciousness.

This begs the question, how then are we to read the Bible’s language regarding flesh and sprit, mind and body? I would suggest that the right hermeneutic is the one that leads us into discipleship, engages our hearts, builds up the church, and spurs maturity in Christ. The test of our exegetical methodology then will be Christian ethics, which I might define as the search for meaningful answers to the question, “how then shall we/I live?” This is why I speak of ethics as the epistemology of the soul—because ethics is the test of the spirit, the test that reveals what we believe about our souls, our selves. It’s in ethical questions that we discover what we believe about our souls.

So the debate over human nature, specifically the question of the soul’s transcendence over physicalism, demands fresh insight in light of the new questions being raised by our growing scientific understanding of neuroscience, the mind, the behavioral aspects of personality, and the physical links among these aspects of persons.[*]

If our interpretation leads us to understand the human person as merely physical, then we will consider the soul to be no more than an artifact of our complex biological and material existence, and we will interpret the Bible in those terms. Does this type of physicalism result in ethics that put primacy on physical existence? I suspect the answer is yes, and I criticize such ethics as hampered by determinism which leaves no room for some crucial aspects of soul. A more robust (and more biblical) ethics, results from understandings that shed light on the transcendent nature of the human soul and personhood. I believe these ethical considerations point to theology that sees the soul as transcending physicalism–not denying our physical, embodied reality, but transcending it. This is the fascinating question of the soul to which I feel a call to study.

[*] For a good survey of the mind-soul link, see for example Malcolm Jeeeves, “Human Nature: An Integrated Picture,” in What about the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, edited by Joel B. Green (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), pp. 171-190.


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