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 [g]person. Genesis 2:7 NASB
Living person – You’ll notice the little footnote in the NASB text. The footnote reads “Or soul,” but that is about as misleading as you could get. God does not create living “souls.” He creates a nepeš ḥayyâ, a living being or person. TWOT notes that “The original, concrete meaning of the word was probably ‘to breathe.’” A careful etymological investigation suggests that the word is also associated with appetites and desires, yearning, serving, and loving. It should be quite clear that the “soul” as later Christian theology imagined it, doesn’t breathe and probably can’t be directly associated with desire and yearning, even if poetically we use the word that way. The point is that nepeš ḥayyâ is embodied. How could it be anything else? It is God’s breath and the earth’s substance. This is not a dualism, as if we are someone spirit and body combined by God. No, we are embodied. That’s how we exist. But that isn’t how most Christians think about human beings because most Christians have incorporated Greek philosophy into their theology.
Gregg R. Allison has a new book out. It’s titled, A Biblically Grounded Theology of the Human Body. I have not read it. But I have read this citation about it:
“I am my body.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? I’m not asking about your assessment of the statement “I am only my body.” That can’t be true—so you’d better not agree!—because we exist as disembodied people in heaven between our death and resurrection. But my focus is on our earthly embodiment, so I frame the statement to highlight being embodied.
Put differently as a question: “Am I who I am principally in virtue of the fact that I have the body I have?” (Justin E. H. Smith, Embodiment: A History). I respond positively. What about you? Put as another statement: “Without this body I do not exist, and I am myself as my body” (the Russian philosopher Vladimir Iljine). I agree. What about you?
This position contradicts the popular contention set forth by George MacDonald that “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” (Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood). This view seems to reflect the influence of Gnostic thought, which privileges the immaterial aspect of human nature—the soul or spirit—over the material aspect—the body. Rejecting such influence, which is driven by philosophy rather than Scripture, I affirm to the contrary, “I am my body.”
I immediately noticed that Allison’s (or maybe it’s Challies’) view is really not biblical. Oh, it’s theological, Christian, and Parmenidean, but it isn’t biblical, at least it’s not thoroughly biblical. Why do I say this? Well, take the statement that “we exist as disembodied people in heaven between our death and resurrection.” This is called the doctrine of the eternality of the soul. It comes from Parmenides, not Moses. It’s the idea that the soul exists forever, and therefore, at death, the “soul” goes to heaven waiting for the resurrection of its container, the body. Actually, I’m surprised that Allison (or Challies, it’s his blog) doesn’t see that George MacDonald’s view is precisely this. Disembodied “souls” exist only in the Greek world, not the Hebraic one—at least not until Hellenism infected Hebrew thinking. We are embodied. We are not bodies and souls. The “body” without the “soul” is just chemicals. But the “soul” without the body is just a fairy tale. Why? Because it isn’t your “soul.” The animating force of life is God’s, not yours. You didn’t get a deed to His spirit breathed into you. You got a loan. What makes you alive is, and has always been, God’s. It took Parmenides and the Greek mystical religions to come up with the idea of a disembodied soul. The Christian world bought that idea, incorporated Plato’s dualism, and fostered the belief in “souls” waiting around in heaven. A biblically grounded theology of the body has to start with embodied identity, not Parmenidean magic. Oh, and by the way, Descartes was also quite mistaken. I cannot “doubt away” my entire embodiment and somehow still be thinking. Cogito ergo sum is a mistake. There is no such thing as “disembodied” thinking. But that doesn’t stop the Church from embracing the idea that my dead grandfather’s “soul” (the “essential” part of him) is up in heaven looking down on me and judging if I am doing right or wrong. The imagery of the heroes of the faith gazing down on us poor mortals is powerful. It even finds its way into Hebrews 11. But you don’t find that idea in Moses, or the Prophets, or the Wisdom literature before the exile.
What, then, is a biblical view of the body? A unified, inseparable whole. A person. Not a shell covering some spirit. There is no person without embodiment. No body equals not existing, at least not as God created us. The biblical view of the body is simply that the body is you. You are not a mind or a spirit captive in a body. You are your body, extended in cognition, emotion, action, and awareness. Can you really think of yourself in any other way? Do you think that ancient Hebrews really thought that their “souls” were somehow non-bodied spirits somewhere? Even Egypt didn’t view the afterlife as if it were populated with disembodied spirits. That’s why Pharaoh’s tomb took food, servants, animals, and women with him.
Topical Index: body, nepeš ḥayyâ, soul, disembodied, Genesis 2:7