Penetrating the Word Maze


Richard Bube

Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: PSCF 42 (March 1990): 45-46

Taking a look at words we often use-and misuse. Please let us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

Today's words are
: "soul/spirit."

The Dictionary definitions: Soul:"The immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life; the quality that arouses emotion or sentiment." Spirit: "an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms; the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person."[Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA (1987)].

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In two previous Word Mazes we've taken a look at "life/death" and "human/personal." An understanding of "soul/spirit" closes the links between these three interrelated cases.

Few widely used terms are clouded by as much ambiguity, uncertainty, and plain ignorance as are the terms "soul" and "spirit." They are frequently talked about. They appear constantly in sermons and articles. But seldom do we really come to grips with the basic question, "Just what do these words mean?"-not as connotative symbols of non-verbalizable feelings, but as actual terms whose meaning can presumably be defined and delineated.

Opinions cover a wide range. Of course there are those who say that these words don't mean anything, that they are only symbols for subjective impressions. The body is the only real, objective entity.

One strand of traditional Christian thought, on the other extreme, joins with Greek thought and commits itself to a dichotomous (or trichotomous) position: each person has two (or three) entities, a body and a soul (and a spirit). The soul is the divine part of the human being, and the body is the earthly part.

The dictionary definitions given above demonstrate immediately how difficult it is to distinguish between the meanings of "soul" and "spirit" in popular usage, and this difficulty is confirmed by the essentially indistinguishable usage that St. Paul sometimes makes of the two terms in his New Testament writings.

An investigation of the biblical use of these terms and their Old Testament counterparts can, however, be very helpful. It becomes clear that the Bible uses "soul" (Old Testament: nephesh; New Testament: psuche) when it speaks of the personal self of a being, with all the attributes that accompany a personal self such as self-consciousness and the ability to think and feel. In the Old Testament, nepheshis applied to the properties of non-human animals as well as to human persons. The biblical concept of "spirit" (Old Testament: ruach; New Testament: pneuma) is often not clearly distinguished from that of "soul," but there is a tendency to use this word to describe the ability of a human person to be in a personal relationship with God, to make responsible moral choices, and in general to be able to interact with the Spirit of God.

In thinking about the meaning of "life," we saw that confusion was removed if we realized that life is not a noun, something we have, but that rather being alive (an adjective) is something that we are. Exactly the same kind of removal of confusion is achieved if we recognize that a "soul" or a "spirit" is not an immaterial entity that we have, but rather that "being soulful" or "being spiritual" are descriptive expressions describing the kind of creature that a human person is.

A number of significant conclusions follow directly from such an approach:

A human person does not consist of a body to which a soul and a spirit have been added. A human person exhibits a variety of properties commensurate with personal identity: bodily characteristics, soulful characteristics, and spiritual characteristics.

Becoming soulful and spiritual are processes that take place over periods of time, not instantaneous events associated with the addition or subtraction of independent entities called souls or spirits. At a given stage of development, the bodily structure and material interactions of a creature (what we have called the biological realm) form the foundation for the ability of the creature to manifest soulful or spiritual characteristics.

No stage in the conception-to-birth-and-beyond process corresponds to the infusion of a soul, nor does any stage in the dying process correspond to the removal of a soul. Both the developing process at the beginning of life and the dying process at the end of life are characterized by more or less continuous increases or decreases in soulfulness, respectively. Such changes are commensurate with the extent of personal life manifested as a function of time.

We should look at the human person as a whole: a biological system created by God and given dynamic existence in such a way that from the given structure and pattern of interactions those properties emerge that we recognize as being soulful or spiritual.

There is a hierarchical relationship between these properties. Spiritual properties cannot be manifested unless soulful properties can be manifested. There are neither spiritual nor soulful properties if there are not the appropriate bodily (biological) processes.

Recognition of these relationships means that a number of problems usually thought to be serious are not problems at all; rather they are cases of "asking the wrong questions":

"When does the soul enter the body of the unborn?"-with all of its implications for abortion and medical ethics. The right question is, "Over what time period and in what order does the unborn acquire the ability to manifest a variety of soulful properties?"

"If evolution were right, when was the human soul created?"-with all of its implications for the creation/evolution debate. The right question is, "If evolution were right, over what time period and in what order did the biological structure and interactions necessary for manifesting soulful properties come into existence?"

"Can we have evidence for the creation of human beings in the image of God if we cannot demonstrate that the soul (and the spirit) has existence independent of the body?"-with all of its implications for a theological understanding of the nature of the human being. The right question is, "How does God's creative activity enable human beings to manifest soulful and spiritual characteristics?"

"Isn't it more important to save a person's soul than his body?"-with all its implications for Christian witness and service. The right question is, "How can we best minister to the whole person, helping bodily, soulful, and spiritual potentialities to become realities?"

We will never understand the nature and significance of the human person if we attempt to force upon him the mechanical mold of separate entities being joined together in some way during life, and being separated again at death. God has created us in a certain way to live in this world; in the resurrection He will initiate His new creation in a way that maintains our personal identity and that is suitable for the new life that is presently beyond our comprehension.

Should we continue to talk about body, soul, and spirit-or should we just be careful to avoid all confusion by emphasizing that a human person is a pneumopsychosomatic unity?