Science in Christian Perspective
Mark A. Strand
Medical Team Director
67 Fuxi Jie 5-3-5, Taiyuan, Shanxi 030002
P. R. China
From: PSCF 50 (June 1998): 88-94.
In contrast to other animals, persons possess bodily, soulful, and spiritual characteristics. The meaning of personhood is found in understanding the coordinated inter-working of these three characteristics, which are acquired by human beings during early development. Therefore, while the possession of a Homo sapiens genotype makes one a human, personhood is something possessed only by those humans who develop to an adequate measure of bodily, soulful, and spiritual function. One's personhood is fully realized on this earth only as one is conformed to the image of Christ, who alone is fully human (I John 3:2).
As a university student, I read Paul Tournier's The Meaning of Persons. As it turned out, the content of the book failed to satisfy the curiosity the title had created in me, and since then probing the complex question of the meaning of personhood has been a pursuit of mine. I have lived overseas for seven years, which has helped me to identify my own culturally-biased view of what it means to be a person, and to get a more inclusive description of humanity. I have also read and studied widely about cultures and societies. Unfortunately, what I have read often describes persons as merely products of their cultural conditioning. A relativistic bias has prevented writers from making absolute statements about what these societies teach us about the "universal person," as though making such statements would invalidate the experience of those tribes or societies who fall outside or contradict their generalizations. Roger Trigg states: "Many would go so far as to say there is no such thing as `human nature.' Man is made instead by the kind of culture in which he finds himself."1
My academic training is in cell biology, where I have learned that the human person is a complex physiological machine whose existence and meaning are found in an organized set of ongoing biochemical processes. Even romance has been described as "the physiological response of increased hormone release resulting in elevated heart and respiration rates in response to a certain satisfying visual stimuli." What?! Virtually every description I have heard of what it means to be a human has left me feeling cheated. Each individual discipline, whether sociology, psychology, theology, or biology, has tended to be naively reductionistic, explaining the person exclusively in terms relevant to that discipline, leaving behind the nagging question of how we describe this creature all put together. In this paper, I aim to provide a holistic description of personhood.
Most definitions of personhood are psychological or sociological and do little more than explain what it means to exist. For example, many describe "personhood" as possessing self-consciousness or awareness of others, being able to look into the future and understand what continued existence means, or being "socialized." These definitions, however, ignore man's universal tendency toward spirituality and disqualify infants, the severely disabled, and some aged people. Following the nomenclature of Richard Bube, the term human refers to all organisms which possess a human genotype. Therefore, humanity is assured for all Homo sapiens from conception. This is supported by the biblical data, where generally the same terminology is used to describe the prenatal and postnatal states (Jer. 1:5; Ex. 21:22; Acts 7:19; Luke 1:41, 44). The term person, however, is a description of a human who has developed beyond the stage at which the biological, soulful, and spiritual correlatives of personhood are formed: namely, a human body, a central nervous system, and the potential for spiritual life.2 Therefore, all persons must be humans, because they possess a human genotype. Yet not all humans are, and some may never become, persons. A fertilized ovum is already a human, but he or she will only become a person if able to develop to maturity. Therefore this paper will discuss the meaning of personhood, not humanness. The focus will be to describe what personhood is, or was meant to be, based on scientific and theological data.
From antiquity, people have been curious about what it means to be a person. Early Hebrews tended to see people as animated bodies. True personhood was understood as a synthesis of a living physical body conjoined with a human soul. The Greeks believed that the human's uniqueness was the possession of an eternal soul. Greek cynics, on the other hand, saw no unity among all persons which could serve as an adequate description of all humanity. Plato would say that the unity of humans is real and the diversity among humankind can only be described in terms of that unity.3 Buddhists have argued that there is no such thing as a "person." To them the "self" is a convenient fiction to describe the interaction of various components which function to give the illusion of a self.4
The Bible uniquely describes humans as created beings who bear the image of God. All humans (and therefore all persons) bear this image, which serves as the foundation of personhood. The image of God is not something which develops in the human along with development into personhood, nor does it somehow instantaneously appear once the child is born. All fertilized human eggs are wholly human and bear the image of their Creator God.
The Bible gives little explicit teaching on what the image of God means. In Genesis 1:26, God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule " The first thing we learn is that in bearing God's image, humans are given responsibility to rule and care for the rest of creation. Though also made of the soil (Gen. 2:7; 3:19), humans were given a station and a purpose within creation and are answerable to God to carry it out. The passage continues, "In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (v. 27). In some sense then, human sexuality reflects the image of God. Perhaps it is in the relationship or the union which sexuality affords. The ability to have a relationship with God is also implied by being created in his image. Immediately upon creating the first persons, he spoke with them and entrusted them with responsibility. This implied that as image bearers of God, humans were responsible for obeying God. Satisfaction in life was to be a by-product of living in harmony with God. When the first humans disobeyed God, he spoke to them as if surprised that they had chosen to disobey (Gen. 3:11). This act of disobedience marred the image of God which humans bore.
We can also learn about the image of God by how it is applied in Scripture. For example, in Genesis 9:6 we learn that murder is prohibited since humans were created in the image of God. Therefore, we know that to be created in the image of God is to be imbued with a life of great value, far greater than the life which other created beings possess. In James 3:9, cursing other persons is condemned because to curse a person is to curse one who bears the image of God. Therefore, to bear God's image is to possess dignity. Human worth is found primarily in that humans bear the image of God their Creator.
Millard Erickson has summarized the meaning of the image of God in this way:
The image refers to the elements in the makeup of man which enable the fulfillment of his destiny.
The image itself is that set of qualities that are required for these relationships and this function to take place. They are those qualities of God which, reflected in man, make worship, personal interaction, and work possible.5
In other words, realized personhood is founded on the fact that all humans have been created in the image of the divine.
One might ask why a perfect, eternal, needless God would create anything at all, much less a human being made in his image, and thereby possessing autonomy and the potential to sin. The answer to the question is really another way of describing the meaning of imago Dei. All creation displays a degree of the glory of God by virtue of having been created by him (Ps. 19:14). To be created in his very image is to shine forth even more of the character and glory of God. Therefore, the reason God created humans was to magnify the pleasure he already knew in his perfect, divine nature by seeing it now stamped upon those whom he had created (Is. 43:7; Ps. 100:3). In creating beings to bear his image, he was creating a mirror which would radiate back to himself his own perfect glory (Ps. 103:2022; Is. 44:23; Rev. 4:11). What is more, the glory would be increased by the manifold ways it would be worked out in the life and character of each individual (Is. 29:23, I Cor. 10:31).
All humans, believer and unbeliever, fetus and adult, bear this divine image. The image of God was severely marred at the fall, but it was not lost. Perhaps an illustration could be used to make this clear.6 Picture the image of God as a mirror in each person. This mirror can reflect the glory and character of God back to himself. Sin has not destroyed the mirror. However, it has streaked and warped it, so that now the mirror in each person is unable to reflect the glory of God fully. On top of this, each individual refuses to orient his or her mirror to receive the glory of God fully and to reflect it back. This is the disobedience (sin) of each person. Therefore, original sin, combined with personal sin and acts of disobedience, severely violate the original intention of clean, straight, and properly-oriented mirrors. The process of growth in grace and sanctification is largely one of being restored to the divine image which God originally intended (Rom. 8:29; I Cor. 15:49; II Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:910; Eph. 4:2224).
Personhood, then, must be understood in terms of humans having been created in the image of God. To overlook this foundational truth is to forfeit all hope of correctly understanding the meaning of personhood. Additionally, that by virtue of sin, humans have fallen from the glorious state in which they were created must inform our understanding of the meaning of personhood. As G. K. Chesterton cleverly put it, "If it is not true that a divine being fell, then one can only say that one of the animals went completely off its head." (See Ps. 8:5.) Ultimate understanding of the meaning of personhood will rely on these two foundational premises.
To study the human person, one must analyze its component parts. How to do this is a point of some controversy. Its importance was brought home to me as I struggled to teach the gospel to the Chinese. After several frustrating years, it finally dawned on me that we were working from very different anthropologies. While I was teaching a trichotomistic person (body, soul, and spirit), my Chinese friends were trying to understand me from a dichotomistic framework. To complicate matters further, they made no distinction between the spirit, the brain, the emotions, the heart, the "guts," the soul, or the intellect. Anything which was not material was "spiritual," and, therefore, things as diverse as political thoughts, erotic feelings, depression, a difficult physics problem, and "a spiritual sense of the divine" were to be understood from within the same so-called "spiritual" aspect of humankind.
Through this process of discovery, I realized that the trichotomistic framework from which I had been working was not as straightforward as I had originally thought, either in my mind or in the Bible. First, I found the biblical writers to use the words, soul and spirit, interchangeably (e.g., Luke 1:4647). Then I discovered that the word soul in the Old Testament (nephesh) was even used to describe animals (Eccl. 3:21). As I searched for evidence of the three aspects of the human constitution, I found suggestions of dichotomism (Matt. 6:25, 28), trichotomism (I Thess. 5:23) and even quatchotomism (Luke 10:27). How was I to get at an accurate biblical anthropology?
I discovered that the Old Testament writers present the person as a unity, whereas the New Testament writers use the dualistic body-soul terminology, though they do not use it clearly or consistently. Seldom is the human's spiritual nature addressed apart from the body, or from the mind (e.g., Rom. 12:12).7 The Bible seems to teach that the human functions concurrently as a pneumopsychosomatic (spirit-soul-body) unity.8 That is, the human does not consist of a body to which a soul and a spirit have been added, or a soul for which a physical body has been provided. The "soul" or the "spirit" is not an immaterial entity that humans possess, rather, "being soulful" or "being spiritual" are expressions describing the kind of creature that a person is.9 Therefore, the person functions on earth as a unitary being with bodily characteristics, soulful characteristics, and spiritual characteristics. This anthropology does justice to both the biblical and scientific data. These three categories making up the person will now be considered independently.
First, all persons possess physical bodies. The person's bodily characteristics are the expression of an extremely precise genetic code contained in the DNA of one's cells consisting of maternal and paternal DNA.10 Based on the "directions" given in the DNA, the various cells of the body go about constructing (and maintaining) the person's body. The possession of a physical body is a requirement for personhood. This is one reason early fetuses do not qualify as persons. They are still wholly human and bear God's image, but they are not persons. Personhood is a process realized by, among other things, the physical development of the central nervous system.
Whatever may be said of the similarity between the DNA of the human and that of the ape, they are clearly two distinct species, separated in body shape and intellect by a far greater distance than their genetic similarities would predict. This itself suggests that humans are unique creatures in the animal kingdom. They are superior to the apes by immeasurable orders of magnitude, despite sharing a nearly identical genetic code. The Psalmist described it well, "What is man that Thou dost take thought of Him? And the son of man that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty" (Ps. 8:34). Humans are not beasts who have been glorified, but glorified persons who have fallen.
As understood from the physical aspect, personhood is seen externally by the possession of opposable thumbs and naked bodies. The few such unique physical traits which can be identified show the relative unimportance of the physical characteristics in defining personhood. As Fox has written, "Biological evidence can indicate, but not define, the presence of a person."11 In other words, if an ape were born which appeared for all the world to be a human, external biological characteristics alone would be inadequate to determine that it was not a human. A human being is not merely the sum of the characteristics which an embryologist might observe and measure. The bodily characteristics must be considered along with the soulful and spiritual characteristics.
In the Bible, we learn that all persons in heaven will possess physical bodies (Rom. 8:23; I Cor. 15:4244). Adam and Eve possessed physical bodies before the fall, so the physical body must be seen as a part of God's good design. The body is not in itself sinful or evil. It is to be enjoyed and used to glorify God as are our soulful and spiritual components.
The physical bodies of all persons bear the curse of sin. This is seen in painful childbirth, the toil of labor (Gen. 3:1619), disease, and injury. Many of humankind's most disgusting perversions involve the body. Consequently, the physical body is an important factor in one's spirituality. Sanctification involves the physical body as well as the spirit, so humans must sanctify their bodies for God-honoring purposes as well as their spirit (Rom. 12:1; I Thess. 4:38). Physical life ends when God removes his breath from the body (Job 34:1415, Matt. 10:28) and the body's biological functions cease.
Second, all persons are "soulful." In the Bible, the word soul (OT: nephesh; NT: yuch) refers to the personal self, with attributes such as self-consciousness and the ability to think and feel. In modern scientific understanding, this means that all persons have a mind which carries out these processes by way of the physical organ, the brain. In this sense, soulfulness is a physical attribute.12 From the exclusively scientific perspective, these cerebral functions are the definition of personhood; fetuses who lack the ability to carry out certain neurological functions should be aborted. For a Christian, this reductionistic definition of personhood is inadequate, not because a nine-week fetus is a person, but because neurologic capacity alone is insufficient for defining personhood. Both physical and soulful criteria need to be considered.
The possession of a functional human brain is one aspect necessary for personhood. Is the human brain the same as the brain which other animals possess? Though physiologically very similar, these two brains are functionally very different. The expression of personhood is seen in several aspects of brain function. First, the human brain has been made in the image of an omniscient God. Therefore, the knowledge which persons possess is rooted in the knowledge and wisdom of this God (Rom. 11:3334). Consequently, persons are able to write poetry, do physics calculations, and create computers. They are not constrained to repetitious instinctual animal behavior. Second, the human brain enables people to create and manipulate symbols. These symbols link physical objects with mental concepts. This ability, unique to humans, forms the foundation of language. Third, the human brain can recognize evil, by responding to the witness of the conscience (Rom. 2:1416). Finally, in the Bible we learn that God turns people loose to the evil which their minds desire (Rom. 1:1828; Titus 1:15). This natural desire is hostility toward God and a refusal to submit to his laws (Rom. 8:7-8; 14:23).13 No activity of other animals can be described in these terms. Persons alone are responsible to God for the activity of their brains.
The person's mind belongs to God and is to be used to honor him (Rom. 12:2). Therefore, we should not fear challenging intellectual activities. We should participate in them with diligence and reverence, not as ends in themselves, but as avenues by which to honor God and serve humankind. Paul points out that many clever minds will never "comprehend" the things of God (I Cor. 2), for Satan has blinded the eyes (minds) of the unbelieving (II Cor. 4:4, 5:1617). Therefore, all our intellectual activities must be engaged in with a humble, prayerful attitude so that they may be sanctified and used by God, and so that we may be not only intelligent, but wise as well.
The person's mind is very important because the mind is the arena in which all the factors of Scripture reading, prayer, and dialogue with others come together. With the mind choices are made and pursued. Thus, Christians must beware of the temptation to disregard or look down on the activities of the mind as though they were secular or somehow secondary to spiritual activities. Soulful (intellectual) and spiritual activities cannot be so simply divided. They occur concurrently and in cooperation.
My Chinese friends come from a background where soulful and spiritual activities are seen as one and no distinction is made between them. Interestingly, this apparent defect has prepared them to better integrate these activities upon conversion. For example, Christian meditation is for them both a spiritual and an intellectual (soulful) activity. I used to find myself struggling to make my meditation spiritual, in other words, trying to circumvent my mind to commune with God. For my Chinese friends, meditation is a matter of entering into communion with God by both controlling the activities of their minds and focusing their spirits on God. It is a marvelous example of "worshiping God in spirit and in truth" (John 4:2324).
Being soulful also allows persons to have emotions and feelings. Romantic love is a gift from God reserved for persons. While animals pair up and mate, they do so exclusively by instinct.
God created persons to live in community.14 An isolated individual cannot live normally and can hardly even survive without other people. Therefore, personhood involves participation in a community. Each person must acquire language, and the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that will enable him or her to become a functioning, cultured member of that community. American sociologist Talcott Parsons speaks of the birth of new generations of children as a recurrent "barbarian" invasion.15 At birth human infants are neither cultured nor socialized. They have no idea of the world, no language, and no morality. This is why the Bible is so clear about the importance of training young people (Prov. 17). This training is no mere routine. It is the way God has ordained that his human creatures become personsthrough the development of physical, soulful, and spiritual capacities.
From a medical standpoint, death comes when no cerebral function remains ("brain dead"). The Bible speaks of the removal of the spirit as the cessation of physical life (James 2:26), and therefore of "soulful" personhood.
Finally, all persons are spiritual beings. The biblical concept of spirit (OT: ruach; NT: pneuma) is generally used to describe the ability of a 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. Scripture teaches that God has given all persons a sense of their eternal nature (Eccl. 3:11) and placed within them the ability to know him (Rom. 1:19; Acts 17:27). This is the origin of all humankind's incurably religious nature. Humans are persons only through their relationships to God. They cannot utterly remove God from themselves without ceasing to be persons.16 As Blauw states:
A man without "religion" is a contradiction in itself. In his "religion" man gives account of his relation to God. His religion is a reaction upon the (real or pretended) revelation of God. Man is "incurably religious" because his relation to God belongs to the very essence of man himself. Man is only man as man before God.17
All humans were created to enjoy spiritual fellowship with God, but sin resulted in spiritual separation from him (Is. 59:2). Each human is conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5) and born evil by nature. Some people question this opinion, arguing that babies and little children are naive and innocent. Is it not true that young children fear authority and quickly confess their sin when confronted? Are they really as wicked as adults? John Owen believes they are. He argues that depravity evolves and worsens as a person matures, only giving the impression that children are not as wicked as adults. He wrote: "As the capacity of a person develops, so his native corruption is enabled to exert its influence with greater frequency and potency."18 As persons further develop, they have a greater capacity for sin (can more cleverly dream up sin) and their wider experience gives them greater opportunity for sin, free from parental restraint. This bent on sinning is the fate of all persons apart from Christ, and describes the fractured personhood which resulted from the fall.
Persons' spiritual nature will keep them pursuing spiritual contentment. Unfortunately, relying on their own mind or flesh to find spiritual satisfaction will only produce temporary satisfaction and idolatry (Rom. 14:23). Separation from God can only be restored through the blood of Christ (I Pet. 3:18). Only the Holy Spirit can convince people that spiritual satisfaction is found in conformity to the things of God (I Cor. 2:14), and true spirituality is ultimately experienced only when one so conforms. This occurs first, when God calls and spiritually illumines a sinner. The sinner then repents of sin and submits to the lordship of Christ. This lordship is all-inclusive, calling for physical, soulful, and spiritual obedience. By living as God intended, spiritual satisfaction can be found. Furthermore, such spiritual regeneration insures that the person will enjoy eternal bliss in heaven with God and the saints.
Most of my Chinese friends who are not Christians are unconvinced of a uniquely spiritual component to humans and cling to their dichotomistic anthropology.19 Until their spirits are quickened by God, they are unable to see it. My witness among them is not to convince them to believe in this spiritual component. Rather, I seek to awaken it, by appealing to their basic spiritual needs by means of their mental faculties (soulfulness). Through this "cogno-spiritual" approach, I am honoring their personhood, and acknowledging the symphonic interplay that goes on between one's soul and spirit.
For many of these Chinese friends, as prayer is practiced and worship comes alive, they begin to discover their spiritual component. Through Christian conversion, they recognize this third aspect of personhood, and begin the three-way process of sanctification. I have observed that they usually go on to integrate the three aspects of personhood in their spiritual development in a more balanced way than Westerners. Chinese Christians emphasize a life with physical, mental, and spiritual discipline and routine. They guard against overeating even as they guard their minds from sin. They take the need for adequate rest and exercise seriously even as they establish patterns of Bible study and prayer. They do not view academic prowess as compromising their spiritual integrity or usefulness to God. Rather, they strive to be as learned as possible. I am constantly challenged by the rhythm with which my Chinese Christian friends live out the three aspects of their personhood.
As with the physical body and the soul, spirituality is not an isolated aspect of personhood. Spirituality is experienced in coordination with the activities of the mind and body. In fact, Jesus requires that the mind be used actively in the faith experience (Matt. 22:37). And Paul commands that we be renewed in our minds to recognize God's will (Rom. 12:12). The Old Testament teaches that healthy spirituality will contribute to a healthy physical body (Ps. 38:38; Prov. 3:8; 4:2023).
Humans, like animals, are programmed to die physically. In the absence of sin, God blessed humans by exempting them from the death process. When we sinned, God allowed us to take the "animal" course of death and return to the dust from which we had come (Gen. 3:19). Therefore, physical death for humans came into the world because of sin (Gen. 2:17; I Cor. 15:21), not as part of God's original design (Heb. 2:14). Its timing is appointed by God (Eccl. 9:27), not by chance. Negatively speaking, death comes when the person's body and spirit are separated. Therefore, death is universally feared and hated. But for the believer, this separation is temporary, for when he or she is transformed at the resurrection, the spirit will be reunited with that person's material body. Positively speaking, death marks the defeat of an enemy (I Cor. 15:26, 5456) and the beginning of an eternal existence with God (Ps. 116:15).
In summary, all persons are "wholly" human, because they possess a human genotype. However, we know that sin has marred humans from what God had originally intended them to be. No person is what she or he might have been without sin, or what she or he might become in heaven. In other words, no person on earth is "fully" human, for to be "fully" human would be to know bodily development, soulful maturation, and divine spiritual sanctification. Therefore, only Jesus Christ is fully human because he knew no sin. This is why Christ can serve as our divine Redeemer, and as the model Person in whose steps we may follow (I Pet. 2:21).
In conclusion, persons uniquely possess bodily, soulful, and spiritual characteristics; the meaning of personhood is found in a coordinated inter-working of these three characteristics. In a sense, to realize one's personhood is to attain the bodily, soulful, and spiritual peace of shalom sought in the Old Testament. God desires that all persons be sanctified entirelybody, soul, and spirit (I Thess. 5:23). Furthermore, one's personhood is fully realized on this earth only as one is conformed to the image of Christ, who alone is fully human (I John 3:2).20 These are the elements of personhood and this is its meaning.