The landscape is changing when it comes to how Christians see human beings, with a growing number no longer believing that we have (or are) immaterial things called souls, embracing instead a more holistic and material view.
Materialism: Are We Made of Meat?
According to this holistic material view, we are constituted by physical stuff (even if we are more than just the sum of our parts). We are “made of meat,” as the opponents of materialism might gleefully put it. What’s more, these Christians don’t hold to a material view because they doubt what Scripture says about human nature, deferring instead to a more “secular” scientific outlook (although they may believe that a scientific outlook is supportive of their view). Instead, they maintain that Scripture actually supports this perspective. (I say a little about this in this article, called “Dust ‘n Breath.”)
This means that those Evangelical apologists who oppose a material view of human beings because it is really an expression of “naturalism” and represents a battle that they must win for the sake of the faith are engaging the discussion in altogether the wrong way. “Materialism” can mean different things, but here I will mean the denial of substance dualism about human beings and the affirmation that we are constituted physically.
Should We Reject Materialism Because of the Incarnation?
Some Christians reject materialism on the grounds of systematic theology. Materialism, they believe, is incompatible with some doctrines we believe (and have good reasons for believing), therefore it is false. One of those doctrines is the incarnation, the doctrine that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is true that our view of human nature must affect our Christology (doctrine of Christ), because in Christ, God became human.
Can an Immaterial Object Become a Material Object?
But what sort of effect are we talking about here? A truly catastrophic impact, some might think. Alvin Plantinga, for one, seems to think so.
As I understand the scripture and the creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, the Chalcedonian formulation), this involves the second person of the Trinity’s actually becoming human. The Logos became a human being, acquiring the property necessary and sufficient for being human. Prior to the incarnation, however, the second person of the Trinity was not a material object, but an immaterial being. If, however, as materialists assert, to be a human being is to be a material object, then the second person of the Trinity must have become a material object. If he has remained a human being, furthermore, he is presently a material object. But then an immaterial being became a material object; and this seems to me to be impossible.1
This is certainly one way to think about the incarnation: The Logos, that immaterial divine essence, became human (i.e., changed and began to have the property of being human). This is called an “abstract” view of the incarnation. And if to be human is to be a material human body (so a particular human being is identical with a particular body; this is the core claim of materialist views), then in order to become human, the Logos would need to become a particular body. That sounds like a pretty strange thing to say, and I won’t be saying it here. (In saying that the view sounds strange, I do not thereby mean to say that it is impossible or wrong. For a defence of this view, see Trenton Merricks, “The Word Made Flesh: Dualism, Physicalism and the Incarnation.”2)
Taking on a Human Nature
But this is not the only way to think about the incarnation. Another view of the incarnation, called a “concrete” view, is that the Logos itself does not change. Instead, the Logos took a human nature by coming into the world and taking all of the parts required for a complete human nature. In a substance dualist view, this would require taking a human body and a human soul. But if substance dualism is not true, the incarnation would only require that the Logos take to itself whatever physical parts are required for a complete human nature.
Whether dualism or materialism is true, the important thing to note is that in a concrete view of the incarnation, the Logos does not become a human body and soul (on dualism) or just a body (on materialism). Instead, these components are required for a human nature, so the Logos, while retaining its divinity, takes these components in order to bring into being the man Jesus Christ.
Making Sense of the Chalcedonian Creed
I think a concrete view is the best way of understanding the Chalcedonian Creed. Notice that the Creed takes pains to mention that Jesus is:
… [T]ruly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable [or rational] soul and body; of one substance [or co-essential] with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood.
What makes it so that Jesus is truly man, like us? The answer, the Creed seems to say, is the fact that he has a human soul and body. But when the theologians of Chalcedon said that Jesus had a human body and soul, their goal was not to arrive at a Christology that preserved dualism about human beings, as though they were making a statement about us. Instead, their goal was to say that Jesus was fully human, so they made sure that their formula included all the elements of a human being as they understood human beings.
But suppose they were wrong, not about whether or not Jesus was fully human, but about how human beings are constituted. If they were wrong to think that human beings possess an immaterial soul, then we can affirm the point of Chalcedonian Christology (namely that Jesus was really human and really divine, possessing two natures while being just one person) while rejecting the way in which the Chalcedonian formula expresses this point. If that seems like a difficult thing to ask, try thinking of other examples of orthodox doctrines being expressed in terms that are not strictly true, and you’ll see that it’s not hard. For example, the Creed says that “he came down from heaven.” But the Logos did not come “down” from anywhere, and if you travel “up,” no matter how far you go, you won’t reach the place he came from. Nonetheless, the Logos entered our world in the person of Jesus, and this expression, literally false though it might be, was intended to express, not a view on what is “up there,” but rather on the identify of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who comes to us from the Father.
Exploring Non-Dualist Theories of the Incarnation
What would a non-dualist statement on the incarnation look like if it were to retain the essential features of orthodoxy? Actually, a materialist but theologically orthodox statement on Christology would look almost exactly like the Chalcedonian formula itself. All we would need to do is to remove the reference to a “reasonable soul,” because that phrase was meant to refer to an immaterial human soul. There is no obvious reason why a materialist view of human beings should be seen to be at odds with the essentials of an orthodox view of Christ: He is one person who is truly God and truly human. He has everything that is required for a complete human nature (constituted physically) as well as everything that is required to be truly divine (because of the presence of the divine Logos, which is not material).
The type of objection suggested by Plantinga earlier cannot arise here, because this is a concrete view of the incarnation. The immaterial Logos does not become a physical object. But two other objections might arise (mistakenly, I think), so let me briefly sketch these objections and explain why they are not successful.
Anticipating Two Objections: Apollinarianism and Nestorianism
1. This Is Not Apollinarianism
One concern you might initially have about this view is that it would amount to Apollinarianism. Apollinarianism is the heresy that Jesus did not assume a complete human nature. Jesus only assumed a human body, whereas a complete human consists of a body and a soul (Apollanarianism assumes a dualist view of human nature). The rest of Jesus consisted of the Logos, so that Jesus did not take a human mind (after all, the mind is the soul, on a dualist outlook). The only mind Jesus had is the mind of the divine Logos. Even if the Apollinarian argues (as William Lane Craig does) that the mind of the Logos had all the necessary characteristics of a human mind, the real problem here is that God the Son did not assume a complete human nature, and consequently he did not redeem a complete human nature, but only a human body.
Superficially, you can understand why somebody who is not familiar with Apollinarianism might think that this material view of human nature falls prey to Apollinarianism. After all, Jesus did not assume a human soul—because on this view, there’s no such thing. But therein lies the rebuttal: humans do not have souls, if a material view is correct, and therefore Jesus did assume a complete human nature even without assuming a human soul. Dualists might believe that the soul is the mind of a human being, but materialists believe no such thing. Instead the human mind is produced by the physical world. Consequently, on a material view of human beings, there is nothing about Jesus’ lack of a human soul that would prevent him from having a human mind.
2. This is Not Nestorianism
A more interesting objection is that this view is Nestorianism. Nestorianism is the heresy that Jesus was really two people (one human and one divine), rather than one person with two natures. You can certainly understand this concern, because if we are saying that Jesus’ human nature consisted of all of the ingredients of a human being and his divine nature was the Logos—the second person of the Trinity—then it certainly sounds like Jesus has all the ingredients of two people.
This is not really an objection to materialism. Instead it is, ironically, an objection to orthodoxy! The apparent lean towards Apollinarianism arises out of the concern that if you’ve got everything you need for a human nature and everything you need for a divine nature, surely you’ve got two persons. You can avoid this by opting for Apollinarianism, but only at an unacceptably heavy price as noted earlier.
In rescuing orthodoxy from the charge of Nestorianism, we are also rescuing a material view of human beings. Brian Leftow has suggested just such a rescue plan, although I will be summarizing him considerably. It’s possible, he says, for all the ingredients (i.e., all the metaphysical “stuff”) of a human person to fail to constitute a human person. True, if we took a human person (constituted by a body and soul, for the dualist) and then added the Logos to it, we would have two persons—or the incarnation would destroy a previously existing human person so that only one person remained.
But what if it were possible for the Logos to “get to” the body and soul before they constituted a human person and prevent them from doing so?3 Had the Logos not intervened, there would simply have been a human person, but by throwing itself into the “mix,” as it were, the presence of the Logos caused something else to be there—containing all the elements of a human nature (i.e., a body and a soul), but being a different type of person, having a divine nature as well.
Here I think the materialist Christian enjoys an advantage over the substance dualist who wishes to be orthodox. We can easily appreciate how all the physical ingredients of a human being can fail to be a person. To draw on biblical terms (from Genesis 2:7), man is formed from the dust before he breathes the breath of life, so there is a distinction between a body’s existence and its coming to constitute a human person. But how could there be an immaterial soul (a la Descartes) without there being a person? By its very nature a soul is a personal entity. While I can see how a materialist can make use of Leftow’s reasoning to avoid the charge of Nestorianism, I would think a dualist who takes a concrete view of the incarnation is in a much more difficult spot.
Christology Is Difficult!, and Other Concluding Thoughts
Christology can be pretty hard. Sometimes I worry that people who dismiss Christology within a materialist context as impossible or obviously heretical are overlooking that fact that any position in Christology takes patience to formulate sympathetically. Formulating a Christology that meets the required standards of orthodoxy without committing to a dualist view of human beings is certainly possible. Just formulating the basics—stating what substances are (or are not) involved and counting the natures and persons—is just the beginning, and there is much more to say about Christology than that. But this basic level is the level at which materialism is sometimes said to create problems. Those problems, say I, can be addressed without any more obvious difficulty than the Christology held by dualists.
Like other models of Christology, this materialist formulation comes with its own difficulties (the main one being the implications of the death of Jesus, which I discuss in my chapter in The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology. Nobody ever said theology was easy. But, some claims to the contrary notwithstanding, materialism about human beings, whatever other problems it may have, is no barrier to holding an orthodox view of God in Christ.
More Information about The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology
Philosophers and theologians address the relationship between body and soul and its implications for theological anthropology, interacting with cognitive science, biological evolution, psychology, and sociology. Reflecting these exciting new developments, The Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology is a resource for philosophers and theologians, students and scholars, interested in the constructive, critical exploration of a theology of human persons. Throughout this collection of newly authored contributions, key themes are addressed: human agency and grace, the soul, sin and salvation, Christology, glory, feminism, the theology of human nature, and other major themes in theological anthropology in historic as well as contemporary contexts.
‘An invigoratingly diverse collection of essays focused on the Christian understanding of human nature in general and its bearing the image of God in particular; it would serve as an excellent introduction to the developing interest shown by analytic theology in these and related topics.’
T.J. Mawson, University of Oxford, UK
‘This Ashgate volume, brilliantly crafted by first-rate scholars from multiple disciplines, is a paragon of excellence for research companions. Rigorous, well informed, and refreshingly insightful, it is a tour de force of theological anthropology!’
Chad Meister, Bethel College, USA
‘Excellent in breadth and depth of treatment of relevant topics, with an international group of contributors, senior scholars and scholars newer to their fields but already published therein, this is a superb contribution to the fresh interest in theological anthropology, which it expands, develops, and encourages.’
Keith E. Yandell, University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA