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What is Man?: Theological Boundaries for the Scientific Task of Psychology

Bruce Demarest

The importance of both the material and immaterial aspects of the human person in Christian theology

Senior Professor of Christian Theology and Spiritual Formation, Denver Seminary
March 10, 2014

The crucial question of life—second only to the existence and nature of God—is, What is man? (cf. Ps. 8) The dominant understanding of the human person today is what might be called materialistic monism. Largely rejecting classical anthropological dualism, the scientific community claims that the sole human reality is the spatial, material body. This position denies the ontological reality of the human soul/spirit—ironically, since classically the discipline of psychology (from the Greek psyche, soul and logos, study) focused on the dynamics of the immortal human soul! Driven by naturalistic evolution and informed by the burgeoning field of brain science, proponents allege that all mental, spiritual and aesthetic functions represent merely chemical workings of the brain governed by the laws of neurobiology.

An incident from personal experience sheds light on the current situation with respect to theological anthropology. Returning from teaching at Denver Seminary one day, I listened to a voicemail left on my phone. The caller was a psychiatrist in the Yale medical community, who proceeded to share his story. He related that from his years of psychiatric practice—notwithstanding his formal university and clinical training—he became more and more attracted to the possibility that the human person is more than a mass of chemically driven matter. His clinical experience with hurting people and their longing for benevolent reality beyond themselves led him to investigate whether the human person possesses something akin to the immaterial soul. In an attempt to clarify this nagging question, while continuing his medical practice, he enrolled in Yale Divinity School where he earned a Master of Divinity degree.

The psychiatrist related to me that his seminary studies at Yale failed to clarify the question of whether the human person, in fact, possesses an immaterial and immortal soul. He shared that one day while reading in the Yale library he observed on the desk beside him a copy of a book authored by Gordon Lewis and myself entitled Integrative Theology. Curious as to the content, he opened the tome to the chapter describing the human person. Reading the section dealing with the broad liberal understanding of the human person and particularly the soul, he acknowledged that this was the position taught at Yale. Then he read about the predominant orthodox, evangelical position and was compelled to agree that this represents the truth about the human person. More dramatically, led by the Spirit he bowed his head on the table there in the Yale library and invited Jesus Christ into his heart as Savior and Lord. Some weeks later the New York Times featured a substantial cover article entitled, “Yale Psychiatrist Finds God and the Soul.” Subsequently, Dr. Jeffrey Boyd has become a prominent proponent of the dominant orthodox view of the human person, as well as an effective apologist for evangelical Christianity.

Careful study of the evidence leads to the conviction that divine revelation recorded in inspired and authoritative Scripture attests what evangelical theologians designate as ‘dualistic holism’ or ‘holistic dualism.’ Biblical references to the immaterial human soul/spirit are legion. Soul (nephesh, psyche) and the related term ‘spirit’ (ruach, pneuma) occur some 865 times in Scripture. Although these terms possess secondary meanings such as ‘person,’ ‘life’, and ‘heart,’ the primary connotation points to the inner life of the body. Specifically, soul in Scripture is the spiritual substance that constitutes the seat of the human intellect (1 Sam. 2:35; Prov. 2:10), memory (Lam. 3:20), volition or will (Eph. 6:6)—including love (Song 3:1–4; Matt. 22:37), which primarily is a volitional act, emotions following therefrom. Soul also represents the seat of the wide range of human emotions (Job 7:11; Ps. 42:5, 11; Mark 14:34), moral and spiritual life (Ps. 42:1–2; 84:2; 3 John 2), relational capacity (Matt. 22:37; John 12:25), and behaviors (Rom. 2:9; Eph. 6:6). The overlapping term, spirit, attests similar human intellectual, volitional, emotional and spiritual functions as above animated by the Spirit of God. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, pneuma particularly denotes that immaterial aspect of humans that interacts with God.

In the Bible, both the inner, immaterial as well as the outer, material realities of the human person—each with distinctive properties—are abundantly confirmed. As A. W. Tozer rightly noted, “Deep inside every human there is a private sanctum where dwells the mysterious essence of his being” (Man, the Dwelling Place of God, Christian Publications, 1966, pg. 9). Genesis 2:7 states that “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. The book of Job speaks of humans as “those who live in houses of clay” (Job 4:19). The Lord Jesus taught, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). In the same vein, as Stephen’s material body was about to expire from stoning, he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit . . .” (Acts 8:59). Numerous other texts attest the distinction between immaterial soul/spirit and material body (Matt. 26:41; 2 Cor. 5:1–9). One might add to the preceding two other considerations: the biblical and theological doctrine of redemption, which teaches that the material body progressively deteriorates but the essential inner person becomes progressively transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:10, 23; 2 Cor. 4:16). Likewise, the doctrine of the intermediate state, when at physical death the soul/spirit separates from the body in conscious existence to await the resurrection (Job 19:25; Luke 16:19–31; Phil. 1:22–24). The only possible way this distinction between soul/spirit and body can be denied is to reject the truthfulness of the Bible as given by God.

Moreover, the psychological task of understanding the human person must not deny but acknowledge the reality of human sin. Sin against a holy God is widely dismissed in secular culture even though its disastrous consequences are everywhere experienced. I often think of the volume by the late founder of the Menninger Clinic, Karl Menninger, entitled Whatever Became of Sin? Recalling the aforementioned biblical and theological understanding of the human person, we briefly reflect on the deleterious effects of sin vis-à-vis the highest of God’s creation. In the first place, sin casts a dark cloud over unregenerate human understanding in the moral and spiritual realm. The pre-Christian mind fails to comprehend the nature and redemptive purposes of God, judging the latter to be “foolishness” (1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:17-18). Second, sin incites humans volitionally to adopt unholy motives, purposes and decisions (2 Tim. 3:2–4; 2 Peter 2:15). This explains pre-Christians’ enmity against God and his people (John 15:18, 24–25; 17:14). Third, in the emotional area, sin causes a disordering of human desires, affections and feelings (Eph. 2:3; James 1:14). Passions such as envy, lust, hatred, resentment, and anger are directly traceable to the unregenerate heart. An undeniable cause—albeit not the only cause—of psychological illness is unresolved sin. I recently heard a veteran Christian psychiatrist affirm that at the very outset of counseling a distressed soul he asks the bedrock question: “Is there any unresolved sin in your life?” Morally, sin breeds an accusing conscience manifested as lack of inner peace and often self-hatred and depression. Such a statement does not deny that chemical and hormonal imbalances in the brain are occasions for anxiety and depression. Relationally, sin results in a conflicted soul at enmity with itself (Isa. 57:21), with other humans (Ps. 38:11) and supremely with God himself (Isa. 1:4; Eph. 2:12). Finally, behaviorally, coerces foul speech, drunkenness, thievery, illicit sexual relations, violence, treachery, social, and political oppression (Rom. 1:29–31; Titus 3:3) and other abuses against humanity. Secular explanations for the serious human deficits here cited prove feeble and untenable. To the secularist, the human person largely remains an enigma.

The foregoing convictions do not contravene the fact that on the basis of God’s universal general revelation and common grace, secular psychological protocols can and do offer constructive practices in service of more adequate human functioning. The above theological convictions, however, demonstrate that the human person is not a chemically, mechanistically or socially programmed animal governed by blind evolutionary forces, but an undying soul/spirit in a dying body with rational, volition, emotional, moral, spiritual, and relational capacities. Only a biblically and theologically informed understanding of the human person as so created, fallen and potentially redeemed through Christ facilitates the goal of human wholeness and holiness. The latter possesses the truth and potency that enables men and women to become all that they were created to be according to God’s wise and loving purpose.