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Body, Soul, and Human Life (Studies in Theological Interpretation): The

Nature of Humanity in the Bible by Joel B. Green


By: David Muthukumar. S

Joel B. Green is a Professor of NT Studies, serving on Fuller faculty since


2007. He is the dean of the School of Theology and has assumed the responsibilities
of the Provost for Fuller since June 1, 2016. Professor Green has written or edited
more than 45 books, and seven of them have won prestigious awards.1 Along with
Body, Soul and Human Life, he also has written In Search of the Soul: Four Views of
the Mind-Body Problem (with Stuart Palmer, 2005) on the same topic. In Body, Mind
and Human Life, he is approaching the challenges to the biblical interpretation in
constructing a biblical theological anthropology in the context of modern neuro-
scientific advances by dialoguing through the interface of science and theology. His
expertise in neuroscience is brought to bear on his reflections as he keeps biblical
hermeneutics in constant dialogue with the current neuro-philosophy that integrates
neurosciences with the traditional concerns of the philosophy of mind.
Main outline and content: In Chapter 1, Green is attempting a basic survey of
the notion of human identity as conceived within the biblical as well as scientific
worldviews. He further identifies that the materialistic or dualistic conceptions are not
conducive to the construction of a theological anthropology as they stand discredited
by the recent neuroscientific explorations and hence establishes that a monistic
conception is both biblical and also as most viable. In Chapter 2, Green deals with the
problem of “identity,” especially the theological significance of the creation of
humanity in the divine image, and, he highlights the notion of “embodied
relationality” for the human identity through his hermeneutical method. For this
purpose, he is evaluating evidences from the biological sciences and neuropsychology
in answering the questions of human distinctness from other creatures and gathers
evidences from the biblical materials in order to reflect on the significance of the
communitarian aspect of human identity. In Chapter 3, he takes up the challenges
posed by neurobiological and neuro-philosophical advancements to the traditional
theological affirmations of sin, original sin, free will, and especially the difficulties
surrounding the relationship between human volition and responsibility. In Chapter 4,
Green sets out to explore the concept of conversion and salvation as a “journey”
where he identifies the pivotal role of the local community of believers and he
identifies this communitarian construction as inevitable for our construal of the
mission of the church in the world. In Chapter 5, he continues to probe the dominant
body-soul dualism as it was considered indispensable to answer the eschatological
questions about the continued identity of a human person after physical death into the
afterlife. He especially pays attention to the reality of the total decay of the human
body after death, and its implications for the traditional Christian belief in an
embodied resurrection. He is relying on a monistic conception of human constitution
and a spiritual understanding of resurrected embodiment to conceive the continued
identity.

1
http://fuller.edu/faculty/jgreen/ accessed on 01/20/2017
Key arguments and claims: Green notes that through the developments in the
fields of Genetics, evolutionary psychology, and computational neuroscience, the
traditional Christian image of human beings is forever changed. (476) Citing Francis
Crick, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for discoveries concerning DNA, who
claimed: “the idea that man has a disembodied soul is as unnecessary as the old idea
that there was a Life Force… This is in head-on contradiction to the religious beliefs
of billions of human beings alive today,” (480) Green points to the inevitable
collapse of the traditional understandings that maintains a dualistic assumption
between the material body and the immaterial soul. He categorically states that the
human person does not consist of two (or three) parts, but is a living whole. (311)
Green notes the enormous contribution of Bultmann (who remarked, “Man
does not have a soma; he is soma,”) in helping to revise the understanding of Pauline
anthropology as dichotomous (body-soul) trichotomous (body-soul-spirit) to a holistic
notion. (322) He also refers to Brevard Childs who conceived the OT understanding
of humanity from a holistic perspective, as the human creature “does not have a soul,
but is a soul” – that is, the human is “a complete entity and not a composite of parts
from body, soul and spirit.” (363) He further asserts that both OT and NT conception
of human constitution is holistic without any dualistic notion and quotes Klaus Berger
who stated that the NT texts “know nothing of a bifurcation of the human being into
separate categories called ‘body’ and ‘soul.’” (415) In the light of his evaluation of
various OT and NT scholars, Green continues to construct a “relational, dynamic
notion of personhood, eschewing any interest in an essentialist definition of the
human creature.” (371) Taking cues from Moltmann and Pannenberg who found that
the traditional notions of human beings are unsustainable in the light of modern
advancements, Green concludes that the “embodied relationality [is] endemic to a
theological anthropology. (420) But interestingly, Green also declares that this drive
toward a reconstruction of our understanding of human nature – away from notions of
body-soul dualism, toward some form of monism – is already present in the biblical
hermeneutical tradition and cannot be credited only to the recent exposure to the
neurological or psychological considerations. (610)
As neuroscience also confirms that all human functioning – physical,
emotional, volitional – can be located in the neural substrate, Green notes, then the
concept of “soul,” or the “authentic self,” is redundant and is a mere
epiphenomenon. (613) While he identifies the reductive materialism and radical
dualism as two extremes on this spectrum, he identifies monism as the viable position
for the Christian theological anthropology: “as it requires no second, metaphysical
entity, such as a soul or spirit, to account for human capacities and distinctives, while
insisting that human behavior cannot be explained exhaustively with recourse to
genetics or neuroscience.” (670) While he discredits the prevalent notion that there is
a dichotomy between Hebrew thought (which affirmed some form of monism) and
Greek thought (which affirmed some form of dualism), (943) he argues that Hebrew
terms such as nepheš, bāśār, lēb, and rūah and Greek terms such as sōma, psychē,
pneuma, and sarx are polysemous and need not be necessarily construed as
binaries. (1064) He points to the Creation narrative (Genesis 1–2) and argues that it
does not point to “the singularity of humanity in the human possession of a “soul,” …
in essentialist terms” but rather in a relational aspect, “as Yahweh’s partner, and with
emphasis on the communal, intersexual character of personhood.” (1147)
In trying to establish the distinctiveness of human beings from all other
creatures, which is being increasingly controverted by the comparative psychology of
human-like ethical behavior among non-human species, study of persons suffering
from “disorders of volition” and growing evidence of the neural correlates of
decision-making, (1318) Green is agreeing with the cognitive scientist Warren
Brown, who concluded that even if “nearly every fundamental human mental ability
or function exists in some form or to some degree in non-human species,” humans are
endowed “with notably enhanced mental powers.” (814) Green explicates this:
…if I am constrained in my choices by my biology, this is nothing more or less than my being
constrained by myself. “I,” after all, do not stand over against my body or exist in a potentially
agonistic relationship with my body, as though I could say that it is not me but my brain that has
performed in a certain way. (1677)

The neural substrate does not invalidate one’s Ego, rather is a constituent of
that individual. Green, further addresses these points of conflict between evolutionary
psychology and biblical faith through his hermeneutical reconstruction as he identifies
three New Testament Coordinate: (1) Sin as sculptor in 1 Peter (1448) (2) Sin, the
child of desire, in James (1542) (3) The dominion of sin in Paul (1601). Green notes
that for Peter, human life is sculpted according to the conventions, values, and
dispositions of ignorance and humans are in fact acting out of their formation, (1542)
while James identifies the source of human action as internal inclinations
(Ἐπιθυµία), (1579) in contrast to God’s own desire, (βούλοµαι) (1587) which is the
“word of truth. Green avers that this is “nothing less than a conversion of the
imagination, those patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behavior that animate
our lives.” (1597) For Paul, Green observes that sin is not identified with individual
acts of wickedness but with a general disposition on the part of the human being to
refuse to honor God as God and to render him thanks. (1632) Thus, while
neuroscientific studies may attempt to challenge the traditional notion of volition and
responsibility as a mere neural substrate, Green through his hermeneutical
explorations is identifying the external formation, internal inclination and general
disposition as involved in the human decisions. He concludes that a human
transformation is required – a deep-seated conversion in one’s conception of God and,
thus, in one’s commitments, attitudes, and everyday practices. (1662) which
essentially comprises the internal, external and cultural transformation.

In further exploring the study of “spiritual neuroscience” that indicate to the


biological substrate of spiritual experience, Green probes the concept of conversion in
the Luke-Acts narrative. He uses Guy Nave’s The Role and Function of Repentance
in Luke-Acts (1748) as a general framework. He observes that in Luke-Acts, Nave
construes the meaning of metanoeō and metanoia as a “change in thinking,” which
expands to “a change of mind, heart, view, opinion or purpose.” Metanoia, to be
genuine, would be accompanied further by a will to make right the wrong
committed. (1755)
Based on his understanding of neurobiology and its interactions with cultural
anthropology and philosophy, Green sees the “narrativity as a human-forming,
meaning-making enterprise.” (1898) He says, “So pivotal is narrative to the formation
of identity, including the formation and articulation of beliefs, that in the absence of
memory humans will create stories by which to make sense of their present
situation.” 1893 Thus, Green understands conversion as an ongoing process of
socialization. (1999) Within the Luke-Acts account, he identifies three community-
constituting practices - economic koinonia, prayer, and witness as vital for one’s
conversion. (2032) He concludes that conversionis “a transformation of conceptual
scheme – conceptual, conative, and behavioral – by which life is reordered…” (2125)
Finally, Green attempts to understand the aspect of the resurrection of the body
in Christian faith articulations. He cites William Hasker who conceived the New
Testament eschatology in a three-stage progression: death, followed by a temporary
state of disembodied existence, followed by the resurrection and judgment on the last
day, to argue for an “emergent dualism.” (2187) Green is critical of this tendency to
lapse into the dualistic pattern from that of the physicalist account of the human
person in order to formulate Christian eschatology. He is also seriously evaluating the
notion of “intermediate state” which is part of such a paradigm. (2190)
By reviewing the significance of resurrection in the Scriptures of Israel and
raising questions against the idea of an “intermediate state,” (2197) and by studying
Lukan texts (Luke 16:19–31; 23:40–43; and 24:36–49), Green revises the
understanding of the intermediate state and reconceives the the nature of resurrection
existence and the nature of personal identity. (2200) Green notes that the resurrection
theology in Israel’s faith was generally theocentric, based on Israel’s covenantal
relationship with God; (2291) He also considers Jacques Dupont’s “individual
eschatology”– that is, the fate of the individual immediately upon death (2449) as an
alternative position to the intermediate state.
He further notes that Luke’s presentation of the resurrected Jesus’ identity is in
the “grand story of God.” (2540) He says, “As Luke presents it, Jesus’ identity is not
grounded simply in his existence as a human being, but in terms of his relationship to
God, his vocation within the purpose of God, and his place within the community of
God’s people – past, present, and future.” (2549 Contrary to the modern notions of
personhood as self-actualization and self-legislation, (2541) Green is locating the
continuity of Jesus’ identity as narrative identity embedded in his relationship with
God and his disciples. Further, Green uses Paul’s distinction between the σῶµα
ψυκικóν and the σῶµα πνευµατικόν, (2608) to state that the form of embodied
existence in the resurrection is determined by the Spirit of God and is not inherent in
human beings.
He is proposing that one’s identity “is formed and found in self-conscious
relationality with its neural correlates and embodied narrativity or formative
histories.” (2687) By this he means that it is the relationality and narrativity that
constitutes one’s personhood and has an existence apart from neural correlates and
embodiment that suffer decay in death. (2704) Green avers that the resurrected
identity in the spiritual embodiment is a divine gift and is divinely enacted. (2709)
Method and way of argumentation:
The methodological framework of this work is basically theological
hermeneutics. The primary question that Green is attempting to answer is regarding
the constitution of human beings. He is proposing a monistic view – human being as a
singular whole, a bio-psycho-spiritual unity – in contrast to the traditional
dichotomous (body-soul) or trichotomous (body-soul-spirit) view. (425) He attempts
to allay the fears that unless Christian anthropology is moored to a
dualistic/trichotomous narrative, the main pillars of Christian faith will be
destabilized. (428) He is proposing a monistic conception for which he finds support
through his hermeneutical construction. His hermeneutical method is further informed
by the neurosciences, though he also notes that in spite of the seeming differences
between the methodological approaches of theology and neuroscience, they arrive at
similar conclusions. And without restricting himself to the philology to arrive at
conclusions, Green is in dialogue with neurophilosophy, neurospirituality to evaluate
various options. Another aspect of his method is his emphasis on the relational,
communitarian identity of human beings. In contrast to conceiving the personhood as
self-actualization, Green emphasizes the relationality and narrativity as identity
constituting.
Relation to Christian tradition and contemporary theology: In general, he
is upholding the traditional Christian affirmations while attempting to reconcile them
with the current understanding about human personhood, free will, volition,
responsibility and resurrected body. In that process, Green is essentially challenging
the traditional notion of a dichotomous/trichotomous conception of human beings to
propose the monistic view. This definitely has a major impact on his hermeneutical
preferences which challenges the traditional notions like “intermediate state” after
death as he is proposing an immediate individual eschatology. His holistic conception
is in line with that of Moltmann’s emphasis on the embodied existence. Also, Green’s
use of relationality, embodied conversion, the communitarian formation and
dispositions are identical to that of postliberal theology. His interdisciplinary
approach in dialoging through science-theology interface to be relevant to the
contemporary society is highly commendable.
An Evangelical assessment: Professor Green expresses that his theological
articulation is aimed at understanding the mission of the Christian Church to the
world. Especially, through his conception of conversion based on the relationality -
embodied human capacity for fellowship with God and human communitity - Green
is articulating the soteriological, ecclesiological and missiological dimensions. His
holistic conception of humanity is definitely a refreshing aspect in terms of
interpreting the Scripture and drawing theological inferences. Yet, at times, it seems
he is downplaying the dualistic impression of some of the Scriptural texts, to read
them in a monistic perspective. He also differentiates between the eschatological and
anthropological dualism. In his attempt to reconcile the seeming contradictions
between neurosciences and biblical theology, Green categorically states that there is
always a convergence between them, which sometimes stands as a presupposition
rather than a conclusion. His interpretation of the intermediate state after death to
negate a disembodied state also overrides several possible interpretations of the said
text. The distinctions he is making between the “physical body” and “spiritual body”
of Paul is inadvertently construed in a dualistic pattern as the physical body decays
and the continuity of resurrection is conceived only as the gift of God. The
transformation of physical body to a spiritual body is definitely a traditional
conception, but to conceive them as discontinued existence rather signals a dualistic
turn. Also, as the material continuity between them cannot be upheld, locating the
whole significance of human existence as a neural substrate does still denote a
problem in construing the resurrected identity of an individual.