From the Editor: Can the Soul Be Saved?
The theme of this issue, “Can the soul be saved?”, is perhaps a not too successful attempt by the editor to be clever. It is of course a fundamental claim of Christian faith that we are saved from our sins by Jesus’ death on the cross, hence, that we can indeed be saved. But for some time, it has been the concept of the soul as an immaterial substance surviving the death of the body that has been threatened, principally by the findings of neuroscience and neuropsychology, but also by Bible scholars who find surprisingly little support for it in the Bible. Even conservative New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, in his recent book, Surprised by Hope, pits the notion that we are destined to be disembodied souls against the New Testament teaching that we will be resurrected bodies when the kingdom comes. But the abandonment of the soul has been most complete in the biological and neurosciences.
That the soul has long been an unnecessary hypothesis for secular neuro- and social scientists might not surprise readers. But that even some Christian theologians have declared it useless for understanding what human beings are just might be. Among these is Fuller Theological Seminary theologian, Nancey Murphy. Her recent book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (2006), summarizes her view that every part of human beings, including their intellect, emotions, and spiritual life, is intimately connected to and inseparable from their bodies. Moreover, she maintains that holding this view is not only compatible with a close reading of scripture but even serves to correct certain harmful deviations that arose when early Christianity adapted its message to Greek notions of an immaterial, immortal soul. She suggests that if articulated with sufficient attention to the mind-boggling complexity of the physical human being, a thoroughgoing Christian physicalism will avoid reducing human beings to merely biological computers and affirm in a new way what the Bible says we are and what we will be at the last resurrection.
Contributors to this issue were asked to consider these claims by Murphy and other like-minded theologians. Gordon Zerbe offers a provocative account of Paul’s understanding of the human being, which he concludes was neither dualistic in the mode of ancient Greeks nor monistic in the way suggested by Murphy. Terry Hiebert examines various Anabaptist understandings of the soul and raises questions concerning the compatibility of Murphy’s “nonreductive physicalist” project with those views. Delmar Epp comes at the theme as a psychologist and describes some of the amazing neuroscientific findings that incline him to regard Murphy’s argument quite favorably. Wendy Miller contributes her experience as spiritual director to the discussion and doubts that Christian philosophers like Murphy are in fact successful in sidestepping the serious reductionism of the secular sciences they take so seriously. Dan Epp-Tiessen, offers a personal reflection on the “immortal soul vs. resurrection” debate, in which he explains why he believes it is not finally necessary to choose between those options. Perhaps in a future issue we will be able to offer papers on the implications of “Christian physicalism” for evangelism and witness, pastoral care, Christian education, the sacraments, politics, and ethics. For now, these essays will serve to introduce readers to the issues of a theological debate that promises to intensify in the years ahead.
Also included in this issue is a fine exegetical paper by seminary student, Laura Neufeld, on Jeremiah 31. Our Ministry Compass piece is provided by Matthew Todd, who considers the implications of Jesus’s Great Commission for ethnic churches. Recommended Reading is an annotated list of some (mostly) recent work relevant to Christian anthropology. Five Book Reviews complete the issue.