Weekly Series on the Soul, Part 43 – Material, Immaterial or Both?

+JMJ+ Welcome to part 43 of our weekly series on the soul. I may stop this series at part 50 so I can focus on another series. So let’s dig into the book, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting. We talked about the Hebrew words and concepts of nephesh and ruach last time. They make an appearance this week, too, as Dr. Cooper reminds us that ancient Hebrew anthropology is not exactly the same as our modern anthropology, or exactly like the ancient Christian one, either. And we have to watch out so that we are not guilty of reading notions into the text that simply are not there. I’m going to backtrack a little before going to the next chapter, and let Dr. Cooper talk more about holism, monism and the Old Testament.

He delves into some other words besides nephesh and ruach, but to keep our session here short I won’t go into those. You can read about them for yourself in the text (links are at the end of this post). Basically what he says is that nephesh doesn’t mean just physical and ruach doesn’t mean just snon-physical. So even though we often translate nephesh as soul, it can also mean “throat, neck, or stomach.” Sometimes it just means I, as in “My nephesh will praise the Lord”. 

In sum, this crucial term [nephesh] is as different from as it is similar to the Platonic sense of “soul.”

Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, by Dr. John W. Cooper, p. 39.

Likewise, ruach doesn’t mean purely spiritual, nor does it mean purely non-spiritual. 

Ruach is a term which refers to wind or moving air and thus, like nephesh, is at times associated with breath. But it is also translated as ‘spirit’, and it actually refers to the spirit of God more frequently than to the human spirit. When indicating the breath of a living creature ruach is often parallel to another important term, neshama, ‘the breath of life’ (Gen. 2:7). In addition there are extraordinary gifts of wisdom, prophecy, artistry, and the like which are produced in us by a special spirit. This is not just the Holy Spirit of God, but creaturely power which comes from the Creator. In view of these enabling capacities it is not surprising that ruach also becomes the seat of various conscious dispositions and activities. The spirit can reason, deliberate, choose, will, rebel against God, hate one’s neighbor, be depressed or courageous, and err or lie.

Ibid., 39-40.

So, Cooper asks, is the Old Testament “pro-monist or pro-materialist? Does holism entail a monism…?” Though some argue that it does, Cooper says that holism does not entail monism, a materialist kind or any other. He uses the word to mean “the functional unity of some entity in its totality, the proper operation of the whole. It views an entity as a single primary functional system, not as a compound system constructed by linking two or more primary functional systems.” (Ibid., 45.)

This “does not necessarily imply that the whole is a single homogeneous substance…” And secondary systems might continue to exist if the whole were broken up. There are those who, however, think of the holism of the Old Testament as a kind of “ontological holism” that sees an entity as made up of parts, which, at death and dissolution, breaks up and do not survive this dissolution. “They must either cease to be or become something else than what they were.”

“In anthropology this means that a human person is a single integrated totality of psychophysical functions. If the totality is broken up, neither soul nor body nor person continues to function or exist. For none of these is a separable entity, but all are merely ‘aspects’ of a single whole.”

Ibid., 46.

Dr. Cooper says that the only way to settle this question of which kind of holism the Old Testament anthropology entails is to discover what the Hebrews thought about death and survival, which he addressed in chapter three and which we looked at in last week’s post.  

End backtracking. Now I want to mention a few things about chapter four, The Anthropology of Intertestamental Eschatology. Dr. Cooper has warned us about reading our modern ideas into the text. Now he warns us about assuming that 

“the whole Bible presents the same ideas about God, humanity, and salvation and that the Old and New Testaments mean pretty much the same things by the words they use.”

Ibid., 73.

We have to read what is there and the hardest thing to do is to let go of our preconceptions when we don’t even realize that we have them. This is a particular danger, seems to me, with anyone who thinks that the “text speaks clearly for itself and I don’t need no stinkin’ help to understand it.” Sigh. I’ve met with this type of Scripture reader many times. As for me, I have many times caught myself doing this, so I welcome being reminded. I’ve done what he mentions here, “minimize[d] [the Old Testament’s] view of the afterlife.” 

But I didn’t do this, having minimized that Old Testament view, promptly proceeded to “read the New Testament as though its anthropology were identical with the Old Testament view.” Those who do think they see the New Testament adding “a doctrine of resurrection to what would otherwise amount to nonexistence after biological death.” (Ibid., 73-74.) This applies to those Protestants who think they see evidence for “soul-sleep” in the Bible. I think they’re reading into it but I’ve never been able to get that point across to anyone I’ve met who holds that opinion.

To tell the truth, until reading this book I had the most nebulous idea about what the Old Testament actually has to say about the afterlife, and now I feel foolish.

We’ll continue with Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting next time with a further look at chapter four. Maybe Sheol and the Sadducees or Varieties of Resurrection or Where Are the Dead?A Topography of the Afterlife. I dunno yet but I hope you’ll join me on the journey. 

Thank you for visiting and reading. Until next time, whoever and wherever you are, please stay safe and well, virtuous and holy. May the Lord bless and keep you, and may His peace be always with you. +JMJ+


Notes and Links

  • Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, by Dr. John W. Cooper: Paperback, Kindle (<— Amazon affiliate links), Verbum, Logos (<— not affiliate links). (The same text is used in both apps. Verbum is the Catholic one. This book could easily be used by Catholics or non-Catholics.)

Image credits: The Bible Word Study screenshots for nephesh and ruach were taken from Verbum.

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