What is a Soul?

I’ve always found it interesting that Aristotle believed plants have souls. It’s difficult for me to imagine that there is some part of a plant that is immaterial. On the other hand, if plants don’t have souls, what is it that makes them grow and flower and express such beautiful complexity?

I believe the being of God pervades all parts of existence. This considered, I can see how God animates the world, including everything that grows and everything that breathes. God is an omnipresent, all-powerful, living being, who is in control of all activity in existence. This explains why we see change occurring constantly in all God has created.

But did God create souls? And if so, what are they?

Philosophers talk about the attributes of the soul being things like reason, character, feeling, memory, consciousness, perception, thinking, etc. I can appreciate all of these things are immaterial aspects of human beings, but I find it hard to accept that they have substance. However, the conventional view of the soul is that it is something that lives on after death, aside from the material body. What is the nature of this entity that lives on, that is not physical, but still has a range of attributes of which our minds can conceive?

In my paper entitled The Human Soul in Plato and Christianity I explore the question of the existence of souls in greater depth. The paper is available as a free PDF download from this blog, on the Essays page.

You are welcome to share thoughts and resources relating to this discussion of the existence of souls in the comments below. Thank you.

10 comments

  1. I believe the soul is that very thing that makes us ALIVE, it is fueled by the very power that is within every atom of every molecule of all existence. Hard to fathom I know, but that’s only because the world is oblivious to the reality of the living God, his reason for creating us and the virtual power he wheels in his hands that permeates the entire universe of molecular and spiritual matter. Will definitely indulge in your paper when I have more time. God bless.

  2. Biblically speaking, the soul is the “essence” of who we actually are. At the death of our bodies, which perish, our souls go on, either to Heaven or Hell. Our souls are God’s creation, that which separates us from and elevates us above all other created and living things. This is what makes human beings unique in all of God’s creation. Thanks for posting, Steven.

  3. I find it interesting that the Psalmist tells his soul to magnify the Lord. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.” Ps 42:5 (ESV) It is as if he was separate from his soul and had to tell it what to do. Our mind is strong; it often will lead our body into making unwise choices; ie overeating. His temporary temple was telling his eternal person to rise up and rejoice. Or is the “soul” that he is referring to in this verse his thoughts? And is it his spirit that will live into eternity? Or are they one and the same? All interesting concepts. It will be worth reading your paper.

  4. Another deep thing of God that is not specifically explained to us mere humans, Thankjs to another intetresting article. I ran across this article written by a Minister and Theologian I thought I would share. And I agree with his theology!

    Do we have two or three parts? Body, soul, and spirit? Dichotomy or trichotomy?”

    Answer: Genesis 1:26–27 indicates that God created mankind distinct from all the other creatures. Scripture clearly teaches that man is intended to experience intimate relationship with God, and, therefore, He created us as a unity of both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) aspects (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Matthew 10:28, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Corinthians 4:16; 7:1, James 2:26). The material component of humans is obviously that which is tangible and temporal: the physical body. The immaterial aspects are intangible: soul, spirit, intellect, will, conscience, mind, emotions, etc. These exist unendingly beyond the lifespan of the physical body.

    All human beings possess both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) characteristics. Each person has a physical body. However, the intangible, non-physical qualities of mankind are often debated. What does Scripture say about these? Genesis 2:7 states that man was created as a “living soul” (KJV). Numbers 16:22 names God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh” (ESV). Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it,” indicating that the heart (not the myocardium) is central to man’s will and emotions. In Acts 23:1 Paul refers to the conscience as that part of the mind that convicts us of right and wrong. Romans 12:2 speaks of the transformative power of a renewed mind. These verses, and numerous others, refer to the various aspects of the spiritual components of humanity. We are a unified combination of both material and immaterial qualities.

    Somehow, the soul, spirit, emotions, conscience, will, and mind are connected and interrelated. Perhaps the soul-spirit is comprised of a combination of all the other immaterial human aspects. With this in mind, is humanity dichotomous (“cut in two”) or trichotomous (“cut in three”)? In other words, do we have two parts (body and soul-spirit), or do we have three parts (body, soul, and spirit)? It is impossible to be dogmatic. Theologians have differed over this issue for centuries, and there has never been a decisive orthodox declaration of which is true.

    Those who believe Scripture teaches that man is a dichotomy see humans as comprised of two parts: a body and a spirit. There are two general views of this dichotomy. The first view is that man is a united body and spirit that together comprise a living soul. A human soul is the spirit and the body united as one personhood. This view is supported by Genesis 2:7; Numbers 9:13; Psalm 16:10; 97:10 and Jonah 4:8. This view emphasizes that the Hebrew word nephesh in these verses refers to an integrated (unified) soul, living being, life, or self—i.e., a unified person (soul) comprised of a body and spirit. It is noted that, when the Bible speaks of the ruach (“breath, wind, or spirit”) being separated from the body, the person is disintegrated (fractured)—dead (see Ecclesiastes 12:7; Psalm 104:29; 146:4).

    The second dichotomic view is that the spirit and the soul are the same thing with two different names. This view emphasizes the fact that the words spirit and soul are often used interchangeably (Luke 1:46–47; Isaiah 26:9; Matthew 6:25; 10:28, 1 Corinthians 5:3, 5) and should be understood as synonyms referring to the same spiritual reality within each person. Therefore, the dichotomous position holds that man is comprised of two parts. Man is either a body and spirit, which makes a soul, or a body and soul-spirit.

    Those who believe Scripture teaches that man is a trichotomy see man as comprised of three distinct parts: body, soul, and spirit. They emphasize 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12, which seem to differentiate between spirit and soul. The dichotomist counters that, if 1 Thessalonians 5:23 teaches trichotomy, then, by the same hermeneutic, does Mark 12:30 teach tetrachotomy?

    Is it important to conclusively decide between dichotomy and trichotomy? Perhaps not; however, a word of caution is appropriate. Because the trichotomist view downplays the interconnected unity of personhood, some have erroneously taught that God communicates mystically with our spirits and bypasses our intellects. Based on the same mistaken premise, some churches use the trichotomous position to teach the possibility of Christians being demon-possessed. Because they see the soul and spirit as two separate immaterial aspects within the Christian, they postulate that one can be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the other can be possessed by demonic forces. This teaching is problematic in that there are no biblical references that those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit can be simultaneously possessed by demons.

    Regardless of whether a Christian believes dichotomy or trichotomy best represents an accurate understanding of Scripture, we can all unitedly praise God with the psalmist: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:14).

    Recommended Resource: Created in God’s Image by Anthony Hoekema

    Anthony A. Hoekema
    Anthony Andrew Hoekema (1913, in Drachten – 17 October 1988) was a Calvinist minister and theologian who served as professor of Systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, for twenty-one years.

    Biography

    Hoekema was born in the Netherlands but immigrated to the United States in 1923. He attended Calvin College (A.B.), the University of Michigan (M.A.), Calvin Theological Seminary (Th.B.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.D., 1953). After pastoring several Christian Reformed churches (1944–56) he became Associate Professor of Bible at Calvin College (1956–58). From 1958 to 1979, when he retired, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Professor Hoekema spent two sabbatical years in Cambridge, England (1965–66, 1973–74).[1]

  5. I believe as some of your commenters that the soul is the “very essence of who we are.” In saying that though, I believe it is the part of us, where God dwells. I believe we can “clutter” it up, (for lack of a better term) with perhaps thoughts which do not need to be there, wrong things in our lives, just things of the world which do not need to be there. I think it is important that we always examine the condition of our souls, as God can live in just so much clutter, if you know what I mean?

    I also believe we have to bring the soul into silence, as I believe this is where God speaks to us. If it is always chattering and won’t shut up, we will not hear Him. Good post and God Bless, SR

  6. The greek word normally translated as “soul”, psyche, does not necessarily denote something immaterial. The concept has changed since the time of Aristotle, so it is necessary to look at it as something that developed historically. We have to look into the conceptual history of psyche, soul etc.

    The modern meaning of the term “soul” can be seen in the philosophy of Descartes, who distinguished a “res cogitans” (thinking thing) and a “res extensa” (extended thing, a precursor of our concept of matter). At the time of Aristotle, however, psyche meant what distinguishes a living thing from a dead one, the lift-giving principle (that was assumed to exist). So the Greek concept of “Psyche” is not the same as our modern concept of soul. Aristotle had an idea of distinguishing form (morphe) and matter (hyle). For him, the psyhe of a living thing, like a plant, was the form of the living thing (form understood in a generalized sense, as the totality of all features of a thing). All the features of a living thing, e.g. a plant, that made it alive, are its psyche. When the plant dies, its “morphe” would change. I am not sure Aristotle would have viewed this as something immaterial getting out of the plant, he would rather have viewed it just as a change of the form, like when you break a clay pot, the form changes and the “pot-ness” disapears.

    In Plato, on the other hand, there is clearly a concept of an immaterial soul (maybe derived from the Pythagoreans) leaving the body when one dies, but it is still viewed as the life-giving principle, not just as something mental. The modern (i.e. Renaisance) distinction of body and sould is not there in greek philosophy yet, the “soul” is what is making the body alive. The Aristotelian view of the “soul” (in the old meaning) as the form of the living body might be what caused the medieval doctrin of the resurection of the flesh (instead of the competing idea of souls living in heaven).

    It is important to view these concepts as developing historically and to see the way ideas of greek philosophy have been integrated into the fabric of the Christian religion.

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