Theological Anthropology and Human Ontology

I’m going to be doing a post soon on a volume on theological anthropology I’m reading, but before I did I wanted to hear some thoughts from those of you who follow TF concerning human ontology. How many of you are committed to a kind of substance dualism? How many to a strictly physicalist position (or even a “weak” physicalist position)? Does anyone just not care?! It has been a long time since I’ve worked through some of these issues, and I wanted to see where people are at with all of it.

For those of you who want to comment further, I would be interested to hear what doctrinal commitments and moves you would want to emphasize in this discussion. Furthermore, are there strictly exegetical commitments which seem to delineate one view, say a sort of dualism, over others?


30 thoughts on “Theological Anthropology and Human Ontology

  1. Great subject. One that I don’t know enough about, and would like to hear more about.

    Personally, I’m tentatively committed to the view that the mind/spirit, has a certain objective reality. As acknowledged by the science of Psychology. A “spiritual” reality, that will in part be increasingly tied to, confirmed (and modified) by, physical reality. In part through the study of the biology of the brain. And – a particular intest of mine – by the Anthropological study of the material, social functionality of ideas, religion.

    So we have both two real, “dual” aspects to human life: mind/Spirit and Matter, confirmed. Though the exact nature of the ties between them, while partially confirmed to date by existing studies, will only be adequately described, by centuries of further scientific investigation.

  2. I would call my position “non-reductive materialism,” borrowing from Nancey Murphy. I don’t think the notion of the soul as some rarified substance is tenable, nor is it scriptural. The soul should be understood as that which makes us more than the sum of our biological parts. And that’s not a substantial “thing,” but rather the relation God maintains with us in Jesus Christ. The soul is, in a certain sense, “extra nos” (outside ourselves). It isn’t something we “have” but rather something always continually given to us by God.

  3. I’m not committed to a human ontological position, and I’m also not sure I like the dualistic or non-reductive materialistic positions. Both are centered on substances that are said to exist, but I’m not sure that any meaningful theological anthropology can be arrived at by simply beginning with substance. At least as important as asking what it means to be (ontology) is asking what it means to be a subject (anthropology). It may be informative to start with defining what “subject(s)” means theologically before attempting to say that a subject exists.

  4. Maybe it wasn’t clear, but my appropriation of the non-reductive materialist model is an attempt to reject all metaphysical substance language from anthropology. I use non-reductive materialism in a purely negative manner: it rejects the dualistic conception of a soul as some essential property of the human being. So materialism in my account has no positive theological role to play in defining what it means to be human; it is a critical principle and nothing more.

    Positively, we have to make a distinction between “humanity-in-general” and “true humanity.” The former would be a phenomenological construct accessible to any neutral philosophical assessment. It is what Heidegger refers to as the “ontological” or the structure of “existentiality.” Whether such a project is successful or not is not the concern of a theological anthropology, which is not interested in “humanity-in-general” but only in the concrete, existential realities of sin and grace. True humanity, therefore, is humanity justified by God’s grace. It is humanity-in-Christ, as defined by the divine act of justification and the corresponding human act of faith and obedience. In short, a theological anthropology defines human being as being-in-act and being-in-relation.

    • David, any chance you could highlight some of your more influential sources? In other words, for readers who resonate with your comments, in forming this view who has been most influential (I have some guesses)?

      • Sure, here are some of my main influences:

        1. Numerous works by Eberhard Jüngel, including: Theological Essays I, pp. 124-53; Theological Essays II, pp. 216-40; The Freedom of a Christian: Luther’s Significance for Contemporary Theology; God as the Mystery of the World, §12, pp. 169-84.

        2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, IV/2, and IV/3.2.

        3. Rudolf Bultmann, What Is Theology?, §14, pp. 129-56.

        4. Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 95-111.

        There are numerous other works that have influenced me, but these are some of the best and most interesting.

  5. I think, theologically, the affections need to be addressed.

    I’m not sure about Nancy Murphy, I thought she was simply a physicalist — which I reject. Yet at the same time what Congdon is getting at is on point, esp. his assertions about ‘being-in-act’ and ‘being-in-relation’. Very Trinitarian.

    I think if we’re going to try and develop a theological anthropology we must ground it in the humanity of Christ ‘for us’ (vicarious); so I probably agree with David, at some level (TF Torrance and Karl Barth have influenced me).

    • Murphy isn’t a physicalist, that much I’m fairly sure about; but I’m also not trying to defend or develop her anthropology. I’m simply appropriating her concept for my own use.

      TFT is good and helpful on some issues, but he remains a metaphysical-substantialist thinker. He doesn’t have the radically actualistic conception of God and humanity that I am advocating. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t helpful or interesting. He’s just not my cup of tea, so to speak.

      • J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae identify Murphy as a Christian complementarian, which isn’t, as they note metaphysically different from the nuanced naturalist and/or physicalist position:

        “Metaphysically speaking, either strict a strict supervenience naturalist and a Christian complementarian view of human persons are virtually identical in their ontological depiction of human persons.” (JP Moreland and Scot Rae, “Body and Soul,” 109)

        And then they list Nancy as a Christian complementarian on the same page. They further describe this view as taking a physicalist position; albeit “complemented” by other disciplines (like psychology, theology, etc. with modern science taking precedence in this regard).

        I realize this is a sub-point to what you were getting at; but when you mentioned Murphy it made me think of physicalism (as I recall she came to the Portland area once, quite awhile ago when I was still in school at Multnomah — she argued for the “Christian physicalist position,” I realize she could’ve changed her view since then, its been awhile).

        That’s why I probably like TFT a bit better than Barth, but as I recall, TFT was quite fond of Barth himself ;-) ; TFT, to me, is a bit more ‘traditional’, in some respects, than Barth (but that’s relative). I still like Barth, just haven’t had the chance to read him like you; been busy with other things lately.

        Thanks, David.

        • Maybe I just misunderstood what you meant by “physicalist.” I usually take that to mean a reductive materialism. But if the word is equatable with a non-reductive materialism, then that’s fine.

          I have no idea what to make of Moreland and Rae’s terminology. Certainly, Murphy’s position isn’t standard orthodox evangelicalism, but that’s a mark in its favor in my opinion. :)

          Any survey of the history of the doctrine of the soul is enough to make one want to get rid of it. It’s a messy, convoluted history.

          • Yeah, I see what you mean. I can see how Murphy must be a ‘non-reductive materialist’ if she’s a Christian materialist.

            I agree, the soul is a messy subject; but so is life :-).

            I’m at odds with Murphy, methodologically, I suppose (from what I know of her, which really isn’t all that much — but she teaches, not sure if she still does, at Berkely — by virtue of that alone I don’t agree with her ;-)

  6. David: this discussion will obviously be carried mostly by the rest of you, who know the subject far better than I. But now and then I’d like to interject a minor note.

    For example: is your idea of the soul as being “outside us,” scriptural? The Bible often pictures God blowing, breathing his holy “wind” or “spirit” INTO us.

    This seems like a trifle. But, if you want to be strictly scriptural …?

    Then too, I DO read the spirit as a sort of “thing.” It is spoken in the Bible as a “breath”; as something even discrete that might be given to us, in an object- or giftlike way. An admittedly soft sort of “thing,” but….

    To be sure, these biblical terms could be metaphors. Still? If we abandon them so completely, in order to dematerialize or spiritualize everything absolutely, that could be a problem, biblically speaking.

    • The word throughout the Hebrew scriptures translated as “soul” is nephesh, which is often also translated simply as “life.” It refers to our living reality, the actuality of our life before God and with others. To say then that this “soul” is “outside us” is simply to affirm that our life is a continual gift from God for which we must be continually grateful. It is never our possession, but rather always a divine relationship with us.

      The biblical metaphors are just that, metaphors. Just because the Greek word for Spirit is also the word for “wind” and “breath” does not mean the Holy Spirit is actually a wind that blows around us. We have to interpret these words theologically.

  7. Well first of all, 1) even just taking much or all of the Bible as a metaphor for spiritual things, is already disputed in much of Theology. And 2) really it begs or assumes by fiat, one of the main issues disputed in this field; i.e., is material reality important or real? As versus spirit or soul. Metaphoricalization/spiritualization simply assumes from the start, that the material world is not important; thereby begging a major issue.

    But 2) even if we temporarily allow for purposes of this discussion, that a) these are metaphors, and b) for theological or spiritual things only, then still we have this problem: WHICH theology do these metaphors suggest?

    A spirit or wind (Gk. “pneuma”; like our word “pneumatic”?) being blown into us, does not suggest that we don’t have part of God deeply in us. And this might be significant, and indicate another Theology entirely. Remember that the language of the Bible, both Old and even also New testaments, often suggests that such a thing is very much like something that we have; a “gift,” even “riches.” Like a “pearl” of great price.

    So to some extent, it would seem that the metaphors, many of them, lean toward something that really, we CAN “own.”

    Granted, it is presumptous to say that we can “own God,” completely. On the other hand, God seems to want, by way of the language of the Bible, to allow us to feel, not just a Parmenedian (?) dissolving ourselves into “one”ness, but also to allow us at the same time, to maintain a sense of being a discrete personality, a human being or person; with things we want. Like a “pearl,” a “breath,” even “riches.” God seems to want not just to dissolve us into oneness, but also for us to find our “self” realized too.

    And that makes sense; surely our deepest self and its desires were designed by God; and having them “fulfilled” after all, would also be part of God’s Plan.

    So that being a human being, even in the material “flesh,” has a certain place in God’s Plan, or theology. And not necessarily a secondary place.

  8. David: my remarks might have been a little abrupt; so here’s a clarification.

    The usual, traditional “higher” sense of religious ontology, accepted today, seems to be to assert that the “world” of material, physical things, is illusory; this physical “world,” and our physical “body” or “flesh” in the negative sense, are said to be just illusions, deceptions; the “veils of Maya.” While underneath the appearance of physical things, is a deeper reality; the reality of God’s transcendental spirit. And its essential qualities; be they “Grace” or “Sub Species Aeternis” or whatever.

    The superiority and priority of “spirit,” over gross matter, is one of the core ideas, it seems to many, of many religions. And at times, you can find traces of this opinion, in the New Testament particularly. But at the same time though, this hierarchial spiritual/Idealist vision, which subordinates all of material reality under “spirit,” does not really seem true to the Bible itself, entirely.

    In the Old Testament especially, consider the meaning even of “nephesh,” often translated “spirit.” But more literally, this word seems to mean our physical “breath” or “wind”; the air we breathe. At its most metaphorical, was taken from ancient times, to be at least a sign, an index, that an animal or person was alive, “and breathing.” And kicking, with life. The sense of this, was that those animals who do not breathe, are dead; and so air, nephesh, was thought to be an index – and even the essence – of being physically alive.

    And it was NOT about spirit so much; it was about a very, very physical, material, on-earth life. First, nephesh was literally a physical – if “soft” – physical substance: air, or wind. Secondly, the broader semantic field of “nephesh” was usually also extremely physical. Even grossly so: “Nephesh … properly a breathing creature, i.e. animal …. appetite, beast, body, breath, creature… desire… greedy… heart… lust … man, me … mortally…. own person, pleasure.” The term basically referred to the essence of our very material, physical life. And to end the “nephesh” or breath, was to physically kill or “slay.” (My apologies for only quoting Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance 1890/1963 here, entry # 5315; it was all that happened to be convenient as I wrote this).

    So the sense of “nephesh” seems to indicate, first, literally the physical air or wind we breathe, or that others breathe. While at its most metaphorical and extended, it was used to indicate, a breathing, and therefore very live, very physical – even “lust”ful – “animal.”

    So the original OT “ontology” of we ourselves, as human beings, situated us, even our spirit, not in what we would call spirit today; but in a very, very, very physical, material, physical world. Of living, breathing, even lustful animals.

    To be sure of course, as is well known, later on, the air we breathe, the life we get from it, was taken to be a metaphor for all kinds of other things. And eventually all existence was split in half, by various ontological/epistemological schemes, into the familiar universe of “spirit” vs. “matter.” In which “nephesh” and “pneuma” or “wind,” we taken to be only metaphors, for invisible spirits.

    But how true has that spirit vs. matter dualism been, to the Bible itself? And God himself? Certainly it is not true to the above. To be sure eventually a few parts of the Bible – especially the Platonistic work of Greco-Roman-influenced Paul – seem to reflect a hierarchial dualism; in which the universe is now said to be split into matter, vs. spirit, earth vs. heaven. And in this dualism, spirit is said to be the superior term: spirit/Holy Spirit is said to be eternal (like Plato’s Forms) and superior to all material things. But again, that idea is primarily in Paul; and he got it from Plato’s Idealism; it is not from the Old Testament and the God of the Jews.

    So I suggest that any cosmology or ontology, that either splits the universe dualistically into Matter vs. Spirit – or worse, attempts to suggest that the whole material universe is just an illusory vassal of higher Spirit (with attendant qualities like Grace or whatever) – that posits an all-enveloping Idealism, or subsumes all of reality as inferior to spirit, no matter how appealing it is, no matter how much more intellectual and spiritual it seems, is not true to the larger outline of the Bible itself.

    Many, many preachers today commonly suggest that our being, exists suspended in the larger medium of the spirit and its various qualities; like the grace of God. And to be sure, there is some truth to that: we exist in a universe made in part by “invisible” larger forces, it seemed to Paul especially. But whatever its partial truth, there are problems with spiritual idealism. First historically, it was a very, very Greek Idea; it was not from the Hebrew god. While even in the NT and Christianity itself, I would suggest, eventually is supposed to come down to this material earth again. Thus ending heaven/earth, mind/body, word/world dualism.

    Dualism, a split human nature or being, in fact has been ended in part already; and not necessarily in favor of spirit; one of the great virtues of Jesus, for example, is said to be that he is both invisible spirit … but spirit, come down to, joined with, earth; “made flesh.” So that spirit/matter dualism, begins to end with Jesus.

    Most of these things no doubt are well-known to most people here. And at most they outline a sort of early, proto-“ontology.” But it might be useful to remind everyone of them. And this might outline part of the background, of any of your own discussions, that talk about “dualism” and so forth.

    While at the same time, this also begins to sketch out my own simple ontology of man: we live in a universe that is NOT hierarchially dualistic, all matter being entirely subservient to invisible spirits. Rather we find ourselves in an existence that finds a place, right from the very start – even in the Hebrew “spirit” itself – for very, very, very physical, material beings.

    (Furthermore, I elsewhere go on to suggest that this is not a “dual” view; since eventually many suggest that spirit itself is actually, a subset of material things.)

    What we have here is roughly a difference between a Realist theology and ontology, and a spiritual/Idealist.

    No doubt these things are self-evident to a modern ontologist. But maybe these remarks would be useful, by way of an historical background, to this kind of discussion. And then too, this background suggests that the all-enveloping spirituality that is often assumed to be the height of true Christianity today, is not necessarily in fact, true to say, the Bible itself.

    • “But how true has that spirit vs. matter dualism been, to the Bible itself? And God himself? Certainly it is not true to the above. To be sure eventually a few parts of the Bible – especially the Platonistic work of Greco-Roman-influenced Paul – seem to reflect a hierarchial dualism; in which the universe is now said to be split into matter, vs. spirit, earth vs. heaven. And in this dualism, spirit is said to be the superior term: spirit/Holy Spirit is said to be eternal (like Plato’s Forms) and superior to all material things. But again, that idea is primarily in Paul; and he got it from Plato’s Idealism; it is not from the Old Testament and the God of the Jews.”

      I don’t know that Paul’s use of “flesh” and “spirit” is necessarily indicative of a Platonistic human ontology. When Paul wrote in Romans 8:9 “You are not in the flesh but in the spirit…” I don’t think he was writing to corpses.

  9. PKDD:

    I’d agree that Paul’s use of “flesh” is complex, and is not so simply about the material world, dead objects, purely.

    Though I’d say Paul uses “flesh” at times, to stand for those living beings, men, who concern themselves too much with material or venial things. Which Paul says – using most of the vocabulary from Plato’s theory of Forms – are mere perishing “shadows,” as opposed to the immortal “models” or ideal “forms” or “paradigms,” in “heaven.” That language is all directly from Plato’s theory of Forms.

    Still, Platonistic as he was at times, I’d agree that even Paul himself, doesn’t quite go all the way with a hierarchial spirit-over-matter dualism. There are times Paul was quite concerned with making sure, that we perform physically useful “works” here on this material earth; like healing sick persons and so forth.

    But in any case above, you seemed uninterested in dual substances, and more interested in the concept of “subject.” Sounds interesting: want to say more on that?

    Just off the top of my head: I wonder if it is possible to speak of a “subject” at all … without speaking of something we are subject to. Or some object the subject wants to attain. Which would bring back to the nature of the universe.

    But in any case, I’d like to hear about your ideas on being a subject. Superficially, theologically, a subject would seem to be just a human being, in a universe made by God?

    • brettongarcia,

      It seems any good author would use appropriate language for their audience, so I don’t find Paul’s use of language directly from Plato as a reason to look for Platonism in Paul’s writings. That Paul betrays Platonism in places is, I suspect, a reason to avoid it altogether.

      I’m not sure a theology blog is the right place to bring up the contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou, but my interest with the concept of “subject” is due to recently reading his book, Being and Event, which presents the beginning of his ideas about ontology. Badiou, contra Descartes, decenters the subject from ontology and places nature at the core, like Heidegger and the ancient Greeks. For him, a subject supports truth, forces decisions about it, and thereby plays a role in history. But history is not itself said to be real; it only takes place at sites that are real. The story that makes history what it is is necessarily a retroactive interpretation that subjects participate in.

      So, this idea of subjects playing a role in history by supporting truth is complementary to the historical faith that is Christianity, but in a Badiouian sense a subject is not a substance. In my own line of thought, this functional connotation of “subject” is a better fit for talking about living one’s faith than beginning with a substance or two. This is why I suggested that it could be worthwhile to start with a theological anthropology–an understanding of our role in history, as individuals and as the church, and then try to say how those roles can relate to an ontology.

  10. PKKD:

    Nice stuff. And totally appropriate, for an often rather philosophically-minded theology blog, I would say. (As well as a possible topic, for an original scholarly article?).

    Not having read Badiou yet, I shouldn’t speculate much on how to apply him. Though I’d hazard a question: wouldn’t an ontology that decenters us rightly – as in the Greeks, or certainly the Hebrews’ “spirit” above – in “nature,” be easily converted to, or compatible with, an ontology that finds us all, situated more than anything, in the material substances of nature? Rather as the Hebrew spirit, above, situates us in oxygen, air, breathing and physically living? This compatibility at least, with material substances, would have the advantage of allowing us to talk about say, physical churches and so forth. While interfacing more with modern science as well.

  11. Nice stuff. And totally appropriate for a theology blog, I’d hazard to say. (Your remarks might even be a possible topic for a scholarly article?).

    Not having read Badiou, I shouldn’t speculate too much on how to apply him. Or how I’d like to extend or modify him. But wouldn’t an ontology that rightly decenters us into “nature” – as the Greeks did, or certainly the Hebrews, with their spirit of oxygen, air, above – eventually interface with placing us all, in a useful way, in and among material substances; in material nature, as living, breathing creatures? This would help describe physical churches, and …

    A nature-centered theological ontology would interface more effectively with science and practical works. It would begin to explain more of the Bible, and religious activity here on earth too, I would think. As for example, seeing the “spirit” as “air” might begin to, above.

    Assuming that we could somehow, adjust B’s “nature” to correspond to this physical existence (and the good things that “Gentiles know by nature”?).

  12. Badiou does flesh out more fully his conception of the subject but more so in another book I haven’t read fittingly entitled Theory of the Subject. I’m only working from his preliminary ideas about subjects at the tail end of Being and Event.

    For B science is a category of truth along with love, art, and politics, and truth is regarded as indiscernible and not necessarily found in what is generally accepted as knowledge. As a political leftist he is invested in explaining how revolution and novelty can enter (ontic) situations. It is through subjects as localized truth seeking procedures that novelty is possible. This resembles a theological model for transformational living–existence itself is revolutionized through a relation of subjects to truth–except that B does not connect truth to God.

    I should point out that I oversimplified for the sake of brevity by referring to “nature.” More precisely natural stuff is at the core of B’s ontology, but I don’t know that “natural” is necessarily identical to “physical.” He rejects the One of Platonism, so Nature, as a whole, is said not to exist. As such, a challenge with applying B’s thought theologically is that he considers his rejection of the One as a statement of atheism, yet it seems to me a Christian conception of God as not a being (at least not like natural things are) but revealed in history through Jesus remains immune to his critiques.

    Also, I’m not really in a position to write a scholarly article. The pinnacle of my formal education is an undergraduate math degree, and while graduate school remains a possibility it is not likely in my near future because of other responsibilities I’m currently tied to. I just read philosphy and theology for fun in my spare time. What drew me to Badiou’s thought in the first place is his appropriation of mathematical set theory (which is at the foundation of all mathematics) as ontology itself. From the bits and pieces I’ve seen online his ideas have ruffled some feathers, but as an outsider to academia I’m not sure if his ontology is generally viewed as anything more than a silly mathematical or politically leftist ideology.

  13. Well, Math and Formal Logic is being taken more and more seriously in Philosophy. Beginning when Whitehead and Russell began talking lots about math and logic, the massively predominent trend in Philosophy today, I’m sometimes told, is “Analytic Philosophy.” Which focuses on formal Logic – including set theory and lots of Math – to try to graph out nearly all major Philosophical theories, ideas. By way of a formal, symbolic, logical/mathematical language. The Analytical Philosophy movement also interfaces with post-Chomsky-ian linguistics; which in fact looks more and more like Math every day.

    Sounds like in his interest in set theory, B is close to the mainstream, in some ways. And he has an interesting post-foundational philosophy, or Ethics. Which tries to found a new ground for Truth outside of religion; in elements of human life and culture which deeply incorporate ethical concepts; like Love, and Art, and so forth.

    Probably his “subject” in “nature” ROUGHLY corresponds to human beings, in the natural world? But without any totalizing, all-encompassing Grand or “Master Narrative,” or master plan or metaphysics: just individual people trying to figure things out. But with the help of a few tentative, traditional cultural institutions, like Art and Love and so forth.

    All this DOES have ties to, historical roots in, religion as well. Especially “John’s” theology of “love,” even for the “world,” in the gospel and letters of John. (Assuming a common author, or at least a common rubric? The famous John 3.16, etc..).

  14. Pingback: An Introduction to Theological Anthropology « Theology Forum

  15. I like Kevin Corcoran’s articulation of the constitution view of persons, though I’m skeptical of the way he works out resurrection. The same can be said of Dean Zimmerman.

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