OT Anthropology: Dualistic Holism or Holistic Dualism

Death, Resurrection and Life Everlasting – DRLE Pt.1b

We shall in this post argue that scholars like N.T. Wright, Nancey Murphy and Joel Green are mistaken when they reject substance dualism, the long-held belief that the human being is a compound entity comprising two distinct substances interacting with one another, that is, the body and its immaterial soul. /1/ It is indisputable that this has been the belief of most Christians throughout history. Nevertheless, these scholars claim that this belief owes more to Greek thought than to the Bible. Christians should be mindful that Greek thought and Hebrew thought are incompatible paradigms. Greek or Platonic thought regards human beings partitively since the soul is dichotomizes from the body. In contrast, Hebrew thought views human beings holistically.

However, while these scholars may be justified in rejecting Platonic dualism, they fail to distinguish biblical dualism from Platonic dualism. As we shall see, there are nuances in biblical dualism which should caution scholars from assuming that supporting biblical dualism amounts to supporting Platonic dualism unreservedly.

First, the Bible does not furnish us with an exact scientific psychology or a set of abstract philosophical concepts of the constituents of human beings. The biblical terms such as flesh, spirit, soul, heart, and mind were adapted from popular usage to stress different aspects of the whole person in relation to God. Second, John Cooper cautions readers from identfying biblical dualism with Platonic dualism since he finds no OT texts which unambiguously suggest that (1) the soul/spirit/and the body function independently of the other and that (2) soul/spirit, being spiritual, is dichotomized from organic functions of a living person. He notes the terms bāśār, rûaḥ, nepeš are use as synecdoche (where a part of something is used to signify the whole: e.g. “all hands on deck”). These terms refer to whole persons and caution us against distinguishing too sharply between bāśār, rûaḥ, nepeš as separate and independent “parts” of a person. Take for example, the phrase, “My nepeš cries out to God.” It is not just a part of me, my nepeš or my immaterial ego which is crying out; it simply means my whole self cries out to God. This points to holism rather than dualism.

Second, while the Bible affirms anthropological dualism (refer to the earlier post, OT Anthropology. The Constituent Elements of Man), it also views human beings holistically where all their psychosomatic faculties work together as an integrated unity. However, biblical holism also differs from philosophical holism or physicalism which considers the organism or anthropological entity as comprising a single substance or stuff. /2/ John Cooper highlights the distinctiveness of biblical holism which “affirms the functional unity of some entity in its totality, the integration and interrelation of all the parts in the existence and proper operation of the whole…It implies that the parts do not operate independently within the whole, and that they would not necessarily continue to have all the same properties and functions if the whole were broken up…And holism does not necessarily imply that if the whole is broken up, all parts disintegrate into chaos or nothingness. Secondary systems might continue to exist, although without all the properties and capacities they had when integrated within the whole.” [Cooper, p. 45]

Cooper distinguishes between “ontological holism” (which he rejects) and “functional holism” (which he accepts). Ontological holism asserts that the existence of the whole functional system is a necessary condition for the continued self-identical existence of the parts of the whole. If the system breaks up, the parts cease to exist. As such, since humans are “indissoluble unities” there can be no disembodied existence of the soul after death. By contrast, “functional holism” recognizes the integration and interrelation of all the parts in the existence and proper operation of the whole, without assuming that each part would necessarily cease to function or disintegrate into nothingness if the whole were broken up. Cooper cites the example of water or H2O: Both hydrogen and oxygen atoms retain their atomic integrity after they are separated by electrolysis. Likewise, the spirit/soul (consciousness?) of a person continues to exist after the death of the person (biological organism), granted that conclusive evidence for post-mortem existence is confirmed only later in the New Testament – especially in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15).

Cooper summarizes, “we have discovered that although the Old Testament clearly represents existential-functional holism, it does not entail substantial monism of any sort nor does it necessarily imply ontological holism. What it does suggest – at least the biblical data we have considered thus far – is a functional holism constituted from a duality of sources or ingredients without suggesting that the “spiritual” component is an immaterial entity such as Plato or Descartes would hold. Whether this functional holism turns out to be ontological holism will depend on whether human persons were thought to survive biological death.” [Cooper, p. 49]

1) Human nature is viewed as composite. God breathes the animating “breath” of life (ruach) into what was formed from the “dust of the ground” to create a living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיַּה nepeš ḥayyâ).

2) The OT meaning of soul nepeš is different from the Platonic meaning of the soul. The frequent usage of synecdoche in OT anthropological terms, where a part of something is used to represent the whole (e.g., “All hands on deck!”), should caution us from identifying OT anthropological dualism with Platonic dualism. Cooper speculates that Solomon would have chosen a combination of Aristotle and Augustinian Platonism as the framework which would be least incompatible with the holistic dualism of his own Old Testament anthropology. [Cooper, p. 72] /3/

3) The human being is viewed holistically, that is, he is depicted as living a full and integrated existence. However, biblical holism should not be equated with contemporary forms of (physical) monism since the OT envisages some form of human existence after biological death. We shall examine the OT and NT  teaching of the “intermediate state” where dead persons continue to exist, albeit, in a form of feeble ghost-like existence (Rephaim, “shades”, in Sheol or Hades (in the Septuagint).

To conclude, OT anthropology is both dualistic and holistic. It may be described as either biblical “holistic-dualism” or “dualistic holism”.

/1/ Substance dualism [also mind-body dualism]
: The mind and body are composed of two ontologically distinct substances, each of which is capable of independent existence – the non-physical mind (or the soul) and the material body. It is noted that while N.T. Wright rejects substance dualism, nevertheless he also acknowledges some form of disembodied intermediate state after death. Wright has not demonstrated how these two contrary viewpoints may be reconciled.
/2/ Physicalism (or strict physicalism): The view that the only things that exist are physical substances, properties, and events. In relation to humans, the physical substance is the material body, especially the brain and central nervous system. J.P. Moreland, The Soul: How We Know That Its; Real and Why It Matters (Moody, 2014), p. 37.

/3/ Following Aristotle’s premise of hylomorphism, Aquinas teaches that the human soul is a “substantial form” which sustains the body and exists in it. It is the soul with its rational nature which defines the identity of the person. However, unlike Aristotle but similar to Plato, Aquinas teaches that the soul survives death. Indeed the forms of knowledge (intelligibles i.e. immaterial representations of the nature of things) accessible to the soul in its disembodied existence are superior to the forms of knowledge (sensible species, cognitive phantasm) accessible to it in its bodily existence. Regardless, the disembodied and the embodied soul have the same rational nature related to one and the same person. [For a brief introduction of Aquinas’ treatment of the soul and dualism see, Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (OneWorld Pub, 2009), pp. 131-173. You may watch my Kairos Podcast video lecture, Thomas Aquinas, Soul’s Powers (Faculties), Cognition & Proof of God’s Existence (between 7.40 min – 42.00 min).

Related Post
OT Anthropology. The Constituent Elements of Man. DRLE Pt.1

3 thoughts on “OT Anthropology: Dualistic Holism or Holistic Dualism”

  1. Thanks Kam Weng for this two-parts series/post on Biblical Anthropology.

    I read with interest the two parts and your arguments partly because the secular mind of today seems to regard (at least from my limited observations from human rights work) that the “being” is a matter of dichotomous dualism rather than holistic dualism. The brain constitute the mind that moves the body, with the soul or the spirit rarely featured. What matters most is the physical/ material constituencies of wellbeing, the rights of the material man identified and to be exercised in concord within the physical realm of the legal-political. Faith and spiritual wellbeing is of no consequences.

    That aside, my interest here is the argument of people like Joel Green. Both Joel Green and Nancy Murphy are from Fuller (if I’m right). N.T Wright seems to be more persuaded/influenced by Greek classical thought in his reading of the NT. What is the premise of these scholars’ argument? Are they saying Greek classical platonic thoughts constitute or presupposes the writings of the NT and therefore what we have in the NT is platonic, which we ought to reject or at least qualify? If so, how then would these scholars read the NT on anthropology?

    One implication I can think is, if the immaterial soul exists independently from the body and once the body ceases to exits, it will be immaterial where the soul ends up. We do not need to talk about the final destiny of the soul with the body. Heaven or hell (lake of fire?) does not matter….

    Your comments ….. Thanks


  2. Actually *most* neuroscientists and secular philosophers today reject anthropological dualism (Platonic, Thomistic or Cartesian) and work on the basis of monism or physicalism with regard to the mind-body problem. Scholars like N.T. Wright seem to accept the theory that dualism in Christian theology is the result of neo-platonic influence on early Christianity.Their rejection of the traditional view of dualism is due to the influence of 19C liberal theology (Harnack), early 20C biblical theology movement and current neuroscience. Wright and Nancey Murphy are seeking to keep in sync with contemporary scholarship.

    Since the majority of my readers have little knowledge of philosophy, I am not engaging with the philosophical feasibility of dualism or disembodied survival of the soul. Thomistic dualism provides a robust philosophical defence of dualism, but this would require a different series of posts. I am only focusing on the biblical or theological aspects of the controversy.

    My next post will deal with the biblical teaching on the existence of the soul in the intermediate state (between death and resurrection)

  3. Thanks for this explanation.
    It be interesting for the next post. Though a treatment or interaction with Thomistic dualism is welcome.

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