Is it possible to give a biblically faithful account of human being which is substance monist?

Currently, I identify myself as a substance dualist who believes that humans are constituted of a material substance (body) and an immaterial substance (spirit), but I attempt to hold this view in a manner which does not diminish the great importance of the human body, and which emphasizes the wholeness of human being. I hold this position because it is what I have heard in the Bible, not because of the philosophical proposal of philosophers. But I frequently encounter Christian biblical scholars and theologians who reject substance dualism, although they insist that humans can not be reduced to, or explained in terms of their physical bodies alone. They often describe their position as “non-reductive materialism/physicalism.”

I understand and share the concerns that have led Christians to differentiate their Christian understanding from that of the philosophers, many of whom have erred grievously in this area, with bad consequences. But the substance monist proposals by  Christian scholars which I have examined thus far do not look successful. Either they are too materialist to escape reductionism, or they offer too substantial an account of the manner in which humans are more than just material beings to escape substance duality. My mind is not closed, because I have high regard for many of the scholars who self-identify as non-reductive materialists/physicalists, and I am keenly aware of the limits of my own study of the issues. Furthermore, I don’t want to diminish the importance of their rejection of erroneous beliefs, such as the inherent mortality of the human soul, the entrapment of the soul in the body, or even the insignificance of the body in favor of the soul. Our bodies are capable of being the temple of God, what we do in them will be the criterion of our judgment by God in the last day, and believers will spend eternity in their resurrected and glorified bodies.

Greg Bahnsen’s proposal: a case study

I recently read a fine essay by Greg Bahnsen, from 1972: “The Mind/Body Problem in Biblical Perspective.” I enjoyed Bahnsen’s interaction with a number of philosophers whose work on this topic has been influential. In his critique of these perspectives, Bahnsen rejects both “mind-substance” and “mechanistic determinism,” but he affirms “mental processes and interactions.” Drawing on the language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Bahnsen posits

that mentalistic language is a different game from physicalist language, and that both are warranted by our form of life as creatures made in God’s image. Consequently we reject both dualism and mechanism; there exists no mental substance in the anthropological constitution (what could a mental substance be?), and empirical explanations do not cover the whole range of events or language in the world (e.g., volitions, personalistic utterance). Corollary to this is the affirmation of mental processes (acts, events, states and interaction between them and physical-bodily states etc.). Although the two function in correlation with each other they are not denotatively identical or reducible. Man is different from the animals not in virtue of an extra added substance in his constitution, but in virtue of his unique capabilities for rational and moral behavior. Man is a very special kind of body (although not by reason of physiological complexity), that is a personal body – as our form of life and language tell us. Man’s dignity above the beast (i.e. his capabilities) is the result, not of a donum superadditum of mind-substance (which in many theologians borders on divinization, for God is taken to be the Mind-Substance par excellence) but of his creation as (or “in”) the image of the personal God.

Bahnsen then proceeds to examine the biblical use of key words, including “soul” and “spirit,” and he concludes that: “Man is definitely seen as having a private (inner) life as well as a public (outer) life; however, this is not expressed in terms warranting a view of dual substance. The unity of man is never compromise[d] by dividing him up into definite components.” He cites many biblical texts and sums up what they have to say about soul, spirit, and heart, and one could profitably spend a good deal of time studying each of these passages. I agreed with his analysis very substantially, and I was particularly intrigued by his comments on texts relating to the intermediate state.

Bahnsen is frank about the fact that, at the end of it all, we are in the face of deep mystery, but he hopes that he has significantly advanced beyond the “obscurity and confusion” which he described in the work of dualist philosophers and theologians. Here is the paragraph in which he sums up his proposal, and it is this that I think we need to assess as to whether it succeeds in avoiding reductive materialism while effectively demonstrating that humans are constituted of just one, not two, distinct substances:

Man is a personal body created in God’s image. The Bible makes quite clear that man’s hope is in resurrection of the body, not release from the body (John 2:19-22; Lk. 24:40; Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor; 15:3-4, 44, 48-49; 2 Cor. 5:1-5; Isa. 26:19; 66:22-23; Dan. 12:2). Moreover, it is embodied existence which is the criterion of future judgment (2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27). We may not know all the answers with respect to the intermediate state, but we do know what our final hope is, what our true constitution is, and how to ring some of the logical changes on the fact of the intermediate state (e.g. one does not despair in death before Christ’s return, etc. etc.). Further, we [are] assured through all this that man does not lose his identity, for he has personal continuity through all his anthropomorphic changes. In this life identity is maintained in the fact that not everything about a man changes at once; there is change yet overlapping with past characteristics and states (somewhat like Wittgenstein’s example of the rope: there is not one continuous thread, but overlapping ones). The same holds true for the future states of man; although his body be placed in the ground (change) there will be a continuation of his sanctified personality (continuity), and although he receives a resurrection body at Christ’s return (change) his glorified personality continues (continuity). Paul himself stresses this glorious change-amidst-continuity in 1 Cor. 15:37-54. Personal identity is found in one’s personality traits and aptitudes which are his, though he change around “every twist of the twine” in the rope which is his history. Self-identity is found in one’s personality, and as seen earlier, this personality is man’s distinction from the animals; man’s personality is the image of God in him, the work of the personal Creator. Which leads us to conclude, then, that man’s identity if found in his God. Self-knowledge presupposes God-knowledge. [Emphasis supplied]

Brief evaluation of Bahnsen’s success

I welcome the comment of others who read this post and who share an interest in the important project in which Bahnsen is involved. I think that Bahnsen has done fine exegesis of the biblical texts in which key terms (soul, spirit, heart, mind) are used to speak of operations of human beings which transcend the physical and which can not be explained in physical terms. I agree that none of these is used in Scripture, always and only, to identify an immaterial part of human beings, but that they cannot be reduced to materialistic language. Bahnsen proposes that the term which best captures this transcendent aspect of human operation is “personality.” I concur, though I am more inclined to speak of “personhood” than “personality. If we were to use a term which Scripture sometimes uses of humans operating non-physically, I think that “spirit” might be the best choice, but we would have to be clear that we are not thereby proposing that “spirit” is always a reference to what transcends the physical. We would only be suggesting that, if humans are of two substances, “spirit” is probably the biblical term best suited to speaking of that substance. Given the differences between this use and that of the Bible, I can see the benefit of using a term for the immaterial substance which does not appear in any form in Scripture, and “personhood” (or “personality”) might serve us well.

Bahnsen rightly discerns that human beings continue to exist personally between their bodily death and resurrection. My question is: does his account of this “personal continuity through all” our “anthropomorphic changes” work if that “person” is not substantial, even after its body has disintegrated in the grave? I think not. Bahnsen’s proposal certainly escapes the rocks of reductive materialism, but I think it has done so in a manner that is, in fact, an account that is substance dualist. The continuing person is substantial.

I was especially intrigued by Bahnsen’s apparent openness to the possibility that we will have intermediate bodies. I find myself increasingly drawn in that direction, not merely because of specific biblical texts such as those cited by Donald Bloesch or by Bahnsen himself, but because I affirm the normality of embodiment to human being which Bahnsen and other monists are wishing to preserve.

In short, I affirm what Bahnsen has said above, but I suggest that it is a statement which makes sense only if the persons that continue after death are substantial. Otherwise, they could be no more than a memory in the mind of God, according to which God reconstitutes the person when he raises our bodies. And if there is an intermediate body, then the continuing person that is reembodied is substantively immaterial, since it cannot be something physical that somehow survives human death.

What do you think?    

This entry was posted in Anthropology (theological) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Is it possible to give a biblically faithful account of human being which is substance monist?

  1. Matjaž Horvat says:

    I’m more or less in agreement with Thomists on this, and their so-called hylemorphic dualism, where the human being is a single substance, with its soul informing the body. Unlike the souls of non-human animals, our souls are capable of immaterial processes (due to the fact that we are capable of abstract, formal thought, grasping universals, and the like), though in our present state always with the aid of our material “phantasms” (imagination and sensation, which non-human animals also possess. The interaction problem doesn’t arise because these are not separate substances, but powers of the same soul.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thank you, Matjaz, for your helpful comment.

      Moreland and Rae’s book Body and Soul convinced me that an Aristotelian, rather than a Platonic or Cartesian approach is best. Their exposition of an Aristotelian approach, however, strikes me as more substantively dualist than hylemorphism. I have not spent a lot of time examining the latter, and I think it bears serious attention. The following exposition of it ( is helpful, but I can’t say that I have fully understood or analyzed the perspective yet. I certainly have not rejected it, but it is not where I locate myself at this point, and I wonder whether it actually does avoid a dualism that is substantive.

  2. Thomas Jay Oord says:

    Ever thought about affirming dipolar monism, Terry? I find this the most attractive option on offer, because it affirms a measure of physicality and mentality to all entities at all levels of existence. It overcomes the problem of how a wholly mental self/mind/soul can interact so well with wholly physical bodily members. It also accounts well for how consciousness could emerge in evolutionary history. I could go on.

    Your thoughts?

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Tom. Dipolar monism is not something I’ve studied, so I am not in a position to say what I find helpful or unhelpful about it. Now that you have commended it, I’ll keep my ears and eyes open when more exposure to the concept comes my way. I notice that its roots are in process philosophy which is not a school of thought which has contributed much to my own formation. I can understand, however, why your relational theological work would have had you looking carefully at it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

134,556 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments