Anthropology (theological) Ethics

Body, Soul, and Transgenderism: A Revision of My Earlier, Tentative, Theological Proposal

In June of 2015, in the wake of Bruce Jenner’s gender transition into Caitlyn Jenner, I published a blog post which has been among my most visited posts. It was entitled: “A Female Soul in a Male Body?: A Theological Proposal.”

I am still satisfied with most of what I wrote in that post, but there was one hypothesis I put forward tentatively. Periodically, since then I have thought about that hypothesis, but I had not done any further work to test that proposal, and no one had given me helpful critique. Recently, however, I received a message from Robert S. Smith (Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at Sydney Missionary & Bible College), in which he told me that he is “working on a PhD dissertation which is seeking to provide a theological assessment of the transgender phenomenon and trans theory.” He wanted to be sure that he represented my thought accurately, before engaging it critically. I was able to affirm that he had grasped my proposal well, and I let him know that I would welcome his critique.

I read Smith’s critique with great interest, and I was happy to inform him that I believe him to be correct. Consequently, I have written this post to let readers know where I now stand, and I am very grateful to Smith for his kindness in telling me the ways in which he found my original proposal defective, and his reasons for this assessment. His engagement with my earlier proposal will appear in a journal article in Eikon 3.2 (Fall 2021).

My earlier proposal

In this section, I will first repeat my original proposal, to prepare readers to understand the correction in my own thinking which has now taken place.

A theological proposal

The subjects of gender identity and gender dysphoria are areas in which theology and science necessarily intersect, and our understanding of both needs to be correct or we can create problems. In these areas, I am always keenly aware of my scientific ignorance so I tread lightly and I speak tentatively where science must inform our understanding. But even theologically, some of this is relatively uncharted territory, or at least not many of us have sought and/or found a chart, because we are dealing with issues which are relatively new in the long development of Christian theology. That being said, here are a few points from my theological anthropology with which I am navigating right now.

1. Our sexual identity as either male or female is part of the original and good creative act of God

There is a long-standing tendency in the Eastern theological tradition which affirms not only that God transcends sexual distinctions but that we do too in ideal humanity, so sexual polarity was related to fallen rather than original creation (Paul Jewett, Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human. A Neo-Evangelical Theology, 132). We encounter this in Nicolas Berdyaev’s The Destiny of Man, so that “original sin is associated with the fall of the androgyne, that is, the division into two sexes” (Jewett, Who We Are, 132, with reference to Berdyaev, pp. 61-67). Asceticism in the eastern tradition is, in part, a moral attempt to counter this. But it is obvious to most theologians of the western tradition, among whom Jewett and I belong, that this is not the teaching of the biblical narrative (cf. Gen 1:26,27; 5:2). Just what exactly the nature of this difference between males and females is remains a mystery, but it is not something which we should deny or regret; it is a part of the very essence of our humanity. We are created human as male and female, and each of us is either male or female, by God’s choice. This was true of the first humans, and it is true of all of us. Our sexual identity is not something that we choose; nor is it simply a social construct. Paraphrasing Karl Barth, Paul Jewett puts our situation nicely: “All is in order so long as, and only so long as, we are fully conscious of our sex and thankful for it, living our lives before God as a man or a woman with a sober and good conscience” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4, pp. 156ff, cited by Jewett, Who We Are, 132). As either male or female, we are equally God’s image bearers, so that, even though God transcends sexual distinctions, there must be some sense in which he includes their essential features within his own being.

Emil Brunner assumed that this sexual differentiation would pass away in the life to come, based on Matt. 12:25, and I often hear this view expressed, but the Lord did not say that when the dead rise they will be neither male nor female. Augustine rightly noticed that Jesus’ statement actually implies continued sexual difference for it is such that is assumed in “marrying” and “being given in marriage” (City of God, 22.17; cited by Jewett, Who We Are,134). We really do not know anything about the sex of angels, but Scripture is clear about the human situation.

When I think or talk about the phenomena of same-sex desire and of gender dysphoria I do so with a strong sense of compassion for the people who have these experiences. Precisely because being either male or female is so fundamental a part of our human personhood, any disruption of God’s good creation in this area affects us at the core of our being. So we need to feel the pain of people in this situation whenever we talk about (or to) them and their situation. This is particularly true when their current feelings and struggles are the result of factors, or of actions by others, over which they had no personal control. Such is the case especially when sexual abuse has had traumatic effects upon people and their own perceptions of sex and of their own sexuality.

2. Femaleness or maleness is a fundamental aspect of both our body and our soul

Largely through the input of J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae, I have adopted a Thomistic (rather than a Cartesian) understanding of the substance duality of human composition. “According to Thomistic dualism the soul is an individuated essence that makes the body a human body and that diffuses, informs, animates, develops, unifies and grounds the biological functions of its body” (Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul, 202). I particularly like the suggestion that “in some ways the soul is to the body like God is to space—it is fully ‘present’ at each point. The soul occupies the body, but it is not spatially located within it, just as God occupies space but is not spatially located within it” (Body and Soul, 202). In this perspective, “the human person is identical to its soul, and the soul comes into existence at the point of conception” (Body and Soul, 205). Thus, “the various biological operations of the body have their roots in the internal structure of the soul, which forms a body to facilitate those operations,” and the soul is what it is by God’s conception, intention and design (Body and Soul, 206).

I expect that you can see why, from within this understanding, I propose that maleness or femaleness of human beings is an aspect of the soul, that is, of the human person. Normally, the person conceived as a female soul will develop, during the physical maturation process, with a female body. But here is where life in a fallen world gets messy. Things in creation are no longer “normal,” in the sense of the goodness which pertained to everything as God made it originally, including Adam and Eve (Gen 1:31). By the time Adam and Eve had their first child, the effects of sin were already at work in their bodies, just as they were in the whole of physical creation which is now “subjected to futility,” and which now groans as it awaits the time when it will be “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:20-21 ESV). We too, as people “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23 ESV). Hence my third proposition:

3. As a result of the effects, in all of creation, of the original (and originating) human sin, it seems that the body formed under direction of a female/male soul does not always develop normally, so that, in some instances, it is difficult to discern from the infant’s body whether this is a girl or a boy.

As Cornelius Plantinga Jr. put it in the title of his brilliant book on sin, the situation is Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. With the developments in DNA research, we now know that some people inherit a tendency toward the development of cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, or other physical illnesses. I am hypothesizing that, analogously, in the physical development of a human being it is possible that something may go very seriously wrong so that, although a person’s soul is female or male, abnormalities occur in the development of the person’s body so that doctors find it extremely difficult to say whether the person who has just been born is female or male. This relatively rare situation is described and analyzed at length on the web site of the Mayo Clinic, in an article entitled “Diseases and Conditions: Ambiguous Genitalia.

This phenomenon is discussed in a book published by Eerdmans very recently: Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God. I know about this important book only what I learned from an author guest post by DeFranza, posted at the Eerdmans blog (EerdWord), entitled “Bridge Building in a War Zone: Sex Difference in Christian Theology.” She posits “that there are people whose bodies are not clearly or fully male or female, and that we find their presence in the Bible and Christian history but that most Christians today don’t know they exist and most churches have no place for them.” I first became aware of this reality through reading I did when the story of David Reimer aroused my thinking in this area.

Echoing the perspective I summarized above from Paul McHugh, DeFranza writes:

Most intersex surgeries are not medically necessary. Many are performed to help the child appear less ambiguous in the hope that parents will be better able to bond with their infants and so that children can avoid other potentially difficult societal interactions (e.g., in locker rooms or at urinals).

Despite the good intentions of parents and doctors, many intersex persons recount harrowing stories of surgeries gone badly, of sex assignments rejected, and of medical treatment experienced as sexual abuse. Thankfully, as these stories are being told, change is beginning to come to medical standards of care.

These are people who may grow up in a situation somewhat analogous to that of David Reimer, even though the origin of their situation is different. Reimer struggled because he was dressed as a girl and socialized that way, without knowing until he was 15 years old that he was a boy. He had a male soul but was expected to behave as a female, and the disjunction was a terrible experience for him, leading him to further surgery to restore him as far as possible to his physical maleness, so that he could live with a body that matched the sex of his soul. In the case of the infants whom DeFranza has described, however, the genitalia were ambiguous, and doctors had to judge whether the infant should be treated as male or female. I know from other reading that this often does not go well, and in adulthood some of these individuals go through (further) surgery to give themselves a body and a sexual identity which matches the sexual identity of the person they deeply feel themselves to be. Given my hypothesis with regard to the possibility of soul/body disjunction in rare cases, I consider it quite possible that these are people experiencing precisely what I have hypothesized in this point of my essay.

It is essential that we differentiate this situation from the transgender transformation of someone like Bruce Jenner. As analyzed by both Yarhouse and McHugh, Jenner’s case is clearly not one of these cases of sexual ambiguity. It is an instance of “gender dysphoria,” which Yarhouse defined as “discomfort over the incongruence between one’s biological sex and one’s psychological and emotional experience of gender.” I concur with both Yarhouse and McHugh, and against the increasingly common understanding in our society, that it is a terrible mistake to assume that sexual identity is a social construct and that one can choose whether they want to be male or female. This way leads to havoc. In the making of human souls (which I understand in the traducian way, as happening through the reproductive process, not by direct divine creation), God has determined whether each person will be male or female. Our goal should be to live as God has created us, not to decide that we will become other than we were created to be.

The gender dysphoria that would arise in the cases I am now considering, where a female soul is in an hypothesized or surgically constructed male body (or vice versa), should be seen through the second of Yarhouse’s lenses. We are dealing with a disability. But this is not an incongruence between one’s biological sex and one’s emotional experience of gender; it is, rather, an incongruence between the sex of their soul and the sex of their body. The difference between these two phenomena is extremely important.

I am among those to whom Yarhouse referred, a Christian who does not put gender dysphoria in the same category as homosexuality. I consider it quite unfortunate that T (transgender) has been lumped together with LGB in the socio-political effort to promote maximal sexual diversity. That being said, however, I dowonder if my proposal here might be relevant to the situation of some people who experience same-sex desire. I wonder if there might be some instances in which people feel what they (and others) interpret as same-sex desire which is in fact, at the core level of the sexuality of the soul/person a heterosexual desire. Might there be some who live with an incongruence between the sex of their soul and the sex of their body, so that desire that is actually consistent with the sex of their soul (which is hidden from us and, to some extent, even from them) is necessarily interpreted only in terms of the sex of their body? I realize that I have may have opened Pandora’s box here, allowing for a whole new theological excuse for, or legitimation of, same-sex desire. But we ought not to avoid considering theological possibilities simply because they make even more complex a highly disputed area of thought, and means of assessing the likelihood of this situation having occurred could be developed.

Summing up: what have we gained?

This is a very complex subject, and it is one which has been studied with great expertise by authors cited in this post. I do not bring to the subject any of the sort of medical research or experience that these other people have. But I have wanted to do two things in particular:

1) I want to re-enforce the position taken by others I have cited above, that the myth of gender preference, and the idea that sexual identity is a social construct, is a very serious mistake which often produces havoc in people’s lives. (Witness the experience of David Reimer as a case in point, but also many other instances in which parents are misconstruing and responding unhelpfully to the imaginative play of young children.) When we encounter people with gender dysphoria, we need to be aware that the causes of this feeling of incongruence can be quite diverse, and it matters greatly what those causes are, when we are deciding how we as Christian individuals or as a church regard both people’s struggles and the decisions they make about how to deal with their struggles.

2) I offer a theological proposal which I hope others may find a helpful construct for understanding the gender dysphoria of at least some people who have that painful experience. I am suggesting that in some of these cases (some instances of ambiguous genitalia), we have a disability consequent upon the effects of sin within creation. A conflict is created within a person by a disjunction between the sexual identity God gave them in their soul and the sexual identity which was assigned to them by decision of doctors and parents who acted in what they believed to be the best interests of the individual, but where their well-intentioned judgment was incorrect. Quite tentatively, I also put on the table the possibility that personal (body-soul) sexual incongruence may be a factor in situations of same-sex desire.

I realize that I am moving, with this essay-length post, into an area that is very highly charged emotionally, socially, and politically, but I welcome conversation from anyone wanting to carry it on with me in a mutually respectful and Christ-like spirit.

Robert Smith’s critique of my theological proposal, including my response

Robert Smith shares my commitment to holistic dualism or dualistic holism, which John Cooper describes as the view that human beings are “integral personal-spiritual-physical wholes—single beings consisting of different parts, aspects, dimensions, and abilities that are not naturally independent or separable” (cited by Smith from “The Current Body-Soul Debate: A Case for Holistic Dualism, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13, no. 2 [2009], 35). Working from within that holistic perspective, Smith argued for “The implausibility of a body-soul mismatch,” and I quickly discerned that he had legitimately undermined the suggestion I had made under the third point of my “theological proposal.”

In my unpacking of that third point, I had asked: “Might there be some who live with an incongruence between the sex of their soul and the sex of their body, so that desire that is actually consistent with the sex of their soul (which is hidden from us and, to some extent, even from them) is necessarily interpreted only in terms of the sex of their body?”I am grateful to Smith for having gone to the trouble of attempting to correct my suggestion, and I was not difficult to convince, because I quickly realized that my suggestion had been inconsistent with my own holistic dualism.

I could simply have abandoned my tentative proposal and moved on without it but, because my 2015 post has received a large number of hits, I think that it is wise for me to formally withdraw even that tentative suggestion, lest some might have seriously affirmed it. Thankfully, I need not start from scratch with my reasons for no longer considering the proposal, even tentatively, because Smith is happy to have me share his reasons for deeming the suggestion implausible, which I have found persuasive. They fit naturally with my own larger theological framework.

From the perspective of holistic dualism, we are “as much ensouled bodies as we are embodied souls.” If I had revisited my copy of John Cooper’s Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting, when I wrote my blog post, I might not have been inclined to put my question on the table. Smith cites Cooper’s statement that “[b]iological processes are not just functions of the body as distinct from the soul or spirit, and mental and spiritual capacities are not seated exclusively in the soul or spirit. All capacities and functions belong to the human being as a whole, a fleshly-spiritual totality” (p. 70). Smith rightly discerns that “if a person’s body is unambiguously sexed as male, it is simply not conceivable that their soul could be female and vice versa. Indeed, a radical elemental disjunction of this kind would effectually destroy the unity of the human person which is at the heart of a biblical anthropology” (citing Ray S. Anderson, On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], 209).

Under the second point of my theological proposal, I had mentioned my indebtedness to Moreland and Rae, and I cited their statement that, “according to Thomistic dualism the soul is an individual essence that makes the body a human body and that diffuses, informs, animates, develops, unifies and grounds the biological functions of its body” (Body and Soul, p. 202). With that in mind, I had put forward my tentative proposal that something might go amiss in the process by which the soul informed the body. But Smith pointed out to me that I appear to have missed the fact that Moreland and Rae not only regard the body as being in the soul, they also speak of the soul as being in the body. Smith suggests that I had moved “away from the organicism advocated by Moreland and Rae and embraced a considerably stronger form of substance dualism–one these authors reject.” I plead unintentionally guilty as charged, and I am happy to have had my oversight pointed out to me.

I particularly like Smith’s pointing me to the sequence of Genesis 2:7, which presents man’s body as formed first and, since “Genesis 1:27 defines human beings by reference to their bodily sex (male and female), it is clear that embodiment is basic to human ontology.” Therefore, Smith suggests: “to insist, as Moreland and Rae do, that ‘the organism as a whole (the soul) is ontologically prior to its parts’ is not merely to speculate beyond Scripture, but to push against it.” I think that criticism is justified. Smith observes that “Thomas [Aquinas] regards the particularity of each human body (including its biological sex) as ‘the principle of existence of that particular human being’” (citing Andrzej Mariniarczyk, “Is the Human Soul Sexed? In Search for the Truth on Human Sexuality,” Studia Gilsoniana 9, no. 1 [January-March 2020], 108). Smith notes that, for Thomas, “the sex of a person’s body is integral to their identity.”

Smith acknowledges that “outside of Eden bodies can be badly damaged—by disease, disability, disfigurement etc.” Nonetheless, “bodies cannot be entirely wrong. For if I were to take possession of a different body (as opposed to having my body restored), I would no longer be me.” Consequently, he asserts that: “Bonhoeffer was right to insist that those ‘who reject their bodies reject their existence before God the Creator’ (Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, p. 77).”

Smith finds “good reason to question the idea that the body takes its sex from the soul,” and he cites Preston Sprinkle on this point, for support. Sprinkle asserts that “the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ are by definition descriptions of our bodies, not our souls or any other immaterial aspect of our being. Sex is a material biological category. Accordingly, immaterial souls can’t be sexed” (Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, 150). In agreement with this, Smith cites Elliott Bedford and Jason Eberl, who write:

While strictly speaking the soul, which is immaterial, is not sexed, each soul is created by God as the vivifying principle of sexed bodies and is thereby individuated and sexed as an inseparable accidental quality of the human being. In short, as the vivifying principle of actually existing human beings, the human soul is properly characterized as sexed” (Elliott Louis Bedford and Jason T. Eberl, “Is the Soul Sexed? Anthropology, Transgenderism, and Disorders of Sex Development,” Health Care Ethics USA 24, no. 3 [2016], 20–23).

I agree with Smith that this perspective “better reflects the biblical presentation,” and this heads me in a different direction from the one I had taken under the second point of my proposal. It also removes the ground for my earlier tentative speculation that there might be instances in which, because of the effects of sin in human nature, a discord exists between the sex of a person’s soul and of that person’s body. Given the integral wholeness of human beings, whom God creates as embodied souls, every bit as much as they are ensouled bodies, it is impossible that a sexual difference could exist between a person’s body and soul.

This coheres with the contention I have consistently made, in teaching theological anthropology and eschatology, that one remains gendered during the period between death and bodily resurrection. I don’t even rule out the possibility that we might be given an intermediate body when death destroys our earthly body. Donald Bloesch provides some reasons for believing this which strike me as plausible, though I hold the view only as a tentative possibility (Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, II, 187).  There is much about the intermediate state which has not been revealed to us, and the New Testament grounds our future hope upon the bodily resurrection of all people, though this prospect is only good news for those who rise with Christ, to eternal life. Clearly, there is continuity between the body that is “me” now and the body that will be “me,” when I am raised from the dead at the return of Christ, whether or not that continuity is strengthened by an intermediary bodily form. To be embodied is our natural and good state, not an evil from which our souls need to be delivered. 

The tentative proposal which I made in 2015 was unhelpful, and it could even have been harmful. I am happy that Smith prompted me to reconsider it, which has led me to the writing of this follow-up post. I made my earlier proposal out of a desire to be sympathetic with the condition of people who suffer gender dysphoria, but I now see how counter-productive that approach was. Withdrawing that proposal aligns me with the medical conclusion of Paul McHugh, Professor of Psychiatry at John Hopkins Medical School, who has studied gender dysphoria for 40 years, and who is convinced that it is a psychological rather than a biological matter (see my 2015 post).

May God bless the ministry of those who seek to help people in this particular form of suffering, approaching it with the wisdom revealed in Scripture and confirmed by sound medical science. The stakes are very high these days.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

Leave a Reply

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

HTML tags are not allowed.

143,844 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments