The Transmission of the Soul (Pt.1)

This is a transcript of a lecture taken from the course on “The Doctrine of Man and Sin” at Telos Biblical Institute

How do we get our souls? How are our souls transmitted to each of us?

Three Distinct Views of How the Soul has been Transmitted in the History of Christianity

· The Pre-Existence of the Soul

· Creationism

· Traducianism

First – the Doctrine of the Pre-Existence of the Soul [Obviously, we know this is not taught by the Scriptures anywhere, but it has been taught in Christian history.]

The man who is most famous for bringing this doctrine into the church is the third century scholar Origen, who was born in Alexandria in Egypt, and died in Caesarea, Palestine in the year 254 A.D. Origen’s view of the pre-existence of the human soul begins with his rather confused doctrine of God. Origen believed that God created just as many spirits as he could handle, before he created the material world. Because he was shot through with platonic thinking, Origen believed that the realm of immaterial forms or ideas was where we sprang from and where we were headed to.

Therefore, it is unsurprising to learn that he did not believe in a physical resurrection of the body. In Origen’s view human spirits were originally disembodied before the world was formed, and they were created bodiless as free beings. This is their proper state according to him. In fact, their goodness was really situated in their freedom.

As Colin E. Gunton says in his book The Triune Creator, 58,

“These spirits, called to live in eternal contemplation of God, fell away from him and misused their freedom so that they could be restored to unity with the divine only through the redirection of that freedom.”

Basically, that redirection of the spirit’s freedom came about by the creation of the world, along with what we might call the ‘imprisonment’ of these spirits; preexistent souls put into human bodies.  So, according to Origen, all the material creation really is, is a kind of training ground, so that we can learn how use our freedom again. And when we die we are again disembodied.

Hence,

“Our world is created out of nothing, but for a purpose and its function is educational or pedagogic for the training of the fallen spirits in virtue so that they are qualified to return to unity with the One.” – Colin E. Gunton, Ibid, 59

There is Origen’s view. This view was condemned as heretical, and it certainly is heretical. Nevertheless, it has been taught in the history of the church, and Mormonism teaches something like this today.  Moreover, the view of the Pre-Existence of the Soul needs to be kept in mind as a heretical view because it does have a lot in common with the Eastern religious view of reincarnation, where the soul just keeps coming back into new bodies as it tries to escape the wheel of karma.

Of course, this belief would have as its corollary the opinion that the material world is not part of God’s final eschatological plan.  Everything is going to be realized in an immaterial future in glory.  And so Origen is one of the sources for this pagan notion that heaven, somewhere in the by-and-by, is just purely a spiritual experience; where souls float around and enjoy spiritual communion with no material or bodily substance to mess things up.

Wayne Grudem writes,

“[In relation to the preexistence of the soul] There is no support for this view of Scripture; before we were conceived in the wombs of our mothers we simply did not exist, we were not. Of course God look forward into the future and knew that we would exist but that is far removed from saying that we actually did exist at some previous time. Such an idea would tend to make us view this present life as transitional or unimportant and make us think of life in the body as less desirable and the bearing and raising of children as less important.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 484

(Actually, Grudem’s treatment of Creationism and Traducianism is very unsatisfactory and one of the more disappointing aspects of his book).

Second – The Doctrine of Creationism

There are two positions on this issue which are deemed orthodox: “Creationism,” and “Traducianism.”

By “Creationism” is not meant the  creationism of the Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research or some similar agency, as valuable as their work is. We’re not dealing here with the origins of the world, or the origins of man, or the age of the earth or anything like that. Here we’re talking about the origin of the soul, and of the souls of individual people.

Where then do our souls come from?  Creationism answers that God creates a new soul in each person at conception, sometimes even at birth. This view is held almost uniformly by reformed covenant theologians, though not by all of them.  There are some exceptions: Jonathan Edwards, W.G.T. Shedd, Gordon Clark, Robert Reymond, and J. Oliver Buswell, come to mind; but for the most part, covenant theologians are creationists, and there is a reason for that which we will discuss as we continue.

It appears also that even though John Calvin did not express himself very much on this issue, there is a quotation from the Institutes which shows that he certainly veered toward it, (even as Augustine did – though Augustine refused to be completely drawn on the subject).

Now, the creationists derive their support from a number of passages.  These passages are, I think, inconclusive:

And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. – Ecclesiastes 12:7

The idea here is that God gives the spirit to the human body, the body goes to the dust, and the spirit goes to God. Soul Creationism uses some reverse logic here which says that the body is propagated by the human genes but the soul is given by God to each individual body that is created.  Of course the verse doesn’t say this, but it is sometimes inferred.  The inference does not seem to be very sound.  The verse is just a statement of the fact that material things turn back into the dust that they are from.  As spirit is immaterial, then obviously it does not decay like the body does.  It goes to God.  But there is nothing here that says that God implants the spirit in each individual that is born.

The burden of the word of the LORD concerning Israel: Thus declares the LORD, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him. – Zechariah 12:1

Again, this is supposedly a proof that God forms the spirits of individuals, but this is an original creation verse!  Note, “…Stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, forms the spirit of man within him.”  This is man generally as in Genesis 1 and 2.  There God put a spirit within man, but “man” in Genesis 1:26-27 is a designation for male and female in that context.

Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? – Hebrews 12:9

Here it is supposed that God is the Father of individual spirits placed into us, just in the way that our fathers are the fathers of our genetic makeup. But that is not the subject of the verse.  The verse is talking about paying respect; honor both to our earthly fathers, and then to our heavenly Father.  So, it has nothing to do God implanting a soul into every human body individually whatsoever.

To be continued…

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for this… and waiting for the next part. 🙂 I’ve read a few references to this subject in S. Lewis Johnson’s sermon transcripts, brief explanations including the view he favored, Traducianism — the one that best makes sense so far as I understand. That’s interesting, I didn’t know that CT/Reformed took the creationist view of the soul or their take on that verse in Ecclesiastes (or the other verses). Agree, those verses don’t relate at all to the creation of each soul.

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