Despite centuries of deliberation, the origination of the human soul remains a point of contention among theologians, as the Scriptures seem to support either the creationism or the traducianism hypothesis.1 Espousing either ontological commitment produces many theological ramifications when considering doctrines regarding the nature of humanity, original sin, and the incarnation, rendering this far more than an insignificant anthropological quandary. Furthermore, our epistemological understanding of the soul has broad philosophical and axiological implications, especially concerning the problem of evil, abortion, and bioethics. Finally, given the prevalence of naturalistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic worldviews, the genuineness of the soul is increasingly becoming a topic of contemporary discourse, thereby requiring a robust articulation of the metaphysical existence and ontological status of the human soul. Though brevity precludes an exhaustive examination of these topics, this paper will confirm traducianism provides the most reasonable explanation of soul ontology, remaining capable of accounting for all the biblical data, while simultaneously corresponding with orthodox doctrines of original sin and the nature of humanity.
Outlining Creationism and Traducianism Hypotheses
Assuming the creationist view of anthropology, prevalent Christian theologians (especially those within the Reformed tradition) espouse the divine, de nihilo creation of human souls, and their immediate infusion with the body at the point of conception (or at an indeterminate point before parturition).2 Accordingly, the creationist model postulates God as the causa prima (primary cause) of soul production, and the causa unica (sole cause) of body-soul integration, while distinguishing the parents as merely a causae secundae (secondary cause) in physical generation.3 Advocating creationism, theologian Charles Hodge contends the doctrine remains the most consistent with the predominant representations of Scripture, is harmonious with the nature of the soul, and is necessary for a coherent articulation of Jesus’ incarnation.4 Conversely, traducianism maintains the propagation of both body and soul occurs via reproductive processes, recognizing the emergence of a unique being (both biological and immaterial aspects) at the point of conception.5 Acknowledging that Scripture only addresses the subject indirectly, proponents of traducianism appeal to its superior explanatory power and scope, observing its exceptional ability to coincide with biblical descriptions, scientific data, and orthodox doctrines (e.g., original sin).6
Examining the Biblical Data
Adjudication of these claims begins with a comprehensive examination of the biblical data, determining which explanation, if any, corresponds to the information present in the biblical record. Unambiguously, the Bible promulgates the concept of substance dualism (or holistic dualism), describing the human being as a complex unity of both physical and incorporeal aspects, recognizing that while the soul is necessary for animation of the body, it remains capable of existing in a disembodied state.7 Although the human soul is capable of surviving death of the body, this remains an intermediate and anomalous condition, as reconstitution of the body-soul unity transpires at the resurrection.8
Appreciating the fundamental differences between these substances, creationists allege each requires a different derivation, contending God is the efficient cause of the soul, while the biological aspects of an individual originate from a common physical nature.9 Regarding the creation of Adam (cf. Genesis 2:7) as the archetype, creationists maintain God must coalesce physical and immaterial constituents to produce human beings, concluding this model best accounts for passages indicating God’s active involvement in procreative processes (cf. Isaiah 42:5; Zechariah 12:1; Numbers 16:22).10 However, such passages intend to establish God’s aseity, omnipotence, and ultimate authority, and although they highlight the contingent nature of humans, none of these verses explicitly address soul ontology, nor do any necessitate creationism. Elucidating this point, theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong comments, “The passages adduced in its [creationism’s] support may with equal propriety be regarded as expressing God’s mediate agency in the origination of human souls; while the general tenor of Scripture, as well as its representations of God as the author of man’s body, favor this latter interpretation.”11
In contrast, traducianism does not regard the initial creation of Adam as an archetype, but rather as a requisite singularity, noting Eve’s formation occurs much differently, with her entire generation deriving from Adam (cf. Genesis 2:18-25; 1 Corinthians 11:8).12 Additionally, God ceases from all creational activity on the seventh day (cf. Genesis 2:3), and while His providential sustainment of the universe continues, there is no indication of any subsequent de novo production.13 Furthermore, animals exist as dipartite beings (cf. Genesis 1:28-30; 6:17; 7:15; 7:22; Ecclesiastes 3:21), with no indication God intervenes to create and infuse animal souls, thereby suggesting their propagative abilities produce the whole creature—not just the physical aspect. Finally, numerous passages indicate descendants emerge from their parents (cf. Genesis 46:26; Hebrews 7:9-10), and hereditary transmission of sinful inclinations and psychological attributes transpires (cf. the conventional doctrine of original sin).14
Disappointingly, the Scriptures refrain from directly addressing the issue of soul ontology, rendering it difficult to insist on one position over another dogmatically.15 Reinforcing this point, theologian Louis Berkhof states,
The Bible makes no direct statement respecting the origin of the soul of man, except in the case of Adam. The few Scriptural passages that are adduced as favoring the one theory or the other can hardly be called conclusive on either side. And because we have no clear teaching of Scripture on the point in question, it is necessary to speak with caution on the subject.16
Similarly, theologian Edgar Mullins comments,
In the absence of direct Scripture teaching on this subject, we are without means of setting forth more than a probable conclusion. Theoretical proofs one way or the other are more or less precarious. We must maintain under any view man’s spirituality and immortality. If we do this, no great consequences can be involved in the theories formed with a view of satisfying the reason.17
Although creationism remains a viable hypothesis, it seems traducianism provides the best explanation when considering the biblical documents holistically, adequately accounting for the aforementioned factors, which remain unexplained under the creationist model.
Assessing the Theological Consistency of Ontological Commitments
After establishing both creationism and traducianism as viable options (given the available information), it becomes imperative to assess the internal consistency of such ontological commitments when amalgamated with well-established theological doctrines. Receiving utmost consideration is the doctrine of original sin, as the Scriptures clearly describe Adam as the source of sin (cf. Romans 5:12), while demonstrating human sinfulness remains an inherent characteristic, predominant from the earliest stages of personal development (cf. Psalm 14:2-3; 51:5; 58:3; Genesis 8:21; Job 15:14; Ephesians 2:1-3; Proverbs 22:15; Ecclesiastes 9:3).18 Encapsulating these fundamental elements of Scripture, the Confession of Augsburg (AD 1530) affirms “all men, born according to nature, are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without confidence towards God and with concupiscence, and that this original disease or flaw is truly a sin, bringing condemnation and also eternal death to those who are not reborn through baptism and the Holy Spirit.”19
Accordingly, Adam’s insurrection results in the corruption of human nature itself, and it appears, his progeny (i.e., all humankind) inherit this degeneracy through natural reproductive processes. Ergo, the traducianism hypothesis appears to integrate seamlessly with the orthodox doctrine of original sin, without requiring any ad hoc modifications of either principle. On the other hand, creationist suppositions cannot sufficiently explain the subsequent transmission of innate decadence from Adam to his posterities, as it seems there are only two possible rationalizations to offer—either God creates degenerate souls, or sin is a physical property transmitted through natural generation.20 Considering the immutable character of God, it is inconceivable to imagine Him creating degenerate souls, especially when His original creative undertakings are “very good” (cf. Genesis 1:31). Weighing in on the subject, Theologian Norman Geisler comments, “It is difficult to comprehend how each human being could be born in sin unless fallen souls are generated from parents, for surely God does not create a fallen soul each time a human is conceived.”21
Alternatively, defining sin as a property of the body easily results in heretical anthropological beliefs (e.g., Gnosticism), and the concept is ultimately incoherent since moral debauchery is an immaterial characteristic which signifies the condition of the human soul (or the inclusive person), rather than addressing the physical body in isolation. Nevertheless, some reject the immaterial nature of sin, using Romans 7:5 and 7:23 as a means of establishing the flesh as the root of rebellion; however, such challenges lack proper exegetical analysis, philosophical reinforcement, and theological basis. First, the word σάρξ (translated flesh) refers to the whole person (i.e., the psycho-physical unity of human beings), rather than a mere physical quality.22
Second, the discussion requires a distinction between the instrument of sin (i.e., the physical body) and the subject of guilt (i.e., the morally culpable agent). Expounding upon this principle, Thomas Aquinas comments,
Original sin is transmitted from the will of our first parent to his posterity by a certain movement of generation, in the same way as actual sin is transmitted from any man’s will to his other parts. Now in this transmission, it is to be observed, that whatever accrues from the motion of the will consenting to sin, to any part of man that can in any way share in that guilt, either as its subject or as its instrument, has the character of sin. Thus, from the will consenting to gluttony, concupiscence of food accrues to the concupiscible faculty, and partaking of food accrues to the hand and the mouth, which, in so far as they are moved by the will to sin, are the instruments of sin. But that further action is evoked in the nutritive power and the internal members, which have no natural aptitude for being moved by the will, does not bear the character of guilt. Accordingly, since the soul can be the subject of guilt, while the flesh, or itself, cannot be the subject of guilt; whatever accrues to the soul from the corruption of the first sin, has the character of guilt, while whatever accrues to the flesh, has the character, not of guilt but of punishment: so that, therefore, the soul is the subject of original sin and not the flesh.23
Similarly, John Calvin appropriately identifies wickedness as a property of the soul, identifying original sin as “a hereditary depravity and corruption of our [human] nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls, ‘works of the flesh.’”24 Therefore, it appears the creationist hypothesis is inconsistent with the doctrine of original sin, as it fails to rationalize the transmission of an immaterial property (i.e., the sinful nature of humans) from one person to another.
Thus far, inference to the best explanation supports traducianism, demonstrating its ability to account for all of the biblical data, while simultaneously remaining consistent within the broader theological framework of Christianity. Nevertheless, widespread acceptance of naturalistic philosophies has caused many to question the validity of substance dualism, declaring human consciousness is merely a product of sophisticated physical processes, rather than a capacity of the human soul.25 Supposing this hypothesis holds true, it would render traducianism (along with creationism) false, while contemporaneously emasculating the biblical account. Consequently, this section will briefly present a positive case for substance dualism, before providing a refutation of philosophical objections against dualism and traducianism.
A Positive Case for Substance Dualism
Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals states, x=y → ∀P(Px ↔ Py); that is, object x is identical to object y if, for every property P, x has P if and only if y has P.26 Hence, if we can identify a property held by the consciousness and not possessed by the physical body, then we can establish the existence of two substances comprising the human person.27 Careful analysis reveals mental states (consisting of sensations, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and acts of the will) are fundamentally different from physical states, as they require a subjective ontology, are void of crucial features (e.g., spatial extension, location), and exhibit features such as qualitative feeling and intentionality.28 Masterfully illuminating these fundamental differences, philosopher J. P. Moreland explains,
No material entity presupposes or requires reference to consciousness for it to exist or be characterized. . . . A completely physical description of the world would not include any terms that make reference to or characterize the existence and nature of consciousness. . . . Mental states are characterized by their intrinsic, subjective, inner, private, qualitative feel, made present to a subject by first-person introspection. . . . Mental states can have the property of familiarity (such as when a desk looks familiar to someone), but familiarity is not a feature of a physical state. Since mental states have these features, and physical states do not, then mental states are not identical to physical states.29
Formulating this argument into a deductive syllogism, Dr. Moreland contends, (1) no physical properties are self-presenting, (2) all mental properties are self-presenting, (3) therefore, no mental properties are physical properties.30 Ergo, in accordance with Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals, differentiation between conscious states and physical states is required, and since human persons have both physical and immaterial properties, it follows they consist of two distinct substances.
Does Science Disprove Substance Dualism?
Without refuting the positive arguments supporting substance dualism, naturalists insist scientific advancements (mainly those in the fields of neuroscience and psychology) disprove dualistic hypotheses, as they demonstrate direct causal influences of brain functions on conscious states.31 However, it is imperative to recognize that scientific data requires interpretation, and unless the scientist presupposes naturalism, the results fail to discredit a substance dualist view. Clarifying this point, philosopher John W. Cooper remarks,
The hard empirical data are that there are two different kinds of events—mental and physiological—each of which appears to be able to affect the other. It is reasonable to suppose that there are causal connections between them on the basis of their regular correlation. . . . Beyond this point, scientists and philosophers are interpreting the data, not reporting what is self-evidently true. All we can observe is this two-way correlation.32
Although some interpretations achieve more favorable results than others do, feasible interpretations include dualistic interactionism, dualistic parallelism, dual-aspect monism, and various materialistic models.33
Notwithstanding assertions to the contrary, the empirical information appears consistent with Christian anthropology, which describes human nature as a unity in which corporal and incorporeal aspects exist in causal interaction. Maintaining this view, one would expect the physical body to affect mental states, and vice versa, which is precisely what the data from neuroscience, experimental psychology, and psychiatry reveals.34 Furthermore, it seems dualism provides a basis for psychology, as Nancy S. Duvall (Professor of Psychology at Biola University) eloquently clarifies, “If substance dualism is not true, there really is no room for psychology or psychotherapy, but everything psychological should be reduced to biology, chemistry, and physics.”35 Therefore, it seems the contemporary scientific understanding of the human constitution does not run contrary to dualistic hypotheses, and in fact, requires a dualistic understanding for specific fields to operate correctly.
Is Traducianism Materialistic?
Arguing against traducianism, Louis Berkhof objects that materialism results if one believes the soul is potentially present in the seed of man, woman, or both.36 Sadly, Berkhof’s opposition does not capture the essence of the traducianist position, which recognizes the divine creation of dualistic beings (humans and animals) possessing the capability of producing other dualistic beings through reproductive processes. Since both corporal and incorporeal aspects comprise the human being, it seems reasonable for physical and metaphysical potentialities to exist within the sperm and ovum, which generate a distinct (both biologically and spiritually) being during the normal process of fertilization.37 Moreover, it is vital to appreciate traducianism’s monotheistic framework, which recognizes divine ontology, theology, and providence in propagative functions of dualistic creatures. Rebuffing allegations of materialistic underpinnings, Edgar Mullins comments,
The [traducianist] view also accords with God’s usual method. His present method of working is in general through the law and processes of nature. He is as truly present as on the immediate creation theory. God indwells in all the processes of nature. . . . The objection that this view makes the soul material does not hold. God’s presence in the process of generation is the guaranty against this.38
Consequently, by advancing a theological worldview and a dualistic perspective of anthropology, traducianism represents the fundamental antithesis of materialism, and Berkhof’s assertion does nothing to discredit the hypothesis.
Considering the absence of direct Scriptural evidence regarding the origination of human souls, one must utilize abductive reasoning (i.e., inference to the best explanation) to produce a viable hypothesis. Providing the most reasonable explanation of soul ontology, traducianism proves capable of accounting for all the biblical data, while simultaneously corresponding with orthodox doctrines of original sin and the nature of humanity. In contrast, creationism produces inconsistencies during integration with the broader theological framework of Christianity, undermining its feasibility.
- Greek philosophy—mainly the work of Plato—greatly influenced the subapostolic church, resulting in the advancement of a preexistence view by Origen and Justin Martyr. Noticing the unbiblical nature of this theory, the Second Council of Constantinople formally recognized this view as heretical in AD 553, thereby eliminating it from further consideration. See M. E. Osterhaven, “Soul,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second Edition, ed., Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1129-1130; Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II, Volume 14 (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905), 318-320.
- William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, Volume Two (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 10-12; Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin, Salvation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2004), 27-32.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III: The Doctrine of Creation, Part Two, eds., G. W. Bromiley, and T. F. Torrence, trans., H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, and R. H. Fuller (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 1960), 573.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 70-72.
- William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, Volume Two, 13-23; Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin, Salvation, 31-32.
- Edgar Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression (New York, NY: Roger Williams Press, 1917), 262-264; Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin, Salvation, 31.
- Cf. Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 12:5-7; Luke 12:4; 16:19-31; 23:43; Matthew 26:41; 27:50; Romans 7:22; 1 Corinthians 2:11; 5:5; 7:34; 2 Corinthians 4:16; 5:1-8; 7:1; James 2:26. Also, see John W. Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 15-16; Joseph Priestley, Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit: To Which Is Added the History of the Philosophical Doctrine concerning the Origin of the Soul, and the Nature of Matter, Second Edition, Volume I, (Birmingham, England: Pearson and Rollason, 1782), 153-173.
- Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 1015-1023; Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 490-493.
- William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Third Edition, ed., Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 433.
- All Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.
- Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, 491.
- William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Third Edition, 439-440.
- Jay E. Adams, “A Brief Note about Traducianism,” The Journal of Modern Ministry 2, no. 2 (2005): 7-8.
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 581; William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Third Edition, 438-472.
- Saint Augustine appears to exemplify this principle, as he wrestles with creationist and traducianist propositions, and after recognizing the Scriptural silence on the matter, he ultimately claims ignorance—accepting an agnostic position. See G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962), 285-286; Robert J. O’Connell, S.J., The Origin of the Soul in St. Augustine’s Later Works (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1987).
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1938), 200.
- Edgar Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression, 263-264.
- Also, see John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1959); Jonathan Edwards, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, Fourth Edition (Boston, MA: R. Noble, 1789), 137-157.
- Henry Bettenson, and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 223.
- Appealing to a model of federal headship, the creationist provides an adequate explanation for the imputation of guilt; however, this model fails to explain the propagation of corruption from Adam to his descendants. Additionally, the seminal identity model accounts for the transmission of physical corruption, but fails to explain the propagation of spiritual corruption.
- Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin, Salvation, 44.
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Third Edition, 481-483; Craig S. Keener, Romans: A New Covenant Commentary (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 95-97.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London, England: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1921), STh., I-II q.83, a.1 response.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed., John T. McNeill, trans., Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), Institutes II, i, 8 [emphasis added].
- Jaak Panksepp, “The Neuro-Evolutionary Cusp Between Emotions and Cognitions: Implications for Understanding Consciousness and the Emergence of a Unified Mind Science,” Evolution and Cognition 7, no. 2 (2001): 141-163; William Hasker, “The Dialectic of Soul and Body,” in Contemporary Dualism: A Defense, eds., Andrea Lavazza, and Howard Robinson (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013), 204-219.
- Peter Forrest, “The Identity of Indiscernibles,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, August 15, 2010, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-indiscernible/.
- More precisely, since the identity relation is necessary, one only needs to show a possible divergence of properties to establish the existence of two substances. Expression of this principle follows: (x) (y) (x=y → □) (x=y), that is, for all x and y, if x is identical to y, then, necessarily, x is identical to y. See John Burgess, “The Logic of Necessity,” in The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophical Logic, eds., Leon Horsten, and Richard Pettigrew (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 299-323.
- Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul, Revised Edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 21-141; J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (London, England: SCM Press, 2009), 19-20.
- J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, 20-21.
- J. P. Moreland, “A Defense of a Substance Dualist View of the Soul,” in Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Integration, eds., J. P. Moreland, and David M. Ciocchi (1993; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 65.
- Naturalistic theories of emergence postulate the self-transcendence of material forces under specific conditions. For further examination of this theory, see Charles Taliaferro, “Naturalism and the Mind,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, eds., William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 133-155.
- John W. Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate, 207.
- Ibid., 207-208.
- John Thomas Driscoll, Christian Philosophy: A Treatise on the Human Soul (New York, NY: Benziger Brothers, 1898), 199; 202; 210; Thomas M. Crisp, Steven L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof, eds., Neuroscience and the Soul: The Human Person in Philosophy, Science, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016).
- Nancy S. Duvall, “A Response to J. P. Moreland,” in Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Integration, 81.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 198.
- Understanding the soul-body interconnection remains a profound mystery, one must recognize our limits in attempting to describe the necessary mechanisms (if there are any) for the simultaneous transmission of material and immaterial elements of human nature from one dualistic creature to another.
- Edgar Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression, 263.