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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII


Part IX


Part VI: A Fresh Look at the Meaning of the Word "Soul"

Chapter 1

The Spirit and the Body

     IT SEEMS very unlikely that an exact definition of the word "soul" can be derived from Scripture in such a way as to satisfy anyone other than the individual proposing it. Even he, if he is honest, will probably admit that he is not completely satisfied either. The controversy has continued for so long and has become so confused by appeals to psychology, to common sense, to Greek philosophy, and to ecclesiastical tradition that we are all saddled with some form of bias which makes the claim that this is a "fresh look" at the meaning of the word "soul" seem almost absurd. This being so, the title of the Paper might be considered somewhat naive.
     I think it is possible that part of the confusion surrounding the subject may have arisen from the fact that we have assumed the soul to be of prime importance in the sight of God. At the risk of being seriously misunderstood, I would venture to say that Scripture does not take this view. Of course there immediately spring to mind passages which balance the value of a soul against the whole world -- a fact which might be thought to contradict the above observation about as completely as one could imagine. However, I think the issue is most fruitfully reconsidered, not initially by a survey of passages of Scripture in which the word "soul" is found, but rather by passages in which the words "body" and "spirit" are found. As will be seen, a study of these makes one or two matters of fundamental importance quite clear. In these passages the meaning is never in doubt; there is a logical consistency which makes it possible to establish certain points with exactitude.
     Perhaps if we can once agree among ourselves on what Scripture means by the body (which seems obvious enough) and by the spirit (which is not quite so obvious), the meaning of the word "soul" will emerge of itself. This is what we propose to attempt.

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     It may be well before considering the words "body" and "spirit" as used in Scripture to clear the ground a little by examining to what extent animals share with man his tripartite nature. It may come as a surprise to many readers that Scripture accords to animals soul-life. In fact, the word "soul" (nephesh) is applied to the animal kingdom, to creatures on land, air, and sea, four times before referring to man. Such allusions as we shall see are not by any means limited to Genesis. Whatever the soul really is, therefore, this much at least must be said -- it is in no sense a uniquely human attribute. It can be shown from Scripture that the soul of man is not intrinsically different from the souls of the animals below him. The essential uniqueness of man does not lie in his possession of a soul per se, but something more.
     In the story of the creation of man it is said that God made his body out of the dust of the ground, and then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. The word "soul" in this passage is exactly the same word already used for "creatures" in the phrase "living creatures" in previous verses when referring to animals. However, with reference to Adam, it is said that God personally communicated to him the "breath" of life. The word "breath" is a Hebrew word (ruach) equally justifiably translated "spirit." This Hebrew word is not only used for "breath" and "spirit," but also for the Holy Spirit. To avoid confusion we shall always capitalize the word "spirit" when referring to the Holy Spirit or give Him His full title.
     In Genesis 2:7 it would be quite proper to translate the original as follows: "And God inspired man with a spirit, and he became a living soul." It is in the same sense that Zechariah 12:1 speaks of the Lord God as He "who formeth the spirit of man within him."
     It might be objected that the use of the phrase "into his nostrils" makes it rather obvious that the reference is really to "breath," and not to "spirit." However, Job 27:3, 4 suggests otherwise, for here it is written, "All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips shall not speak wickedness, nor my tongue utter deceit." I think the Authorized Version has rightly refrained from using a capital S for "spirit." The passage also seems to indicate that the possession of a spirit is co-terminous with the continuance of breathing. The alternative ascription of spirit or of breath in the nostrils in these two passages may be God's way of revealing at what time the spirit enters the body, and at what time it leaves the body. The spirit enters at the inspiration of the first breath and departs with the expiration of the last breath. This, of course, implies that an

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unborn child does not have a spirit and therefore does not have a soul. (1) One very special aspect of this question, relating to the Incarnation, is dealt with more fully in chapter 3 of this Paper.
     Now the fetus has life, of course, in the chemico-physical sense and entirely by dependence upon the mother's body, but not until it draws its first breath does it have a spirit or become a living soul as an independent being. Therefore, although it may appear that our rendering of Genesis 2:7 is novel, the implications are, I think justified by what the rest of Scripture has to say about the difference between a living person and a dead body.
     If an exact analysis of Genesis 2:7 is possible, it would seem to convey the thought that when the physical body receives from God its immaterial spirit, the end result is the emergence of a living soul. This analysis seems to be strongly supported by the fact that the body is dead, not when the soul is absent, but rather when the spirit is absent. James 2:26 states simply, "The body without the spirit is dead." This thought is clearly reflected in Ecclesiastes 8:8 which is a reference to the time of dying, as opposed to Genesis 2:7 which is a reference to the time of "birth" in Adam's case. There it is written,

     There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death.

     Notice here that it is not a question of retaining the soul, but rather of

1. To my mind, and with due respect to the strong attachment by many to a different concept of the status of a fetus, such an interpretation of the biblical data seems to indicate that an unborn child does not yet possess that which would establish its full status as a person, a circumstance which the Old Testament seems to bear out in a remarkable way. For whereas in Babylonian law, if a man during a struggle with another man (presumably a husband whose wife becomes involved) causes her to have a miscarriage so that the fetus is lost, he is held responsible for some form of manslaughter and is punished accordingly. The code reads: "He shall compensate for her fetus with a life" -- and specifically adds that this is to be done even if the fetus is a female (James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, N. J., 1950, p.184, sect. 50). The Old Testament law did not follow the Babylonian code in this, despite many close parallelisms in other matters. According to Exodus 21:22 it is written: "If men strive and hurt a woman with child so that her fruit depart from her, but no other mischief follow: he shall surely be punished according as the husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judge shall determine." This has been interpreted by David R. Mace in his Hebrew Marriage: A Sociological Study (Epworth Press, London, 1953, p.207) as meaning according to Jewish law that injury to the mother must be fully compensated and loss to the father for his expected offspring must also be compensated: but the offender is not to be put to death, only penalized according to the estimated damage. The importance of the fetus must surely be that it is a potential human being.

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retaining the spirit. We have in the New Testament a record of the final moments of several people who were departing this life. In no single instance is any reference made to the departure of the soul. Thus Ananias and Sapphira surrendered their spirits. In Acts 5:5 and 10 it is written,

     And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost [spirit]: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. . . .
     Then fell she [Sapphira] down straightway at his [Peter's] feet, and yielded up the ghost [ spirit] and the young men came in, and found her dead.

     In far more glorious circumstances the first martyr, Stephen, laid down his life for the Lord. In Acts 7:59 and 60 his last moments are described as follows:

     And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

     The Lord Jesus Christ also, when the appointed time had come, dismissed, not His soul, but His spirit, into the hands of God. In Matthew 27:50, in Mark 15:37, and in John 19:30 it is stated that He voluntarily yielded up the spirit. In Luke 23:46 the details of these last moments are given to us at greater length:

     And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said this, he gave up the ghost [spirit].

     This event was, of course, a unique one. We have given it far more careful consideration in several other Doorway Papers ("How Did Jesus Die?" and "The Unique Relationship Between the First Adam and the Last Adam," both in this volume). For ordinary mortals like ourselves, when the time of death comes, the spirit is surrendered whether we wish it or not. There is nothing voluntary about it. As Ecclesiastes 8:8 points out, we cannot retain it. In Ecclesiastes 12:7 it is said,

     Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

     So then the spirit is both given to man by God and taken from him by God, according to His will. In this sense God is the "Father of spirits" (Hebrews 12:9), and in this sense was He so worshipped in the Old Testament. In Numbers 16:22 it is written, "And they fell on their faces, and said, O God, God of the spirits of all flesh. . . ."
     But it may be argued that all these illustrations of the departure

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of the spirit have been taken from the New Testament. The Old Testament, however, presents a similar picture, except that it is complicated by two factors: the use of poetry and the use of metonymy, a circumstance which we shall examine carefully in chapter 3. The first of these is important to bear in mind, because rather frequently attempts have been made to establish the meaning of the word "soul" by appealing to statements made in the Psalms. This would be analogous to establishing the exact meaning of an astronomical concept by reference to the words of poets inspired by moonlight. The poetic use of the word "soul," as we shall see, has a profound significance, but one should not use poetry for exact theological definitions.
     Consider, for example, the passing of Jacob where it is written in Genesis 49:33:

     And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up
the ghost [spirit], and was gathered unto his people.

     In fact, all the patriarchs so passed away: Abraham in Genesis 25:8; Isaac in Genesis 35:29; Ishmael in Genesis 25:17; and even Job wished to have died thus (Job 3:11; 10:18). In Job 34:14 and 15 it is stated simply that if God sets His heart upon a man and withdraws from him his spirit, he breathes out his last. Not unnaturally, those in the New Testament who were restored to life are described, not as having received again their soul, but their spirit. In Luke 8:54, 55, upon the occasion of the raising of Jairus' daughter by the Lord, it is written,

     And he put them all out, and took her by the hand, and called, saying,
"Maid, arise."
     And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway.

     In a nutshell, then, when God gives a spirit to a body, whether as in Adam's case to a body full grown, or in the case of an infant to a body newly born, or to one resurrected from the dead, that act generates a living soul. The soul, then, if this simplified statement of the matter is allowed to stand for the moment, is a resultant of the presence of a spirit which is God-given within a body, which is woman-born. Accordingly, there could be no soul to a bodiless creature, and both angels and demons are spirits, not souls.
     Although the following is repetition, it may be useful at this point to summarize the propositions made above, giving the biblical references for each statement:

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 The spirit is given and taken away by God.    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .  Ecclesiastes 12:7
 It is formed by God.   .   .   .   .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   . Zechariah 12:1 
 God is the God of the spirits of all flesh.   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .   . Numbers 16:22 
 God is the Father of the spirits of the saved.   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .  . Hebrews 12:9 
 At death God gathers the spirit to Himself.    .    .    .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .     Job 34:14,15 
 When the time comes, man cannot retain it.   .    .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    . Ecclesiastes 8:8 
 Ananias and Sapphira surrendered their spirits.   .   .   .   .     .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .   . Acts 5:5,10 
 Stephen commended his spirit into Jesus' keeping.   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   . Acts 7:59 
 Jesus dismissed His Spirit.    .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .  Matthew 27:50, etc. 
 Once the spirit has left the body, the body is dead.   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .   . James 2:26 
 The spirit departs with the last expiration of breath.    .   .      .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .   . Genesis 25:8,17; 35:29; 49:33; and Job 27:3; 34:14,15 
 The spirit is given with the drawing of the first breath.   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   . Genesis 2:7; Job 27:3 
 In any resurrection from the dead it is the spirit which returns to the body.   .    .   .   .   .   Luke 8:55; Ezekiel 37:5 
 The spirit made perfect is kept by God waiting to be clothed with a resurrected body.   .  .  Hebrews 12:23
 It is the spirit, not the soul, which is born again.   .   .  .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    . John 3:3,7 
 The flesh lusts against the spirit not the soul.   .    .    .    .     .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .   . Galatians 5:17 
 The spirit is willing: the flesh is weak.   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   . Matthew 26:41 
 We are to glorify God in spirit and body.   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .   . 1 Corinthians 6:20 
 The body may be lost but the spirit saved.   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .  . 1 Corinthians 5:5 
 Cleansed in body and in spirit.   .   .   .   .   .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .   .    .    .    .   .   .  

 2 Corinthians 7:1

     These, therefore, spirit and body, appear to be the components out of which man basically becomes a living soul: part is from heaven and part is from earth. In view of the fact that animals also have souls, as we have seen, we might logically expect to find that they also must have spirits, and this is stated to be so in Scripture. The statement is an interesting one, for it shows that while man shares this much of his total being with the animals, there is a fundamental difference which is revealed in their destinies. Like the animals, man's body returns to the dust, but unlike man, the spirit of the animal also returns to the earth. In Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 it is written,

     For that which befalleth the sons of man, befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man has no pre-eminence above the beast: for all is vanity.
     All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust again.
    Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?

     It is true that the writer was taking a very pessimistic view of things, nevertheless, this statement is part of the Word of God and interpreted in the light of what has been said above, is logically consistent

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with the rest of Scripture in the context in which it appears.     
     So much, then, for a series of passages which seem to indicate that man is essentially a dichotomy, but may with equal justice be referred to as a trichotomy, since his total nature involves not merely a spirit indwelling a body, but a resultant, the soul, which for all its dependence nevertheless has a real existence.
     Let us examine a number of passages which may help in the more exact definition of the soul -- and which support the argument here proposed. Then, later in the third chapter we shall see an important series of passages of Scripture which do not support the argument, and we shall see whether the disagreement is real or only superficial.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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