Christian anthropology

Christian anthropology

In the context of Christian theology, theological anthropology refers to the study of the human ("anthropology") as it relates to God. It differs from the social science of anthropology, which primarily deals with the comparative study of the physical and social characteristics of humanity across times and places.

One aspect studies the innate nature or constitution of the human, known as the nature of humankind. It is concerned with the relationship between notions such as body, soul and spirit which together form a person, based on their descriptions in the Bible. There are three traditional views of the human constitution – trichotomism, dichotomism and monism (in the sense of anthropology).[1]


Terms or components


The body (Greek σῶμα soma) is the corporeal or physical aspect of a human being. Christians have traditionally believed that the body will be resurrected at the end of the age.

Rudolf Bultmann states the following:[2]

"That soma belongs inseparably, constitutively, to human existence is most clearly evident from the fact that Paul cannot conceive even of a future human existence after death, `when that which is perfect is come' as an existence without soma – in contrast to the view of those in Corinth who deny the resurrection (1 Cor. 15, especially vv. 35ff.)."[3]
"Man does not have a soma; he is a soma"


The semantic domain of Biblical soul is based on the Hebrew word nepes, which presumably means “breath” or “breathing being”[4]. This word never means an immortal soul[5] or an incorporeal part of the human being[6] that can survive death of the body as the spirit of dead[7]. This word usually designates the person as a whole[8] or its physical life. In the Septuagint nepes is mostly translated as psyche (ψυχή) and, exceptionally, in the Book of Joshua as empneon (ἔνμπεον), that is "breathing being"[9].

The New Testament follows the terminology of the Septuagint, and thus uses the word psyche with the Hebrew semantic domain and not the Greek[10], that is an invisible power (or ever more, for Platonists, immortal and immaterial) that gives life and motion to the body and is responsible for its attributes.

In Patristic thought, towards the end of the 2nd century psyche was understood in more a Greek than a Hebrew way, and it was contrasted with the body. In the 3rd century, with the influence of Origen, there was the establishing of the doctrine of the inherent immortality of the soul and its divine nature.[11] Origen also taught the transmigration of the souls and their preexistence, but these views were officially rejected in 553 in the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Inherent immortality of the soul was accepted among western and eastern theologians throughout the middle ages, and after the Reformation, as evidenced by the Westminster Confession.

On the other hand, a number of modern Protestant scholars have adopted views similar to conditional immortality, including Edward Fudge and Clark Pinnock; however the majority of adherents hold the traditional doctrine.[citation needed]> In the last six decades, conditional immortality, or better "immortality by grace" (κατὰ χάριν ἀθανασία, kata charin athanasia), of the soul has also been widely accepted among Eastern Orthodox theologians, by returning to the views of the late 2nd century, where immortality was still considered as a gift granted with the value of Jesus' death and resurrection[12]. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has held to conditional immortality since the mid-1800s.


The spirit (Hebrew ruach, Greek πνεῦμα, pneuma, which can also mean "breath") is likewise an immaterial component. It is often used interchangeably with "soul", psyche, although trichotomists believe that the spirit is distinct from the soul.

"When Paul speaks of the pneuma of man he does not mean some higher principle within him or some special intellectual or spiritual faculty of his, but simply his self, and the only questions is whether the self is regarded in some particular aspect when it is called pneuma. In the first place, it apparently is regarded in the same way as when it is called psyche – viz. as the self that lives in man's attitude, in the orientation of his will."[13]


"Flesh" (Greek σάρξ, sarx) is usually considered synonymous with "body", referring to the corporeal aspect of a human being. The apostle Paul contrasts flesh and spirit in Romans 7-8.

Constitution or nature of the person

Historically, Christian theologians have differed on how many components make up the human being.

Two parts (Dichotomism)

The traditional Christian view, still held by a large number of lay Christians and theologians, is that the human being is made up of 2 components: material (body/flesh) and spiritual (soul/spirit). The soul or spirit departs from the body at death, and will be reunited with the body at the resurrection.

Three parts (Trichotomism)

A minority of theologians have argued that human beings are made up of three distinct components: body/flesh, soul, and spirit. This is technically known as trichotomism. The biblical texts typically used to support this position are 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12.[14]

One part (Monism)

Modern theologians increasingly hold to the view that the human being is an indissoluble unity.[14] This is known as holism or monism. The body and soul are not considered separate components of a person, but rather as two facets of a united whole.[15] It is argued that this more accurately represents Hebrew thought, whereas body-soul dualism is more characteristic of Greek philosophy and Platonic thought. Monism is the official position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Monism also appears to be more consistent with modern neuroscience, which has revealed that the so-called "higher functions" of the mind are emergent from the brain, rather than being based in an immaterial soul as was previously thought.[16]

An influential exponent of this view was liberal theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Oscar Cullmann was influential in popularizing it.

Origin of humanity

The Bible teaches in the book of Genesis the humans were created by God. Some Christians believe that this must have involved a miraculous creative act, while others are comfortable with the idea that God worked through the evolutionary process.

God's image in the human

The book of Genesis also teaches that human beings, male and female, were created in the image of God. The exact meaning of this has been debated throughout church history.

Origin/transmission of the soul

There are two opposing views about how the soul originates in each human being. Creationism teaches that God creates a "fresh" soul within each human embryo at or some time shortly after conception. The Roman Catholic Church officially teaches the soul is created at the very moment of conception.[17] Note: This is not to be confused with creationism as a view of the origins of life and the universe.

Traducianism, by contrast, teaches that the soul is inherited from the individual's parents, along with his or her biological material.

Sinful nature

Christian theology traditionally teaches the corruption of human nature. However, there have been a range of views held throughout church history. Pelagius taught that human nature is not so corrupt that we cannot overcome sin. Arminians believe that our nature is corrupt, but that free will can still operate. Saint Augustine believed that all humans are born into the sin and guilt of Adam, and are powerless to do good without grace. John Calvin developed the doctrine of total depravity.

Death and Afterlife

Christian anthropology has implications for beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Christian church has traditionally taught that the soul of each individual separates from the body at death, to be reunited at the resurrection. This is closely related to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. For example, the Westminster Confession (chapter XXXII) states:

"The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them"

Intermediate state

The question then arises: where exactly does the disembodied soul "go" at death? Theologians refer to this subject as the intermediate state. The Old Testament speaks of a place called sheol where the spirits of the dead reside. In the New Testament, hades, the classical Greek realm of the dead, takes the place of sheol. In particular, Jesus teaches in Luke 16:19-31 (Lazarus and Dives) that hades consists of two separate "sections", one for the righteous and one for the unrighteous. His teaching is consistent with intertestamental Jewish thought on the subject.[18]

Fully developed Christian theology goes a step further; on the basis of such texts as Luke 23:43 and Philippians 1:23, it has traditionally been taught that the souls of the dead are received immediately either into heaven or hell, where they will experience a foretaste of their eternal destiny prior to the resurrection. (Roman Catholicism teaches a third possible location, Purgatory, though this is denied by Protestants and Eastern Orthodox.)

"the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day." (Westminster Confession)

Some Christian groups which stress a monistic anthropology deny that the soul can exist consciously apart from the body. For example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches that the intermediate state is an unconscious sleep; this teaching is informally known as "soul sleep".

Final state

In Christian belief, both the righteous and the unrighteous will be resurrected at the last judgment. The righteous will receive incorruptible, immortal bodies (1 Corinthians 15), while the unrighteous will be sent to hell. Traditionally, Christians have believed that hell will be a place of eternal physical and psychological punishment. In the last 2 centuries, annihilationism has become more popular.

See also


  1. ^ Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd edn, 537
  2. ^ Bultmann, Rudolf (1953) (in German). Theologie des Neuen Testaments. Tübingen: Mohr. pp. 189–249.  (English translation Theology of the New Testament 2 vols, London: SCM, 1952, 1955)
  3. ^ Bultmann, I: 192
  4. ^ Hebrew-English Lexicon, Brown, Driver & Briggs, Hendrickson Publishers.
  5. ^ Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
  6. ^ Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Father Xavier Leon Dufour, 1985.
  7. ^ New International Dictionary.
  8. ^ New Dictionary of Biblical Theology
  9. ^ “A careful examination of the βiblical material, particularly the words nefesh, neshama, and ruaḥ, which are often too broadly translated as “soul” and “spirit,” indicates that these must not be understood as referring to the psychical side of a psychophysical pair. A man did not possess a nefesh but rather was a nefesh, as Gen. 2:7 says: “wayehi ha-adam le-nefesh ḥayya” (“. . . and the man became a living being”). Man was, for most of the biblical writers, what has been called “a unit of vital power,” not a dual creature separable into two distinct parts of unequal importance and value. While this understanding of the nature of man dominated biblical thought, in apocalyptic literature (2nd century BCE–2nd century CE) the term nefesh began to be viewed as a separable psychical entity with existence apart from body.… The biblical view of man as an inseparable psychosomatic unit meant that death was understood to be his dissolution.”—Britannica, 2004.
  10. ^ Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament
  11. ^ The early Hebrews apparently had a concept of the soul but did not separate it from the body, although later Jewish writers developed the idea of the soul further. Old Testament references to the soul are related to the concept of breath and establish no distinction between the ethereal soul and the corporeal body. Christian concepts of a body-soul dichotomy originated with the ancient Greeks andwere introduced into Christian theology at an early date by St. Gregory of Nyssa and by St. Augustine.—Britannica, 2004
  12. ^ Immortality of the Soul, George Florovsky.
  13. ^ Bultmann, I:206
  14. ^ a b Bruce Milne. Know The Truth. IVP. pp. 120–122. 
  15. ^ "The traditional anthropology encounters major problems in the Bible and its predominantly holistic view of human beings. Genesis 2:7 is a key verse: ‘Then the {{subst:LORD}} God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (NRSV). The ‘living being’ (traditionally, ‘living soul’) is an attempt to translate the Hebrew nephesh hayah, which indicates a ‘living person’ in the context. More than one interpreter has pointed out that this text does not say that the human being has a soul but rather is a soul. H. Wheeler Robinson summarized the matter in his statement that ‘The Hebrew conceived man as animated body and not as an incarnate soul.’" (Martin E. Tate, "The Comprehensive Nature of Salvation in Biblical Perspective," Evangelical review of theology, Vol. 23.)
  16. ^ AJ Gijsbers (2003). "The Dialogue between Neuroscience and Theology". ISCAST. 
  17. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church - Man
  18. ^ D. K. Innes, "Sheol" in New Bible Dictionary, IVP 1996.

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