This exploration of human nature provides a general orientation to the topic in biblical thought. We do not delve into the fascinating topics of the mind, the brain, the self, the genetic bases of human behavior, cognitive neuropsychology, artificial intelligence, biology and ethics, social construction, and the specific qualities required for personhood. Nonetheless, we may conclude that the biblical view of human nature is a repudiation of any ontological dualism between body and soul along with the frequent cynical response to malevolent behavior: that's human nature.
Humanity In The Bible(1)
There are certain inherent understandings about human nature in the biblical view: (l) each person is a unique individual - (s)he has the power to act under his/her own initiative; (2) as a whole, mankind is a good creation of God, firmly tied to the finite world, but with the important qualifications of dominion and stewardship, a freedom to move within the limits of time and space, and to affect the course of history; (3) the real criteria for the exercise of that freedom is its correspondence to the will and intention of God - there are right and wrong modes of conduct. In substance, these considerations make one aspect about mankind central to biblical religion: by design, human beings are in relation. They are in relation to their environment, to God, to their neighbors, and to the larger human community. This is a natural consequence of each person's status as a personal being. Women and men enter into contact with events, objects, and characters surrounding them. Moreover, as noted by Wright, "The central fact about the place of man in creation according to the Old Testament is the dignity and honor accorded him by God."(2) Elsewhere it has been noted:
[In the Bible] the individual is in a special relationship to the Creator. Human uniqueness lies not chiefly in our reason or in our relationship to nature. Instead, each person is a worthwhile, unique individual created by God. ...Human beings are regarded...as made "in the image of God"; that is, the Creator has endowed us with unique attributes of a free agent capable of love, characteristics analogous to God's own self-expression.(3)
(1) Dr. Cherbonnier's Hardness of Heart: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Doctrine of Sin is available in its entirety in the Cherbonnier subsite. The book is part of the Christian Faith Series edited by Reinhold Niebuhr. Also, a sermon by RTN on persons as unique children of God (entitled as Pentecost and Baptism) may be found in the Reflections subsite.
(2) G. Ernest Wright, "The Faith of Israel," The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1952), I, p. 367.
(3) H. H. Titus, M. S. Smith and R. T. Nolan, Living Issues in Philosophy, 9th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 30f.
The Human Soul
It is important to distinguish between the classical mysticism and biblical religion's contrasting value of human activity. A key premise is that mystical religion encourages an escape from (or downplay of) this world, while the biblical recognizes a vibrant involvement with it. A significant factor that supports this motif relates to the concept of the human soul.
The image of the soul projected by perennial philosophy is of a "divine spark" trapped within the human body. In this sense, everyone carries within himself a share of ultimate reality, of the Wholly Other. Thus, one can refer to the "God within," or in the extreme, "I am God." An implication, however, is that there is no real human claim on the soul; it is strictly a trace of the Absolute, which at death automatically escapes the body and eventually returns to its point of origin. In human nature, there is a "higher self," the soul or spirit, which aspires to the perfection of Pure Spirituality; there is also the "lower" state that is associated with all physical needs and desires. Perennialism, therefore, is consistent in its approach to human nature, because ultimately it divides individuals into two realms, one part that is a trace of the "wholly other" and another part that is finite. The primary motivation is to pull these two realms even further apart, to minimize, deny or renounce the body and the finite, so that the One can retrieve that small "portion" of itself which is trapped in the natural world.
The biblical image of the human soul is distinctly different: it is God's gift. God has made man as inherently good, in God's own image, i.e., with the ability to act, to make decisions, and enter into relation. The logical extension of this interpretation is that the human soul, through an act of God's grace, remains uniquely human, though not necessarily mortal. According to biblical religion, "The soul is not an entity with a separate nature from the flesh and possessing or capable of a life of its own. Rather it is the life animating the flesh."(4) By way of elaboration, others have noted:
Nephesh means primarily "breath." ... (It) is often used also with the meaning "living being," human or otherwise. In Gen. 2:7 the first man became a living nephesh when Yahweh's breath (a different word) was breathed into his nostrils. ... Frequently the best translation of the ... word is "person." ... Clearly the word "soul" in the Bible has a much broader meaning than in current use now.(5)
One might also say that a human being is a "breather."
Man is a living soul. This sentence, which corresponds easily to Gen. 2:7, says three things: It says first of all that man became a living soul and now is a living soul. It does not say that man has a living soul. Soul is the nature of man, not his possession. ... The second thing that the sentence says is that man is a soul. Were man only flesh made from the dust he would be only body. Were man only spirit without body, he would be formless.(6)
(4) James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Scribner's, 1963), p. 932.
(5) Millar Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), pp. 135ff.
(6) L. Kohler, Old Testament Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), p. 142.
The third implication, according to Kohler, is that man has a body, for "Form is essential to the soul."(7)
The famous verse in Genesis (2:7) does not say, as is often supposed, that man consists of body and soul; it says that Yahweh shaped man, earth from the ground, and then proceeded to animate the inert figure with living breath blown into his nostrils, so that man became a living being, which is all that nephesh here means. ... the important thing here is the conception of man as body, not as soul or spirit. The Hebrew idea of human personality is an animated body, not an incarnated soul.(8)
The soul, therefore, is a functioning, integrated aspect of human nature and of behavior. It represents that part of human consciousness which moves toward fellowship with God. This is not, however, a union of like parts, of the fragment returning to the whole, but rather two individual identities joining together in positive relation, in communion. The soul can then be spoken of as being active, not as the prisoner of the body, but as its animating conscience. It enters into human activity, directing that action by offering up possibilities which correspond to the will of God.
Another scholar has written:
... for many theological anthropologists, it is axiomatic that the original Christian vision of humanity followed the Jewish tradition in affirming human life as a 'psychosomatic unity', distinguishing, but never separating the soul and the body as different dimensions of human existence. What is distinctive about the Christian vision of humanity, therefore, is not that it posits the existence of an additional entity, the soul, not recognized by other anthropologies, but that it posits the existence of an additional relation - a relation to God, as creator and redeemer - which encompasses all other relations which define us as individuals. The insistence that the human being is an 'embodied soul' or an 'ensouled body', and not a soul somehow occupying a body, is now not just the conclusion of arguments in theological anthropology but also the premiss of arguments in some other theological disciplines, and this is one measure of success of the campaign against dualism in the second half of the 20th century.(9)
Human Freedom and Grace
An essential feature of human nature is freedom. It is the ability to form judgments and then to act accordingly. As Cherbonnier states:
.... all human endeavor presupposes freedom, including the enterprise of philosophy itself. For the philosopher depends upon the distinction of true from false B that is, on the freedom to distinguish true from false. Take away freedom and you thereby preclude all
(8) H. W. Robinson, "The Psychology and Metaphysics of 'Thus Saith Yahweh'," Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft XLI (1923), p. 2 of a mimeographed edition provided in a 1957 class by Theodor M. Mauch, Th.D.
(9) Colin Crowder, Humanity, The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings, et al (New York: Oxford, 2000), p. 313.
Acting from this position of freedom puts humans either with or against God's intentions. Human choices are to be made. That God's Holy Spirit totally controls anyone's behavior and the flow of events (as believed by some fatalists) is utterly absent from biblical thought. Uninformed disciples of particular spiritualities ironically, often devoted to the Bible may be heard repeatedly transferring their own responsibilities to The Lord whom they seem to believe will take care of all their problems. Contrary to that fantasy, in the Bible human initiative (and responsibility) - often inspired by the Spirit - is central.
Obviously, the biblical interpretation seems much less certain than the perennial. It appears that the idea of a divine spark makes an individual's union with God much more likely. Two points of clarification follow: first, union is not dependent on any condition of human nature; at death, the divine spark inevitably returns to Pure Spirituality (in some versions, after a series of reincarnations), like a drop of water merging into an ocean. Second, the method by which that union is achieved is a type of spiritual suicide; the mystic, recognizing the duality of human nature, represses the natural tendencies of the body to enter into relation with the finite. Thereby the divine within his own being can leave him and return to Oneness; that divinity, however, is unconscious by definition--it has nothing to do with a personal, human nature. Ultimately, no part of the human being ever comes into relation, communion, with Oneness, because Pure Spirituality cannot be related to anything external to itself; it is Wholly Other. As noted elsewhere about this biblical motif:
In Judaism and Christianity we have the capacity to act under our own initiative; we have the freedom to move within the limits of time and space. We can alter the paths of history, but not God's ultimate sovereignty or the final outcome of the historical process. ...because we have the freedom to make choices, we can choose to disobey and rebel against the Creator; a choice of false gods is one cause of an individual's separation from the true God.(11)
The Bible does not address the limitations on some individuals' freedom to choose - due to psychological conditioning, chemically caused inhibitions, and physiological constructions (e.g., the "wiring" of their brains). Degrees of freedom to choose is a discovery remaining imprecise, but significant. It may be fair to assume that each person is free to make significant choices, unless compelling evidence to the contrary is provided. However, though undeveloped as a doctrine in the Bible, the New Testament especially recognizes that, for whatever reasons, individuals need God's grace to live in harmony with the Creator's purposes. In Cherbonnier's words, which do not include "grace,"
The gift of a transformed heart frees men at last to come into their own; to inherit the high destiny originally prepared for them; to exult with a joyous company in the glorious liberty of the sons of God.(12)
(10) Cherbonnier, "Jerusalem and Athens," p. 265.
(11) Titus, Smith, and Nolan, op. cit., p. 31.
(12) Cherbonnier, Hardness of Heart, p. 188.
Instead of grace, Cherbonnier uses agape as the transforming agent. The writer of this text is also reluctant to use "grace" too often, because the term seems to be used in several fuzzy, even sloppy, ways. Not incompatible with Cherbonnier's comments on agape, a British theologian offers these helpful comments:
We begin by repudiating all notions of grace which think of it as a something given by God to work mechanically, after the manner of a medicine given by a doctor to be taken three times a day after meals. We think of God's grace after the analogy of that help which one (individual) can give to another in personal relationships, help which does not set aside or supersede a man's own freedom but enables him to be more truly himself and more fully free: the sort of help which leads him to say with gratitude, "I could never have been what I am but for X."(13)
We propose here that biblically speaking, grace is synonymous with love. Because of human limitations, individuals are unable to establish truly personal, faithful relationships with God solely by their own efforts. God's active love, his grace, is extended to mortals that they might become more aligned with God's purpose. Coupled with human willingness and initiatives, grace enables women and men to process toward a fuller communion with God and each other. This is not unlike a quite limited infant being loved by a parent, who reaches out to the child with affectionate support and nurture. Such parental love, like God's grace, neither coerces nor controls nor bargains with the child; instead, freely given, it enables, strengthens, and empowers. The recipient of such love/grace remains free to respond or not.
That human beings have become inherently depraved (sinful) as a biblical (Genesis) conviction is remedied by Professor Richardson's observation:
Man's capacity for truth, beauty and goodness is thus seriously impaired, and God's image in man is defaced. But it is not destroyed. The only sense in which the Bible may be said to teach the total depravity of man is in its recognition that every part of man's nature is corrupted by his rebelliousness (pride); there is no part of him (e.g., his reason) which remains unaffected by the Fall. There still remain in man, though fallen, vestiges of the divine image and likeness, e.g., his capacity, however fragmentary and distorted it may now be, to exercise reason, conscience or creative workmanship.(14)
Impaired, defaced, corrupted, and fallen are stronger words than some would use to develop a biblical doctrine of human nature. An alternative term is shackled. Whether this less than ideal condition is intrinsic to human nature or rapidly learned in community remains in dispute. Cherbonnier comments:
A man is as the quality of the volitional attitudes which impinge on him. A newborn infant who came into the world completely without sin would still be inevitably affected by the emotional environment in which we all live - a milieu which any psychiatrist can testify
(13) "Christian Doctrine - Lecture Summaries," p. 43 [notes by an unknown student of the lectures by British theologian Dr. Leonard Hodgson while a visiting professor at the Berkeley Divinity School, New Haven, in the 1958-9 academic year. RTN has had a copy of the unpublished, 58 page, mimeographed document since his 1959-60 academic year of study at Berkeley.]
(14) Alan Richardson, Adam, A Theological Wordbook of the Bible, ed. A. Richardson (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 14.
is thoroughly shot through by strategies and structures of malice. From the moment of birth he becomes a victim, not of a defective human nature, but of what man has done to man. Obliged to defend himself in such a world, he then grows up to become a party to the perpetuation of hardheartedness in his own right.(15)
Adding insights, Professors Burrows and Wright comment:
The Old Testament has no doctrine of the fall of man. Sin, as disobedience, simply began when the first man and woman disobeyed God. In Gen. 3, the origin of sin is no more stressed than any of the other etiological elements in the story; furthermore, the story plays no part in any discussion of sin in the rest of the O.T.(16)
This fall of man from God's gracious communion, a conception which has played such an important role in Christian theology, does not, however, separate him completely from God's grace. . Furthermore, to the priestly editor the fall does not mean that God's image has been effaced from man (cf. Gen. 9:6). Yet it does mean that man can expect no simple peace or security in this life apart from God's judgment, known both in natural and historical tragedy, and apart from God's gracious salvation.(17)
In contrast to the perennial, the (later) biblical view of human destiny (of personal survival after death) makes the eventual fellowship between God and human beings a possibility, but only a possibility. It is not automatic and cannot be brought about through the exercise of mystical disciplines or practices; there is no formula or method that can make it happen. A person's relationship with God is grounded in the individual's choice of a course of life. It can be in direct opposition to God or toward harmony with him; the nature of a person's decision determines his destiny. If a human soul or spirit enters into fuller communion with God, it does so with two important qualifications: first, it does so not according to necessity, but by the quality of human nature - individuals are able to decide their own courses of action; second, the soul retains the personal essence of the person - -it is not an unconscious element in human nature, but is a vital, active part of the human character. The spiritual reunion between God and mortals is not the vision of the piece returning to the whole, but of "persons" coming into a relationship. Biblical philosophy, therefore, allows human beings to be mortal, to have a range of action, alternatives and options. Among these choices is the ability to come into an everlasting, mutual relation with God, a concept that is logically impossible for mystical religion. One commentary on this topic follows:
Beliefs about life after death as it relates to human nature are found in two forms in the Hebraic traditions. First, the ancient Hebrew view as a community rather than as achieving an individual, personal life beyond the grave. Because there is not detachable soul, death brings about the individual's demise. The ongoing people of God, including a person's legacy of children and deeds, continues. In a rather undeveloped form, some Hebrew people held to a vague notion that the dead lingered on in a region outside or under the
(15) Cherbonnier, Hardness of Heart, p. 136.
(16) Burrows, p. 168
(17) Wright, p. 369.
earth, not in God's presence. Not particularly attractive terms designate this spot: "Ditch," "Pit," "Realm of Death," and "Sheol." Preventing a future of total extinction and giving sharp focus to this life, such a secondary religious tenet does suggest the continuance of a component, however minor, of human nature. The precise nature of this element was simply not of concern. Just before the New Testament period, Hebrew civilization pictured a different life after death, which included a restored communion with God. As was the case in earlier times, philosophical speculations about the nature of existence in the life hereafter were secondary.(18)
The second general form of Hebraic views of life after death posits that by acts of God, deserving(19) persons may be resurrected or transfigured to everlasting life. The physics of such a change is not a biblical concern. Transformed, resurrected persons may continue their self-aware life in the greater presence of God. Notions of purgatory, hell, and hell-as-annihilation along with ideas of continued life at the moment of death or at a final judgment are among the speculations dotting the biblical literature and communities.
Bernhard W. Anderson speaks to this issue well in the two pages excerpted from his 1999 volume Contours of Old Testament Theology (Augsburg Fortress):
(18) Ibid., p. 400.
(19) Over the centuries many adherents of biblical religion have proposed many contrasting and conflicting standards for qualifying as a person "deserving" life after death in the presence of God.
This writer would like to add that the hopes and uncertainties connected with issues of life after death can be put in perspective. By trusting the Creator to do with each of us whatever is appropriate, human beings can focus on the challenges of living in the here and now as a covenant community.