A review of Pre-existentialism, Traducianism and Creationism
Have you ever wondered, when did our souls come into being and how they got here? If the amount of literature devoted to the subject is any indicator, not too many Christians contemplate this question in any degree of depth. Of course, most Christians today would affirm that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, including not only all peoples of the earth but all combinations of physical and non-physical components of the individual person. This is well and good, we should affirm this, but what of our original question? How do theologians explain this?
The most common view today is one of dualist anthropology, that a human being is comprised of two distinct and divisible parts of material body and immaterial soul. Some variants include a ‘trichotomist’ view of body-soul-spirit and a ‘monist’ view of inseparable human nature. (this author, who lands on the side of the latter view often referred to as ‘materialism’, has as of yet, no aversion to the term monism and is cognisant of the fact that his preference may colour his studies; and what’s more, he’s aware that Christian monism renders the content of this study moot, but hopefully not entirely uninteresting)
British M.P. and atheist, the late Charles Bradlaugh certainly asked pertinent questions in his lecture “Has Man a Soul?”1 presented to the Sheffield Secular Society. “The orthodox tell me that my soul has an immaterial existence, – independent of all climatic conditions – independent of all education. Is that so?” challenges Bradlaugh. “When does the soul come into man?” “By the course of reasoning you (he) adopt, says the orthodox objector, you reduce man (again he, Bradlaugh, reduces man) to the same level as beasts. And why not?”2 Please note that at this juncture Bradlaugh espouses views that elevate particular races of people over others. Even in his more scholarly essay which bears the same title, the offense is not removed. In fact it is expanded, so reader discretion is advised.
The barrage of pointed questions continue: “When did the soul come into the body? Has it been waiting from all eternity to occupy each body the moment of birth? Is this the theory that is put forward to man – that there are many millions of souls still waiting, perhaps, in mid air, ‘twixt heaven and earth, to occupy the still unborn babies? Is that the theory? Or do you allege that God specially creates souls for each little child at the moment it is born or conceived? Which is the theory put forward? Is it that the soul being immortal – being destined to exist for ever, has existed from all eternity? If not, how do you know that the soul is to exist for ever, when it only comes into existence with the child? May not that which has recently begun to be, soon cease to be? Is it a baby’s soul, and does it grow with the child? Or does it possess its full power the moment the child is born?”3
These are only a fraction of the questions contained in the essay. Questions that were posed hypothetically to lead an audience,4 but they are not the only ones to ever ask such questions. Some theologians have also grappled with these issues. While it is true that most Christians who ask themselves these sorts of question generally hold to a dualist view of human nature and begin building from that platform, it’s also true that some have taken the time to examine the very platform itself.
With theologian Louis Berkof’s work, Systematic Theology setting our parameters, we will begin by politely excusing the trichotomists’ view and assimilating it into the dichotomists’ or dualists’ view and unify them into one on account of their similarities. Berkof writes, “It is customary, especially in Christian circles, to conceive of man as consisting of two, and only two, distinct parts, namely, body and soul. This view is technically called dichotomy. Alongside of it, however, another made its appearance, to the effect that human nature consist of three parts, body, soul, and spirit. It is designated by the term trichotomy.”5 Berkof summarizes “Some are of the opinion that the words soul and spirit denote different elements. It is evident, however, that the two words soul and spirit are used interchangeably. The two terms denote the spiritual element in man from different points of view”6 Historically, the trichotomists’ view “was gradually discredited” through the Latin Church who’s “leading theologians distinctly favoured the twofold division of human nature.” Dualism became the common view of the Middle Ages and the “Reformation brought no change in this respect.”7
Another theologian, G.C. Berkouwer, writes on the in-house ‘fight’ the trichotomists and dualists had among their selves pertaining to the soul’s origins. Fight is surely an overstatement, and even when this debate was being played out it certainly wasn’t raucous enough to garner any significant attention. The debate revolved chiefly around the doctrine of original sin and its transmittance to the individual which will not be directly dealt with in this article; but this led theologian to consider three options they deemed worthy of inspection.
Pre-existentialism: The theory that souls of persons existed in a previous state and that certain occurrences in that former state accounts for the condition in which those souls are now found. This is easily recognized as the view of Plato, who believed in both a pre-existence of souls and also transmigration of souls as well. Greek philosophy devoted considerable attention to the human soul and made its influence felt in Christian theology. Origen was the chief representative of this view and combined it with the notion of a pre-temporal fall.8 This view was quickly met with disfavour on several grounds. Pre-existentialism was determined as to be without Scriptural support steeped in heathen philosophy. It connected the soul to its body as an incarceration for a pre-temporal fall, making the body accidental and punitive. As William Shedd points out “Pre-existence confines the idea of species to the body.”9 This view was anathematized by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553 and never resurfaced with any legitimacy in Christian circles.
Traducianism: The theory that souls are propagated along with the bodies by generation and are transmitted to the children by the parents. Supporters of traducianism have advanced several arguments in favour of their view, namely that; God but once breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life and then left man to propagate the species. (Gen 1:28, 2:7) Nothing is said of the creation of Eve’s soul (Gen 2:23) which is said to be ‘of the man’(1 Cor 11:8) Traducianists point out that God ceased from His creative work after He had made man (Gen 2:2) and that descendants are said to be in the loins of their fathers (Gen 46:26, Heb 7:9) Other arguments include the inheritance of family traits and similar mental peculiarities which appear independent of physical influence and transcend education or environment support traducianism. Finally, it offers the best explanation for the transmittance of moral and spiritual depravity which is viewed as a matter of the soul rather than the body. Berkof notes, “It is quite common to combine with traducianism the realistic theory to account for original sin”10
Objections to traducianism are many. If a child’s soul be ‘broken off’ from its parents souls, so to speak, doesn’t this violate each soul’s completeness of individuality? If a child’s soul is derived from its parents, doesn’t this enter the territory of the pre-existentialist view? One of Berkouwer’s objections is that traducianism “introduces a series of intermediaries between God and man”11 forming an ancestry that is too horizontal. Herman Bavinck raises an objection that is unique to him. He suggests that traducianism violates the human Imago Dei, claiming that if the theory is true then, “both the sperm and ovum possess the actual creative power to impart an immortal spiritual being.” His logic leads him to conclude that one could “lapse into evolutionary theory implying that animal life can gradually and of itself develop into human life.”12 Finally, traducianism and Christology have never cohabitated peacefully; sinless Jesus is a descendant of Adam.
Creationism: This theory holds that each soul is a direct immediate creation of God. The precise time of its creation cannot be determined nor can the precise moment of its transformation from purity to depravity. Reformed theologians favour this view, citing that the Scriptures suggest that body and soul have different origins. Eccl 12:7, Isa 42:5, Zech 12:1, and Heb 12:9 These verses are “the classic citation of creationists.”13 In the Hebrews text, the ‘fathers of our flesh’ are contrasted with the ‘Father of spirits’ and the conclusion was drawn that this taught a literal creationist position of God as Father of spirits/souls. Creationism works better to safeguard the sinlessness of Jesus.
Creationism has difficulties as well. The most glaring is that it implies God creates sinful souls. This most serious objection is stated by Augustus Strong, “This theory, if it allows that the soul is originally possessed of depraved tendencies, makes God the direct author of moral evil; if it holds the soul to have been created pure, it makes God indirectly the author of moral evil, by teaching that He put this pure soul into a body which will inevitably corrupt it.” This is undoubtedly the most serious difficulty of creationism. Another is that it disassociates the individual from the account of Adam’s fall in Eden. Other, non-serious challenges to creationism are that it doesn’t account for family traits of mental and moral similarities; and also that it is not in agreement with the manner which God works in the present world through secondary causes as opposed to current creative activity.
As a general rule of thumb, Lutherans have held to traducianism ever since the time of the Reformation, while creationism has been favoured by Reformed theologians. Roman Catholicism holds to creationism as a type of barricade against the theory of evolution. Not wanting to delve into the scientific aspects of human origins, the Catholic Church can remain agnostic on evolution and yet undermine it “for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”14 Its current catechisms state: “the Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not ‘produced’ by the parents.”15
Of course, there have always been exceptions to the general rule. Augustine leaned towards traducianism, yet never dogmatically so. William Shedd and Augustus Strong (Presbyterian and Baptist respectively) drifted from their denominations slightly by siding with traducianism. No matter where one lands on this issue or even if one sees exploring the inner workings of substance dualism as an exercise akin to tilting at windmills, all Christian can agree Berkouwer’s words are a fitting conclusion;16 “There is no science, no theology, which can unveil for us the mystery of man. All words and terms that are used are insufficient to unveil for us this secret. We can speak of relationship and dependence and creatureliness; but ever again it will become clear why we find the most meaningful words about this mystery in the words of God, or, as an echo, in words of prayer: Thy hands have made and fashioned me!” Psalm 119:73.
- not to be confused with Bradlaugh’s much more scholarly essay of the same name in his 1895 work Theological Essaysnot to be confused with Bradlaugh’s much more scholarly essay of the same name in his 1895 work Theological Essays
- Has Man a Soul? Charles Bradlaugh, kindle location 11
- ibid, location 34
- “It is not intended as an answer to the question which forms the title, but it is intended to provoke thought upon this important subject” – C. Bradlaugh
- Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, Part Two, Section II A: The Constituent Elements of Human Nature, kindle location 4492
- Louis Berkof Summary of Christian Doctrine, page 51, Eerdmans Publishing 2005
- Berkof, Systematic Theology, Part 2 Section II, kindle location 4501
- ibid, Part Two, Section II, B, kindle location 4610
- W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Volume 2, Anthropology, chapter 1, Man’s Creation
- Berkof, Sys Theo., Pt. 2, Sec. II, loc.4664
- G.C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics, Man: The Image Of God, p. 289
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, p.583
- Berkouwer, Dogmatics, p. 298
- Humani Generis no.36, Pope Pius XII Papal Encyclical, 1950
- Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992, no.366
- Berkouwer, Dogmatics, p. 308,309