Publicat de: centruldeistoriesiapologetica | Decembrie 7, 2007


IBTS din Praga (International Baptist Theological Seminary/Seminarul Teologic Baptist Internaţional) este un seminar liberal. Idealul său în ultima vreme este să fie un seminar ecologist. Susţine ordinarea femeilor (am fost martor la oficierea Cinei Domnului de către o pastoriţă, nu am participat la Cină, dar pentru aceasta era să fiu exmatriculat), predă teologia narativă (in esenţă – scriptul Scripturii, naraţiunea, este interpretabil relativ cu comunitatea credincioşilor locali – o relativizare a absoluturilor), are tendinţe ecumenice, are profesori heterodocşi (ex. Nancy Murphy – care afirmă în lecturile sale Teologia în era postmodernă, [text ataşat mai jos, pentru cititorii de literatură englezească] în mod subtil că Dumnezeu este doar o cauză – top down causation, omul nu are suflet şi Dumnezeu este doar o manifestare (termenul consacrat în părinţii bisericii este monarhianism: modal şi adopţionist). IBTS este versiunea „mai ieftină” şi metamorfozarea Seminarului Baptist de la Rushlikon, Elveţia.

Bordul de Garanţi (Board of Trustees) este un fel de Comitet Executiv desemnat din partea Federaţiei Baptiste Europene şi are ca şi preşedinte, pe anul 2007, o pastoriţă ordinata pe nume Ruth Gouldbourne. În logica mea, membrii Bordului de Garanţi sunt selectaţi astfel ca ei să fie în linie cu direcţia Seminarului, pentru ca bunul mers al acestei instituţii să fie garantat. În concluzie, este rezonabil să opinez că membrii Bordului au aceeaşi filozofie şi linie teologică? Redau mai jos câteva selecţii şi vizitaţi, chiar acum, site-ul la următoarea adresă pentru „Surprize, surprize” (scroll down şi click pe fotografie), apoi, dacă aveţi timp, parcurgeţi şi materialul inclus mai jos.

Îm caz că nu reuşiţi, ataşez fotografia Bordului de Garanţi pe 2007:





The International Baptist theological Seminary is wholly owned by the European Baptist Federation. This consists of over fifty Baptist Unions and Conventions in Europe and the Middle East. No other regional area within the Baptist World Alliance has such an institution. Therefore, amongst Baptists this is a unique institution.


Ultimate ownership and authority rests in the Council of the European Baptist Federation which meets once a year in different parts of Europe and on which every Union and Convention is represented.


The Council of the European Baptist Federation appoints a Board of Trustees to serve as the executive committee of the Council in the running of the seminary. This is one of two executive committees of the EBF. The Council also directly appoints the Chair of this Board of Trustees and the Rector of the seminary.

The Board of Trustees normally meets twice a year to receive reports from the Rector and Directorate and to take decisions on issues of principal and in major policy areas.


The Revd Dr Ruth M B Gouldbourne

Vice Chair and Chair of the Finance, Personnel and Public Affairs Committee
Mr David E Nixon

Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee
The Revd Dr Ruth M B Gouldbourne

The Revd Keith G Jones


Professor Graham W Ashworth

University of Salford



The Revd Ruth M B Gouldbourne

MA ( St Andrew University)

BD ( King’s College, London)

DPS ( Spurgeon’s College)

PhD (London University)

The Revd Gregory Nichols MDiv

BA (Moody)

MDiv (Wheaton)



Dr Rollin W Grams

B.A. ( University of Michigan )

M.T.S. (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary )

Ph.D.( Duke University)

Dr Cheryl A Brown

BA (Oral Roberts University)

MA (Institute of Holy Land Studies)

Ph.D (University of California)

Joined IBTS in 2000

E-mail address:


The Revd Professor Nancey Murphy

BA (Creighton)

PhD (Berkley)

Th.D (Berkley

Lecturer in Ecumenism

Professor Eric Geldbach PhD (University of Bochum)



by Nancey Murphy

November 3, 2003

International Baptist Theological Seminary

1. Introduction

The subtitle of my lecture is “Beyond Modern Liberalism and Fundamentalism.” I have long been interested in the bifurcation of Protestant theology into these two independent, sometimes warring camps—the liberal and the conservative. Now I want you to notice that I have just shifted terminology: I am actually going to be concerned with a broader group of Christians on the right, both fundamentalists and evangelicals.[1] Evangelicals, such as we teach at Fuller Theological Seminary, are sometimes called neo-fundamentalists because many of them have abandoned the more extreme positions of the fundamentalists, such as scriptural inerrancy. However, there are a lot of conservative Christians who associate themselves with the evangelical movement, but have never been associated with fundamentalism.

Intellectually, this is an interesting puzzle: What caused the split? Why is there a split rather than a spectrum of positions? This intellectual puzzle has taken on personal interest for me because I took my theological education at The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California (GTU), clearly on the liberal side, and then went to teach at Fuller, clearly on the conservative side. Had I stayed in liberal institutions I probably would never have even known Fuller existed. Since I have begun teaching there, I have come to know first-hand the suspicion, and sometimes hostility, between these two camps. The most amusing thing is that some acquaintances from my earlier GTU days seem systematically to misunderstand things I say—now that I have “Fuller Seminary” under my name.

I have decided therefore that we need a new sort of ecumenical movement—in addition to the very important moves toward unity among Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Orthodox. We need an ecumenical movement to bring together these two estranged halves of Protestantism.

A number of years ago I wrote a book, titled Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda.[2] The conclusion I have reached, which you might guess from the subtitle, is twofold: First, modern philosophy is largely responsible for the bifurcation of Protestantism. But, second, all of the philosophical positions responsible for this split have now been called into question by philosophers themselves. So we have to ask, what will theology be like in the next era, an era that we might call “postmodern” if we didn’t have to compete for the word with Jacques Derrida?

Let me restate the two theses of this book in a little more detail. The first is that modern philosophy (that is, from about 1650 till 1950) has provided constraints within which theologians needed to work if they were to be understood. There were assumptions about very basic issues such as the nature of knowledge, of language, of causation, that modern theologians, as moderns, have inevitably shared with their culture. It is the philosophers’ job to make these assumptions explicit.

In each case—with regard to knowledge, language, causation—these philosophical assumptions have provided limited options to theologians for making sense of their discipline. In fact, they were limited to two options. This, I claim, is the reason why there are two strands of modern Protestantism, not a spectrum of options: liberalism and fundamentalism.

Claude Welch characterises the liberal tradition as follows: There is an

emphasis on divine immanence as a corrective to the Latin overemphasis on transcendence . . . , [and] thus a different view of God’s relation to the natural and historical process and an evolutionary perspective; the understanding of revelation not as an intrusion but as correlative to human discovery, as a process of God disclosing himself through genuine human means in a never-ending process of criticism and experiment; religious experience as a verifiable datum comparable to scientific data; the Bible as a document of religious experience and thus a different sort of authority.[3]

If we take the foregoing as an account of the liberal type of theology, we might construct a parallel account of conservative theology, both fundamentalist and conservative evangelical. First, in place of an emphasis on God’s immanence there is a focus on God’s power to intervene in natural and human affairs. Second, revelation itself is an intervention into human life, conveying information about God and God’s relation to the universe. The Bible’s authority derives from God’s direct revelation. So, third, it is the Bible, not experience, that functions as the data for theology. Finally, the emphasis on revelation as a source of information about divine realities hints at the conservatives’ representative or propositionalist theory of religious language.

We are living at a point in intellectual history where two worldviews overlap. It is widely recognised that the major assumptions of the era of modernity are being called into question. We are struggling to make sense of the intellectual world in the wake of these criticisms. Thus, many say that this is the beginning of the postmodern era. The advantage of living at such a time is that we become much more aware of the assumptions governing our thought. The disadvantage is that we have much less of a sense of where we are going, intellectually, than at more settled times. Since the future is so unpredictable, I shall have less to say about it than the past. In this set of lectures I hope to make clear the central structures of modern thought that have had a pervasive (and I would say, destructive) influence on modern theology, and then briefly indicate where theology may be going next. In this first lecture I shall summarise my earlier conclusions regarding the influences of modern epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of language. In the next two lectures I shall focus on modern theories of human nature, and suggest that we are now moving toward an account of the human person that will be much more congenial to Christian theology and spirituality.

2. Knowledge as a Building

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a mid-century philosophical revolutionary, suggested that it is pictures rather than propositions, metaphors rather than statements, which determine our philosophical convictions. Thus, it was a fateful day for modern Christians when the philosopher René Descartes was kept indoors by a cold spell. He seems to have divided his attention between contemplation, on the one hand, of the architecture that he could observe from his window and, on the other, of the ideas in his mind, which he could ‘observe’ by means of introspection. It was here, apparently, that the metaphor of knowledge as a building first gripped the philosophical imagination. Here are Descartes’s own words:

We never tear down all the houses in a city just to rebuild them in a different way and to make the streets more beautiful; but we do see that individual owners often have theirs torn down and rebuilt, and even that they may be forced to do so when the building is crumbling with age, or when the foundation is not firm and it is in danger of collapsing. By this example I was convinced that . . . as far as the opinions which I had been receiving since my birth were concerned, I could not do better than to reject them completely for once in my lifetime, and to resume them afterwards, or perhaps accept better ones in their place, when I had determined how they fitted into a rational scheme. And I firmly believed that by this means I would succeed in conducting my life much better than if I built only upon the old foundations and gave credence to the principles which I had acquired in my childhood without ever having examined them to see whether they were true or not.[4]

Notice the imagery. A system of knowledge is like a building, whose soundness depends on its foundation. If the foundation is not solid it may need to be torn down and rebuilt on a new and stronger foundation. Philosophers are just now coming to recognise how influential this metaphor has been throughout the modern period—both in formal “foundationalist” theories of knowledge and in everyday life. If you think you have not been affected by this view, consider how we talk about knowledge. Suspicions are unfounded or groundless or baseless; good arguments are based on the facts, and are well constructed.

My thesis is that foundationalism has had a powerful influence on the development of modern theology. Theologians have conceived of theology as a building needing a solid foundation. But what is that foundation to be? The short answer is that there are really only two options: Scripture or experience. Conservative theologians have chosen to build upon Scripture; liberals are distinguished by their preference for experience. This forced option, I suggest, has been a major cause of the split between liberals and conservatives.

3. Science and Causation

I want now to try to sketch another picture that has held moderns in thrall. In the years following Isaac Newton’s formulation of the laws of mechanics, modern philosophers and scientists came to think of the universe as a gigantic machine. Perhaps the most striking proponent of this view was Pierre Simon de Laplace, who envisioned every atom in the universe as a component in an unfailingly precise cosmic clockwork mechanism. He was not unaware of the theological implications. There is a famous story in which Napoleon is said to have asked Laplace about the role of God in his system. Laplace replied: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

The discussion of divine action in a law-governed universe began with the movements of the planets, and if the problem only concerned astronomical predictions and calculations, it would be of no great concern to the theologian. However, another feature of the modern worldview ensured that the issue of natural laws would cut to the very core of Christian belief. This is the reductionist view of physical reality.

Reductionism can be defined as the view that the whole is nothing but the sum of its parts. In one sense, reductionism is obviously true, even if vacuous. Yet when it is said, in addition, that the characteristics and behaviour of the whole can be entirely explained in terms of the characteristics and behaviour of the parts, a significant metaphysical claim has been made. This latter, more robust claim has been an important characteristic of modern thought.

The reductionist tendencies in modernity no doubt owe much to the birth of the science of chemistry and its success in explaining chemical phenomena on the basis of the atomic theory of matter. The success of the analytic method in this area has led to a general view of scientific method as analysis, and to a view of the sciences as hierarchically ordered: physics is at the bottom, then chemistry, then biology. As psychology and sociology were developed they took their places above biology. This ordering reflects the composition of the entities studied at each level: the societies that sociologists study are made up of the individuals psychologists study; the individuals are made up of organs and tissues; and so on down to the most basic entities. The goal of science, as many have understood it, is to reduce each science to the next lower level—to explain sociological phenomena in terms of individual psychology, just as chemical properties were explained in terms of the behaviour of sub-atomic particles.[5]

However, if all of the sciences ultimately reduce to physics, and if (as was supposed until the twentieth century) the laws of physics are strictly deterministic, then the whole universe (or at least the whole physical universe) is causally determined. So this is the second picture gripping the modern imagination—the sciences stacked one on another, and everything determined from the bottom up.

This conclusion creates dramatic problems for theologians. For one, how do immaterial minds or souls interact with bodies whose movements are strictly determined by the laws of physics—if indeed there are such things as immaterial minds or souls? This will be one focus of my second lecture.

Similarly—and now we are back to our central problem—how does God act in such a world? That is, if science gives a complete and adequate account of the causes of all events, where, if at all, is there room for God to act? Again, modern theologians have found only two strategies. Conservatives take an interventionist approach to divine action—God is sovereign over the laws of nature and is able to overrule them to produce special divine acts. Here is Princeton theologian Charles Hodge responding to the question of how God relates to the laws of nature:

The answer to that question, as drawn from the Bible is, First, that He is their author. He endowed matter with these forces, and ordained that they should be uniform. Secondly, He is independent of them. He can change, annihilate, or suspend them at pleasure. He can operate with them or without them. “The Reign of Law” must not be made to extend over Him who made the laws. Thirdly, as the stability of the universe, and the welfare, and even the existence of organized creatures, depend on the uniformity of the laws of nature, God never does disregard them except for the accomplishment of some high purpose. He, in the ordinary operations of his Providence, operates with and through the laws which He has ordained. He governs the material, as well as the moral world by law.[6]

Liberals tend to take an immanentist approach, emphasising God’s action in and through all natural processes. The liberal view emphasises the universal presence of God in the world, and God’s continual, creative, and purposive activity in nature and history.[7] This view makes it possible to understand progress, both evolutionary progress in the natural world and human progress in society, as manifestations of God’s purposes.

The primary motive for emphasising God’s action within natural processes was not only the acceptance of the modern scientific view of the world as a closed system of natural causes, but also the judgement that a view of divine activity as intervention reflected an inferior grasp of God’s intelligence and power. That is, it suggested that God was unable to achieve all of the divine purposes though an original ordering, and also that God was inconsistent in willing laws and then also willing their violation. In short, the higher view of divine action was one in which God did not need to intervene. Thus, the interpretation of divine activity in terms of miracles tended to disappear in the liberal tradition.

I believe that there is no other single factor that has such thorough-going consequences for theology; thus, the divide between liberals and conservatives on this issue opens a veritable chasm between their theological outlooks. For instance, this issue is of fundamental importance in determining one’s views on theological method and Scripture. Recall that the foundationalist model of knowledge called for indubitable beliefs as a starting point for theology, and that modern theologians have found only two possible sources for such beliefs: Scripture or a special sort of universal religious experience. The connections between these two topics are as follows: If one holds an interventionist view of divine action, then it is perfectly reasonable to expect God to intervene in the world of human thought. In other words, the revelation contained or reported in Scripture is one instance among many of direct, providential actions of God.

The liberal preference for experiential foundations is directly related to the immanentist view of divine action. Since God does not directly impart knowledge of religious realities, this knowledge must arise within human consciousness by natural means—by perception of the divine dimension within or under surface realities. A common way of putting the matter in contemporary language is to say that religion involves the perception of the meaning of events, as opposed to mere knowledge of the facts.

So we see that theologians cannot simply mix and match the options provided by modern categories. One’s choice of an account of divine action fairly well determines one’s view of revelation, and hence one’s account of theological method. An interventionist account of divine action allows for an account of direct revelation, and makes Scripture the best candidate for the sort of unquestionable knowledge that is needed for theological foundations. An immanentist account of divine action requires a strong role for religious awareness, and Scripture, then, is best interpreted as a record of such experience.

4. The Picture Theory of Language

Do you have a theory of language? Probably it is not something you have thought about. Most people do not. For this reason, pictures of how language works are some of the most gripping in modern consciousness. When we are aware of the metaphors that shape our thought, we can evaluate them critically and recognise their limitations. Since most of us are not aware of the metaphors or pictures that shape our understanding of language, we tend to be less critical.

The picture that has governed modern theories of language can be called “the picture picture.” That is, we imagine language to mirror or represent reality. In the sentence, “the cat is on the mat,” the word ‘cat’ refers to the cat, the word ‘mat’ to the mat. ‘On’ designates the spatial relation between them, and thus, the sentence as a whole is a picture of the fact or state of affairs.

However, as this pictorial approach to language came to dominate modern philosophy, it was recognised that whole realms of discourse, such as ethics and aesthetics, could not be treated in the same manner as factual discourse. This prompted the elaboration of a second theory of language—or, more precisely, the elaboration of a theory of second-class language. For example, in the 1930s, A. J. Ayer claimed that ethical judgements, having no factual meaning, serve merely to express the attitudes or moral sentiments of the speaker.[8] Hence we may call this the expressivist theory of language. In general, it stated that language that is not factually meaningful, if significant at all, merely expresses the attitudes, intentions, or emotions of the speaker. [9]

So here we come to another divide between liberal and conservative theologies. In speaking of religious language, conservatives emphasise factuality, truth, precise representation. I suggest that the conservatives have remodelled the mainline representative theory of language, allowing for religious language to represent unseen realities.

The liberals, in contrast, have developed a variety of expressivist theories of religious language. Here knowledge of God arises from religious experience, and the first job of religious language is to express adequately that awareness. Here is a statement of this view of language by feminist theologian Patricia Wilson-Kastner:

Theology and religious faith are not the same. Religious faith constitutes a fundamental personal relationship to the sacred. Faith may be expressed in a variety of physical, emotional, or intellectual ways, but they all spring from a primary, suprarational acceptance of the divine, rooted in a sense of the presence of the Ultimate to the self. Theology is the rational spelling-out and explaining of one’s faith. There are many possible explanations, even for the same individual, and therefore many possible theologies. Theology is a superstructure which arises from a faith, and expresses it on one significant but limited level. . . . [Notice, by the way, the foundationalist imagery. She continues]

If one were to search among other human acts for a comparison to the activity of faith, the best would be, I think, aesthetic experience. Insight, intuition, creativity, and appreciation—each has its analogue in a faith which both apprehends and feels itself grasped by the divine, reaches new depths of itself and others, and enjoys the beauty of all in light of the Ultimate. Theology, in this case, is most comparable to activities like aesthetics, or art or literary criticism. It is a limited, modest, always inadequate, but absolutely essential endeavor to explain intellectually what beauty is, how it is present in and to us, and how we realize it. At the same time, to claim that any faith is perfect or any theology the final or full answer is as absurd as the notion that any artist has perfectly apprehended or expressed all beauty.[10]

Again, it will not do to mix and match. The representational theory of language depends on scriptural foundationalism. That is, the problem for the representational theory is epistemological: how is one to know that doctrinal sentences accurately represent invisible, supernatural realities? The only plausible answer is, by means of divine revelation in the sense of intervention.

Similarly, the expressivist theory of religious language coheres with and reinforces experiential foundationalism. If the essence of religion is feeling, an inner awareness, then expressivist language is really the only sort possible for first-order religious language. But religious perceptions do not come with precise descriptions attached. The human race must grope for adequate ways to communicate an awareness that is of a different order from awareness of the physical universe. The appropriate kind of language is symbolic or metaphorical. It is not, in any straightforward sense, a representation of objective external realities.

I want to read again the descriptions of liberal and conservative theology with which I began, and now I hope you will catch the words that distinguish the two camps, and will see where these differences have come from. Here is Claude Welch’s characterisation of the liberal tradition. He speaks of an

emphasis on divine immanence as a corrective to the Latin overemphasis on transcendence . . . , thus a different view of God’s relation to the natural and historical process . . .; the understanding of revelation not as an intrusion but as correlative to human discovery, as a process of God disclosing himself through genuine human means in a never-ending process of criticism and experiment; religious experience as a verifiable datum comparable to scientific data; the Bible as a document of religious experience and thus a different sort of authority.[11]

Did you recognise the immanentism, expressivism, and experiential foundationalism there?

My parallel account of conservative theology emphasised, first, in place of the theory of God’s immanence, a focus on God’s power to intervene in natural and human affairs. Second, revelation itself is an intervention into human life, conveying information about God and God’s relation to the universe. The Bible’s authority derives from God’s direct revelation. So, third, it is the Bible, not experience, that functions as the foundation for theology. Finally, the emphasis on revelation as a source of information about divine realities hints at the conservatives’ representative theory of religious language.

5. A New Picture of Knowledge

My plan for the second half of my lecture is to pay some attention to recent (so-called ‘postmodern’) changes in philosophy and their effect on theology. I claim that all three of these pictures that beguiled modern thinkers have been called into question. We need to see what consequences this has for theology.

To remind you, the three pictures we have considered are the picture of knowledge as a building needing an indubitable foundation; “the picture picture” of language; and the picture of all of the sciences in the hierarchy reducing to physics.

First, let us see what is happening in contemporary understandings of knowledge.

The first crack in the foundationalist doctrine came with philosopher of science Karl Popper’s admission that even if science is like a building, the facts that support it do not constitute a solid foundation. In 1935 he wrote:

The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or ‘given’ base; and if we stop driving the piles deeper, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that the piles are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.[12]

The decisive break with foundationalism came with the works of W.V.O. Quine. Quine’s most important contribution was an entirely new picture or metaphor for knowledge: knowledge as a web or net. Quine writes:

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions re-adjustments in the interior of the field. Truth values have to be redistributed over some of our statements. Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections—the logical laws being in turn simply certain further statements of the system, . . . But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements in the interior of the field, except indirectly through considerations of equilibrium affecting the field as a whole.[13]

Apart from the picture, the ways Quine’s theory of knowledge differs most decisively from foundationalism are, first, that there need be no indubitable (that is, foundational) beliefs. Second, Quine recognises that we need not, nor could we, ever start over from scratch as Descartes imagined. For holists, justification of knowledge claims is never more than showing that the problematic beliefs are logically tied to other beliefs that we have no good reason to call into question.

There has already been considerable development of holist epistemology since Quine wrote in 1951. Later holist thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn in philosophy of science and Alasdair MacIntyre in philosophical ethics have explored the ways in which knowledge is dependent on traditions; that is, they have looked at the historical dimension of knowledge. It is interesting that starting from such different branches of knowledge, they have both concluded that traditions generally grow out of the attempt to interpret some authoritative text, and apply it to ever-broadening contexts of experience. In a scientific paradigm, the texts will be something like Newton’s Principia or Lavoisier’s Chemistry. In ethics, the texts might be Christian Scripture, or Homer’s epics, or Kant’s Critiques.

The shift from foundationalist to holist epistemology has dramatic consequences for theology. First, it eliminates the need to decide whether to begin theology with Scripture or experience. In fact, it makes such a choice impossible. All traditions, including theological traditions, are ongoing attempts to account for current experience in light of the vision of reality provided by a formative text. As David Kelsey points out, the sentence “Christian Scripture is authoritative for Christian theology” is analytic.[14] Part of what it means to participate in a tradition is to seek increasingly appropriate ways of interpreting and applying the texts. Second, neither the text nor the relevant experience has to have the special indubitable character required in foundationalist accounts.

Ronald Thiemann, in his book Revelation and Theology has developed a holist account of theological method. Borrowing directly from Quine, Thiemann states that holist justification consists in seeking the relation between a disputed belief and the web of interrelated beliefs within which it rests. Holism, he says,

understands justification as a process of rational persuasion. We convince someone of something by appealing to beliefs he already holds and by combining these to induce further beliefs in him, step by step, until the belief we wanted finally to inculcate in him is inculcated.[15]

Thiemann is most interested in justifying belief in God’s prevenience—that is, the belief that our thought and speech about God are developed in response to God’s prior initiative. Thiemann claims that the disputed belief in God’s prevenience is logically tied to both beliefs and practices that are not in dispute among Christians and, further, that these beliefs and practices are so central that to give them up would constitute a drastic change in Christian identity.

So our new picture of knowledge, including theological knowledge, is of a three-dimensional web or network of beliefs, stretching from the present back into the past, back to some authoritative text, and bounded by an ever-broadening range of experience. In theology, then, Scripture and experience have different sorts of roles to play and neither can be ignored.

6. The End of “the Picture Picture”

Two philosophers, working simultaneously at Oxford and Cambridge, are largely responsible for calling the picture theory of language into question. One of these is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the other is J. L. Austin. If the modern metaphor has been that of language as a mirror or picture of reality, we might say that the new image is language as a tool, or language as action. Both Austin and Wittgenstein emphasise the use of language to do things in the social world. Austin’s work is especially interesting for the way he overcomes the sharp distinction, enshrined in modern theories, between representative and expressive language. Recall that modern philosophers, having found no way to give an account of moral, aesthetic, or religious statements in terms of the worldly states of affairs they represent, had argued that there is a second kind of language, whose function is merely to express the attitudes, emotions, or intentions of the speaker.

Austin’s analysis represents a great advance—from the view of language as having one central function—stating facts or ideas—to a view of language as performing any number of kinds of functions. Austin noted that we use language to do things: we make promises and requests, we thank, we chide, we confess. To understand the meaning of any utterance we must ask what speech-act is taking place. The meaning (the idea, the proposition) is but a part (although an important part) of the doing.[16] For example, in the request “Please pass the bread,” the propositional content is that the bread be passed, but we miss what is happening if we do not know that this is a request rather than a wish or a description.

From that vantagepoint he went on to ask what conditions needed to be fulfilled in order for language to work. He pointed out that speech acts generally have both a representative dimension and an expressive dimension. For example, if I promise you I shall end this lecture on time, there is a crucial representative dimension—a connection to the way the world is. I have to actually be giving a lecture, and it has to be some minutes before the appointed time. But there is also an expressivist dimension. To make such a promise I have to mean it. The words must truly express my intention.[17]

There are a variety of theologians and philosophers of religion who are beginning to make use of this new conception of language. One is George Lindbeck, who approaches the question of the nature of doctrine by asking, what is it that doctrines do? His answer is that they function as rules governing other sorts of religious language.[18] I know that many of you are pastors, and so you may be interested especially in the use of Austin made by Thomas Long, professor of preaching at Princeton Seminary.

In this generation, at least in the homiletics taught in the U.S., there has been a reaction against the use of a proposition to bridge the gap between the biblical text and the sermon. The propositional approach, it is argued, reflects the view that what Scripture is for is primarily to present ideas. The idea can be extracted from the text and then explicated (perhaps in a better way than in the Scripture itself?). However, it is said that sermons organised around ideas, with their three points and numerous sub-points, tend to be dull; and idea-oriented sermons suggest over time that being a Christian can be boiled down to a set of beliefs.[19]

Long’s response is to point out that Scripture must be understood not only in terms of what it has to say, but also in terms of what it intends to do. A general answer to the question: what does Scripture intend to do? is that it functions to shape Christian identity. And this is not just the identity of the first readers or hearers; the Scriptures are living resources for transforming the lives of Christian communities here and now. Particular texts will do this by means of a variety of other acts: by offering reassurance, by challenging the church’s thinking, by evoking faith or hope, by moving to action, and so forth.

Long describes the bridge leading from text to sermon as a “claim”—in the sense of the text’s claim upon the congregation. The claim has two components: the focus statement, which is a concise description of the central, controlling, and unifying theme of the sermon; and the function statement, which is a description of what the preacher hopes the sermon will create or cause to happen for the hearers—the change it intends to produce in them. Both should grow directly out of the exegesis of the text, but within the context of an actual Christian community. The claim answers the question: What does this text want to say and do to and for this particular congregation?

Long’s emphasis on the doing as well as on the saying is a clear implementation of Austin’s philosophy of language.

7. The End of Reductionism

There is one more change I want to tell you about. The developments in philosophy of language and epistemology that I have described are all well-known to philosophers, even though they have not yet been thoroughly appropriated by theologians.

The most pressing need, however, is to undo the modern reductionist picture of the sciences. So long as we imagine all of the natural world to be a vast conglomerate of subatomic particles, governed by the laws of physics, we will be confounded in our attempts to speak meaningfully of divine action. I am convinced that neither of the modern theological views will do. Immanentism makes divine action merely “rubber-stamp” consent to the operation of natural laws. Interventionism conflicts with the concept of the conservation of matter and energy, making God a quasi-physical cause among causes.

Because early modern science was so influential in the development of the reductionist view of causation, one may expect that the postmodern challenge also come from science. Some contemporary scientists argue that in addition to the old bottom-up account of causation, the concept of “top-down causation” is also necessary to give a complete scientific account of reality. Against the view that parts unilaterally determine the characteristics and behaviour of wholes, these theorists maintain that irreducible features of the whole also help determine the characteristics of the parts. Thus, the postmodern rejection of causal reductionism involves recognition of two-way influences between part and whole. Biochemists were among the first to notice this: chemical reactions do not work the same in a test tube as they do within a living organism. In order to give a complete causal account, one needs to consider the higher-level system, which includes the chemical process interacting with its environment, the organism. Systems theory and ecology are two relatively new sciences that specialise in top-down analyses.[20]

Arthur Peacocke, a biochemist-turned-theologian, has made good use of these developments. Building on this non-reductionist account of the hierarchy of the sciences, he argues that the ultimate system is the system that includes God in relation to the entire universe. Thus, theology ought to be conceived as the topmost science in the hierarchy. This puts him in a position to argue that God should be expected to influence natural processes by means of top-down causation.[21]

Although Peacocke’s theory of top-down causation is an important corrective to reductionist views of the universe, it still does not explain how God acts—it does not expose what Austin Farrer has called the “causal joint” between God and the world.[22] So there is much work to be done here. I recently attended a conference whose job was to evaluate a thirteen-year project on divine action in light of the sciences, and one of the conclusions we reached was that it is reasonable to understand divine activity as determining otherwise indeterminate events at the quantum level. This gives due recognition to God’s immanence within the most basic physical realities, and does not impute to God an interventionist role. Rather it sees God as cooperating with the most basic of his created entities in order to complete natural processes that are otherwise open and indeterminate.

A recognition of the role of top-down causation will also be the key to overcoming an unhealthy individualism in our concepts of ethics, political life, and ecclesiology. It offers promise, as well, for a holistic but non-reductionist theory of the human person, to which I turn in my next lecture.

8. Conclusion

It is time to sum up: My subtitle for this lecture was “Beyond Modern Liberalism and Fundamentalism,” and I hope to have shown some of the ways theologians might move beyond the differences that have so polarised Christians in recent generations. The postmodern positions I have described in philosophy and science will simply remove the need to take sides on some of the issues that have distinguished the two types of theology.

First, with a holist-traditionalist account of knowledge, choosing Scripture or experience as foundational is not an option; there are no foundations, and both Scripture and experience have irreplaceable roles to play in the tradition.

Second, postmodern philosophy of language makes it impossible to see religious language either as purely expressive or as purely representative. Some of the liberals’ caution about the ability of human language to describe divine realities will be in order. But postmoderns are entitled to affirm, with modern conservatives, that theological language is more than religious self-expression. Insofar as theological theories are shown to be well-supported we are entitled to say that they are about objective realities.

Third, the dissolution of the determinist view of the universe that results from the recognition of top-down causation and of the openness at the quantum level makes it possible to reconcile free actions of agents (both human and divine) with the existence of natural laws. Thus, theologians are not faced with the choice of assuming either that God violates the laws of nature or that God’s intentions must correspond exactly with the outcome of law-governed processes. In other words, it is now possible to conceive of special divine acts which accomplish God’s providential or revelatory purposes without having to suppose that they are, in any sense, against nature.

Will there be a rapprochement between left and right? Sociologists can probably answer that question better than I. The conceptual resources are there, but this does not guarantee their use. Philosophers can lead theological horses to water, but they can’t make them drink.

Lecture 2:



by Nancey Murphy

November 4, 2003

International Baptist Theological Seminary

1. Introduction

In my first lecture I argued that three important assumptions in modern thinking have had dramatic effects on Christian theology in the West, especially in mainline Protestantism. I looked at foundationalism in epistemology, a representational theory of language, and the metaphysical thesis that all causation can be reduced to causes at the level of physics. I claimed that these three assumptions all presented obstacles to theologians. In each case, there seemed to be only two routes to take, and this forced option resulted in the bifurcation of theology into types, which we loosely designate as liberal and conservative. The good news is that in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition all of these bothersome preconceptions have been criticised and replaced with new understandings of knowledge, language, and causation, thus opening the door to new creative moves for theologians.[23]

In this lecture and the following, I intend to add to my account of modern conceptions and postmodern alternatives. In both cases I shall be considering theories of human nature. Here I take up the basic question of what human beings are made of. The two modern options are dualism and physicalism. From the very beginning of the modern era it has been widely accepted that humans are composed of a body and a soul or mind, yet there has been, throughout the period, a growing number of those who believe that we are purely physical organisms.

I shall argue that neither modern dualism nor modern physicalism is a viable option. The way ahead is a new sort of physicalism based on rejection of the modern reductionist dogma. In this lecture I shall consider first some of the history of dualism and physicalism, and then explain how modern science has made both options problematic. Then I shall offer a more extended critique of modern reductionism than in my first lecture and shall end with a survey of developments in biblical studies suggesting that nonreductive physicalism may well be more compatible with biblical teaching than dualism.

In my final lecture I shall criticise another aspect of modern conceptions of human nature—the image of our true selves as being somehow inside our bodies—and suggest that the rejection of both dualism and modern inwardness would be a salutary change for contemporary Christianity, especially for those in the Anabaptist tradition.

2. A Brief History of Theories of Human Nature

The issue with which I shall be concerned in this lecture is what might be called the metaphysical make-up of the human person. Specifically, are humans composed of one kind of substance, a physical body? Although there are various terms available, I shall call this option physicalism. Or, are humans composed of two parts: a physical body and a non-material mind or soul? This is dualism. Or, are there three parts: body, soul, and spirit? This latter view is called trichotomism.

I became interested in this issue when I realised that most Christians are dualists or trichotomists, while philosophers and scientists are increasingly arguing for, or presupposing, physicalism. My concern was the appearance of conflict between Christianity and science. So my question was: what are the options for Christians? Is dualism an essential aspect of Christian teaching? I believed that a close look at the Bible and at the development of Christian theology could answer this question. Surely I could grab a book from the library that traced the history of this issue. So far I have failed to find one. I was further frustrated to find very little on this topic in histories of early Christian thought.

My next resort was to reference works, both theological and biblical. I looked up relevant words such as ‘body,’ ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘immortality,’ and ‘resurrection.’ I discovered something interesting: The views attributed to biblical authors varied considerably from one source to another. I came to the conclusion that they were a better indicator of the views assumed in the era in which they were written than of what the biblical authors actually believed. One important part of the history of these ideas, therefore, needs to be an account of the oversimplifications and even falsifications of earlier history. To do justice to this topic one would have to write not a single book, but a series of volumes. What then can I tell you in one lecture that does not contribute to the oversimplifications of history?

There are contributions to Christian views of human nature from a variety of sources. For a complete history one needs to trace developments in philosophy and then give an account of how Christian theologians have appropriated these theories. One also has to attend to influences from science.[24] Finally, as I have already suggested, one needs to look not only at the Bible itself but at the history of interpretations of what the Bible has to say on this issue. Hence, first, a very brief account of early philosophical sources. In the following sections I shall look at science and biblical criticism.

It is common to associate ancient philosophers with something like modern mind-body dualism, but this is an oversimplification, first, because the philosophers of Greece and Rome were not at all united on these issues. Second, it is difficult to think our way back to these ancient sources; we have a fairly precise concept of the material, which allows for a sharp distinction between the material and the nonmaterial. However, one of the contentious issues in ancient philosophy was the nature of matter itself. For many Greek thinkers reality was conceived of as a hierarchy of beings exhibiting varying degrees of materiality. One important question in ancient philosophy was whether or not the soul belonged to this gradation of material realities.

The two philosophers who have had the greatest impact on Christian theology are Plato and Aristotle. Plato (d. 348 BCE) described the person as a soul temporarily imprisoned in a body. The soul is immaterial and eternal, and accounts for human consciousness. Plato believed the soul to have three parts: reason; the spirited element, which initiates action; and the appetites.

Plato’s philosophy had a significant impact on the early development of Christian theology (and on Jewish thought, as well) largely through the Neoplatonists, who elaborated on his ideas and incorporated them into religious systems. Augustine (354-430 CE) has been most important here because of his influence on both Protestant and Catholic theology and in the development of Christian spirituality. He made much use of Neoplatonic philosophy in his treatment of theological issues; however, he was compelled to make some modifications in the Platonic conception of the soul. A human being is a rational soul using a mortal and material body, not imprisoned in the body. The Augustinian soul is also tri-partite, but the ‘parts’ are slightly different: our modern conception of the will is an Augustinian notion, and the will, rather than reason, is the highest or dominant aspect of the soul. Finally, while the soul is immortal, it does not exist eternally before incarnation. In my final lecture I shall examine another of Augustine’s innovations, the image of the person, the real self, as being able to enter into the soul and there communicate with God.

Plato’s student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) thought of the soul not as an entity, but more as a life principle—that aspect of the person that provides the powers or attributes characteristic of the human being. Plants and animals have souls as well—nutritive and sensitive souls. Our souls incorporate the nutritive and sensitive powers, but in addition provide rational powers. Because the soul is a principle of the functioning of the body, it dies with the body (although Aristotle speculated that perhaps some aspect of rationality survives death).

Aristotle’s conception of the soul and body fits well into his general conception of reality. All material things are composed of matter and form. The form is an immanent principle that gives things their essential characteristics and powers. So the soul is but one type of form. This will be important to recall when we consider the impact of modern physics on conceptions of human nature.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the most influential of Catholic theologians, developed a largely Aristotelian conception of the person, but needed to make some qualifications. While he believed Aristotle’s philosophy helped Christians to appreciate Christian teaching on the resurrection of the body, he still believed that Christian doctrine required that there be an immortal soul to which the body would be restored at the general resurrection, and thus argued (not very cogently) that Aristotle was wrong about the mortality of human souls.

Thomas’s theoretical approach to the nature of the soul was to ask first what kinds of activities humans engage in, then to reason to the kinds of operative powers needed to explain such actions, and finally to conclude to the sort of entity needed to account for all of these powers. The activities he recognised included the biological functions of growth, assimilation of food, and reproduction; a higher set included sensation, emotional responses to what is perceived, and locomotion. The highest faculties are the cognitive functions of understanding, judging, and reasoning, along with the ability to be attracted to the objects of the understanding (will). This latter faculty is what accounts for human moral capacities, as well as for the attraction to God.

In general, what we see in both Greek philosophical speculation and medieval theology is the recognition that human beings have some remarkable capabilities all their own (such as doing mathematics and philosophy) and others that they share with animals (sensation). It did not seem possible to attribute these powers to the body, and so they developed theories about an additional component of the person to account for them. Since living persons can do all of these things and corpses cannot, the soul is also taken to be the life principle.[25]

3. The Impact of Modern Science

So Thomas had a very tidy account of human nature that fit well into the science of his day. Many Catholic theologians to this day hold similar view of the soul as the “substantial form” of the body.

One aspect of Reformation thought was the attempt to free theology of philosophical influences. This meant specifically the rejection of the scholastic theologians’ Aristotelianism, but it often resulted not in the avoidance of philosophy per se, but rather in a conscious or unconscious return to the Platonism inherent in earlier Augustinian theology. My focus here will not be on the Reformation, although an interesting research project would be to investigate the Anabaptists’ accounts of human nature and compare them with Catholic and mainline Protestant theories. Instead I want to look at the consequences of modern science.

Galileo (1564-1642) and Copernicus (1473-1543) are famous for their roles in promoting heliocentric astronomy. The revolution they initiated is said to have had a great impact on human self-understanding in that it displaced us from the centre of the universe. There were, however, much more important repercussions. Displacement of the Earth from the centre of the universe spelled the end of physics based on Aristotle’s hylomorphic conception of matter, and soon resulted in the development of corpuscular or atomist theories in physics.

The difference between atomism and hylomorphism depends on how one answers this question: Is matter infinitely divisible? Ancient atomism was based on the assumption that matter is not infinitely divisible; at some point one comes to particles that are “uncuttable.” The word ‘atom’ means, literally, uncuttable. Democritus and the other ancient atomists believed that the differences between one kind of material substance and another could be explained in terms of the qualities and organization of the atoms of which they are composed.

If one is not an atomist, then one needs an alternative account of the differences among material substances—what makes butter different from stone? Aristotle’s answer was inspired by Plato’s concept of the forms or ideas. Plato’s forms existed eternally in a transcendent realm and served as something like blueprints for material entities. In contrast, Aristotle believed that they were inherent in the material beings that they formed. It is the form that gives a thing its operative powers and directs its development. Transmission of the form in reproduction is what ensures that living things produce their own kinds. As I mentioned earlier, the forms of living things are also called souls. Plants, animals, and humans, according to both Aristotle and Thomas, have nutritive, animal, and rational souls, respectively.

Aristotle understood all motion on the model of biological change: because of their forms, things have their own particular essences that endow them with goal-directedness—for example, the acorn is endowed with the drive or tendency to grow into an oak tree. This thesis, combined with the ancient theory of the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire—provided an account of “natural” motions. At the same time it tied Aristotelian physics to astronomy. The natural place of the element earth is the Earth—the centre of the universe. Water, air, and fire naturally form concentric spheres around the Earth. Material things are composed of greater or lesser proportions of the element earth and therefore have a greater or lesser tendency to move toward the surface of the Earth when they are not constrained. They seek their natural positions.

If the Copernican theory is accepted, there is no longer an explanation in Aristotelian terms of why heavy objects fall toward the surface of the Earth. A whole new physics was required, and the obvious move was to attempt to resuscitate ancient atomism. So by early seventeenth century the Copernicans were ranged against the scholastic philosophers, attempting to explain motion, both earthly and heavenly, in atomist terms. Atomism, of course, was wildly successful in physics. The most direct effect of this change in understanding human nature was that the soul could no longer be understood as the form of the body; in this new worldview there simply is no such thing as a form. One of many tasks for modern thinkers, then, was to devise new accounts of the human person.

4. Modern Options: Dualism and Reductionism

There were two obvious responses to the new physics. One was simply to reject the ancient and medieval concept of the soul. Thus, physicalism was an obvious possibility. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1697) was one of the first to propose such an account. Hobbes’s entire account of human nature was based on the notion of particles in motion. Sensation is due to pressure on the sense organs; thinking is a matter of small motions in the head; and emotions are due to motions about the heart. Hobbes is best known now for his political philosophy. He sought to understand the commonwealth in terms of the attractive and repulsive forces among atomistic individuals. Hobbes’s physicalism did not have a great deal of influence at the time, but physicalism has recently become the predominant position in philosophy of mind. I shall come back to physicalism in a moment.

René Descartes (1596-1650) chose the other obvious option in response to the demise of the Aristotelian account of the person. He chose to return to a dualism of mind (or soul) and body along the lines of Plato’s and Augustine’s theories. Descartes distinguished two basic kinds of realities, extended substance (res extensa) and thinking substance (res cogitans); the latter included angels and human minds.

Notice that there is a linguistic shift here from ‘souls’ to ‘minds.’ Either term is a fair translation of Descartes’s Latin or French. For Thomas the mind was equivalent to the rational soul (intellect and will). For Descartes, everything of which we are conscious, including sensations, is a function of the mind, and all of the other faculties (such as the ability to move) are attributed to the body. Earlier translations of Descartes’s writings used ‘soul,’ but as this term has increasingly taken on religious connotations, translators have come to prefer the word ‘mind’ in most contexts. In contrast to the Aristotelians, Descartes believed that only humans have souls. Animals and the human body are complex hydraulic machines.

The shift from hylomorphism to atomism and substance dualism created what is now seen by many to be an insoluble problem: namely, mind-body interaction. Whereas for Aristotle and his followers the soul was but one instance of form, in modern thought the mind becomes an anomaly in an otherwise purely material world of nature. Furthermore, the very conception of matter has changed. Before the atomist revolution, matter and form had been correlative concepts—matter was that which had the potential to be activated by form. Matter (at least as unformed, prime matter) was entirely passive. For early modern thinkers, matter is also passive, inert. But now, instead of being moved by immanent forms, it is moved by external forces—physical forces. This creates a dilemma: hold on to the immateriality of mind, and there is no way to account for its supposed ability to move the body; interpret it as a quasi-physical force, and its effects ought to be measurable and quantifiable as is any other force in nature. But nothing of the latter enters into modern physics.

Now I am going to make a bold claim. I claim that nowhere in the modern era do we find a suitable account of human nature. The reason for this is one of the basic assumptions of modernity that I described in my first lecture. This is the reductionist thesis—the assumption that the behaviour of all natural entities is strictly determined by the behaviour of their parts. Recall that the dominant picture of the universe after Newton was of a giant clockwork mechanism. Descartes described the human body, likewise, as a mechanism. No wonder philosophers struggled thereafter to explain how a nonmaterial entity could interact with it. My own view, however, is that no matter how we might revise our conceptions of matter, the problem of mind-body interaction will remain.

The interesting option, then, is physicalism. The problem for modern thinkers was to account for free will, morality, and rationality if humans are purely physical and if reductionism is true. That is, if everything that occurs in the universe is governed ultimately by the laws of physics, how can it not be the case that everything we think and do is simply determined by the laws of nature? I shall attempt to show, later in this lecture, that physicalism is in fact an option for Christians so long as the reductionist assumption of modernity can be overcome. Thus, in the next section I shall address reductionism and attempt to show both why it has had such appeal, and also to indicate how it goes wrong. Before that, though, I need to note some modern attempts to evade the mechanistic view of nature.

There have been alternatives to both dualism and reductive physicalism at least since the writings of George Berkeley (1685-1753) in the 1700s. His theory was a form of idealism. If the Cartesian cosmic dualism of matter and mind is fraught with difficulties, one can do as Hobbes did and resolve mind into matter. The other option is to attempt to resolve matter into mind. So idealism is metaphysically monistic but takes all of reality to be essentially mental or mind-dependent. G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) has been its most important proponent; idealist philosophies derived from his work were the dominant sort of philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth in the United States and Britain. Although idealism is out of favour in our own day, its metaphysical monism is a complicating factor in the history of theories of human nature. For example, Old Testament scholar H. Wheeler Robinson (1872-1945) provided an early and very influential argument for the holistic or monistic view of human nature in the Hebrew Scriptures, but interpreted this unified person idealistically.

In addition, Romantic movements of various sorts from the eighteenth century to the present have had as a major goal the replacement of the mechanistic picture of nature with an organic concept. Neither idealism nor romanticism has won the day, and so the possibilities for theories of human nature in late modernity came down to two: dualism or reductive physicalism.

5. What Is Wrong with Reductionism?

If I am right that reductionism is a worldview issue—a picture or conceptual paradigm that shapes the thinking of an era—then it is very difficult to mount an argument against it. It is so deeply ingrained in modern thought that it serves as a measure against which arguments are tested. The question we need to consider is whether human behaviour is entirely determined by the laws of physics or neurobiology. We cannot tell empirically if this is true because of the complexity of the human neural system. Let us look, then, at simpler cases.

Philosopher Edward Pols says that the reductionist thesis consists in attributing “ontological priority” to the lowest-level entities in the universe (the “atoms” in the philosophical sense of being “uncuttables” rather than in terms of current science).[26] But what does this mean? One wants to say that it is only the atoms that are really real and everything else is merely a construction or arrangement of atoms. But what work is being done by the word ‘really’ here? Consider two children playing with Leggos. One (the anti-reductionist) says: “Look, there’s a house and a car and a dog and plane.” The other (the reductionist) says: “No, all there really is is Leggos.” Is there any way to resolve this dispute?

I suggest that there are two factors that weigh in on the side of the antireductionist. One is the extent to which the “new entities” are tightly interconnected and stable. If all there is on the table is an outline of a toy house made of disconnected blocks, we might tend to agree with the reductionist. But if the house is solidly constructed and can be picked up and moved, we might tend to agree with the anti-reductionist.

The second factor is causation. If the new structures have causal capacities that the blocks alone do not have—if, for instance, the toy plane could fly—then, again, we might agree with the anti-reductionist. A typical answer to the philosophical question of how we decide what is real is to say that real things or properties are just the ones we have to take account of in our causal interactions. Of course a plane built of Leggos cannot fly, and this brings us back to the question of whether there are things with genuinely new causal powers, or whether if we understood well enough how dogs and people are built we would see that their causal powers, like that of a real plane, are simply the product of the mechanical functioning of their parts, which in turn are determined by the laws of physics.

Consider first a typical watch. It is designed so that its behaviour is, as strictly as possible, determined by the behaviour of its parts. Good watches are “shock-proof” and water-proof, and now not even dependent on the wearer remembering to wind them. Consider, though, a different kind of watch. I have one that re-sets itself every so often by picking up signals from orbiting satellites. It has been designed specifically so that its behaviour is subject to readjustment by causal factors from outside the system.

Consider now a paper airplane. Its parts are the cellulose and other molecules making up the paper. These “parts” only serve the function of providing mass and rigidity. They do not do anything except be there. The behaviour of the plane is almost entirely governed by two things: one is its shape—a holistic property of the plane. The other is environmental factors, the hand that throws it, and the air currents that affect its flight path. This ever-so-simple device shows that the atomist-reductionist thesis is simply false in some cases.

I suspect that there are some in my audience who are wanting to say: “Yes, but the plane still obeys the laws of physics, so causation is still all bottom up.” My reply is, first, to agree that the flight of the plane, once released, is determined by the laws of physics. Recall, though, that the question we were addressing is not the universal rule of the laws of nature, but rather the more specific question of whether the behaviour of an entity is determined by the laws governing the behaviour of its parts. All that I mean to show by this example is the falsity of this latter claim. What we find instead is evidence for three contrary points. First, the holistic property of the shape of the plane is crucial. Second, the behaviour of the plane is a result of how this holistic property enables it to be affected by its environment, in ways that none of its parts alone could be. Third, although the flight of the plane is a result of air pressure, we might want to say that there are higher-level laws in effect (the laws of aerodynamics) which, while still counted as part of physics, are emergent in the sense that before there were things that fly or glide, there were no such regularities in the universe. They are also emergent in the sense that they cannot be derived from quantum physics.

So what I am arguing here is for the applicability of the concept of downward or top-down causation, which I introduced in my first lecture. Accounts that consider only bottom-up causation—that is, the effect of the parts on the whole—are often inadequate. We also need to consider features of the whole as a whole, as well as the downward effects of the environment. Downward causation is still a controversial idea. The sense in which I intend it here is not to say that there are new causal forces, but rather that there are new complex entities with the ability to use lower-level causal forces (e.g., air pressure) in new ways to do new things (e.g., to fly). This does not involve over-riding lower-level laws, but rather selection among lower-level causal processes.

Is then the behaviour of an organism more like that of an ordinary watch or my satellite-adjusted watch; or like the paper airplane, or like a jetliner flying on auto-pilot? Or is it different from all of these? Consider one more example. The laws of biology, chemistry, and physics determine much of what a horse can do—how far and fast it can run, how high it can jump. Do these laws also explain why horses of certain breeds are often found to run counter-clockwise in circular or elliptical paths? Clearly not. The explanation has to involve the human practice of horse-racing and the conventions of the race track. Is this another and even better example of the failure of causal reductionism? Our anti-reductionist will say “Yes.” Our reductionist will say: “No, because if you knew the states of the neurons in the brains of the people who decided that races should be run in a counter-clockwise direction, then you would have a biological account of why the horses run that way.” Notice, though, that this argument, as do the horses, runs in a circle. The reductive physicalist says that all decisions are determined by biology. The nonreductive physicalist says that we cannot answer this question on the basis of neurobiological evidence and instead challenges the general assumption that it must be this way by looking at simpler cases. When we look at the world we find that some things, like ordinary clocks, are determined by (the laws governing) the behaviour of their parts, but these are in fact special cases. We need to appreciate how very different even a simple organism is from a clock and how very different conscious organisms are from simple ones.

I do not expect to convert the reductionists in my audience. I am convinced that this is a well-entrenched assumption about how the world works, based on a (not very clear) philosophical dogma regarding the “ontological priority” of atoms. But because it is one of those “pictures” that we use to judge by, it cannot be defeated by a few pages of argument. What is required is something akin to a Gestalt switch or paradigm change that allows us to see the world once again in a common-sense way. In the play room it may in fact be “nothing but Leggos,” but in the real world there are clocks and organisms and intelligent beings that act for reasons, moral reasons and others.

I have not of course addressed here the philosophers’ problem of mental causation—how do reasons play a role in physical organisms?—and shall not attempt to do so here. A final and very challenging problem is free will. This is actually a nest of more or less closely related problems, but the one physicalists have to address is that of neurobiological determinism. My questioning of the ontological priority of the parts and of bottom-up determinism is, of course, relevant to the problem of neurobiological determinism; the crucial issue is the question of whether bottom-up determinism is (always) true. If not, then it is plausible to say that the whole person has downward causal effects on her own parts.

So there is much to be done, but it does appear that we are on the verge of being able to give an account of humans as complex systems whose action and interaction with the environment is not solely a product of their neural activity. Rather, there is a dynamic interplay between neurobiology and the activity of the whole person in her or his environment. Exciting work is being done on how symbolic language and principles of reason exert downward causal influences on neural connections. I am now writing a book on how complex organisms can become free moral agents. There is also some pretty unexciting work being done on the neurobiology of religious experience. I think it is wrong in starting with too narrow a concept of religious experience, but it is exactly on target in its assumption that it is our complex neural equipment that enables us to know and experience God.

Let me try to summarise in the briefest possible way what the difference is between a reductionist and a nonreductionist account of the human person. The reductionist notes that the concept of soul was invoked to account for humans’ higher capacities such as reason, morality, and religious experience, and concludes that if there is no such thing as a soul, then we must have been mistaken in believing in these capacities. The nonreductive physicalist says instead that these higher capacities are a given. If there is no soul, then it must be the human body with its fantastically complex brain, along with the development of culture that accounts for these remarkable abilities.

Thus, I am claiming here that an important part of the revolution that is swiftly moving us out of the modern world and into a new worldview is the rejection of reductionism in all sorts of spheres of knowledge. My concern here is to develop a concept of the person that takes advantage of this important shift in our understanding of the world. But will such a postmodern, nonreductive-physicalist account of human nature work for Christians? To this topic I now turn.

6. Developments in Theology and Biblical Studies

Authors like the geneticist Francis Crick who believe that Christianity can be falsified by showing that there is no such thing as a soul are clearly unaware of what has been happening in theology and biblical studies for over a hundred years. The development of critical methods in church history and biblical studies has had a tremendous impact on Christian conceptions of human nature, and, I shall suggest, most of these developments have involved increasing evidence that dualism was not a part of original Christian teaching.

Historical criticism of the Bible has had a major effect on modern views of the person, but there have been contradictory tendencies. Notice that Christians have two strikingly different conceptions of what happens after we die. One is based on dualism: the body dies and the soul departs to be with God. The other is the expectation of bodily resurrection. For centuries these two ideas have been combined. The body dies, the soul departs, and at the end of time the soul receives a resurrected body. Biblical scholarship has teased out these two ideas, immortality versus resurrection.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many New Testament scholars cast doubt on the historicity of miracles in general and the great miracle of Jesus’ resurrection in particular. Scepticism about Jesus’ resurrection led to increased emphasis among theologians on the immortality of the soul as the only basis for Christian hope in an afterlife. Consider Adolf von Harnack’s summary of the kernel of Christian doctrine: The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul.

Meanwhile—and here is the contradictory tendency—biblical scholars had begun to question whether body-soul dualism was in fact the position to be found in Scripture. An important contribution here was the work of H. Wheeler Robinson, whom I mentioned earlier. Robinson argued that “the Hebrew idea of personality is that of an animated body, not (like the Greek) that of an incarnated soul.”[27] He sees dualism as a New Testament invention.

Thinking on these issues at the time Robinson wrote can only be described as confused. This can be seen by comparing related entries in reference works from early in the twentieth century. In The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1910) there is a clear consensus that the whole of the Bible is dualistic. The general understanding was that the human soul survives the death of the body. Resurrection is understood as God’s giving new bodies to souls that have rested in God since the death of the old body.

Yet in a slightly earlier work, A Dictionary of the Bible (1902), two sharply opposed views appear. An article on “Soul” says that throughout most of the Bible, the terms usually translated as ‘soul’ such as the Hebrew word nephesh or the Greek psyche do not in fact refer to a substantial soul. Instead they are simply equivalent to the life embodied in living creatures. The article on “Resurrection,” however, ascribes to body-soul dualism. Resurrection is described as “the clothing of the soul with a body.” So some of the authors in this dictionary assume dualism while others explicitly deny that it is the anthropology of the Bible.

This tendency to juxtapose incompatible accounts of biblical teaching continued through the middle of the twentieth century, when several new factors gave the issue greater prominence. One was the rise of neo-orthodox theology after World War I. Karl Barth made a sharp distinction between Hebraic and Hellenistic conceptions, and strongly favoured the former. Barth also argued for the centrality of the resurrection in Christian teaching.

A decisive contribution was Rudolf Bultmann’s claim in his Theology of the New Testament that Paul uses soma (‘body’) to characterise the human person as a whole.[28] In 1955 Oscar Cullmann gave lectures contrasting biblical attitudes toward death, along with expectation of bodily resurrection, with Socrates’ attitude given his expectation that his soul would survive the death of his body.[29]

A survey of the literature of theology and biblical studies through the twentieth century, then, shows a gradual displacement of a dualistic account of the person, which emphasised a view of the afterlife in terms of the immortality of the soul. First there was the recognition of the holistic character of biblical conceptions of the person, often while still presupposing temporarily separable ‘parts.’ Later there developed a holistic but also physicalist account of the person, combined with an emphasis on bodily resurrection.

Has critical scholarship settled this issue? The dualist-physicalist debate is yet another issue that divides liberal and conservative Protestants. The foregoing picture of twentieth-century thought traces developments in the liberal tradition. Meanwhile, however, the tendency among conservatives has been to maintain a dualist account of the person. Let us now look at some of the controversy within the conservative branch of the church.

There appears to be wide agreement even among conservative biblical scholars that the earlier Hebraic scriptures present a holistic account of the person. However, there are lively debates about what the New Testament has to say. Much of the disagreement surrounds the issue of the intermediate state. Do the souls of the dead have conscious experience of God while they await the resurrection? Calvin and the Catholic Church said yes. Calvin’s teaching was motivated by the views of some of the radical reformers who taught that the soul either dies or “sleeps” between the death of the body and the general resurrection.

Conservative Evangelical scholars have recently taken up this issue. John W. Cooper, a philosophical theologian at Calvin Theological Seminary, argues for a dualist position on the grounds that Scripture supports the doctrine of the intermediate state, and the doctrine of the intermediate state necessarily presupposes dualism.[30] Two recent books rely on Cooper’s exegesis: one is William Hasker’s Emergent Self,[31] and the other is J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae’s Body and Soul.[32] Cooper bases his argument on the concept of Sheol in the Old Testament and on a variety of New Testament texts that he takes to refer to an intermediate state.

New Testament scholar Joel B. Green has criticised Cooper’s argument regarding Sheol and his use of texts in both Luke and Paul.[33] I shall lay out Green’s response to one of the Lukan texts. This is the report of Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross that he would be with him “this day in Paradise” (Lk. 23:40-43). The important question here is whether Cooper is correct in taking ‘Paradise’ to refer to an intermediate resting place of the dead or whether instead it refers to the final reward of the righteous. Cooper argues his case on the basis of the meaning of ‘Paradise’ in intertestamental or Second Temple Jewish writings. Cooper claims that the term is usually applied to the intermediate state. Green contests this claim and argues that Cooper’s account shows “insufficient nuance with regard to the nature and diversity of perspectives on death and the afterlife represented in the literature of Second Temple Judaism.”[34]

My point in reporting this argument is to show the difficulty in determining what a New Testament author has in mind on this particular issue. My question is this: Do Christians really need to work through a long list of non-Canonical books in order to determine what the Bible teaches on this issue? The unlikelihood of a positive answer to my rhetorical question leads me to this conclusion: the New Testament authors are not intending to teach anything about humans’ metaphysical composition. If they were, surely they could have done so much more clearly!

Support for this conclusion comes from New Testament scholar James Dunn. Dunn distinguishes between what he calls “aspective” and “partitive” accounts of human nature. The Greek philosophers were interested in a partitive account: what are the essential parts that make up a human being? In contrast, Dunn says, the biblical authors were interested in an aspective account. Here each ‘part’ (“part” in scare quotes) stands for the whole person thought of from a certain angle.[35] For example, ‘spirit’ stands for the whole person in relation to God. What the New Testament authors are concerned with, then, is human beings in relationship to the world, to one another, and to God. Paul’s distinction between spirit and flesh is not our later distinction between soul and body. Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ.

Dunn’s insight helps us to see how Christians for hundreds of years could have taken dualism to be scriptural teaching. The Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint). Both the Old and New Testaments then contained the Greek terms that in the minds of philosophers referred to constituent parts of humans, and we have obligingly read them and translated them in this way. The clearest instance of this is the Hebrew word nephesh, which was translated as psyche in the Septuagint and later translated into English as ‘soul.’ More recent translations, however, use a variety of English words. For example, Genesis 2:7 used to read: “. . . The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul” (KJV). Recent translations say that “man became a living being,” (NIV) or a “living creature” (REB).

I conclude, therefore, that there is no such thing as the biblical view of human nature insofar as we are interested in a partitive account. The biblical authors, especially New Testament authors, wrote within the context of a wide variety of views, probably as diverse as in our own day, but did not take a clear stand on one theory or another. What the New Testament authors do attest is, first, that humans are psychophysical unities; second, that Christian hope for eternal life is staked on bodily resurrection; and, third, that humans are to be understood in terms of their relationships—relationships to the community of believers and especially to God.

I believe that we can conclude that this leaves contemporary Christians free to choose from among contemporary options. It would be bold of me to say that dualism per se is ruled out, given that it has been so prominent in the tradition. However, the radical dualisms of Plato and Descartes, which take the body to be unnecessary for, or even a hindrance to, full human life, are clearly out of bounds. Equally unacceptable is any physicalist account that denies human ability to be in relationship with God. Thus, many reductionist forms of physicalism are also out of bounds.

7. Conclusion

It is time to sum up. In this lecture I have looked again at one of the worldview issues that divides modern and postmodern thinkers. This is the reductionist thesis, which I described briefly in my first lecture and related to the problem of divine action.

In this lecture I related modern reductionism to theories of human nature. I claimed that neither dualism nor physicalism was a viable position in light of this assumption. The problem of mind-body interaction was exacerbated for dualists, but physicalism was not a workable option for Christians because reductionism would rule out freedom, rationality, and moral responsibility.

Contemporary scholars are increasingly coming to understand the physical world as a nonreducible hierarchy of complex systems. I claim that we are just now at the point where we can make sense of a nonreductive physicalist account of the person. I also claimed that the Bible leaves Christians free to pursue this option. In my final lecture tomorrow I shall make a stronger claim. The adoption of nonreductive physicalism may well result in shifts of emphasis in theology and spiritual practices that will help return the church from otherworldly concerns to the earthly pursuit of the Kingdom that Jesus preached.

Lecture 3:



by Nancey Murphy

November 5, 2003

International Baptist Theological Seminary

1. Introduction

In my previous lecture I claimed that modernity had offered Christians two accounts of human nature, neither of which was an acceptable option—Cartesian dualism or reductive materialism. As in my first lecture, I suggested that Anglo-American postmodern philosophy has opened up new possibilities. The new option here is nonreductive physicalism, which I claimed is compatible with Christian teaching.

In this lecture I shall again focus on theories of human nature. I have claimed that metaphors, images, pictures, are a powerful force in shaping an era’s philosophical and theological thinking. The picture I shall focus on here is an image of selfhood that captured the modern imagination. I shall call this the image of the inner self. It is an image connected with dualism, but it is not only the idea that the soul or mind is in the body. In addition, modern thinkers have been gripped by the image of their true selves as being located within the mind or soul.

Despite its origin in a dualistic anthropology, this image of the real self within is so powerful that it affects many contemporary theories in the cognitive neurosciences. Philosopher Daniel Dennett parodies this idea as that of “the Cartesian theatre.” In this lecture I shall trace the history of this image—it actually originated not with Descartes but with Augustine—and explain some of its problematic consequences for epistemology.

Various philosophers and theologians have attempted to free us from this image. I shall report on some of these and then end with reflections on the benefits for Christians that might flow from rejection of both dualism and the image of the inner self.

2. The Invention of the Inner Self

Augustine is credited with the invention of the concept of inner space. According to historian Phillip Cary, this notion arose from Augustine’s reflections on the problem of the location of the soul. He came to conceive of it as a ‘space’ of its own.[36] The ancient rhetorical tradition, with its arts of memory and invention, had already connected the ideas of chambers and memory: orators memorised the order of subjects to be discussed in a speech by imagining themselves walking through the rooms of a familiar house and mentally marking each successive place with an image that would serve as a reminder of the next topic.[37] The result was the introduction, in Augustine’s Confessions, of the idea of memory as an inner chamber into which the person could enter. Augustine wrote:

I will . . . rise above [natural capacities shared with animals] in a step by step ascent to him who made me. I come to the fields and vast palaces of memory, where are the treasuries of innumerable images of all kinds of objects brought in by sense-perception. Hidden there is whatever we think about. . . . When I am in this storehouse, I ask that it produce what I want to recall, and immediately certain things come out. . . .

Memory’s huge cavern, with its mysterious secret, and indescribable nooks and crannies, receives all these perceptions, to be recalled when needed and reconsidered. . . .

I run through all these things, I fly here and there, and penetrate their working as far as I can.[38]

Augustine saw the privacy of the inner self as a result of the Fall, since non-spatial things cannot be separated by distance but only by evil will and culpable ignorance. Hence Augustine’s impression of himself having been, as an infant without language, locked up inside himself.

Little by little I began to be aware of where I was and wanted to manifest my wishes to those who could fulfill them as I could not. For my desires were internal; adults were external to me and had no means of entering into my soul. So I threw my limbs about and uttered sounds, signs resembling my wishes. . . .[39]

While Augustine’s metaphor of the inner room seems to have played no role in philosophy until Descartes,[40] it was central to the spiritual tradition. The combination of the Neoplatonic emphasis on the care of the soul with Augustine’s metaphor of entering into one’s own self or soul in order to find God constituted a complex of ideas that has shaped the whole of Western spirituality from that point onward. Teresa of Avila’s extended metaphor of the interior castle is one of its finest fruits. Teresa, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic wrote:

Today while beseeching our Lord to speak for me. . . there came to my mind what I shall now speak about. . . . It is that we consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places. . . .

Well, let us consider that this castle has, as I said, many dwelling places: some up above, others down below, others to the sides; and in the center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.[41]

The imagery is so familiar to us that we often fail to notice how strange it is: I, the real I, am somehow inside of myself. I am my soul, yet my soul is a place that I can enter into. I first became aware of the strangeness when I moved from the Catholic tradition, with its emphasis on inwardness, to the Anabaptist tradition. I have often thought that what distinguishes the Anabaptists from both Catholics and mainline Protestants is the lack of Augustinian influences. I commented to my pastor in the Church of the Brethren that these Anabaptist Christians did not seem to have “insides.”

3. Sceptical Consequences

Augustine’s image of the inner self, despite its prevalence in Christian spirituality, seems to have played no role in philosophy until the beginning of the modern period. When the idea re-emerged in the writings of Descartes and his followers, there were two changes. One is that whereas in the spiritual tradition one has a choice of whether or not to enter into oneself, for moderns the real I is never found anywhere else. Cary says:

One of the consequences of the Western secularization of reason is that the privacy of the inner self comes to be seen not as a tragedy attendant upon the Fall, but as something essential and inevitable, as if it were the very nature of the human mind to be an inner room that no one else can enter.[42]

The second change is that while Augustine’s roomy chamber is actually more like a courtyard—“it is open to the light of the Sun above”[43]—the modern version has a roof. This change can be explained in part by the shift to atomism in early modern physics. The new physics made it appear that all knowledge from the ‘outside world’ needed to be transmitted by particles striking the sensory surfaces, from which coded information could be sent to the brain and thence to the mind. It was not unreasonable to worry about the reliability of this transmission process.[44]

Cary claims that is it John Locke rather than Descartes who has elaborated this image most vividly. The mind, for Locke, is a camera oscura with no openings to the world except the senses. Locke writes:

These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this dark room. For, methinks, the Understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances or ideas of things without; would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the Understanding of man, in reference to all objects of sight and the ideas of them.[45]

Cary concludes:

Not only is each of us locked in our own separate little closet for as long as we live, but we don’t even get to look out the window! We never actually see the world outside, but only its image projected on the inner wall of our private dark room. Hence all we are really certain of is what is inside our own minds. This thought has haunted a good deal of modern philosophy, especially in English-speaking countries.[46]

Contemporary philosopher Bryan Magee describes the moment in his youth when this image struck him. He was in chapel when he reflected on the fact that upon closing his eyes all the other boys disappeared—that is, his visual image of them did. “Up to that moment,” he says,

I had always taken it for granted that I was in immediate contact with the people and things outside of me . . . but now, suddenly, I realized that their existence was one thing and my awareness of it something radically other. . . . Even now after all these years, what I cannot put into words is how indescribably appalling I found that moment of insight. . . . as if I were for ever cut off from everything that existed—apart from myself—and as if I were trapped for life inside my own head.[47]

A consequence of the inward turn in philosophy, then, has been the constant threat of scepticism. If all one knows directly is the ideas in one’s own mind, then one can always (or must always) raise the question of whether the mental ideas accurately represent external reality—or if indeed there is an external reality at all. Thus, typical modern accounts of knowledge involve two parts: first, an investigation of mental contents; second, an argument of some sort to justify the claim that the mental contents give true and accurate knowledge of what is outside the mind. Some philosophers have placed great confidence in such arguments; others have concluded that the problems of the external world and of other minds (the problem of solipsism) are insoluble.

The linguistic turn in late modern philosophy was a shift to a focus on language and involved the abandonment of the whole notion that philosophy is concerned with ideas in the mind. This new focus on language, which is essentially public, should have relieved modern thinkers of their “Cartesian anxiety.” Yet the image of the knower as essentially confined, separated from the real world, was so entrenched that scepticism regarding the possibility of mind-independent reality metamorphosed into scepticism regarding knowledge of language-independent reality. Whereas once we were confined behind the “veil of ideas,” we are now thought to be confined behind the “veil of language” or of concepts.[48] All of the realist-antirealist debates in philosophy reflect such an image. I take concern with such issues to be one of the clearest marks that a thinker is still trapped within a modern framework.

Given the predominance in the modern period of this “inside-out” approach to philosophy,[49] it should come as no surprise to find inside-out theologies as well. This has been the regular pattern of the liberal tradition. It is said that the beginning of modern liberal theology is marked by the subjective turn, a “Copernican revolution,” that places the human subject at the centre of religion. Historian Claude Welch writes:

In the work of [Friedrich] Schleiermacher and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge particularly . . . we see a decisive Socratic turn to the self, to an understanding of religious truth that may rightly be called “existentialist.” Theology now had to start from, to articulate, and to interpret a subjective view of the religious object . . . . Consciousness of the truth was peculiarly one with self-consciousness.[50]

I noted in my first lecture the peculiar character of the experiences that serve as the foundation for liberal theologies; their “inward” character is a part of this peculiarity.

If inside-out approaches always invite the criticism that they have not adequately assured that the inner reflects the outer, we should not be surprised that already in 1841 Ludwig Feuerbach had charged that the idea of God is nothing more than an idea.[51] Feuerbach’s theory of religion can be summarised as follows. The possibility of religion lies in consciousness, in the possibility of an inner life. The basis of religion is found in feelings or emotions and in wishes. “Man believes in gods because he seeks help from them. What he is not himself but wishes to be, he projects into the being of the gods in order that he may get it back from them.”[52]

4. Escaping the Cartesian Theatre

The modern era is taken by philosophers to have begun in 1650, the year of Descartes’s death. I have often quipped that it ended precisely in 1951. This was the year in which Ludwig Wittgenstein died, and I predict that Wittgenstein will one day be recognised as the most significant contributor to the emerging postmodern philosophical worldview.

One of Wittgenstein’s central aims was to make philosophers aware of the oddity of the modern view of the self, and so to liberate us from its sceptical consequences. He wrote: “The idea of thinking as a process in the head, in a completely enclosed space, makes thinking something occult.”[53] “One of the most dangerous ideas for a philosopher is, oddly enough, that we think with our heads or in our heads.”[54] In order to counter such enchantments, he developed a therapeutic method of philosophy that attended to the “grammar” of ordinary language. In other words, writes Brad Kallenberg,

Wittgenstein concerned himself with the patterns of ordinary language use within a given social matrix. This strategy undermines the very way the skeptic sets up the knowledge problem as one of ascertaining the correspondence between an individual’s concepts and brute reality ‘out there.’[55]

It was Wittgenstein’s recognition of the public character of language, along with the way language use is bound up with the actual living of life in the world, that allowed him to escape from the image of the veil of language, cutting us off from the world.

Wittgenstein’s writings are enigmatic—they are intended to change the reader rather than to inform the reader of Wittgenstein’s own views. Thus, it is impossible to summarise his thought. Instead, I shall report here on the writings of a theologian who has been “cured” by Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods. This will give us some insight into Wittgenstein’s thought and at the same time explore some of its consequences for theology.

In his highly acclaimed book, Theology after Wittgenstein, philosophical theologian Fergus Kerr examines some of the many ways in which contemporary theology still assumes the modern picture of the inner self, even in cases where the modern liberal turn to the subject is disavowed.[56] Kerr examines the writings of Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, Anglican theologian Don Cupitt, Methodist Schubert Ogden, and Mennonite Gordon D. Kaufman. I shall report on his analysis of Kaufman, both because of his relevance to this audience and because it includes one of my favourite bits of Kerr’s dry wit.

Kaufman, in his early work,[57] developed a conception of the hiddenness of God based on his description of the hiddenness of other selves behind physical manifestations. Kaufman wrote:

What one directly experiences of the other are, strictly speaking, the external physical sights and sounds he makes, not the deciding, acting, purposing centre of the self—though we have no doubt these externalities are not merely physical phenomena, but are the outward and visible expressions of inner thought, purpose, intention.

In our interaction with other persons we presuppose a reality (the active centre of the self) beyond that which we immediately perceive. . . . It is in the act of communication that we discover that the other is more than merely physical being, is a conscious self; it is in the experience of speaking and hearing that we come to know the personal hidden behind and in the merely physical. This is the most powerful experience we have of transcendence of the given on the finite level, the awareness of genuine activity and reality beyond and behind what is directly open to our view.[58]

Kerr’s quip: “ . . . Kaufman, until he thought better, supposed that it was only when the other opened his mouth and spoke that one realised that a person lay hidden within the middle-sized, lightly sweating and gently palpitating object on the other side of the dinner table.”[59]

Kerr notes that the sample of theologians he has surveyed all share a common paradigm. In each case the natural starting point for theology is assumed to be the individual.

In every case, though variously, and sometimes very significantly so, the model of the self is central to some important, sometimes radical and revisionary, theological proposal or programme. A certain philosophical psychology is put to work to sustain a theological construction. Time and again, however, the paradigm of the self turns out to have remarkably divine attributes. The philosophy of the self that possesses so many modern theologians is an inverted theology. . . .[60]

Kerr claims that theologians are in a particularly good position to understand Wittgenstein’s critique of modern notions of the self. Descartes’s own conception sprang from explicitly theological concerns. The Meditations bore the subtitle “in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.”[61] It is ironic that the conception of personhood that Descartes defended is one that was explicitly condemned as “Origenist” at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. This included the Platonic myth of the soul imprisoned in the body and a resultant antipathy toward the body. Kerr hypothesises, though, that the more vociferous the condemnation of a view the more it persists underground in a person’s or culture’s thinking.[62] It cannot be spoken in public and exposed to criticism.

Kerr notes a number of consequences of this lingering Gnosticism in church life. One is a denigration of public worship. Spiritual writers in the past three centuries have driven many devout people into believing that the only real prayer is silent, wordless, “private.”

[I]t is amazing how often devout people think that liturgical worship is not real prayer unless they have been injecting special ‘meaning’ to make the words work. The inclination is to say that participation consists in private goings-on inside the head, while, following Wittgenstein, we should want rather to see it primarily in the connections, the tie-ups, that one is making.[63]

There is a central strain in Christian piety that puts all the emphasis on people’s secret thoughts and hidden sins. Yet, Wittgenstein asked: “Only God sees the most secret thoughts. But why should these be all that important? And need all human beings count them as important?”[64] Kerr asks:

Why should our secret thoughts be more important than the thoughts that come out only too effectively in what we say and do? . . . Are our hidden sins so much worse than the sins that we commit against, and with, other people, out in the open, for everybody to see? (Is injustice not worse than solitary vice?)[65]

This emphasis on hidden sins is part and parcel of a movement in moral theology that places an excessive emphasis on the intention behind an act rather than on the act itself. Kerr says that an entire book could be written on “the bedevilment of Catholic moral theology by Cartesian pictures of the inner life.”[66]

I am often asked about my views on the morality of abortion, given my physicalist and “externalist” account of the person. Kerr argues that a Wittgensteinian account provides a better context for arguing for the preservation of embryos than does the modern conception of personhood. The modern theory emphasised that which distinguishes us from animals—our autonomous, rational will—something embryos clearly do not have. Kerr writes,

If, on the other hand, Wittgensteinian considerations about the primitive reactions which are the Lebensformen [forms of life] that constitute the natural a priori for the existence of a human being are given due weight, then a very different context for the debate seems to appear. The embryo already exists in the closest relationship of physical dependence on an adult member of our species. Our being human has to be redescribed as our being mammals of a certain kind, sharing from the beginning certain possibilities of interaction and response at the very physical level of vital functions. Paradoxically enough, the more animal we remember ourselves to be, the weightier the theological objections to abortion and embryo experimentation might become.[67]

Kerr ends with comments on how the image of ourselves as something like angels trapped in physical bodies has prevented Christians over the centuries from coming to terms with their creaturely finitude.

What I would like to add to Kerr’s analysis is a comment on how much easier it is for Anabaptists to appreciate Kerr’s critique of the modern inwardness of church life than for those is some other Christian subtraditions. I have to say that with my deep roots in Catholicism, I still find myself brought up short by some of Kerr’s observations. I have such vivid memories of trying, and often failing, to “inject” inner meaning into my reading of the prayers of the Mass. One of the old stand-by sins for the confessional was “I was inattentive at Mass.” My attraction to the Anabaptist theology that I learned from James McClendon and John Howard Yoder was the way it changed the subject of so many doctrines from unseen realities to real-life issues. Forgiveness of sins, for example, changed from an invisible cleansing of my soul to a public act of peacemaking in the church. It is very interesting, then, that some of the theologians who are most vociferous in criticising a spirituality of inwardness are the Catholics Kerr and Nicholas Lash[68] and the Anglican Owen Thomas.

5. Questioning the Spiritual Quest

I turn in this section to Owen Thomas’s proposal for a more authentic Christian spirituality. In a perceptive essay Thomas notes common misunderstandings of spirituality in the United States.[69] I shall be interested to hear whether these are to be found in your own church contexts, as well. Thomas writes:

It is commonly assumed that spirituality is an optional matter, that some people are more spiritual than others and some not at all, that spirituality is essentially a good thing (the more the better), that while spirituality is somehow related to religion it should be sharply distinguished from religion as something superior to and more important than religion. . . .[70]

Thomas argues his position on the basis of the very narrow meaning of the word ‘spirit’ in English as compared with its translations in other languages—Geist in German, esprit in French, and spirito in Italian. The English word ‘spirit’ is associated with emotion and will as opposed to intellect. In contrast, the German Geist refers to the totality of what defines humanity in its fullness. Consequently, Thomas believes that spirituality “is most fruitfully defined as the sum of all the uniquely human capacities and functions: self-awareness, self-transcendence, memory, anticipation, rationality (in its broadest sense), creativity, plus the moral, intellectual, social, political, aesthetic, and religious capacities, all understood as embodied.”[71] If this is the case, then all humans are spiritual to some degree, and spirituality can be either good or bad.

This conception of spirituality cuts against the tendency to associate spirituality with the inner and religion with the outer life of institutions, practices, doctrines, and moral codes. The traditional notion of spirituality has assumed that the inner encounter with God is the source of the external forms of religious observance. However, a variety of philosophers and theologians have questioned this assumption. Instead we need to recognise the ways in which language (which is necessarily public) and other social practices provide the individual with the resources for private, inner experience. To put it quite simply, the lone individual might indeed have an experience of God, but without any theological language would have no way of knowing what the experience was. The more linguistic resources and expectations provided by one’s tradition the more nuanced one’s experiences will be.

Thomas cites George A. Lindbeck’s work on the cultural-linguistic formation of religious sensibilities,[72] Kerr’s Wittgensteinian critique of the theology of inwardness, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of the privatisation of morality.[73] Thomas’s embodied and wide-ranging account of spirituality is in sharp contrast to what a variety of commentators see as the predominant religious sensibilities of Americans. Literary critic Harold Bloom says that the real American religion is and always has, in fact, been gnosticism. “It is a knowing, by and of an uncreated self, or self-within-the-self, and the knowledge leads to freedom, a dangerous and doom-eager freedom: from nature, time, history, community, other selves.”[74]

Thomas’s prescription for restoring proper balance between inner and outer is as follows:

Within this reformulation there must be, first, a renewed emphasis in Christian formation on the significance of the body, the material, social, economic, political, and historical world rather than an exclusive focus on the soul or interior life. This emphasis is obviously founded on the centrality in Christian faith of the themes of creation, incarnation, history, and consummation, including the resurrection of the body. Although there has been considerable attention devoted to the body in recent Christian spirituality, it has been largely focused on using the body as a foil for the progress of the soul.

Second, the reign of God must become central again in Christian spirituality. The reign of God is the fundamental theme of Jesus’ mission: its inbreaking and manifestation in Jesus’ presence, healing, and teaching. To be a follower of Jesus means to repent and open oneself to the presence of this reign, to look for and point to signs of the reign, and to participate in it by manifesting its signs in active love of the neighbor and in the struggle for justice and peace. The presence of the reign of God is manifest primarily in outer life and public life, as well as in inner life and private life, and it is the former which has been largely ignored in recent Christian formation.[75]

Earlier in this lecture I pointed out that the inner-outer distinction is not the same as the distinction between soul and body. So presumably one could be a body-soul dualist while avoiding an excessively inward-looking spirituality. In fact, some of the greatest writers on inwardness did so. Teresa of Avila spent years travelling, reforming convents, and founding new ones. It is also possible for someone with a physicalist anthropology to flee from the responsibilities of Kingdom work by turning to solitude, self-examination, and contemplation. So the strongest point I can make here is to claim that physicalism—along with an eschatological hope for resurrection of the body—leads more naturally to a concern for the physical world and its transformation than does dualism.

I need to revert to an important issue here, one that I raised in my first lecture. This is the problem of divine action. In the distant past, Christians believed that God had to do with both souls and bodies. During the modern period when it became difficult to give an account of how God could act in the physical world without running afoul of the laws of nature, one strategy was to say that God works only in human history, not in nature. But if we humans conceive of ourselves as purely physical, this strategy is no longer available. The difficult question of how God acts in the physical world cannot be avoided. James McClendon says that we have so anthropocentrised our theology in the modern period that we have a difficult time appreciating the fact that God has to do with bodies. He follows William Temple in describing Christianity as “the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.”[76] Although we can never describe what Austin Farrer calls the “causal joint” between God and matter,[77] we have to accept the fact that God does indeed act in the physical world, and in particular, however awkward it may sound, we have to say that God acts causally on human brains.

6. Physicalism and Theology

I turn now to the question of what difference it might make to theology if we accept the physicalist anthropology that I endorsed in my previous lecture, along with a critique of the image of the hidden inner self. Most Christian theology has in fact been written against the backdrop of one or another dualistic theory. All that physicalist anthropology strictly requires, it seems to me, are one or two adjustments: One needs to give up or finesse the doctrine of the intermediate state if that has been an important part of one’s tradition. It can be finessed by calling into question the meaningfulness of putting the experiences of those who are with God on an earthly timeline. One needs also to understand resurrection differently: not re-clothing of a ‘naked’ soul with a (new) body, but rather restoring the whole person to life—a new transformed kind of life.

Nonetheless, physicalism does raise interesting questions concerning a variety of theological topics. It is impossible to do justice to all of these here; the following reflections are meant only to be suggestive.

Doctrine of God: Nicholas Lash, former professor of divinity at Cambridge, notes that a doctrine of God is always correlative to anthropology. For example, if we regard ourselves in Cartesian terms as essentially immaterial beings with a body we will be inclined to regard God as in principle invisible because he is a person without a body. “All ‘persons’ or ‘selves’ are, on the Cartesian model, in themselves invisible: personhood or selfhood is inferred from bodily behavior. . . . Small wonder, then, that the idea of knowledge of God is so problematic. . . .[78]

Consider, in contrast, the correlation between certain aspects of Hebraic anthropology and doctrine of God. Old Testament scholar Aubrey R. Johnson emphasises one important aspect of the Hebraic conception of personhood, which may be contrasted with modern individualism. For moderns, individuals are thought to be ‘self-contained’ in two senses: The first is that they are what they are apart from their relationships. The second is idea of the inner self. In contrast, Johnson argues, the Hebraic personality was thought to be extended in subtle ways among the community by means of speech and other forms of communication. This extension of personality is so strong within a household that in its entirety it is regarded as a “psychical whole.”[79] “Accordingly, in Israelite thought the individual, as a [nephesh] or centre of power capable of indefinite extension, is never a mere isolated unit. . . .”[80]

Johnson uses this conception of personhood to elucidate various modes of God’s presence. Ruach, Spirit, is an extension of Yahweh’s personality. Hence God is genuinely present in God’s messengers (angels), God’s word, and God’s prophets when they are moved by God’s Spirit. “[T]he prophet, in functioning, was held to be more than Yahweh’s ‘representative’; for the time being he was an active ‘Extension’ of Yahweh’s Personality and, as such, was Yahweh ‘in Person.’”[81] Johnson rightly points out that this understanding of God’s presence is crucial for understanding the later development of trinitarian conceptions of God. I suggest that it is equally important for Christology.

Christology and Trinity: Early theologians working with a dualist account of humans and an account of Jesus as the pre-existent Son incarnate had problems relating all of the ‘parts.’ The questions I am asked about Christology when I present a physicalist account of humans often suggest that the questioner is assuming that the divinity of Christ is somehow connected with his soul. Deny the existence of human souls in general and this is tantamount to denying Christ’s divinity. However, the assumption lurking behind this question conflicts with the Chalcedonian conclusion that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.

Given that physicalist anthropology has been widely accepted among theologians for at least a half century, there is a wide array of Christologies developed in this light. I am in no position to do justice to them here.[82] I make here two suggestions. First, rethinking Christology in light of a physicalist anthropology certainly requires Christians to pay adequate attention to incarnation—if humans are purely physical, then there is no getting around the scandal of ‘enfleshment’’

Second, there has always been a tension in trinitarian thought between those who emphasise the unity of God and those who emphasise the three-ness. In the eyes of one, the others appear to verge on tri-theism; in the eyes of the other, on unitarianism. An alternative approach to the now-popular social trinitarianism emphasises that the word ‘person’ in formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity has shifted its meaning over the centuries. Whereas it now refers to an individual rational agent, the Latin persona from which it was derived referred to masks worn by actors and, by extension, to the roles they played. Consequently, Robert W. Jenson argues that in order to understand the origin of the triune understanding of God, Christians need to “attend to the plot of the biblical narrative turning on these two events [Exodus and Resurrection], and to the dramatis personae who appear in them and carry that plot. . . .”[83] It is here, he says, that we see how we are led to speak of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. “Thus throughout scripture we encounter personae of God’s story with his people who are neither simply the same as the story’s Lord nor yet other than he. They are precisely dramatis dei personae, the personal carriers of a drama that is God’s own reality.”[84]

With this understanding, we can say that there is one God, Israel’s LORD. God at work in the world and in the human community is Spirit; the Hebrew word ruach suggests not a substance but an event.[85] God at work (as Spirit) in Jesus is Messiah, Incarnate Word, Son of God.[86]

Jenson states: “We may gain access to the phenomenon of spirit for ourselves, for we too are ‘spirited,’ though only more or less so. A human’s spirit is the person himself or herself, insofar as he or she is a life that enlivens others also.”[87] Note how this account of the human spirit accords with Dunn’s aspective reading of New Testament anthropology.

Salvation and History: An equally important doctrine to rethink in light of a physicalist account of human nature is the doctrine of salvation. Again, I can only be suggestive. One of my colleagues recently described some children’s literature that uses the device of parallel worlds—worlds just like ours except that one or a few variables are different. For example, what would it be like to be a student at Oxford today if the English Reformation had not taken place?

Let us use this device to think about theology in general and the Christian doctrine of salvation in particular. What might theology be like today, and how might Christian history have gone differently, if a physicalist sort of anthropology had predominated rather than dualism? I have already reported Owen Thomas’s conclusions about how the Christian spiritual tradition would be different. Here are some closely related questions: Without the Neoplatonic notion that the goal of life is to prepare the soul for its proper abode in heaven, would Christians through the centuries have devoted more of their attention to working for God’s reign on earth? And would Jesus’ teachings be regarded as a proper blueprint for that earthly society? Would the creeds, then, not have skipped from his birth to his death, leaving out his teaching and faithful life? (I remember Glen Stassen pointing out last June that you have to cram the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching into a comma in the creed.)[88] Would Christians then see a broader, richer role for Jesus the Messiah than as facilitator of the forgiveness of their sins? If Christians had been focusing more, throughout all of these centuries, on following Jesus’ teachings about sharing, and about loving our enemies at least enough so as not to kill them, how different might world politics be today? What would Christians have been doing these past 2000 years if there were no such things as souls to save?

This is not, of course, to deny the afterlife. It is rather to emphasise the importance of bodily resurrection. It is important to see how the contrasting accounts of life after death—resurrection versus immortality of the soul—lead to different attitudes toward Kingdom work in this life. Lutheran theologian Ted Peters whimsically describes the dualist account of salvation as “soul-ectomy.” If souls are saved out of this world, then nothing here matters ultimately. If it is our bodily selves that are saved and transformed, then bodies and all that go with them matter—families, history, and all of nature.

Jewish scholar Neil Gillman lends weight to my suggestion. His book, titled The Death of Death, argues that resurrection of the body, rather than immortality of the soul, is the only authentically Jewish conception of life after death. Why are physicalism and resurrection important to Jews? For many reasons, Gillman replies:

Because the notion of immortality tends to deny the reality of death, of God’s power to take my life and to restore it; because the doctrine of immortality implies that my body is less precious, important, even “pure,” while resurrection affirms that my body is no less God’s creation and is both necessary and good; because the notion of a bodiless soul runs counter to my experience of myself and others. . .

It is indispensable for another reason. If my body inserts me into history and society, then the affirmation of bodily resurrection is also an affirmation of history and society. If my bodily existence is insignificant, then so are history and society. To affirm that God has the power to reconstitute me in my bodily existence is to affirm that God also cares deeply about history and society. .[89]

Looking forward to the resurrection and transformation of our bodies leads naturally to the expectation that the entire cosmos will be similarly transformed. German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that in Jesus’ resurrection we see the first fruits of the transformation for which the whole creation is longing.[90] As Paul says:

The created universe is waiting with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. It was made subject to frustration, not of its own choice but by the will of him who subjected it, yet with the hope that the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and is to enter upon the glorious liberty of the children of God. Up to the present, as we know, the whole created universe in all its parts groans as if in the pangs of childbirth. What is more, we also, to whom the Spirit is given as the first fruits of the harvest to come, are groaning inwardly while we look forward to our adoption, our liberation from mortality. (Rom. 8:19-23 [REB])

7. Conclusion

I hope in these lectures to have conveyed to you some of my enthusiasm for Christian scholarship at this particular time in history. Less than a generation ago there seems to have been a sense shared by many that theology had come to a number of dead ends. Now there are so many new avenues open for exploration that one hardly knows where to begin.

I have suggested several starting points for fresh theological projects, all of which are indebted to new moves in recent English-language philosophy. There are new resources for theological epistemology in holist accounts of justification. I focused on Quine in my first lecture, but those of you who were here for the baptist theology conference in June to which I have referred earlier know that Alasdair MacIntyre has moved far beyond Quine’s insights. James McClendon has written on the uses of Austin’s theory of speech acts for understanding religious language. There is even more to be done with Wittgenstein’s insights. In the past year or so I have participated in four conferences focusing on critiques of modern reductionism, one relating to divine action and the others contributing to the development of a nonreductive view of the human person. This is an area where rapid progress is being made and Christians need to appropriate these resources.

The most difficult issue, I believe, is the topic I surveyed in this lecture. A critical re-evaluation of modern conceptions of the self is more than an academic exercise. It involves self-discovery and self-transformation as well. But I believe that such a transformation will bear fruit in more authentic Christian discipleship.[91]

Let me conclude by saying thank you to all of you for giving me the chance to share these ideas with you. The material in my first lecture is based on work I did a number of years ago. I have enjoyed the challenge of seeing whether I could relate my most recent work to that earlier project.


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