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5. Origin of the Soul

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How is the soul transmitted to humans? In Genesis 5:3, it says that Adam had “a son in his own likeness, according to his image.” It is clear that this son’s physical body came through the natural procreation process of Adam and Eve, which led to him being in the “likeness” of his parents. However, what about his soul—the immaterial part of his being? How was that transmitted? Throughout history there has been three primary views on this: preexistence theory, creation theory, and traducian theory.

Preexistence Theory

In general, preexistence has never been held by orthodox Christians, with a few exceptions. It has been held by ancient Greeks, Hindus,1 and even Muslims have a form of this.2 This view teaches that God originally created a number of souls and some are joined to human bodies at conception. Obviously, there is no clear statement in Scripture that supports this view.3

Creation Theory

Creation theory teaches that the human body is transferred from the parents, but the soul, since it is immaterial, comes from God. At conception, God creates a soul and places that soul in the forming baby (Ps 139:13). Support for this is found in the fact that after creating Adam, God breathed life into his body—giving him a soul (Gen 2:7). Also, there are many Scriptures that demonstrate God’s continual work in the creation of humans, including their spirits. Consider the following,

The revelation of the word of the Lord concerning Israel: The Lord—he who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundations of the earth, who forms the human spirit within a person

Zechariah 12:1

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 (ESV)

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it:

Isaiah 42:5 (ESV)

Certainly you made my mind and heart; you wove me together in my mother’s womb.

Psalm 139:13

Also, Hebrews 12:9 calls God “the Father of spirits,” and Numbers 16:22 calls him “the God of the spirits of all people.” Clearly, these texts point to God as the Creator of the immaterial part of humans. This view is held by Roman Catholics and some Reformed Christians.4

With that said, this theory has difficulties. How is the sin nature transferred if God gives everyone a spirit, apart from the parents? Does he give them spirits that are prone to sin from birth, unlike how he created Adam? Because this seems unlikely (cf. Jam 1:13), some reject this view.

Traducian Theory

Traducian theory teaches that both the body and soul come from the parents. It is argued that God’s direct creation—making things out of nothing—stopped on the sixth day of creation, as proved by the fact that God rested on the seventh day.5 Certainly, God is still involved with the creation of the body and the soul in humans, but he does that through secondary means—human parents.6

A strength of traducian theory is that it best explains human depravity. Paul Enns said it this way:

If the parents pass on the nonmaterial nature then it explains the propagation of the sin nature and the tendency, from birth, of every human being to sin. The sin nature cannot be explained if God creates each soul directly.7

In considering the transfer of the sin nature, Romans 5:12 says, “So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.” Also, Psalm 51:5 says, “Look, I was guilty of sin from birth, a sinner the moment my mother conceived me.”

One might ask, “What about Christ’s birth? How is it possible that Christ did not have a sin nature if he received his body and spirit through his mother?” The fact that he was kept from having a sin nature must be considered a miracle, wrought by the Holy Spirit, just as his physical birth was (Matt 1:18, Lk 1:35).

A further strength of the traducian theory is the hereditary factor—not only are we like our parents physically, but also commonly in personality, intelligence, and emotions. If God directly transmitted the soul, apart from the parents, these similarities would not be as prevalent.8

John MacArthur said this in support of the traducian theory:

While it is true that several verses speak of God making a person’s soul or spirit, that is also true for the body. David stated, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Ps. 139:13, 15). These statements do not mean that the body is created directly by God apart from natural procreation. God is man’s Creator, but God also ordained human procreation for the filling of the earth (Gen. 1:28). God uses natural means for procreation, yet he is the Ultimate Cause of the process. As a complex unity of body and soul/spirit, our entire being, including the soul, is a result of the God-ordained procreation process.9

Also, J. O. Buswell said this in considering creation theory and traducian theory, as quoted by Charles Ryrie:

As between these two views, it does seem to me that there is a certain obvious fact which has been neglected in the historical discussion, and that is the perfect uniformity and regularity of the arrival of a soul whenever a human life begins to be. In our ordinary thinking when we observe such perfect uniformity and regularity in other matters, we usually ascribe the results to the secondary forces which God has created and which He maintains by His divine providence. For this reason, and for this reason only, I am inclined toward the traducian view, but I do not feel that it can be firmly established on the grounds of any explicit scriptural teaching.10

Conclusion

God is the Creator of humans. They were made in his image as a direct, special creation. God formed man from the dust and breathed into him the breath of life and he became a living soul (Gen 2:7). However, after God ceased his special creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them, he commonly creates now through secondary processes, which he developed in the original creation. Though the wild grass grows on its own through natural processes, Christ said God clothed it (Matt 6:30). And though birds feed themselves, Christ said God feeds them (Matt 6:26). Likewise, it seems that through the procreation process which God established and oversees, humans come from other humans, which includes both body and spirit. With all that said, since Scripture is not explicitly clear on this issue, we should hold our beliefs on it lightly.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What are the three views on how the human soul is transmitted?
  3. Which view do you believe has the most biblical support and why?
  4. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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1 Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (p. 319). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

2 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 425). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

3 Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (p. 319). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

4 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 221). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

5 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 425). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

6 Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (p. 320). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

7 Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (p. 320). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

8 Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (p. 320). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

9 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R. (Eds.). (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 425–426). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

10 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 222). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Man (Anthropology)

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