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[Common Places] Reading Notes: The Soul

Categories Theology Common Places

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While Christianity is by no means the only faith—nor theology the only discipline—concerned to know the soul, it is because the Christian church confesses the goodness of creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection of the dead that her enquiry is vitally concerned to know the soul as the soul of the embodied saint seeking eternal communion with God as part of the body of Christ. Much of the church’s discussion takes the form of critiques of Greek and Hellenistic conceptions of the soul, though these critiques often remain appreciative in their dissents, recognizing their debts to the Greek and Hellenistic conceptions at a number of points. Here are some key sources for entering into the scope of this discussion.


Augustine, The City of God, I.16–19; XIII; XIV; XXII.25–30

Throughout his corpus Augustine offers an understanding of the soul redolent with platonic and neoplatonic themes: the soul attains its good through the ordering of its faculties that it might rule and be liberated from the corruptible body and find its happiness in God (the true light and goodness itself). This ordered soul is the peace of the city of God.

Yet, in the books listed here, Augustine distinguishes his view of the soul’s relation to the body from his predecessors. For Augustine, the person is soul and body, the union of the soul and body being a good that is lost in the death of the body and regained in the resurrection. Moreover, vivified by the spirit, the saint’s final happiness is in some sense complete in the reunion of her soul to her body, as it is in the spiritual body that the saint will “see,” “love,” and “praise” God for eternity.

Also of interest in these books are Augustine’s understanding of the life of the flesh, not as the evil of embodied life, but as the life of the sinful soul that corrupts the body (making it burdensome); his understanding of the soul’s death as the soul’s separation from God; and his view that the saint need not fear others’ defilement of her body because virtue has its seat not in the body but in the soul.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Ia, qq. 75–76, 84, 89; IaIIæ, q. 4, a. 5–6; Suppl. IIIæ, q. 92; q. 93, a. 1

While dense, these questions from Thomas’ Summa familiarize readers with the breadth of his hylomorphic account of the soul as the form of the material body (hylomorphism is the view that each physical object is a matter–form compound). Rejecting what he identifies as Plato’s understanding of the soul as the body’s “motor,” Thomas offers an account of the unity of the soul and the body wherein the soul is the body’s act and, in this, the source of the human act of understanding.

Thomas is heavily indebted to Aristotle’s hylomorphism in these questions, yet utilizes it to service a theological concern to know how, as rational soul and material body (an “organ of sense”), the saint pursues her end of understanding in a beatific vision of God. Readers will be rewarded in tracing how Thomas develops his account, not least his theological rationale for rejecting the soul’s dependence upon the body in its conscious intermediate state and its vision of the divine essence, while insisting that it is the soul’s nature to be united to the body because the resurrection of the body is integral to the saint’s happiness in her eternal beatific vision.


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/2, §46

Barth’s discussion of the soul in §46 takes as a starting point the being of the true human as “being with God” in order that the human creature’s relationship to her creator might determine what is said of the human as soul and body rather than the other way around.

Part of Barth’s overarching attempt to know true humanity in Jesus Christ, this section examines scripture’s speaking of the wholeness of Jesus Christ as soul and body and, from this, determines that the human is human because she is graciously “grounded, constituted and maintained” by the Spirit of God. The remainder of the section unfolds what must then be the “interconnexion,” “particularity,” and “order” of the soul and body in true humanity. In nuce, for Barth, the soul is that which, by the Spirit, animates the body in the human’s covenantal encounter with her God.

Of course, such a sentence fails to show the dogmatic originality that undergirds and clarifies Barth’s dialectical conclusions, obscuring among other things the distinction he asserts between his view and “Greek traditional Christian dualism” (as well as monistic varieties of materialism and spiritualism, dualism’s disillusioned correlates). Readers will find §46 offers much in celebration of God’s graciousness in the soul and body of true humanity.


Marc Cortez, Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies

This final selection offers an education in theologically orienting oneself to contemporary discussion of the soul in philosophy of the mind. In response to developments in science, concern about Greek influence, and conceptual problems, many have shifted away from the dualism that characterizes much of Christian theology, rejecting understandings of the human as an immaterial soul and material body and adopting understandings of the human as entirely material; others in turn have argued in dualism’s defense.

Recognizing that the ensuing debates raise anew questions of what theology is and is not able to say about human ontology, Cortez utilizes Barth’s christological anthropology to resource a theological engagement with the accounts of the mind/soul–body relationship offered by “nonreductive physicalism” and “holistic dualism.”

Cortez suggests that Barth’s development of his anthropology from his Christology opens up the possibility of dialogue between his anthropology and non-theological anthropologies, and maintains that such a christological anthropology is suited to evaluate the theological “legitimacy” of non-theological accounts of the mind–body relationship but not to develop a “fully worked out theory of human ontology.” Theology can present what Christology entails “must be affirmed about human ontology,” but it cannot develop a full-bodied theory of human ontology from Christology because this “would seem to violate the principle that one cannot move directly from Christology to anthropology.”

Readers new to contemporary mind–body debates will further appreciate that, in the course of his own evaluation of the theological viability and potential “christological deficiencies” of nonreductive physicalism and holistic dualism, Cortez provides an expansive survey of arguments for and against each.


Christina N. Larsen (PhD, University of St. Andrews) will be joining the College of Theology faculty at Grand Canyon University this fall. Her dissertation was on Jonathan Edwards’ Christology, and her forthcoming publications are on Edwards, Barth, and divine glory.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read column introduction here.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors of Common Places

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