What is the best explanation for how the human soul comes into being?
In this article I will define three positions that have been set forth in church history in attempts to explain the mysterious origin of the human soul. In later installments in the series I will examine more deeply the two most viable perspectives.
Three Main Views on the Origin of the Soul
1. Pre-existence: This view holds that human souls exist eternally in a previous and higher state before being united with human bodies in the time-space world.
This theological perspective was deeply influenced by ancient Greek philosophy. Distinguished philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) believed in eternally existent souls. This view has been associated with such Eastern religious concepts as reincarnation and the transmigration of souls (souls entering into a new body after death). In Christian history this position was held by the controversial church father Origen (AD 185–254) as well as by the heretical movement known as Gnosticism. Subsequently in Christian history this position was condemned as a doctrinal heresy. Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) holds to a version of this doctrine.
2. Traducianism: This view maintains that human beings derive both their bodies and souls from their parents through procreation (sometimes referred to as “generationism”). This perspective insists that only the soul of Adam was created directly by God whereas all other human beings have their immaterial soul passed on through a spiritual-physical process.
The position of traducianism was first held and defended by the North African church father Tertullian (c. AD 160–220) in his work De anima (xxvii). Even the greatest of the church fathers, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), initially leaned toward a traducian interpretation, though he later insisted that the soul’s origin is inexplicable. Some within the Eastern Orthodox tradition have accepted this view. Since the time of the Reformation, this perspective on the soul’s origin has been especially popular in Lutheran theology. It remains a viable doctrinal position today among some evangelical theologians though clearly a minority position. The viewpoint’s strongest appeal is that it is perceived as being the best explanatory theory regarding how original sin is transmitted to all of humanity.
3. Creationism: The view that each individual human soul is directly created by God before being united with the body (sometimes the term appears as “creatianism”). This perspective postulates that the soul is created pure but is subsequently corrupted along with the body through the process of conception.
This position was strongly defended by medieval scholastic scholars like Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and has become the official view of the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) also affirmed the creationism position as do most Reformed theologians. Among contemporary evangelical theologians, creationism remains the dominant position on the soul’s origin. The viewpoint’s strongest appeal is that it appears to preserve the concept of the soul as being a simple, indivisible substance.
In future installments in this series I will explore the arguments both biblical and philosophical for and against the positions of traducianism and creationism.
For more about the historic Christian view of human nature, see my book, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test, especially chapter 10.