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God of the Body/Soul Gap

January 31st, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I’m generally sympathetic to Robert Gundry’s helpful explication of the role of the body in Biblical theology.  His careful exegetical work foreshadowed John Cooper’s conclusions in Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting:  the anthropology of Scripture points toward something like a substance-dualism, even if it’s not the strong dualism of Plato.

But along the way, Gundry offers this odd argument in defense of dualism:

What in the constitution of man requires God to be there with man? But in that man exists as a unity of two substances, spirit and body, he requires the cohesive force of God for true and full being. Kasemann has seen that there is no way to bind a substantial body and a substantial soul together except by mythological speculation.  For mythological speculation, we might prefer God. But the point is the same. A dichotomous distinction within man requires a cohesive force from the outside. And pace Kasemann, that is good, for it fuses anthropology and theology. Insofar as theology and anthropology dovetail in this manner, then, our view of man receives confirmation.

But within the framework of Christian theology, the continuing existence of any creature requires the subterranean affirmation by God of their being.  The internal unity of the angelic form could be undone at any moment, as its being is as contingent as the being of humans.  Positing God as the only explanation for a particular feature of human existence is no more interesting or illuminating than positing God as the only explanation for existence at all.

What’s more, Gundry’s position actually cuts against the efforts to identify ways in which the soul and body might interact, a problematic feature of all such “God of the gaps” arguments.  On such an account, the difficulty of explanation of the relationship turns (magically!) from a virtue into a vice.

In his defense, Gundry is affirming Ernst Kasemann’s argument, and Kasemann is specifically concerned with undoing Rudolph Bultmann’s overly anthropological interpretation of Paul, a reading that problematically minimized God’s involvement with humans.  But solving one error with another is never a good strategy, as Kasemann does here.

I think Gundry’s explication of the role and meaning of the body in Scripture is generally correct, but this argument is hardly his finest moment.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.