For the past few weeks at the Logos Institute here at St. Andrews, we have had the metaphysician Peter van Inwagen lecturing to our class on various topics such as substance dualism, relative identity, and the Trinity, with discussion free will to take place next week. However, the past couple weeks have been engaging as N.T. Wright engaging on these topics. Both van Inwagen and Wright as Christian physicalists, which means they do not believe there is anything immaterial to us as human beings. Strictly speaking, belief in a soul is not necessary to be a Christian, as the New Testament espouses hope in a bodily resurrection. While I do think the idea of some immaterial aspect of life is implied throughout both the Old Testament and New Testament, it is never made a major point of contention for the writers, nor does it ever take the shape of the Platonic doctrine of the immortal soul. During our class, one of our fellow students read 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 with a particular emphasis on the “kernel” (κὀκκος).
However, what is of particular interest to me is the repetitive use of the word σπείρω1 and σπέρμα2 in V. 38. This is the same metaphor that Diogenes Laertius attributes to the Stoic in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 7.132-133:
 Their physical doctrine they divide into sections (1) about bodies [σομάτων]; (2) about principles; (3) about elements; (4) about the gods; [θεῶν] (5) about bounding surfaces and space whether filled or empty. This is a division into species; but the generic division is into three parts, dealing with (i.) the universe; (ii.) the elements; (iii.) the subject of causation.
The part dealing with the universe admits, they say, of division into two : for with one aspect of it the mathematicians also are concerned, in so far as they treat questions relating to the fixed stars and the planets, e.g. whether the sun is or is not just so large as it appears to be, and the same about the moon, the question of their revolutions, and other inquiries of the same sort. But there is another aspect or field of cosmological inquiry, which belongs to the physicists alone :  this includes such questions as what the substance of the universe is, whether the sun and the stars are made up of form and matter, whether the world has had a beginning in time or not, whether it is animate or inanimate, whether it is destructible or indestructible, whether it is governed by providence, and all the rest. The part concerned with causation, again, is itself subdivided into two. And in one of its aspects medical inquiries have a share in it, in so far as it involves investigation of the ruling principle of the soul [ψυχῆς] and the phenomena of soul [ψυχῃ], seeds [σπερμάτων], and the like. Whereas the other part is claimed by the mathematicians also, e.g. how vision is to be explained, what causes the image on the mirror, what is the origin of clouds, thunder, rainbows, halos, comets, and the like.3
As Stoic discussions of the soul employed the metaphor of seeds.4 it shed light on the nature of Paul’s argument. However, Paul only once directly refers to the ψυχή (“soul”) as an object in v. 45 when quoting from the Genesis 2:7, while only using the adjective ψυχικός in v. 44 and v. 46. However, when Paul first starts his explanation of the logic of the resurrection via a series of contrast, he begins in v. 42-3 not by referring to the “soul” but to the act of “sowing.” He repeats this notion three times, then uses the adjective ψυχικός twice, and then the noun ψυχή once. This chronological priority of sowing at the start seems that Paul is more intent on employing what was perhaps a common metaphor to understand the soul than the idea of the soul itself. That the only reference to the soul comes in quoting the LXX Genesis 2:7 where the body is formed first and then God gives its life is highly suggestive: Paul does not want to hinge the hope of the resurrection on the idea of a soul as popularized by Plato’s immortal soul. There is some “seed” that survives death, but it is not the thing in and of itself that is important but rather its origins in God and what it does in providing the basis for the resurrected body. In fact, continuing the contrast in v. 50, the first stage of the seed is perishable, and only at the second stage when grown is it imperishable. For Paul, whatever the ψυχή is, it is not immortal as the Platonic doctrine stipulates.
In other words, it might be fitting to suggest that Paul employs the notion of ψυχή in a demythologized sense, referring more to the aspects of the present order of the world and life that ψυχή captures, but does not grant it everlasting, eternal status. I think this is how Paul employs ψυχικός in 2:12 and 15:44 as a reference to a way of knowing and mode of life as defined by Stoicism, which is in contrast to the πνευματικὀς as the way of knowing and mode of life grounded upon, ordered, and arranged by God’s work in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. For Paul, ψυχικός and ψυχή seem to function more as placeholder terms for the reality that perhaps undergirds the Stoic metaphysics rather than suggesting they have an ontological status themselves; this would function to place the wisdom, power, and glory of the world, dominated by Rome and Roman Stoicism, at a lower tier than the wisdom, power, and glory that comes from God in Christ and the Spirit.5
While I do think Paul believed in the idea of some immaterial aspects of persons, it would not have the characteristics of the Platonic soul of immortality, nor would Paul localize particular functions such as thinking to the soul as Plato and later Descartes. Paul’s doctrine of the soul only needs the most minimalistic notion of the soul, which the metaphor of seed conveys, in order to suggest the continuity between the mortal body and the resurrected body. I don’t even know if you need to say there is an immaterial substance, though I am inclined to accept that is the simplest explanation of the various New Testament comments on ψυχή, the resurrection, etc. so far as you give it only a minimal function and do not make the eternal life as being in a state of a disembodied soul. Whatever the “soul” is, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 seems to trivialize it to simply being the basis of a continuity between the period death to resurrection.
- Gk.: to plant, sow
- Gk. seed
- Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925).]
- See also Lives of the Eminent Philosopher 7.136, 158-9 for other examples of σπἐρμα being used in context of ψυχή.
- I would suggest a good analogy from today would be to use the phrase “spirituality” to refer to the common set of understands, expectations, practices, and experiences that those who self-identify as “spiritual” people have, and to suggest they are not on the same level as “Holy Spirituality” as a referring to the understanding, expectations, practices, and experiences that are grounded in the Holy Spirit.