CHAPTER III. The Origin of the Soul

(Part 2)


§ 1. Theory of Preexistence.    § 2. Traducianism.    § 3. Creationism.    § 4. Concluding Remarks.

§ 1. Theory of Preexistence.


    THREE theories have been advanced as to the origin of the soul First, that of the Preexistence of the soul; secondly, that of Traduction, or the doctrine that the soul of the child is derived from the soul of the parent; thirdly, that of immediate Creation, or the doctrine that the soul is not derived as the body is, but owes its existence to the creative power of God.

    The doctrine of the preexistence of the soul has been presented in two forms. Plato held that ideas are eternal in the divine mind; that these ideas are not mere thoughts, but living entities; that they constitute the essence and life of all external things; the universe and all it contains are these ideas realized, clothed in matter, and developed in history. There was thus an ideal, or intelligible world, anterior to the world as actually existing in time. What Plato called ideas, Aristotle called forms. He denied that the ideal was anterior to the actual. Matter is eternal, and all things consist of matter and form — by form being meant that which gives character, or determines the nature of individual things. As in other respects, so also in this, the Platonic, or Aristo-Platonic philosophy, had much influence on Christian Theology. And some of the fathers and of the schoolmen approached more or less nearly to this doctrine of the preexistence, not only of the soul, but of all things in this ideal world. St. Bernard, in his strenuous opposition to nominalism, adopted the Platonic doctrine of ideas, which he identified with genera and species. These ideas, he taught, were eternal, although posterior to God, as an effect is in the order of nature after its cause. Providence applies the idea to matter, which becomes animated and takes form, and thus (“du monde intelligible est sorti le monde sensible”) “cx mundo intelligibili mundus sensibilis perfectus natus est ex perfecto.”1 Among modern writers, Delitzsch comes nearest to this Platonic doctrine. He says, “Es giebt nach der Schrift eine Praexistenz des Menschen und zwar eine ideale; . . . eine Praexistenz . . . .vermoge welcher Mensch und Menschheit nicht blos ein fernzukunftiges Object gottlicher Voraussicht, sondern ein gegenwartiges Object gottlicher Anschauung sind im Spiegel der Weisheit . . . . Nicht bloss Philosophie und falchberuhmte Gnosis, sondern auch die Schrift weiss und spricht von einer gottlichen ldealwelt, zu welcher sich die Zeitwelt wie ale geschichtliche Verwirklichung eines ewigen Grundrisses verhalt.2 That is, “There is according to the Scriptures, an ideal preexistence of man; a preeistence in virtue of which man and humanity are contemplated by the divine omniscience not merely as objects lying far off in the future, but as present in the mirror of his wisdom. Not only philosophy and the so called Gnosis, but also the Scriptures recognize and avow a divine ideal world to which the actual world stands related as the historical development of an eternal conception.” It is doubtful, however, whether Delitzsch meant much more by this than that the omniscience of God embraces from eternity the knowledge of all things possible, and that his purpose determined from eternity the futurition of all actual events, so that his decree or plan as existing in the divine mind is realized in the external world and its history. The mechanist has in his mind a clear conception of the machine which he is about to make. But it is only by a figure of speech that the machine can be said to preexist in the artist’s mind. This is very different from the Platonic and Realistic theory of preexistence.

Origen’s Doctrine.

    Preexistence, as taught by Origen, and as adopted here and there by some few philosophers and theologians, is not the Platonic doctrine of an ideal-world. It supposes that the souls of men had a separate, conscious, personal existence in a previous state; that having sinned in that preexistent state, they are condemned to be born into this world in a state of sin and in connection with a material body. This doctrine was connected by Origen with his theory of an eternal creation. The present state of being is only one epoch in the existence of the human soul. It has passea through innumerable other epochs and forms of existence inthe past, and is to go through other innumerable such epochs in the future. He held to a metempsychosis very similar to that taught by Orientals both ancient and modern. But even without the encumbrance of this idea of the endless transmutation of fhe soul, the doctrine itself has never been adopted in the Church. It may be said to have begun and ended with Origen, as it was rejected both by the Greeks and Latins, and has only been advocated by individual writers from that day to this. It does not pretend to be a Scriptural doctrine, and therefore cannot be an object of faith. The Bible never speaks of a creation of men before Adam, or of any apostasy anterior to his fall, and it never refers the sinfulness of our present condition to any higher source than the sin of our first parent. The assumption that all human souls were created at the same time that the soul of Adam was created, and remain in a dormant, unconscious state until united to the bodies for which they were designed, has been adopted by so few as hardly to merit a place in the history of theological opinion.

    It is a far more important question, whether the soul of each man is immediately created, or, whether it is generated by the parents. The former is known, in theology, as “Creationism,” the latter as “Traducianism.” The Greek Church from the first took ground in favour of creationism as alone consistent with the true nature of the soul. Tertullian in the Latin Church was almost a materialist, at least he used the language of materialism, and held that the soul was as much begotten as the body. Jerome opposed that doctrine. Augustine was also very adverse to it; but in his controversy with Pelagius on the propagation of sin, he was tempted to favour the theory of traduction as affording an easier explanation of the fact that we derive a corrupt nature from Adam. He never, however, could bring himself fully to adopt it. Creationism became subsequently the almost universally received doctrine of the Latin, as it had always been of the Greek, Church. At the time of the Reformation the Protestants as a body adhered to the same view. Even the Form of Concord, the authoritative symbol of the Lutheran Church, favours creationism. The body of the Lutheran theologians of the seventeenth century, however, adopted the theory of traduction. Among the Reformed the reverse was true. Calvin, Beza, Turrettin, and the great majority of the Reformed theologians were creationists, only here and there one adopted the ex traduce theory. In modern times discussion on this point has been renewed. Many of the recent German theologians, and such as are inclined to realism in any form, have become more or less zealously the advocates of traducianism. This, however, is far from being the universal opinion of the Germans. Perhaps the majority of the German philosophers agree with Gunther:3“Traducianism has its functions in respect to the animal life of man; on the other hand, the province of Creationism is with the soul; and it would travel out of its province if it extended the immediate creative action of God to that animal life, which is the principle of his body’s existence.”

§ 2. Traducianism.

    What is meant by the term traduction is in general sufficiently clear from the signification of the word. Traducianists on the one hand deny that the soul is created; and on the other hand, they affirm that it is produced by the law of generation, being as truly derived from the parents as the body. The whole man, soul and body, is begotten. The whole man is derived from the substance of his progenitors. Some go further than others in their assertions on this subject. Some affirm that the soul is susceptible of “abscission and division,” so that a portion of the soul of the parents is communicated to the child. Others shrink from such expressions, and yet maintain that there is a true derivation of the one from the other. Both classes, however, insist on the numerical identity of essence in Adam and all his posterity both as to soul and as to body. The more enlightened and candid advocates of traducianism admit that the Scriptures are silent on the subject. Augustine had said the same thing a thousand years ago. “De re obscurissima disputatur, non adjuvantibus divinarum scripturarum certis clarisque documentis.” The passages cited in support of the doctrine teach nothing decisive on the subject. That Adam begat a son in his own likeness, and after his own image, and called his name Seth, only asserts that Seth was like his father. It sheds no light on the mysterious process of generation, and does not teach how the likeness of the child to the parent is secured by physical causes. When Job asks, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” and when our Lord says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,” the fact is asserted that like begets like; that a corrupt nature is transmitted from parent to child. But that this can be done only by the transmission of numerically the same substance is a gratuitous assumption. More stress is laid on certain facts of Scripture which are assumed to favour this theory. That in the creation of the woman no mention is made of God’s having breathed into her the breath of life, is said to imply that her soul as well as her body was derived from Adam. Silence, however, proves nothing. In Gen. i. 27, it is simply said, “God created man in his own image,” just as it is said that He created “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Nothing is there said of his breathing into man the breath of life, i. e., a principle of rational life. Yet we know that it was done. Its not being expressly mentioned in the case of Eve, therefore, is no proof that it did not occur. Again, it is said, that God’s resting on the Sabbath, implies that his creating energy was not afterwards exerted. This is understood to draw the line between the immediate creation and the production of effects in nature by second causes under the providential control of God. The doctrine of creationism, on the other hand, assumes that God constantly, now as well as at the beginning, exercises his immediate agency in producing something out of nothing. But, in the first place, we do not know how the agency of God is connected with the operation of second causes, how far that agency is mediate, and how far it is immediate; and in the second place, we do know that God has not bound himself to mere providential direction; that his omnipresent power is ever operating through means and without means in the whole sphere of history and of nature. Of all arguments in favor of traducianism the most effective is that derived from the transmission of a sinful nature from Adam to his posterity. It is insisted that this can neither be explained nor justified unless we assume that Adam’s sin was our sin and our guilt, and that the identical active, intelligent, voluntary substance which transgressed in him, has been transmitted to us. This is an argrument which can be fully considered only when we come to treat of original sin. For the present it is enough to repeat the remark just made, that the fact is one thing and the explanation of the fact is another thing. The fact is admitted that the sin of Adam in a true and important sense is our sin, — and that we dlerive from him a corrupt nature; but that this necessitates the adoption of the ex traduce doctrine as to the origin of the soul, is not so clear. It has been denied by the vast majority of the most strenuous defenders of the doctrine of original sin, in all ages of the Church. To call creationism a Pelagian principle is only an evidence of ignorance. Again, it is urged that the doctrine of the incarnation necessarily involves the truth of the ex traduce theory. Christ was born of a woman. He was the seed of the woman. Unless both as to soul and body derived from his human mother, it is said, He cannot truly be of the same race with us. The Lutheran theologians, therefore, say: “Si Christus non assumpsisset animam ab anima Mariae, animam humanam non redemisset.” This, however, is a simple non squitur. All that is necessary is that Christ should be a man, a son of David, in the same sense as any other of the posterity of David, save only his miraculous conception. He was formed ex substantia matris suoe in the same sense in which every child born of a woman is born of her substance, but what that sense is, his birth does not determine. The most plausible argument in favour of traducianism is the undeniable fact of the transmission of the ethnical, national, family, and even parental, peculiarities of mind and temper. This seems to evince that there is a derivation not only of the body but also of the soul in which these peculiarities inhere. But even this argument is not conclusive, because it is impossible for us to determine to what proximate cause these peculiarities are due. They may all be referred, for what we know, to something peculiar in the physical constitution. That the mind is greatly influenced by the body cannot be denied. And a body having the physical peculiarities belonging to any race, nation, or family, may determine within certain limits the character of the soul.

§ 3. Creationism.

    The common doctrine of the Church, and especially of the Reformed theologians, has ever been that the soul of the child is not generated or derived from the parents, but that it is created by the immediate agency of God. The arguments generally urged in favour of this view are, —

    1. That it is more consistent with the prevailing representations of the Scriptures. In the original account of the creation there is a marked distinction made between the body and the soul. The one is from the earth, the other from God. This distinction is kept up throughout the Bible. The body and soul are not only represented as different substances, but also as having different origins. The body shall return to dust, says the wise man, and the spirit to God who gave it. Here the origin of the soul is represented as different from and higher than that of the body. The former is from God in a sense in which the latter is not. In like manner God is said to form “the spirit of man within him” (Zech. xii. 1); to give “breath unto the people upon” the earth, “and spirit to them that walk therein.” (Is. xlii. 5.) This language nearly agrees with the account of the original creation, in which God is said to have breathed into man the breath of life, to indicate that the soul is not earthy or material, but had its origin immediately from God. Hence He is called “God of the spirits of all flesh.” (Num. xvi. 22.) It could not well be said that He is God of the bodies of all men. The relation in which the soul stands to God as its God and creator is very different from that in which the body stands to Him. And hence in Heb. xii. 9, it is said, “We have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” The obvious antithesis here presented is between those who are the fathers of our bodies and him who is the Father of our spirits. Our bodies are derived from our earthly parents, our souls are derived from God. This is in accordance with the familiar use of the word flesh, where it is contrasted, either expressly or by implication, with the soul. Paul speaks of those who had not “seen his face in the flesh,” of “the life he now lived in the flesh.” He tells the Philippians that it was needful for them that he should remain “in the flesh;” he speaks of his “mortal flesh.” The Psalmist says of the Messiah, “my flesh shall rest in hope,” which the Apostle explains to mean that his flesh should not see corruption. In all these, and in a multitude of similar passages, flesh means the body, and “fathers of our flesh” means fathers of our bodies. So far, therefore, as the Scriptures reveal anything on the subject, their authority is against traducianism and in favour of creationism.

Argument from the Nature of the Soul.

    2. The latter doctrine, also, is clearly most consistent with the nature of the soul. The soul is admitted, among Christians, to be immaterial and spiritual. It is indivisible. The traducian doctrine denies this universally acknowledged truth. It asserts that the soul admits of “separation or division of essence.”4 On the same ground that the Church universally rejected the Gnostic doctrine of emanation as inconsistent with the nature of God as a spirit, it has, with nearly the same unanimity, rejected the doctrine that the soul admits of division of substance. This is so serious a difficulty that some of the advocates of the ex traduce doctrine endeavour to avoid it by denying that their theory assumes any such separation or division of the substance of the soul. But this denial avails little. They maintain that the same numerical essence which constituted the soul of Adam constitutes our souls. If this be so, then either humanity is a general essence of which individual men are the modes of existence, or what was wholly in Adam is distributively, partitively, and by separation, in the multitude of his descendants. Derivation of essence, therefore, does imply, and is generally admitted to imply, separation or division of essence. And this must be so if numerical identity of essence in all mankind is assumed to be secured by generation or propagation.

    3. A third argument in favour of creationism and against traducianism is derived from the Scriptural doctrine as to the person of Christ. He was very man; He had a true human nature; a true body and a rational soul. He was born of a woman. He was, as to his flesh, the son of David. He was descended from the fathers. He was in all points made like as we are, yet without sin. This is admitted on both sides. But, as before remarked in reference to realism, this, on the theory of traducianism, necessitates the conclusion that Christ’s human nature was guilty and sinful. We are partakers of Adam’s sin both as to guilt and pollution, because the same numerical essence which sinned in him is communicated to us. Sin, it is said, is an accident, and supposes a substance in which it inheres, or to which it pertains. Community in sin supposes, therefore, community of essence. If we were not in Adam as to essence we did not sin in him, and do not derive a corrupt nature from him. But, if we were in him as to essence then his sin was our sin both as to guilt and pollution. This is the argument of traducianists repeated in every form. But they insist that Christ was in Adam as to the substance of his human nature as truly as we were. They say that if his body and soul were not derived from the body and soul of his virgin mother he was no true man, and cannot be the redeemer of men. What is true of other men must, consequently, be true of Him. He must, therefore, be as much involved in the guilt and corruption of the apostasy as other men. It will not do to affirm and deny the same thing. It is a contradiction to say that we are guilty of Adam’s sin because we are partakers of his essence, and that Christ is not guilty of his sin nor involved in its pollution, although He is a partaker of his essence. If participation of essence involve community of guilt and depravity in the one case, it must also in the other. As this seems a legitimate conclusion from the traducian doctrine, and as this conclusion is anti-Christian, and false, the doctrine itself cannot be true.

§ 4. Concluding Remarks.

    Such are the leading arguments on both sides of this question. In reference to this discussion it may be remarked, —

    1. That while it is incumbent on us strenuously to resist any doctrine which assumes the divisibility, and consequent materiality, of the human soul, or which leads to the conclusion that the human nature of our blessed Lord was contaminated with sin, yet it does not become us to be wise above that which is written. We may confess that generation, the production of a new individual of the human race, is an inscrutable mystery. But this must be said of the transmission of life in all its forms. If theologians and philosophers would content themselves with simply denying the creation of the soul ex nihilo, without insisting on the division of the substance of the soul or the identity of essence in all human beings, the evil would not be so great. Some do attempt to be thus moderate, and say, with Frohschammer,5Generare ist nicht ein traducere, sondern ein secundares, ein creaturliches creare.“They avail themselves of the analogy often referred to, “cum flamma accendit flammam, neque tota flamina accendens transit in accensam neque pars ejus in eam descendit: ita anima parentum generat animam filii, ei nihil de cedat.” It must be confessed, however, that in this view the theory loses all its value as a means of explaining the propagation of sin.

    2. It is obviously most unreasonable and presumptuous, as well as dangerous, to make a theory as to the origin of the soul the ground of a doctrine so fundamental to the Christian system as that of original sin. Yet we see theologians, ancient and modern, boldly asserting that if their doctrine of derivation, and the consequent numerical sameness of substance in all men, be not admitted, then original sin is impossible. That is, that nothing can be true, no matter how plainly taught in the word of God, which they cannot explain. This is done even by those who protest against introducing philosophy into theology, utterly unconscious, as it would seem, that they themselves occupy, quoad hoc, the same ground with the rationalists. They will not believe in hereditary depravity unless they can explain the mode of its transmission. There can be no such thing, they say, as hereditary depravity unless the soul of the child is the same numerical substance as the soul of the parent. That is, the plain assertions of the Scriptures cannot be true unless the most obscure, unintelligible, and self-contradictory, and the least generally received philosophical theory as to the constitution of man and the propagation of the race be adopted. No man has a right to hang the millstone of his philosophy around the neck of the truth of God.

    3. There is a third cautionary remark which must not be omitted. The whole theory of traducianism is founded on the assumption that God, since the original creation, operates only through means. Since the “sixth day the Creator has, in this world, exerted no strictly creative energy. He rested from the work of creation upon the seventh day, and still rests.”6 The continued creation of souls is declared by Delitzsch7to be inconsistent with God’s relation to the world. He now produces only mediately, i. e., through the operation of second causes. This is a near approach to the mechanical theory of the universe, which supposes that God, having created the world and endowed his creatures with certain faculties and properties, leaves it to the operation of these second causes. A continued superintendence of Providence may be admitted, but the direct exercise of the divine efficiency is denied. What, then, becomes of the doctrine of regeneration? The new birth is not the effect of second causes. It is not a natural effect produced by the influence of the truth or the energy of the human will. It is due to the immediate exercise of the almighty power of God. God’s relation to the world is not that of a mechanist to a machine, nor such as limits Him to operating only through second causes. He is immanent in the world. He sustains and guides all causes. He works constantly through them, with them, and without them. As in the operations of writing or speaking there is with us the union and combined action of mechanical, chemical, and vital forces, controlled by the presiding power of mind; and as the mind, while thus guiding the operations of the body, constantly exercises its creative energy of thought, so God, as immanent in the world, constantly guides all the operations of second causes, and at the same time exercises uninterruptedly his creative energy. Life is not the product of physical causes. We know not that its origin is in any case due to any cause other than the immediate power of God. If life be the peculiar attribute of immaterial substance, it may be produced agreeably to a fixed plan by the creative energy of God whenever the conditions are present under which He has purposed it should begin to be. The organization of a seed, or of the embryo of an animal, so far as it consists of matter, may be due to the operation of material causes guided by the providential agency of God, while the vital principle itself is due to his creative power. There is nothing in this derogatory to the divine character. There is nothing in it contrary to the Scriptures. There is nothing in it out of analogy with the works and working of God. It is far preferable to the theory which either entirely banishes God from the world, or restricts his operations to a concursus with second causes. The objection to creationism that it does away with the doctrine of miracles, or that it supposes God to sanction every act with which his creative power is connected, does not seem to have even plausibility. A miracle is not simply an event due to the immediate agency of God, for then every act of conversion would be a miracle. But it is an event, occurring in the external world, which involves the suspension or counteracting of some natural law, and which can be referred to nothing but the immediate power of God. The origination of life, therefore, is neither in nature nor design a miracle, in the proper sense of the word. This exercise of God’s creative energy, in connection with the agency of second causes, no more implies approbation than the fact that He gives and sustains the energy of the murderer proves that He sanctions murder.

    4. Finally this doctrine of traducianism is held by those who contend for the old realistic doctrine that humanity is a generic substance or life. The two theories, however, do not seem to harmonize, and their combination produces great confusion and obscurity. According to the one theory the soul of the child is derived from the soul of its parents; according to the other theory there is no derivation. One magnet is not, or need not be derived from another; one Leyden jar is not derived from another; nor one galvanic battery from another. There is no derivation in the case. The general forces of magnetism, electricity and galvanism, are manifested in connection with given material combinations. And if a man be the manifestation of the general principle of humanity in connection with a given human body, his human nature is not derived from his immediate progenitors.

    The object of this discussion is not to arrive at certainty as to what is not clearly revealed in Scripture, nor to explain what is, on all sides, admitted to be inscrutable, but to guard against the adoption of principles which are in opposition to plain and importaut doctrines of the word of God. If traducianism teaches that the soul admits of abscission or division; or that the human race are constituted of numerically the same substance; or that the Son of God assumed into personal union with himself the same numerical substance which sinned and fell in Adam; then it is to be rejectel as both false and dangerous. But if, without pretending to explain everything, it simply asserts that the human race is propagated in accordance with the general law which secures that like begets like; that the child derives its nature from its parents through the operation of physical laws, attended and controlled by the agency of God, whether directive or creative, as in all other cases of the propagation of living creatures, it may be regarded as an open question, or matter of indifference. Creationism does not necessarily suppose that there is any other exercise of the immediate power of God in the production of the human soul, than such as takes place in the production of life in other cases. It only denies that the soul is capable of division, that all mankind are composed of numerically the same essence and that Christ assumed numerically the same essence that sinned in Adam.