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  • Writer's pictureRick Wadholm Jr

The Soul: An Anglican Confession

“To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:8

We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body.” (Chalcedon 451 A.D.)

A tenant of the Anglican faith, even Catholic faith more broadly, is that we humans are ensouled bodies. But some, even in our own ranks, would have you think otherwise.

Here’s the question for reflection: Am I soul or body? Or, better, are we souls and bodies?

That we are ensouled bodies or individually composed of body and soul is so common, even definitive, teaching in Anglican polity and practice that it should not be denied. And, yet, there are some who would teach otherwise. Some deny it, and others downplay it to such an extent that it is rendered nearly irrelevant to biblical teaching and the Tradition’s reception of it. This for a variety of reasons of which I will merely summarize for purposes here. First, some will relegate it to Greek influence that finds no place in biblical teaching. Second, some will argue, positively, that what we find in the biblical teaching is not strictly speaking the soul or dualism (as it is often called by the ‘philosophers’), but rather with the whole integrated being we refer to as the human. Third, the direction or telos of biblical teaching has little to say about the soul (as the Greeks or the philosophers suggest), but with the body—and, in particular, the body resurrected.

Anglican Alistair McGrath claims this, when he says: “Yet it is widely agreed that this is not how the writers of the Bible understood these ideas. The notion of an immaterial soul was a secular Greek concept, not a biblical notion. The Old Testament conceives of humanity “as an animated body and not as an incarnate soul.” The biblical vision of humanity was that of a single entity, an inseparable psychosomatic unit with many facets or aspects. “Soul” is an Anglo-Saxon term used to translate a variety of biblical terms, often having the general sense of “life.” Thus, the Hebrew word nephesh, translated as “soul” in some older English Bibles, really means a “living being.” (McGrath, The Big Question, 137–38.) It is important to point out that in the wider context of McGrath’s writing here, he is pushing against Greek notions, a soul that could potentially exist disembodied, and one that is commonly associated with ancient and medieval notions of persons.

Previously Church of England Bishop, N.T. Wright claims this, when he denies the dualism of soul and body: “By contrast, I wish to propose a differentiated unity in terms of cosmos and of the human person, both rooted in a fully-blown biblical understanding of God and of humans in his image.” (“Mind, Spirit, Soul, and Body,”) It is important to point out that Wright has in his sights substance dualism with its emphasis on the potentiality of a disembodied soul–so common to Greek notions as well as the ancient and medieval Christian theologians (but its also important to point out that the notion is not limited to them). Whether Wright, in the final analysis, rejects a disembodied intermediate state or not is less clear in his writings, and it is certainly downplayed to such an extent that the soul becomes less relevant than it was for many early and medieval (and Reformed) theologians.

This teaching, or rejection of what some have rightly declared as traditional Christian belief that has been confessed throughout the ages across the traditions quite to the contrary of individual and private interpretations is that humans are not souls that could exist disembodied, but psycho-somatic wholes is popularly affirmed by many outside the Anglican camp (e.g., Joel Green, Richard Middleton, J.T. Turner, among others).

My argument here is not contending with brute exegesis or mere theological wrangling with texts—although there is much to say here (and much that has been said already; see The Soul of Theological Anthropology; Soul, Body, and Life Everlasting). It is rather that these interpretive trends not only stand uncomfortably with the Anglican faith, but sit in contrast to the Anglican confession and authorities for which we, as committed Anglicans, align.

Anglicans familiar with the Anglican formularies will recognize, on the surface (prima-facie according to the philosophers), the whole of the Anglican confession and liturgical practice says otherwise. Just consider for a moment what our Prayer Book states leading up to the partaking of the Eucharist. Prior to taking, we pray, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” (Italics added for emphasis) This was common to our prayer and liturgical practice, but it can also be found in the 39 Articles. Remaining consistent with our creedal and conciliar heritage, we too confess in the 39 Articles that Christ (our normative representative and exemplar) was without sin in flesh, and spirit (Article XV). This, too, is commonly preached in the great book of Homilies that we humans are, “body and soul.” This alone should cause us to pause as Anglicans. But, I suggest that the claims, if accurately representative of settled Anglican doctrine, have a greater authority on us precisely because we are not left to our own individual interpretations of Scripture. Instead, we exist as an ecclesial community that collectively confess and practice certain truths that bind us together as Anglicans. And, more, these determinations are the product of a long, careful, and deliberate interpretive judgment as a source of wisdom embodied in the community across time and space rather than the deliberations of select individuals.

But it is here that we must step back and ask the question: what is it on the surface that is so commonly confessed that is rendered catholic belief and authority in doctrine. The objection might be advanced that what is common or superficially stated is not necessarily authoritative doctrine that must be believed.

While it is true that there may be incidental truths of language that Anglicans confess that are unintentional byproducts or conventions of a time (e.g., customs in geographical locales), the ‘soul’ (and dualism minimally defined as that we are body-soul compounds with a distinct thing that persists differently from the body) is not one of them.

In addition to the commitment to ‘soul’ language, the Prayer Book confesses the belief in the doctrine of the intermediate state when we pray for those who have departed. Second, consistent with the Church Catholic, we confess with the Articles that Christ persisted as a complete human being between Good Friday and the resurrection (not to mention the confession that he ‘descended into hell’ Article III). So, it cannot be argued that the soul is out of place in our Anglican Formularies. Instead, the reasons given here buttress the natural reading of the authoritative statements and symbols of the Anglican faith in a way that secures the designators of ‘soul’ and ‘body’ to refer to actual entities. To argue otherwise would dismantle not only doctrinal claims that permeate our confessional & liturgical heritage, but to place ourselves outside the community of which we are indebted and the authorities to which we have submitted.

And, while it’s true that some have departed from these teachings. It is also true that even Bishops, left to themselves, err.

—Joshua R. Farris, Rev. and Canon in Missio Mosaic, Evangelical Episcopal Communion with the Church of Tanzania. Author of The Creation of Self.

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