Written by Robert S. Smith |
Tuesday, December 7, 2021
Helping and supporting those who are navigating gender identity conflicts requires considerable wisdom and deep compassion. But unless our care is grounded in and guided by anthropological reality (as revealed in Scripture), it will neither be truly wise nor genuinely compassionate. The theological task, therefore, is paramount and necessarily comes first.
Understanding Human Constitution
In his recent book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church & What the Bible Has to Say, Preston Sprinkle helpfully maps out the four main views of human constitution —i.e., the relationship between the material and immaterial aspects of the human person. The first is physicalism, which denies the existence of an immaterial soul or spirit. The second is non-reductive physicalism, which affirms that we are more than our bodies but denies a body/soul distinction. The third is soft dualism, which acknowledges a body/soul distinction but insists that both are necessary for human personhood. The fourth is strong dualism, which sees body and soul as fundamentally distinct substances and equates the human person with the soul, not the body.
Sprinkle, quite rightly, deems views one and four to be sub-Christian. His own view (I think) seems to hover somewhere between two and three. However, in my judgment, non-reductive physicalism falls somewhat short of the biblical presentation of humanity. While its proponents are quite right to point out that both the Hebrew term nepesh and Greek term psychē often refer to the whole person rather than just the inner person (e.g., Gen. 2:7; 1 Pet. 3:20), the question is whether the Bible draws a distinction between the inner and outer person. The unequivocal answer of both testaments is that it does (e.g., Eccl. 12:6; 2 Cor. 4:16). And, what’s more, it sometimes uses both nepesh and psychē to refer to the inner person specifically (e.g., Gen. 35:18; Matt. 10:28).
So that leaves us with soft dualism or, what I think is a better term, dualistic holism, the view that human beings are “integral personal-spiritual-physical wholes—single beings consisting of different parts, aspects, dimensions, and abilities that are not naturally independent or separable.” It also brings us to the question I want to pursue in the remainder of this article: How does such an understanding of human constitution help us assess (what might be called) spiritual gender identity theory —i.e., the claim that a person can have the spirit or soul of one sex in the body of another?
Before proceeding, I want to stress that this is not a pastoral article; it is an exercise in theological thinking. It will certainly have important pastoral implications. But it’s not my purpose here to tease these out. Helping and supporting those who are navigating gender identity conflicts requires considerable wisdom and deep compassion. But unless our care is grounded in and guided by anthropological reality (as revealed in Scripture), it will neither be truly wise nor genuinely compassionate. The theological task, therefore, is paramount and necessarily comes first.
Assessing Spiritual Gender Identity Theory
The Implausibility of a Body-Soul Mismatch
The holism of the scriptural presentation of anthropological constitution leaves no room for a conception of human beings as “composed of two separate entities joined together in an uneasy alliance.” Accordingly, John Cooper regards it as “anti-scriptural” to think of the soul as being “in tension with the body.” The reason for this is that body and soul, although distinct, interpenetrate one another —we are just as much ensouled bodies as we are embodied souls. As a consequence, “[b]iological processes are not just functions of the body as distinct from the soul or spirit, and mental and spiritual capacities are not seated exclusively in the soul or spirit. All capacities and functions belong to the human being as a whole, a fleshly-spiritual totality.”
My thesis, then, is this: such synthetic integration necessarily rules out the possibility of an ontological mismatch between the (visible) body and the (invisible) soul. Consequently, if a person’s body is unambiguously sexed as male, it is simply not conceivable that their soul could be female (and vice versa). Indeed, a radical elemental disjunction of this kind would effectively “destroy the unity of the human person which is at the heart of a biblical anthropology.”
Terrance Tiessen’s Counter-Proposal
Nevertheless, it is precisely this kind of disconnection that has been proposed (albeit tentatively) by theologian Terrance Tiessen. To make his case, Tiessen relies on a particular version of Thomistic dualism drawn from the work of J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae. According to Moreland and Rae, “the human person is identical to its soul, and the soul comes into existence at the point of conception.” From that moment on, the soul “begins to direct the development of a body” guided by “the various teleological functions latent within the soul.” Therefore, not only is the soul “ontologically prior to the body,” but “the various biological operations of the body have their roots in the internal structure of the soul, which forms a body to facilitate those operations.” On the basis of such an understanding, Tiessen draws the conclusion that the “maleness or femaleness of human beings is an aspect of the soul.”
He then considers the reality of the Fall in order to hypothesise “the possibility of soul/body disjunction.” He begins by drawing attention to the phenomenon of DSD/intersex. His argument is that while each person’s soul is either male or female, in some cases “abnormalities occur in the development of the person’s body so that doctors find it extremely difficult to say whether the person who has just been born is female or male.” Then, by extension, he suggests that perhaps others (he cites Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner as an example), whose bodies are unambiguously male or female, might experience a total “incongruence between the sex of their soul and the sex of their body.” So, while Tiessen rejects the idea that “sexual identity is a social construct” and affirms that our goal should be “to live as God has created us,” his contention is that the truth of our created sex is not ultimately found in the body but in the soul.
Responding to Tiessen’s Hypothesis
In response to Tiessen’s proposal, four points can be made.