Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy asks AMBS, Do Mennonites have souls?

Published: April 14, 2016

Jamie Pitts

Do Mennonites have souls? On March 15 and 16, Nancey Murphy, Ph.D., addressed three lectures to the AMBS community on the question of human nature. Murphy is senior professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

Murphy, a philosophical theologian whose work focuses on the relationship between theology and the sciences, visited AMBS as part of an annual Theological Lectureship sponsored by the seminary’s History, Theology and Ethics Department.

In her first lecture, “Do Mennonites Have Souls? Biblical and Theological Issues,” Murphy covered historic shifts in biblical and theological arguments about the nature of human beings. The biblical authors, she said, tended to write about humans as primarily physical beings that related to God and one another in complex ways.

For example, Paul wrote about the resurrection of the body in 1 Corinthians 15. By contrast, Murphy noted that early Christian theologians were influenced by Greek philosophy, with its dualistic understanding of humans as consisting of perishable bodies and immortal souls. This dualism, she said, has colored biblical interpretation for most of Christian history. Yet over the past hundred years both progressive and evangelical scholars have recovered the Bible’s own “physicalism.”

The importance of biblical physicalism became evident in Murphy’s second lecture, “Do Humans Have Minds: Scientific and Philosophical Issues.” Darwin’s theory of evolution, she said, disputes the idea of human beings having a non-material element to their makeup such as the soul. Furthermore, recent neuroscience shows that most traits formerly attributed to the soul can be located in the brain. Murphy illustrated this point through an appreciative review of Thomas Aquinas’s theory of the soul. Biblical physicalism, she suggested, helps Christians respond positively and nondefensively to modern science.

In her final lecture, “No Souls, No Ministry? Some Ways Ahead for Anabaptists,” Murphy touched on a variety of pastoral and spiritual implications of embracing physicalism from a biblical, theological and scientific perspective. If, she contended, humans do not have immaterial souls, but rather are bodies related to God and others, then the full range of human activity should be seen as potential spiritual practices. Creation care, communal discernment, intercessory prayer—all are embodied ways of spiritually relating to God.

Prepared responses were provided to each of the lectures by, respectively, Jamie Pitts, AMBS assistant professor of Anabaptist Studies; Carl Helrich, Goshen College emeritus professor of physics; and Sara Wenger Shenk, AMBS president.

The lectureship drew students, faculty and staff as well as guests from the local community.

Jamie Pitts is assistant professor of Anabaptist studies at AMBS.

Listen to this

Visit the AMBS audio archive to hear and download Dr. Nancey Murphy’s presentations and responses from Jamie Pitts, Carl Helrich and Sara Wenger Shenk.

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