How does the soul of a man originate?

Question
How does the soul of a man originate?
Answer
Ecclesiastes 11:5 As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed or [how life (or the spirit) / enters the body being formed] in a mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things

In Christianity there are two prevailing views of the origin of the soul called Traducianism and Creationism. There is a third view called Pre-existentianism (supported by Plato, Origen, Scotus Erigena, and Julius Mueller, et. al.), but it is replete with so many problems that IMO it is not even worthy of consideration:

(a) It is devoid of Scriptural support;

(b) It makes the body something accidental; first there was a soul and later there was the body. So, man was complete without a body?

(c) It destroys the unity of the human race, as if one is pre-existent then they could not constitute a race "in Adam"; thus destroying the truth of Romans 5:12-19 (cf. Acts 17:26), and

(d) It finds no support in the consciousness of man. (see Berkhof)

Traducianism, or at least a form of it, was the theory of the Western Church, and has followers such as Tertullian, Leo the Great, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, W.G.T. Shedd, Gordon Clark, Robert Reymond, and J. Oliver Buswell. On the other hand, Creationism was the theory of the Eastern Church and has followers such as Lactantius, Ambrose, Jerome, Pelagius, Peter Lombard, Anselm, Aquinas, John Calvin, Charles Hodge, J.M. Boyce, Louis Berkhof, and Wayne Grudem. As one can see there are studied men on both sides of this issue.

Augustine hesitated to even choose a view. "Where the Scripture," he says, "renders no certain testimony, human inquiry must beware of deciding one way or the other. If it were necessary to salvation to know anything concerning it, Scripture would have said more" (De peccatorum mer. et remiss. l. ii. c. 36//59). This is very wise!

Let's briefly excavate these views.

Traducianism

Traducianism affirms that the soul, along with the body, is formed at the moment of conception (see below). Each soul then is derived from and is dependent upon the action of the parents (sperm and egg). So, God is the creator of the soul, but through the medium of the parents. They affirm that God rested from his work of creation and, therefore, is not currently directly creating anything, not even the souls of fetuses (Gen 1:27; 2:1-3, 21; 46:27; Exod 1:5; 20:11; Psa 51:5; Rom. 5:12-13; 1 Cor. 15:22; Eph. 2:3; Heb. 4:4; 7:9-10).

Berkhof in his Systematic Theology explains (my formatting for easier viewing and the [ . . .] are my notes):

Arguments in favor of Traducianism.

Several arguments are adduced in favor of this theory:

(1) It is said to be favored by the Scriptural representation:

  • (a) that God but once breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life, and then left it to man to propagate the species, Gen. 1:28; 2:7;

  • (b) that the creation of Eve's soul was included in that of Adam, since she is said to be "of the man" (1 Cor. 11:8), and nothing is said about the creation of her soul, Gen. 2:23;

  • (c) that God ceased from the work of creation after He had made man, Gen. 2:2; and

  • (d) that descendants are said to be in the loins of their fathers, Gen. 46:26; Heb. 7:9, 10. Cf. also such passages as John 3:6; 1:13; Rom. 1:3; Acts 17:26.

(2) It is supported by the analogy of vegetable and animal life, in which the increase in numbers is secured, not by a continually increasing number of immediate creations, but by the natural derivation of new individuals from a parent stock. But cf. Psa. 104:30.

(3) It also seeks support in the inheritance of mental peculiarities and family traits, which are so often just as noticeable as physical resemblances, and which cannot be accounted for by education or example, since they are in evidence even when parents do not live to bring up their children.

(4) Finally, it seems to offer the best basis for the explanation of the inheritance of moral and spiritual depravity, which is a matter of the soul rather than of the body. It is quite common to combine with Traducianism the realistic theory to account for original sin.

Objections to Traducianism.

Several objections may be urged against this theory:

(1) It is contrary to the philosophical doctrine of the simplicity of the soul. The soul is a pure spiritual substance that does not admit of division. The propagation of the soul would seem to imply that the soul of the child separates itself in some way from the soul of the parents. Moreover, the difficult question arises, whether it originates from the soul of the father or from that of the mother. Or does it come from both; and if so, is it not a compositum?

(2) In order to avoid the difficulty just mentioned, it must resort to one of three theories:

  • (a) that the soul of the child had a previous existence, a sort of pre-existence;

  • (b) that the soul is potentially present in the seed of man or woman or both, which is materialism; or

  • (c) that the soul is brought forth, that is, created in some way, by the parents, thus making them in a sense creators.

(3) It proceeds on the assumption that, after the original creation, God works only mediately. After the six days of creation His creative work ceased. The continued creation of souls, says Delitzsch, is inconsistent with God's relation to the world. But the question may be raised, What, then, becomes of the doctrine of regeneration, which is not effected by second causes? [see John 3:1-8; Tit 3:5]

(4) It is generally wedded to the theory of realism, since this is the only way in which it can account for original guilt. By doing this it affirms the numerical unity of the substance of all human souls, an untenable position; and also fails to give a satisfactory answer to the question, why men are held responsible only for the first sin of Adam, and not for his later sins, nor for the sins of the rest of their forebears.

(5) Finally, in the form just indicated it leads to insuperable difficulties in Christology. If in Adam human nature as a whole sinned, and that sin was therefore the actual sin of every part of that human nature, then the conclusion cannot be escaped that the human nature of Christ was also sinful and guilty because it had actually sinned in Adam.

Creationism

Creationism affirms that the soul is created by God at the moment of conception (see below). Each soul is created ex-nihilo for each and every person and is created instantly, immediately, and directly by God (Gen. 2:7; Num 16:22; Psa 12:7; 139:13-14; Eccl 12:7; Isa 42:5; 57:16; Jer 1:5; Zech 12:1; Heb 12:9).

Berkhof explains:

Arguments in favor of Creationism.

The following are the more important considerations in favor of this theory:

(1) It is more consistent with the prevailing representations of Scripture than Traducianism. The original account of creation points to a marked distinction between the creation of the body and that of the soul. The one is taken from the earth, while the other comes directly from God. This distinction is kept up throughout the Bible, where body and soul are not only represented as different substances, but also as having different origins, Eccl. 12:7; Isa 42:5; Zech. 12:1; Heb. 12:9. Cf. Num. 16:22. Of the passage in Hebrews even Delitzsch, though a Traducianist, says, "There can hardly be a more classical proof text for creationism."

(2) It is clearly far more consistent with the nature of the human soul than Traducianism. The immaterial and spiritual, and therefore indivisible nature of the soul of man, generally admitted by all Christians, is clearly recognized by Creationism. The traducian theory on the other hand, posits a derivation of essence, which, as is generally admitted, necessarily implies separation or division of essence.

(3) It avoids the pitfalls of Traducianism in Christology and does greater justice to the Scriptural representation of the person of Christ. He was very man, possessing a true human nature, a real body and a rational soul, was born of a woman, was made in all points like as we are,-and yet, without sin. He did not, like all other men, share in the guilt and pollution of Adam's transgression. This was possible, because he did not share the same numerical essence which sinned in Adam.

Objections to Creationism.

Creationism is open to the following objections:

(1) The most serious objection is stated by Strong in the following words: "This theory, if it allows that the soul is originally possessed of depraved tendencies, makes God the direct author of moral evil; if it holds the soul to have been created pure, it makes God indirectly the author of moral evil, by teaching that He put this pure soul into a body which will inevitably corrupt it."

This is undoubtedly a serious difficulty, and is generally regarded as the decisive argument against Creationism. Augustine already called attention to the fact that the Creationist should seek to avoid this pitfall. But it should be borne in mind that the Creationist does not, like the Traducianist, regard original sin entirely as a matter of inheritance. The descendants of Adam are sinners, not as a result of their being brought into contact with a sinful body, but in virtue of the fact that God imputes to them the original disobedience of Adam. And it is for that reason that God withholds from them original righteousness, and the pollution of sin naturally follows.

(2) It regards the earthly father as begetting only the body of his child, - certainly not the most important part of the child, - and therefore does not account for the re-appearance of the mental and moral traits of the parents in the children. Moreover, by taking this position it ascribes to the beast nobler powers of propagation than to man, for the beast multiplies itself after its kind.

The last consideration is one of no great importance. And as far as mental and moral similarities of parents and children are concerned, it need not necessarily be assumed that these can be accounted for only on the basis of heredity. Our knowledge of the soul is still too deficient to speak with absolute assurance on this point. But this similarity may find its explanation partly in the example of the parents, partly in the influence of the body on the soul, and partly in the fact that God does not create all souls alike, but creates in each particular case a soul adapted to the body with which it will be united and the complex relationship into which it will be introduced.

(3) It is not in harmony with God's present relationship to the world and His manner of working in it, since it teaches a direct creative activity of God, and thus ignores the fact that God now works through secondary causes and ceased from His creative work. This is not a very serious objection for those who do not have a deistic conception of the world. It is a gratuitous assumption that God has ceased from all creative activity in the world.

Related Links:

At the Moment of Conception
Body and Soul in the Bible: What Am I?

References:

Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).