Course Snapshot: Biblical Anthropology and the Body/Soul Debate

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When you ask John Cooper what the fundamental question is in his Body/Soul Debate class, he answers without hesitating: “Do humans come apart at death?” Put another way: “Is the soul of my mother in heaven, even though her physical body is in the ground?”  

The question of exactly how the body and soul are connected “is as old as the human race,” says Dr. Cooper.  Anytime human beings have considered death, they’ve considered what happens to them after their death – if they will be transported body and soul to another place, if their essence will continue as a spirit, if nothing survives after the death of the physical body. As ancient as this question is, it has recently gained a lot of traction in contemporary neuroscience with the quest to locate consciousness in the human brain and to define the relationship between consciousness and the soul.

Dr. Cooper’s class explores the way experts have approached the body/soul debate from philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives throughout history. “The Bible doesn’t necessarily lay out a philosophy on this issue,” he explains, “but it speaks to it.” So, students examine the cumulative teaching of the Bible around body and soul, encountering the perspectives of Augustine, Aquinas, and Bavinck along the way. They dive into the active debate among contemporary Christians: whether neuroscience has undermined or is compatible with the biblical view of a separable soul.  Undergirding the course is an examination of students’ own anthropological framework – the way they personally understand the nature of the body/soul connection, and what led them to arrive at those conclusions.

This debate isn’t just theoretical. One’s views of the body and soul affect the way a pastor interacts at the bedside of a dying person or in counseling a couple carrying an unborn child diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome. The course doesn’t provide scripts for these scenarios; rather, it provides a framework for understanding the spiritual, emotional, and physical aspects in play when questions of the body/soul connection arise.  

Professor of Philosophical Theology at Calvin Seminary for 31 years, Dr. Cooper’s interest in this area goes back as far as he can remember, and he’s published widely on the subject. Though he plans to retire at the end of the 2016 – 2017 school year, he will continue working on articles and books that address the body/soul integration and the origin of the soul.