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When Jesus lost his soul: fourth-century christology and modern neuroscience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2017

Mark Harris*
University of Edinburgh, New College, Mound Place, Edinburgh EH1 2LX,


Modern conversations between the natural sciences and theology on the human soul have not so far engaged extensively with relevant debates in the early church. Contemporary neuroscience tends to operate within a monistic paradigm, often referred to as ‘physicalism’, that understands human mental activity entirely in naturalistic terms. While there is ongoing scientific debate about the degree to which human consciousness can be reduced entirely to biology, physicalism is often cited as making traditional religious belief in the soul obsolete, or at least modifying it significantly. The Apollinarian question of whether Jesus has a soul therefore reappears. This article considers the contemporary relevance of the Apollinarian controversy, suggesting that fourth-century insights possess key points of contact with the modern non-reductive physicalist position and thus raising important considerations for the science–theology conversation on the soul.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 It is not that such work altogether disproves soul–body (or mind–body) dualism, but rather that, as Nancey Murphy contends, the current monistic approach should be regarded as the hard core of a Lakatosian ‘research program’, which has been far more productive in scientific terms than has the contending hard core of mind–body dualism. Murphy, Nancey, ‘The Resurrection Body and Personal Identity: Possibilities and Limits of Eschatological Knowledge’, in Peters, Ted, Russell, Robert John and Welker, Michael (eds), Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 202–18Google Scholar.

2 E.g., Murphy, Nancey, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), pp. 1116, 45–7CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Goetz, Stewart and Taliaferro, Charles, A Brief History of the Soul (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 6104 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 E.g., Green, Joel B., ‘“Bodies – that is, Human Lives”: A Re-Examination of Human Nature in the Bible’, in Brown, Warren S., Murphy, Nancey and Malony, H. Newton (eds), Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), pp. 149–73, see pp.172–3 especiallyGoogle Scholar; Goetz and Taliaferro, Brief History, p. 30.

4 Nancey Murphy, ‘Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues’, in Brown et al., Whatever Happened to the Soul?, pp. 1–29, see pp.19–24 especially.

5 Ibid., p. 4.

6 Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), p. 182 Google Scholar.

7 Murphy, Bodies and Souls, pp. 27–8.

8 Although ‘physicalist’ tends to be the adjective of choice over ‘monistic’.

9 See, e.g., Spoerl, Kelly McCarthy, ‘Apollinarius and the Response to Early Arian Christology’, Studia Patristica 26 (1993), pp. 421–7Google Scholar; although she later suggests that Apollinarius had other non-Arian antagonists in his sights, such as Marcellus of Ancyra. Spoerl, Kelly McCarthy, ‘Apollinarian Christology and the Anti-Marcellan Tradition’, Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1994), pp. 545–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Ironically, Apollinarius’ solution was really to state in clearer terms the logic which Athanasius and others seem to have been moving towards, namely that the incarnation was possible because the divine Son operated as the soul of Christ. See Daley, Brian, ‘“Heavenly Man” and “Eternal Christ”: Apollinarius and Gregory of Nyssa on the Personal Identity of the Savior’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 10 (2002), pp. 469–88, see especially p. 475CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Apollinarius’ solution, which made the holistic unity of Christ a key selling point, bequeathed the famous phrase to the later Nestorian controversy: ‘one enfleshed Word of God’.

12 Young, Frances M. with Teal, Andrew, From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and its Background (London: SCM, 2010), p. 251 Google Scholar.

13 This passage is taken from Apollinarius' ΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΕΝ ΔΙΟΚΑΙΣΑΡΕΙΑ ΕΠΙΣΚΟΡΟΥΣ 2.256.5-7, in the Greek text provided by Lietzmann, Hans, Apollinaris von Laodicea und seine Schule (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1904), pp. 255–6Google Scholar. I have used the translation in Spoerl, Kelley McCarthy, ‘The Liturgical Argument in Apollinarius: Help and Hindrance on the Way to Orthodoxy’, Harvard Theological Review 91 (1998), pp. 127–52, see p.144, n.50 especially.Google Scholar

14 Apollinarius, Fragment 74; Greek text is 2.222 in Lietzmann, Apollinaris von Laodicea; translation from Norris, Richard A., The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), p. 109 Google Scholar.

15 Young with Teal, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, p. 249; an exhaustive account is given by Carter, Timothy John, The Apollinarian Christologies: A Study of the Writings of Apollinarius of Laodicea (London: Hamley King, 2011)Google Scholar.

16 Young with Teal, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, pp. 251–2.

17 As Carter argues throughout The Apollinarian Christologies.

18 Of course, it is also possible that Apollinarius really was inconsistent, a charge levelled at him by his critics (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa, who accuses Apollinarius of inconsistency throughout his own Antirrhetikos).

19 In Carter's invaluable analysis of the Apollinarian fragments, he explains how Apollinarius does not explore soteriological arguments in his dichotomist texts very thoroughly, but the soteriology he does offer there seems to be based on the idea that the union of divine and human in Christ offers a model (an example?) of ‘physical at-one-ment’ for ordinary humans, conferred symbolically through participation in the eucharist (Carter, The Apollinarian Christologies, pp. 160, 173). The trichotomist texts, on the other hand, offer a more sophisticated intellectual soteriology in Carter's reading (pp. 159–75), as I explain shortly.

20 Ibid., pp. 162, 173–5.

21 Apollinarius, Fragment 76. ‘What was needed was unchangeable Intellect which did not fall under the domination of the flesh on account of its weakness of understanding but which adapted the flesh to itself without force’; translation from Norris, The Christological Controversy, p. 109.

22 Apollinarius, Fragment 74. ‘The self-moved intellect within us shares in the destruction of sin insofar as it assimilates itself to Christ’; translation from Norris, The Christological Controversy, p. 109.

23 Beeley, Christopher A., Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 289 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Apollinarius, Fragment 80. ‘He [God/mind] gives a share in pure virtue to every mind under his control and to all those who become like Christ intellectually’; translation from Carter, The Apollinarian Christologies, p. 372.

25 E.g. Moreland, J. P. and Craig, William Lane, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), pp. 608–9Google Scholar.

26 Apollinarius’ doctrines were condemned at several councils, notably in Rome in 377 and Constantinople in 381. See Bethune-Baker, J. F., An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine (London: Methuen, 1938), p. 240 Google Scholar; and Weinandy, Thomas G., Does God Change? The Word's Becoming in the Incarnation (Still River: St Bede's, 1985), p. 27 Google Scholar.

27 Gregory of Nazianzus, To Cledonius the Priest against Apollinarius’ (Epistle CI), in Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzen , vol. 7 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, ed. Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 440 Google Scholar. Usually cited as Gregory's definitive answer to the Apollinarian controversy, this maxim had served well in previous controversies too. See Studer, Basil, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), p. 195 Google Scholar.

28 Gregory of Nyssa, Antirrhetikos, M1252.

29 For Apollinarius, it is important that Christ does not share our lowly humanity but is beyond us, so that we can be taken beyond ourselves; for the Gregorys on the other hand, Christ's humanity must be the same as ours, in order to heal what we are now.

30 Daley, ‘“Heavenly Man” and “Eternal Christ”’, p. 478.

31 Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘To Cledonius’, p. 441 (cf. PG 37:188).

32 This is my own translation, which renders the Greek rather literally in order to expose the ambiguity of the final phrase. Muddiman, for instance, discusses four possible interpretative/translational options: Muddiman, John, The Epistle to the Ephesians (New York, London: Continuum, 2001), pp. 130–2Google Scholar. For our purposes two stand out: should the final phrase be translated ‘in his flesh’, placing the enmity (the dividing wall) within the person of Christ himself, or is it better translated as ‘by means of his flesh’, referring to Christ's act of atonement on the cross? The fact that in the Ephesians text the dividing wall and ‘the enmity’ refer to racial distinctions between Jews and Gentiles suggests that the latter option is preferable, but in the context of Gregory's anthropological discussion of the soul of Christ as the dividing wall, the former option might be preferable.

33 Muddiman, Ephesians, pp. 127–9.

34 Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘Against Apollinarius: The Second Letter to Cledonius’ (Ep. CII); in Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzen, p. 444 (cf. PG 37:197).

35 Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity, p. 117.

36 Ibid., p. 118.

37 Ibid., pp. 148–50.

38 Ludlow, Morwenna, Gregory of Nyssa, Ancient and (Post)modern (Oxford: OUP, 2007), pp. 127–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 In Gregory of Nyssa's major polemical work against Apollinarius, Against Apollinarius (or Antirrhetikos) possibly written mid-380s (see Daley, Brian E., ‘Divine Transcendence and Human Transformation: Gregory of Nyssa's Anti-Apollinarian Christology’, Studia Patristica 32 (1997), pp. 8795, see especially p. 90)Google Scholar, Gregory expresses frequent exasperation that Apollinarius could effectively conceive of Jesus as a monstrous ‘beast’ without the single decisive element that would make him human, a rational soul.

40 This was written around 380 as the Apollinarian controversy was resolving itself. Also of note is On the Making of Humankind, written perhaps shortly after the On the Soul and the Resurrection. See Barnes, Michel René, ‘Divine Unity and the Divided Self: Gregory of Nyssa's Trinitarian Theology in its Psychological Context’, in Coakley, Sarah (ed.), Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 45–66, see pp. 48 and 50 especiallyGoogle Scholar.

41 Wessel argues that Gregory deliberately alludes to the model of Socrates’ deathbed dialogue in Plato's Phaedo, in order to present a Christian subversion. Wessel, Susan, ‘Memory and Individuality in Gregory of Nyssa's Dialogus de anima et resurrectione ’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 18 (2010), pp. 369–92; see p. 378 especiallyGoogle Scholar.

42 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, in Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, etc., vol. 5 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, ed. Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), p. 433 Google Scholar.

43 Greek text from PG 46:28. This passage is translated (not so accurately) by Schaff and Wace as, ‘And our conception of it [the soul] is this; that it exists, with a rare and peculiar nature of its own, independently of the body with its gross texture.’ Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, p. 433.

44 Ibid., p. 435; Greek text from PG 46:36.

45 Norris, R. A., Manhood and Christ: A Study in the Christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), pp. 28–9Google Scholar. Behr, John, ‘The Rational Animal: A Rereading of Gregory of Nyssa's De hominis opificio ’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 7 (1999), pp. 219–47, see pp. 226–30 especiallyCrossRefGoogle Scholar. Boersma, Hans, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach (Oxford: OUP, 2013), p. 103 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Hence the famous definition, ‘The soul is an essence created, and living, and intellectual, transmitting from itself to an organised and sentient body the power of living and of grasping objects of sense, as long as a natural constitution capable of this holds together.’ Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, p. 433.

47 A point explored in Gregory's On the Making of Humankind, chs 28–9 (in Gregory of Nyssa, pp. 419–22). See also Zachhuber, who investigates the relationship between Gregory's traducianism and Apollinarius’: Zachhuber, Johannes, Human Nature in Gregory of Nyssa: Philosophical Background and Theological Significance (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2000), pp. 160–1Google Scholar.

48 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, pp. 437–8, 445–6; The Great Catechism 8, in Gregory of Nyssa, pp. 483, 489.

49 Also, the soul/mind has a higher theological status than the body in Gregory's thought, since it is the soul alone that is made in God's image. Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa, p. 104.

50 This point is made clear by Macrina's rejoinder of the example of the water organ against Gregory's sceptical physicalism. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, pp. 435–6. If thought could emerge by itself spontaneously from the organic body alone, then it would be like a musical instrument building itself and playing itself spontaneously.

51 Ibid., pp. 447–8.

52 Ibid., pp. 448–9.

53 ‘Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward (ἐπεκτεινόμενος) to what lies ahead’.

54 Gregory's christology is not without its conceptual problems: scholars have variously found Gregory puzzling, and difficult to categorise within the scholarly pigeonholes of the period. Ludlow, Gregory of Nyssa, pp. 98–104. Nevertheless, Daley makes a strong argument for taking Gregory on his own terms: Daley, ‘Divine Transcendence and Human Transformation’, p. 88.

55 Antirrheticus 42, and Against Eunomius 3.3 (or 5.5 in the edition translated by Schaff and Wace, 1994, p. 181). See Ludlow, Gregory of Nyssa, p. 99, and Daley, ‘Divine Transcendence and Human Transformation’, p. 87, for further details concerning this analogy. Widely cited, the drop of vinegar analogy is not without its problems of interpretation either. Ludlow, Gregory of Nyssa, pp. 99–106.

56 Daley, ‘“Heavenly Man” and “Eternal Christ”’, p. 483.

57 Daley, ‘Divine Transcendence and Human Transformation’, p. 94.

58 Ludlow, Gregory of Nyssa, pp. 131–2.

59 Ibid., pp. 126, 130.

60 Ibid., pp. 271–5.

61 Needless to say, this is good news for those of us who do theology for a living.

62 Ludlow, Gregory of Nyssa, p. 291.

63 Ibid., p. 231.

64 Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism 11, p. 486.

65 My reading of the Cappadocian anthropology suggests that it is not unlike a more expansive or emergentist physicalist position such as non-reductive physicalism, but I would not want to nail my colours to the mast here so firmly as to claim a particular kind of physicalist position. I would, in any case, want to avoid a heavily reductionist approach such as Francis Crick's well-known ‘you're nothing but a pack of neurons’ view, if for no other reason than it seeks to close down theological doors rather than open them. Crick, Francis, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Touchstone, 1994), p. 3 Google Scholar.

66 Ray S. Anderson, ‘On Being Human: The Spiritual Saga of a Creaturely Soul’, in Brown et al., Whatever Happened to the Soul?, pp. 175–94, see p. 182 especially.

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