Interview by David O’Connor, Yonkers, New York. This article first appeared in the November 18, 2002 issue of Christianity Today.
It is said that the soul is the seat of emotions, intellect, and will, but
the brain is involved in each of these functions. What is the difference or relationship between the brain and the soul?
First it will be helpful to look at where both soul and brain stand in
relation to personhood.
It is a mistake to confuse the soul and the person; nor is the soul merely that which is “personal” in us. But the soul is such a fundamental dimension
of the person that in Scripture, poetry, and in common life, soul often means the person. Soul or souls in the Bible sometimes—perhaps most of the time—refers to the whole person, precisely because it represents a
deep dimension of the person.
The relation of the brain to personhood, too, is frequently misstated.
Because scientists tend to take the brain as central to life, people often construe it as identical with life. This is because the scientific
community generally assumes, in practice if not in theory, that only that which is physical is knowable. Scientists often believe they can treat the personal
side of life only if it is physical.
Clearly there is in human beings a profoundly important connection between the states and events of the brain and those of personal existence. But the
person is not identical with the brain (or the dna
or the body as a whole). Why? Because there are thousands upon thousands
of truths about the person that are not truths about the body. And there are
many kinds of truths about persons that are not the kinds of
truths that apply to the body or any part thereof. Inspect the brain in any way
you will, you will not find these truths or even know that they exist from what
you do find there. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) pointed this out long
ago, and no satisfactory way around it has ever been found.
On the other hand, people’s bodies are essential to their identity and
life. Through them we have an inner world and become the person we
become—forever. The body is not just a container. That is why, in Christian
thought, there is to be a resurrection.
While the brain has its role in emotions, intellect, and will, and while
people’s bodies are essential, we must always remember that the person
is the ultimate unit of analysis: you, me. Thought, feeling, action (involving
the body, as well as relations to others) are ultimately dimensions of the
person. And it is the soul that combines all the dimensions of the person to
form one life. It is like a computer system, which runs an entire commercial
When it is broken, you have to attend to it—and in fact, only God can
repair it. “He restoreth my soul” (Psalm 23:3). Law and disciplines can also
help heal the soul, but grace—God doing in my life what I cannot do for
myself—is the first and last word. And yet law and disciplines are inseparable
from grace as they do their part.
So it is the person that ultimately is “the seat of the emotions, the
intellect, and the will”—not the brain, as scientists would say, nor the
soul, ultimately. The person is the seat of the soul if we mean by seat
that in which the soul is located. The soul is, arguably, the deepest dimension
of the person or, as we often say today, of the “self.” But it is not the
To sum up: The soul is one non-physical dimension of the person. A human
person is a non-physical (spiritual) entity that has an essential involvement
with a particular physical body.The brain, then—a piece of meat that is of
more than usual interest—is one part of the embodied dimension of the human
person. It too is integrated by the soul into one life, along with all of the
dimensions of the person (at least when all is well).
These matters are especially important as Christians often treat the soul as the
recipient of salvation, and the other dimensions of human life are left
out—especially the bodily and the social, but also thought and feeling.
Redemption in Christ is a retrieving of the entire person from alienation from
God and opposition to God.
The soul is not some separable part of us that eventually gets to go to
heaven while everything else about is left out.