Interview with Joel B. Green (Part 2)

We now continue with the second (and last) part of the interview that I conducted with Joel Green.  Please check out the first part, if you have not already done so, HERE.

NKG: Your book is about the ‘body’ and the ‘soul’ in the discussion of the human person. What about the human spirit? Would you treat such passages (Acts 7.59; 1 Cor. 14.14) in the same way?

JBG: I  don’t treat the tripartite view of the human person for two reasons. First, the term “spirit” fell out of the discussion long ago, with “soul” doing double-duty, so to speak. Second, then, the tripartite view of the human person simply doesn’t show up in the scholarly literature of any field with which I was working for this book.

For an example of how I might address such matters, I could easily point to my treatment of the terminology in 1 Peter, where I attempt  to  situate  these  terms within  the wider discourse of the letter.

NKG: What about the Holy Spirit? Does the Holy Spirit ‘do something’ to the person (including the mind)? Does the indwelling of the Holy Spirit ‘change’ that person is a tangible way? Does neuroscience bring anything to this element of the discussion?

JBG: This is the million-dollar question. The same problem confronts the dualist, of course. It is easy enough to say that the Holy Spirit interacts with the human “soul,” but there has never been a satisfactory answer for how an intangible, nonextended human “soul” interacts with the human body. Similarly, the question arises for monists how the Holy Spirit  interacts with  the human person.
This is why a biblical scholar would gravitate away from positions known to the philosophers such as eliminative materialism or reductive physicalism; somehow, we need to account for top-down influence, and many such positions are championed in the literature (duality without dualism, nonreductive physicalism, deep physicalism, etc.). I find useful the model that Nancey Murphy presents in her book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge University Press, 2006). She talks about divine influence at the quantum level.

NKG: Given the importance of the topic of your book and the uniqueness of the approach, this could have been a much longer and larger project! It seems like a lot of theological battles are won or lost in Paul’s letters, and yet you did not undertake a focused ‘exegesis’ of all the relevant passages in
Paul’s letters (though you certainly dealt with some of them). Was this a conscious decision? Is there more you want to write on this topic?

JBG: When I lecture on topics related to this book, I deal with a range of texts — then always get asked about others in the Q&A session that follows. I find that some folks are so accustomed to reading the Bible from the perspective of a dualist philosophical framework that they are unable to read it in any other way. In the end, then, I don’t think this discussion will be won or lost on exegetical grounds alone but rather on the grounds of presupposition. I am not suggesting that a viewpoint need not demonstrate itself exegetically, of course! I am only saying that, for the committed dualist, the list of texts needing to be addressed is virtually endless.

The whole discussion reminds me of the years I spent doing evangelism in jails in West Texas: I found I could systematically address one objection after the other without ever convincing someone to be a follower of Christ! But if folks were willing to cross the threshold of faith, they were able to see things from a perspective that voided many of those objections.

In other words, a change of perspective is needed, and this rarely happens as a result of building up a series of little arguments. So I have been working some on exegetical details and some on larger issues of presupposition.

NKG: Keeping the last part of # 8 in mind, what are you going to work on next that utilizes your unique scientific and theological (i.e. neuro-hermeneutical) background?

JBG: I am presently working on a book that addresses conversion in Luke-Acts from the perspective of cognitive science (and cognitive  linguistics) — building off of one of the chapters  in Body, Soul, and Human Life. The “annual lecture” I gave last year at the Institute for Biblical Research is related to this project. I also have in mind doing further work at the interface of neuroscience and biblical-theological perspectives on Christian life. A good deal of contemporary research on “religious experience” needs to be located in a more sustained and “thickened” discussion of Scripture and the theological tradition. And we have seen a new field of research begun  in  the last decade —neuroethics — and this has enormous implications for the life of the church…

NKG: What scholars have inspired you to pursue such an interdisciplinary project?

JBG: I could mention three: Malcolm Jeeves, a neuropsychologist retired from the University of St. Andrews; Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary; and Jim Holsinger, who teaches in the College of Public Health at the University of Kentucky. In different ways, they have opened doors for further conversation.

NKG: Dr. Green – thank you for these further insights and reflections on your research.  I hope your book is read by many!

How to Please ‘Theological Interpretation’ Scholars

Now that ‘Theological Interpretation’ is becoming a more specialized sub-field, one can begin to get a sense for what such scholars like and dislike. Here is my list of do’s and dont’s.  This list is meant to be facetious…but I think there may be a grain of truth in some of these 🙂

1. Criticize traditio-historical exegesis

2. Make it apparent that you are only pursuing one possible ‘meaning’ of the passage

3. Always, always, always quote Barth.

4. Refer to Frei and Childs…but with some reservation

5. Feel free to dig out books and commentaries to refer to from any century you want.

6. Its OK to quote Bultmann, but only in reference to his comment that there is no such things as freedom from presuppositions.

7. The words ‘trinity’ and ‘trinitarian’ may be used liberally (= freely).

8.  The possibility of allegorizing Scripture is back on the table (after a very long hiatus…)

9. Try to use the word ‘hermeneutic(s)’ as often as possible

10. Sprinkle the words ‘unity of Scripture’ and ‘canonical’ around the essay.

Interview with Joel B. Green (PART 1)

I am pleased to post an interview below that I conducted with Dr. Joel B. Green (Fuller Theological Seminary) on the subject of his new book Body, Soul, and Human Life (Baker, 2008).  In order to better prepare yourself for understanding both my questions and some of Dr. Green’s answers, I encourage you to read my brief summary and review of the book HERE.

Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Green for his participation.  Respectful comments and further questions are welcome, though I cannot guarantee a response.

NKG: Can you tell us how a New Testament scholar came to earn a Master of Science in Neuroanatomy and Neuroscience (Univ. of Kentucky, 2002)?

JBG: Let me say, first, that I did not earn a Master of Science from the University of Kentucky. This is an often-repeated misrepresentation. I did work toward the MS at the University of Kentucky, focusing on neuroanatomy, neuropsychology, and the history of neuroscience. I was unable to complete the degree, however, due to my responsibilities as provost at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Second, my interest in this area of research began in the mid-‘90s as a result of an invitation to participate in an interdisciplinary working group on “portraits of the human person” from neuroscientific, theological, philosophical, and biblical studies perspectives. This is the group that produced the book, Whatever Happened  to  the Soul?, edited by Warren Brown, Nancey Murphy, and Newton Moloney (Fortress, 1998). This invitation led to another working group, also sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, and to another book — this one edited by Malcolm Jeeves, From Cells to Souls—And Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature (Eerdmans, 2004). Even in those discussions, the line between the neurosciences and theological conversation was obvious, and I wanted to traverse it!
So this is a case of one thing leading to another…

NKG:  Your book, Body, Soul, and Human Life, is meant to introduce a way of creating a meaningful dialogue between biblical interpretation and Christian theological tradition, on the one hand, and ‘modern advances in the neurosciences’ on the other (p. 32). This is a very stimulating exercise in
interdisciplinarity – who do you see as your primary audience? Who do you WANT to read the book?

JBG: If you get biblical scholars, theologians, and neuroscientists in the same room, there are multiple opportunities for misunderstanding, and many assume that one area of study stands in tension with the other. I hope that Body, Soul, and Human Life helped to ease some of that tension as people see areas of common interest and congruent witness.

NKG: One issue that is taken up in your book is a concern that the Hebrew and Greek words that are often translated ‘soul’ are polysemous and do not necessarily  refer  to the  ‘inner  life’ or the ‘soul’ (see pp. 56-8). What you learn from neuroscience challenges viewing such an independent ‘part’ of the human. You state: ‘If the capacities traditionally allocated to the “soul” – for example, consistency of memory, consciousness,  spiritual experience, the capacity to make decisions on the basis of self-deliberation, planning and action on the basis of  that decision, and taking responsibility for these decisions and actions – have a neural basis, then the concept of “soul,” as traditionally understood in theology as a person’s “authentic self,” seems redundant’ (p. 45). Do you, then, propose that nephesh (Hebrew) and psyche (Greek) not be translated ‘soul’ ever in the Bible? Or does the word ‘soul’ still have utility on a metaphorical level (as in Luke 2.35; Heb. 6.19)?

JBG: My tendency is not to use the term “soul,” since I find it difficult to overcome centuries of Cartesian influence without issuing a lecture to go along with my use of the term! I have a friend who prefers to speak of “soulish” or “soulishness” as a way of pointing to the important aspects of human life traditionally associated with the “soul.” But I follow his lead only rarely.

NKG: 5. Is the interdisciplinary approach you have undetaken methodologically reproducable? Is there a ‘way’ to study other topics in theology from the perspective of neuroscience? Have you offered a specific set of tools?

JBG: The main contribution I have to make on this point, I think, is to underscore what I take to be the organic character of the theology-science interchange. For many, the tendency is to think that scientists do science and theologians do theology, without accounting for  the  twin realities that scientists have working assumptions that we might call “theological” and  theologians have working assumptions about science. In other words, science and  theology were already  interacting while we weren’t looking!

For example, it is not that the “New Science” of the 1700s introduced “science” for the first time into theological discourse. Paul wrote 1 Cor 15 against the background of a certain cosmology. Similarly, the “new scientists” were themselves often motivated by their faith to engage in their work. As Augustine had phrased it, they were studying the second of God’s Two Books, the world that God had created.

Asbury Seminary names new president…!

Asbury Seminary has named Dr. Timothy Tennent (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) as their eighth president. I remember Dr. Tennent from my time at GCTS and he is a great choice. He teaches World Missions at GCTS and his course is one of the most popular. He has done extensive teaching all around the world and especially in India. He has a great vision for the global church and is a fair, balanced, creative, enthusiastic scholar.

Blessings on you and your family, Dr. Tennent, in this transition time. Asbury will be lucky to have you.

Perhaps GCTS can try to recruit Ajith Fernando (who received an honorary doctorate from GCTS) to teach world missions…?


Joel Green, professor of New Testament interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary, is known as an expert in biblical exegesis (especially in Luke and 1 Peter) as well as in his work on ‘theological interpretation’. One who has already shown breadth and depth of knowledge, he flexes his interdisciplinary muscles by exploring the way in which the study of neuroscience can shed light on discussions of biblical anthropology.

Too often scientists look at their own experimental findings and at traditional Christian theology and determine them to be incompatible. Green seeks to not only present an opportunity for scientists to try to understand their world in harmony with the Bible, but also to see how science (particularly neuroscience) might inform or even correct the way we interpret the Bible.

Green appears to be interested in two major issues. The first is a challenge, largely based on neuroscience, against a dualistic (soul + body) view of the person. Green states: ‘If the capacities constitutive of the human being traditionally allocated to the immaterial soul are identified with neuronal processes, then the need underlying the attribution of an immaterial soul to the human being vanishes’ (p. 27). He supports a form of monism which sees the whole self in the body as a unified form with no distinct entity called ‘soul’.

In terms of how neuroscience supports what is foundational in Christian anthropology, Green does not  find evidence that a person has a ‘soul’ that desires one thing and a body that acts against it.  Rather, ‘the construction of the self [is] deeply embedded in social relationships’ and life experiences such that ‘a person is one’s behavior’ (p. 50).  This emphasis on relationality and how that helps to define humanity identity is related by Green to the important passages in Genesis 1-2 that refer to the ‘image of God’.  This interpretation gravitates towards a focus on community in the search for human identity insofar as Christ makes possible a ‘transformation…fully embodied within a nest of relationships’ (p. 69).

Whereas philosophers in the past have made the free will debate about God’s ‘control’ or allowance of ‘freedom’, Green notes how important understanding the brain is for engaging in the discussion of morality, decision-making and volition.  We tend to think of ‘free will’ as an objective or neutral ability to make our own decision at any given moment.  However, Green makes important observations based on scientific studies:

‘A host of labratories in the past decade have demonstrated the tight link between neuronal processes and moral decision-making – including, but not limited to, reviewing past decisions and their consequences, weighing options, and potential rewards, and envisioning the future.  Indeed, the most basic and significant contribution of cognitive science is its irreducible emphasis on the somatic basis of human existence, including the exercise of the mind’ (p. 84).

If Green is correct in his theses here, a whole host of issues are drawn in to the discussion: if the soul is not ‘real’, what is being ‘saved’ (see ch. 4)?  What happens when we die (ch. 5)?  Put another way, ‘How can I be sure that the me that enjoys eternal life is really me (p. 142)?  Is there no ‘intermediate state’?

This book is a page-turner.  I read it at night just before bed and I found myself looking forward to each night’s reading as Green was challenging many things I took for granted in a cogent way.  One particularly significant argument for Green is the importance of narrative in memory and the formation of identity.  Confirmation of this from neuroscience accords well with people like N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, and others (including Green) who have argued this theologically for a long time.  Also, concerning the question of ‘conversion’, Green offers some very important insights about how it is to be understood – especially as many view it as a one-time ‘event’ rather than a process.  When someone enters the community of the people of God, the Biblical concept of conversion involves much more than an individualistic existential satisfaction that one is ‘saved’.  Green argues, based on scientific studies as well as Biblical data, that a narrative recodification takes place where he or she is written into the story of God’s people and God’s cosmic act of redemption and renewal. The Gospels, then, are not just historical recountings of the facts about Jesus so that you can ‘know’ what he did and said.  They were written in part to inform, but Green also highlights the epistemological and cognitive features of story-telling in the NT.

What the Gospels offer, Green urges, is a fresh perspective on the story of God’s salvific plan and activity: ‘For Luke, embracing this new conceptual scheme is a new way of seeing things, an opening of the mind to understand what was previously incomprehensible, that takes as its starting point the mission and message of Jesus, culminating in his death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost’ (p. 127).  Conversion, then, is not just a one-time choice to change from one religion to another.  To enter the people of God, conversion must be understood as ‘an ongoing process of socialization’ (p. 129).

We are in Joel Green’s debt for this captivating study and exercise in interdisciplinarity.  He is articulate, careful, and well-informed theologically and scientifically.  I confess that I was not convinced by everthing he argued for, but the kind of issues and questions he raises are important and need to be reckoned with by Biblical scholars, as well as Christian theologians and philosophers.  M0st theology-science dialogue that takes place focuses on miracles or creation.  Green has identified the nature of human-ness as another critical sphere for a meaningful conversation to take place.

My only wish, after reading Green’s book, was for more (as it is an appetizing but unsatisfying 180 pp.).  Thus, Prof. Green has agreed to do an interview with me on my blog – stay tuned for a stimulating after-discussion that probes, explains, and clarifies.  Respectful comments and questions will be accepted, but I cannot guarantee  a response.

PDF Editor (Free online)

I am considering taking my articles that have been published so far and making them into a nice one-volume book (paperback) that I can send with job applications.  The problem is, self-publishing websites like require (I think) that your uploaded book be one pdf file.  I don’t have a very sophisticated pdf editor (foxit), so how do I do it?  I found a great site called which is free.  Check it out!