The Bible’s View of the Human Body, 5: Personhood Theory

The Bible’s nuanced and practical view of the body has lost much ground in our culture today.  In its place, a new understanding has grown up that draws a strong distinction between the body and the mind.  Much of this thinking grew out of the work of René Descartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher and mathematician who saw a strong divide between the material (bodies) and immaterial (minds).  His view, subsequently called Cartesian dualism, applied to the human being, produces what Nancy Pearcey calls “personhood theory.”  In her book, Love Thy Body, Pearcey shows how this worldview paradigm sits in the background behind many of the anti-biblical moral stances of our time:

The key to understanding all the controversial issues of our day is that the concept of the human being has likewise been fragmented into an upper and lower story.  Secular thought today assumes a body/person split, with the body defined in the ‘fact’ realm by empirical science (lower story) and the person defined in the ‘values’ realm as the basis for rights (upper story).  This dualism has created a fractured, fragmented view of the human being, in which the body is treated as separate from the authentic self.[1]

To illustrate this dualistic anthropology, Pearcey employs a two-story analogy, drawn from Francis Schaeffer.  The physical body remains at the lower level of physical reality in the realm of scientific facts.  The mind or true person, however, exists in the upper story of autonomy and freedom.  Splitting the human being into these two sections helps us understand the incredibly low view of the body so prevalent today.

PERSON

mental, true self, free, human rights, gender

________________________________________________

BODY

physical, malleable biology, mechanistic, expendable, sex

In order to see how personhood theory lurks in the background behind major moral issues, we’ll take our cue from Pearcey and consider abortion, euthanasia, the hookup culture, homosexuality, and transgenderism.  For each, we’ll see how dualistic thinking both makes the behavior tenable as well as causes problems before showing how a biblical approach offers a better way.

Abortion

In former times, pro-life activists spent an incredible amount of energy attempting to convince society that the unborn fetus was a human being.  They showed ultrasounds, cited heartbeat facts, and demonstrated how the unborn react to pain.  Over time, the science of embryology developed, resulting in the admission among most bioethicists that fetuses are more than clumps of cells; they are living human beings, members of the human race.  Nevertheless, personhood theory makes it possible to equate a fetus with a human life and yet justify ending that life.  Sure, the baby may be alive, but that doesn’t make it a person since it is not yet self-aware or volitional.  Bioethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva took it one step further in their controversial paper on “after-birth abortion,” arguing that even a newborn baby girl is not yet a person, since she is not yet “capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”[2]  As a result, they said, “newborns are not persons, they are potential persons because they can develop…those properties which will make them ‘persons.’”[3]  As horrifying as this conclusion sounds, it is the consistent and inevitable consequence of personhood theory.  Just because a fetus exits the womb, doesn’t mean that it magically becomes a person.  In the end, personhood theory proves too much.  It was brought in to justify terminating the unborn, but it results in a culture of death not only within the womb, but outside it as well.  Human life is not sacred or even protected unless it demonstrates an acceptable level of cognitive functioning.  If this is the case, then an unborn human child “is just a disposable piece of matter—a natural resource like timber or corn.”  Pearcey continues, “It can be used for research and experiments, tinkered with genetically, harvested for organs, and then disposed of with the other medical waste.”[4]  How opposite this is to the lofty dignity that the Bible places on human beings in the womb (Ps 139:13-16).  The womb is not a murky limbo of human potentiality, but a perceivable region like the sea, the sky, and the darkness where God is present and at work.  From a Christian perspective, humans don’t earn personhood, neither do governments grant it, rather it is inherited from their ancestors, all the way back to the beginning when God made humanity in His own image and likeness. 

Euthanasia

As we extend the influence of personhood theory beyond the womb, the death toll climbs precipitously.  When we think of the typical “right to die” case, most of us probably imagine someone in excruciating chronic pain with no hope of relief.  However, this turns out to be the minority case in jurisdictions where it is legal.  Of those seeking physician assisted suicide, only 24% cite debilitating pain as their reason, and a paltry 3% worry about the cost of treatment.  Yet, a staggering 91% of those pursuing euthanasia feared losing autonomy, and 89% worried about a diminishment in their ability to engage in activities.[5]  Does this mean people consider their own lives no longer worth living if they must give up autonomy and depend on help from others?  This is the same cause behind regular suicides as well.  In the US, suicide is now the tenth most common cause of death, totaling to 44,193 deaths in 2015—that’s over 121 deaths per day.[6]  People have so imbibed a utilitarian calculus for human life, that they don’t see their own value anymore.  What’s more, there’s no reason to assume that governments will stay out of making decisions on these same principles.  If the state is responsible for defining and bequeathing human rights, then anyone perceived as a drain on society could lose their personhood status and suffer the ignominious consequences of dehumanization, including marginalization, imprisonment, or even extermination.  Thankfully, we are not there yet, at least not in America, but Pearcey muses over a future when this happens:

Cancer drugs can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 a month, while the cost of lethal medication is about $35 to $50.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the easiest way to reduce healthcare costs is physician-assisted suicide.  When human life is no longer seen to have inherent value, it will be subject to purely utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits.  Voluntary euthanasia may not remain voluntary.[7]

In contrast to this mindset, the biblical view attributes value to the human being, regardless of one’s social contributions, cognitive capacities, or physical abilities.  Not only does the Torah establish clear laws prohibiting taking advantage of the disabled, but it also provides for the needy, the orphaned, widows, and immigrants.[8]  Additionally, Jesus embraced the lepers, the blind, the lame, and the outcasts of society.  The Christian perspective recognizes the image of God etched on every cell, regardless of someone’s abilities, and holds that God alone is sovereign over life (Deut 32:39).  This dignified view of human life drove Cicely Saunders, a Christian, to found the modern hospice movement in the 1960s, offering palliative care and love to those suffering at the end of their lives.  She challenged reductionistic approaches and focused on the patient rather than the disease.  Now nearly 45% of all deaths in the U.S.A. occur under the care of a hospice program.[9]  This sets up the contrast starkly: on the one hand the secular worldview reduces the suffering and the needy to sub-personhood, especially if their minds degrade; on the other, Christians lift up the disabled, the elderly, and the chronically ill to God’s own image.  The former results in a culture of death, whereas the latter leads to creative solutions to improve life, however limited.  Now that we’ve considered the beginning and end of life, we’ll turn our attention to those in the prime of life.

Hookup Culture

According to personhood theory, the body belongs to the lower level of reality; it is a mere physical and amoral mechanism for the real person to get around.  I’m reminded of the original Men in Black movie when a morgue worker pushed a button on a corpse’s ear that opened his face, revealing a tiny alien surrounded by levers and controls.  The whole body was a mere vehicle to enable this little fellow to blend in on earth.  If one adopts such a fantastical interpretation, he or she can easily draw a sharp distinction between deeds of the body and deeds of the mind.  If what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter, why deny our bodily cravings and appetites?  Why should we assume that sexual expression has anything to do with our hearts?  This is precisely what happens in today’s hookup culture where young adults pursue a long string of anonymous or surface-level physical relationships prior to marriage.  Pearcey explains:

If you have not talked with young people lately, you may not realize how soulless the hookup culture is.  A hookup can be any level of physical involvement, from kissing to sexual intercourse.  According to the rules of the game, you are not to become emotionally attached.  No relationship, no commitment, no exclusivity.  The script is that you are supposed to be able to walk away from the experience as if it did not happen.[10]

But, living this way is no easy task, since the cascade of hormones (especially oxytocin) just released during sexual contact naturally produces feelings of attachment.[11]  People must train their minds to detach while their bodies connect in the most intimate ways.  It’s like the culture is pushing sane people to practice a kind of “body schizophrenia” when it comes to sexuality—“that’s not me, that’s my body.”   Surely such artificial fragmentation cannot be good for one’s psychological health.  Furthermore, as we already explored, sex outside of marriage makes people vulnerable to a whole host of diseases and behaviors that diminish human flourishing.  By contrast, the integrated mind-body holism of the Bible lifts sex up from the muck and mire of genital infections, the chaos of cohabitation, the heartbreak of adultery, the brutality of rape, the disrespect of sexual harassment, and the vulnerability of prostitution to a psychosomatic experience with a transcendent spiritual meaning.  The wife and husband renew their commitment to each other through physical union and demonstrate the magnificence of Christ’s loving relationship to the church.  It’s a much higher view of sex than we find in the hookup culture.

Homosexuality

Now we turn to see how personhood theory has contributed to the psychology of homosexuality.  When observing animals, biologists do not generally struggle to infer teleology from anatomy.  In other words, the body plan of sexual species indicates their inherent complementarity.  However, when we arrive at humans, suddenly we boldly defy our bodies’ designs, asserting that our minds alone can determine sexuality.  Once again, this mind-body split results in a low and disrespectful view of the body and the purposes for which God engineered our body parts.  Nevertheless, our culture’s script—promoted in countless shows, movies, blogs, and books—comes across as an appeal to authenticity, not with respect to our bodies, but for our feelings of sexual attraction.  If I experience same-sex attraction, then I owe it to myself to accept my “true self” and act on my impulses regardless of the consequences.[12]  Robed in the rhetoric of courage, our “hero” has just elevated sexual attraction to the level of identity.  However, as evangelical scholar Mark Yarhouse and lesbian APA researcher Lisa Diamond affirm, sexual attraction is not fixed for many people and can shift on a spectrum over time.[13]  Regardless of one’s sexual ethics, shouldn’t we all agree that anchoring something as inviolable as identity in something as variable as sexual attraction is suboptimal at best and devastating at worse? 

Moving one’s sexual proclivities into the arena of identity creates a fragile ego incapable of dealing with alternate viewpoints that call into question one’s lifestyle choices.  For example, if a lesbian sees her attraction to women as her identity, questioning her decision to act on that desire feels like an attack on her very personhood.  Let’s consider the analogy of a successful professional football player.  For a decade, he enjoyed the rush of running onto the field, making plays to the roar of the crowd.  He’s made millions and spent much of it in lavish living.  He’s taken his role as a football player as his core identity.  Then he gets injured or age catches up with him, and he retires.  Now he’s lost.  He doesn’t know what to do.  Decades pass, and people don’t even remember him anymore.  He sinks into depression, because football wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was.  This is the inevitable result of basing one’s identity on a temporary behavior rather than something immutable.  Sexual attraction, physical prowess, even intellectual abilities all result in vulnerable identities, easily injured at the slightest challenge.  In contrast, the biblical view both takes seriously the teleology inherent in God’s design of the body, but it also provides a stable identity based on God’s grace not our shifting feelings and experiences.  That doesn’t mean that those of us who struggle with same-sex attraction have it easy.  Space does not permit to tell of the testimonies of Rosaria Butterfield and Jackie Hill-Perry who went from lesbian lifestyles to committed heterosexual marriages.  Nor can we look at Sam Allberry, Christopher Yuan, Wesley Hill, or Becket Cook, all of whom have heroically embraced singleness because of Christ.  Whichever way same-sex attracted Christians go, their worth and value emerge from God’s decision to make them in His own image.  We need not lay our foundations upon the shifting sands of physical, intellectual, emotional, or sexual appetites, but instead on the bedrock of being God’s creations, His children.  Furthermore, He deemed us so worthy and loveable that He gave His only begotten Son to redeem us so that we could spend eternity with Him (John 3:16).  He wants to spend forever with us. 

Transgenderism

Now we come to our last area where personhood theory has infected our culture, resulting in a challenge to the biblical boundaries God has graciously given us for our own good.  When it comes to the question of gender identity, our society has driven a wedge between gender and sex.  Gender lies within the realm of the person and is fluid, while one’s sex is physical and biological.  With the notable exception of intersex people, societies have generally failed to separate physical anatomy from mental gender.  Now, however, one may choose to identify as a woman or a man regardless of biology.  When the mind and body come into conflict, the prevailing wisdom of our age is to alter the body to conform to the mind.  Rather than finding a psychological solution or a medication to alleviate the painful experience of gender dysphoria, we cross dress, employ puberty blockers, and surgically disfigure our bodies.  Those who do not use someone’s preferred gender pronouns find themselves attacked for their insensitivity, their lack of compassion, and their colonialist imposition of “gender norms.”  A man may use a woman’s bathroom whether he’s dressed in drag or not—so long as he identifies as female.  An analogy may help to clarify the issue.

The Emperor’s Not Naked[14]

There once was an emperor who suffered from nudity dysphoria.  Catching even the slightest reflection of his naked body elicited sharp pangs of mental anguish.  Furthermore, he can’t stand clothes because they restrict his movement and cause him to sweat.  To ameliorate his condition, he has not only removed all mirrors and reflective surfaces at eye-level throughout his palace, but he’s also forbidden them in his entire realm.  One day a visitor from across the sea saw the king in the marketplace and inquired, “Why is the emperor naked?”  With fear in her eyes, a nearby citizen whispered, “It’s forbidden to say he’s unclothed.  He says it’s not right to impose other’s sense of what it means to be clothed on him.  He has the right to identify himself as clothed regardless of his physical condition.”  The visitor retorted, “That’s preposterous.  Anyone can see he’s naked.  Don’t you have scientists in this kingdom who use facts and logic to arrive at truth?”  “Well, we did have some in the guild who insisted on the emperor’s nudity as an objective fact, but they were all charged with hate speech and told to change their truth so that it wouldn’t offend those who struggle with nudity dysphoria or suffer banishment.  A group of these intolerant conservatives could not accept this, so they had to leave the realm.  However, some of our most progressive and creative scientists hypothesized a glorious invisible and immaterial fabric.  Even if such a substance is beyond the scope of their instruments, they are sure it exists.” 

This little parable gets at the conflict between modernism and postmodernism that play out in the transgender issue.  The former insists on objective reality while the latter pushes for the individual’s right to create his or her own reality.  The emperor genuinely struggles with a psychological condition, but instead of pursuing a psychological solution (psychotropics, counseling, prayer, etc.), he insisted on a physical solution and then imposed his delusion on everyone else.  Similarly, transgender activists seek to impose a fact-defying reality on society at large.  This does not mean that gender dysphoria isn’t a genuine problem; it is, and those who face it should receive our sympathy and support.  But, it does mean that the way forward is not through marginalizing Christians because we can’t go along with sex-reassignment surgery or cross dressing. 

Throughout this series, we’ve seen how the biblical view of humanity and human bodies outperforms the competitors when it comes to human flourishing.  God calls us to live in accordance with His design for our bodies.  When we give up our rebellion and our own efforts to create our own way of doing life and submit to His will, we find not only wholeness and healing, but a way of life that works.  So long as we are screwdrivers trying to bang in nails, we limit how much work we can get done.  But, once we come to grips with our true nature, we begin searching for screws and discover the benefits of functioning within our designed roles.  Now, of course, we are all bent screwdrivers with our own unique flaws and shortcomings, but this does not make us hammers.  We do the best we can to fulfil our God-given roles and respect His boundaries.  Sometimes, that takes incredible faith and courage, but in the end, Christ will redeem our bodies and set us free from our fallenness when he resurrects us to be like him—embodied whole persons in harmony with God, ourselves, and each other.


[1] Nancy Pearcy, Love Thy Body (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), p. 14.

[2] Giubilini, Alberto and Minerva, Francesca, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” Journal of Medical Ethics 2013; 39:261-263, accessible at jme.bmj.com/content/39/5/261, p. 262.

[3] ibid., p. 262.  Here is the abstract from their paper: “By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled” (ibid., p. 261).

[4] Pearcey, p. 20.

[5] Pearcey, p. 90.

[6] “Deaths: Final Data for 2015,” National Vital Statistics Reports, vol 66, no. 6, November 27, 2017, accessed April 18, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr66/nvsr66_06.pdf

[7] Pearcey, p. 91.

[8] disabled (Lev 19:14; Deut 27:18), elderly (Lev 19:32), poor (Lev 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut 24:19), widows and orphans (Ex 22:22-24; Deut 14:28-29), immigrants (Ex 22:21; 23:29; Lev 19:33-34; Deut 10:18-19)

[9] “Hospice Care Statistics,” Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed April 18, 2018, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/test_procedures/urology/hospice_care_statistics_85,p00608.

[10] Pearcey, p. 118.

[11] In fact, oxytocin is the same chemical released in a nursing mother to create attachment bonds to her newborn.  For an excellent description of the hormones released in intercourse, see Mark R. Laaser, Taking Every Thought Captive (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2011), pp. 49-50.

[12] Typically, the way many of us decide which impulses are our true selves and those that aren’t depends on what society we are a part of, rather than an objective moral standard.  Tim Keller explains: “Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He has two very strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. He loves to smash and kill people when they show him disrespect. Living in a shame-and-honor culture with its warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will say to himself, That’s me! That’s who I am! I will express that. The other feeling he senses is same-sex attraction. To that he will say, That’s not me. I will control and suppress that impulse. Now imagine a young man walking around Manhattan today. He has the same two inward impulses, both equally strong, both difficult to control. What will he say? He will look at the aggression and think, This is not who I want to be, and will seek deliverance in therapy and anger-management programs. He will look at his sexual desire, however, and conclude, That is who I am” (emphasis his, Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism (NY: Viking, 2015), pp. 135-136).

[13] Lisa Diamond, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).  Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2010).

[14] This is my own remix of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

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