Historically in Christian theology there have been three known positions with regard to the origin of the human soul: preexistence, creationism, and traducianism. I will briefly discuss the first two in order to distinguish them from the traducian position, which I’ll defend as being the biblical and orthodox position.
There are two differing understandings of preexistence, eternal and temporal. A doctrine of eternal preexistence maintains that all human souls exist from eternity, and that the soul is united with the body sometime before or at birth. The temporal position holds that the soul is created in time by God prior to conception, only to unite with the body sometime before or at birth.
This understanding was promoted by the church father Origen, but was openly condemned as heresy by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553.
This is arguably the most widely held position within Christianity and is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church and most Calvinists.
Creationism holds that God supernaturally creates every human soul individually ex nihilo and infuses human beings with a soul at the moment of, or perhaps sometime after, conception. This view was defended in the early church by Jerome, who used this doctrine to defend his idea that death before childbirth would lead to neither condemnation nor salvation because of the absence of a soul.
One of the strongest scriptural arguments used for creationism is the account of Adam’s creation, where there is a distinction between the creation of the body and the soul (Gen. 2:7).
St. Augustine, though undecided between creationism and traducianism, noted that advocates of this position could have difficulty reconciling it with the doctrine of original sin. The creationist counterargument is that God imputes the unrighteousness of Adam to his descendants (just like Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the elect) by “infus[ing] a soul tainted with sin,” as the Reformed theologian Francis Turretin explained. Therefore original sin is not transferred biologically.
Thomas Aquinas, influenced by Aristotelian thought, also advocated creationism and taught that ensoulment occurs several weeks after conception.
The earliest proponent of the doctrine of traducianism was the church father Tertullian (AD 155-240). He rejected the gnostic separation of spirit and matter, arguing that the soul and the body are inseparable and both originate at the moment of conception. Tertullian maintained that the soul was corporeal and even nourished, along with the body, by corporeal substances. He refuted existing theories of the origin of the soul found in Greek philosophy with his own. Tertullian is the father of traducianism.
According to Tertullian, God infused Adam, the first man, with a soul. Thereafter, souls passed through natural lineage to Adam’s descendants. When new life is created at the moment of conception, this life includes a living soul.
The foremost implication of traducianism is with regard to the doctrine of original sin. Rather than God imputing the depravity resulting from original sin into every human being individually, this disposition is passed on through lineage naturally. This has profound implications for genetics, as it implies that heredity is not only something material. It is the very essence of being human. Tertullan therefore rejected the idea that God directly imputes evil into the soul. Original sin is transferred through blood.
Traducianism was also adhered to by Martin Luther and is the majority position in Lutheranism. There are also, however, some Calvinists, like the philosopher Gordon Clark, who adhered to this position.
There are numerous reasons why I believe traducianism to be the biblical position:
- Scripture states that that the human soul is in our blood (Lev. 17:11).
- It most clearly explains the outworking of original sin in a way that does not contradict Scripture. For example, while God promises to “visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Ex. 20:5), He also says that descendants shall not be punished for the sins of their ancestors (Ez. 18:19-20). These texts are difficult to reconcile with the creationist position, but not in a traducian paradigm where the corruption of the soul through original sin is via lineage and not divine imputation.
- As Gordon Clark observes, the traducian understanding of original sin is also taught by Christ in John 3:6, when Christ speaks of Nicodemus’s unregenerate soul as born of his parents. Clark also notes that the spiritual dimension of blood is implied by Acts 17:26-27, where nations, as entities carried by blood, are said to have the telos of glorifying God.
Traducianism is also the most consistently covenantal position, as lineage play a decisive role in God’s covenant. It is not only the most consistently anti-abortion, since it is the only position that intrinsically links conception and ensoulment, but it also serves as the most solid foundation for the Kinist (Christian ethnonationalist) position. Tertullian’s race-realism has previously been noted on this site, and traducianism implies that racial characteristics, like familial characteristics, are not only physical, but also mental and spiritual. Propensities differ from one nation or race to another, and the sanctification of the different volksgeisten or rassenseele therefore require distinct emphases. This vital implication has largely been missed by theologians over the past century, to the detriment of Christ’s Church. Alt-Right Christians would do well to remind the Bride of this biblical doctrine.