May 08, 2014

Review: The Soul by J. P. Moreland

Moreland, J. P. The Soul: How We Know It's Real and Why It Matters (Moody, 2014), 201 pp.


In The Soul: How We Know It's Real and Why It Matters, author J. P. Moreland offers a (more or less) popular-level defense of the Christian doctrine of the soul, that is, that "a human person is a functioning unity of two distinct entities, body and soul. The human soul, while not by nature immortal, is nevertheless capable of entering a disembodied state upon death, however incomplete and unnatural this state may be, and, eventually, being reunited with a resurrected body" (p. 10).

In the book's introduction (pp. 9-20), Moreland makes the case for the relevance of the Christian understanding of the existence of an immaterial soul as well as explaining why this idea, once almost universally accepted, has come to be so widely denied among educated Westerners. Moreland's stated goal is to set forth "a robust case . . . for the view that consciousness and the soul are immaterial—not physical—realities" (p. 11). He sets the stage for his philosophical case in the first two chapters, which lay out, respectively, the necessary philosophical groundwork and the biblical evidence for belief in an immaterial soul. These two chapters are, by far, the book's most successful.

The bulk of Moreland's argumenation is concentrated in chapters 3 and 4. Unfortunately, the book's problems begin to surface here. Chapter 3 (pp. 74-116) deals with "the nature and reality of consciousness" while chapter 4 (pp. 117-154) takes on the reality of the soul. While the book mostly seems to be pitched at a popular level, at times the philosophical arguments in these chapters seemed to be too difficult to follow for one without at least some prior knowledge of philosophy. Despite this, the book is not in-depth enough to be of much use academically. I suspect that Moreland was attempting to walk a fine line here and simply failed, ending up with a book that is well-suited for neither the expert nor the layman. However, despite this problem, I do believe that, overall, Moreland has successfully made his case.

More problematic is the fact that some of the book's argumentation builds on a libertarian understanding of human free will. Moreland presents this view as the "common-sense" view (p. 129), so an uninformed reader could not be blamed for assuming that Moreland's commitment to the libertarian understanding of human free will is THE Christian view. In actuality, however, the nature of free will has been the subject of much debate among Christian philosophers and theologians. Moreover, Moreland's argument for libertarian free will is based, in part, on a failure to distinguish between moral and natural inability (p. 129ff.), yet Moreland later employs this very distinction when it supports his argument (p. 173). Moreland's argumentation is significantly weakened by his reliance on premises that not even all his fellow believers are willing to accept.

Chapter 5 (pp. 155-193), dealing with heaven and hell, is, unfortunately, the book's weakest. In it, Moreland's unstated commitment to Arminian soteriology becomes clear. Rather than argue for this particular understanding of the Christian doctrine of salvation, he assumes it and then proceeds to builds his arguments on top of this Arminian foundation. For one who holds to the Calvinistic understanding of the doctrine of salvation (like this reviewer), much of Moreland's argumentation in this chapter seems either problematic or simply unnecessary (see especially pp. 164-168 and 171-173). Other theological problems include an openness to inclusivism (pp. 175-178) and a failure to take into account the Christian doctrines of total depravity and the necessity of the new birth (pp. 164-168 and 171-173 again).

Overall, The Soul, despite the aforementioned issues, is still a worthwhile read. Recommended for those with some prior knowledge of philosophical apologetics.

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