Where does the soul come from? Against the claims of Mormons and New Agers, Christianity teaches the soul does not exist before the body does. But there is still a question of how it comes into being. In Church history there have been two positions on how we get our souls: creationism and traducianism.[From the Latin, tradux = transmit or transfer. This is related to the Latin origin of the word “tradition” (tradere = to hand on or to pass on).] Creationism states the soul is created by God from nothing. Traducianism states it is created by the parents during the reproductive process.
Most theologians have taught creationism, which is the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In the 1950 encyclical in which he dealt with biological evolution, Pope Pius XII stated that “the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”[Humani Generis 36.]
Protestants are of two opinions on this question. Most Protestant laymen are creationists, but many Protestant theologians are traducianists.[Traducianism is common among Lutheran theologians, but creationism is common among Presbyterian/Reformed theologians.] This is odd because, as Protestant theologians frequently acknowledge, Scripture does not teach traducianism. Traducianism’s advocates use philosophical rather than biblical arguments. The main argument takes the form of a dilemma.
1. If God creates the soul, he creates it in either a fallen or an unfallen state.
2. If God creates it in a fallen state, he gives it a sinful nature. If he gives it a sinful nature, he is the author of sin. But since God is not the author of sin, he must not create the soul in a fallen state.
3. If God creates the soul in an unfallen state, that would deny the doctrine of original sin, which says all souls inherit sinfulness from their parents. Therefore, God must not create the soul in an unfallen state.
4. If God doesn’t create the soul in either a fallen state or an unfallen state, he doesn’t create it at all. Therefore, the soul must come from the parents rather than from God.
This argument is unsound. Creationists reply that God creates the soul but that at creation it is infected by the parents with sin. Thus God is responsible for the creation of the soul, while the parents – ultimately our first parents, Adam and Eve – are responsible for its fallen state.
This is in line with the teachings of the Church Fathers, who spoke of our fallenness as a contagion or infection coming from Adam. Cyprian explains that baptism is applied to infants because an infant “born of the flesh according to Adam . . . has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born.”[Letters 64(59):5 [A.D. 251-252].] Thus God is the cause of the soul’s creation, but the parents are the cause of the soul’s corruption. It is created in a fallen state (preserving the doctrine of original sin) because at the same time it is created it is infected with sin.
This shows the traducianist argument does not succeed, but there are also philosophical arguments against traducianism. Since the soul is a spiritual entity – not made of matter – it has no parts. This means it must be created out of nothing because (1) the souls of the parents cannot split off parts to form the child’s soul and (2) the child’s soul cannot be a fusion of parts.
Philosophical arguments alone will not satisfy a traducianist that his position is false (although they usually satisfy him that it is true). Instead, we must turn to Scripture. There are verses indicating the soul comes from God rather than from the parents.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 states that at death “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (RSV). The common-sense interpretation of this is the soul comes from God rather than from the parents.[One may also note that the body comes from God – which, of course, it does, but it comes from him in an indirect manner. God creates the soil, which is taken up by plants, which are eaten by animals, which are eaten by our parents, who make the components that go into our bodies. Ecclesiastes 12:7 contrasts the way our body comes to us from the soil with the way our soul comes to us from God.]
In Isaiah 57:16 God says, “I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry, for from me proceeds the Spirit, and I have made the spirit of life.” This verse contrasts the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from God, with the spirit of life that animates his creatures. Again the common-sense interpretation is that the soul comes from God [“The spirit of life” cannot here be a reference to the Holy Spirit because the text states God made the spirit of life, yet the Holy Spirit is not a created being.]
Hebrews 12:9 says, “Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?” Here our earthly fathers – fathers of our bodies – are contrasted with God – the Father of our spirits. Again we have an indication the soul comes from God rather than from our parents.
The only way to overcome the common-sense interpretation of texts such as these is to find other verses with an even clearer meaning or to show compelling theological reasons why the common-sense interpretation cannot be correct.
Traducianists try to show a compelling theological reason by using the dilemma discussed above, but this attempt fails. This means traducianism fails because, as its advocates admit, there are no verses which clearly teach traducianism. Their case rests on inference. We must therefore conclude that creationism is more biblically and theologically cogent than traducianism. Souls are created by God rather than by parents.
A question arises of when God creates the soul and infuses it into the child. The common teaching of creationists is that this takes place at conception. There are arguments which support this.
In Hebrew thought the spirit is the principle of life – the thing that makes one alive.[“Spirit” can also be translated “breath” in Greek and Hebrew, so “spirit of life” = “breath of life.”] As James tells us, “The body without the spirit is dead” (Jas. 2:26). If a spirit is what makes a body alive, then so long as the body is alive it has a spirit. Since the child’s body is alive at the time of conception – non-living zygotes do not grow, after all – the child must have a spirit from the moment of conception.
In Psalm 51:5 David tells us, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (NIV). Thus David already had a sinful nature at the time of conception, even though he had not yet “done anything good or bad” (see Rom. 9:11). But a sinful nature is a spiritual rather than a physical reality. Therefore, David must have had a spirit at the time of conception.