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Body, Soul, and Gender Identity: Thinking Theologically About Human Constitution

November 21, 2021
By Robert S. Smith

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.

1. Understanding Human Constitution

In his recent book, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church & What the Bible Has to Say,[1] Preston Sprinkle helpfully maps out the four main views of human constitution — i.e., the relationship between the material and immaterial aspects of the human person. The first is physicalism, which denies the existence of an immaterial soul or spirit. The second is non-reductive physicalism, which affirms that we are more than our bodies but denies a body/soul distinction. The third is soft dualism, which acknowledges a body/soul distinction but insists that both are necessary for human personhood. The fourth is strong dualism, which sees body and soul as fundamentally distinct substances and equates the human person with the soul, not the body.[2]

Sprinkle, quite rightly, deems views one and four to be sub-Christian. His own view (I think) seems to hover somewhere between two and three. However, in my judgment, non-reductive physicalism falls somewhat short of the biblical presentation of humanity. While its proponents are quite right to point out that both the Hebrew term nepesh and Greek term psychē often refer to the whole person rather than just the inner person (e.g., Gen. 2:7; 1 Pet. 3:20), the question is whether the Bible draws a distinction between the inner and outer person. The unequivocal answer of both testaments is that it does (e.g., Eccl. 12:6; 2 Cor. 4:16). And, what’s more, it sometimes uses both nepesh and psychē to refer to the inner person specifically (e.g., Gen. 35:18; Matt. 10:28).[3]

So that leaves us with soft dualism or, what I think is a better term, dualistic holism, the view that human beings are “integral personal-spiritual-physical wholes—single beings consisting of different parts, aspects, dimensions, and abilities that are not naturally independent or separable.”[4] It also brings us to the question I want to pursue in the remainder of this article: How does such an understanding of human constitution help us assess (what might be called) spiritual gender identity theory — i.e., the claim that a person can have the spirit or soul of one sex in the body of another?

Before proceeding, I want to stress that this is not a pastoral article; it is an exercise in theological thinking. It will certainly have important pastoral implications. But it’s not my purpose here to tease these out. Helping and supporting those who are navigating gender identity conflicts requires considerable wisdom and deep compassion. But unless our care is grounded in and guided by anthropological reality (as revealed in Scripture), it will neither be truly wise nor genuinely compassionate. The theological task, therefore, is paramount and necessarily comes first.

2. Assessing Spiritual Gender Identity Theory

a) The implausibility of a body-soul mismatch

The holism of the scriptural presentation of anthropological constitution leaves no room for a conception of human beings as “composed of two separate entities joined together in an uneasy alliance.”[5] Accordingly, John Cooper regards it as “anti-scriptural” to think of the soul as being “in tension with the body.”[6] The reason for this is that body and soul, although distinct, interpenetrate one another — we are just as much ensouled bodies as we are embodied souls. As a consequence, “[b]iological processes are not just functions of the body as distinct from the soul or spirit, and mental and spiritual capacities are not seated exclusively in the soul or spirit. All capacities and functions belong to the human being as a whole, a fleshly-spiritual totality.”[7]

My thesis, then, is this: such synthetic integration necessarily rules out the possibility of an ontological mismatch between the (visible) body and the (invisible) soul. Consequently, if a person’s body is unambiguously sexed as male, it is simply not conceivable that their soul could be female (and vice versa). Indeed, a radical elemental disjunction of this kind would effectively “destroy the unity of the human person which is at the heart of a biblical anthropology.”[8]

b) Terrance Tiessen’s counter-proposal

Nevertheless, it is precisely this kind of disconnection that has been proposed (albeit tentatively) by theologian Terrance Tiessen.[9] To make his case, Tiessen relies on a particular version of Thomistic dualism drawn from the work of J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae.[10] According to Moreland and Rae, “the human person is identical to its soul, and the soul comes into existence at the point of conception.”[11] From that moment on, the soul “begins to direct the development of a body” guided by “the various teleological functions latent within the soul.”[12] Therefore, not only is the soul “ontologically prior to the body,” but “the various biological operations of the body have their roots in the internal structure of the soul, which forms a body to facilitate those operations.”[13] On the basis of such an understanding, Tiessen draws the conclusion that the “maleness or femaleness of human beings is an aspect of the soul.”[14]

He then considers the reality of the Fall in order to hypothesise “the possibility of soul/body disjunction.”[15] He begins by drawing attention to the phenomenon of DSD/intersex. His argument is that while each person’s soul is either male or female, in some cases “abnormalities occur in the development of the person’s body so that doctors find it extremely difficult to say whether the person who has just been born is female or male.”[16] Then, by extension, he suggests that perhaps others (he cites Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner as an example), whose bodies are unambiguously male or female, might experience a total “incongruence between the sex of their soul and the sex of their body.”[17] So, while Tiessen rejects the idea that “sexual identity is a social construct” and affirms that our goal should be “to live as God has created us,” his contention is that the truth of our created sex is not ultimately found in the body but in the soul.[18]

c) Responding to Tiessen’s hypothesis

In response to Tiessen’s proposal, four points can be made.

First, Tiessen appears to have overlooked a vital aspect of Moreland and Rae’s position. While their view is avowedly Thomistic and dualistic, they not only regard the body as being in the soul (“in that the body is a spatially extended set of internally related heterogeneous parts that is an external expression of the soul’s ‘exigency’ for a body”), but the soul as being in the body (“as the individuated essence that stands under, informs, animates, develops and unifies all the body’s parts and functions”).[19] This means that as a body develops and matures, “the soul’s internal structure for a body is progressively realized in a lawlike way,” with the result that “the soul is fully present in every body part.”[20] So assuming, for the moment, that the body’s sex is derived from the soul, the implication of this is that the sex of the body reveals the sex of the soul.

Therefore, while some DSD/intersex conditions may cloud this revelation (and so make sex-determination difficult), it does not follow that a female soul can be hidden inside an unambiguously male body (or vice versa). To suggest otherwise is to move away from the organicism advocated by Moreland and Rae and to embrace a considerably stronger form of substance dualism — one these authors reject.[21]

Second, Moreland and Rae’s particular version of Thomistic dualism is itself difficult to reconcile with Scripture’s dualistic holism. For despite acknowledging that “a human being is a unity of two distinct entities—body and soul,” the kind of unity they affirm is functional, not ontological.[22] That is, rather than being body-soul composites, “human persons are identical to immaterial substances, namely, to souls.”[23] Therefore, although Moreland and Rae support a one substance anthropology, “the one substance is the soul, and the body is an ensouled biological and physical structure that depends on the soul for its existence.”[24] This conception is more Platonic than biblical.

Historically, such a view also stands in contrast to that of Irenaeus, who held that “the soul and the spirit are certainly a part of the man, but certainly not the man; for the perfect man consists in the commingling and the union of the soul receiving the spirit of the Father, and the admixture of that fleshly nature which was moulded after the image of God.”[25] Moreover, when the sequence of Genesis 2:7 is borne in mind (with the man’s body being formed first) and also, behind this, the fact that Genesis 1:27 defines human beings by reference to their bodily sex (male and female), it is clear that embodiment is basic to human ontology. Therefore, to insist, as Moreland and Rae do, that “[t]he organism as a whole (the soul) is ontologically prior to its parts” is not merely to speculate beyond Scripture, but to push against it.[26] Michael Williams, then, is right to conclude that it is “not materialist, but rather fully biblical, to say that we might be more than our bodies, but we are not something other than our embodied selves.”[27]

Third, Moreland and Rae’s particular version of Thomistic dualism is also difficult to reconcile with Thomas’s own hylomorphic view of human persons.[28] Developed from Aristotle, hylomorphism maintains that all substances are composed of both matter (Gk. hylē) and form (Gk. morphē).[29] This means that “substances are not just things that have material and formal components. Rather, substances are those things that are material and formal composites.”[30] As Thomas writes, “the being that a composite substance has is not the being of the form alone nor of the matter alone but of the composite.”[31] When such an understanding is applied to human beings, it leads to “an ontologically holist view of human persons that maintains that we are a composite of body and soul.”[32] Consequently, Thomas understands that “man is not a mere soul, nor a mere body; but both soul and body.”[33] So then, in contrast to Moreland and Rae’s person-soul identity view (i.e., that we are souls who have bodies), Thomas holds that each human person is a hylomorphic psychosomatic union; i.e., a body-soul synthesis.

Furthermore, Thomas regards the particularity of each human body (including its biological sex) as “the principle of existence of that particular human being.”[34] In other words, what differentiates persons from one another is “the particular set of matter that composes their respective bodies.”[35] As Paul Jewett expresses it: “this soul that is ‘I’ is the soul of my particular body and of no others.”[36] In short, it is this body that makes me me. For Thomas, then, the sex of a person’s body is integral to their identity. This is not to ignore the fact that outside of Eden bodies can be badly damaged — by disease, disability, disfigurement, etc. But it is to say that they cannot be entirely wrong. For if I were to take possession of a different body (as opposed to having my body restored), I would no longer be me. In this sense, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right to insist that those “who reject their bodies reject their existence before God the Creator.”[37]

Fourth, there is good reason to question the idea that the body takes its sex from the soul. For Sprinkle, this is because “the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ are by definition descriptions of our bodies, not our souls or any other immaterial aspect of our being. Sex is a material, biological category. Accordingly, immaterial souls can’t be sexed.”[38] What leads some advocates of hylomorphism to think otherwise, however, is the following Thomistic principle: “Since the form is not for the matter, but rather the matter for the form, we must gather from the form the reason why the matter is such as it is; and not conversely.”[39] From this it follows that the soul (as the body’s form) is the cause of the body’s sex.[40] Nevertheless, other Thomistic interpreters see matters differently.[41] Because Thomas insists that the body is the principle of the soul’s individuation, it is the soul that takes its sex (or, at least, its gender) from the body, not the other way around.[42] As Elliott Bedford and Jason Eberl explain:

While strictly speaking the soul, which is immaterial, is not sexed, each soul is created by God as the vivifying principle of sexed bodies and is thereby individuated and sexed as an inseparable accidental quality of the human being. In short, as the vivifying principle of actually existing human beings, the human soul is properly characterised as sexed.[43]

It is also worth noting that, on this view (no less than the alternative), there is no difficulty accounting for the Scriptural indications that departed spirits remain male or female in the intermediate state (e.g., Samuel remains Samuel in Sheol and even appears as “an old man” [1 Sam 28:14]). This is because the soul retains the sex/gender derived from the body, even after the body has returned to the dust.[44]

It is difficult to determine which of these interpretations most faithfully represents Thomas’s thought. It may even be that he is at odds with himself on this point.[45] However, the second interpretation is not only plausible but, in light of what we have seen, better reflects the biblical presentation. For as Genesis 1:27 and 2:7 make plain, sex is, first and foremost, a property of bodies. That sex is also a property of human persons is testimony to the significance of the body for personal identity. Consequently, although I am more than my body, I am my body and my body is me. Indeed, to “assert otherwise,” write Bedford and Eberl, “is to bifurcate the essential integral nature of our body-soul unity, laying the foundation for a problematic body-self dualism.”[46]

d) Hylomorphism rules out spiritual gender identity theory

On either of the above accounts, spiritual gender identity theory is ruled out. For on both accounts the sex of the body reveals the sex/gender of the person.[47] In light of this, the claim that “a discrepancy between the perceiving mind and the existing body” is reflective of a genuine ontological divide can only be made on the basis of an unbiblical form of “body-self dualism.”[48] For this reason, write Bedford and Eberl, the claim is “incompatible with a Christian anthropology and so is any justification built upon it.”[49] This does not mean denying that “the deep-seated patterns of feeling and experience involved in gender dysphoria are themselves bodily”[50] — for all mental states are necessarily bodily states also. But it does mean that “transgender individuals are not experiencing an ontological disintegration, even if they perceive themselves to be.”[51] Otherwise put, gender incongruence (whatever factors may have given rise to it in any particular case) is not an experience of ontological misalignment, but of epistemological misidentification.[52] In short, there is no mismatch between body and soul.

3. Conclusion

Whether God establishes the sex of the body immediately (independently of the soul) or mediately (via the soul), the net result is the same: a hylomorphic, body-soul composite. It is, therefore, not accurate to “speak of the soul as if it were the real person and the body only its garment or vehicle.”[53] Rather, we are “embodied persons and personalized bodies.”[54] Consequently, if a person’s body is unambiguously sexed as female, it is simply not plausible that their soul could be male.

By itself, this conclusion may do little to resolve the existential distress of the gender dysphoric person. But in ruling out what the problem isn’t (ontological misalignment), it directs us to where the problem likely lies (epistemological misidentification) and to the way in which true personal integration is best sought — via acceptance of and reidentification with one’s God-given and body-determined sex.

Robert Smith is a Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at Sydney Missionary & Bible College in Sydney, Australia.

* * * * * * *

Postscript: In preparing this article, I contacted Professor Tiessen to check that I had correctly understood his original proposal. He kindly confirmed that I had. At his request, I then sent him my critique of his hypothesis. He has since indicated that my arguments have persuaded him to abandon his proposal and has written a fresh article explaining how he now thinks about these matters: I am humbled by Professor Tiessen’s integrity and grateful for his encouragement (Prov 27:17).

[1] Preston Sprinkle, Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church & What the Bible Has to Say (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2021).

[2] Ibid., 146–47.

[3] So it is not entirely surprising, and certainly not illegitimate, that in the domain of theological anthropology, the material and immaterial aspects of human persons have typically been discussed in terms of body and soul. I will retain that practice in this article.

[4] John W. Cooper, “The Current Body-Soul Debate: A Case for Dualistic Holism,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13, no. 2 (2009), 35.

[5] Ray S. Anderson, On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 209.

[6] John W. Cooper, “Dualism and the Biblical View of Human Beings” The Reformed Journal (October 1982), 18.

[7] John W. Cooper, Body, Soul & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 78.

[8] Anderson, On Being Human, 209.

[9] Terrance Tiessen, “A Female Soul in a Male Body? A Theological Proposal,” Theological Thoughts (June 20, 2015), A similar view appears to be advocated by Steve Frohlich, “Christian Faithfulness and Gender Dysphoria,” Ransom Fellowship (May 2, 2018),

[10] J. P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 199–224.

[11] Ibid., 205.

[12] Ibid., 204–5.

[13] Ibid., 206.

[14] Tiessen, “A Female Soul in a Male Body?”

[15] Ibid. Frohlich invokes the Fall in order to come to a similar conclusion (although without explaining how this might be possible). He writes: “while functional holism is nearly universally normal, we must acknowledge (and in fact be unsurprised) that the effects of the Fall may be far-reaching enough as to sometimes create a dysfunctional holism, a disruption of the integrity of sex and gender” (“Christian Faithfulness and Gender Dysphoria,” endnote 9).

[16] Tiessen, “A Female Soul in a Male Body?” As part of his argument, Tiessen invokes the tragic case of David Reimer (briefly described in chapter 4 of this thesis), arguing that the reason Reimer struggled to identify as a female and eventually returned to living as a male was because he “had a male soul” and so desired “a body that matched the sex of his soul.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. On this basis, he further hypothesises that (for some people, at least) homosexual desires might, in fact, be heterosexual desires — i.e., if sexual desire is a function of the soul and the soul is mismatched with the body. So, Tiessen asks, “[m]ight there be some who live with an incongruence between the sex of their soul and the sex of their body, so that desire that is actually consistent with the sex of their soul (which is hidden from us and, to some extent, even from them) is necessarily interpreted only in terms of the sex of their body?”

[19] Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul, 205.

[20] Ibid., 206, 201.

[21] Ibid., 199–201.

[22] Ibid., 17, 21.

[23] Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul, 11. For a more recent statement of this view, see J. P. Moreland, “In Defense of Thomistic-like Dualism,” in The Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, ed. Jonathan J. Loose, Angus J. L. Menuge, and J. P. Moreland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 103.

[24] Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul, 201.

[25] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.6.1 (ANF 1:531).

[26] Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul, 206.

[27] Michael D. Williams, “‘For You Are with Me’: Physical Anthropology and the Intermediate State,” Presbyterion 45, no. 2 (Fall 2019), 23.

[28] In fairness to Moreland and Rae, they readily acknowledge that “Thomas Aquinas may not have accepted all aspects of our version of Thomistic substance dualism” (Body and Soul, 199). More recently, Moreland has been even more definite: “my view is not Aquinas’s own view; indeed, mine departs from his at crucial points” (Moreland, “In Defense of Thomistic-like Dualism,” 102).

[29] Hylomorphism is not Thomas’s own term, but first appears in the nineteenth century. For an account of its origins and various meanings, see Gideon Manning, “The History of ‘Hylomorphism,’” Journal of the History of Ideas 74, no. 2 (2013): 173–87.

[30] James K. Dew Jr., In Defense of Modified Thomistic Holism: A Proposal for Christian Anthropology, PhD thesis (University of Birmingham, UK, 2019), 140, Emphasis added.

[31] Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, trans. A. Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1968), 36.

[32] Aquinas, On Being and Essence, 141.

[33] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae: Latin Text and English Translation, Introductions, Notes, Appendices, and Glossaries, 60 volumes, ed. T. Gilby and T. C. O’Brien (New York: McGraw Hill, 1963–1976), 1a.75.4. Thomas is here citing Augustine (The City of God, xix, 3) who, in turn, is citing the Roman philosopher, Varro (116–27 BC).

[34] Andrzej Maryniarczyk, “Is the Human Soul Sexed? In Search for the Truth on Human Sexuality,” Studia Gilsoniana 9, no. 1 (January–March 2020), 108.

[35] Aquinas, On Being and Essence, 143.

[36] Paul K. Jewett, with Marguerite Shuster, Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human: A Neo-Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 42.

[37] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, ed. John W. De Gruchy and trans. Douglas S. Bax (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 77.

[38] Sprinkle, Embodied, 150.

[39] Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, 1.76.5.

[40] Maryniarczyk writes, “the individual human soul (as a total principle of the human being) is the principle of existence from which all essential (i.e., decisive as to its constitutive properties) determination of that being must come (“Is the Human Soul Sexed?,” 121. Emphasis original).

[41] Elliott Louis Bedford and Jason T. Eberl, “Is the Soul Sexed? Anthropology, Transgenderism, and Disorders of Sex Development,” Health Care Ethics USA 24, no. 3 (2016), 20–23.

[42] Ibid., 20. If gender is understood as the psychological and socio-relational dimensions of personal identity — dimensions that are necessarily informed (if not determined) by a person’s biological sex, then gender may, in fact, be the better term to apply to souls.

[43] Ibid., 21.

[44] Of course, Scripture insists that this separation is not permanent. The soul will be reunited and reintegrated with the body (albeit gloriously transformed) in resurrection.

[45] Dew, In Defense of Modified Thomistic Holism, 195.

[46] Bedford and Eberl, “Is the Soul Sexed?,” 22.

[47] Certain DSD/intersex conditions (e.g., CAIS), where phenotype and genotype are at odds with one another, might appear to falsify this conclusion. However, the question in such cases is not whether the body reveals the sex of the person, but which aspect of the body reveals the true sex of the person.

[48] Bedford and Eberl, “Is the Soul Sexed?,” 24. As Sprinkle writes: “It’s one thing to say that the soul is ontologically distinct from the body; that would be Soft Dualism. It’s quite another to say that, if there’s incongruence, then the immaterial soul obviously overrules the body. That perspective would be much closer to Strong Dualism” (Embodied, 150).

[49] Ibid., 26.

[50] Mike Higton, “A Critique of ‘Transformed’ 4.” Kaì Euthùs (28 February, 2019), Higton’s criticism of the Evangelical Alliance’s 2018 report, Transformed, is curious. Acknowledging a distinction between mind and body (as the report’s authors do) does not commit them to strong dualism. In fact, in challenging “the idea of a ‘real me’ trapped inside the wrong body” (Transformed, 12), they clearly reject such dualism.

[51] Ibid., 27.

[52] There are many possible causes of or contributors to gender incongruence: e.g., bullying, self-hatred, peer contagion, dysfunctional family dynamics, rigid gender stereotypes, cross-sex jealousy, experimental cross-dressing, internet influence, anime obsession, social anxiety, avatar creation, early pornography acquaintance, pornography addiction, exposure to trans ideology/trans narratives, sexual trauma, depression, desire to be special, desire to identify with an oppressed group, body dismorphic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder, internalised misogyny, internalised misandry, internalised homophobia, autogynephilia, autoandrophilia, etc. For a compelling account of “An ‘identification’ model of misaligned gender identity,” as well as a critical assessment of other models, see Kathleen Stock, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (London: Fleet, 2021), 109–41.

[53] Gilbert Meilander, Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), 41.

[54] Ibid.

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