Joel Green, professor of New Testament interpretation at Fuller Theological Seminary, is known as an expert in biblical exegesis (especially in Luke and 1 Peter) as well as in his work on ‘theological interpretation’. One who has already shown breadth and depth of knowledge, he flexes his interdisciplinary muscles by exploring the way in which the study of neuroscience can shed light on discussions of biblical anthropology.
Too often scientists look at their own experimental findings and at traditional Christian theology and determine them to be incompatible. Green seeks to not only present an opportunity for scientists to try to understand their world in harmony with the Bible, but also to see how science (particularly neuroscience) might inform or even correct the way we interpret the Bible.
Green appears to be interested in two major issues. The first is a challenge, largely based on neuroscience, against a dualistic (soul + body) view of the person. Green states: ‘If the capacities constitutive of the human being traditionally allocated to the immaterial soul are identified with neuronal processes, then the need underlying the attribution of an immaterial soul to the human being vanishes’ (p. 27). He supports a form of monism which sees the whole self in the body as a unified form with no distinct entity called ‘soul’.
In terms of how neuroscience supports what is foundational in Christian anthropology, Green does not find evidence that a person has a ‘soul’ that desires one thing and a body that acts against it. Rather, ‘the construction of the self [is] deeply embedded in social relationships’ and life experiences such that ‘a person is one’s behavior’ (p. 50). This emphasis on relationality and how that helps to define humanity identity is related by Green to the important passages in Genesis 1-2 that refer to the ‘image of God’. This interpretation gravitates towards a focus on community in the search for human identity insofar as Christ makes possible a ‘transformation…fully embodied within a nest of relationships’ (p. 69).
Whereas philosophers in the past have made the free will debate about God’s ‘control’ or allowance of ‘freedom’, Green notes how important understanding the brain is for engaging in the discussion of morality, decision-making and volition. We tend to think of ‘free will’ as an objective or neutral ability to make our own decision at any given moment. However, Green makes important observations based on scientific studies:
‘A host of labratories in the past decade have demonstrated the tight link between neuronal processes and moral decision-making – including, but not limited to, reviewing past decisions and their consequences, weighing options, and potential rewards, and envisioning the future. Indeed, the most basic and significant contribution of cognitive science is its irreducible emphasis on the somatic basis of human existence, including the exercise of the mind’ (p. 84).
If Green is correct in his theses here, a whole host of issues are drawn in to the discussion: if the soul is not ‘real’, what is being ‘saved’ (see ch. 4)? What happens when we die (ch. 5)? Put another way, ‘How can I be sure that the me that enjoys eternal life is really me (p. 142)? Is there no ‘intermediate state’?
This book is a page-turner. I read it at night just before bed and I found myself looking forward to each night’s reading as Green was challenging many things I took for granted in a cogent way. One particularly significant argument for Green is the importance of narrative in memory and the formation of identity. Confirmation of this from neuroscience accords well with people like N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, and others (including Green) who have argued this theologically for a long time. Also, concerning the question of ‘conversion’, Green offers some very important insights about how it is to be understood – especially as many view it as a one-time ‘event’ rather than a process. When someone enters the community of the people of God, the Biblical concept of conversion involves much more than an individualistic existential satisfaction that one is ‘saved’. Green argues, based on scientific studies as well as Biblical data, that a narrative recodification takes place where he or she is written into the story of God’s people and God’s cosmic act of redemption and renewal. The Gospels, then, are not just historical recountings of the facts about Jesus so that you can ‘know’ what he did and said. They were written in part to inform, but Green also highlights the epistemological and cognitive features of story-telling in the NT.
What the Gospels offer, Green urges, is a fresh perspective on the story of God’s salvific plan and activity: ‘For Luke, embracing this new conceptual scheme is a new way of seeing things, an opening of the mind to understand what was previously incomprehensible, that takes as its starting point the mission and message of Jesus, culminating in his death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost’ (p. 127). Conversion, then, is not just a one-time choice to change from one religion to another. To enter the people of God, conversion must be understood as ‘an ongoing process of socialization’ (p. 129).
We are in Joel Green’s debt for this captivating study and exercise in interdisciplinarity. He is articulate, careful, and well-informed theologically and scientifically. I confess that I was not convinced by everthing he argued for, but the kind of issues and questions he raises are important and need to be reckoned with by Biblical scholars, as well as Christian theologians and philosophers. M0st theology-science dialogue that takes place focuses on miracles or creation. Green has identified the nature of human-ness as another critical sphere for a meaningful conversation to take place.
My only wish, after reading Green’s book, was for more (as it is an appetizing but unsatisfying 180 pp.). Thus, Prof. Green has agreed to do an interview with me on my blog – stay tuned for a stimulating after-discussion that probes, explains, and clarifies. Respectful comments and questions will be accepted, but I cannot guarantee a response.