What is the definition of “soul”?

Q. Someone recently asked me to define “soul.” I gave an answer but I’d also like to hear what you have to say.

I would say that a person’s “soul” is the totality of everything in them that is not their physical body–that is, their mind, will, emotions, etc., working together as a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

There’s almost a definition of the “soul” (Hebrew nefesh) along these lines in the poetic parallelism at the start of Psalm 103:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, praise His holy name.”  The NIV translates this second phrase “all my inmost being,” and I think that’s a good way to think about the soul.

The “soul” in biblical terms is equivalent to what we often call the “self” today.  We find the psalmists especially addressing their “souls” in what we recognize as “self-talk.”  For example, in the chorus that occurs three times in Psalm 42-43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? . . . Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.”

There’s some debate in Christian theology about whether the soul is mortal, and so dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or whether the soul is immortal, living on after death.  I discuss that question in this post.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may we all be inspired by the example of the psalmists and in the most difficult times talk to our souls (ourselves) to encourage them to hope in God, looking forward to the time when we will see His work on our behalf and praise Him for it.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s