Spirit, Soul and Life – The “Life” of Plants

Over these last few days, I have been revisiting the concept of “Life” in its relationship to “Soul” and “Spirit.”  My intention was to develop in more detail the ramifications of how these concepts apply to both humans and animals, which I will be doing.  However, I ran into a problem.

The problem is when I equated “soul” to the “Life Principle.”  This “Life Principle” is that mysterious ability that makes the chemistry of a cell operate in ways that build up life.  Its contrast, of course, is “death,” the state in which the body chemistry pursues its normal reactions, which are called decay.   According to the Bible, death is the result of sin, the rebellion which cuts us off from the Source of Life (God).

Now, if “soul” and the “Life Principle” are truly identical, then what about a plant?  The very same “Life Principle” is also operating in its cells – are we then compelled to say that a plant has a “soul”?  Thomistic philosophy declares that this is indeed so, where each class [plants (vegetative), animals (sensitive), humans (rational)] has an increasing level of function to each’s “soul.”

(And then there are the psychics and others that solemnly attest to the idea that a plant has feelings, needs comfort and reacts to threat.  Warning flags go up, though, when these websites also feature articles about such things as spirit channeling, since it means that their experience can be influenced by the occult, and that enters a whole other realm of problems which will not be addressed here at this time.)

Some awkward questions can arise if plants have “souls,” particularly, “What then are we doing when we eat plants (an act permitted already before the Fall into Sin)? [Genesis 1:29-30]”  In previous posts [Love vs the “Fittest”]  [Death and Science] [The Dynamic of Love in Creation]  [Death and Respect for the Soul], the theistic evolutionist idea of death as God’s method of creation was rejected, since it uses a most cruel method to bring about new creatures; yet what about when man and animal eat plants, have we in essence just shot this argument “in the foot”?

Is this merely an adolescent inquiry?  Perhaps.  However, somewhere along the line someone will ask that question.  After all, there is expected a consistency when a concept is defined and used; if there is no consistency, this will used as a source of embarrassment.  It will be used to demonstrate that the concepts are merely “straw men” set up to appear as an answer and yet which ultimately fail to hold up under scrutiny.

So, we must return to what God says in the Bible.  In the last post, it is noted that when “Jehovah God … breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living soul” [Genesis 2:7], there are two words used to describe what Adam became: the Hebrew NEPHESH, “soul”; and the Hebrew CHAY, “living” or “life.”  If they are identical concepts, then they would not be used together.  What then is the difference?  As characterized in that post, within the “soul” are mental abilities, emotions, passions, and many other things which make the “personality” of the creature what it is.

NEPHESH [Soul/Life] could be set in parallel to [CHAY – Living] …, but also could be modified by CHAY to form “living Soul”…  Although closely related, the concept of NEPHESH appears to contain a broader meaning than CHAY: NEPHESH means “Life” as it focuses on the essential nature of the creature, the distinctiveness of the individual, the enduring qualities marked by personality; …  [from my book, Covenant: The Blood is the Life]

CHAY seems to be the action of living, the process of life, life which is carried on moment-by-moment.  CHAY is applied to “the living God” [for example, Joshua 3:10; II Kings 2:2,4,6]; “my Redeemer lives” [Job 19:25]; and “Jehovah, The Fountain of Living Waters” [Jeremiah 17:13].   There is “life to your soul” [Proverbs 3:22] and “by these things men live; and in all these things is the life of my spirit” [Isaiah 38:16].  There is even the odd construct “living thing that moves” [Genesis 1:21,28; 9:3], possibly in distinction from that “living” thing which does not move?

This in particular is the word which is set in contrast to death: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil … I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life” [Deuteronomy 30:15,19]; between the “living bird” and the “bird which was killed” [Leviticus 14:6,7]; and “They are dead, they will not live; They are deceased, they will not rise” [Isaiah 26:14].  Although a “soul” can die, it is never paired in the same kind of contrast that CHAY and death are.

A point may also be made that, whereas “soul” is never applied to any plant, CHAY does appear in regard to “the Tree of Life” or, just as correctly, “the Living Tree” [Genesis 2:9;3:22-24; Proverbs 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4].  Does this indicate the idea of the “Life Principle,” or is it just a metaphor for something that imparts a spiritual “life”?  How about both: it is “living” – it possesses “life” in contrast to death –  and it bestows “life,” as does fruit from a common fruit tree?
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Looking at the above passages, as opposed to NEPHESH or “soul”, CHAY appears to be the better candidate to describe the “Life Principle” which so profoundly affects the cell’s chemical reactions. Truly, what we know today about the cell’s structure and workings was not available when the Bible was written – at least for the common hearers – so that it does not intend to directly deal with the question we are posing.  But at the same time it does allow us to rule out alternatives that just do not match what is declared in the Word of God.

Still, as we do sort this out, the human trinity of body, soul, and spirit (as described in the last post) is not really altered.  And, beside the “Life Principle,” the “soul” – as the personality that makes the creature what it is – is still part of the profound difference between a dead body and a living person.

The fact that the words “living soul” are used together as a single term is significant in this respect.  When medical science today can maintain “life” without a “personality” in a “brain-dead” animal or human, this fairly recent phenomena is most unnatural.  We even call such a situation a “vegetative” or plant-like state.  We cannot say with any authority that someone in such a state no longer has a “soul” and/or a “spirit” – it just means that in his case the connections by which these parts of the human express themselves has somehow been broken and he appears to be at the same level as a plant.  On a similar but lesser level, a person who has suffered a stroke may have lost the ability to speak – not that they have “lost” speech, but rather that the ability to use that speech has been broken.

As a unity in this trinity, a problem in one area does affect the others.  The spiritual disconnect with God that sin’s rebellion created brings misery and death to the other parts of the human trinity.  Some infections of the body can really send the mental (the “soul”) reeling.  The “soul” can desensitize itself from recognizing even urgent messages that the body is sending to it (the astronomer Tycho Brahe died of a burst bladder because it was “impolite” in the Elizabethan era to excuse oneself to go to the washroom).

So also, without the “living” – the “Life Principle” –, then, of course, the person dies.

Do plants have a “soul”?  That they have the “Life Principle” is agreed, but since the Bible says nothing about any such connection with the “soul,” the position is here taken that plants do not have that aspect of their nature.  It is not good to build a theology where there is no Word from God that speaks definitely about it.  However, it is up to the reader whether Thomas Aquinas mentioned above has merit to his philosophy.

Does this deal with the struggle in regard to death prior to the Fall?  It is true that pulling fruit off a tree and eating it, or fruit falling from the tree, does cause a death of sorts – a cessation of the “Life Principle” to the individual cells.  However, without the “soul” (and “spirit”) involved, one has a case for saying that this is far different than the death that comes when creation has become disconnected from the Source of Life because of sin, far different than the death that evolution would demand.

Is this an adequate explanation?  For some, probably not.  Is this the correct explanation?  Again, probably not.  Is it a fairly close explanation?  Possibly.  Hopefully.  What this is, though, is the struggle to understand something that really is still just out of the reach of our capacity to fully understand.  We have no idea of what the “Life Principle” is and how it works and even just how we should consider it.  We have to realize that in humility all we can say is, “well, I think that it is this way.”

However, for the critic, your task is to help give a clearer idea as to what the “Life Principle” is, does, where it comes from and especially how it relates to the general picture of life and death.

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