Of the theories on the origin of the human soul, only two appear compatible with evangelical theology: creationism and traducianism. Creationism asserts that each soul is created by God ex nihilo, or out of nothing, while traducianism puts forth that the soul is passed down through the parents the same as is the body (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, pp. 1037, 1106). Each theory has its strengths and weaknesses as well as its adherents among noted theologians.
Creationism, followed by Aristotle, Jerome, Pelagius, John Calvin, modern Roman Catholicism and Reformed theologians, says that each individual soul is created immediately (by his direct hand, without using outside help) by God and is placed in the body at conception or soon afterward (Theologia, David H. Wietzke). The material body is passed down through generations by the parents, but the soul is created by God and placed in the body. The Genesis account of creation states that the body was taken from the earth, while the spirit came directly from God. "This distinction is kept up throughout the Bible, where body and soul are not only represented as different substances, but also as having different origins," says L. Berkhof in his Systematic Theology (p. 199).
Scriptures commonly used to back the creationist view include: "The dust (body) will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." (Ecc. 12:7); "O God, God of the spirits of all flesh." (Num. 16:22); "Thus says God … who gives breath to the people on (the earth) and spirit to whose who walk in it." (Isa. 42:5); The Lord "forms the spirit of man within him." (Zech. 12:1).
This view boasts many strengths. Wayne Grudem points to Psalm 127:3 ("Sons are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.") as an indication that the entire person, both soul and body, are a creation of God and can therefore not be attributed to the parents alone. (Systematic Theology, pp. 484, 485.) Berkhof (p.199) points out that creationism prevents a division of the soul, which he says traducianism requires. Also, he says, it prevents the conclusion that Christ shared in the guilt of Adam’s sin. Had Christ’s soul been imparted from parent to child since Adam, Christ would have inherited original sin.
These arguments notwithstanding, creationism also has its weaknesses. Augustus H. Strong in Systematic Theology (p. 493) argues that the theory makes God the author of evil since he would be creating a sinless soul and forcing it to become corrupt by uniting it to a fallen body. Berkhof (p. 200) points out that it might be said creationism "ascribes to the beast nobler powers of propagation than to man" since animals reproduce after their kind, but man needs God to reproduce the spiritual portion of himself. Further, says Berkhof, it ignores the fact that God now works through secondary causes. But he notes that the objection isn’t very serious to those who don’t hold a deistic worldview. Finally, William G.T. Shedd in Dogmatic Theology (Vol. 2, p. 28) says, "The few texts that are quoted in favor of creationism are as easily applicable to traducianism." (e.g. Isa. 57:16, "The souls which I have made." There is no distinction between soul and body proved.)
The strongest objection appears to be that of God creating sinless souls that are forced to sin. Roman Catholics believe man is no longer created in the image of God, but receives this gift, so the objection for them becomes moot. (Wietzke, Cornelius Jaarsma, A Christian Theory of the Person). For Reformed theologians, this is a more difficult objection to answer. Certain passages, such as the Heb. 7:10 reference to Levi in the body of Abraham paying the tithe to Melchizedek, would probably be ascribed to metaphorical language. (Wietzke.)
Traducianism, followed by Tertullian, Martin Luther, the Eastern Church and some Reformed theologians such as Strong, asserts that since man reproduces after his kind, the soul is part of that which is procreated along with the body. While God is the Creator of the individual soul, this creation is mediate – it is done through secondary means (Elwell p.1106). God created for six days, then rested from his work of creating on the seventh day and has been at rest since. Scripture says that God breathed the breath of life into Adam, giving him a soul, but no mention is made of God giving a soul to Eve or any human descendant thereafter (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, p. 254). And Heb. 7:10 credits Levi with paying a tithe to Melchizedek because, though unborn, he was in the body of his ancestor Abraham (Wietzke).
Scriptures cited by traducianists include "(God) rested on the seventh day from all His work which God had created and made" (Gen. 2:2); "(Levi) was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him." (Heb. 7:10); "For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man." (1 Cor. 11:8).
The traducianist position makes for a simpler understanding of how Adam’s descendants are culpable for original sin. Perhaps the creationists are correct that the corrupt nature is imputed because of Adam’s federal headship, and thereby a representative of humanity as a whole. But if this assumption is incorrect, it may be difficult to explain why this imputation is fair. It may be argued that imputation of sin is no less fair than imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the Christian since neither is deserved. But for those who cannot conceive of a God who declares rational beings corrupt before they have done good or bad, traducianism is the only logical choice since it says the soul is passed down from sinful parents. And an Arminian could argue further that there is indeed a difference between imputation of sin and imputation of righteousness since no human ever chose to be born, but some have chosen to be "born again," thus doing something to receive the reward of imputed righteousness.
Tertullian was said to have argued that "our first parent bore within him the undeveloped germ of all mankind." (Shedd, p. 7) This might be looked at the same as a single-cell zygote that divides into two cells, then into four, etc., until something more resembling a human being develops. The single cell was the complete human at that time, although some years later it became a fully mature person. Adam (the male and female together) was complete humanity at the moment of original sin. Through procreation, humanity has since come to encompass millions more persons, just as the zygote divided cells. I am of Adam just as I am of a single-cell zygote. And if my body is of Adam, why not my soul? As a result, Shedd says (p.14), Adam’s posterity "sinned the first sin being seminally existent and present."
Hodge (p.255) notes that one of the strongest arguments in favor of traducianism is the fact that "ethnical, national, family and even parental peculiarities of mind and temper" are transmitted to children. This would point to a derivation not only of body, says Hodge, but also of soul. This argument, however, also leads to one of the strongest objections to this theory.
Creationists say that if the traducianist view is valid, then the soul of one or both parents must give of part of itself. Says Berkhof (p.198), one of three theories must be used to avoid this problem: (a) the soul of the child had a previous existence; (b) the soul of the child is potentially present in the seed of the mother and/or father, which equates to materialism; or (c) the soul is created in some way by the parents, making them creators. Further, Christ, if fully human, would have inherited original sin through Mary since he would have obtained his soul through her. Perhaps God created a special human soul for Christ, but that would make him of a different human race than the rest of humanity, negating his ability to redeem the fallen (Wietzke).
But one or both of the parents giving part of their soul to create the new one isn't really necessary any more than one or both parents give part of their body to create a new one. Certainly, the father contributes semen and the mother contributes an egg, but these are in their bodies, not part of them.
As to the objection of soul division, one needs only look to the animal world. A starfish, for example, can be cut into five equal parts and each part will regenerate a completely new starfish (Lynda Harding, California State at Fresno, Asexual Reproduction) An animal that previously possessed one spirit or consciousness now possesses five. While a starfish is not a human able to know or reject God, it is certainly not a plant and so it has consciousness. It may be impossible to fathom that a single thinking entity, no matter how primitive, could become five distinct entities, yet this is the case with the starfish. Is the consciousness of this animal divided or are four new ones created? It is impossible to know, but by whichever means, it does happen.
As to Christ inheriting original sin through Mary: Following traducianism’s linkage of the body and soul, it is possible that no human inherits sin through his mother’s soul any more than he inherits mitochondrial DNA from his father. Mitochondria are life-giving organelles that power every organ of the body (Charles Pellegrino, Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, p.67) but they are passed down only through the mother. In the same fashion, only the father can pass down the Y chromosome. Is it possible that only the father can pass down the corrupted nature? If so, why wouldn’t the mother contribute, being fallen herself?
If the body and soul are indeed linked, one might consider the difference between the male and female gametes. A female is born with every egg she will ever possess*, but the male produces sperm throughout his lifetime. So sperm is perpetually produced inside a corrupted body, but the ovum might theoretically be traced back to Eve before she committed original sin. If the ovum is considered uncorrupted then a supernatural fertilization from the Holy Spirit would produce a sinless person who also shared in our same humanity.
Another objection to traducianism is that it asserts that God only acts mediately, or through secondary causes, since the original act of creation (Berkhof, p. 198). While this may be the position of some traducianists, it is not an ironclad rule. God could possibly create souls through secondary means yet still create other things immediately. One does not imply the other.
In the end, traducianists seem to have the more solid arguments, though there is no absolute biblical proof for either side. Realizing this, it is best to agree with Augustine that this subject, while intriguing, should not be overemphasized. Rather, all should agree that the soul’s "proper abode" and "homeland" is with God (Elwell p. 1037).
*Research in 2004 challenged this assertion, but later research affirmed it.
(See this article in Portuguese.)