The Human Spirit

Beginnings from Genesis to Science

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Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , November
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The author’s stated intent in writing The Human Spirit is to show the vitality of the human spirit in all its various interpretations and its relation to and origin in the divine spirit. To that end, Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle takes us on a scholarly history beginning with Genesis and ending in the 17th-century Enlightenment with the advent of modern science. This long timeline allows us to discern the transformation in meanings and usages of the concept of “spirit,” both human and divine, as it evolved through history. “Evolved” is my term, not hers, but I think it apropos to describe the deliberate contortions of philosophy and beliefs, as well as chance misinterpretations, due to poor translation and erroneous interpretations, of the original writing on spirit which she outlines in copious detail.

Boyle uses an abundance of primary sources and examines the original writings with an insightful knowledge of philology to produce insights on the writer’s genuine intent that is often overlooked. Though the prose is sometimes ponderous and repetitive, The Human Spirit leads us to appreciate how different the Hebrew Elohim or “God” in Genesis, is from later interpretations. That divine spirit, which began its relationship with the human spirit as a political covenant, was manifested in the Israelite God and tribe. As the author points out, biblical Hebrew lacked a concept of universality—this was particular to Israel and its God. It was Paul who purposely broadened this interpretation, defining the spirit as Christ, the second Adam. Thus, according to Paul, the same spirit that originally created humans, subsequently offers a chance for redemption and eternal life through the resurrection. He turned a tribal covenant understanding of spirit into a hopeful revelation: “God known to the human spirit as Christ crucified” (65).

Moving on to Augustine of Hippo the image transforms to the triune nature of God, emphasizing the shared equality of the Spirit with the Father and Son. Boyle shows us how Augustine, who was a great admirer of Paul, methodically interpreted the creation story in Genesis to be of humans created in the image of the trinity, not a single Elohim (God). Perhaps through poor translations (he was not fluent in Greek) and through a conflation of ideas, Augustine moved the idea of the human spirit to the mind, which was an imperfect image of the trinity and separate from the body and brought the focus on mind/body dualism to the forefront of philosophical thought again. As she writes, it was a “total disengagement of spirit from matter” thus a “human was a dual substance” (129-30). The discussion of Augustine is impeccably well researched but somewhat underplays the profundity of his prodigious writings on later Christian thought.

Moving on to Thomas Aquinas, Boyle points out he was also hampered as a biblical scholar “by a lack of its grammar” (159) and depended on a Vulgate translation. Like Augustine, he adopted human spirit as mind but specified it as intellect and went even further in declaring all living things had souls. Aquinas saw the intellective part of the soul as the human spirit and accordingly thought that knowledge was the human end of happiness. Both theologians changed Paul’s understanding of soulful humans and spiritual humans as theologically different creatures, Adamic and second Adamic or Christian.  

The author is particularly effective in contextualizing the writings analyzed and employs unexpected comparisons such as describing John Calvin’s theology as employing chiaroscuro, an art term usually used to describe exaggerated light and dark in paintings, such as in Caravaggio’s works. Calvin assumed humanity was fundamentally corrupt, and “debased the human to exalt the divine” (228). Further insights into how Calvin’s early legal training influenced his theology are also enlightening, showing how the reformer’s rhetoric magnified the gravity of a crime to elicit the gratitude of the condemned plaintiff (humanity) for a merciful acquittal before a divine judge. These effective techniques can help one appreciate Calvin’s extreme perspectives.

The Human Spirit ends with William Harvey who, as Boyle writes, took the sense of divinity Calvin had placed in conscience and restored reason. It was Harvey and his association of the human spirit with the human blood and circulatory system that gave us a modern meaning of the term—courage.

This book offers many insights into original intents and meanings surrounding the significance of the divine spirit and human spirit and their relationships and dependences on one another. It is a scholarly, well-researched analysis of certain aspects of several important authors in Christianity and shows the compelling influence and variation of the concept of “spirit.” This book would have benefitted from a further discussion as to what drove these different interpretations. Were changes driven by misunderstandings or environmental adaptations to different cultures and developing theologies? While a valuable source for scholars, the book ends without exploring some key questions: what does this evolution in meanings portend, and what does it have to offer to Christians in terms of how we view ourselves today and our relationship to the divine?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maureen P. Heath is an Independent Scholar and author.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle is the author of eight other books including three volumes on Erasmus and Petrarch's Genius: Pentimento and Prophecy. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in religion in 1979.



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