Only God Creates Souls

Anthony Zimmerman
October 18, 1999
Not published
Reproduced with Permission

"God is not so poor or destitute in resources, that He cannot confer its own proper soul on each individual body, even as He gives it also its special character" wrote pioneer theologian Irenaeus (125-207). Not so, claimed a near contemporary Tertullian (155-220); parents give souls to their children, he theorized. Today unruly lab technicians appear to believe something else again: they act as if they can make or unmake humans at will.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches as Irenaeus did:

366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God -- it is not "produced" by the parents -- and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

Discourse about the origin of souls was a lively issue among philosophers and theologians in the early days of the Church. We pick up the subject with Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, France.

Irenaeus: Absurdity of the Doctrine of Transmigration of Souls

Irenaeus took up arms against Plato (427?-347 BC) for teaching that souls existed formerly in another life before they entered human bodies. Souls had no such previous lives asserts Irenaeus (Ad. Haer. II,33,1). Plato had allegedly explained that souls forget their former lives when they now enter human bodies, but Irenaeus responded that this was an ipse dixit invention without a shred of proof (33,2). If there had been a previous life the soul would remember it. He continues:

If, therefore, the soul remembers nothing of what took place in a former state of existence, but has a perception of those things which are here, it follows that she never existed in other bodies, nor did things of which she has no knowledge, nor once knew things which she cannot now contemplate. But, as each one of us receives his body through the skillful working of God, so does he also possess his soul. For God is not so poor...that He cannot confer its own proper soul on each individual body..." (II,33,5).

That God creates each soul was a doctrine of the early Church, as championed by Irenaeus, and as is now embodied in the Catechism.

Tertullian Promoted Traducianism

Tertullian invented an explanation that parents beget the souls of their children. The theory appeared plausible to some at the time, but did not gain a permanent niche in Catholic teaching. This lawyer and rhetorician had an irascible passion for truth, but he lacked patience. He finally left the Church. Pope John XXIII might have advised him with his famous saying that truth is not a sledge hammer to be used for smashing the heads of opponents.

Tertullian was born in Carthage, professed law in Rome, and was perhaps a priest. Unlike the European Irenaeus who wrote in Greek, the African Tertullian wrote in Latin. Johannes Quastens, my one-time professor of Patrology at Catholic University, tells of his importance and accomplishments, but also about his impetuosity:

Except for St. Augustine, Tertullian is the most important and original ecclesiastical author in Latin. With a profound knowledge of philosophy, law, Greek and Latin letters, Tertullian combines inexhaustible vigor, burning rhetoric, and biting satire. His attitude is uncompromising. Forever a fighter, he knew no relenting towards his enemies, whether pagans, Jews, heretics, or later on, Catholics. All his writings are polemic...

Although he knows that "truth persuades by teaching, but does not teach by persuading" (Adv. Val. 1) he always tries to prove too much. Whenever he speaks he is like an advocate who is interested only in winning his case and annihilating his adversary. Thus in many instances he may silence, but he does not convince, his adversaries (Quasten, PatrologyII, 247, 248).

A passage from Tertullian's De Anima reveals his horizon-spanning mind and the power of his sometimes staccato and lapidary rhetoric:

The various schools reflect the character of their masters, according as they have received their impressions from the dignity of Plato, or the vigour of Zeno, or the equanimity of Aristotle, or the stupidity of Epicurus, or the sadness of Heraclitus, or the madness of Empedocles (De Anima,Chapter III).

The Church in Africa was using Latin in its Liturgy even when Rome was still using Greek. A Latin Bible in Africa also preceded Jerome's Vulgate. With this background, Tertullian went on to articulate theology in precise Latin terminology, inventing words where needed. One great debt we owe him is a thesaurus of Latin theological terms that helped the Roman Church to avoid pitfalls of ambiguity such as dogged the Greek-speaking Eastern Church and sometimes tore her apart. Nevertheless, his innovation of the doctrine of "Traducianism" is not an invention to be admired.

Surprisingly, the erudite Tertullian followed the belief of Stoic philosophers that souls had a material element. Because he assumed that souls were part corporeal, he then followed through with an assertion that parents beget the souls of their children by way of marital intercourse:

I call on the Stoics also to help me, who, while declaring almost in our own terms that the soul is a spiritual essence (inasmuch as breath and spirit are in their nature very near akin to each other), will yet have no difficulty in persuading (us) that the soul is a corporeal substance... This spirit which is generated with (the body) is the soul: it follows, then, that the soul is a corporeal substance (De Anima Chapter 5).

He asserted furthermore that the souls of parents function in the behavior of the children:

Cleanthes, too, will have it that family likeness passes from parents to their children not merely in bodily features, but in characteristics of the soul; as if it were out of a mirror of (a man's) manners, and faculties, and affections, that bodily likeness and unlikeness are caught and reflected by the soul also...The soul, therefore, is (proved to be) corporeal from this inter-communion of susceptibility (ibid.).

Voila! Now he could explain original sin simply, with the persuasive logic of a lawyer: the sin is in us because our souls are offshoots of Adam's soul. The evil one had corrupted Adam's soul. We receive his corruption together with his soul. But, he also conceded, this soul is not entirely contaminated; it still retains some its original goodness: "Still there remains a portion of good in the soul, of that original, divine, and genuine good, which is its proper nature" (op. cit., 41).

Traducianism Refuted

Lactantius, also African and a contemporary of Tertullian, refuted him absolutely:

A body may be produced from a body, since something is contributed from both; but a soul cannot be produced from souls, because nothing can depart from a slight and incomprehensible subject. Therefore, the manner of the production of souls belongs entirely to God alone. "In fine, we are all sprung from a heavenly seed, and all have that same Father," as Lucretius says. For nothing but what is mortal can be generated from mortals. (De opif.Chapter XIX.--Of the Soul, Given by God).

St. Ambrose (340-397) refused to accept Traducianism; so did St. Jerome (c.342-420) who grumped that this error excluded Tertullian from being a "man of the Church." With such clear opposition from the big powers, Traducianism gained no permanent foothold in Church teaching.

Origen: Souls Had a Previous Life

Origen (185-253) accepted in part Plato's concept of a transmigration of souls. His devout father educated him in a knowledge of Holy Scripture, and gave witness to his strong faith by martyrdom. When Origen wanted to run out to be a martyr like his father, his mother hid his clothes (Quasten II, 37). Shortly thereafter, when the talented Origen was only eighteen, Bishop Demetrius put him in charge of the famous School of Alexandria in Egypt. He proved to be an intellectual giant, a prodigy with an encyclopedic mind. He drew to his school capable students who greatly influenced the intellectual currents of the Church. From Alexandria he went to Caesarea of Palestine where he continued teaching until his death in 253 at the age of sixty-nine.

Origen theorized that souls had existed as pure spirits in a previous life. He believed in a succession of created worlds:

There were ages before our own and there will be others after it. It is not, however, to be supposed that several worlds existed at once, but that, after the end of the present world, others will take their beginning (De principiis,3,5,3, see Quasten II, 90).

He continues with the strange concept that our souls had sinned in a previous life, and God inserted us into bodies in this present world to work out our penance:

And if this is so, then there has been a descent from a higher to a lower condition, on the part...of those souls who have deserved the change...(they) were brought down from those higher and invisible spheres to these lower and visible ones, although against their will (De Princ.III, Chapter 5, 3).

Souls that had sinned little, received relatively good bodies to live in; souls that had sinned greatly received clumsy and dull bodies:

Whence some are found from the very commencement of their lives to be of more active intellect, others again of a slower habit of mind, and some are born wholly obtuse, and altogether incapable of instruction (De Princ.II,9,3-4).

Is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body and is introduced according to its deserts and former actions? (Contra Cels.1,32; see Quasten II,91-92).

Frederick R. Tennant sums up his theory as follows:

Souls, he teaches, are fallen celestial spirits. Having become estranged from God in a former state of existence, they were banished to earth and appointed to a corporeal life for their purification and restoration. Thus each human being brings with him, when born into this world, a sinfulness resulting from abuse of free-will in a previous existence (Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin, Shocken Books, New York, p. 297).

Origen's theory would deny the unity of the human race as sprung from original human parents. Needless to say, his theory never became part of our Church doctrine.

When Is the Soul Created?

Despite Origen and Tertullian, we are not hand-me-down souls, nor are we on a second run through life. When does this moment of our creation take place?

Our souls are surely not yet in the gametes before fertilization. They are not yet present in the DNA of the nucleus of the father's sperm, nor in that of the mother's ovum. The time of procreation, we believe, is the moment of fertilization, when the DNA of the father reacts genetically with the DNA of the mother. It is for us the "Beginning." God detonates our "Big Bang" into existence. This is our birthday, when our souls animate our bodies in which we can live in time. At Baptism we also receive wings on which we can fly into eternity.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its document issued on 22 February 1987, declared that human life begins with fertilization:

From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already... Science has demonstrated that, from the first instant, the program is fixed as to what this living being will be: a man, this individual man, with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life...

How can a human individual not be a human person? The magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion... The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception, and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life (trans. The Pope Speaks,1987, p. 142).

The Instant of Genetic Fixation Is at Fertilization

Although parents do not produce the souls of their children, nevertheless they pass on to them the blue prints of the body which the soul will bring to life. The genes of father and mother interact to fix the characteristics of the new body. The genetic fix is determined instantly, at the initial interaction, according to the explanation given to the author by geneticist Jerome Lejeune.

I tested the following suggestion with Dr. Lejeune when dining with him at a Human Life International Convention. He had explained that after the sperm first penetrates the ovum, there is a period of about 20 hours before the fertilized single cell divides into two cells. One of the two then divides again after about another 20 hours, and so there are three. Soon thereafter the other cell also divides and so there are 4, then 8, 16, 32 and down the line. I then suggested the following, while he listened patiently.

When the sperm enters the ovum, the nuclear membranes of both cells disappear. This exposes the 23 haploid chromosomes of the father to interact with the 23 corresponding chromosomes of the mother. Now the chromosomes themselves disappear, being dissolved into the cytoplasm. During the next 20 hours the DNA of both parties is interacting mutually within the cytoplasm. At the end of the approximately 20 hours the chromosomes are assembled again in preparation for the first cell division.

I floated the suggestion that the genetic fix of the new body is welded together during the first 20 hours after fertilization. The very first action is a genetic fix of the sex of the new person. Chromosome number 23 is always an X in the ovum, but in the sperm it is either an X or a Y. If the combination is XX, she is a girl; if XY, he is a boy. The entire genome of over 100,000 genes, so I understand, now modifies itself to follow the boy or girl body build. Other determinations can now follow this primary fixation.

If Mary's eyes are blue, and John's are brown, the genes meet. One party gains the upper hand and dominates; the other yields and becomes recessive. Tall or small, left- handed or right, curly hair or straight, a book worm or an Olympic contender - all must be fixed and combined while the genes hammer out the new constitution. Might we not call this 20 hour period a "dance of the genes?" Father and mother had made love; now the genes dance to the tune of that love. Dr. Lejeune listened patiently.

Then after all the dancing is completed, I continued, each gene flocks back to its roosting position on its home chromosome. As the DNA twists itself tightly into the double helix the chromosomes become visible again under the microscope. Now the genes are combined, genes of father entwined with genes of mother, in dominant or recessive relationships. This having been accomplished, the chromosomes then line up in at the equator of the single cell. The 22 chromosomes of father have paired up with the 22 of the mother, and the 23rd pair is either an XX twin or an XY combination. Mirror images of the 23 pairs lined up opposite them. Then spindles draw the two sets apart, cell walls form around the parted sectors and there are now two cells.

My question, finally, to Dr. Lejeune: Does God perhaps create the soul at the time of the first cell division, rather than at the time of fertilization?

Although I cannot quote his response word for word, I remember well the unforgettable point he made. The genetic fix is instantaneous, he said, at fertilization. It is not engineered during a 20 hour period. It blitzes on with fertilization, at the instant when the DNA of father and mother make genetic contact. Life shapes up then. What follows is pre-programmed. In other words, my "dance of the genes" is not a new composition, but the follow-through of the pre-recorded composition made at the instant when the gametes made their first genetic contact. The sequences play-out the initial determination. The conclusion: The genetic determination is instantaneous at fertilization. Fertilization is the window through which God enters to create the soul to enliven this body. The parents and God together throw the switch of life at the instant when sperm and ovum unite into one body.

The Soul: Our Inimitable Self

Allow me to make a preliminary point before proceeding. The Pontifical Academy for Life, on July 9, 1997, declared that human cloning, if done, would not duplicate a person. The clone would duplicate body structures, but not personal identity. The Academy stated that the spiritual soul cannot be generated by the parents, cannot be produced by artificial fertilization, cannot be cloned (see the Pope Speaks, 1998, p. 28).

The soul is our noble and admirable self who can soar into spiritual orbit of thought and faith and love, though the body remains attached to earth. The soul is a temple of the Holy Spirit, into which God can enter, within which He communicates to us His gifts - faith to meet Him personally, hope by which we put our hand into His hand, love by which we walk our way through life electrified by God's supernatural powers. For myself, I find convincing evidence of the spiritual nature of the soul when fishing for words to express my thoughts, or when trying to translate words from one language into another. The corporeal brain presents successive sonar or visual images of words under the prodding of the soul. The soul is free of image boundaries. It waits patiently until the obedient brain brings up the image that satisfies the soul. The soul can comprehend meaning in conventionally established word images. It thinks. The brain is so crassly material that it doesn't know what it means to think.


Contrary to the wayward views of Tertullian and Origen the Catechism teaches that "every spiritual soul is created immediately by God "(366). Souls do not exist anywhere before they are outfitted with bodies. Souls created today did not exist yesterday. They were not in the parents, not in another world, not even in the bosom of God. They never stood in line to be placed into bodies. Before God created us, we were nothing. Simply nothing. God made us out of nothing. He detonated our Big Bang.

What follows from all this? What follows is the inspiring truth that we are in immediate partnership with God when we become parents. Humans cannot reproduce their kind by their own power. When humans become parents, they work in a breath-taking partnership with God.

Because procreation necessarily involves this awe-inspiring partnership with God, human partners are obligated to keep the divine rules. God's rules specify that every child has a right to have a father and a mother who are joined in marriage. The divine Partner does not approve of fornication, adultery, rape, cloning or in vitro fertilization. He made marriage to be the only licit fountain of human life. He accompanies married couples sacramentally.

For the sake of the children, for the sake of gaining of God's approval, let humans abide by heaven's rules for licit procreation.

P.S. On August 25, 2000 the Pontifical Academy for Life declared that humanization occurs when the gametes fuse: 1. On the basis of a complete biological analysis, the living human embryo is -- from the moment of the union of the gametes -- a human subject with a well defined identity, which from that point begins its own coordinated, continuous and gradual development, such that at no later stage can it be considered as a simple mass of cells.[xiv]

Unless indicated otherwise the translation of the Fathers is by Roberts, Alexander and Donalson, James, Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997. CD Rom "Early Church Fathers, Special Catholic Edition. Irenaeus is in Volume I, Tertullian in Volume II, Lactantius in Volume VII, and Origen in Volume IV.