William at Reforming Baptist has recently posted an article, Dichotomy or Trichotomy….Help-a-me! in which he asks—
As I am studying systematic theology and writing my doctrinal statement, I have hit a road block in Anthropology. I would like to ask for some of your participation in this discussion by helping me form a correct and well informed opinion about man’s nature: Dichotomy or Trichotomy?
He goes on to list some arguments in favor of both positions, citing Norman Geisler, Mark Cambron, and Wayne Grudem. I suggest that you read his whole article to get the full context. In brief, the question is whether the spirit and soul are separate things, such that man is comprised of a body, a soul, and a spirit; or is the spirit merely another word for the soul, such that man is comprised of only two parts? I answer as follows:
Semantically speaking, the soul and the spirit are not necessarily the same thing. This doesn’t mean that man is comprised of three separate, ontologically equal parts; rather, he is comprised of a body and a non-physical spirit, which is sometimes also called the soul, because language is flexible that way. The term “soul” in the Old Testament (nephesh) is not limited to speaking of the spirit; it translates roughly as a breathing creature, an animal of vitality. It is used very widely in an accommodated or figurative sense (refer to the relevant entry at biblos.com). To be more explicit, according to Crosswalk’s Online Hebrew Lexicon it can mean:
soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion
- that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man
- living being
- living being (with life in the blood)
- the man himself, self, person or individual
- seat of the appetites
- seat of emotions and passions
So the soul is generally a term used to describe the essence of man, rather than some particular aspect of him. It is a personal category, rather than an ontological one. Nephesh is not synonymous with ruwach, the word translated “spirit”—but they are sometimes used interchangeably, because the spirit was seen in Hebrew thought as the seat of emotions and mental acts; and this is a secondary definition of nephesh. Unlike with English, both words in Hebrew have a great and subtle multiplicity of meanings. For example, ruwach actually refers literally to breath or to the wind, and the spiritual meaning grew from this (see Crosswalk’s Lexicon again).
These etymological difficulties are compounded by the fact that, by the time the New Testament was written, the soul and the spirit seem to have become relatively conflated in theological anthropology (or, more probably, the translation from Hebrew to Greek further confused the already subtle shades of meaning). The Greek word pneuma, translated “spirit,” generally refers to the vital principle by which the body is animated, and the power by which we feel, think, and decide. This was regarded as a “simple essence, devoid of all or at least all grosser matter.” On the other hand, the word psuche, translated “soul,” refers primarily to breath (specifically the breath of life), and was regarded as the seat of feelings, desires, affections, etc. So, again, there is a subtle distinction etymologically speaking, but also it’s evident that there was a lot of overlap in these concepts. This is very well evidenced by the fact that, in Hebrew, the term we translate as “spirit” referred to breath—whereas in Greek the term we translate as “soul” referred to breath. Practically speaking, the terms seem to be used quite synonymously in the New Testament, and quite variably in the Old, depending on context. Generally, it’s safe to say that when we see the word “spirit” in a modern translation, it is referring to the life-giving essence which animates the body and is the seat of emotion and intellect; when we see the word “soul” there is a reference to the broader concept of personal essence itself.
With regard to the particular examples William gives in defense of the trichotomist view (and understanding that he does not necessarily endorse them), let me offer some comments:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
It looks at first glance as if the soul and spirit here are two different parts of man which can be separated from each other. But consider the parallelism in this passage, which draws a comparison between the soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and thoughts and intentions. What relationship does the marrow have to the joint? It is, of course, the inner part of the joint itself. They are not ontologically equal, but one is rather a part of the other. Similarly, what relationship do intentions have to thoughts? They are part of those thoughts. One cannot have an intention without having a thought—but one can have a thought without having an intention (not to be confused with intentionality). So what relationship does the spirit have to the soul in this pattern? It is a part of the soul; the inner core, perhaps. The soul, as I have defined already from the Hebrew, is the essence of the man; the spirit is his animating force. They are not two independent or ontologically equal parts, but rather the spirit is a part of the soul, of the whole man.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 (incorrectly cited as 2 Thessalonians in the original article)
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If this proves that the spirit and soul and body are all ontologically equal parts of the person, does Jesus’ instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) indicate that the soul and the heart and the mind and the strength are all separate, ontologically equal parts of man as well? Or does it, rather, reflect a certain repetition for the sake of emphasis and poetry? If we take these sorts of passages woodenly, as the trichotomists do, we would have to accommodate no less than a tetrachotomist view of man—not merely a trichotomist one. Obviously this proves too much. Is the image of God in us a separate thing from the likeness (Gen 1:26)? No, even in English we use synonymous words next to each other in an idiomatic way without intending to suggest that they are different things. Indeed, the phrase “heart and soul” comes immediately to mind.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
This hardly seems to commend itself as supporting the trichotomist view. As Grudem rightly says, “Scripture does not seem to support any distinction between soul and spirit […] What can the spirit do that the soul cannot do? What can the soul do that the spirit cannot do?” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 477). Is there any reason to think, in Romans 8:16, that Paul could not have equally used the term “soul,” except inasmuch as we recognize that “spirit” refers to a particular ontological part of man while “soul” refers generally to his essence, and thus would be a less appropriate term? There is certainly no warrant in the passage itself to think that the use of the term “spirit,” and the clumsiness of the term “soul” as a replacement, necessitates that the two are equal and separate ontological parts of man. The lexical understanding of the terms which I have already elaborated seems to comport with the sense of the passage far better. One would have to have a prior commitment to the trichotomist view in order to find support for it in Romans 8:16.
To summarize: although I have not offered a comprehensive investigation of all the passages which speak to this topic, what I have offered is representative of the fact that there is no biblical or lexical warrant to teach that man is comprised of three equal ontological parts—body, spirit, and soul. To suppose that we have two immaterial parts seems no less absurd than to assume that we have two physical bodies. Not only is it incorrect to teach this, but such teaching in the past has led to various aberrant and preposterous doctrines, which have lead believers into dangerous mystical practices, and foolish anti-intellectual attitudes.
Rather, we ought to teach that there is a single ontological, immaterial part of man, and that it is usually called the spirit—but sometimes called the soul. Furthermore, we must recognize that there is a “wholeness of being” to man which is not an ontological category, but a personal one, and that it is this personal “beingness” about which the term “soul” is often used in Scripture. The seat or origin of this beingness is in the spirit, because it is the animating force of the body, and without it the body would simply be dead flesh. This is why there is an overlap between the term “soul” and “spirit” in the Bible. But this beingness is nonetheless not confined to the spirit, just as our experiences are not confined to our thoughts, since it is through the body that the spirit experiences the world and expresses itself. Therefore, the soul can and does refer to the whole man, both body and spirit.
This equivocation between ontological and personal categories can be confusing, but we must recognize that there is a personal category used in regard to the term “soul”, as well as an ontological one. We should not mistake the personal category for an ontological one, and thereby assume that man is made of three parts. To do so is to stray from Scripture into an error which has historically proved very destructive.