Trichotomous or Dichotomous Man?

by Marie Notcheva
d11a7-mercury_diagramNow here’s a subject of interest for all you theo-geeks: are we a three-part being (body, soul, spirit); or a two-part (soul and spirit used interchangeably to describe the eternal, intangible part of man)?

I was only vaguely aware that there are conflicting views on this philosophical puzzle until a few years ago, when studying for biblical counseling certification. Last week, an acquaintance who is studying for the ACBC exam wrote me, asking about this question.

While I had been taught that the soul is made up of the mind, will and emotions (while the spirit is the core of one’s being, which is enlivened upon regeneration), I confess that I have never given it much thought – until I began studying the theology of biblical counseling.  In preparation for the coursework, I read John Macarthur and Wayne Mack’s “Counseling” and Jay Adams'”The Christian Counselor’s Handbook” back in 2010-11. Neither one was light reading. As it happens, both address the two-part (dichotomous) vs. three-part (trichotomous) understanding of man in early chapters.

Funky chart – but is it biblical??

In my own book, I had taken the trichotomous position; even maintaining that because one’s spirit is regenerated at conversion, if the soul and the spirit were one and the same, the Christian would never again show a proclivity to sin after the new birth. Going back and re-examining that stance in light of Scripture (especially Paul’s discussion of the ongoing conflict between the “old man” and the “new man” in Romans,) it doesn’t hold up.

Jay Adams traces the trichotomous view of man to Greek philosophy and maintains that it is not biblical . Furthermore, its reemergence in contemporary thought is partly due to Freud’s theory of the ego, the super-ego and the id. Uh-oh. He writes:

“Trichotomy is not supported by a superficial appeal to 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul is not distinguishing the parts of man, but simply heaping word upon word to emphasize entirety. Jesus Christ did the same thing when He spoke of loving God with all of one’s “heart, soul, mind and strength” (Mark 12:30). The Scriptures use the term soul (pseuche) and spirit (pneuma) interchangeably. Cf. Luke 1:46, 47, where the two are used in parallelism.”

John Street goes into an even more detailed explanation:

” The typical bifurcation between the soul and the spirit made by some Christian psychologists cannot be biblically sustained. One Christian psychiatrist offered this explanation: “The soul is the psychological aspect of man, whereas the spirit is spiritual…The mind alone lies in the psychological aspect of man and not the spiritual.” Such an artificial distinctions grows from reading psychological meaning into biblical terms. Both “soul” and “spirit” speak of the same intangible aspect of the inner man, the part of man that only God sees. A concordance study of psyche shows that when Scripture uses the term “soul” in relation to man, it refers to that aspect of the innner man in connection with his body. When it uses the term “spirit”, it is that aspect of the inner man out of connection with his body. No distinction exists in Scripture between the psychologically oriented and the spiritually oriented man.”

Not to be outdone, Ken L. Sarles offers a comprehensive look at the usage of spirit/soul both in Hebrew and Greek (whenever a theologian starts a sentence with “If we go back to the original Greek…”, I’m inclined to say, “You win! I’ll take your word for it!”) From “How to Counsel Biblically”:

“The body represents everything material, while the soul represents everything immaterial. In this case, the terms soul and spirit are understood as viewing the immaterial aspect of human nature from different vantage points. That is, the numerical essence of soul and spirit is one. Evidence for dichotomy can be found in Scripture’s interchangeable usage of the terms soul (nephesh in the Old Testament and psyche in the New Testament) and spirit (ruah in the Old Testament and pneuma in the New Testament)….In evaluating dichotomy, the strongest defense is the argument from creation. Genesis 2:7 records that man became a livingsoul. The term is inclusive of everything that has a living, breathing being. It would be more accurate then, to say that man has a spirit, but is a soul. Furthermore, the interchangibility of the terms argues for dichotomy.”

There are very well-thought-out defenses of the trichotomous position, too, which seem to make a strong case from Scripture. However, as interesting as examining the question may be, I personally do not think that it matters too much whether our soul is distinct from our spirit or they are “two sides of the same coin”. In fact, I was rather surprised to realize that this is a point of heated dissension among theologians – somewhat on par with the pre-millenial/post-millenial debate! I want to have this spiritual reality straight in my mind for the sake of doctrinal accuracy, but if it were such a crucial matter I’m sure Paul or the Lord Jesus Himself would have spelled it out a bit more precisely.

Taking the Bible alone, the main point is this: if you have been re-born, you are a new creation in Christ. The old has gone; the new has come. You are no longer a slave to sin. Your inner man has changed – no matter how you wish to call it. Your spirit thirsts for God and He Who began a good work in you will carry it on to the day of completion. I don’t see any indication of a trichotomous man, but nor do I think it’s any big woop – certainly not one worth debating much.

If you go back and read the words in red, (not to mention the Epistles), you don’t see much hair-splitting philosophical debate – even with the Greek dudes in John 12:19-21 who were eager to talk to Jesus. What we DO see is a lot of common-sense, get-out-there-and-do-it commands, coupled with a call to constant devotion and commitment to inner holiness. This should always be our main concern, first and foremost.

But you’ve got to admit, the nit-picking theological questions can be great fun to study out.

The Culture of Abuse in Christian Slavic Marriages

slavic-marriages

Last weekend, my daughter and I attended a three-day Christian Slavic women’s retreat. Predictably, discussion turned to Lyuba Savenok, who was brutally murdered by her husband Yeveginy in May 2016 after years of verbal and physical torment. Both Lyuba and her husband were active members of their Minnesota church, to whom Lyuba had reported the abuse before filing a restraining order. What makes the Savenoks’ story so tragic is not just the shocking nature of the crime, but rather how familiar her situation was to many women married to Slavic men.

“Honestly, with all my awareness of domestic abuse in Christian homes, I’m still taken aback at the number of Slavic women dealing with this,” said “Irina.” “So many of our sisters don’t know where to turn. They’ve been burned by negative experiences of seeking help in their churches.”

It is estimated that one in four Christian couples will experience at least one incident of physical abuse in their marriage, although spousal abuse of all forms tends to be under-reported among the Slavic community. The women discussing this problem cited embarrassment, hopelessness that their husbands will change, and victim-blaming as reasons. While violence (sometimes related to alcohol abuse) remains high among the general population in Slavic countries (particularly in Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine), one would assume the problem to be much lower among professing Christians. Sadly, this is not the case.

The Church’s Denial of the Problem

“Our Eastern European culture here in America and overseas has given men the authority to verbally, physically, emotionally, and sexually abuse their spouses and daughters,” writes Ukranian-American pastor Paul Muzichuk. “The position women have been cornered into is one of domination, scorn, and weakness; they are simply expected to be ‘good moms’ in the home. Even men in key Christian leadership positions have not seen the wrong in treating women as second class people. When I asked one older Ukrainian man his thoughts on emotional abuse in Slavic families, he smirked and said ‘that doesn’t happen because we are holy people’….[but] his father verbally and emotionally abused his mother by calling her worthless names, telling her to do as he commanded—all in the name of ministry and God.”1

“The Church sometimes enables abuse among our men,” Irina acknowledges.  “Pastors simply don’t know how to deal with abuse; victims are [often] told they just need to ‘submit according to the Bible.’ They may even hear things like ‘This is your cross to bear’. Russian ladies don’t want to speak up; their own families might blame them. They tell her she is not trying “hard enough” to be a good Christian wife. Their pastors do not understand how [Slavic husbands] look down on their women, so how can they help?” Another woman added, “My friend was being bullied and yelled at daily. Her husband would blame her for things that weren’t her fault; then he hit her. When she [told] her pastor, he didn’t even speak to her husband. But when she called social services, they opened an investigation immediately. Ironically, the state protected her. Her church didn’t. Now she is ashamed to go to church.”

Understanding Cultural Influence

Several of the women who spoke about this “open secret” lamented American pastors’ failure to grasp the nature of misogyny in the Slavic-American subculture. Effective biblical counsel is not possible when a counselor lacks insight into the true nature of a problem. “I think one reason American pastors just don’t get it is, by and large, gender-equality exists in the US,” said “Elena.” “American men don’t generally yell at their wives or control them like children … if they did, they’d be in big trouble! The concept of women being equal simply does not exist in our countries. So when a [Slavic] woman talks to her pastor about her mistreatment, he does not understand how ugly it is. In a way [Slavic] culture justifies it, and considers it normal. They have no idea what some of our sisters are going through.”

This domineering attitude has been “imported” into immigrant communities from Eastern Europe, and counselors need to understand it. Recently, I was contacted by a YMCA domestic violence specialist seeking a counselor for a battered Albanian woman – a common occurrence. (Albania, while not a Slavic country, shares many cultural characteristics with its Eastern neighbors. Women are more oppressed in Albania than in any other European country).

While in Tirana this summer, I spoke with ACBC counselor Blair Alvidrez, who mentioned the hostile, aggressive tone Albanian men often use with their wives. “When you confront them, they try to excuse it: ‘that’s just how we are; that’s how I talk!’ It’s very hard to change that cultural attitude; to make them realize that this speech is abusive, and ungodly.” An Albanian pastor admitted that while God can change anyone’s heart, it’s rare to see a turnaround in men who have learned such communication patterns from birth.

Abuse for its own sake is not the abuser’s goal; control is. Abusive men seek to gain the control they feel entitled to. Even in immigrant congregations themselves, domestic abuse is often ignored.

Biblical Confrontation

As biblical counseling instructor Donn Arms says, “Scripture informs what we do; not culture.” In that spirit, it is time for all forms of torment – physical and verbal; isolation and intimidation; stonewalling and screaming; control and humiliation – to be called what they are: sin. What are some things these Slavic Christian women desperately want their pastors to know?

  • They are not exaggerating. Believe them. If the abuse has escalated to physical violence, involve the authorities. They need protection; as Lyuba did. Do not distort Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 to heap more guilt upon the abused woman.
  • When a woman tells you that her husband will not change, do not chide her “lack of faith.” Rather, respect that she has much more insight into her husband’s state of mind and cultural mores than you do. Until they see the sin in their attitude and renew their minds, abuse will continue. Philippians 2:5 and 4:5 need to be internalized and lived out, and a few months of biblical counseling will not undo a lifetime of cultural conditioning.
  • Angry outbursts and demeaning lectures/accusations are not considered abusive by many Slavic Christian men, although verbal abuse can be incredibly destructive. Understanding the craving for control can help unmask what drives the behavior.

Recommended Reading: “The Shameful Secret of ‘Christian’ Domestic Abuse”

Endnote:

1. Paul Muzichuk, “Abuse of Slavic-American Women,” http://paulmuzichuk.blogspot.com/2013/05/abuse-of-slavic-american-women.html (May 8, 2013).