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.

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