Dichotomy and Trichotomy - Part One
All Christians agree that God created us as a material (or physical) and immaterial (or spiritual) unity. But not all agree on the nature of the immaterial. Some argue that the immaterial dimension in human nature is divided into two distinct and separate faculties: soul and spirit. They are thus called Trichotomists: the three “parts” or “faculties” being the body, the soul, and the spirit. Others believe that the immaterial dimension cannot be so easily subdivided in this way. The soul, spirit, heart, mind, will, and affections are but different expressions for the variety of functions of the singular spiritual aspect of human nature. They are thus called Dichotomists Continue reading . . .
All Christians agree that God created us as a material (or physical) and immaterial (or spiritual) unity. But not all agree on the nature of the immaterial. Some argue that the immaterial dimension in human nature is divided into two distinct and separate faculties: soul and spirit. They are thus called Trichotomists: the three “parts” or “faculties” being the body, the soul, and the spirit. Others believe that the immaterial dimension cannot be so easily subdivided in this way. The soul, spirit, heart, mind, will, and affections are but different expressions for the variety of functions of the singular spiritual aspect of human nature. They are thus called Dichotomists.
Is Trichotomy a legitimate evangelical option? Yes. There is nothing inherently heretical or dangerous in understanding human nature as comprised of three faculties: body, soul, and spirit. There is enough ambiguity in certain biblical texts to allow for trichotomy. But is it the most likely or the most probable interpretation of the many biblical texts and terms noted below? In my opinion, no.
Is it biblically permissible to pray specifically and directly for the healing or cleansing or empowering or deliverance of the “soul” and the “spirit” and the “mind” and the “will” and the “heart” and the “affections” of a person? Absolutely! There is no reason why we cannot focus our counsel, our prayers, and our invitation of the Holy Spirit to minister directly to/on/in any or all of these different expressions of the inner life of a person.
My aim in this and the articles to follow will be to examine the many terms used in the Bible to describe the composition or makeup of the human being created in God’s image. After looking closely at several more famous texts that bear on this issue, I’ll try to draw some conclusions for moving forward.
“Soul” in the Old Testament
In the Greek translation of the OT (the LXX), the word “soul” or psuche occurs some 950x. It is frequently the word used to render the Hebrew word nephesh, which itself has a broad range of meanings: “life,” “breath,” “soul,” “appetite,” “person,” etc. The Greek word psuche also renders the Hebrew word for “heart” (leb) some 25x. Twice (in Gen. 41:8 and Exod. 35:21) psuche stands for the Hebrew ruach.
There are several uses of nephesh which denote that which makes a body into a living being. Thus we have in Genesis 2:7 – “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature [lit., a living soul].” In Exodus 21:23 “soul for soul” means “life for life.”
We also discover that psuche can refer to the seat of one’s emotions, such as love: “Tell me, you whom my soul loves” (Song of Solomon 1:7). “Soul” also is used for the deepest spiritual longings of the entire person: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). Again, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (Ps. 62:2). The “soul” is also the seat of joy and gladness, as well as longing and worship, as in Psalm 86:4 – “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.”
In the Shema, we read: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). In other words, the “soul” is that facet of our being with which we love, adore, worship, and enjoy God.
The soul can also be the seat of sexual lust (Jer. 2:24) and a thirst for murder and revenge (Ps. 27:12). The soul can feel profound spiritual sorrow (probably for the way that people ignore the law of God; Ps. 119:28). The soul is also “poured out” in tears (Job 30:16). The soul is the seat of knowledge, understanding, and memory: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Ps. 139:14).
In sum, throughout the OT the “soul” is most often used to refer to the entire personality: love, joy, sorrow, understanding, longing, delight, devotion, etc. are all functions of the soul. There is nothing that would suggest that the “soul” is somehow separate from or inferior to the “spirit” or not just as engaged with God and devoted to serving him, loving him, and enjoying him.
“Soul” in the New Testament
In the NT the Greek word psuche or “soul” occurs some 100x, 65 of which are in the Gospels and Acts. It is found only 13x in Paul’s writings.
Often the word “soul” denotes life itself. Jesus said: “For whoever would save his life [lit., soul] will lose it, but whoever loses his life [soul] for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:25-26). We see this also where Jesus said: “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [soul] as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). In John 10:11 and 15 Jesus portrays himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his “life” [soul] for the sheep. In Revelation 12:11 the martyrs did not love their “lives” (souls) unto death. Paul and Barnabas are said to have risked their “lives” (souls) “for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26). The same can be seen in Philippians 2:30 concerning Epaphroditus and in Romans 16:4 where Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for Paul’s “soul”.
“Soul” often represents the whole person where groups are mentioned: “eight souls” were saved in Noah’s ark (1 Pet. 3:20; see also Acts 7:14; 27:37). Many times we read of “every soul” meaning “everyone” (Acts 2:43; 3:23; 27:37; Rom. 2:9; 13:1, among others).
In some passages “soul” denotes the entire inner life of a person in relation to God: all that one believes, hopes, strives for, and loves. Consider:
“But I call God to witness against me [soul] – it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” (2 Cor. 1:23).
“So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves [souls], because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).
Jesus issued this appeal: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29). Clearly the “soul” is the whole person that is saved by Jesus, encouraged and comforted by Jesus, and thus is central to our capacity to engage with and enjoy all that God is for us in Jesus.
Jesus experienced deep sorrow in his soul (Matt. 26:38), a sorrow that was directly related to his relation to the Father and the Father’s purpose in calling him to the cross.
Mary’s passionate and godly worship of God and intimate communion with him in praise is expressed as follows:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).
This is likely an example of a common literary form in the Bible called synonymous parallelism, or perhaps synthetic parallelism. In such cases the second line of a statement is either synonymous with the first (saying the same thing in slightly different terms) or is expanding on the first (giving it a more expansive meaning).
In a similar vein, John the apostle uses the word “soul” to refer to the seat or center of a person’s religious/spiritual life: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2). The “soul” here is the focus or object of God’s sanctifying and energizing and sustaining power. In 2 Peter 2:8 the apostle refers to the “righteous soul” of Lot that felt godly conviction and broken heartedness over the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, clearly an indication that the “soul” is what is made “right” before God and relates directly to God and is the object of the Spirit’s ministry of awakening us to the presence of sin.
The author of Hebrews says that “we have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” (Heb. 6:19). The “soul” here is the entire inner man, all that we are that hopes and trusts in God. It is the “souls” of those that “have faith” who do not “shrink back” from God and thus are “preserved” (Heb. 10:39).
Paul says that we must be diligent to do the will of God “from the heart” (Eph. 6:6). It is instructive to note that “heart” is used here as a translation of the word “soul” (psuche). Our sincere and heartfelt obedience to God flows from the “soul” (see also Col. 3:23).
Note: This is significant because of what Paul says in Romans 1:9 – “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” Thus we see that the Christian serves God with the “spirit” and with or “from” the soul (Eph. 6:6; Col. 3:23). The “soul” is as much the locus of obedience and love and worship as is the “spirit”. We should, therefore, resist the temptation to draw a rigid distinction between the two, as if the “spirit” were a higher faculty of the believer, or as if the “soul” were somehow inferior or of less importance.
The author of Hebrews says that it is the “soul” that is strengthened and encouraged so as to continue in faithful obedience to God: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (lit., “so that your souls might not grow faint”; Heb. 12:3).
An especially insightful text is Philippians 1:27 where Paul exhorts the church with these words:
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind [lit., soul] striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).
Here one “soul” is rendered “mind” and stands in parallel with “one spirit.” This is similar to Acts 4:32 – “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”
Elders are to watch over the “souls” of believers (Heb. 13:17, which is to say, their whole spiritual being, thinking being, and willing being). The goal of our faith, says Peter, is the “salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). The point of the latter and similar texts is that it isn’t just one “part” of our being that is born again or saved but the entirety of who we are.
Even more pointed that the “soul” is the center of godliness and faith and obedience and love for God is 1 Peter 2:11 where we are urged “to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Notice that the problem we face is not with our minds or our souls but with our “flesh.” The “soul” is the good and godly center of commitment to God against which the “flesh” wages war. In fact, Peter argues that it is the “soul” that has been “purified . . . by your obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22).
Jesus is “the Shepherd and Overseer” of our “souls” (1 Peter 2:25). And when we suffer we should entrust our “souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).
“Spiritual” and “Soulish”
We should also take note of the adjectives psuchikos and pneumatikos as they appear in 1 Corinthians 2:14 and 15:44. In the latter of these texts a “natural (psuchikon) body” and a “spiritual (pneumatikon) body” do not describe a distinction between something physical and something non-physical. Rather Paul is differentiating between two physical bodies: the body in its present, earthly, Adamic existence (the psuchikon body) and the body as it will be in its future, heavenly, Spirit-empowered manifestation (the pneumatikon body). The so-called “soulish man” in 1 Cor. 2:14 is the natural, unregenerate, unsaved man who is without the Spirit of God.
What we see, then, is that the “soul” is the whole person, encompassing the heart, the mind, the will, the spirit, the dimension through which we relate to God, worship God, and serve God. The “soul” is born-again in its entirety, is saved in its entirety, and is being preserved by God in its entirety. Nothing suggests that the soul is evil or even slightly inferior to any other “dimension” of man’s immaterial being. The soul is not sub-spiritual or dangerous but is to be the focus of on-going renewal and sanctification.