Dichotomy and Trichotomy - Part Four
We’ve been looking at biblical texts that are often cited as proof of trichotomy. None are so frequently mentioned as Hebrews 4:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Continue reading . . .
We’ve been looking at biblical texts that are often cited as proof of trichotomy. None are so frequently mentioned as Hebrews 4:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
“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.”
A key to interpreting this passage is the word translated “division” (ESV). It is used only one other time in the NT and that is in Hebrews 2:4. There it refers to God’s “distribution” to his people of spiritual gifts. Whereas the verb form can have the meaning “to divide,” nowhere is this division between two distinct entities. Nowhere is it a separation of one entity from another. Rather the idea is that of a singular entity being sundered apart or divided up, as in a kingdom or an inheritance. Thus when we read Hebrews 4:12 we are to understand that the Word has the power to penetrate our inner being and divide or rend asunder the soul and it has the power also to penetrate and divide or rend asunder the spirit. The author does not say that the Word divides the soul from the spirit or that it divides between the soul and the spirit. Thus when we read this text in the light of other descriptions of our inmost being we can envision the author also saying that the Word penetrates and renders asunder the mind and penetrates and renders asunder the heart, etc.
The reference to “joints and marrow” likely has in view the physical body, in particular, the most inaccessible parts of our physical frame. Furthermore, “joints” and “marrow” are not adjacent to each other such that a sharp sword is needed to get in between them and divide or separate them. The point then is “to show that no aspect of our being is impervious to the penetrating scrutiny of the Word of God” (Murray, 2:30).
Notice also that our text speaks not only of the Word’s penetration of the soul and the spirit but also of the thoughts and intentions of the “heart”. If our author intended us to conclude that soul and spirit are separate and distinct faculties of the inner being then he must also envision the heart as itself yet another separate and distinct faculty. We would then be forced to think of a human as comprised of at least four parts: body, soul, spirit, and heart.
The point of the text, then, is to highlight how powerful and life-changing the Word of God is. The Word searches and exposes and divides all of us: the deepest elements of our physical frame (“joints and marrow”), the deepest elements of our immaterial makeup (“soul and spirit”), and the deepest elements of our mental activity (“thoughts and intentions of the heart”).
1 Thessalonians 5:23
“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.”
It is common in Scripture for an author to accumulate or pile up terms to express completeness. We saw this in Mark 12:30 where Jesus declared: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (so also Luke 10:27). No one concludes from this that we are comprised of four separate parts: heart, soul, mind, and strength. Likewise, in Matthew’s version we read: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Why do not trichotomists argue that the three parts or faculties of a human being are “heart” and “soul” and “mind” rather than “body” and “soul” and “spirit”?
What then does this text does tell us? It would appear that the point in Paul’s mind is to pray for the comprehensive or exhaustive work of God in purifying or sanctifying our entire being. He prays that God would sanctify us “completely”, by which he means every facet of who we are as physical and non-physical beings: our spirit and soul and our body. In light of the other texts noted above he could as easily have said, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole heart and mind and emotions and body and understanding and strength be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
My conclusion is that there do not appear to be biblical or theological grounds for holding up either Hebrews 4:12 or 1 Thessalonians 5:23 as the standard by which we are to discern the constituent parts or faculties of a human being.
All that being said, is there no distinction at all among the various terms used to describe the immaterial dimension of who we are? Yes, there is. But the distinction is one of function or expression, not of substance. In other words, the various terms point to a variety of exercises, functions, or activities of any particular person, but not to separate or divisible faculties. Thus we might conclude this way:
The “soul” is the whole immaterial being of a man or woman. When the “soul” engages with God it is frequently spoken of as the “spirit”, but on several occasions the “soul” itself engages, communes with, and worships and loves God. When the “soul” is viewed in its capacity to think and reason it is called the “mind”. When the “soul” functions in its volitional capacity or its power to make choices it is called the “will”. When the “soul” feels or experiences intense passions or longings it is called the “affections” or “emotions” or the more vivid “kidneys” or “bowels of compassion” or the like. And when the “soul” is spoken of comprehensively, inclusive of all the above as the center of our innermost being, it is frequently called the “heart”.
But even then we must remember that all of these functions and terms are by and large interchangeable. The “heart” also thinks and loves and serves, as does the “soul” and the “mind” and the “affections”. We engage with God and experience intimacy and communion with him not only in our “spirit” but also with our “will” and our “emotions”.