Trichotomy or Dichotomy?

Question
Is man three parts or two? Which view of man's nature is correct?
Answer

Louis Berkhof states:

It is customary, especially in Christian circles, to conceive of man as consisting of two, and only two, distinct parts, namely, body and soul. This view is technically called dichotomy. Alongside of it, however, another made its appearance, to the effect that human nature consists of three parts, body, soul, and spirit. It is designated by the term trichotomy. The tripartite conception of man originated in Greek philosophy, which conceived of the relation of the body and the spirit of man to each other after the analogy of the mutual relation between the material universe and God.

There are many Christians on either side of this issue. However, ultimately only one of these views of the nature of man is correct. Moreover, one view can lead to errors and in part is established from philosophy and not only Scripture, while the other is the truth of the Gospel.

The answer below is from Robert Reymond's, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. (Note, the original Hebrew/Greek words have been omitted).

Trichotomy

The trichotomist must admit, along with the dichotomist and in agreement with Berkouwer, that there is a certain "imprecision" at times in the Bible's use of the relevant terminology. One has only to consider the several New Testament quotations of Deuteronomy 6:5, for example, to see this. Where Luke 10:27 reads that we should love God with all our heart (kardia) and soul (psyche) and strength (ischys) and mind (dianoia), Matthew 22:37 reads that we should love God with all our heart and soul and mind, omitting strength, while Mark 12:30 reports that we should love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (reversing the order of the last two Lukan words), and in Mark 12:33 that we should love God with all our heart and understanding (syneseos) and strength, using another word for "mind" and omitting "soul" altogether. In all, five different words are employed without even mentioning the body. Surely, no one would insist, on the basis of these series of words connected by "and," that each of these words refers to an immaterial, ontologically distinct entity, and that therefore Luke was a quintchotomist, Matthew was a quadchotomist, and Mark was a sexchotomist. With Berkouwer we must all admit that these parallel admonitions are simply saying that we are to love God with our entire or total being.

Similarly I would urge that the three passages that trichotomists regularly advance in support of trichotomy do not really draw an ontological distinction between "soul" and "spirit," as the following expositions will demonstrate:

1 Corinthians 15:44: [The body] is sown a natural [psychikon] body, it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikon, that is, a supernatural body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual [that is, a supernatural] body.

Here the trichotomist urges that to assert that there is no difference between "soul" and "spirit" is to assert that there is no distinction between the preresurrection body and the resurrection body. But precisely because it is evident that there is a difference between these two bodies, he continues, it is equally clear that there is an ontological distinction between soul and spirit.

I would note, however, that the implied subject of both verbs ("sown," "raised") is the same subject, the body, and that the same word soma, is used in both instances, suggesting that it is the same body numerically that is sown and raised. If the two words really intended totally distinct ontological entities, then the body that is raised is not the same body that is sown. Paul doubtless intended simply to say that the "soulish body," that is, the body whose attributes fit it for life in this natural world during this age, will be so transformed that, as the "spiritual body," it will fit the life which the person who is associated with the risen Christ will live in the supernatural New Earth situation.

1 Thessalonians 5:23: May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly [holoteleis] and may your whole [holokleron] spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The trichotomist insists that the conjunction "and" between "spirit" and "soul" intends that they be viewed as separate entities. But I would urge, first, that it is no less precarious to argue that "spirit" and "soul" refer here to separate, immaterial entities on the basis of the "and" between them than it is to argue that heart and soul and strength and mind in Luke 10:27 refer to separate immaterial entities because of the repeated "and" there. Second, the adverb "wholly" and the adjective "whole" in the verse strongly suggest that the emphasis of the verse is on the Christian man viewed here in his entirety as the "whole man."

Hebrews 4:12: Sharper than any two-edged sword, [the Word of God] penetrates even to 'dividing' of soul and spiritand is the judge of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Here the trichotomist insists, since the soul can be "divided" from the spirit, is evidence that they are two separate and distinct ontological entities. But this is to ignore the fact that "soul" and "spirit" are both genitives governed by the participle "dividing." The verse is saying that the Word of God "divides" the soul, even the spirit. But it does not say that the Word of God divides between soul and spirit (that would require some such word as metaxu) or divides the soul from the spirit. The verse no more intends this than it intends, when it goes on to say that the Word is the judge of thoughts and of intents of the heart (again, two genitives governed by the noun "judge"), that thoughts and intents are ontologically distinct things. Clearly, intents are simply one kind of thought. What the verse is actually saying is that the Word of God is able to penetrate into the deepest recesses of a man's spirit and judge his very thoughts, even the secret intentions of his heart.

While these verses offer no support to the trichotomous view, this erroneous view of man's constituent make-up has been made the base for the espousal of other erroneous views both in Christology (Apollinarianism) and in the area of sanctification (the view that it is the Christian's spirit which is regenerated, his soul remaining unregenerate, and that it is this condition which accounts for the struggle within him to live either righteously or unrighteously).

Dichotomy

The dichotomist affirms that the Bible teaches that man's constituent elements are the material body and the immaterial soul (or spirit) - two ontologically distinct entities - which are in a mysterious, vital union and interact in what Berkhof calls the "union of life" (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1932, p. 195). In other words, he is neither pure matter alone nor pure spirit alone but a wonderful duality-in-unity and unity-in-duality. The scriptural support for this view includes the following verses:

Genesis 2:7: the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [neshamah] of life, and man became a living being.

Ecclesiastes 12:7: The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (This seems to be a commentary on Genesis 2:7.)

Matthew 10:28: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (emphasis added).

Here our Lord makes it plain that a person has an entity that men may kill. He calls it the body (soma). But he has another entity that men cannot kill. He calls it the soul (psyche). By his use of the kai kai, construction in the second half of the verse, which grammatically means "both and," Jesus clearly teaches that man's constituent parts are two, namely, "body" and "soul." This is the reason he could say to the dying thief, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43; emphasis added).

2 Corinthians 5:1-10: Now we know that if the earthly tent [the body] we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God [that is, the resurrection body] we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we [that is, our souls] will not be found naked as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

Philippians 1:21-24: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Because of this evidence, the Reformation creeds all adopt the dichotomous view of man. Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith will be sufficient to illustrate the point.

The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous are received into the highest heavensAnd the souls of the wicked are cast into hellBesides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none. (XXXII/i; emphasis supplied).

It is clear that the Confession of Faith views people as having one ontological entity which permits them to die and to see corruption. The Scripture calls this entity the body. But men are another ontological entity, and have thereby an immortal subsistence that neither dies nor sleeps when it leaves the body at death. The Bible calls this entity the soul or spirit. It is plain that the Confession of Faith in accordance with the Scriptures clearly teaches here the dichotomous view of man.

This is not to suggest that Holy Scripture never intends any distinction in its usage of "spirit" and "soul." H. D. MacDonald has nicely captured the nuancial distinction between "spirit" and "soul" when he writes:

However used, both terms refer to man's inner nature over against flesh or body, which refers to the outer aspect of man as existing in space and time. In reference, then, to man's psychical nature, "spirit" denotes life as having its origin in God and "soul" denotes that same life as constituted in man. Spirit is the inner depth of man's being, the higher aspect of his personality. Soul expresses man's own special and distinctive individuality. The pneuma is man's nonmaterial nature looking Godward; the psyche is that same nature of man looking earthward and touching the things of sense (H. D. MacDonald, "Man, Doctrine of," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1984), 678).

Related Links:

Mary's song - Luke 1:46-56

References

Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's Publishing Co, 1938.

Reymond, Robert. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Revised and Updated). Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998.

Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984, (678).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).