Part 2: Answering 1 Thess. 5:23 and Heb. 4:12
In our last post, it was stated that once we provided the relevant Scriptural data, we would then handle the supposed biblical support for Trichotomy. There are, in fact, only two Scriptures that Trichotomists can appeal to. They are 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12.
While this post may be short, I do not wish to be seen as treating these passages glibly. But the simple fact is that trying to get Trichotomy out of these passages is like trying to get blood out of a rock. The supposed support just isn’t there.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 states: 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.
Anthony Hoekema writes, “When Paul prays for the Thessalonians that the spirit, soul, and body of each of them may be preserved or kept, he is obviously not trying to split man into three parts, any more than Jesus intended to split man into four parts when he said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" (Luke 10:27). This passage therefore also provides no ground for the Trichotomic view of the constitution of man.” Created in God's Image (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988).
In other words, in the light of the rest of scripture, which overwhelmingly presents man as a dichotomic being, it is irresponsible and cavalier exegesis to make this one verse militate against hundreds of others. And if this passage teaches Trichotomy, then we are equally justified in affirming tetrachotomy based on Luke 10:27 or Mark 12:30. Scripture sometimes calls our body “flesh and blood.” Are we therefore to assume that this teaches that man’s nature has two material parts – that “flesh and blood” are not the same things as “body”? The sort of nonsense and error this sort of hermeneutic creates is easily seen.
The only other passage in the whole of Scripture where the words “soul” and “spirit” occur together with the word “and” in between them (claimed by some to suggest Trichotomy) is Hebrews 4:12, which reads, “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.”
There is really no reason to think that the words soul and spirit necessarily imply that man has two immaterial parts. The text itself gives us reason to doubt this form of exegesis. The passage also refers to joints and marrow and thoughts and intentions. No one in his right mind reasonable infers from this that man has two hearts or two material parts of his total being. Joints and marrow are used synonymously in reference to man’s material part (the body). Heart, soul and spirit are three synonyms for that immaterial part of man. So that if this verse gives support for making a distinction between soul and spirit as two different entities, then it actually goes one further and proposes three immaterial entities. Thought and intentionality are the domain of the mind, which means that this verse uses the word “heart” as a synonym for “mind.”
John Murray asserts that that the verb translated as "piercing" in the ESV is never used elsewhere in Scripture in the sense of distinguishing between two different things. Rather it is always used when distributing and dividing up various aspects of the same thing (John Murray, Trichotomy, Collected Works of John Murray, volume 2). So this passage is not saying that the Word separates two distinct things – soul from spirit. Rather the Word of God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The Word does not divide soul from spirit, as if they were two distinct entities. The Word divides soul and spirit in the sense of penetrating into our inner most parts. Soul and spirit do not imply two immaterial elements any more than flesh and blood imply two material ones.
Whenever one passage of Scripture is used to attain a doctrine without consulting with the entirety of the Scriptural data on that subject, only error can ensue. No one Scripture should ever be treated in isolation from the rest of the Bible. Jeremiah 36:23 says that Jehudi used a penknife to cut up the scroll of the Word of God through Jeremiah. Would it be correct then to conclude that penknives were instruments of evil? As stupid as that sounds, that interpretation has been made and others a thousand times worse are made every day by men who hold one verse in isolation from the rest of Scripture.